Niche Design is for the Birds

One of the design approaches we’ve seen over the years in WoW is the “niche design” approach, where each class or spec has a specific thing that they’re good at. This applies to all roles, so that some healers may be better at tank healing than raid healing, some tanks may be better at quick movement, but the biggest area is how this is applied to DPS specs.

First though, some background on what a “niche” actually is, why it’s good out in the world, and why it’s not so good in class designing.

Niches: From Beaks to “Deeps”

bird beaks.PNG

The sort of niche we’re talking about here is the “Ecological Niche” where different species co-exist by having different behavioral & feeding adaptations. The bird beak image above highlights the different sorts of feeding adaptations for various birds, so a nectar feeder like a Hummingbird isn’t in direct competition with the Toucan which eats fruit. The downside of these adaptations is that if the particular food source is no longer available the species will need to adapt or die out, and in some cases the changes are rapid enough so that this isn’t possible.

So, how does this relate to class design in WoW?

The “niches” for DPS specs are things like single or multi target damage, utility, or even how fast they move. A good example of this is how Elemental and Enhancement Shaman are really good for sustained area of effect damage, but fall behind elsewhere. As a result of this neither spec is particularly popular in Mythic Raiding guilds. Part of this is because Single Target Damage can effectively be considered a niche too and unfortunately this is a fairly key component of how specs perform at the moment. The problem with niche design is two fold: encounter design needs to include opportunities for all specs to shine, and if a raid team lacks a critical spec for one of these encounters it can be a major problem.

There are many different niches & sub-niches:

  • Single Target
    • Sustained
    • Burst
    • Target Switching
  • Multi Target
    • Cleave
    • AoE
    • Multi DoT
  • Movement
    • Quick movement
    • High output
  • Healing
    • Tank
    • AoE
    • Spread raid
    • Defensive cooldowns
  • Tanking (note that Tank specifics are a bit up in the air due to recent Alpha changes)
    • Defensive cooldowns
  • Utility
    • Damage Immunity
    • Damage Reduction
    • Other raid cooldowns

Negative Niches

A critical example of this problem was the Raid Healer role that Restoration Shaman had back Burning Crusade, Wrath & Cataclysm vs the Tank Healer role that Holy Paladins had at the same time. Back then guilds were made of either 10 or 25 players but generally speaking there would never be more than 1 Resto Shaman in any raid team due to their tank healing weakness, which included the lack of a tank or raid cooldown.

There can be some differences between specs in style like multidotting Shadow Priests vs cleave damage from Melee classes and Elemental Shaman as these are different styles of doing the same thing. Significant differences in output by specs or the lack of niches in the design of an instance can alter how raid teams view their spec compositions, in turn negatively affecting player enjoyment and can result in re-rolling or quitting entirely.

The ideal situation, following with the “Bring the Player not the Class” mantra from a few years ago, would be to have Tanks, Healers, Melee or Ranged DPS specs fairly interchangeable within each role. This way it doesn’t matter in extreme cases if the entire tank or healer team is one spec, or that the DPS specs are a general mix rather than focusing on a few “optimal” performers.

Spec Swaps

If there are significant barriers between changing spec or class in Legion then this could cause further problems if specs aren’t reasonably balanced. As an Elemental Shaman I’m somewhat stuck in my spec unless I wish to change role, but for other classes with multiple specs in the same role being unable to switch from the best single target spec to the best multi-target spec will be a big problem.

I can see the advantage to making players identify with one spec rather than just as the class in general. For example, identifying oneself as a Fire Mage is better than just being a general Mage, but if you like Fire but get stuck as Arcane because it’s the “best” spec players may not enjoy themselves as much.

A Final Note

At the end of the day, I’d like to be able to do the same job on an Elemental Shaman, Balance Druid or an Arcane Mage with roughly the same output (allowing for skill & gear, obviously) so that I know that if I top the damage meters on a boss kill that it’s because of my skill rather than having a better AoE or Single Target class than everyone else.


About binkenstein
I'm a geek, living in Christchurch, New Zealand.

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