The Role of Utility
In Ghostcrawler's most recent post the lead system designer addresses the topic of "The Role of Role" and throws around some ideas about how things may be handled in WoW’s Mists of Pandaria Expansion. All in all it is a very interesting write up that shouldn't be missed by anyone who concerns themselves with MMOs, yet I feel Mr. Ghostcrawler left out a bit of desirable discourse on the topic of utility within the role system. Whether this was through intent or with forethought for length and readability I cannot say, nonetheless there is plenty to discuss regarding what I see as the sickly bastard child of the holy trinity.
What Is Utility
In most scenario's utility is gained by sacrificing damage, and this makes sense. One can't have a priest running around doing crazy DPS while also healing the group, and frost mages can't have that much crowd control while simultaneously topping damage charts. However I feel like Ghostcrawler greatly under-evaluated the idea of utility in the blog-in that he didn't really eschew all the types of utility that exist or expound on more role types which focused on bringing powerful utility to the table. Everyone reading this likely knows by now how much I adore defining terms so I'll start there.
Generally in gaming circles when something has utility it means that its feature set doesn't include damage or healing in any traditional sense. For MMO purposes we'll just say anything that isn't directly prioritized on fulfilling a roll of the holy trinity of tank, healer, or DPS is utility. Everything ranging from raid-wide buffs to crowd control to debuffs to positional abilities are basically utility of a fashion. Likewise this could be further broken down into a sort of offensive and defensive utility. If a skill isn't primarily a damaging, healing, or selfish tanking spell I'm going to lump it in with the utility lot. Moving on from the “what” to the “why” we have…
Why Utility is Important
If you've ever wiped in a dungeon then retried with a few stuns odds are you understand the importance of bringing along someone with skills other than damage. If you've ever gotten a bubble just in time to save your life you can appreciate utility. If you've ever used a speed boost to escape pursuers and assured death you know utility can be a deciding factor in battles. Beyond the sheer power utility bearers bring to the table is the intoxicating gameplay experience to be had by using such skills. The most satisfying utility-based skills to use are ones with a tangible effect on the battlefield ala hard crowd controls and high-mobility moves like blink and sprint. Compared to using more benign buffs like bloodlust there is an almost carnal pleasure to be had in executing well-timed interrupts and blinks.
This even includes things like a rogue's stealth for instance! Ultimately stealth is a means to an end, the end being superior positioning and a timely battlefield advantage on when to initiate a fight. Stealth is basically the reason rogues are so incredibly squishy compared to plate-wearing warriors. If that doesn’t' innately make sense to you imagine trying to turn around and kill off a warrior that almost 100-0'd you from stealth.
Essentially utility skills add a massive amount of depth and satisfaction to gameplay by creating extra layers to player interaction. We’ve all seen a bunch of noobs stand around smacking each other trying to beat out the heals to the end of time, and we should all know one well timed crowd control could easily tip the balance of such a stalemate. Unfortunately adding in such powerful abilities can’t be done with a heavy hand.
Where to Add More Utility
As Ghostcrawler mentioned Blizzard isn’t going to make a massive change to the way roles work within WoW any time soon. We won’t be seeing priest tanks. Pandaria itself will diversify choices by reassigning some classic utility abilities from specific specs to specific talent tiers while normalizing spec ability distribution. Despite this I can’t help but have this niggling feeling that there is so much more to be done with the ubiquitous utility everyone wants but can’t have. For instance why aren’t there any legitimate support roles besides healing?
Perhaps, say, a class or spec akin to the Mesmer from Guild Wars or the Dominator from Rift? I greatly enjoyed my time with the Dominator as it felt like a genuinely unique experience in that I knew I couldn’t DPS anyone down, it just wasn’t feasible, but I could definitely turn the tide of battle. I felt a palpable feeling of power when I had unique and complex tools at my disposal to debuff, interrupt, and discombobulate my enemies.
Furthermore there are other ways to make such a play-style compelling. Given Blizzard’s predominant focus on raiding it might be easy to resist even the most compelling support class because they’d be useless in raids as we know it; combined all of the classes generally cover all the bases of buffing, debuffing, stunning, mobility, and cleansing. Think outside of the box though, consider a support that did many if not all those things, had piddly for damage, but had powerful area denial or physical enemy control. Consider that if such a being existed in the players’ hands Blizzard could tune and choreograph battles that demanded the use of such abilities.
In this brave new world with a telekinetic ally at our sides we could do imaginative, exciting new things! Suddenly you could carry people who like to stand in the fire by pulling them out of it. When the raid’s crowd control isn’t enough to keep hard-hitting trash under control you could push the mobs around to buy time or effectively tank them via physic bullying. Maybe some bosses will throw attacks at the raid that this new class would have to block via a fun and engaging mini-game. Take Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning’s dispelling for example: when the player comes across a chest with a ward on it they must dispel it by clicking on the runes as the slider moves over them. Simple enough without the time constraints, or the brief period that each runes stays active, or the blinding speed at which the cursor moves, or the chance of hitting a explosive rune that could instantly kill your character. When I’m playing my mage on hard difficulty a failed dispel can and has spelled ruin for me. The substantial risk and physical skill involved with this simple little diversion is extremely engaging and I could easily see this sort of interaction within the confines of a battleground or raid. Make the spell in question a channel that requires a well-executed mini-game to be successful. Sounds crazy, right?
Yes it does. I suppose that is why we’ll not be seeing anything like it in Pandaria. I can dream of 6.0 though!