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WoWJul 22, 2020 4:15 pm CT

Balancing player power around Covenant abilities is impossible. Here’s one way it could be better.

Choices are fundamental to the gaming experience and you’ve got a big one coming up in Shadowlands. The Covenant you choose will define much of your experience in the expansion as well as a core part of your character identity. You’re no longer a Beast Mastery Hunter — no, you’re a Necrolord Beast Mastery Hunter. Not only will your pick open up a wide range of aesthetics options, but it ties to your player power through signature abilities, Soulbinds and Conduits.

It’s a choice with consequences, and not one you’ll be able to change easily. While there are positives to be gained from this, as long as it is tied to player power there will always be strong peer pressure influencing the decision. To give players the true freedom to choose what they want, Covenants should be decoupled from player power.

Developers admit that Covenants won’t be balanced

The developers have made the analogy of Covenants to sub-classes. While this underscores the seriousness and immutability of the choice, it shines a spotlight on the problem of balancing. By creating four subclasses, the developers will essentially have to balance 144 specs. They no longer have to worry about how a Holy Paladin does against a Resto Druid. Now it’s a Kyrian Holy Paladin versus a Venthyr Holy Paladin versus a Necorlord Resto Druid versus a Night Fae Resto Druid.

Despite their best efforts, even with just 36 specs to balance, it can’t be done. Look no further than the MDI meta compositions, or the current most favored DPS classes in raids, or the best composition for your 3s Arena team. There’s simply no way they’ll balance 144 specs when they can’t even balance 36, and the developers know this. In an interview with Exorsus team member Alveona, Senior Game Designer Paul Kubit said “there are going to be cases where a particular Covenant choice might do better on a particular fight or situation in PVP… In this fight which involves single target damage and a lot of movement, yes the Venythr power is best.”

Every fight in Ny’oltha involves a ton of movement. I can’t think of a single one where Door of Shadows — the Venthyr power Kubit alludes to — wouldn’t be far ahead of any of the other three signature abilities. According to Kubit, the Covenants are balanced in a way “that gives different players opportunities to shine based on their Covenant choices.” If this sounds familiar, it should. In the leadup to Battle for Azeroth, the developers redistributed raid buffs, their goal being to give each class “a moment to shine.”

Frankly, what truly gives players a moment to shine is topping the DPS meters or scoring an epic parse. Sure, we appreciated the Warrior Strength and Agility buff, and, yea, I’d love to recruit a Monk for the Mystic Touch debuff, but it’s not that big of a deal. It also helps that the major buff classes — Mages, Warriors, and Priest — happen to be the top DPS classes right now.

Why are the developers so set on this path?

In his interview with YouTube content creator Mike “Belluar” Bell, Game Directory Ion Hazzikostas stated the development team’s reasoning for making Covenants such a hard and fast choice.

“A core of RPG customization lies in those strengths and weaknesses, otherwise players are identical — where this is a right path or you’re doing it wrong.”

Ion’s statement seems to come from more of a Tabletop RPG mindset than a Computer RPG mindset. A CRPG — especially an MMORPG like World of Warcraft — is a wonderful analog of the experience of sitting around the table with your friends, subsisting on junk food all weekend, but it has fundamental differences.

In a TTRPG, players cared much less about optimization. As our own Crow Tomkus points out “you certainly have the theorycrafters in the D&D sphere who mathed out optimal builds but for collaborative environments, that math was secondary to the point of the game. If you posted big numbers but were bored, what’s the point? The difference [in WoW] is that the fun isn’t about the group having a good time, it’s about the group getting drops. If math helps with progress, that’ll override everything else because it stinks to stagnate.”

Theorycrafters in World of Warcraft are skilled and have developed powerful tools like SimC and Raidbots. They will solve the equations and find a “right” path — whether we like it or not.

If we have access to all Soulbinds, every player will pick the same best set for their given content

When it comes to which piece of gear to wear, or what talent choices to make, the answer is, “sim it.”  The same thing will happen with Covenants. All the signature abilities, class abilities, Soulbinds, and Conduits will be fed into the simulation, and a “right” answer will be produced. It’ll be in all the guides. If you want the highest Warlock parses, you need to use this spec with these talents, this Covenant, this Soulbind, and these Conduits.

The only thing a locked Covenant choice changes is how many variables go into the simulation. One of the four will be mathed out to be the best for your class and role. Either you follow that or you’re doing it wrong. The more challenging the content, the smaller the margin for error — and the greater the emphasis on following those best practices.

No one wants to get stuck, whether it’s wiping over and over on a boss, or not being able to break through to your next PVP rating bracket. Nobody wants to wipe at 1% and think you would have had the kill if your tank was Necrolord or your healer was Night Fae.

This will create expectations from PUG leaders to World First Raid leaders and lead to negative player behavior.

This will lead to negative player behavior

With how powerful a teleport will be for certain skips in Mythic plus, your LFG tool will have LF1M DPS Necortic Wake +12 Venthyr ONLY. The Guild Recruitment forums will have listings full of “CE Guild looking for new tank, Necrolord only,” or “Top 100 guild seeks new Holy Paladin, Night Fae only.”

Higher end guilds will ask their players to pick the best Covenant for their role and class. They can use their alts to explore a Covenant that particularly appeals to them, but isn’t the best for their role and class. At the Hall of Fame level, you could have guilds that expect players to level four characters of the same class and send one to each Covenant to ensure they will have the ‘right’ one for every situation.

Of course, you can choose to go your own way. Somewhere in the spectrum from World First to LFG the demand curve flips. Whereas your CE guilds can be rather picky about who they take on, other guilds are just happy to have enough online to field a raid team.

But there’s a better way forward for everyone at all levels of content — decoupling.

The Maw Walker is the better way forward

The core problem is Covenants are tied to player power and progression. Decoupling that is the best way to give players a true choice.

Atanae, the Guild Leader of Sojourner on Kargath-US had a great explanation how this could work.

“Use the Maw Walker to drive the empowerment, since being a Maw Walker is special and feeds into the narrative of the player being Chosen of Azeroth. Our immersion in Azerite makes it possible to be Maw Walkers. We use the power within the Shadowlands to build out the empowerment. One system, 36 specs. Each covenant adds flavor and maybe options to the base system – it’s the customization tier, the artifact appearance. You pick the Covenant that jives with your vision of your character, while the raw empowerment is tied to your character’s narrative but you don’t risk ‘choosing wrong.’”

We could still pledge to a specific Covenant but that becomes more about where our Order Hall is and our non-combat options, rather than being tied to player power. Signature abilities could only be used in the Covenant’s home zone. Each Covenant has three Soulbinds and as you level up through Shadowlands you meet them all. Allow us to choose any of the 12 Soulbinds and fit in the new Conduit system like the Essence system.

This would be a large change as we move into beta, but they are already looking at redesigning Conduits to not be destructible, it could work. They’ve stated opening all Soulbinds to all players is a last resort they’ve prepared for.


Covenants remain a compelling choice without player power

There are enough to Covenants to make it a compelling and difficult choice without including player power. Maybe you love the nature aesthetics of the Night Fae, but you’ve always wanted the Baroness title from Necrolords. Then again, maybe you grew up playing The Sims and the party planner simulator of the Ember Court sounds exciting, but the Kyrian mounts and pets look incredible. The optimizers can optimize. The role players can role play.

This is the make or break issue for Shadowlands. Let’s get it right.

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