A Level Foundation: Specializations

While eagerly awaiting more details (that have started to drop for masteries* and the Heart of Maguuma), I’m going to continue my series of analyzing the interviews we’ve gotten so far and the original PAX presentation. This time, I’m covering specializations.

*Honestly, the “removal” of the XP bar was surprising to me, and my speculation about the mastery system didn’t cover such a possibility at all. Curious to see where it goes.

I’m going to examine specializations for what they could provide Guild Wars 2, what potential pitfalls they have based on what we presently know, and how the feature could improve the base game and where.

A Quick Definition

Unlike masteries, I don’t have a quick quotable to steal for specializations, so I’m going to make up my own definition:

Specializations are a horizontal progression system that expand each existing profession’s skills, traits, and profession mechanics toward a given theme. They are only available to level 80 characters, but once unlocked can be swapped at will with the original profession. Likewise, using a specialization temporarily removes certain aspects of the original profession.

What Specializations Could Provide Guild Wars 2

Whereas masteries provide account progression, specializations are tailored toward character progression past level 80. Also unlike masteries, they appear to be “all or nothing.” You either have access to the entire specialization (skills, traits, mechanics), or none of it.

If this is the go-to way for specializations, that is awesome. Instead of eventually building up to full capability while a full capability already exists in the original profession, a modicum of work is put toward unlocking and it’s fully available. No grind, just a time/effort gate.

More Options, Not Better Options

The primary potential from a player perspective is having more options available. This has been asked for since shortly after the game’s release, and promised since July 2013. It won’t just be the same-old skills we’ve had since release. So that’s a bonus.

But more importantly, due to the “package deal” aspect of specializations players will get a themed set of new skills to mess with. Colin has mentioned several times in interviews (and the original presentation) that a specialization is more like a subclass than simply a set of skills and traits cobbled together.

Bringing New Life to Professions

One possibility of having more options is that a player can greatly enjoy a specialization more than the original profession, and potentially play it far better than the original.

That’s a great thing. Professions that previously weren’t interesting to a player can have new life under a specialization, increasing the appeal for the various professions.

Further, a specialization can remove “stigma features” about the existing professions. Consider that necromancers are not preferred in dungeons due to their lack of meaningful group support. Or rangers get a bum rap for going “bear bow.”

A specialization can be tailored to creating additional options to address these specific shortcomings, increasing profession diversity across the game and reducing the case for elitism.

Lower Required Developer Effort, Higher Polish

From a developer perspective, introducing specializations is a solid foundation to build more specializations on top of. Rather than the pressure to generate a new profession ever so often to keep things fresh, or rework the functionality of an existing one, a far lower amount of effort can be put into generating a specialization.

More than that, the lower bar to crafting a specialization increases the level of polish it’s likely to have when it goes live. Less to test, easier to get it exactly as it’s intended. With fewer bugs to pull out when it goes live, player satisfaction is higher, developer overtime is lower, and a host of other good things related to game development.

Expansion Potential

I swear this will be a continuing theme with these features, but specializations look to be built with a mind to adding more in the future, hopefully outside of a paid expansion.

This bleeds into what the base game will gain from such a system, so I’ll wait for that to get into more detail.

Simpler Balance

The “gain some/lose some” aspect of a specialization is an excellent way to avoid the power/skill creep that plagued Guild Wars 1 and ended up being a primary driver of skipping to Guild Wars 2.

Why? Because the set of skills to balance against is relatively fixed per specialization. Rather than having to figure out how to make X new trait so it doesn’t make Y old skill blatantly overpowered, they’re never in the mix together.

Anyone who ran into first bunnythumpers, then Escape Scythe rangers in Guild Wars 1 PvP knows exactly how annoying and difficult an “everything unlocked and available at all times” balance system gets.

Specializations sidestep that problem by keeping the active skill total constant, even while increasing the available skill total.

Archetype Simplicity

One thing I noticed while i was thinking about this post is how generic, relatively, each profession is. Consider that a necromancer is a mage focused on death, blood, and souls. A warrior is a front-liner who wields lots and lots of weapons. An engineer is a tech-focused tinkerer with a solution to every problem.

Looking at specializations, the relative simplicity of a profession’s thematic “space” is fantastic. There’s plenty of places to specialize a profession without stepping on the toes of another profession’s turf.

This builds on the expansion potential, because ArenaNet doesn’t have to worry that someone will cry foul on a profession’s new specialization being a ripoff of another’s. Will there be similarities? Sure. But thematic overlap? Not likely.

What Pitfalls Specializations Should Avoid

Better Options, Not Just More Options

The entire system must remain horizontal. A new specialization that is hands-down better in every way than the original profession is vertical progression, since anyone who doesn’t have it is inherently worse than someone who does.

It’s a tough balancing act, and while I’m not expecting 100% perfect “different yet equal” (Animal Farm shows that to be rather naive), it is absolutely critical that Druid and its cohorts not universally outclass.

Like the balance paradigm of “lose something/gain something,” the loss has to actually be substantive, to balance against the likely just as substantive gain. A big loss means that the original profession has something that the specialization does not, and more importantly something the player will miss.

With a player missing what’s gone, it means that swapping back and forth as the situation calls is more likely, rather than someone picking up the specialization and never switching back. The original profession doesn’t get relegated to the pile of “old, useless crap.”

Of course, this approach isn’t necessarily the only one, but it jibes with the statements of losing a profession mechanic and certain skills and traits being locked out when assuming a specialization.

Outright Worse than Original

Making a specialization hands-down better is bad, but making it worse than the existing is, well, much worse. If a specialization is inherently garbage compared to its forebear, its addition is irrelevant. It’s in the same heap as the dozens of skills that no one used (except for laughs) in Guild Wars 1.

Doesn’t Add Much to the Game

A third and final negative comparison that a specialization could have against the existing profession is not having much to show for it. If a specialization really doesn’t change much, or add that many options, again it runs into irrelevance.

It’s like the healing skills that got added to the game. On paper they filled niches that each profession was missing, but between their lower efficiency and the minor nature of the addition, almost no one uses them.

If a specialization only adds a few utilities, 3-5 new traits, and 5 new weapon skills (or less), it’s not going to feel like an expansion of the existing profession so much as New Healing Skills 2.0.

I cannot stress enough how crippling this would be to the specialization concept. If players perceive that attaining druid (or its equivalent) only really gives them a new weapon and a swap of a mechanic or two, then it will be rejected as viable progression, even if the new stuff is fresh and innovative to the profession.

Balance Nightmare

While on paper specializations should be easier to balance, there’s no guarantee of that. Maybe the new mechanics are inherently unbalanceable, and only seeing it at the scale of live makes that clear.

Then we end up with the Assassin Conundrum: the specialization is either overpowered or underpowered, never functionally counterable or in line with the rest of the meta.

This is a pitfall that I think the specializations system is designed to avoid, but it could still happen.

What the Base Game can Gain from Specializations

As I said above, the only thing that the base game can really gain is its own specializations over time.

Thanks to the relative ease of creating one, I don’t think it unreasonable (or unexpected) to see new ones added in the course of future Living World seasons, or tossed into a feature pack.

I also hope that ArenaNet doesn’t release them in bulk packs of 9. That would slow down how often they show up, as well as make it more difficult to “have a reason” to make them.

Based on what has been revealed so far, and the specific narrative of the druid in relation to the Maguuma Jungle, I think that all specializations will be designed to fit a thematic niche not just within the profession’s “definition”, but within the world, filling specific sections of the growing narrative.

Backtrack to the “packs of 9” thing. It’s hard to find a narrative that can support 9 deliberately thematically different professions, hard to build enough story to give each a “reason to exist.” Consider that it’s taking an entire expansion to create enough thematic narrative to create 9 specializations to kick the system off.

I don’t see it as a bad thing to release a couple of specializations attached to a narrative event, then move forward to a different event and attach a couple more for different professions. Over time each profession gets the same number, and each of them “fit” the overall theme they were created within, rather than being shoehorned.

Conclusion

Specializations, like masteries, offer a great opportunity to provide horizontal progression, focusing on a character rather than an account. They also provide a good foundation to keep building, crafting more specializations into the game as time goes on.

The difficulty is making sure that each specialization is compelling without be overpowering, deep and not shallow, and flexible while still being balanceable. It’s a tall order, but a much better starting point than simply adding more skills.

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One thought on “A Level Foundation: Specializations”

  1. Needing only a bit of narrative for just a few classes getting specializations in an update reminds me chiefly of Team Fortess 2. But it also reminds me of how the professions came to be; older classes mixing and learning different things to both modernize and rise to the challenge of a changing world.

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