Before I spent my days wading through calculations, and before I spent my time being a problem-solver, I spent some time studying architecture (translation: I spent a good amount of time in a studio laboring over architectural details and making models). Thankfully, WoW wasn’t known to me just then so I was able to pour myself with complete abandon into a field where I thought I would find my eventual career. (Amazing how things turn out sometimes, eh?) Studying architecture, at least at the college that I attended, wasn’t so much about refining skills as developing your core philosophy and teaching you about the wonderful world of design objectivity. More so, it was about getting students to subscribe to one key philosophy—good design comes from not being afraid to iterate, but great design is about knowing when to stop iterating and simply move on.
(Don’t worry, I’ll tie this into WoW in a second!)
Spirit Link, Reborn
As much as I am loathe to look a gift horse in the mouth, I couldn’t help the feeling that settled into me as I looked at the patch notes released last week, specifically the preview of shamans’ “Spirit Link Totem”. To be quite frank, it was that kind of “well, I suppose we should have expected that” sinking feeling; our old buddy Spirit Link is back, risen from the ashes and here to make yet another go at becoming the cooldown of shamans’ dreams.
It’s most recent iteration cropped up on last Thursday:
Spirit Link Totem (Tier 5) Summons a Spirit Link Totem with 5 health at the feet of the caster. The totem reduces damage taken by all party and raid members within 10 yards by 10%. Every 1 sec, the health of all affected players is redistributed, such that each player ends up with the same percentage of their maximum health. Lasts 6 sec. 11% of base mana, 3 min cooldown, Instant
So clearly the idea has undergone some changes since its last design iteration; going from the tank CD it was in WotLK beta to a raid/tank CD proposed in 4.1. To refresh your memory, here’s the basic Spirit Link description from Wrath (my apologies, I couldn’t find the actual tooltip as it used to exist):
You link the friendly target with two nearby targets, causing 50% of the damage taken to be distributed to the linked targets. If any single blow is enough to deal 30% of a target’s total health or if the damage shared is going to take any one of those targets below 20% health then the Spirit Link is cancelled.
And to round out the quotes section of the post, let me remind you of why Spirit Link was pulled from the game in the first place. From the Cataclysm Shaman class preview:
Spirit Link will likely be worked back into deep Restoration in some form. The idea is that you will be able to link targets together so they share damage. When we had previously tried to implement Spirit Link, it was hard to balance and a little confusing. However, we really liked the concept — and so did players — so we are trying to bring it back.
Spirit Link in 4.1
Over the past week, I’ve had the opportunity to solidify my thoughts on this new variation of Spirit Link and review some of those concerns floating around the community. Suffice to say, there are a good number of thoughts out there, some of which I think are valid concerns which should be addressed (or likely are being addressed) as design proceeds and others which strike me as more fluff than substance.
- Losing One Buff to Sacrifice Another – Fluff. One of the arguments against Spirit Link Totem that I saw crop up more often than not is the idea that your raid will lose out on haste (melee or caster) when you decide to drop SLT. As arguments go, I don’t think this one holds much water—the overall impact on your group is marginal at best and the fact that SLT doesn’t have a channel component means it’s better off than raid CD’s like Divine Hymn and Tranq.
- Time to Target (travel distance to place) – Valid. Definitely an issue given the context of what a CD is often used for, this is one of my primary concerns for any proposed solution for resto shaman. And although I don’t buy into the hype that maintains that shaman have “no mobility”, what a totem CD will stress more than anything else is that the shaman will have to be proactive and position themselves appropriately before the CD needs to occur. In most boss encounters, I don’t see that big of a problem with this concept (because things like Maloriak’s Flame Breath are telegraphed and predictable), but in “oh shyte” instances, this constraint will significantly cramp shamans’ ability to pull out a save. No matter how fast your response time, no matter how low your latency, chances are that by the time you recognize the need for a CD, pop GW while running, stop, and drop the totem, your window of opportunity will have closed.
Range of Application/Visibility – Valid. A potential problem that cropped up in last week’s mini-post covering the SLT announcement, some players pointed to the limited range of effect of the totem as cause for concern. Again, I don’t really see the 10-yard range as being too problematic given the prevalence of AOE healing effects in Cata (and the similarities between the effective range of SLT and PW:Barrier). However, what I think will be incredibly important for players is knowing that they are or are not within the affected area .Based on imagery from the beta, Blizzard has opted for yet another ground effect, which in my opinion, will just become another element to be lost among the multitude of projected textures already in place.
- Tank/Raid applicability –Fluff. Although I had first worried about the effects of SLT on a tank taking heavy incoming damage, I think I’m on board with the idea that it could be used as a potential tank CD, provided that there were sufficient players in range to accommodate the incoming spikes. As damage reduction talents/CDs go, SLT is pretty weak, so its real power would come from distributing damage enough to save the 1-2 deaths that would otherwise cripple a raid. (It’s also worth noting that the spread damage plus having the raid in a confined area works incredibly well with Shamans’ highest throughput spell—Healing Rain).
- It takes a little bit of a novel to explain – Valid. This quality of SLT didn’t really become evident to me until I sat down for dinner on Friday night with my SO and tried to explain the functionality of shamans’ new proposed CD. As someone who shares my love of “what ifs”, my SO proceeded to pepper me with questions about how the totem worked with immunities, personal CDs, distance, PW:Barrier, and incoming heals. To be expected, I didn’t have many answers. But what this indicated to me, aside from the fact that a good amount will be revealed in testing, is just HOW MUCH will need to be revealed in testing. A CD shouldn’t come with a manual and its effects shouldn’t need to be qualified by a series of IF/THEN statements.
- It’s a CD with a downside – Valid. This was a major sticking point as it was raised early in Wrath Beta, and I think it’s still applicable in SLT’s current iteration—if misused, this totem could play a part in someone’s imminent demise. Granted, it would be a rare occurrence if it ever happened, but again, CD’s are about saving lives, not about taking a gamble.
Placement in the Resto Tree – Valid. In its current position in Tier 5 of the Resto tree, opting for Spirit Link plus all the typical Tier 5, 6 and 7 talents means that you’ll be pulling another point out of your Elemental/Enhancement secondaries. This means that Restos will need to choose between Acuity, Ancestral Swiftness, Blessing of the Eternals, Telluric Currents, and maybe Ancestral Awakening.
Ultimately, if there were any game-breakers in terms of functional implementation, I would think it would be #2 and #5 above. Both present significant hurdles which really affect the ever-important “quality of life” of being a raiding Resto Shaman. Being burned by yet another spell in a reactive environment (which sometimes you simply cannot avoid through your own efforts), and needing a manual to understand how to use one CD, does not bode well for the future of SLT. That you could also potentially negatively impact another player’s HP by way of a bad decision is just icing on the cake. That being said, there’s one last point that I’d like to make about SLT, and it centers on something I mentioned at the beginning of this post– great design is about knowing when to stop iterating and simply move on.
Time for that Personal Anecdote
Believe it or not, I actually remember the first time I learned the incredibly disconcerting lesson that design is not single act, but an iterative process. It was during one of my first upper-level design studio classes, in which we were tasked with designing a residence that represented the rough yet lush mountainous terrain of our building site. My first sketches showed a house that bloomed down the mountain-side, its walls and ceilings opening up towards the sun like petals. (Obviously, I was proud of it in an artsy-fartsy way).
It was so highly praised in our first critique that when the professor told us to explore another quality of the site, I just spent time refining my first idea. Suffice to say, my efforts were not as well received the second time around. But being the obstinate person I was (erm, *am), I argued the perfection of my original concept. And with each iteration that we were told to make, while classmates incorporated differing concepts and influences, I tinkered more with my original design, trying to make it fit with the new requirements despite the fact that they were often in conflict with my latest design revision.
At the end of the semester-long class, when it came time to present, we lined up our models, our drawings, our concept art, and our other design elements for the final critique. But whereas my peers’ designs showed a progression and evolution, mine was starkly static and unyeilding. Whereas other concepts were varied and nuanced in their approach to space, design, and interaction, my design was a 1-trick pony. What I hadn’t grasped through the entire class became incredibly evident to me in that moment—I had wanted so much for my original idea to work, that I had refused to evolve past it. I had stuck to iterating the same concept over and over again in the belief that forward was the only way to go. And at the end of the class I was left with the same thing I had at the beginning, just wrapped in a different color wrapper.
Sometimes, a good idea needs to be allowed its place
Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve been sold on this type of yarn twice before, but I can’t help but look at SLT with a slight amount of disappointment. Like the name of a youth sports team that didn’t quite come together as intended—we all like dinosaurs and we all like ninjas, so Super Ninja Pterodactyls it is!—I get the feeling that the Spirit Link idea had lingered on so long that the last ditch effort to make it viable was to tack it onto shamans’ “thing” (totems) and hope that it would finally stick.
Ultimately, I’m left thinking … As a CD, its balancing will be very fragile. As a mechanic, it’s not easy to understand. And as a concept, as much as I appreciate the sheer amount of design effort that’s gone into making Spirit Link something we finally see in game, maybe it’s time for a fresh perspective.
It’s been 8 years since Spirit Link was introduced as a concept in Warcraft III, and 3+ years since it was included as a potential Shaman ability in Wrath of the Lich King Beta. And it’s been just about a year since it was mentioned as making a potential resurgence in Cataclysm. For these reasons, I’ve no doubt that a significant amount of effort was put into trying to work out the bugs and balance that were requisite to including it in a final release of the game. And yet, after almost 4 years of effort and design time, Spirit Link has been shelved twice and has become a running joke among some shamans. “When pigs fly” has become “When Spirit Link goes live”.
Like I learned in my sophomore studio, as much as you love something, pour your heart and soul into it, and labor over it for hours, it still may be a case of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Iteration works best when you’re culling a pack, not when you start with a pool of 1. And when your response to pushback or problems with the design is simply to try harder to make it fit, then you’re fighting a losing battle. Sometimes, it’s hard to see this as you move forward in the process, convinced that it’s a better investment of time and resources to forge onward instead of scrapping the idea entirely. But sometimes, you need to step back from your beloved design idea and realize that if it isn’t a smooth and easy fit, then it’s time to move on.
I don’t think there’s much debate on the point any more—what shamans need is a tool, something to give us the equal healing footing that we’ve been searching for. But, quite frankly, I’d rather wait several more patches to see an innovative and fresh solution given to my brethren, than to see a dusted-off nostalgia-driven stop-gap go live. I only hope that Blizzard has the courage to do what I didn’t all those years ago—to let go of a beloved idea and understand that when it comes to design, the best solutions are the ones yet to come.
(Special Thanks to Binkari for the slider image!)