Thursday, April 5, 2012

MMO Gameplay: Some Assembly Required

Note: updated April 11, 2012. I know I said I wasn't going to update this, but I used WoWHead links for the pop-up tooltips and the stuff on there was missing/incorrect about some pretty basic stuff.

There is a tendency amongst players of mediocre abilities and inflated egos to say things like "just go read Elitist Jerks," as if this advice alone suffices to bring a new player up to speed on the intricacies of playing their character in a raid environment. Unfortunately, the problems with this statement are legion. To begin with, the World of Warcraft isn't going to last forever. I'm increasingly excited about Guild Wars 2 for example, and in the past I've tried out EVE online, Warhammer Online, and Champions Online. The forums on Elitist Jerks were obviously not helpful for any of them.

Even after we limit our discussion to WoW, though, the EJ forums aren't necessarily going to be of much help. Did you want to play a BM hunter in Wrath or Cataclysm, or an MM hunter in BC? Sorry, EJ's got nothing for you. Threads weren't even posted. Or if they were posted, they fell into disrepair and neglect. Or perhaps there was lively, vital discussion going on in the thread proper, but the first post never got updated. If you're new to the class or the game, are you likely to learn anything useful combing through page after page of tendentious argument broken up with annoying ads? It seems unlikely.

And let's not forget that the EJ forums are run by an actual guild, the Elitist Jerks of Mal'ganis! They've been around far longer than most guilds survive. What happens if and when they break up? Will they outlive WoW, and if not, where do you go after that? What if they just get sick of paying for hosting?

Finally, even if the forum exists, and there is a thread for your spec, and it's not abandoned, and the first post is regularly updated, and the writing is intelligible: are you really likely to perform well in a dynamic environment if you're simply parroting information you've read elsewhere? What if it's wrong? I mean, sometimes it's going to be! No one's omniscient, we all make mistakes, and opinions evolve and change over time.

I certainly support doing external research, but it's not enough. We all need to be able to do our own evaluation and thinking to some extent. That's what this post is about, and we'll take it in steps.

Step One: determine your core purpose.


As a hunter in the World of Warcraft, our core purpose is doing a lot of damage per second. A holy priest's core purpose is keeping everyone alive by healing the damage they take. A blood death knight's core purpose is surviving the boss's attacks to protect the raid. And so on.

These are not the sum and totality of anyone's responsibilities! These games would be super boring if they were. This is the central skeleton upon which everything else is built. You may have to kite adds, or apply CC, or interrupt a certain effect, or any of a number of other things. The core reason you're there, though, is to take the boss's health from 100% to 0% as fast as possible. If you're doing that part poorly, you're failing in your role in the raid, regardless of how well you do everything else.

Step Two: identify your resources.

These can vary quite a bit. There are the obvious ones of course: focus, mana, rage, energy. In other games you might encounter things like action points or other concepts. These tend to be sort of the main "bar" or pool of points that you spend by using abilities.

There are a variety of twists on this main resource though, such as runes for death knights or holy power for paladins. Secondary and tertiary resources that interact with the primary resource as well as ability use. WoW hunters of course don't have any secondary resources, just focus.

Even for us, however, I think it's useful to think of one final resource: time. I mean this both in the sense of the passing of seconds as well as the global cooldown. The global cooldown - often called the GCD - is a very common restraint in MMOs (and RPGs more broadly) to keep everyone from just pushing all their buttons at the same time all the time: since everything can't happen simultaneously, you have to choose what you're going to do with each global. This means that I think it's easiest to think of GCDs in terms of being a resource that you have a smooth, constant income of.

Knowing what your resources are is important to keep you from wasting them. Focus maxes out at 100 points, and if even one second passes with you sitting at 100 focus, you've wasted the 4-5 focus you would have received in that second. If a warrior sits at 100 rage and then lands another melee swing, the rage they would have received for doing so is wasted. If a paladin has three holy power stored up and then uses holy shock, they've just wasted a point of holy power. If a second passes by and you don't use an ability, you've wasted that global cooldown.

Know what your resources are. Know what constraints they have, how you accrue them, and how you spend them.

Step Three: narrow it down.

Will the pandatimes bring BM back into ascendancy!?
The typo is Blizzard's. Hah!
This step can be easier or more difficult depending on your class (or profession or specialization or whatever) and on the game you're playing. You're pretty much just trying to simplify your problem by concentrating on the smallest number of possibilities. So instead of trying to understand the hunter class in WoW by looking at all three specializations at the same time, you look at just one.

Obviously this decision is already made for someone playing a warrior that wants to tank - they're going to pick protection. Likewise, a druid that wants to heal is going to be looking at restoration. But what about a priest that wants to heal, or one of the two remaining DPS-only classes in the game?

Well to be honest, there's nothing wrong with being arbitrary with this step. Pick the one you like and roll with it. It's a new expansion! No one knows what the "top" specialization is yet.

I'm going to be using the Beast Mastery specialization as my example for this article, mostly because outside of about a 10-minute trial on a target dummy at the start of the expansion, I didn't touch it at all for the duration of Cataclysm. I'm going to be as clueless as anyone else going through this!

Step Four: identify your abilities.

I don't mean this in some sort of arcane "to defeat your enemy you must know yourself" fashion! I mean it in the extra-straightforward sense of knowing what buttons you can press. We're concentrating on the core purpose we identified in Step One, so we're just going to look through everything for abilities that do damage. As time wears on, the abilities are going to change from what I've got linked. This is a feature! We'll be able to see how things change, and how that affects and changes the conclusions we reach.

Base abilities:
Arcane Shot
Steady Shot / Cobra Shot
Kill Command
Serpent Sting
Kill Shot

And that's it when it comes to base abilities every BM hunter will have that directly do damage. There's a lot of other stuff - of course! - but in terms of non-talented buttons you can push to make hurting happen, that's all of 'em. This is the skeleton we'll build our gameplay around, so let's start by sort of looking at each of these guys in turn.

Arcane Shot (ArcS): Instant (push the button and it happens, no cast time) - this means that use of this ability will be limited by available focus and available GCDs. Costs 25 focus - that's a quarter of the bar. Does damage.

Steady Shot (SS): 2 second cast time. Generates 9 focus. This ability is not limited by anything. However,  2 seconds is a long time to not be doing anything else, and if you're on full focus casting this will be a waste of time. It's interesting to note that the only thing making ArcS a higher-value attack than SS is the cast time: if SS were instant-cast, it would be more damage to just spam it. Since it does take 2 seconds, however, the goal is going to be to use this one as little as possible.

Cobra Shot (CoS): 2 second cast time. Generates 9 focus. All the same considerations apply to CoS as do to SS, with the added wrinkle that CoS extends the duration of any previously-applied Serpent Sting.

Kill Command (KC): Instant with a six second cooldown. Costs 37 focus. The hard limit on this ability will be the cooldown, while the focus cost is a softer limit. This is going to be where the lion's (or raptor's or hyena's or sporebat's) share of our damage is coming from. We want to push this button as soon as it's available, every single time, and that means making sure we have 37 focus available every six seconds.

Serpent Sting (SrS): Instant, no cooldown, costs 25 focus. Does its damage over the course of 15 seconds. This means that if you cast this again before it wears off, you've wasted some amount of that 25 focus you spent on it. This ability is limited by its own duration.

Multi-Shot (MS): Instant. This is an Area of Effect (AoE) ability that costs more focus than Kill Command and does not have a cooldown. This means that you pretty much just go out and test - see how much damage your KC does, then see how much MS does to a single target. Figure out how many things you have to hit with it before MS does more damage than a KC. At a guess, having never used MS in Pandaria, this is probably three or more targets.

Kill Shot (KS): Instant. Costs no focus. Has a 10 second cooldown. Can only be used on targets under 20% health.

So from this we can work out some basics. You're going to want to keep Kill Command on cooldown. That's 37 focus every 6 seconds. One second of those 6 will be used up by the GCD, leaving 5 seconds.

Steady Shot / Cobra Shot without haste take 2 seconds to cast, which means you can neatly fit in at most two in between KCs. That's 18 focus. The last I checked, focus also regenerates passively at a rate of around 4 points per second. So over 5 seconds you'll get another 20 points, for a total of 38.

This means that you're definitely always going to have enough focus for another KC just from casting two SS between KCs. And you should be starting the encounter with a little over 100 focus, so you've got some wiggle room to work with. This all means that as we're looking at the skeleton of BM ability use, we're going to see a priority something like this:

  1. Kill Command
  2. Kill Shot
  3. Arcane Shot/Serpent Sting
  4. Cobra Shot
That third priority is because some of the time we're going to have spare focus, enabling us to use that last second in the 6-second KC cooldown to do something like apply a SrS or fire an ArcS. Not all of the time! Because those two things are 25 focus each, so if we used one every single KC cooldown, we'd starve ourselves of focus. But every few we'll definitely be able to sneak one or the other in, depending on which one actually does more damage (it may well be that either SrS or ArcS isn't particularly worth casting for BM, this is the sort of stuff that just takes testing).

I've decided on CoS over SS as our focus-generating shot because I just can't see any reason not to. As far as I can tell, CoS simply does more damage than SS and it extends the duration of SrS, making it an easy decision to apply that dot at the beginning of an encounter.

And that's our skeleton!

Step Five: flesh it out.

In the final step, we look at everything else the spec has going on, look at talents, and think about cooldowns. This is the part where a lot of people tend to get a little bit intimidated, but I would say this is really the fun part! This is where you've got the most wiggle room and you can play with the various talents and glyphs and decide which options work well for you.

To begin with, we'll add in the relevant hunter/BM abilities that don't directly do damage, but have an affect on damage:

Focus Fire
Bestial Wrath
Cobra Strikes
The Beast Within
Rapid Fire
Kindred Spirits


Frenzy is just a passive addition to damage that builds up over time. When it stacks up fully, you can consume it with Focus Fire and get a big haste boost. There's no cooldown on it! So you can just start out by using it as often as it's available.

Interestingly, this creates probably our first sort of counter-intuitive interaction with some of our other abilities here. Bestial Wrath gives your pet a percentage damage boost, and the thing with percentage damage boosts is that you want to stack those with other damage boosts as much as possible, because then the percentage is multiplying a bigger number. It's also a sort of intermediate cooldown: it's not a six-second thing like KC, so it's not going to be part of your regular priority. On the other hand, it's only a minute, so you're going to be using it several times in the course of a boss encounter.

This in turn means that you're going to want to have a sort of regular plan for how you'll generally use it. If Bestial Wrath were just out there on its own, you'd never want to use Focus Fire and Wrath at the same time, because you'd want to multiply your pet's Frenzy damage with the percentage bonus you get from Wrath, and Focus Fire consumes those Frenzy stacks.

The Beast Within, however, gives you a percentage damage bonus whenever you give your pet Wrath. So that makes you want to stack Focus Fire with Bestial Wrath, so you're getting that Focus Fire haste at the same time you're getting your percentage bonus from Beast Within.

Here's how I'd solve this conflict:

  1. Even BM hunters are doing the majority of the hunter/pet total damage, so in general you'll want to err on the side of improving your own damage.
  2. This means you'll generally plan on stacking Focus Fire with Bestial Wrath.
  3. However, you'll start the fight with both Rapid Fire and Bestial Wrath available, of course. So for that first beginning portion, I would wait until Focus Fire became available. This means your pet has a full stack of Frenzy.
  4. Then I'd use Rapid Fire and Bestial Wrath at the same time. This gives your pet the full benefit of Frenzy + Bestial Wrath while giving you a huge haste buff to pair with Beast Within.
  5. While Rapid Fire is on cooldown, I'd stack Focus Fire with Bestial Wrath. Your pet's damage won't be as high as it could be, but your own damage will benefit from it.
The final effects - Cobra Strikes, Kindred Spirits, and Invigoration - can all be considered together. Cobra Strikes reward you for using ArcS, which costs precious focus. Kindred Spirits gives you a bigger bank of focus to work with, and Invigoration gives you bonus focus you can spend on Arcane Shots! Pretty neat! Given all of that, I would question if Serpent Sting is worth using at all!

Regardless of the eventual answer to that question, however, we can really see the shape of Beast Mastery DPS coming together. The last step is to figure out our talents and glyphs, and the beauty of those is that they're designed to be interesting choices that don't necessarily have a wrong answer. This is where you can experiment, run a dungeon with one configuration, and then change things around and run another.

Just from reading the tooltips, here's an idea of the talents I'd probably try out first.

  • Exhilaration because I never really seem to need more distance on Disengage, but a big heal every time I use it? Yes please!
  • Silencing Shot. Since I'm primarily a PvE player, the reality that I see in raids is that "having another interrupt" is generally more valuable than an in-combat CC of short or medium duration. Those are really better suited for PvP in my opinion.
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Chimera - despite its silly name - synergizes with Exhilaration and gives us a huge cooldown reduction on Deterrence. Having access to immunity and/or 30% damage reduction twice as often is just insanely good. The combination of this talent and the first will make recovery from mistakes very easy, and that's a huge part of those imperfect first kills.
  • Thrill of the Hunt was one of the more difficult choices for me. I was really, really tempted by Readiness. BM hunter cooldowns are already very short duration, though, and in the end my intuition is that TotH will synergize better with Cobra Strikes.
  • Black Ice. Hunters are frequently called upon to kite groups of little adds around, and I think that this talent will be amazing for that task. Solo-kiting all 3 adds on the last guy in heroic Blackrock Caverns and getting the achievement would have been trivial with this talent, whereas it took me a few tries to get it in early Cataclysm.
  • Powershot has the advantage of lining up nicely with the Bestial Wrath cooldown, which means you should also pretty much always be able to take advantage of the haste from Focus Fire to help reduce that 3 second cast. It's kind of boring! But it just fits in so nicely with the BM cooldowns.
You can see how I'm building all of this up in layers. I started with assembling the DPS skeleton, added on the other abilities in a manner that made intuitive sense to me, and finally picked talents that would complement the choices I'd already made. When you write it all up later it might seem complex and arcane, but it's really not! Each individual step was a small one, following naturally from the previous step and leading naturally into the next one. I'll leave the choosing of glyphs as an exercise for the reader!

It took me a lot longer to write all of this out than it did to see the patterns in the first place.

Of course a lot of this stuff is going to change, and even if it doesn't, some of the stuff I've written here will be wrong guesses! You don't have to - and you're not going to - get everything right on the first pass. You're going to be spending much of the expansion making mostly-small tweaks and adjustments in reaction to patch changes and testing and actual raid performance.

Finally, while the example I chose was a BM hunter from World of Warcraft, you could absolutely use this framework for any class or spec or role in WoW or other games. At the end of the day, the important part is just the thinking, the having of reasons for the choices you make. As long as you're not picking stuff wildly at random you are, to be quite honest, doing better than most of the people playing.

And that's not to make fun of those folks! It's just that they're not playing the game for the same reasons. They don't find the same things fun. If part of the fun for you is stepping up to content that's challenging for your group of friends and bringing it down, then I think this process will serve you well.

As I keep harping about though, I definitely don't know everything! I would love to hear everyone's thoughts on how they make their decisions, what talents they think they'll be using, and what fun new buttons to push they're looking forward to pushing.


  1.  As a person who has played BM since BC, you are so right about having to think for yourself.  Especially later in a expansion cycle.  Cause as patches, hotfixes and new content come out the way you play changes.  Just looking at things intuitively helps so much.  If you mindlessly follow stuff, when you get set bonuses trinket or other gear that changes how your mechanics work you can't adjust well.

    I thought you'd like to know that you got the basics of BM play down right except for one thing and it is something that is more discovery in game plays to know it isn't' good..;)

    Before Cata BW and Rapidfire were combines just like you said with great effect :)  With cata though Beast within changed, it also reduces the focus cost of everything by 50%.  Since, Rapidfire's haste will increase regular focus regen rate, if you use both at same time you'll top out in focus cause you cant' spend it enough. 

    I discovered this pretty quickly once cata came out that I couldn't stack them anymore.  Of course anyone following this your approach will notice for themselves that they are topping out in focus and adjust accordingly.

    When I played Rift for awhile I used exactly this type of thought process to figure out how to play my new characters and to decide which souls to combine.  It was great fun.  In the end, I was combining souls that weren't in the default game recommendations. And just liked with rapid fire and bestial wrath somethings that looks good in theory had to be adjusted in practice.

    I think one the things I enjoy the most about new games, expansions and classes is figuring out how things work.  I get a great pleasure of after playing something new for awhile going to look at these guides and seeing how close our thoughts are on how to play.  Sometimes I'm spot on other times I'm off on some things.  I don't ever blindly change to what they say though I look at why they say to do x instead of y and then decide whether to change or stay the same.  This is part of what makes the game fun for me.  Well that and helping other people. ;D

  2. Thank you for the comment!

    Now I want to go to a target dummy in beta and see if I can keep focus spent through FF/RF+BW by spamming ArcS and KC. =)

    My boyfriend experimented with Rift for a while, but all of our friends are in WoW so he eventually came back. But I ramble! I really glad you liked the post.

  3. I'm using BW and RF together without capping, just spamming arcane and kc. To salma.
    It seems focus fire changed, or rather frenzy, on beta. Getting 5 stacks would not happen often. So it's then if it's worth using ff with bw even when you don't have 5 stacks of frenzy.

  4. It's good to know that's your experience. I still haven't gone to a dummy to do that yet, and in the dungeons I did I was struggling enough with default UI that I wasn't doing a great job with cooldowns or anything.

    The slowness of frenzy to stack up does have me considering RF+BW right on the pull, instead of trying to wait for FF to become available before using them. The risk of sitting on 1-minute cooldowns is that it's pretty easy to lose a whole use of them.

  5. Hrmm... Maybe it is the amount of haste I have right now or buff I get from one in the raid.  With current haste and the set bonus I do know I will top out on focus if I do more than two serpent stings without doing arcane shot or kill command unless of course I'm totally bottomed out.  I spent a long time on the dummy training myself out of three cobras between kill commands. 

    I'm going to hit a target dummy today see if I still have the bw/rapidfire issue solo.  Mayhaps something has changed.  But, this just goes to show why this method of breaking things down works so well.   I would tell someone not to stack em cause of the issues I have, but it works for someone else. :)


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