Shaman Q&A with Ghostcrawler and the World of Warcraft Development Team
We'd like to start things off by asking a question that players often ask in regard to the very purpose of each class. In this case, we’re looking specifically at the shaman, which has seen a variety of changes since the start of World of Warcraft and perhaps doesn’t fit into the original description quite the way they used to.
Where do shamans fit into the larger scope of things currently and where do you see them going from this point forward?
The shaman class has a pretty dynamic history. In classic World of Warcraft there was a period where everyone viewed shamans as overpowered. I remember one of my earliest experiences in the Barrens trying to group with a shaman to do a group quest. But he just told me was an overpowered shaman (Frost Shock!) and didn’t need the help.
In vanilla World of Warcraft, shamans at the end-game were healers. Period. By The Burning Crusade, we decided that all three of their trees should have viable roles in the end-game. We also decided that hybrid classes (those that can fill more than one role, such as damage and healing) should do less damage than the classes that could only fill the damage role. This philosophy generally worked, in some cases too well, because Sunwell raids were infamous for stacking lots of shamans.
In Lich King, a primary goal for raiding was to give players far more flexibility in which classes they brought and try to de-emphasize “raid stacking” as much as possible. This meant we needed to share the unique, mandatory buffs among more classes and specs so that, for example, a raid wasn’t gimped if they happened to lack a +spellpower or +crit buff. However, we didn’t want say shamans to no longer be attractive for raiding so we brought up their damage a lot. It might still not be as high as rogues or warlocks, but it’s close, and if you have the right gear and really know how to play, you can even beat those classes on some bosses. No raid worth its salt would turn down an Enhancement, Elemental or Restoration shaman for fear of bringing down the raid.
In PvP, especially Arenas, shamans have never really been a powerhouse class and we view this as a problem. Shamans have always had a place in the 5 vs. 5 bracket, where their buffs are most meaningful spread out among multiple characters. Elemental has sometimes had a niche as the “kill the wounded guy” spec. Currently, however, much of the PvP community is very focused on the 2 vs. 2 bracket, where teams that pack a lot of abilities into a single class tend to dominate. This is something we need to improve for the shaman class.
Shamans have three really distinct roles. Enhancement is melee DPS. Elemental is ranged DPS. Restoration is healing. Once upon a time there was a potential tanking role for shamans as well, but we have pretty much phased that out.
What is it that makes them unique compared to all other classes?
Totems, totems, totems!
Okay, that’s the obvious answer, but it goes deeper than that. The weapon enchants are an unusual part of the shaman class, as are mechanics like the shield spells (Earth Shield, Lightning Shield) and Frost Shock. Shaman buffs and utility spells are quite powerful, including the infamous Heroism / Bloodlust, but also their self-rez ability, Reincarnation. As envisioned from the start, shamans were also the “offensive” hybrid. Things have inevitably blurred a bit since then, but they are still a counterpart and complement to paladins – paladins have cleanse, shamans have purge; paladins will let an ally move freely to escape or catch an opponent, shamans will snare an enemy to let their ally escape or catch him or her; paladins will make sure their allies’ casts aren’t interrupted, shamans will interrupt enemy casts; and so forth.
Don’t underestimate the gear either. Shamans are only one of two mail-using classes in the game, and the only non-plate wearer that can use shields. Shaman shields provide a lot of defense and stats for the Restoration and Elemental shaman.
One of the other unusual things about the class is their degree of hybridization. An Elemental shaman can easily throw out heals if a group needs a little extra help. A druid, by contrast, would need to shift forms first, possibly giving up other abilities to do so.
There is a unique quality to shaman due to their use of totems as a means of protection, healing, and even as an offensive tool. At the same time, there is a strategic element to being able to place the right totems to do the best job and even more important to place them in the optimum possible spot.
For some players, totems’ lack of mobility and range limitations seem to be more of a liability than an element of strategy, and some shamans in PvP encounters often choose not to place any totems at all.
Are there plans to look at totems in general, the way they are managed, their uses, and their benefits in the future?
Absolutely. One of the features we have been working on is a way for shamans to drop all four totems at once (on one global cooldown). This will hopefully make the totems more attractive while soloing and will let the shaman in a group environment quickly get his or her totems down again if the group has to move or they get destroyed. We’d like to get this feature in soon, but we want to make sure the user-interface works well and feels integrated to the rest of the game, so we can’t yet announce a date. And of course, this is still in the planning stage, and so subject to change.
In PvP, we want to make sure we end the use of “totem stomping macros” where a pet class essentially programs their pet to automatically kill any totem they see. It’s perfectly acceptable for pets to kill totems, but the player should at least have to make a decision and spend some of their attention to do so.
We want to look at the range of the buff totems and make sure you don’t regularly get out of range on say large boss fights.
Finally, as a small quality-of-life improvement, we are going to let low-level shamans trade in the four elemental totems that clutter their bags for a single totem they can equip in their totem slot. Since the four “clutter” totems can’t be destroyed or sold, currently there is no way to get rid of them. This change will essentially give shamans their four bag slots back.
And, what are the possible impacts of considering changes to a system like this?
Sometimes you will see the community suggest ideas that basically write totems out of the game. That’s not what we want. A shaman player should care about totems and use them often.
Obviously being able to drop four totems on one global cooldown is a pretty decent buff to the class as a whole, which will require some balance attention.
We have talked a few times about improving the health of individual totems, but if we did, we don’t want to do it by much. One of our Restoration shamans said he still wanted to be able to whack down enemy totems with his healing mace at the end of the day. The balance for totems being able to cause damage or other effects while the shaman also does is the fact that they can’t move and are relatively fragile.
One longer-term change we are considering is removing the buff totems (replacing them with normal spells) and making all of the totems do something more active, like the current damage or healing totems. We’ve even discussed letting shamans carry a totem on their back (the tauren do it already) but that may be too far out there.
To continue down the path of totem questions, there are many different types of totems available, and at times the amount seems to be overwhelming. In some cases, there seem to be some totems that don’t have a clear, obvious use to players, such as the Sentry Totem.
Is there any plan to look at the way totems are being used and either update little-used totems or consolidate totems that don’t seem to be of a particularly great strategic value individually?
There are still some totems that just aren’t cutting it anymore, and we want to continue to consolidate those so that shamans don’t have any totems that they just never, ever use. Sentry Totem is a possible candidate for the chopping block. It’s hard to really carve off unique niches for Magma Totem and Fire Nova Totem, so those may get merged. Stoneskin is not a terribly exciting totem, so maybe there is a way to just tack that benefit onto another Earth totem. Finally, we are exploring the possibility of the elementals coming out of any Fire or Earth totem respectively rather than to have to drop a new totem just for their temporary benefit.
We combined or cut some totems for Lich King, and you should expect another round of that at some point in the future. As always, we’re unsure of how many of these changes we will get in for the 3.2 patch. We’re trying to keep the list of class changes down compared to 3.1, where some players felt whiplash from so many frequent and sometimes substantial changes to their class.
In addition, many valued enhancement totem relics are only available via random drops, which has been voiced as something that we’ve wanted to avoid in the past. Are there any plans to change this?
The “relics” (the items that fill the ranged weapon slot) are always tricky to hand out, since they can only be used by one class, and are often attractive to only one spec. We have typically put them on badge vendors, and that might be the way to go with them in the future. On the other hand, several “best in slot” items for every character are subject to the inherent randomness of boss loot drops. Typically these upgrades are attractive but not so mandatory that you can’t do your job without them.
Shamans currently have the lowest base health of any class, and this often leads to concern over their survivability.
Is there any reason that they start this way or is there any future change in store to address this disparity between their base health and that of other classes?
This is one of those weird legacies that has been in the game forever. Nobody currently working on classes can remember why that decision was initially made, so we plan to revert it for 3.2.
Looking into the Player vs. Environment (PvE) aspect of the game, there are various concerns that are brought up. One recurring concern among all shamans, whether they are Elemental, Enhancement, or Restoration, is in regard to itemization. For some, they are looking for better two-handed weapons. For others, they are looking for that better one-handed axe. Others wonder at the choices that are made in relation to the stats or gem bonuses that are placed on items. An example brought up regularly is concerning Armor Penetration being prevalent in Ulduar despite it not being the most desirable stat for shamans who choose to play as Enhancement. In addition, many shamans express concerns that the options for upgrades are more limited for them than other classes.
When itemizing for the shaman class, what are the aspects that are looked at, and are there plans to make additional improvements to the way itemization is done for the class or for specific talent specs?
One of the problems we have with dropping one-handed weapons is the overlap. If we drop axes, rogues can’t use them. If we drop swords, shamans can’t use them. If we drop fists, death knights can’t use them. We are looking at changing one of these restrictions in 3.2, though it likely won’t be for shamans to use swords.
It is our basic assumption that Enhancement shamans dual-wield and Restoration and Elemental shamans go for a one-handed weapon and shield. While we don’t prohibit players from playing with other types of gear, they may not find their damage or healing output to be as high. At this point in time, we aren’t trying to support a two-handed DPS build. That would require a pretty extensive reworking of the tree, and we also want to make sure some class besides rogues are using one-handed weapons.
We got a lot of questions on specific itemization, especially in the new Ulduar tier. The designers do feel like we’ve let the value of various stats get too far apart for the classes as a whole. When some characters want armor penetration and some don’t yet they are supposed to share basically the same gear, it makes the randomness of loot drops even more frustrating. We just need to get Enhancement to where they feel like armor penetration is as valuable as other melee stats.
We’re also in the process of taking a hard look at all the stats in the game. Something that gets brought up in our meetings a lot is that haste and crit are relatively straight forward stats and most players have a reasonable intuition about what boosting those stats will do. When you start to throw something like armor penetration into the mix, it’s hard to estimate exactly what that will do for your character. We’re not sure armor penetration is a rousing success as an interesting stat (though it can be quite good for some characters).
What is the expectation for how shamans choose the gear they use?
Players sometimes have the expectation that everything that drops that they can use should be an upgrade for them. This isn’t strictly speaking the developer view though. We want gear to be a little bit of a puzzle where you have to analyze if that piece is really an upgrade or not and how it fits with your other stats. Remember also that much of the normal versions of Ulduar is itemized at the same level as Kel’Thuzad and Malygos.
There are some pieces that are just inferior to what they should be and we are getting those updated over time. As I mentioned above, we also want to improve the situations where some stats are so superior for your spec compared to other stats that pieces with the latter on them are just perceived as junk.
While we have a lot of bosses in Ulduar, those bosses also drop an awful lot of loot. Having loot drop that is attractive to more than one spec is paramount in making the bosses feel rewarding enough. Otherwise boss loot tables are just too large and your chance of getting what you want is low. (The huge loot table works for Emalon who is easy to reach, but not Algalon.) We have to avoid the situation where say the Elemental shaman only wants one set of shoulders in the whole instance and those shoulders are unattractive to everyone else in the raid. This is why we often say that we need to fix these problems on the class side, not the item side.
This is a situation where the distinction among the shaman specs can hurt them a little. Restoration and Elemental shamans both basically want caster gear, but the healer wants regen and the nuker has no use for it. This means if there is mana regen on mail, it is pretty much only useful for a Restoration shaman. (Healing plate presents the same problem for paladins.) We don’t have a great solution for this problem yet other than just dropping three kinds of mail.
Continuing to discuss the PvE element of the game for shamans, the introduction of Ulduar changed the strategies players had employed in the past to account for these larger-than-life encounters. Restoration shamans in particular have brought up a concern for their role as raid healer being diminished in light of their inability to effectively raid heal like they once did with the use of Chain Heal specifically. Many have taken to the role of main target heals and are concerned about their continued effectiveness in a raid environment.
Where do we feel the role of the shaman is in raids now and where do we see that going in the future?
We want all three shaman specs to feel like they can contribute to raids, and to be honest, we think they’re in a pretty good spot certainly relative to some classes that have specs that are perceived as much more viable than other specs. Enhancement can do great melee damage. After the recent Lightning Overload change, we think Elemental can do competitive ranged damage. I know there is some concern about Restoration shamans losing their healing niche of area damage. We think that perception might exist in Ulduar just because recent talents, glyphs, and set bonuses have all propped up things like Lesser Healing Wave over Chain Heal. Chain Heal is still quite useful in some situations and with different gear in the next couple of tiers, we expect to see more shamans going back to it. We don’t want to see them return to just using Chain Heal as was the case in much of Burning Crusade. We do think Restoration shamans are at the risk of running out of mana perhaps more than any other healer right now, and in fact the seemingly unlimited mana in some healers is what leads to Chain Heal getting stomped on by other big heals. This is a problem we plan on addressing.
Is the change in how shamans are used situational only as we move forward into the next encounters, or is this a shift in philosophy as to the role of the shaman in raids?
It isn’t a philosophy shift. We want Restoration shamans to be a strong group healer with the option of focusing on a single target with Lesser Healing Wave as needed. Restoration shamans have two distinct healing styles now that they can shift between, and we want to preserve that. We don’t want to return to the Sunwell era, where 95% of healing came from Chain Heal. It’s just a boring play style. (And yes, paladins, we hear you.) We suspect that with a new totem or set bonus that propped up Chain Heal a little more, you’d see it getting a lot more use. We’re cool with that. It’s fun when you upgrade your gear from tier to tier and it actually pushes you into a slightly different play style.
Elemental shamans have had a couple of opportunities to shine in Ulduar -- blowing up constructs on Ignis is one example. We try to make sure the encounters are diverse enough that the same classes aren’t always in the spotlight on every encounter, but we also don’t want to constrain our encounter designers’ creativity too much. Elemental may suffer from so many fights in Ulduar requiring movement. Also, while we have given Elemental strong AoE in the form of the Magma Totem, some players feel like this comes at too high a cost to their buffs and mobility, so this is something we’ll look at.
We’re pretty happy with Enhancement shamans in raids, though we want to continue to analyze whether their DPS is where it should be and if their buffs are comparable to other classes that can bring the same benefit.
We do hope we’ve finally settled the issue of which weapon enchantments shamans should use with the now normalized Flametongue.
Let’s shift gears a little and go into the realm of Player vs. Player. As we spoke of previously, survivability and mobility are a couple of shaman concerns that recur more strongly when in reference to PvP interactions. More specifically, shaman performance and visibility within the top-rated teams in the Arena is a much-discussed topic. Players have noticed difficulties both in being able to avoid stuns and roots as well being able to move effectively in the playing field without losing the benefit of their totems.
Are there any other considerations in store for improving overall performance for shaman in PvP encounters (whether in Arena or in Battlegrounds)?
Mobility is a big problem. One of the designers described casting shamans the other day as “turrets,” which is very apt. You sit and spin and shoot (or heal). We need to get shamans some more mobility, and we have some ideas for how to do that without just giving everyone Blink. We want to see more shaman gladiators soon!
For Restoration shamans, we think their survivability is low, especially while stunned. Teams have learned to kill the shamans first, because if they don’t, the shaman healing output is good, especially in larger teams. In fact, shamans generally are more powerful on the larger teams because of the nature of their powerful buffs affecting more people. In general, we’d like to get the community back to being more focused on the larger Arena brackets, but we realize we have some work to do there first. Earth Shield is too easy to dispel. An idea we’d like to explore is just letting a single charge get dispelled at a time.
Elemental shamans used to have a niche of being able to blow up a wounded target on demand, but we have been trying to back off some of these really high burst moments. We do need to improve their mobility though, which includes not just the standard melee escapes, but also a way to not lose so much DPS when moving. Elemental is a caster and all casters are getting beat up a little too much by melee at the moment.
Players sometimes accuse Enhancement of being too much of a one-trick pony. It’s understandable that saying “I bring damage!” when so many classes have multiple forms of crowd-control and crowd-control breaks may not cut it these days. Players often request more anti-CC in the form of the Feral Spirits, but we don’t want to turn that ability into something that is saved only to be used as a PvP trinket. Again, mobility (both offensive and defensive) will help Enhancement. A lot of the spec’s damage come from procs and sustained effects, while PvP is more about front-loading damage at the right moment. We definitely can make some changes to give Enhancement more of that, but it requires a lot of changes to the talent tree and playstyle and not the kind of thing you can just hotfix in. On the other hand, Enhancement can offensively dispel, interrupt, and use Tremor and Cleansing Totems while still being a melee DPS. They do have a lot of utility -- they just need a little help in order to bring it about. They no longer have mana problems in the longer matches.
One of the challenges of designing the shaman class is that we think it is one of the most challenging classes to play in PvP. (Players sometimes call this having a “high skill cap.”) The shaman has to think about defense and offense at the same time, while many classes can worry about one or the other. For example, a Holy paladin can concentrate on keeping his or her group alive while the Restoration shaman has to do that while also keeping totems up, offensively purging buffs from the enemy team, using Wind Shock to interrupt spell casts, etc. The challenge is making it not too difficult for the average player but also not too powerful for the guy who can master all of the shaman’s tools. (Warlocks and hunters have very similar challenges, by the way.)
What considerations are being made for combating the use of totem-killing macros in PvP, and is this seen as a problem currently?
It is a problem. Totems are fragile by design, since they essentially can do their jobs while the shaman does other things. We’re fine with this except in the case of pets being able to target and kill totems via macro without any input from the player. We want the player to at least have to target the totem first before commanding the pet to attack. We have a technical change in 3.2 which will prevent macros from doing this while still giving macros the functionality that players currently enjoy elsewhere. Players have made many suggestions for how to accomplish this technically (a common one is to rename the totems), but the solution is a little more complicated than that. Whacking a totem with your weapon or wand is fine because you are making a choice and spending valuable combat time (similar to dispelling a buff or debuff). Using macros requires no player interaction, and is not working as intended. One totem that is just too easily destroyed is Mana Tide, for which we could see bumping up the survivability. Again, remember that while totems are fragile, they aren’t particularly expensive (especially if we get the change in to drop more than one at a time) and the shaman can do other things while the totems are doing theirs. We’re sympathetic to warlocks and hunters being the two classes most affected by the removal of totem stomping, and we do think their respective representation is low, but we don’t think the way to buff them in Arenas is by letting them be ultimate totem stompers. On the other hand, a reason to just not hotfix in more health to totems is that that change would primarily nerf warlocks and hunters, who need nerfing the least in Arena at the moment.