In a game like World of Warcraft, class balancing is never done. Over the years, Blizzard Entertainment has tried many different ways in order to make each class feel unique, while also being useful in most of the game's content. At one point, each class and specialization had their own niche, like Discipline Priests supporting the group through absorption, or Protection Paladins being the area-of-effect tank. That went away in favor of a model where every spec was useful and raid viable.
"One area we're trying to focus on across all classes is to better emphasize what makes each class unique and provide greater distinction among their various capabilities, especially when it comes to utility-tools that fall outside of core role functions like damage, healing, or mitigation," says Blizzard. "Part of what makes you feel excitement and pride in your class is pulling off a heroic moment and feeling the appreciation of your group when individually contributing to a shared success. That feeling is eroded when so many classes bring similar abilities, and you feel you're rarely providing something distinctive. More differentiation in this area will create situations where another class can do something that you can't, but you will similarly bring tools to the table that your allies lack."
If Battle for Azeroth is a general return to the classic conflict between the Alliance and the Horde, this represents a return to an older way of thinking about class design. A potential shift back to strict raid composition, when Holy Paladins healed the tank and Restoration Shaman healed the raid. You needed at least one Shaman for that Bloodlust. Retribution Paladins were your burst damage.
Blizzard first tried to dispense with this idea way back in Wrath of the Lich King, with the famous "Bring the player, not the class" motto. Since that expansion, we've jumped back-and-forth between wholly unique class utility and trying to spread that utility out a bit. In order to make this change for Battle for Azeroth, Blizzard is looking to add some new abilities or cut those abilities that currently feel ubiquitous in the game.
"As a notable example, Area of Effect (AoE) stuns, some of most powerful utility that exists, are so abundant that most groups have at least one or two. As a result, decision-making around that tool is often less about when it would be best used, and more about avoiding overlap with other AoE stuns. Not only does this sometimes drown out the importance of other crowd control in dungeons, but it means that a class bringing an AoE stun to a group is not the major strategy-defining asset that it should be. Our goal is that whatever powerful kind of utility a class brings, it's something that group will be happy to have added to their toolbox as they approach a challenge," says Blizzard.
The developer also wants to make sure that players all have "an opportunity to shine", regardless of role.
"Some DPS specializations are "bursty," doing fast damage; some live for attrition, wearing away their target. Some specializations prefer to isolate and drill into a single threat, while others revel in blowing up huge packs of monsters," adds Blizzard. "Much of this plays out naturally due to the varying sets of damaging abilities, but we are working more intently than in the past to ensure an appropriate variety and spread of DPS strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, healers and tanks should have a bit more identity through their unique healing and mitigation profiles."
Old guild leaders or players of formerly off-spec classes are potentially having nightmares at this moment. Blizzard promises that it's going to create a world where "quests, dungeons, and raids create opportunities for all different types of class strengths to shine," but to some that sounds like a world where you need a Shadow Priest for this fight or a Balance Druid for that one.
Blizzard also outlined upcoming talent changes and the loss of Artifact Weapons in Battle for Azeroth. They want to provide talent choices that have a consistent role, but "very different delivery and mechanics", instead of having one go-to talent per tier or a set of talents you change depending on what content you're running. The dev team is looking at Artifact Weapon traits and attempting to determine which ones might transfer over to talent trees in Battle for Azeroth.
"We welcome a community discussion on the principles we've outlined, and look forward to delving into detailed and specific changes as we move forward with our alpha testing in the near future," says the team.