Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Race Girls

Another non-Tanking related post...hopefully that's okay...

What goes into the selection of a character, their race and gender, their class and appearance? Like anything, I feel this is intensely personal. Regardless of why you picked what you did, your selection says something about you, even if it isn't what you or others might think.

Some decisions are highly interdependent such as the fact that there are certain classes for each faction that only have one available race. Perhaps conversely, your class was selected after you picked your race and you just picked what looked fun from the available choices.

Despite the severely limited character design options of World of Warcraft, each player still has a lot of things to consider when selecting what to play. What role, what faction, what sort of gameplay does one enjoy?

One thing that crops up again and again, independent of the other decisions above which are widely viewed as legitimate design choices, is the furor over cross-gender characters. Without getting into the virtues and oft-claimed vices of such a choice, I do wonder why we do these things.

According to Warcraft Realms census page, the most popular races are also arguably the most humanocentric ones with Humans, Night Elves, Blood Elves, and Undead topping the charts as the races with double digit percentages of the character population from 10-70 across all servers.

A number of reasons could be in play here and likely are. I'm no socio-cultural anthropologist nor am I sure that's really what you'd need to be to make educated assumptions on this topic, but there are a few reasons that jump out at me, the layperson.

Remember that the bulk of this comes from completely unscientific anecdotal evidence, conjecture, and other spurious points of origin.

Perhaps the most important thing that occurs to me is a certain level of identity. I assume that the popularity of the more humanocentric races is a direct result of identity psychology. Most people identify well with these sorts of characters, making it easier to invest in them and their success.

But the level of literal identification with a race is highly subjective as elves and zombies aren't exactly like anything extant in the world we inhabit offline, at least not in the forms presented. Additionally, the male humans are ridiculously muscular even when casters and the females have some odd shapes themselves. So while one can identify more readily with one of these 4 most popular races, there is still a high degree of separation from what we know.

Concessions are made for the fantasy. Beautiful, muscular, artful characters that are both more and less than we are become the front for our interaction in the lands of Azeroth, providing a certain level of anthropomorphism that make the characters both alien and accessible, appealing and inoffensive.

But some of the same logic can be applied to the highly inhuman races (if any such actually exist in the game...which is arguable). While the level of popularity of the familiar speaks to the desire to identify, those that select the inhuman could be said to be looking for a degree of separation.

Tusked elven neanderthals, ridiculously diminutive gnomes, bovine tribes and hooved aliens all provide a degree of distance that makes it easy to view the character as separate from the player. Without assuming that the players of humans and elves are looking to play themselves (though some claim they are), those that select these other less-human races seem to be looking to up the fantasy quotient of their game, to find something truly different to immerse themselves in.

Inevitably, we come to the selection of gender. Highly controversial is the decision to pick a gender that isn't your own.

Like race, the selection of gender reflects a degree of identification, though the motivating factors are somewhat different.

I won't touch on others' decisions, but discuss my own.

My main character is a Female Night Elf Druid.

My friends were and are primarily Alliance players. As such, when I went to make my Druid, my selection was restricted to Night Elves. I'm not averse to them however, and at the time humans were my preferred Alliance race. From this, I think I wanted somethign relatively close to home, something I could identify with.

So while I had no choice in the selection of my character's race, I was prone to such a selection anyway due to my desire to have a degree of familiarity present in the character.

But when I went to pick the gender of my character, I unthinkingly selected a female. As most of my readers have surmised, I'm male. My primary character (and most of the others I play, for that matter) is female.

Why did I do that? Is it because I want to be a girl? Am I homosexual as so many detractors would claim? Am I a pervert, an extortionist, sexually repressed? Well, none of the above (okay, I might be a bit of a pervert ;P ).

I don't think it's any of the above, but I'll leave it to you to decide what you think for yourself.

First, though, I think I wanted some distance. Night Elves are, despite being elves, still largely human in appearance. Certainly they have many alien characteristics that set them apart, and in fact I'd argue that they're really no less alien than say a Troll or Orc, but they have strong appeal to people that want an attractive human-like character. Because they're still largely human-like, the most distance I could get was to make the character female.

It helped that I found the male Night Elf to border on ridiculously stupid-looking, but lets face it, the females have their own proportion issues and sometimes I think they look like really tall monkeys. Still, clicking female was remarkably easy.

But I don't identify myself with my character. I don't look at her and think, "Me." Okay, maybe a little, but by making her female I could more easily be different from my character whereas a male one might have run a tad too close to being "Me" in digital form.

Playing a female doesn't feel weird to me but neither does it feel overtly distant. She's me, but she isn't remotely me. That doesn't make any sense, but I can't articulate it any better than I am. There are parts of her that ring in strong identification and parts of her that are very alien and definitively not like me.

Finally, there's the part that might scuttle my claims of feminist sympathies: I care about her more than I care about my male characters.

My male characters are almost wholly disposable. I don't give two rats' toes what happens to them. It's a game and nothing permanent really happens to any of them beyond deletion, but I don't know how else to describe it.

The female characters, Currant in particular, are like little digital friends (no, not THAT kind, fellow pervert!). Does that make me a freak? Maybe. Okay. Regardless, I want to take care of them, make them better, and do things that people say girls can't do with them.

See, whenever I make a face-hitter, I think it'd be cool for it to be female because in our world, that sort of thing is uncommon and in many cases frowned upon. I like strong women. I like capable independent women and this satisfies that predilection. I like it when women do things people say they can't or shouldn't do. Female warriors are a thing with me, I suppose.

I married a proverbial tomboy, in point of fact.

On the other hand, I can't bring myself to make a super-testosterone-laden male into a caster, so they end up female, too. It snaps my disbelief suspenders for some irrational reason to think of men built like the humans and elves and orcs of Warcraft being magical bookworms. They're more like magical beefcakes with faces that have been smashed in by a panful of fried steroids. I don't mind other people playing them but I can't bring myself to do it.

That said, I'm really enjoying a Troll Rogue and Undead Priest right now, both male. Is it the separation of race, the distance in identity that makes it possible? I'm not positive, but I find the thought intriguing. Perhaps making them male makes them just accessible enough to play an alien race, much as making an elf or human character female provides just the right amount of separation for me.

I recognize the cultural impact on my view of gender and how it's influencing what I play and I'm not making any excuses. I like strong women. I'm a bit nervous throwing my personal process out here like this, but I'm curious about this, about how each of us decide what to play from those who just click random everything and go, to those that agonize over every detail; from those who want something completely apart from themselves to those who are looking for a virtual version of themselves to turn into a fantasy hero...and everything in between.

So even if you play a human of the same gender as yourself, or an idealized elf of your gender, think about why you really made that decision and what it says about you, to you. Don't concern yourself with what other people think, consider how your sense of identity factors into the characters you play. You might surprise yourself.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Hybrid

So there's an interesting forum discussion right now. While there's a bit of snarkiness from some posters, it is a generally insightful thread. Check it out here.

Come back when you're done.

One of the most interesting things brought up, one that comes up time and again is the role and meaning of a hybrid class.

In and of itself, the term is very very vague, and most attempts to define it in terms of the game either end up excluding one of the traditionally regarded hybrid classes (the Shaman) or including a traditionally regarded specialist class (the Priest or Warrior).

Traditionally, the hybrid classes are the Druid, the Paladin, and the Shaman. The distinction, as we'll see, is largely arbitrary.

So just how do we define a Hybrid class? Technically a hybrid is a composite, typically an amalgamation of two disparate things. But such a definition is easily applied outside the traditional hybrid classes.

If we assume a hybrid is capable of filling multiple roles, the definition immediately breaks down. Warriors are DPS and tanks; Priests are DPS and healers.

Let's try another one. A hybrid class could be considered a class that combines elements of two others. After all, a Shaman is a face-hitter like a Rogue or Warrior but can also cast spells. Well, Warlocks are a similar combination of a spellcaster and a pet class. Priests do ranged magical damage like a Mage and Warlock, but are also outstanding healers.

Depending on how far down you drill, even a Shaman only has damage and healing specs available, just like a Priest...unless you make a further arbitrary division between ranged and melee dps...but Enhancement has some range...so we're further muddying things.

Okay, so...is it a class with a healing button that can wear something more than cloth? That seems to be the only real delineator, but it's still incredibly arbitrary.

Regardless, we'll run with the fiction that Druids, Paladins and Shaman are hybrids, but quite frankly, it's become a term used to marginalize classes that heal but don't bear the title 'Priest.'

But the three classes are not comparable in any honest sense.

Shaman have two broad-scope specs: Damage and healing. Within this, they have two damage specs, one melee and one spelldamage.

Paladins have three broad-scope specs: Damage, healing, and tanking. Some Paladins have even gone so far as to create a secondary damage spec that is very similar to the Class' healing spec.

Druids also have three broad-scope specs identical to those of the Paladin, but when drilled down as far as done with the Shaman to get 3 distinct specs, we get 4 for the Druid. It is at the Druid that things get interesting, too.

Whereas the Paladin and Shaman spec for specialization and gear for the same, never do they lose access to baseline class abilities. A dpsing Paladin does not lose access to her heal buttons nor does a Shaman lose theirs. A Druid, however, can lose up to 3/4 of their class abilities with a simple change of form.

Let's back up just a bit. It is often said that these three classes should never perform as well as a 'parent' class because of the breadth of capability they possess. In practice this was found to be un-viable. A character doing 66%-70% of what a specialist class does won't be included in groups except as a gimmick or because of social networking. Their raw output in a given role was therefore boosted to more equal performance through talent and gear changes.

The resulting cries to nerf them because they can also heal failed to account for the fact that none of the three classes in question possess the same range of capability within the role they choose to specialize in. While a Shaman dps machine can put out amazing damage they trade poisons, status effects, stealth and more for their healing and damage spells. While a Druid might have access to stealth and a gouge-like ability, they get healing rather than Vanish, and a rez instead of a blind. The list is endless and it appears, endlessly debatable. Still, these classes are no more powerful than any other, just more broadly capable, even when specialized.

So back to the Druid losing access.

In spite of a Retribution or Protection Paladin's healing being abysmal in gear for their role, and in spite of an Enhancement Shaman having terrible mana efficiency and so on, these two classes never lose access to their breadth of capability.

When I Paladin, I can often find times to use abilities that are not for the role I'm performing. When I dps in particular, it's easy to toss off an emergency heal without breaking stride. There are issues with any and all of this behavior, to be sure, but it's all still there and highly desirable in certain circumstances.

The Druid, on the other hand, sacrifices much to do what they do.

When in Cat they have no spellcasting, no tanking, no healing; when in Bear they have no spellcasting, no dps, and no healing; Moonkin give up healing and tanking; healers give up all feral abilities but keep their ranged damage; Tree Druids give up not only ranged damage and all feral ability, but some key support abilities (though this last is slowly changing).

Shifting in and out of forms is our only option to get at abilities that are often further diminished (at least for Ferals) by the cost of shifting itself, both in terms of mana, rage or energy, and in terms of time lost.

Add in the Paladin and Shaman gearing for role issues and suddenly you see that the Druid actually has very little in common with either. Less, at any rate, than is commonly ascribed to them.

Druids, through these mechanics and the vast breadth of role they can assume (never forget that they have two baseline healing specs that require very different gearing schemes...arguably adding a 5th functional element), are often thought of by their community as a collection of discrete classes under the umbrella of a single title. Granted this is somewhat disingenuous as the same character IS technically capable of doing it all without releveling, but the factor of re-leveling is really ALL that is taken out of the equation.

So this link above, like so many other Druid-centric observations, stems directly from the uniqueness of Druid class realities and the fact that we are often more like the specialist classes we ape than we are like the Paladin and Shaman with whom we are commonly grouped.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

My Girl

Okay, I've been a total slacker again and it's not really worthwhile to come to a site that never gets updated, so here goes:

I'm going to introduce you to my girl. Currant, Solid Bear of Elune.

As the story goes, I first played World of Warcraft on a 10-day trial where I made - wait for it - a Night Elf Hunter. I played for a bit, but went back to Guild Wars when it was all over and figured it wasn't really for me.

A couple months later, a friend convinced me to play and talked me into trying a Paladin. I deleted the Hunter on the trial account and made a Paladin. Paladins are a lot of fun, don't get me wrong (I've since taken this character to 70 and geared her okay), but when I got to 60, I couldn't do what I had thought I'd be doing. I envisioned the character as a tank but couldn't tank. People didn't want me to heal so much as not take loot from other more valuable classes, and my damage stunk.

I was pretty disillutioned, so I turned to the character I'd made to be my healer, my Druid. I started leveling and quickly realized (pre 1.8, mind) that Feral was my best leveling option. It helped a lot that I was able to heal just with a switch of gear for everything up through Sunken Temple. Beyond that it got a little dicey, but by then, I'd found my calling.

The very act of leveling had shown me a glimpse of the power of Dire Bear form, and suddenly I realized I was playing the very tank I'd wanted. I launched into a search for all the high armor, high stamina gear I could find, and by the time I was 60, was widely known in my guild as the little Druid that wanted to tank. I wanted to tank so badly I spent a LONG time at 60 wearing Warbear gear, scrabbling for whatever gear upgrades I could snatch from the fingers of Rogues, leather-wearing Hunters, and other Druids.

I transferred servers, from Icecrown (where my Druid was named Starsong) to Scarlet Crusade (where trying to get the name Raspberry ended up with Currant as an alternative, a name I'm actually enamored of now) in order to play with some friends who'd been Horde for a while, and some other friends who'd been there all along.

In pickup raids on Onyxia and a Green Dragon, I got my first epics. The Stormrage Cover and a Feral Attack one-hander, one of only 4 such items in the game. These things were huge for me. Huge enough that I tanked in my Stormrage for a long time, and that I went back to Duskwood to find that 50 armor offhand to use when tanking. Gradually, slowly, I managed to build a better and better set (though never did I find upgrades to my Warbear gear - leading to names like 'Bare Tank' and 'Jungle Girl'). I tanked BRD, ST, LBRS, and others for my friends who'd have me while I put on my dress and healed in every raid with the single exception of the Jin'Do encounter, which I got to tank fairly regularly.

My guild was VERY understanding and supportive in spite of the difficulties of a Druid wanting to do something the game didn't support well at the time. My friends were encouraging and when word came of Burning Crusade and its changes to Ferals, I could barely contain my excitement.

I leveled as a tank, geared as a tank, and now I raid as a tank. An offtank to be sure, but a tank nonetheless. I can main tank everything I have access to, and I'm a fairly content bear.

So here I am at the end game. I tank, but my schedule is REALLY bad for raiding, so I do heroics when I can and lately, I've been gearing my Paladin and leveling a Hunter. But it hit me that I always come back to the Druid and how much I love that silly character. I love her enough that she's the only character for whom I have a vanity outfit.


I realized I wanted to feel like I'd actually gotten somewhere with her before Wrath launches, so I'm back to gearing her weak spots and making sure I'm around to help with my guild's general need of tanks and occasional dps for a raid.

Anyway, that's a brief, mind-numbingly boring introduction to my Druid. I'm visual so here you have some pics stripped from the Model Viewer (I'm at work and didn't have any screenies handy, but these are accurate). I like the light blue skin she has and the facial tats are my favorites. I'm still not sure why I went with white hair - sometimes I think of her as some sort of albino elf - but I suppose that Wrath will have a solution for that. We'll see. As it stands, I like contrast and that's why her vanity outfit is all black...ish. So yeah...her hair...needs something maybe.

Now for the shocker: Currant is considering a respec to Resto just to give it a whirl since she hasn't been Resto since 54 after a 2 level experiment with a Balance-Restoration healing build.

I'll try to keep you updated.