With the increased focus on character customization in 9.0, we now have powerful tools for changing our characters' visual appearances both in their actual looks as well as the gear they wear. One area where we do not have strong customization is in the visuals of our abilities. This despite numerous attempts by Blizzard to allow for some customization, most notably with glyphs. I have been kicking around some ideas for how to solve this in a few ways, and felt like writing a followup to this thread.
First, a recap of what's already in the game.
Different effects based on race have been in the game since Vanilla. Druids, being one racial option per faction, made it a small development cost to make separate cat/druid/moonkin forms for tauren and night elves. In BC, this also included flight forms. Every druid race added since has had their own shapeshift forms, one of the signature aspects of the class.
In BC we also had racial aspects added to paladins and shaman. Paladins started seeing their mounts have different variants and for shaman, different totems. With the exception of lightforged draenei, every paladin race in 8.3 has their own mount and every shaman race has their own totem design.
The unique thing about druids, paladins, and shaman is these classes used to have very specific racial (or faction) identities, which justified their initial differences between races. Whereas common classes like hunter, warrior, death knight, and mage operate pretty much universally. A human mage is going to use the exact same spells as a blood elf mage. Note that in lore, almost all races tend to have unique identities/organizations for each class, but this usually manifests in the type of weaponry and gear they use.
The big notable except to all of this is the priest class. The priest class is a hugely race-based class because it's based on faith. In lore, priests worship or revere a wide variety of different gods, entities, or other concepts, but in-game this is boiled down to being either "light" or "shadow". And even different races have different ideas about these two aspects. One common point I see raised is why night elf priests use the same yellow light spells as those who worship the Holy Light. The obvious solution is to recolor holy spells for night elves to a silver, Elune-based theme.
(Also, the matter of undead holy priests, void elf holy priests, and lightforged shadow priests is a different matter altogether that probably can't be solved by cosmetics.)
Alternate themes for abilities
The most famous example of an entirely new theme for a class/spec is warlock green fire. It's basically a recolor of most visual effects produced by the warlock. We can also throw most glyphs into this category. And glyphs are kind of the core problem here.
History of glyphs
Glyphs were introduced with inscription with WOTLK as a kind of proto-trait system. Basically it was a layer of customization on top of the existing talent trees but entirely reliant on a profession. There were major glyphs (analogous to artifact/azerite traits) and minor glyphs (cosmetic changes or enhancements). In Cataclysm Prime glyphs were featured that were even more powerful traits.
In order for these glyphs to be used you had to buy them from a scribe that made them. To ensure a healthy demand for them they were one-time use. You had a
special UI to apply them. In addition to glyphs, scribes have also at various times had the ability to create staves, off-hands, trinkets, shoulder enchants, vantus runes, and other miscellaneous items.
As the expansions went on, glyphs became less relevant. In 5.0 Prime glyphs were removed, and their effects were made into major glyphs or folded directly into core abilities or talents. 6.0 introduced exclusive categories to help force choice between glyphs. Finally in Legion, with the introduction of Artifacts, major glyphs were no longer needed. Unfortunately, this also meant the Glyph UI was removed as well. It was no longer obvious that glyphs (in pure cosmetic form) were in the game, which impacted the inscription economy. (This was offset by the introduction of vantus runes and contracts.) Finally, not even all minor glyphs survived. Many were converted into purchasable consumables that "taught" you a new or alternate spell, and many glyph effects were removed from the game.
Note that adding and removing glyphs is a very strange process now. You have to buy/make a glyph, and use it by applying the item to a spell in your Spellbook UI. To remove an effect, you need Vanishing Powder which is then applied to the same spell.
It should be noted that in
9.0 datamining/alpha, no new glyphs have been added to inscription.
What is the possible solution?
There is another customization system in WoW that I believe has done a great job evolving over time and is now a really great experience: transmog. I think we can look to it as a guide as to how abilities can be customized. We can use it as inspiration for how to acquire these cosmetics as well has how to catalog and use them.
First, I propose that glyphs become an account-wide collection, much like transmog appearances, mounts, pets, toys, and heirlooms. I believe that these ability cosmetics should be "collected". I also believe they should be shared across all eligible characters on your account. Of course, this has immediate issues for the inscription profession, but considering how little the profession is intended to rely on glyphs now, I don't believe this to be an issue. We can also invent new methods for acquiring these "glyphs" which I will describe below.
By being an account-wide collection, we can also create a better user experience for using glyphs. I think a possible approach would be to have the glyphs tab in the Collections UI, and organized by class just like the heirloom tab. (We could also have an other tab to house effects like the alternate hearthstones.) For each class we could see two types of glyphs: a glyph that changes the theme of the class (like green fire), as well as a list of all abilities used by that class with dropdowns (or something) to select between different options for each ability. It would be a very complex library to browse through so I can definitely see some development and performance concerns here. However, it would make it super easy to learn, browse, and apply glyphs.
I want to list the different ways we could acquire these glyphs, and the issues with each method.
Inscription glyphs – we can continue to use the existing glyphs in game. A player can buy or make a glyph, and learn it by right-clicking (confirm prompt is recommended!). However these glyphs would no longer be one-time use, which means over time as more of the population learns the glyphs, demand will fall. Because glyphs are cheap to make, I do not see this working out long-term, but it also requires little effort to leave these glyphs alone.
World/instance drops – we can use the same method for acquiring transmog, pets, toys, and illusions. Illusions and pets were retroactively added to older raid content and must be farmed. There is no cost to the player besides time spent farming them. I think this is a great way to add back discontinued glyphs.
Quest rewards / achievements – this is where we can place more prestigious rewards like green fire. However, this has its own set of issues. When you make a reward tied to gameplay, that gameplay may become trivial to the player (like green fire, although not the limited-time achievement from MoP). Blizzard has tried to resolve this using limited time events like Challenge Mode or the Mage Tower, but this is ultimately a bad experience for players that never had an opportunities to participate in those events. There is also the option of the reward being tied to something where your character's power is irrelevant. An example of this is the Singing Sunflower pet rewarded for playing the plants vs zombies minigame.
Cash shop – potentially the most controversial option, but also the most feasible. In my option, I think the cash shop is extremely weak. It's fine for a game that largely relies on a subscription fee, but if WoW didn't have one, there would be a lot of potential for cosmetics purchases besides mounts and pets, including more transmog and toys, and premium glyphs. In any case, if "premium glyphs" were sold on the cash shop, they would have to follow some rules. Because items on the cash shop are "eternal" and don't rely on skill to achieve, they should have the kind of slight outlandishness that the store mounts have. We would not want, for example, a glyph changing all night elf holy spells to silver to be sold on the cash shop. We would want something that important to lore to be achieved in-game, much like heritage armor questlines.
I have one final note I want to make about these proposals. Up to now, the cosmetic changes made by glyphs, and even green fire, do not substantially change the appear of spells. You will still recognize a Chaos Bolt in raid or PVP regardless of the color. You will still recognize Thunder Clap or Charge whether there is visible lightning/fire or not. Blizzard does have a responsibility to make sure friendly and enemy abilities are still recognizable. So that may limit what they can do with a greatly expanded glyph system.
TLDR we can overhaul glyphs by turning them into a collection like other cosmetics, greatly expanding what Blizzard can do for adding cosmetic options to spells and abilities in the game.
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