As posted here, the talent trees will not just be overhauled, but the system they’ve been using for 6 years now will be changing quite a bit.
1) The trees are being “reverted” back to 31-point trees, approximating the number of points in each tree in the 2004 version of the game when the max level was 60
2) At level 10, you will choose a tree to place a point into, and then be locked into that tree until 31 points are placed, at which time you may put points in whatever tree you like
3) The masteries system Blizzard unveiled is still there, but you get all of the benefits of your tree from the beginning, rather than each talent point scaling up your mastery bonus
4) When you put your first point into the tree, you will receive access to an ability iconic to that tree
5) In preparation, each talent tree is being drastically slimmed down, with a lot of talents being removed entirely (Blizzard referred to the process as basically removing the boring and pointless talents)
6) Blizzard claims to be keeping each talent to a 3-point maximum, so there will be a mix of 1-, 2-, and 3-point talents
7) No longer will characters receive a talent point every level, in order to keep the maximum number of talent points at 41; instead, they hope to alternate talent points and new abilities from trainers with each level
One of the promised changes with Cataclysm was the talent tree overhauls. Every tree was to be thinned, with more “extra” points available so that people would be free to put points where they see fit. Instead of 58-60 mandatory points and 1-3 “slush” points for each build, they hoped to allow us builds with only 52 or so mandatories with greater freedom in slush points. They admitted that there were too many points that were boring and still talents that just about no one put any points in due to the limitations in which those points would yield positive results.
This is all good. What is the point in allowing choice when many, upon researching their builds at fansites, will wind up with nearly the same exact build as many others have chosen? It is tantamount to there being no talents at all, where you would choose your specialization and that was all the choice you received; all of the nitty-gritties of the build were then applied automatically. Essentially, who wants to put points into talents that will not allow you to perform as well as others, those who chose the “right” talents? The difference came down to knowing which talents were the right ones, and if you didn’t know then you were labelled a bad player. (That’s not to say that having the right talent build gives you all the tools you need to play well, but it certainly helps.)
The problem, if you want to call it that, is the community. The community numbers in the millions, with thousands of sites devoted to relaying news and offering forums for what has been colloquially referred to as “theorycrafting”…building up a knowledgebase, applying mathematics and testing various methods for doings the most damage, or surviving the most hits. It is from this theorycrafting that the “right” talent choices are formed, as testing these choices will provide the greatest throughput for your gaming experience. When downing bosses is serious business, you can’t afford to make the wrong choices.
Before the community really took hold of this concept, players found more freedom in choosing their talent builds. These choices were built largely upon what an individual player felt made them excel in a solo play environment; most of the content at what is called the “end game” (where you reach max level) is devoted to groups in dungeons, where most of the enemies your characters will fight are too difficult to take alone. That said, often, similar choices were made among players. Most chose the talents that granted them new abilities, but it was the talents that improved other abilities that had questionable efficiency. Deciding between hitting 100% harder with some attacks 25% of the time and hitting 5% harder with all attacks all the time is a little difficult at a glance. Obviously, it would be awesome to put points into both, but the number of talent points is not infinite, and there were a lot of talents like this, and still others with more questionable benefits. (Do I want to cast my spells faster (resulting in more damage over time) or do I want my character to run faster, getting out of the way of inevitable threats to continue doing damage without taking damage at the same time?)
When a larger portion of the playerbase reached the highest level, the end game dungeons garnered more attention. At the time there was very little else to do to further progress your character. The game’s developers had placed the max-level content in these dungeons, and to get through them you had to participate in groups. Certain boss encounters required a level of competency from everyone in the group; many players wanted to do better, in order to complete content faster or at least with less stress (no one likes running back into the dungeon from the graveyard after dying, and so blame would be meted out). And so, the process began…they started to talk, bringing ideas together through the internet. There weren’t many ways to test ideas at the time, but you could still reach some consensus with simple math.
At any rate, this spiraled into what we have today: people eventually concluded that certain talents were not worth taking and instead others were. We have nowadays those who make the right choices (by choosing the same things that everyone else does), or those who make the wrong choices (by choosing the talents they like or have served them well in some aspect in the past). Granted, there are some variations based on playstyle…players who participate heavily in the Player vs. Player content will take talents which provide greater survivability or utility at the expense of some damage or healing output, for instance. However, even those PvP builds will be set and copied by others; utility may be difficult to quantify, but people will still look to peers for advice, and you end up seeing the same builds in use by many, many players.
As an example of this in practice, check out wowpopular.com. This website queries the armory for the “best” players; it checks to see who’s completed the highest end-game content (or who has the highest Arena rating, for PvP) and makes a note of their build, tallies it, and then displays the most popular builds based on that data. You can go to this site, copy the talent choices, and be pretty sure that you’re running a solid build without knowing anything about it (this lends credence to the idea that a talent build is not the summation of a player’s ability, again, since you don’t even need to know what the buttons do…but that’s another argument).
Anyway, that’s a bit of a rambling background on the subject of talent builds: if you’re playing class A at the current max level of 80, despite having 71 talent points to spend, you really only have 3 choices for how to spend them. If you’re not using one of those, you’re “doing it wrong.” Next I’ll talk more about what Blizzard is trying to do to fix this situation and my thoughts on whether or not it will work.