Ionomonkey of Screaming Monkeys had an interesting tidbit on the subject of choice in video games, and WoW specifically - as a reply to a post by Gordon of We Fly Spitfires. The discussion basically boils down to whether there ever is such a thing as a real choice in games like Wow or if there always ever will be "the best choice" which everyone end up taking. And what would a good choice look like? Ionomonkey means that as soon as choices that affect our playstyle are given to us, there will be a bunch of people who end finding out whichever is the best one and go for that regardless. And since this is going to happen either way, we might as well have big talent trees instead of small ones. And lets face it, even though in WoW most classes, if not all, at least have a handful of talents that really are up to choice - most people play with a cookie cutter spec whether they're endgame raiding or not. And the talents that are up to choice usually don't matter enough overall to make much difference anyway, which is another problem and exactly what Ionomonkey is getting at. It is the easy way to give players a choice - by handing out talents that don't matter enough. I wouldn't want that either.
I totally agree with the general idea that whenever choice is given to a bunch of people, there will be some (maybe even a majority) that will all use the best one, but would like to add some thoughts to the matter.
Most importantly, even if there will be a best spec, what one really has to look at is to what extent that spec dominates over your choices. If you have 30 points to put out and 10 of those are things you just have to get in order to do your job properly, that still means the majority of the spec really is up to real choice. How much of the spec has to be "must haves" for it to stop counting as real choice? And even if there is a best-besterest choice, to what extent are people forced to actually go for it? In WoW it has tended to be "very much" at least if you're into progress raiding. Even outside of the really serious business raiding, people will laugh at you for trying dual wield arms or twohanded enhancement. It's a discussion I've been into before. But maybe that is another issue? The fact that people care too much about things that don't actually matter. I know that it has actually put people off the game entirely, knowing that if they wanted to play they would have to do it "properly" and that there isn't much room for fooling around and just do it your way. It's a difficult balance because I am all for letting people try weird things, but on the other hand I don't want that to go out over my instancing/raiding experience. If I wipe because someone thought it would be fun to do 3k dps as a melee hunter, I will be annoyed - obviously. But as long as we get the job done I really don't care much. And I think that might be the key that people are missing - what is good enough? And is good enough really good enough or do we need people to be as good as they possibly could be?
I'd like to think that the different roles in WoW that we currently have - dps, tank, heal - face this problem to a varying degree. If you'd bare with me here shortly, I will try to explain. I'd like to think that as a healer there usually is a lot of choice presented to us, maybe as much as there can be, whereas dpsers are more locked. I've tried to figure out why this is, and it hasn't been all easy. In essence we all strive to succeed with the same thing - get the bad guy down and get the loots. The dpser makes sure the guy dies, the tank and healers make sure the rest of the raid lives long enough to make that happen. Maybe the solution lies in the target. The tank and the dpsers both have the mob as the target, although in different ways (giving vs receiving damage) whereas healers have the other players as targets. Why does this matter?
Regardless of role, we all have certain limits to reach up to. As a dps you're supposed to deal enough damage fast enough to make sure the bad guy dies before your healers and tanks expire. As a tank you need to be able to take enough damage under any time limit set up by your dps output to make sure you don't die before the bad guy does. As a healer you need to be able to dish out enough health during any time limit set up by your dps to make sure you don't die before the bad guy does. These might seem similar, but they're quite different.
The upper limit that you have to hit before you're overpowering the target enough for your choices to matter less is very high as a dps. Usually this only happens when you switch from one expansion back to an older one. The barr is slightly lower as a tank, but still high enough to not be easily reached within current content. Except for some freak exceptions, there has yet to be a tank that has been able to go through a raid fight of current content without being geared and specced in pretty much the exact way they have the last 6 years (the avoidance rogue tanks of BC come to mind). Basically, a dps should be able to dish out as much damage as possible, a tank should be able to take as little damage as possible, while a healer only really has to heal enough.
This doesn't mean I don't think healers should be able to have as high throughput as possible, just that being "good enough" or maybe rather "gets the job done" is a limit that is far more easily obtained as a healer than it is for a dps or a tank. And also something that is way more accepted than for dps and tanks. Although at the start of new content you usually have to be as tweaked as any other role, already halfway through FL could I start experimenting with stats and specs to see what I preferred, throwing out spirit as I went and try mastery, crit or haste if I liked. You can always deal a little more damage or take a little less damage, but keeping people topped on health is a limit we healers usually reach within current content. This allows us healers to play around a lot more with specs and stats than I think other roles can.
Let me take discipline priests as an example. Whether you want to use Atonement or not is really the perfect example of a good choice if you ask me. Setting aside the fact that I'm personally no fan of Atonement, and that I think there are things about it that could work better, I still can't think of a better example of a talent that radically changes your healing style all the while it doesn't actually matter if you choose to use it or not. If you're a great healer, you'll be it with or without Atonement. There are only one or two fights where Atonement is considered a deal breaker (like Halfus), and of course a couple of fights where it doesn't work at all due to some mechanics (something I think they're going to change, hopefully), but overall it's one of those talents that really makes you choose - you'll end up being a Smite-healing priest or not. This is not to be mistaken with the abovementioned example of choices that don't matter. It is true that it doesn't really matter whether you use Atonement healing or not, but it will have a huge impact on your healing style. That is exactly the way choices should work, if you ask me.
And as mentioned, the debate on which stats to use as a discipline still rages on - if you go with haste or mastery really doesn't matter, it depends on your heal style. I even know of disc priests who advocate a crit heavy spec. I'm not saying that either of these isn't the better choice if you really sat down with some sims, just that you can actually really get the job done with either and that "getting the job done" is good enough when you're a healer. I wish it was for any role. What other role can say that it depends? Dpsers have the choice of focusing on aoe vs point dps at best (not counting weird specs to accommodate some certain fight mechanic) and tanks between avoidance (physical damage) and mitigation/stamina (magic damage).
But what would the solution be? I really don't think it would be a good idea to make content easy enough for tweaking to matter less, some of the very challenge of dpsing and tanking usually is to do as much as possible of it. Some might even say this isn't even really an issue at all - people who go for dpsing aim to tweak, not to have choices. Maybe the very reason people like to play a dps class is because they want to find that cookie cutter spec, not because they want to fool around with stats and specs. The thing is though, right now people barely even have a choice within a class. If you play a warrior you do have a choice between dual wielding or two handed in theory, but in practice one of them will be considered superior and if you're in serious raiding that will be the only choice. So not only is the spec already cut out for you, the very choice of which spec to go for in the first place is already made for you. It gets even worse for tanks. There usually isn't any choice between whether you want to be a mitigation tank or an avoidance tank, usually the current content dictates the rules. Wouldn't it be awesome if you could have two people playing the very same thing, just differently, and still be equally good? Think along the lines of how dks were originally designed - being able to tank about as good in any of the three specs. This is possible for discipline priests at the moment, but unfortunately that seems to be the only class and spec where Blizzard have succeeded with a real choice - please correct me if I am wrong!
You could add fight mechanics that require you to have players spec differently, but that is usually too fight specific to last very long and only ends up with people having to spec back and forth, something they usually don't enjoy. This is usually what happens when people have to choose between an aoe or point focused spec.
Would it really be so difficult to design a type of mechanic that, similar to Atonement, will do the same thing but in a different way? Or to really succeed in making all three specs of pures be equally viable? And as mentioned, are we really interested in that? Maybe we want choice because we want to be able to do things a little better than someone else, but how do we then prevent people from always making that choice? Maybe the only choices we can be handed are "same same but different" and not really "good or bad", and if that is the case - will people be bothered? I think so, I am really happy about the choice to be able to use Atonement if I feel like it, and equally happy that I don't have to if I don't feel like it. Because right now I don't think that Blizzard has even succeeded with letting us choose properly between specs, even less between talents within a spec.