Should a class or spec be balanced based on its actual power, or based on its perceived power? In other words, if a spec actually does a good job of helping complete successful runs when played correctly, but the common perception is that the spec is underpowered and thus members of the spec have a hard time getting group invites, should the spec be upped in power? Assume for the sake of this post that the people in charge of balance issues have access to relevant information and know more about design fundamentals than Joe WoW Player. This is not a “Ret is Fine, QQ more” post. It’s an examination of how balancing should be done, and all of the examples are merely hypotheticals. (In fact, I actively believe many of them to be false.)
Consider the following examples. I’ll be using the paladin retribution spec, often seen as a spec with no end-game role in PvP or group PvE, as an example. All of the following are hypotheticals; I do not necessarily believe that any of them is the case. You could replace ‘ret paladin’ with any other stigmatized spec. I just chose them because I’m more familiar with paladin abilities than with, say, enhancement shaman abilities.
Suppose that ret spec is fine, but that the spec tends to attract players who are less skilled at the game, and thus ret paladins appear to be less effective. In the hands of the comparatively rare skilled ret paladin player, a ret pally actually is an effective group member, but that those players are rare. Should ret tree be buffed?
Suppose that it’s possible to contribute a lot to a group as a ret pally, but most ret paladins are doing it wrong. Maybe most ret paladins are busy trying to top the DPS charts, when the most effective way to contribute is to DPS while also cleansing and making judicious use of blessings of freedom and protection and righteous defense. As a result, ret paladins seem ineffective. Should the ret tree be buffed?
Suppose that a ret paladin’s DPS is supposed to be spread out over the entire group sort of by proxy; most of his DPS comes from him hitting, but some of it comes from the additional damage others do thanks to his buffs. However, this doesn’t show up in damage meters as the ret pally doing tons of damage, so ret pallies seem ineffective. Should ret be buffed?
Suppose that ret paladins contribute a fair amount, but are still avoided due to old stigmas about the class. Old habits die hard. Should the retribution tree be made better?
Suppose that ret works reasonably well in arenas, but holy works just a bit better, so anyone really serious about arena PvP as a pally specs holy for it. As a result, ret isn’t represented in the top arena teams. Should ret’s PvP viability go up?
In all these hypothetical cases, the retribution tree is actually a viable tree, but for reasons unrelated to its actual power, it’s considered a bad spec. This is a problem for players who want to play a retribution paladin, as they will have a hard time getting into groups and may feel pressured by their guild to re-spec. The natural thing to do is to call for fixes to the tree. However, the tree isn’t broken; that’s just the public perception. Still, it’s causing players who want to play the spec problems right here, right now.
I'm torn, myself; on one hand, it'd be cool if all (normal) specs were seen as somewhat viable end-game, but the idea of introducing actual imbalance to combat perceived imbalance is rather distasteful.