The hunter conundrum

13th February 2010 – 3.51 pm

I enter the Halls of Lightning for my daily dose of heroism, only to find I have the archetypal idiot of a hunter in my randomly selected group. He starts attacking mobs too early, creates huge amounts of threat, and blames the tank when pulls go awry and loose mobs run everywhere. What elevates this hunter to the realms of classic archetype is that his solution to a self-created problem is switching specs to reduce his DPS, only because it allows him to boast of the huge DPS he gets in either spec as well as the amazing end-game gear he has accumulated, as if the rest of us mortals should be in awe. After spending so long as a tank myself, now that I am taking a back-seat to be a DPS fury warrior I see the hunter problem from a different perspective.

It's true that hunters in World of Warcraft have been mocked as annoyances since almost the beginning. Whether it's because levelling solo is made much easier with a pet, the failure to understand differences between solo and group dynamics that are exaggerated with a pet class, or being able to use almost all weapons and armour causes class-desirable loot being snatched away repeatedly. Hunters continue to be a class that is easy to play but hard to master. And hard not to end up being a prick too. But I notice another factor that contributes to the perception of hunter incompetence, one that hardly makes them blameless but sheds light on why it is the hunter class specifically that ends up looking worst.

In the Halls of Lightning, we have a paladin for a tank. He seems quite competent, yet the hunter still pulls mobs from him. From my position, I can clearly see why. The paladin makes the pull and before he even gets a swing in with his weapon the hunter has let loose a volley of shots from his bow, including an attack that hits multiple targets. The paladin works to keep the aggro of the mobs, but the primary target has dashed off to attack the hunter. Trying to get a stray mob back attacking you as a tank is not difficult in itself, but doing so whilst maintaining threat on the other mobs attacking can be. Initial problems are caused when the paladin tries to be the best tank he can, and are only resolved a few pulls later when he finally gives up on the mob attacking the hunter, which results in the hunter's DPS boasts and change of specs to accommodate our 'rubbish' tank. But it's clear to me that the hunter is attacking too soon and causing all the troubles unnecessarily. Why it is always a hunter causing this kind of problem intrigues me, and the tiny graphics of the hunter's shots is what causes me to ponder the question further.

When a tank starts a pull, there are a few ways it can be done. The tank can charge in to combat, use a ranged attack, or simply body-pull. Body-pulling is getting close enough to the mobs to provoke their attack, and charging in to combat is a minor modification to this. In a body-pull, all the party members need to be behind the tank, or end up pulling the mob themselves. Rogues and kitty druids are an exception, as they can move stealthily behind the mobs without being detected, but they won't attack before the tank. More importantly, it will be entirely obvious who causes the bad pull if someone body-pulls or a rogue or druid attacks before the tank, because the mobs will clearly be aiming for the character who causes the pull. Players don't want to be blamed for mistakes, so glaringly obvious mistakes tend to be avoided.

Using a ranged attack has the tank targeting one or more of the mobs with a direct attack, prompting their retaliation. A ranged attack is generally used to avoid additional and unwanted body-pulls. Instead of charging in to a busy area the tank pulls the mobs back to a safer place to fight. Again, no one should be in front of the tank, with the same exception as above, as accidental pulls are unwanted and obvious. Additionally, no one should attack the mobs before they reach the tank, or they risk gaining aggro and causing the pull to go awry. Melee classes can avoid this easily by remaining behind the tank until the mobs are in range, but ranged DPS classes need to show more awareness. And most of the ranged DPS classes do indeed show this awareness, but probably not solely because of a sense of group discipline.

Mages, warlocks, priests, druids, shaman, and hunters are the ranged DPS classes. Mages and warlocks have some powerful 'bolt' spells, but they have a casting time. Whilst it is possible to time a spellcast so that it, and the flight time of the spell, will only hit once the mob reaches the tank, doing so is completely obvious. A huge bolt of fire, ice, or shadow hitting the mob early makes blame easy to apportion for a bad pull. Warlocks and priests have some instant-cast spells to use, and although they are more subtle they add a still-obvious debuff to the target, and nominally the target the tank is concentrating on. Even the lower damage and threat caused by these spells may not prevent the tank from asking for it not to be cast quite so early, and he'll know which class is the culprit. Druids and shaman have similar issues with cast times and obvious spell effects. But hunters do not.

When hunters begin their automatic and repeating attack, the first arrow or bullet shoots from their weapon immediately, the weapon speed applying only to subsequent shots. Even then, the weapon speed applies only to auto-attacks, special attacks are on the global cool-down, one of which can be fired immediately and is normally an ability that hits multiple targets in order to preserve the hunter's inflated DPS. So as a ranged DPS class the hunter can remain behind the tank yet still attack with effectively no delay. Not only this, but the use of tiny projectiles as agents of damage, instead of large and colourful spell animations or obvious debuffs, gives the hunter's attacks significantly less visibility. In charging in to battle, with various of her own effects proccing, it can be easy to miss the odd pixel here and there as the hunter ruins yet another pull by shooting too early.

It is hopefully clear that hunters aren't entirely to blame for their antics. Melee classes make it blindingly obvious when they progress or attack before the tank, and spellcasters have bright animations to point the blame of early fire directly at them. And all of these classes have this early-warning system ingrained in to their character from the first levels. If you act early it will be obvious, and if something goes wrong you will thus be blamed. But hunters do not. Even when hunters are blamed, the lack of visual feedback in relation to other classes perhaps causes some cognitive dissonance, where the hunter sees all ranged classes 'acting' at the same time but not realising that only his attacks occur instantly. It seems credible to me that many of the issues of hunters causing bad pulls can be attributed to this schism between hunters and all other classes. Even so, hunters are far from being blameless.

Everyone has to learn their class, its strengths and weaknesses, how certain spells and abilities work by themselves and in combination with others. And although hunters may not have quite the same mechanics as melee characters or spellcasters, they should be able to work out how to be effective without being disruptive. After all, if spellcasters are able to time the casting and flight time of a spell so that it hits the mobs a split-second after reaching the tank, that level of class mechanic sophistication strongly suggests that hunters should also be able to time their attacks more appropriately.

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