This post is in response to Blizzard's press release about their next expansion which includes the first (and only) hero class, the infamous Death Knight. While many are excited to see Blizzard finally getting around to implementing something that has been hinted at since launch, I find their design idea for heroes pretty, damn, lame.
Note: This is not a full-fledged design idea, nor is it balanced or even fully thought out. It is simply meant to provide a sample of an alternate method for implementing Hero Classes that I think would be a lot more fun and interesting than what Blizzard proposes.
Anytime after level 60, players are given the option to take on the hero class quest. The initial phase will be relatively simple, though before they complete it, players would be given a warning stating that completing the quest will permanently change their character class, after which they can never change their mind or go back.
After accepting their new class, the player would lose certain abilities and talents of their base class, but would get access to the Death Knight specific abilities as well as some from the other allowed base for the Hero class. For example, Paladin-base Death Knights might be able to learn how to cast Shadowbolt while Warlock-base Death Knights might get to use maces, two-handed swords and shields.
The hero classes would have restrictions based on race and class. For the Death Knight example, it would be limited to Horde-only, Paladin or Warlock.
This system would be a bit similar to how Shadowbane handled classes. By having two different options for a base class, you give extra variety and personalization to the Hero classes rather than just making them all similar. Also, in order to cover all the race and class combos while still providing a choice, some lore-bending would be required (but hey, if you're allowing Tauren Death Knights, then a little lore-bending shouldn't be too hard).
Perhaps Paladins would lose all of their shield and blessing spells while having their Holy talent tree removed, and Warlocks would lose their pets and the Demonology tree (just an example off the top of my head. I'm not overly familiar with Paladins or Warlocks).
Though I'm not completely sold on the functionality of this concept, I really like the idea that all the Death Knight specific spells and abilities would be acquired by completing various steps of a super-epic quest line rather than simply going to a trainer. The quest line would have a number of parallel branches that can be completed in any order, allowing players to choose which abilities they are most interested in learning and focusing on those first.
In addition to making the hero class interesting and diverse, this method would also allow those who have neither the time, energy and/or inclination to deal with the hero quests, to still have their own niche. Death Knights will have a lot in common with their base classes, but they won't be replacing their base classes. A level 60+ Paladin will still have lots of abilities and options that a Death Knight wouldn't.
Each race/class combo should have two options for Hero class progression, though obviously, there would be a lot of overlap (ie, options aren't unique to a particular combo). Those who choose not to follow the Hero path can still explore their possibilities of their class while having access to abilities and talents that no other class has.
Hero classes shouldn't just be flat-out more powerful via more hit points or more powerful spells, but rather should provide increased and varied options for those who want to experience something different without starting from scratch. And of course, those who do devote their time to playing the hero classes will likely find certain combinations of powers whose synergy gives them an advantage, but with proper design and tweaking, those scenarios should never be completely overpowering.
So there you have it. That's my basic idea for how to handle hero classes in WoW. Making the heroes just an extra unlockable class that you only have to partly grind seems very blase and unimaginative. Though the downside of my concept is that it would require lots of design and additional tweaking and balancing after release. But hey, they're going to be doing all of that anyway...