Character Classes and Skills: Why They Suck
Posted by Ben Zeigler on March 13, 2008
“Classes vs. Skills” is a very old debate in the MMO and general RPG business. It gets trawled out every year or so (here’s a random slashdot post with a bunch of blog links from last year), and it’s always the same argument. I went to a GDC roundtable on the subject last year, and it boiled down to half the room really liking Everquest, and the other half really like Ultima Online. It was bizarre, anachronistic, and sorta worthless, which is why I’ve forgotten most of it. If you were there, I’m probably not specifically blaming you. Because there were a bunch of people there. And you’re probably a nice person.
The problem with the whole debate in my mind is that a Class-based system is a mishmash of unrelated concepts that is only unified due to historical reasons (D&D, mostly). Likewise, a Skill-based system always seems to imply a certain type of advancement as well as character customization, at least within the MMO field (I blame UO and Elder Scrolls). Why are the only choices for character differentiation these two random amalgamations (or more rarely some sort of vaguely linear hybrid between disparate concepts)? I blame MUDs for no particularly good reason.
So, what are the different components of a Character Class?
- Team Role: This is probably one of the most important ones. Are you a Tank? A Healer? A Mezzer? Knowing team role allows players to create Pick Up Groups in an efficient manner, and manage team tactics. I personally feel that it should always be easy to figure out a player’s preferred team role.
- Soloability: In general, classes are either optimized for soloing or for grouping. Good design can alleviate this, but some classes will always be better
- Combat Style: This refers to different ways of activating abilities, setting up combos, and the general micro-management of your character. Mages and Rogues both operate as damage-dealing classes in WoW, but have dramatically different play styles
- Non-Combat Abilities: For thematic reasons, rogues always open chests and steal things. Clerics decrease party down time. Warriors sit around and make racist jokes about kobolds.
- Advancement: Having a class always seems to imply discrete class levels and ability improvements that come in large chunks at arbitrary intervals.
- Character Theme: Paladins always save the innocent and aren’t allowed to make complicated moral decisions for fear of losing their combat abilities.
How does a Skill-based system mitigate the problem of grouping together these elements? It mostly makes them worse. Team role is lost completely, because there is no way to summarize team role and min-maxing for soloing often requires you to pick and choose only the “good” skills. Combat styles end up all being the same because when players are presented with overwhelming options, they just pick the easiest and most boring one (witness City of Heroes builds). Character advancement sucks because instead of being grouped into overly-large chunks, they’re delivered in overly-small chunks. Soloability sucks more because players are extremely tempted to fully optimize for groups or solo. Things aren’t tied together any more, but variety suffers because there are more but less interesting choices.
What I want out of a system is the ability to mix and match different discrete aspects of a character. I want 5-dimensional character development, instead of 2-dimensional (class + talent tree) or 25-dimensional (skills systems). CoH almost got there, but it was largely accidental and didn’t go far enough. “Defenders” had different team roles and play styles, but players still thought they were all healers because the archetype was too close to a traditional healer class.
I want a system where I pick my play style, my team role, and a set of out-of-combat skills. I want my character to be exactly as good at soloing as he is at grouping, and not feel like I’m gimped in either. I want to be able to quickly build a group of complementary team roles, and not worry about a player being gimped because they really wanted to use the psychic damage set. I want these to be organized into functional groups, so I can describe my character with fewer than 100 characters. I want my Raging Nuke (vs sustained damage) weapon-using guy who gets to agility-tank. I want a Melee Mage that has a Heal Other. Screw D&D and Ultima Online, lets make a system where every player makes fulfulling, interesting choices about their non-broken character.
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