Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

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?

  1. 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.
  2. Soloability: In general, classes are either optimized for soloing or for grouping. Good design can alleviate this, but some classes will always be better
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. Advancement: Having a class always seems to imply discrete class levels and ability improvements that come in large chunks at arbitrary intervals.
  6. 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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5 Responses to “Character Classes and Skills: Why They Suck”

  1. Drew said

    I like your breakdown of the different aspects of classes.

    One quick addendum – if you haven’t recently taken a look at Eve, it’s definitely worth spending a few weeks with it. It has some of the most interesting design decisions I’ve seen in an MMO. It suffers in the marketplace for it because it creates a game that isn’t that broadly accessible, but it’s a fascinating look at how an MMO need not look like Everquest or UO.

    The skill system in particular mitigates some of the issues you seem to have with most skill systems. Team roles are focused by ship choice – even if you have every skill, what you can do with those skills is strongly limited by the ship you’re currently flying. Each ship has a handful of normal roles that it can play, and in a team situation you tell everyone what variety you’ve set your ship up for. The non-combat systems in the game are deep enough that there are plenty of people who don’t ever do combat. You can easily mine, trade, invent, and manufacture for your entire life in the game without touching a missile system.

    This doesn’t mean you can roll radically different characters, though. You end up being defined by what kinds of ships you can fly well – and those ships have reasonably static roles. So you’re not really going to be a Melee Mage with Heal Other in Eve because there isn’t really a ship that fits that role well. But what you can do it is have one ship fit as a close range battleship as well as a logistics battlecruiser and explore both those paths.

  2. JZig said

    I only played a bit of Eve, and find it’s moment-to-moment gameplay to be deadly dull. It’s metagame is very interesting, though.

    The combination of ship-type and player-skills is exactly the type of system I like. The two elements are mostly orthogonal, but there will be certain combinations that aren’t going to work. Still, you feel like you have a lot more personal choice, instead of getting shoe-horned into playing a class you don’t like.

  3. Wolfe said

    Have you looked at the “class system” of the old Warhammer fantasy RPG?

    Its basically about your character fitting as a member of an organisation, such as the “knight templars” or the “grave robbers”. If you meet the criteria of membership which for that game was loosely set up by the game master you can join the organization. Once in it you can study the skills which belong to the job you got. This is something I believe would work rather well in the MMORPG, especially with the orginsational aspect functioning as a model to group players into a social structure which is under the control of the game. Basically an introduction to the guild play which is a bit too hardcore within the standard design.

  4. JZig said

    I like that for story and thematic reasons, but the problem with that is that it’s tying the story and thematic stuff to the character abilities. Certain players like that, but it tends to just annoy me.

  5. Wolfe said

    From my experience it became a core incentive structure. If it was in WoW you could possibly see this as giving the player the choice of either working towards learning “Mortal Strike” or go raiding for better gear.

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