20 January, 2011
After making a new year's resolution to post more often, Eric over at Elder Game has decided to re-animate the corpse of an ancient discussion about Classes vs. Open Skill Systems.
Oh, look, this topic again. But, let me try to look at this in a new light.
Eric goes through the old litany of reasons on why class-based systems rule and skill-based systems drool: design is hard, players over-optimize, skill-based systems once had a drunken party one night and got arrested a decade ago for urinating in public. Er, something like that. After reading so many of these, they tend to blur together. Oh, and the insinuation that only immature designers see classless systems as appealing is added for good measure.
The ever lovely and talented Ysharros over at Stylish Corpse posted an interesting reaction where she laments Eric's proclamations and takes a look at what it might mean for her unhealthy obsession with an upcoming game. (Personal to Ysh: Get help. Get professional help. Get better professional help. Remember to take your anti-psychotic drugs.) Anyway, a recommended read to get a more player-focused view.
One of the big frustrations in discussing game design is imprecise terminology. What is a "class"? In MtG, as Tesh refers to in a comment on Stylish Corpse, is "Blue" a "class"? Well, if we're going to shoehorn that game into the MMO paradigm, then it would be.
But, is that distinction useful for discussion? Not really, because the term "class" has a lot of emotional baggage with it. By advocating classes Eric is obfuscating his message and potentially harming those immature designers he is trying to warn since they'll see "classes" and make a whole host of default assumptions.
The flaw is seeing the option as two separate, binary values: class-based or classless (skill-based). These terms both have their own baggage and assumptions. Class-based means that you pick the same archetypes as every other game and implement them in a strict way. Skill-based means you have a laundry list of skills that players can pick as they choose and thus create the ultimate tank-mage jack-of-all-traes. In this false view, classes are obviously superior.
But, instead of being binary, the options are more of a continuum. (Well, really, it's a vast space of possibilities, but let's not go too crazy in a single blog post.) Let us pick some new terms so get away from the emotional baggage: let's use the term "structured" to describe a character's development. Strict classes in EQ1 are the most structured example, with UO's free-form skill system (and the original tank-mage game) being the least structured example in major MMOs. Note that AC1 is a very unstructured game when looking at Eric's list of complaints about how hard it was to balance the game.
But, as usual, the best answer lies between the two extremes. As I've mentioned before, Meridian 59 achieved a level of balance by providing some structure. Each "spell school" had a certain theme (like MtG's colors) and spells were ordered in ascending levels where you had to learn enough of level 1 spells to progress to level 2, etc., up to level 6. You could only learn so many levels of spells/skills based on your stats, so that limited how you could build your character. By imposing some structure it was easier to balance the game and it addressed the issues brought up; but, ultimately, it allowed the players more freedom than a strictly structured class-based system.
Funny enough, I think a good modern example of less structure comes from DDO, based on the granddaddy of class-based systems. The flexible multi-classing rules in 3rd edition D&D allow for some interesting character options. The enhancement options in DDO allow you to create some interesting characters. My favorite character is a level 6 Cleric/8 Sorcerer. I'm able to be the primary healer in an on-level group as well as throwing in some nukes arcane-only buffs like Blur and Haste. Admittedly the character has less maximum power potential compared to a super-focused single-class character, but the flexibility allows me to have fun with my group. But, it's widely acknowledged that multi-class options in DDO are difficult for players to tweak properly, leading to a lot of "gimp" characters if not handled well.
Let's take a look at the issue that skill-based systems are "hard to balance." The truth is that all games are hard to balance, and even relying on the crutch of class-based design is no magic bullet. Okay, who here thinks that WoW Paladins have always been completely balanced compared to every other class? Anyone who thinks so, take a look at the advice I gave to Ysharros above. But, the question is: did it make the game any less popular or fun? Sure, there might be some people who got upset and left over Paladin issues, but most would agree WoW is still a highly successful game.
What about the issue that players will over-optimize? Again, they do the same thing in class-based systems. Let's look at WoW. Want to play an all-around powerful character? Play a Paladin (or Death Knight in WotLK). Want to solo without a care in the world? Hunter is what you want. So, is optimization acceptable only if it was provided by the developer instead of discovered by the player? But, let's not pretend that people still don't feel the need to follow a template; the details of how to "build" the character in a structured class-based system like WoW has its own specialized site.
The argument that "fewer people will use underpowered skills" doesn't hold water compared to classes, either. The most popular WoW classes are played twice as much as the least popular ones, at least in raiding. Warlocks, in particular, are also unpopular in PvP, so is it a waste to put effort into them. On the other hand, some people still play them.
These problems aren't unique to less structured games. I think the real benefit is that its easier for inexperienced players to not know or not care about them in more structured systems. If a new player rolls up a Warlock in WoW, they may not care that the option is unpopular, or that they need to spec a certain way to be invited on raids, or that it's not the most powerful option. They can have fun with it and perhaps enjoy the trappings of the class more than the calculations underneath. And that, I think, is the real design advantage of highly structure classes, in that players can recognize classes form other games and enjoy the flavor as they learn about the game.
Ultimately, as a designer, you have to ask what your goals are for the game and use the right tools. Perhaps a highly structured class-based system is what you need. Or, maybe you want a less structured system. The first step is to identify what your goals are and then pick the tools that will help you achieve those goals.