24 November, 2009
The multi-role (aka "hybrid") class is often looked at as an aberration in MMOs. One character able to fill multiple roles has the problem of being properly balanced against other classes. Make a hybrid class too strong and specialists feel left out. Make the hybrid class too weak and the hybrids feel like they have no place in the game. Trying to balance things properly is very difficult for an average designer to do.
Let's take a look at some hybrid class designs and how they have worked out in games.
My preferred class in WoW was a Druid, a class with a confused heritage. At launch, the class was billed as a hybrid class or a secondary healing class, depending on the web page you found on the official site. The inclusion of the combat-focused feral forms (bear and cat) indicated that the class was intended to be something more than simply a caster; these alternate forms were vastly inferior to the primary tanking and melee DPS classes. To be fair, the druid was inferior to primary caster DPS and healer classes, too, but the animal forms were very hard to play well and most people didn't understand the limitations. My group of friends knew what I could do well, so I would sometimes off-tank an encounter that required it. The "jack of all trades master of none" description was very appropriate for Druids.
However, the class had one saving grace: an ability called innervate. The only reason druids were invited along to early raids was to provide some minor healing and to use innervate to replenish the mana of the "real" healer class: Priests.
To be fair, it wasn't all bleak. Druids had an instant cast spell, Moonfire, that could do a lot of damage in a short period of time at the cost of a lot of mana. It was a dominant spell in early PvP. Despite not being a fan of WoW's PVP, I did find the class pretty fun as I worked to try to do my best to overcome the seemingly intentional shortcomings. But, few people respected the fact that it took a lot of effort to be slightly less second-rate.
A lot of improvements were made to the Druid class over time. Additional forms that specialized in caster DPS (Moonkin, aka "BOOMkin") or healing (Tree of Life) were introduced. Feral forms were enhanced to the point that a competent player could fill a vital tank or melee DPS role easily, and good players would switch between these roles between encounters.
To my mind as a game designer, I think the Burning Crusade era was one of the better ones for multi-role characters. The system offered balanced but not equal options for characters. Warrior, Paladin, and Druid tanks had different strengths and weaknesses for different encounters. A flexible Druid added to a raid by being able to swap between a few roles and contribute almost as well as a dedicated class. One class couldn't do it all, but the options were fairly well balanced to the point where a good tank was a good tank regardless of the specific class. This took a tremendous amount of great design to pull this off.
Overpowered next step
With the next expansion, Blizzard introduced a new hybrid class that was one of the long-expected (and overhyped) "hero classes" - the Death Knight. Being a feature of the new expansion, the class had to be spectacular out of the gate, so it suffered from the opposite problem Druids originally did: it was supremely overpowered. While most DPS classes were relatively fragile, the heavy plate wearing Death Knight could grab aggro and not die instantly. Even in a tank role, the Death Knight was encouraged to use a 2-handed weapon to do high damage and keep aggro. The new class was super over-powered, likely intended to get people who might be wary about buying the expansion eager to share in the power fantasy.
The design philosophy for different roles also turned toward making them more similar: "bring the player, not the class" became the matra so different classes were equalized. Gone were the unique advantages previously enjoyed by the different classes. A lot of players (including me as a Druid fan) grumbled about losing identity and how much better the new class was at multiple roles.
Interlude for skill-based systems
As I've mentioned before, I think Meridian 59's design did well in this area. Given that you can learn different schools of abilities (basically like classes), you could mix and match them to create an interesting hybrid. You can heal as well as anyone else who takes the Shal'ille school of spells. You don't have to master the school and get all the spells, either, if you just want a few spells. Picking other schools helps round out your character. Want to take Weaponcraft to use heavy weapons? Faren to fling fireballs and other damaging spells? Perhaps both if you have enough intellect....
I believe the trick to balancing a skill-based system is to restrict selection. If you want the highest level healing spells, you need to master Shal'ille. Doing so restricts what other schools you can master, since you can only learn a limited number of abilities. Almost every school has some benefit, so there is no "master build" that everyone must copy or fail. It all depends on the individual playstyle and what abilities work best for what the player wants to do.
Multi-role class done right
In my experience, there is one multi-role class that was designed very well: LotRO's Captain.
The class has best described as "backup everything". A Captain wears heavy armor and can tank; the halberd weapons available only to the Captain class have the special ability of increasing threat. A Captain can heal. A Captain can do good damage as well. However, the captain does not excel in any of these areas. You wouldn't ask a Captain to tank a raid. You wouldn't bring a Captain as your only healer in a difficult instance. But, this relative weakness doesn't keep Captains from being one of the favored group and raid classes.
There are two elements that make Captains useful. First, Captains can preform multiple roles at the same time. For example, a healer Captain still wields heavy weapons and armor, allowing them to DPS and tank in a pinch. Some of the Captain's healing abilities are tied to attacks, so the Captain can heal and do damage with just one ability. A healing captain will also gain healing aggro, but since they have heavy armor they can take the hits rather than the fragile Minstrel or Runekeeper healers.
Second, Captains get unique abilities that enhance others. Captains are known for their buffs; a Captain's critical strike buff increases my Champion's chance to crit from 10.5% to 14.5%. They can give a parry bonus to tanks, or a power regen buff on casters. Captains also get a banner ability which gives a bonus to all members in a group, usually an increase in morale (health) or power regeneration. In addition, Captains have two in-combat rezes they can use to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. These bonuses mean that taking a healing Captain along is worth more than taking another specialized healer in that position. Captains are a good class to solo because they also get a squire pet to help them and provide the group bonuses at lower levels.
The drawback is that Captains are complex to play. Balancing different roles, even shifting roles in the middle of a single encounter, is tough for some people. It takes a very talented player to balance all the aspects. But, I think most people who are drawn to this type of class don't mind the challenge. (Despite enjoying the challenges on my Druid, the Captain is one of the two classes I haven't played extensively, ironically. My better half played a Captain paired with my Champion, though)
Multi-role done less well
LotRO also has an example of a multi-role class that has problems. The Runekeeper can heal or nuke, but usually only one or the other in a given encounter. The class has an attunement system restricts spells of the opposite attunement from being cast while giving bonuses to similarly attuned spells. Switching from one attunement to another is difficult in most cases.
Runekeepers are also not very well balanced with other classes. They do a lot of damage and are perhaps the best single-target DPS class in the game currently. On the other hand, they have a limited selection of healing spells and the focus on heal over time (HOT) spells means the Runekeeper is more of a proactive healer instead of a reactive one. As a result, most Runekeepers prefer the DPS role and shun the healing role, although a talented Runekeeper can be the primary healer for a group and do the task well.
Why a multi-role class works
The trick is to let the multi-role class be less powerful, but let them combine abilities with ease. The early Druid in WoW was a mediocre hybrid class because it couldn't do as well as other classes and shifting into another form instantly limited your options. You couldn't tank and DPS at the same time like the later Death Knight could. Even as a focused tank you were crippled because you couldn't use items like potions (or even trinkets originally). Runekeepers also have to select one role or the other in a combat, limiting their usefulness in a shifting situation. Compare this to the Captain where different abilities allow the characters to act in multiple roles at once by design: healing and DPS, etc.
The other trick is to give the hybrid class some unique aspect. Early Druids had the innervate ability which helped other classes out tremendously, and made the class worth bringing along to a raid even if they couldn't heal as well as a Priest. This probably works better with abilities that wouldn't be a focus for a single class. For example, the Captain's buffs are the best in LotRO, but having a pure buffer class would probably not be interesting for most players. Brining a captain along to provide buffs and bonuses helps the whole group, even if Captain isn't as powerful in any one area as a dedicated class. Runekeepers are the counter-example, where their few minor unique features don't come into play to help others in the group.
Obviously, there are a lot of other examples out there. I could talk about my healing Necromancer in EQ2, for example. But, these examples are ones I have a lot of personal experience with and think they illustrate my points well.
What do you think? Do you think hybrid classes can fit well into a game? Or are they so hard to do right that they're more of a pain than a benefit?