Game talkDo classes suck?

 Posted by (Visited 26664 times)  Game talk
Aug 282006
 

I was away, of course, but i am sure that plenty of people have expected me to jump in on the never-ending debate on class-based systems. So I thought I should, but with brevity.

Class based systems are:

  • Simpler. Everyone has just one role to play, and a game is built out of bringing a fairly fixed handful of these roles together. It’s like a sports team. You gather a few defenders, a few attackers, and so on.

  • Simpler means the permutations and combinations are easier to balance. Less permutations and combinations, natch. You can trap them all.
  • It also means it’s heavily constrained, which makes it easy to learn and master. “You stay back here, and if the ball comes in this direction, you catch it.” “You stay back here, and if the ball tries to go in the goal, you stop it.” “You stay back here, and when the red bar on a teammate reaches this percentage, you hit this button.” Obviously, there are endless nuances, but this is a heavily constrained experience, very directed. Very different from one-on-one games like tennis, where you have to manage defense and offense both, for example.
  • Lastly, it’s easy to communicate because it relies on archetypal roles very strongly. Healer, tanker, nuke, defender, attacker, goalie, etc.

It’s no accident, to my mind, that the MMORPGs have progressed more and more towards feeling like sports games, with raids and so on. It’s the thrill of being part of a well-oiled machine, where each has a role to play and knows how to play it well. The terminology is creeping towards similarity as well: I don’t think the term “pick-up group” is a linguistic accident, but rather a recognition of the ways in which the dynamics are much like a pick-up team in a sport.

Skill-based systems are, of course, none of the above. They are more complicated, harder to balance, so lacking in constraint that they often seem directionless, and hard to explain to users. But they do have some virtues that run contrary to the sports metaphor:

  • Users aren’t locked in to one behavior; they can shift their nature or have more than one specialty. In a team-based game, this is generally a bad thing; you need intense focus.

  • Class-based games have to be designed in a fairly static way; you cannot add a new role to soccer or baseball without throwing the whole thing out of whack. You can’t add a sniper to football, useful as it might be. In contrast, skill-based games are expandable because not all the roles need even aim at the same purpose.
  • Which brings to mind another virtue, which is that there’s no assumption that every role is equal. This is something that is a lie in team-based games anyway. Everyone contributes, but sorry, some contribute more than others, and some roles are far less important than others, far easier than others, and far less active than others. Skill-based games can feel fre to say “sorry, this is a shallow role. If you aren’t satisfied by that, feel free to pick up some other stuff too.”
  • And really, the fact that there can be multiple reasons to play is at the heart of it. This is why class-based systems have real trouble absorbing crafting, for example, and we often see the notion of having a separate parallel class system for crafting alongside the combat classes. It’s like asking a hockey team to also do embroidery during the match.

Of course, the game design secret here is that class systems and skill systems are the same thing; they simply have different parameters. A skill-system can have exclusive skills, pre-requisite skills, tiered skills, branching skills, mutually exclusive branches, and so on. Put in enough of these, and you tip over into what gets called a class system.

The question is, as always, what is the appropriate mix for the job. If you are making a game centered around teams, with clear singular objectives and one core system and mechanic, and nothing much else in the mix, then yes, of course, go with classes. Anything else would be a bit strange.

But if you’re making a virtual world with more than one thing to do, more than one game system, then they’ll make less sense. As soon as you have parallel game systems that don’t really overlap in their objectives, you’ll need to account for the fact that someone might be a hockey goalie and a herringbone stitcher. And the more of these you add to the mix, the less sense classes will make.

I leave the question of whether virtual worlds are destined to have one single core game mechanic as an exercise for the reader.

  87 Responses to “Do classes suck?”

  1. “The buzz in the MMO blogosphere is yet another resurrection of the Class system vs. Skill system debate. A number of prominent online gaming bloggers have chimed in with their opinions on the subject, including: Scott Jennings, Raph Koster, Ryan Shwayder, Steve Danuser, Damion Schubert, and a host of others you can find linked on those blogs. The conclusion? Most of the devs favor class systems because of their simplicity and ease of communicating character roles, while a few devs and

  2. The buzz in the MMO blogosphere is yet another resurrection of the Class system vs. Skill system debate. A number of prominent online gaming bloggers have chimed in with their opinions on the subject, including: Scott Jennings, Raph Koster, Ryan Shwayder, Steve Danuser, Damion Schubert, and a host of others you can find linked on those blogs. The conclusion? Most of the devs favor class systems because of their simplicity and ease of communicating character roles, while a few devs and

  3. I don’t know, classes still feel like handcuffs to me. You are right that as game mechanics go skill systems are similar to classes, but that is a restriction of game design currently. I live in a skills based world, I learn and lose skills constantly, hundreds of them, maybe thousands. I don’t have a class. Games today only let you have a very small skill base, hopefully as they progress that will change.

    It’s no accident, to my mind, that the MMORPGs have progressed more and more towards feeling like sports games, with raids and so on. It’s the thrill of being part of a well-oiled machine, where each has a role to play and knows how to play it well.

    I don’t know, that is part of the reason so many end games don’t appeal to me at all. There is nothing overly heroic about being one of 40 who kill a dragon. I would love a game where I can group for some events, but I also had my own epic journey to make, hopefully not the exact same one everyone else was making due to game limitations. In the end slaying the dragon or defeating the necromancer alone to cap the career would be glorious.

  4. Some people criticize skill-based character development systems by using the "jump" example. The problem with the "jump" example is that the system is not at fault for the selection of the function ("jump") as a manageable skill. On the other hand, people can practice jumping in the real world, and there are people whose professions involve only that skill. Perhaps the selection of the function as part of an array of manageable skills is also not at fault. Perhaps the implementation of the function is truly to blame?

    I’m an advocate of skill-based character development systems in open interactive environments. These systems support offerings of player-generated content by enabling players to create their own character classes. These systems also more effectively support roleplay in the sense that method acting enables actors to "become" their character.

    Will Wright’s Spore takes skill systems to the next level by enabling players to create their own skills ("verbs") in addition to enabling players to create their own classes.

  5. I leave the question of whether virtual worlds are destined to have one single core game mechanic as an exercise for the reader.

    i think it’s safe to say that any virtual world with only one single core game mechanic isn’t truely a virtual world at all.
    it’s a game in a virtual environment.

    to continue with your sports/team analogy, a true virtual World (capital W) would be more akin to an entire sports league.

    there are THOUSANDS of jobs people are doing to keep the league going. everyone is doing something different, and while the actual athletes get all the attention and glory (much like how combat is treated in current MMOs), without the marketing departments, individual team general managers, coaching staffs, scouts, tv/radio broadcasters, ect. the athletes wouldn’t have an environment to play in.
    or something…

    i’d probably enjoy an MMO which functions more like that. true virtual Worlds, with more than just one thing (or one and a half things) to do.

  6. Nice read.

  7. Dam enter.

    I was going to say, that I think it’s more of a question of “How do you like to be entertained”

    Some people like to Watch a movie (directed content,classes), others like to wright the book (You make it what you will,”skills”)

  8. […] Comments […]

  9. […] The topic of “Class vs Skill Systems” is a very very very very very very very very popular topic right now. […]

  10. From the players’ pov, the main advantages of a class system are convenience and accessibility. For players (probably most players) it’s a quicker in. There’s less to futz with and worry about as compared to wrangling a list of skills. (Should I raise that 41 to 42? Will I really need “toaster repair”?) Classes allow players to instantly and easily understand the role capabilities their avatar has in the gameworld and feel comfy and confident right away. That this role may be an archetype or cliche is a natural, and a good thing.

    Please note that I prefer skill-based rules systems. Playing devil’s advocate here.

  11. @Trucegore:

    Plenty of people feel that they are creating something when playing a class-based game, I’d wager. You can still think of your character as being part of some kind of epic adventure. If there is a strong loot focus to character development, there’s always upgrading loot and making up the stories for its acquisition. Maybe it’s not as open-ended in possibilities as a skill-based system, but, as Raph notes, skill-based systems can be just as restrictive as class-based systems.

    Maybe it’s just your choice of words, but it certainly makes it seem like you find those who enjoy class-based systems to be followers or perhaps just lazy, and those who enjoy skill-based systems are more creative and proactive in their fun seeking. I think it’s a pretty big assumption to make, and while I only have anecdotal evidence to argue my point, I stand by the idea that there are many exceptions to your statement that it is hardly a rule or a properly probative set of questions to ask.

    I think I see where you’re going, I just think it’s the wrong route, I guess.

  12. […] Raph Koster uses an analogy with sports to make a point about structure in multi-player games. He chose the wrong sport though. […]

  13. […] Skill-based systems are (…): * Users arent locked in to one behavior; they can shift their nature or have more than one specialty. In a team-based game, this is generally a bad thing; you need intense focus. * Class-based games have to be designed in a fairly static way; you cannot add a new role to soccer or baseball without throwing the whole thing out of whack. You cant add a sniper to football, useful as it might be. In contrast, skill-based games are expandable because not all the roles need even aim at the same purpose. * Which brings to mind another virtue, which is that theres no assumption that every role is equal. This is something that is a lie in team-based games anyway. Everyone contributes, but sorry, some contribute more than others, and some roles are far less important than others, far easier than others, and far less active than others. Skill-based games can feel fre to say sorry, this is a shallow role. If you arent satisfied by that, feel free to pick up some other stuff too. * And really, the fact that there can be multiple reasons to play is at the heart of it. This is why class-based systems have real trouble absorbing craftingCrafting bezeichnet handwerkliche Berufe und Ttigkeiten von Spielercharakteren., for example, and we often see the notion of having a separate parallel class system for crafting alongside the combat classes. Its like asking a hockey team to also do embroidery during the match. Link: Do classes suck? 150)?150:this.scrollHeight)”> __________________ […]

  14. Morgan Ramsay said: On the other hand, people can practice jumping in the real world, and there are people whose professions involve only that skill.

    To illustrate (I think):

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=515642196227308929&q=russian+jump

  15. Neither classes nor skill based systems ‘suck’ in and of themselves. It depends on what the player is expecting to be able to do within the game structure and how well the game design allows them to do that that results in a perception of suckiness.

    For instance, I roll a combat toon in a class based system and find that I can’t, for example, heal others. Does the class system suck, or does the problem lie in my choice of build?

    In a skill based system, I chose to invest on, say, defensive skills and heals to the stage where I can only do a little damage in combat but am effectively unkillable. Again, does the system suck or my choice of build? Obviously somebody who dislikes def stackers will have one PoV, the def stacker will have another.

    A skill based system that allows a player to build a good low level (in terms of effectiveness, not necessarily combat level) toon with a borad but shallow range of abilities allows the player to experience more of the options that the game allows before choosing to specialise on one particular field.

    Obviously the best example I can give of this is SWG where it was possible to take all the novice professions (thinly masked classes) and be a huntin’, shootin’ dancin’ medic who could do a little crafting with the resources he harvested. As your character developed you could then choose to drop the skills you didn’t need, or even have to sacrifice some that you’d have liked to have kept ie, at Master Ranger / Master Rifles it was not possible to have a large self heal as you couldn’t keep any of your medic skills.

    You could of course drop the master box of one of the profs and invest in medic but then your effectiveness as a hunter would be impacted. (Which of course takes me onto my other favourite hobbyhorse, choices and consequences. I’ll save that for another day ;) )

    A well structured class system will allow the player to have, for example in the EQ ranger subclass, effective specialist combat skills and sufficient self buffs and heals which are consistent/coherent with the professions descriptors and player expectations. You will, of course, have to depend on other players for the skills and abilities that fall outside your chosen class.

    As I said, Idon’t think either system necessarily sucks, depending on it’s implementation. I do agree that a class system is generally easier to introduce to a player as you can point them at a defined archetype and say “that’s a paladin, that’s a pirate” and they’ll understand what can and can’t be done by that class within the game context. On the other hand, a free ranging skill based system allows for the sort of dynamic mix that you do find in real life where people have a multitude of skills that they can apply in different situations and which vary in value depending on their appropriateness for that situation.

    OK, I’ll stop there before this becomes a dissertation on Acquired and Ascribed Roles, Expectations and social token exchange…

  16. […] Well, it seems that Damion Schubert has rekindled the age-old fires of Classes vs. Skill-based character systems. I doubt that they were ever extinguished, but there’s a fury of articles coming up discussing it. Nerfbat and WorldIV trackback’d my article and even Raph linked me over on his site. My site traffic is probably the highest it’s ever been. Not bad for a place I use to dump my thoughts. Thanks guys. […]

  17. @ CmdrSlack

    Nah, I don’t view people or players that way, i was just boiling it down really to a generalized statement.

    Nah, I don’t view people or players that way, i was just boiling it down really to a generalized statement.

    But, lol.

    There are some people that do like to just be entertained, that’s not a fault, we all play games, and watch movies to achieve this.

    And you will find there is basically two camps (with exceptions) those that enjoy a more open ended and free range, i guess, more Hands on “creative”, types, those that like to build things from the ground up. everything.. Like the folks over at Ryzom are going to support. (the book writers was used only as a way to imply “creative” game play)

    There are the people that just want a directed adventure, they want to be lead along the way and be involved in the narrative of that adventure, they care not for building their armor, or that plant over there. (these are the movies watchers, they don’t wish to have so much of a hand in the world, in fact they don’t really care at all, they just wish to have an adventure and have fun).

    Of course there are exceptions to everything, but i think i have a good net there for each camp. I find myself thoies days looking and designing for the middle ground, and im starting to think you just cant. Not and have a fully successful , and expected, experience from what each camp is looking for.

    And the Skill VS Class will always be about how much of an investment you want to put in the game in order to find that “fun” you looking for.

    Maybe a better one would be Painter and Art Collectors. Same Field, different “fun”.

  18. Then again,

    it seem like you find those who enjoy class-based systems to be followers or perhaps just lazy, and those who enjoy skill-based systems are more creative and proactive in their fun seeking.

    Is that really a bad thing? That statement is kind of true, I don’t think its a bad thing to be lazy about finding your entertainment. After all, Entertainment is generally what we do to fill that time and need when we are not working…

    lol.

    It still comes down to “how do you like it”. Directed, or Created. + Fun.

    All of this of course is based off the current games that I have tried and how they are developed.

    Side note: Sometimes i play Master of orion, sometimes i play planetside. See the contrast?

  19. Lot’s of PnP RPGs have a hybrid system that uses the following common sense perspective:

    1. Build a class system over a skill system
    2. Classes are essentially template of common grouping of skills under certain roles (goalie, tanker, healer, etc.)
    3. The advantages of using a standard class template is that it is a more efficient distribution/use of skill points
    4. Players have the choice to “create” their own skill templates. The cost of this flexibility is less efficient distribution/use of skill points.

    In a MMO environment, another perspective could be added.
    5. Give players the opportunity to determine what are the emergent efficient set of skill templates for particular roles and allow players the ability to set that as the new “classes” in-game via in-game institutions such as training schools such as school of mage, school of fighting, etc. Once the schools are in place and upon expansion updates, players can create characters with the new emergent classes at the efficient/cheaper skill rate. Essentially, you have a new skill tree in the game: Class-maker.

    Perspective #5 mitigate nerfing of classes as players have the ability to adjust to required tweeking of game balance. Let them determine was is the mix/max set of skills that best fit particular emergent roles and allow them the feedback-loop to set those skill templates as new classes.

    Frank

  20. Raph wrote:
    [C]lass systems and skill systems are the same thing.

    I think a better way to put this would be to say that class systems and skill systems are on the same continuum. At one end you have pure skill-based goodness where the sky is the limit. On the other hand, you have class-based fun where everything is pre-selected for the player. Few games these days have pure skill-based or pure class-based systems, though. Every major class-based game released in the last few years has the ability to customize the character at least a bit through allocation of points. Even Meridian 59, which most people consider to be skill-based, has an aspect of classes as I’ve mentioned before.

    It’s interesting to note that we’re actually talking about emergent gameplay here. Skill-based systems are harder to balance because the developers can rarely predict how players will interact with the system. The dreaded “flavor of the month” behavior comes about because players have found a way to optimize the game in a way the developer didn’t expect. This is the very definition of emergent gameplay. As an example, consider the original templates for AC. They eventually became a joke because what the developers saw as interesting classes were not what the players thought would be the most fun to play.

    Classes are easier to balance because the developers remove that aspect of emergent gameplay. Of course, we have the same problems, although on a smaller scale. There’s still the flavor of the month, but it’s easier for people to stumble across the winning flavor because the choices are more limited. Just take a look at discussions about Hunters in WoW to see how you can have still have power imbalances. (Yeah, hunters suck on raids, but they rule the roost for the majority of the game.) (And, yes, Paladins and Shamans also get complaints, but that’s more of a “grass is always greener” issue. Prediction: with the expansion and the ability for Alliance to play Shamans and Horde to play Paladins, the bitching about these classes will be significantly reduced.)

    My biggest complaint about heavily class-based systems is the lack of flexibility and the reliance on tradition. Want to play a healing class that also has a versatile pet? Sorry, that’s reserved for mages (or Hunters).

    Unfortunately, I think most developers see “easier to implement/balance” and consider the discussion over at that point. Why go through the pain of making things harder on yourself as a developer?

    My thoughts,

  21. When I said they were the sme thing, I really meant from an implementation point of view. The best way to implement a class-based system in the code is to write the code for a skill-based system and then put the restrictions in the data. Just make sure all the pre-reqs fall in a chain, that sort of thing. It lets you easily add new abilities anywhere, including entire alternate advancement paths parallel to a class if need be.

  22. […] Do classes suck? on Raph Koster Do classes suck? on Raph Koster I was away, of course, but i am sure that plenty of people have expected me to jump in on the never-ending debate on class-based systems. So I thought I should, but with brevity. Class based systems are: Simpler. Everyone has just one role to play, and a game is built out of bringing a fairly […] via Raph Koster […]

  23. And yet and yet and yet….

    People take on “class” roles even when they’re not a part of the game. Played America’s Army? Seen the snipers, the infantrymen, the grenadiers? I have.

    Clearly distinguished through their own choices and aptitudes and the eternal peer-pressure. Perhaps that last is the only thing that fixed classes offer – otherwise the tiny female gnome tank wouldn’t get many party invites.

  24. A skill-system can have exclusive skills, pre-requisite skills, tiered skills, branching skills, mutually exclusive branches, and so on. Put in enough of these, and you tip over into what gets called a class system.

    In a parallel fashion, you can provide enough options within a class based system where things begin to look an awful lot like different skill sets. WoW implements ‘talents’ which allow you to specialize your character. You allocate your limited number of talent points in various trees and customize your game play.

    Blizzard released the alpha talent trees as they’ll look in their upcoming expansion.

    If you take a look at the paladin talent tree, you can see that you can allocate your points into Holy, Protection or Retribution. This will allow you to act as healer, a tank or a damage dealer. While it doesn’t allow total free form as a skill based system would offer, it does provide the individual plenty of choices in their gameplay. Depending on how wide you want your audience to be, this is probably preferable to a skill-based system because it provides guidance to individuals who might be playing their first MMO.

  25. […] Re: MMORPG To class or not? Perhaps this is relevant: http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/08/28/do-classes-suck/ ___________________________________________ http://www.iguanademos.com/Jare […]

  26. Yeah, I saw the Blizz trees. And yes, there’s little doubt that this sort of thing, like AA points and the like, is effectively turning a class system back towards being a skill system again.

    But I do think there’s an important difference which comes from the point I made previously — whether or not you are supporting more than one core game system. In this example, what Blizzard is doing is saying that a Paladin can serve in a pinch in any of the required positions on the team. They’re still all playing the same game, though.

  27. […] How did I miss this? There’s been a flare up of the Class vs. Skill debate recently. You can track it across multiple blogs: Nerfbat, Zen of Design, Broken Toys, Moorgard, Nerfbat, Probably Not, Sierra Kilo, Raph Koster, World IV. […]

  28. I have to jump in the car for the commute in 15 minutes and so I will have to do the bulk of my comments on this later, but in short….I don’t think class systems suck (although poorly designed ones most certainly do). They have some benefits, in that they help provide structure to combat systems. It’s a lot easier to think about classes and the role those classes play than it is to think about roles and then design skill trees to fit each role. In order to balance combat and tune encounters and such, you really do need to know what roles players might be filling.

    At the same time, skill systems are really nice because of the flexibility they provide – players can customize their character completely, and that’s a huge thing for retention. Players like feeling unique.

    Both can be enjoyable, and neither make or break a game. In the end, they’re just a mechanism for presentation and structure, and not the actual “meat” of the game.

    Anyway, gotta go – more later :)

  29. Ok, now I can type some more.

    As a player I prefer skill systems because they give me more control over my character, and allow me to make that character more unique. That being said, I was a noob once upon a time, and a flat tree skill system where I start the game off with potentially dozens of skills to pick from would have been daunting to say the least. There needs to be some sort of guide to help ease players into the system.

    A lot of this is presentation more than anything else. If you’re going to go skill-based with a game, you need to put some time into the interface that players use to select those skills. If a skill provides a modifier, that modifier needs to have explanation text, so that players know that “Ranged Defense adds to your Agility score when you are attacked with a ranged weapon and increases the chances of you dodging the attack.” If a skill provides a special ability of some sort, that needs to have explanation text as well. You can sometimes skimp on the interface in a class system because most things are set in stone anyway, but in a skill system you absolutely have to make sure people can make informed choices. No one likes to pick a skill and later find out that it’s useless for what they really wanted to do. And while some people will change their minds, at least if they have more information available up front, they won’t be able to rightfully complain about not being told.

    Another thing that’s important if you want a truly successful skill system is to not allow it to easily turn into templates, or mini-classes. This means making sure that every skill is equally viable within the game, and setting caps and limits so that someone can’t stack up bonuses from three or four skill trees and suddenly become incredibly powerful. This was where SWG’s original system fell down in my opinion, the flavor-of-the-month templates turned a lot of people off on the skill system altogether. Not that the current class system is any better in that regard, because it still suffers from the same problem – that is, certain professions are just generally more effective than others because they are more in tune with 90% of the game’s content

    Which brings me to my third point. It does no good to include skills without also including content that leverages those skills. What good is a set of stealth abilities when you still have to fight the enemies in order to complete your objective? What good is the ability to sing and dance if there’s no mechanism for you to put on a concert for the (NPC) citizens of the city and make some money or get a reward of some sort? If you’re going to give people the ability to take skills that allow them to manage trade caravans, repair terminals, coordinate troop movements, or whatever in your game, you need to make sure that there is rewarding PvE gameplay that leverages those skills. Otherwise players won’t see a need for these skills and will pile into the other skills, which lowers diversity. It all comes down to insuring that every choice has meaning.

  30. I said PvE a lot above, but of course if your game is full PvP (kinda like EVE) then you can do skills that are really only useful in PvP too. Although a good skill will be useful in both situations.

  31. So to summarize: the core point here is that both systems can potentially serve the need, it’s really more a matter of 1) what you are trying to achieve, and 2) how much effort you’re willing to put in to achieving it?

    If you’re implementing a presently “typical” MMO design, classes will probably meet your needs. If you’re going out on a limb and trying something different, edging over toward more of a skill system might work better.

    In short: THERE IS NO “ONE TRUE WAY”.

    -=-

    Tangentially riffing off of magicback’s suggestion above, why couldn’t a skill system include professional organizations (guilds, unions, whatever) which could be joined and worked up into different positions and titles through the completion of various projects/errands and tests of skill?

    In essence, that would be a reversal of the abstraction that classes represented upon their original implementation… instead of achieving the title to gain the skills, you gain the skills to achieve the title. The flexibility of skills, with (potentially) the ease-of-use and directed play of classes. Just a thought…

  32. And of course, in any system like that, to learn the skills of the masters one must first prove that they know the skills of the apprentices and the journeymen, right?

  33. Sorry to jump into the discussion so late. I really don’t think classes suck, I think it’s the way they are implemented that suck sometimes. Most MMOs have the whole class/skill relationship bass ackwards.

    There has been one skill/class system that I’ve enjoyed in playing MMOs (even text-based) in the 17 years I’ve been playing and coding in MUDs and that is a skill-based system with requirements to become part of a class, house, or guild. Or, you can choose not to be part of an “organization” and be a true solo character.

    It seems such a simple concept to have your skills affect your class instead of your class defining your skills, but yet it seems so foreign and unchartered. A person isn’t knighted by a king and THEN learns to use a sword and shield for martial purposes. No, they learn swordsmanship, how to wear plate armor, how to wield a shield, and then perform some heroic act in order to be knighted. Or maybe on your quest to become a knight you find religion and find a calling to use your sword and shield to become a paladin. Developing skills first should be the process through which to obtain a certain class within a virtual world.

    I think a lot of the way classes have been laid out in MMOs has also lead to the consule and “end game” mentalities that are so rampant in today’s virtual environments. All of the true role-play decisions have been taken away from players. Instead, it’s grind, grind, grind my cookie-cutter character and get all the high end loot I can. And then what?

    Matt

  34. Developing skills first should be the process through which to obtain a certain class within a virtual world.

    This works, but there’s a bad side to it. Presented with this sort of a system, players will tend to believe that the game doesn’t truly begin until they are finished advancing.

    It’s a perception problem rather than a design problem, but something that designers should be cognizant on. One of the main reasons that class-based systems have been relatively successful compared to skill-based systems, in my opinion, is that they pitch advancement as an ongoing part of the game, rather than something you do at the beginning to get to your desired title.

    Skill systems tend to be broad whereas class systems tend to be deep, and maybe the solution to the above problem is insuring that your skill system is sufficiently deep so that players aren’t necessarily looking at mastering a tree as their immediate goal, but rather a long-term goal (like they do with getting to max level in class-based games).

  35. @David
    Probably… although “proving it” might or might not be required to advance in the master level skills per se. You’d need to have obtained that level of prowess, but going thru the tests could potentially be optional. It’d depend on the specifics of the implementation, I suppose.

    In my “dream design”, for example (everybody has a dream design, right?) I have 4 concepts under the Knowledge/Prowess branch of the advancement model…

    + Lessons are collected/traded and “contemplated” to master Concepts.
    + Specific combinations of Concepts grant access to various Techniques.
    + Each Technique is an action tied to a base Skill, the Skill score determining the base chance of success when using the technique.
    + Skills encompass a sizable number of techniques, and advance thru multiple avenues, including “off-line” training/practice, lesson contemplation, and direct experience.

    Under that model, Lessons would be the primary quest reward, perhaps offered only to individuals who had achieved specific titles. The player might still advance the related Skill(s), but not be able to access specific Techniques under those skills until the title was gained (or until another player spent the time to pass those Lessons on, perhaps at risk of being outcast from that organization?).

    A model with less of a “collect them all” bent might instead use the title in combination with “faction” as a gating mechanism. There are probably limitless options for implementation.

    @Matt
    I agree (obviously). As I see it, the big issue with skills-driving-classes is the one several people have already hinted at… it requires a great deal of extra design work (specifically the type of concepts you might find in, say, an Instructional Design course for teachers) to help players get a solid grasp of what their options and limitations are.

    A system where the player chooses an archetypal “Class” saves you a LOT of design work… especially when working on the “initial player experience”, in my (very limited, hobbyist-level) experience, at least.

    [Confession time: One of the reasons I never got very far in SWG, as a matter of fact, despite being very interested in the design details, was exactly that type of “left adrift” feeling.]

  36. Raph – I spent a year playing SWG, and I think the skill system was the jewel of that game. Although it did lead to tremendous balance issues (that could certainly been addressed far better than they were. Adopting a skill based system in a MMO requires a much larger commitment to ongoing balance issues than a class based one does, IMHO), the skill system, combined with tremendously customisable avatars and wearables, created a sense of immersion that I haven’t found in a MMO since.

    Even with the lack of balance, players seemed content to play characters that weren’t 100% specialised in one role, if it allowed them to have more fun in game.

    Look at EVE – it has no classes at all, but the tremendous “time investment” aspect of the skill system pushes people into defined roles (analogous to classes), while still giving players the opportunity to redefine themselves that I see as vital to great immersion.

  37. I’ve been playing MMOs since way back in the day… in my mind MMOs come down to one thing… Player Choice.

    You lower player choice and you get a nice easy MMO to work with from the Dev side but one that ultimately players get tired of and it becomes harder and harder to keep players happy. See WoW as a prime example as poorly designed MMO from a player choice perspective.

    UO (before the EA buyout at least :) ) was the top of the line in player choice.

    Skills vs. Class = more player choice vs. less.
    Instanced Raids vs. Open Ended Dungeons = less vs. more

    The more player choice you give, the harder it gets to develop but the easier it is to keep players interested as players with enough choice will find their own ways to stay involved.

    This is what games like WoW, EQ and many of the new ones lack. The ability for players to really impact the world they play in. Which comes down to player choice. How much can they affect the environment in a lasting way? What actions can they do to seperate themselves from others?

    Look at some things done well in some MMOs and not well in others:

    Avatar Customization:
    Good – CoH/CoV (massive customizations available, color, size, etc)
    Ok – DAoC, UO (most armor and avatars looked identical but you were able to customize colors to a pretty good degree)
    Bad – WoW (all armor is the same, every druid in Tier 2 looks pretty much like every other druid in tier 2)

    Skills vs. Classes:
    UO – Skills, not like something; drop it and pick up something else.
    DAoC – Pick a starter and then an advanced class
    WoW – Pick a class some customization available through “talent” trees

    Trying to strike a balance between Player Choice and Development is the hard choice to make.

    As a player, I’m going to stick a MMO for a lot longer based directly on how much choice I have.

    My guild formed in DAoC which had a fair amount of player choice. We moved to WoW because we lost player choice from expansions forcing decisions on us. Thus less choice.

    We’re leaving WoW as soon as we find a new game because post 60, you’re forced into doing one of two things, PvP Battlegrounds or Raid (or both)… thus no (very little) player choice.

    Time spent in DAoC : More then 3 years
    Time spent in WoW: Less then 2

    Why? Player choice.

    That’s what skills vs. classes come down.

    Which do you prefer? Choices or easy development.

  38. […] * Classes (plus, If Quoting History, You Should Know It) (Ubiq) * Ubiq’s a Classy Guy (Lum) * Like School in Summertime (Moorgard) * Artificial Restrictions: Classes (Blackguard) * Stay Classy (j, probablynot) * MMORPG Classes (steve, Sierra Kilo) * Do Classes Suck? (Raph) […]

  39. When you draw a maze on a sheet of paper with only few corridors it will become quite boring, because you understand the pattern early. But when you erase walls from the maze, at one point you end up with a white sheet of paper. It offers all freedoms and nothing at the same time. Things start to dissolve into each other into grey matter of nothing.

    Thats why I believe games will, earlier or later level off into systems that are somewhere in between the grey matter (former SWG) and class based systems (EQ). Maybe “path” is an approriate term, skill trees that are also tightly loomed into the story of the game world (into places, factions, mobs, events etc) with branches with hooks which carry consequences for the avatar (loosing faction, making enemies or allies, un/lock places etc).

  40. I agree with you, Frosty, but gosh, SWG was pretty far from being a pure skill-based system. As many have observed, it was really a thinly veneered class system in many ways.

  41. Ah, Came back to add an example (since you don’t have edit buttons): Think about a mage studying corpses in the game world. This would “unlock” skill(s), but at the same time, playing around with corpses is much despised by the npc crowd, so that it pushes the player into certain directions (consequences like cannot visit churches anymore, is hunted by certain factions of players and/or mobs when “witnessed” , negative karma, changes his appearance etc). But also unlocks new things, like teaming up with the vampire faction, become something like a necromancer. But studying corpses might also lead to a surgeon in combination with other choices the player made.

    Well, I dream of a game where all these things are connected an no longer just superimposed. Like, you may become a “knight” at the local court (and even climb to the highest level) for those who want to be strong as soon as possible (even near the starting location), but you may also travel far, do certain quests, meet the blood knight order in an forsaken temple and go on from there to become a blood knight (whatever that is). Effects of the skills may be the same, but would have different flavor (add in a few different ones). Ever heard of the green knight? maybe you need to start your knight career and later meet that weird druid faction and you can combine both (plus a third thing you did unknowingly). Ok, got the idea. :)

    @SWG, yes. It still suffered from the grey matter and the skill system was not innocent (well, still the main problem in SWG).

  42. Raph,

    You destroyed UO by turning it from skill based to the crappy item-based game it is today. You would be given no quarter if, you know, this was some issue that actually mattered. Truth is, the current crop of class based games are about the money (for the corporation) and exploiting the worst of human greed by tricking the playerbase into believing virtual items are more valuable than time and prolonged fun.

    Anyway, you destroyed UO for thousands of people and yet you likely sleep well at night on some very high thread count sheets. This debate is pointless because we know both know designers/producers don’t debate these value sets. They go after the model that will make the most money which will always be item and/or class based games.

    Tool.

    -Andrew

  43. Andrew, I do believe you have the wrong guy. I left UO in late 1998 or ’99 (somewhere in there). All the item-based stuff was long after my time — heck, it was well after Renaissance, wasn’t it? Even that was after my time.

  44. So the general consensus is that something in between is probably most appropriate depending on the overall design of the game.

    Ok, let’s propose a hybrid system that addresses majority of the concerns stated:

    1. The system is more than a class-system build over a skill-system. You’ll get both skill abilities and class-specific abilities.
    2. At launch, a handful of base class and advanced class templates are designed by the developers based on the concept and lore of the world.
    3. An in-game mechanism is coded to allow players the ability to change the class templates. Players can change the set of class skills and also the class-specific abilities.
    4. A published periodic update schedule will communicate to the players when a player-designed-and-optimized template COULD be incorporate into the world as the new standard classes, particular upon expansions.

    Strengths:
    1. Simple to get into for new players, but provide Choices for experienced players. Also stick with the concept of ‘easy to learn, but hard to master’.
    2. Easier to Balance than pure skill systems, only sacrificing some ease to give player more advance choices.
    3. Constrained, but offers a feedback-loop and a system/process of changing the constraints.
    4. Easy to communicate the current template, but a bit more work to uncover what’s the new flavor of the month. I think players enjoy discussing and comparing new strategies and uncovering new tactically superior class templates.

    Thus, the discussions going forward should not be the same old debate about one or the other, but how to find the best balance for any given game.

  45. Hey Raph, don’t you hate getting blame for the acts of your “spawn”?

    Guess this is an example of “the sin of child is the sin of the father” or something like that. Can’t quite figure the phrase.

    Frank

  46. Nah, it’s all just sort of bewildering. I get credit and blame for all sorts of things all the time.

  47. Ever played a druid in WoW. its class based. but not. it doesnt stuck you to one role. but within a class based world it only causes anger.

    i wish i never played one, or i wish there’d be no classes at all.

  48. First, I agree with much that has been said above about classes having good points and bad (overall sucking much less than levels). Second, I’l like to point out that classes fit into the idea of Icons. You aren’t a short-range DPSer with medium armor, you’re a Rogue. Warcraft (we are still disecting WoW, right?) puts a lot of time into making Rogues look visually different, often with something light covering their face. This creates a feel that feeds into the story. (Is Story in MMOs naturally at odds with being a Virtual World? Does ongoing arcs make it less like a place and more like a game?)

  49. Well, send that on the the appropriate persons responsible. I guess I saw your next career move and concluded you must have been the one to lay the ground work for the destruction of UO (perhaps it was your absence instead?). Apologies.

    Anyway, I stand by the rest of my comments, especially those about thread count.

  50. I think the answer or solution is to realise the flaws each system has from a fundamental point of view regarding our expectations. Class systems are great because we know when we meet another class we know what to expect, but if you choose a class and build your character up, he/she will be exactly the same as mine with different equipment/augmentations. If it is skill based character then you don’t really feel like you are anything and you can become a ridiculously strong character that is a fast as lightning, and can jump and can do all sorts of things….well here is where I think lies the caveat. If you are taking a particular skill and improving it to the extreme, then shouldn’t other skills be negatively affected? If you are ridiculously strong, shouldn’t you be ridiculously slow? and have a low dexterity? ( i know many of you will say, but I want to combine power and speed!!!) well fair enough, but something needs to give, otherwise that is where the imbalances come from; you can’t have your cake and eat it too! LOL Seriously, if there is some sort of skill restricitions put in place that follow the rules of the “fantasy” world in which the game is set, like opposing skills that have a negative proportionally-inverse effects on each other or a maximum skill-total you are allowed to have, then the classes will be “born” out of these limitations. You therefore have a skill based, class generating RPG engine. Some class systems limit you skills points but that is not what I mean, and some skill systems generate certain types of characters and that’s not what I meant either – I mean balance the skill engine so you can not dominate through supremacy – you have to choose your niche and there are certain type of characters that will be your rivals and others will be a push-over – which also introduces the need for allegiances with complimentary characters in MMOG’s if you want to survive….. Just think about it!!! To me it is staring developers and everyone in the face – don’t allow supremacy to beachieved in either game system – only specialization through skill limitations/dynamics that allow classes to be “born”.

    Think about it.

  51. In the game I have been developing over the past 2 years, Genesis (the world’s first truely dynamic MMORPG!!! :) ) (www.playgenesis.com (shameless self promotion, I know)), I chose to go with a class systems versus free-form choose your own skillsets, although the classes are a little bit maleable. While it is more “realistic” to go with a skill-based system, we have to realize that realism doesn’t necessarily equate to fun. Going with a class system makes your game more of a game (a challenge with a finite set of choices that can result in two or more rated outcomes). Also, I think the class based system is very important for the following reason: role-playing. In every movie, book, and other type of medium, characters play distinct roles. Usually the protagonist has certain weaknesses, which he depends on side kicks / party members to compensate for. Usually these are in the classic forms of the big strong guy, the smart guy, the sneaky/nimble guy, etc. We have come to accept these archtypes as the keystones of good story-telling. If you just have a bunch of not-very-well-defined characters running around filling wierd, pieced-together roles, your storyline suffers.

    I think that even in free form worlds, it is important to maintain character archetypes…you have to do this by MINIMIZING the number of classes, versus creating more classes to match the various permutations…so, for example, if you want to have a Lumberjack class and a Wrestler class, you group them into a general “Strong Guy” class, which can then be made somewhat tailored to the players role by the paths they choose. So, a “Strong Guy” could become more specifically a Wrestler, a Lumberjack, or both, or some other combination of Strength-based classes. Does this make sense?

  52. I leave the question of whether virtual worlds are destined to have one single core game mechanic as an exercise for the reader.

    Well, what do we have in Real Life? Isn’t Physics one mechanic?

  53. Rik wrote:

    Isn’t Physics one mechanic?

    No. Physics is not a "mechanic"; although, mechanics sometimes experience physics.

  54. Gavan, looking forward to see your baby grow.

    And in regards to your perspective, I agree mostly. I think many designers can identify with your perspective. But like the “lite beer” debate, people like to debate the class vs. skill issue :)

    My old live-action role-playing (LARP) have a system that lasted more than 15+ years pretty much the same. The system have a list of basic skills in which a few base class lists are created: Warrior list, Rogue list, Mage List, Common List. There is an on-list cost and perhaps a off-list cost for the skills. If you purchase the Warrior List, you can purchase warrior skills at the on-list price. Otherwise, you’ll have to pay the really high off-list price.

    Then we have a list of advance skills in which a bit more advanced class lists are create: Master Warrior, Master Assassin, Master Rogue, Warlock, Sorcerer, etc. Many of the skills in these master list have high prereqs, and most do not have an off-list cost.

    With this system, players have the general archtype classses and the benefits conferred and also have the flexibility to create jack-of-all-trades at a higher cost. However, players will have to specialize in order to advance in Master classes.

    Starting with the base archtype classes of Warrior, Rogue, Mage is quite easy for new players, but the flexible system allow players to develop their character for more than 15 years.

    Since the founding of the group, many characters have retired or permed (permadeath), there are still people playing the same character for over 15 years.

    Hope your game will have such longevity.

    Frank

  55. why is it so hard, apparently, for devs to provide a prepackaged psuedo-class type system for noobs that provides easy entry, that can be overridden should the player wish? i.e. the daggerfall/morrowind/oblivion model. is it a conceptual block within the development environment to force the class/skill system dichotomy, where no such dichotomy really needs to exist? you even say in your article that the best class based systems are just skill based systems with constraints applied. why do devs/designers feel they must force those constraints? and another thing. why do game designers and game developers have such a severe “hardon” for “balance”.

    let me explain. back 20+ years ago, i used to play car wars religiously. point allocation system. we used to play with groups of 6 where one individual would have 50k points and the rest of us would have 10k-15k a piece. it was fun. i would kill for an mmo that would allow that kind of dynamic, where the focus was not on forcing everyone to be -equal- on every level (i.e. boring). swg used to have it with jedi – i hunted jedi with my (armorless) wookiee mbh the first month they were unlocked with 3 or 4 other mbh’s, and it was cool – even with 4 of the theoretically most powerful non-jedi, we rarely won. having to come up with strategies and work together to take out a single player was awesome, and i would love a game with raidish content with human intelligence behind it. the whole “alpha classes aren’t fair” complaint could have been dealt with by very high level npcs (i.e. boba fett) that even the alpha class char could not handle, spawning after some random playing time. with my jedi, on the other hand, i loved the roleplaying avenue along with the implied “wow” factor of having a character that was so difficult to acquire and, at the time, rare.

  56. Changing my posting name since there’s another David posting recently and I don’t want to be confused with that person (especially since his opinions differ from mine in several ways!)

    The problem with Alpha classes in MMOs is that everyone has to have the potential to become that class. And then most everyone does. If you set the bar high so that it’s really hard to become that alpha class, then people get frustrated and complain, and stop having fun with the basic classes, because they want to be the alpha class too.

    To use the SWG example, all players out there agreed that Jedi should be rare and powerful pre-beta. We suggested all sorts of intricate systems to insure that Jedi stayed rare and powerful but also that everyone had the chance to be one. Oddly enough, the CU system (the Jedi village) was a very accurate reflection of several player-proposed systems submitted pre-beta.

    The problem with that system wasn’t that it wasn’t hard to become a Jedi. It wasn’t that Jedi were very powerful (although they were).

    It was that over time, everyone who put the time into it eventually became one.

    When this started happening, and Jedi started becoming more common, the backlash began. Players who didn’t have Jedi saw other players running around who, for whatever reason, they felt didn’t deserve to be Jedi. “If those people can be Jedi, then I should be a Jedi too”. And they went to the village and jumped on the bandwagon. The cycle repeated. And eventually that morphed into what SWG has today. Jedi as a starting profession, and one that is watered down so as to be relatively balanced with other starting professions.

    The lesson to be learned here, I think, is that if you’re going to allow everyone the chance to become the alpha class, over time they eventually all will, no matter how hard or time-consuming you make the process. That would apply whether you’re using a progressive class system, or a skill-system that allows for “advanced” templates that have to be earned through gameplay.

  57. Boo for reading eight different blog posts
    and their associated comments. I miss MUD-Dev.

  58. […] rn rn rn rn rn rn rn Classes vs Skills Discussionrn rn rn rn rn rn rn Apparently lately there has been a lot of discussion from various developers about the whole Classes vs Skills thing in MMO’s. I thought they might provide some worthwhile reading since I know it’s been a discussion long talked about here. So I figured I’d list a few (which each link to a few more ‘etc) to see what various people think on the topic.nnDo Classes Suck? – Raph KosternClass Systems Suck, Skill Systems SwallownClasses – Damion SchubertnBroken Toys – Scott JenningsnLike school in the summertime – Steve DanusernArtificial Restrictions: Classes – Ryan ShwaydernStay ClassynMMORPG Classes – Steve Madroguern rn rn rn rn rn rn rn rn rnrnrn […]

  59. The problem with Alpha classes in MMOs is that everyone has to have the potential to become that class. And then most everyone does.

    The problem is that people refuse to accept their ‘turn’ as the alpha class being just that. Once they get alpha they want to stay there and Devs who have incorporated the only logical way of getting rid of alphas (perma-death) get bitched at for spoiling their fun.

    If you want to run an alpha class system then you have to put prohibitions in place to prevent over creation of the alpha clas and to remove as many as are created once the balance of power is correct.

  60. The problem with Alpha classes in MMOs is that everyone has to have the potential to become that class. And then most everyone does. If you set the bar high so that it’s really hard to become that alpha class, then people get frustrated and complain, and stop having fun with the basic classes, because they want to be the alpha class too.

    i don’t agree that an alpha class cannot be implemented such that it is the only class players want to play. to use the swg example, if the content, skillset and combat viability of the non jedi existed pre”holocrons” then folks would have definitely stuck around with the basic profs. i know it wasn’t the case for me – i mastered bounty hunter with a wookiee before wookiee armor, vehicles, buffs, mounts, with super long shuttle waits and a 10% chance of a bugged mark (requiring 320 marks at 45 min-to an hour a piece to get full investigation column). that was -way- more difficult than the early jedi unlockers, who sometimes only had to master as few as 7 or 8 professions to hit the right combo (a process of perhaps 2 weeks total.

    the problem with my char, once i mastered bh, was that i was woefully inadequate, especially considering the ridiculous amount of effort i spent in getting him where he was, and this was a problem of basic char design, i.e. something that could have been (and eventually was) rectified easily with character tweaking.

    if the bounty hunter class/skill set had been implemented properly (as it was in the few publishes leading up to the cu) allowing for more diverse auxilliary skills to be added, (and had the wookiees been given comparable armor to all the other races’ armor options) i would never have changed profs (as opposed to mastering 22 profs toward a jedi unlock).

    To use the SWG example, all players out there agreed that Jedi should be rare and powerful pre-beta. We suggested all sorts of intricate systems to insure that Jedi stayed rare and powerful but also that everyone had the chance to be one. Oddly enough, the CU system (the Jedi village) was a very accurate reflection of several player-proposed systems submitted pre-beta.

    The problem with that system wasn’t that it wasn’t hard to become a Jedi. It wasn’t that Jedi were very powerful (although they were).

    It was that over time, everyone who put the time into it eventually became one.

    i don’t see that as a problem. if people want to be a jedi, let em, just require the amount of work commensurate with the abilities of the character. i thought the cu implementation was perfect, and only lacked one thing – deterents.

    the whole idea of using players (bounty hunters) to try to limit the jedi population by hunting them was a horrible idea, imo, since it splintered the community so terribly. a much better implementation would have been using npc bh’s to hunt jedi (after a certain time online, bh’s started showing up to kill you, and would not stop until you were dead), and giving bh’s npc jedi (like mellichae, for example) to hunt. the nge now has implemented a decent pvp-based bounty system for any character class that is much better than the old system, since only folks interested in pvp will ever get on the bh terms.

    When this started happening, and Jedi started becoming more common, the backlash began. Players who didn’t have Jedi saw other players running around who, for whatever reason, they felt didn’t deserve to be Jedi. “If those people can be Jedi, then I should be a Jedi too”. And they went to the village and jumped on the bandwagon. The cycle repeated. And eventually that morphed into what SWG has today. Jedi as a starting profession, and one that is watered down so as to be relatively balanced with other starting professions.

    The lesson to be learned here, I think, is that if you’re going to allow everyone the chance to become the alpha class, over time they eventually all will, no matter how hard or time-consuming you make the process. That would apply whether you’re using a progressive class system, or a skill-system that allows for “advanced” templates that have to be earned through gameplay.

    if the profs/skills in swg were properly implemented from the start (instead of taking the cu and the subsequent few publishes to get things going properly) much fewer folks would have pursued jedi, i think. the non-jedi profs/skillsets just weren’t that much fun (bugged, broken or underpowered) during the first ~year of the game.

  61. […] MMO: Class vs Skill? http://www.zenofdesign.com/?p=704 (great article, kinda stirred the current debate) http://www.raphkoster.com/?p=660 (or “wow, do I wish I was amazing as I think I am!”) http://www.nerfbat.com/?p=79 (or “twice the presumptuousness of Raph, with half the credibility!”) http://www.moorgard.com/?p=75 ( or “how many different ways can someone say nothing?”) This is a debate as old as time, with everyone digging in and entrenching themselves in their own personal opinions. In much the way someone is liberal as a youth and conservative as they age, my opinion on this topic has evolved as I went from MMO to MMO. For those that don’t know (new to MMO’s, etc), the arguement is over one of two characters systems: Skill-based vs Class-based. Class-based = WoW. You are a hunter, you have a defined set of skills based upon your class. No other classes have these abilities, and you can’t get the abilities of other classes. You are “arbitrarily” limited in what you can do based upon your class. Classes in RPG’s began in the 70’s with D&D though some would say Tolkein founded them in the 60’s. Skill-based = Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Your “class” is nothing more then a name assigned to the skills you’ve chosen. You can have any skill in the game, to any level, with no restrictions of any kind. My opinion: Skills = Freedom, which the users love and the developers hate. Everyone wants to do what they want, without understanding or caring what it does to the game as a whole. Skill-based games ALWAYS end up with a “tankmage” class, the “optimum configuration”, that only the uber engineering number crunchers (*cough*Bolgrim*cough*) ever understand. It COMPLETELY alienates the casual gamers because there are simply too many options presented and no clear undestanding of how they work. Roughly 15% of the possible combinations are effective, and 20% are completely ineffective, and the new player has no clue whatsoever which is which. You think talent tree debates are insane? Try having every skill in WoW available to every character everywhere, and imagine how chaotic the “what combination is best?” fights would be. Class = structure, which the devs love and the power gamers hate. The devs try diligently to “balance” all the classes, so the new/casual player has a good chance of ending up with a viable character without having to use a slide ruler and own 3 different 2,000 page strategy guides. However, the power gamers spend all their time grousing about things one class can do that their chose class can not. They hate limits with a purple passion. Like many people, I find this debate amusing because, for me, I see the answer as very self-evident…depending upon the type of game being designed. If I want a small game with power players in it, I make it skill based and cut them loose. If I want a large game that is appealing to the masses, I make a class based one and keep things as balanced as possible._________________Krystallynn – 60 Druid The race is long…and in the end, it’s only with yourself. […]

  62. […] Damien at ZenOfDesign kicked off a debate about clas / skill systems in response to an article by Thomas Mortensen at MMORPG. You have to read the ZoD thread first for half of what follows to make the slightest bit of sense, and even then you’re going to disagree as people (players) seem to want to be EITHER class or skill based. Anyway, it’s sparked off a postathon by every dev/commentator/blogger who has an opinion to opine, and it’s great :)Brenlo (Bixiebopper) writes: “It’s all about choice. So is one system any better than the other? Not in my opinion, folks just have preferences. Besides, it’s what happens after your character is defined that really counts.”Raph Koster is on the class/skill debate too.. naturally :) he comes down on both sides of the fence:”The question is, as always, what is the appropriate mix for the job. If you are making a game centered around teams, with clear singular objectives and one core system and mechanic, and nothing much else in the mix, then yes, of course, go with classes. Anything else would be a bit strange.But if you’re making a virtual world with more than one thing to do, more than one game system, then they’ll make less sense. As soon as you have parallel game systems that don’t really overlap in their objectives, you’ll need to account for the fact that someone might be a hockey goalie and a herringbone stitcher. And the more of these you add to the mix, the less sense classes will make.”Well, this is MY blog space, so even though I feel as intimidated as heck by having so many big names in one entry, I gots my own opinions on class/skill systems:”Neither classes nor skill based systems ’suck’ in and of themselves. It depends on what the player is expecting to be able to do within the game structure and how well the game design allows them to do that that results in a perception of suckiness.For instance, I roll a combat toon in a class based system and find that I can’t, for example, heal others. Does the class system suck, or does the problem lie in my choice of build?In a skill based system, I chose to invest on, say, defensive skills and heals to the stage where I can only do a little damage in combat but am effectively unkillable. Again, does the system suck or my choice of build? Obviously somebody who dislikes def stackers will have one PoV, the def stacker will have another.A skill based system that allows a player to build a good low level (in terms of effectiveness, not necessarily combat level) toon with a borad but shallow range of abilities allows the player to experience more of the options that the game allows before choosing to specialise on one particular field.Obviously the best example I can give of this is SWG where it was possible to take all the novice professions (thinly masked classes) and be a huntin’, shootin’ dancin’ medic who could do a little crafting with the resources he harvested. As your character developed you could then choose to drop the skills you didn’t need, or even have to sacrifice some that you’d have liked to have kept ie, at Master Ranger / Master Rifles it was not possible to have a large self heal as you couldn’t keep any of your medic skills.You could of course drop the master box of one of the profs and invest in medic but then your effectiveness as a hunter would be impacted. (Which of course takes me onto my other favourite hobbyhorse, choices and consequences. I’ll save that for another day ;) )A well structured class system will allow the player to have, for example in the EQ ranger subclass, effective specialist combat skills and sufficient self buffs and heals which are consistent/coherent with the professions descriptors and player expectations. You will, of course, have to depend on other players for the skills and abilities that fall outside your chosen class.As I said, Idon’t think either system necessarily sucks, depending on it’s implementation. I do agree that a class system is generally easier to introduce to a player as you can point them at a defined archetype and say “that’s a paladin, that’s a pirate” and they’ll understand what can and can’t be done by that class within the game context. On the other hand, a free ranging skill based system allows for the sort of dynamic mix that you do find in real life where people have a multitude of skills that they can apply in different situations and which vary in value depending on their appropriateness for that situation.OK, I’ll stop there before this becomes a dissertation on Acquired and Ascribed Roles, Expectations and social token exchange… ” […]

  63. Showing up late to the party, as usual, but….

    Among other projects, I’ve been designing a MMORPG. In the process, several ideas I once held about how MMOGs should be designed have been upset — it’s been a great learning experience. (Not that it’s over yet; I still have a lot to learn.)

    One of those ideas was that it’s relatively simple to have a playable game world based purely on skills — no classes. The problem I ran into was exactly what David (Tal) described: how do you decide what content to add? How do you key features to character abilities?

    If individual skills didn’t interact much, I could dream up individual bits of content (which I loosely define as “things to experience”) associated with each skill. Each content nugget could be designed in a near-vacuum, keeping the process simple enough to be manageable.

    But in building a game world where players will group several skills together to try to achieve some gameplay goal, there wind up being so many ways that different skills can overlap and interact that I found myself hitting a combinatorial overload wall. Maybe it’s just me; maybe I’m simply not sharp enough to figure out how to design content in a massively multiplayer game with 50+ completely independent skills. Or is it just really hard, period?

    Either way, I wound up creating a set of “careers,” and building content keyed to those careers instead of to individual skills. (That doesn’t mean there’s no other “content,” just that the breadth of the gameplay-specific activities got condensed.)

    By doing this, I reduced 50+ modes of play to 16. Sixteen different brands of “things to experience” is still complex, but it’s comprehensible by mere mortals.

    The point to all this is that I wound up designing a game with a form of classes even though my original intention was to create a totally skill-based game. The process of trying to construct my own game offered insights into why MMORPGs tend to look the way they do that I might not have gotten otherwise.

    Which leaves me a little less ready to verbally hammer professional MMORPG developers for not designing the pure skill-based game I prefer. It might be possible, but I think I can see now that it’s harder than I thought.

    I wish someone would write a “design your own online game!” game.

  64. One question to start with is “why build content keyed to skills?” I mean, on the face of it that sounds silly, but consider that

    – skills are naturally grouped, most likely, so families makes sense anyhow. Don’t get hung up on that. However, parallel lines of specialization are very useful in doing a skill system. Consider doing that rather than unlocking disparate abilities through linear advancement. Examples would be separating shieldwork from sword work; then a crafter can learn the shields, without learning the sword.

    – many skills will likely not have consumable content but instead have systemic data instead (eg, things like craftables rather than quests). In fact, in general, you want to avoid skills that are purely dependent on consumables. The classic example is a lockpicking skill that relies on handcrafted locked doors, instead of some self-refreshing form of locks appearing in the world.

    16 modes of play is still quite a large set, but odds are that those sixteen can be grouped even further into playstyle choices.

  65. A concept I like is to have separate skill trees that show a focus in one particular area. Players can pick skills out of any tree, but lower skills in one tree serve as pre-requisites for other, more powerful skills in the same tree. So, you have to learn basic swordplay before you can start learning more powerful tricks with your sword. But your progression in swordplay is separate from your progression in other areas – such as things like stealth, crafting, riding, using a staff, etc….

    Since players can mix and match, they might choose to go mostly stealth with a little bit of swordplay, go all swords with a little bit of riding, even things out between several trees, or whatever. But they still have to start at the bottom of any given tree and work their way up if they want the “master-level” abilities in that particular skill set.

    Doing it this way you still end up with distinct ability sets that you can build your content to leverage. So in some cases, “hybrid” characters might find it difficult to progress through a specific challenge because it requires a high level of ability in one particular area. At the same time, those “hybrid” characters also would have a level of flexibility that a very focused character would not – that’s the strength, and the weakness, of hybridization.

  66. Raph and David, thanks for the comments. I think they help highlight Raph’s point that once you start grouping skills, the groups eventually start looking like classes.

    To clarify my test design, I didn’t actually go straight from 50+ skills to 16 careers. Instead, while roughing out an initial set of 70-80 skills, I took the four broad playstyles (combat, commerce, exploration, socializing) that I wanted to support and broke each one down into four sub-modes, two oriented (more or less) toward solo play and two group-oriented. Then I tweaked the skills down to 60 that fit the resulting sixteen careers.

    Another lesson learned: Two of the more important game design tools are Word and Excel. :-)

    The skills I’m currently considering are broadly organized into the four main play modes, but there’s no differentiation or hierarchy beyond that. So it’s still a very free-form system. The character creation section would offer plenty of hints and suggestions on choosing skills that fit particular careers for players who prefer the top-down approach, while still offering freedom to players who enjoy experimenting.

    Within the game itself, I’m defining gameplay-specific player actions (i.e., gameplay content) in terms of “action descriptors.” Among other things, these let me define multiple skills that might apply in performing that action. For example, a character’s success in performing the Mining action might be affected primarily by her Mining skill, secondarily by her Efficiency and Demolitions skills, and tertiarily by her Sensors, Prospecting, Chemistry and Cargo Ops skills. This is pretty simple for defining solo career actions; role balancing is harder for actions in group careers but I’m still working on that.

    By developing many such actions for each career, and by defining each action to be affected by a broad range of skills, I believe I get the best of both worlds. I can organize game activity into careers that work like classes while still allowing players to choose different skills to apply to those activities. That’s probably not a novel approach, and it’s got practical difficulties of its own, but I think it skirts both the Scylla of excessively constrained gameplay (“why is this all I can do?”) and the Charybdis of overly freeform play (“what am I supposed to do?”).

    That’s the theory, anyway.

    I guess the overall point here is that I’m another one who believes that a hybrid class/skill approach is feasible. There’s a question as to whether significant commercial success requires picking one of the two ends of the spectrum (probably classes), but could a logically-designed hybrid system still wind up being fun for a lot of people?

    I think so, but maybe as I keep working on my design doc I’ll change my mind on that, too….

  67. […] Stupid posts: Raph Koster, Probably Not, Zen of Design, Broken Toys. […]

  68. I made the case in “A Touch of Class” that a properly implemented skill-based system is in fact simpler to balance than current class-based ones.

  69. a properly implemented skill-based system is in fact simpler to balance than current class-based ones.

    Balance doesn’t really exist without classes. Imbalance is a result of categorized archetypes being unequal in the tasks they are believed to be equally capable of performing; remove the archetypes, you remove the need for balance. It becomes… economic.

    If you take a look at a hybrid game, both class- and skill-based. Issues of balance never come up with regards to particular skills (except class-restricted skills), because skills are inherently balanced, since they are undifferentiated between players.

    Differentiate, and you have classes. And balance issues.

  70. Balance doesn’t really exist without classes. Imbalance is a result of categorized archetypes being unequal in the tasks they are believed to be equally capable of performing; remove the archetypes, you remove the need for balance. It becomes… economic.

    If you take a look at a hybrid game, both class- and skill-based. Issues of balance never come up with regards to particular skills (except class-restricted skills), because skills are inherently balanced, since they are undifferentiated between players.

    Differentiate, and you have classes. And balance issues.

    Precisely. Except… if one skill is much stronger than another yet easier or just as difficult to train, then balancing is needed. That was my point.

  71. Weekend Design Challenge: Classes vs. Skills

    A while ago Damion Schubert opened a can of worms about Classes vs. Skill-based systems (http://www.zenofdesign.com/?p=704). This caused a lot of discussion on many fronts. A good summary can be found at Slashdot (http://games.slashdot.org/article.pl?…

  72. […] Les ides de Raph Koster sont de manire gnrale trs intressantes. Je vous conseille vivement son blog: http://www.raphkoster.com IL a aussi crit un bouquin qui n’est pas dnu d’intrt. Ca fait un moment que je lis ce qu’il crit et dit et je dois dire que je le trouve assez clairvoyant. Contrairement beaucoup de gens dans sa profession, il semble avoir une assez bonne notion commerciale globale.Je vous conseille vivement ses avis concernant WoW par exemple, c’est assez plein de vrit. Contrairement beaucoup d’autres il ne critique pas mais admet le succs et l’explique tout en expliquant pourquoi il est possible et intressant d’offrir autre chose.Je trouve qu’il pose de manire gnrale les bonnes questions. Et c’est peut-tre d’ailleurs a la chose qui est apprciable avec lui. C’est quelqu’un qui questionne beaucoup et explique beaucoup sa faon d’arriver ses conclusions, trs pdagogique en somme.Aprs, on est d’accord ou pas, je pense que a dpend de la faon de voir les MMOs mais pour ma part je le trouve beaucoup plus intelligent et clairvoyant que les mecs de SOE qu’on “entend” et l. Quelques petites choses trs intressantes lire: Do classes suck?World of Warcrack panel Et beaucoup d’autres. pyrhum.net […]

  73. […]   Well I got into a discussion on the MMO boards about Class based (linear level progression) versus Skill based (modular character progression) games.  How they work and why some fail.  My whole thing was about how this discussion is old and is really about RPGs and not MMOs, though that was the focus of the discussion.   Link to original topic.   Link to my post on The Galaxy Report forum.  Where I bring up my version on the class vs skill based systems.   I thought that this might make an interesting topic.  Talking about what we think has made the RPGs work and not work and what we as gamers look for in a game (as in level of complexity in character creation and management). […]

  74. […] An hybrid system similar to what I have described would retain the advantages of classes that Raph pointed out as well (but not completely) the advantages of a skill-based system. And the concept of class adaptation and role switch would also address the other quirks about the “balance” (and “versatility”, which is a great strength in the eye of the players). […]

  75. […] one link and got engrossed in a dozen different blogs for about an hour. My favourite article was this one, which very neatly explains the differences between class- and skill-based game systems. (I’m […]

  76. […] blog by Steve (Sierra Kilo) “Like School in the Summertime” – blog by Steve Danuser (Moorgard) “Do Classes Suck?” – by Raph Koster IMGDC Class vs. Skill Debate – Follow-up after a roundtable discussion […]

  77. […] by Steve (Sierra Kilo)"Like School in the Summertime" – blog by Steve Danuser (Moorgard)"Do Classes Suck?" – by Raph KosterIMGDC Class vs. Skill Debate – Follow-up after a roundtable […]

  78. […] I think I have liked most of the things I have heard and seen. Number one concern on my mind at the moment is probably the level & skill system or the restrictions on advancing in skills, to be more specific. I am pretty much all for free character advancement or at least free customization of your character (i.e no actual classes or such), but could live with a few restrictions (you can only be a Grandmaster on certain skill and Master on certain skill etc.). Player run governments, in-depth economics and all that sounds purely awesome and I can’t wait to experience them in action.So, you know, I approve. Continue. Heh.Edit: Here are some semi-interesting reads about classes vs. skill system (as in using a skill increases that specific skill) for all you peeps.http://www.zenofdesign.com/?p=704http://www.brokentoys.org/2006/08/24/ubiqs-a-classy-guy/http://weblog.probablynot.com/2006/08/24/stay-classy/http://www.nerfbat.com/?p=139http://steve.madrogue.com/index.php/2006/08/24/mmorpg-classes/http://www.moorgard.com/?p=75http://www.raphkoster.com/?p=660http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/707http://www.gamedev.net/community/forums/ViewReply.asp?id=2968730 […]

  79. […] been reading the debate on skills vs classes being revived again. Firstly, have a look at those blogs. They’re an interesting read, […]

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