|August 28th, 2006|
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.