I’ve read a lot of really great posts as a result of my hornets-nest stirring post about how classes are better than unclassed games. Some rebuttals have been pretty smart and have changed my mind about a number of things. For instance, it seems obvious in retrospect that EVE has classes — for my definition of that word — because the ship you’re in tightly constrains the role you can perform.
Other rebuttals have been frustrating, either because they misunderstood my point or because I had already specifically talked about their counter-argument already and they ignored it.
But mostly, I think problems arose from my use of the word “class”, which was not defined well enough. I’ve defined it before on the blog, but I didn’t define it in the last post. (And I attempted to tackle a bunch of small side-topics which made things murkier.) Let me focus just on the core point for a second.
What a “Class” Really Is
By my definition, a game has “classes” if the game’s roles are restricted so that you can only do one of them at a time. What are roles? Well that will differ from game to game, but most games (especially ones that want group-based static content) will have roles designed into them from the get-go.
In a classic “trinity” game, the roles are tank, healer, and DPS. So a trinity-combat game has classes if it’s impossible to perform both the “tank role” and the “DPS role”, or the “DPS role and the Healing role” at the same time.
Now, all the other verbs, the non-role-defining verbs, should be sprinkled liberally everywhere, using any structure that seems fun. That includes the crowd-control verbs and the buffing and the debuffing and the fast travel and so on. You can use a point-buy system, or a skill tree, or whatever seems like it will capture players’ imaginations the most. (You can even use lesser-powered versions of the class-defining verbs, like Aion does and like Rift seems to be doing. If they’re timer-limited or otherwise weakened, they don’t end up doing much harm.) As long as the key role verbs are restricted, it’s still classes by my definition.
A game is “classless” if you can fully play multiple roles at once, or if there aren’t any predefined roles anyway.
The Heart of My Argument
Given the above definitions, the no-drama way to restate my last post is: if you have classes you will have a much easier time keeping players within a reasonable continuum of power. That means that the gimpiest character build is not orders of magnitude weaker than the most powerful. (They may be twice as good, even three times better, sure. You’ll get that in any system. But that’s not ruinous, it’s just embarrassing.)
Keeping people in the right ballpark of power is crucial so that you can make content for them. Content is quests, items, and other things that they find fun and rewarding.
That’s it, really… that’s my argument. Debating how you get your skills (trees versus lists versus random or whatever else) isn’t really part of my argument. That’s all frilly extra stuff that doesn’t affect balance too much.
The reason I like my definition of classes is that it’s Boolean: a game either has enforced roles or it doesn’t. The Boolean nature is why I can make a broad claim. I don’t have to waffle much because there are very few cases where you want to intentionally weaken your roles.
Let me quickly go over the various counterpoints and rebuttals from the blogosphere. These aren’t all aimed at the main point… some of them are discussing side-points from the first post… and some are NEW side arguments that had good points.
What about hybrid classes?
Even WoW tends to blur the lines with classes like the Druid which can perform multiple roles at once, or at least in rapid succession. Doesn’t that counter my argument?
Well, those hybrid classes are always a nightmare to balance. For instance, the original design of the druid seemed to be that “the Druid is 80% as good as a regular tank and 80% as good as a regular healer”, but when he can’t get into groups, this design breaks down. The flip side is the tank who is also a bad-ass healer, which is a problem too. In WoW this has been a source of constant balance tension.
These classes are hard balance problems, but not as hard as they could be because they’re prepackaged deals: The designer can tweak the healer parts of the Druid without tweaking the healer abilities of Priests. So if they can figure out what the right power level is (not easy), they at least have the ability to fix it easily.
You talk about EVE, but EVE has classes!
I’ll give you that one — using my above definition, EVE does have classes because the ships define the role you can perform. If I were rewriting the blog post, I would substitute Champions Online for the examples, because it definitely does not have classes by my definition. It’s also a better poster-child for the sort of balance implosion I meant to highlight.
But What About Diablo 2!?
Some PvE games can be balanced while seeming to defy my class definition… but most are are trick examples. Diablo 2 is such a game. This game only has one class by my definition: mass-murderer. Everyone is a PvE mass-murderer.
In Diablo 2, mass-murderers can group together in pretty much any combination and be successful, or they can solo and be successful. There’s pretty much no rock/paper/scissors mechanics going on; there’s very little role-requirements (some classes have modest buffs that are better for certain other characters, but they’re so unimportant that it seems weird to even call that out).
D2 is just a collection of bad-asses soloing together. It’s fun, and it’s a reasonable way to make a game, but Diablo 2 is not an example that disproves my point, either.
Just Look at <Pen and Paper Game X>, They Show How To Do It!
Tabletop RPGs are different. When I’m DMing a game and see somebody who’s not having fun, I will pull them aside after the game and say, “I can tell you’re frustrated. Why don’t we change X and Y about your character?”
In an MMO, there’s no personalized service. The game does exactly what you tell it to, even if what you tell it to do is alienate your users and make them quit. That’s why I’m always hesitant to consider a tabletop game system as having magic bullets to MMO problems.
They are good sources of inspiration, though. I have a pretty big collection, and I’ve ordered two new ones based on blog comments.
But I like playing craptastic builds!
Are you sure? I think that you like feeling unique, and you like having lots of options. And you’re willing to play crappy builds in order to get those feelings. That’s not the same thing.
Designers can give you feelings of uniqueness and choice without leaving you leveling ten times slower than your peers.
(And yes, I mean “ten times” slower. When Champions first launched, the best builds were at least an order of magnitude (10x) better than the worst classes. When AC1 launched, the best were at least two orders of magnitude (100x) stronger than the weakest… possibly more.)
No, I REALLY DO Like Playing Gimpy Characters!
I can accept that there’s a few people who really do like playing gimpy templates. But for every person who will play a gimpy class in quiet, there are lots more that will get on the message boards and whine forever. They had a character design in mind, and the game said “play what YOU imagine!!!”, and sure they could make what they imagined, but it turns out the game fails to let them enjoy it.
They will blame you. A few will literally come to your place of business to yell at you; some will threaten to poison your dog; they can never be satisfied; they are emotional and they feel betrayed.
I’m making a very tangential argument here, but it’s one worth considering. Do you really want to let people believe they can play a certain way and then not really support it? That’s basically lying, and in my experience, MMO players as a group don’t take it well.
Magic: The Gathering intentionally creates useless verb cards because it’s fun for players to figure out the best builds. They don’t have classes, and it still works, because players like figuring out what works and what doesn’t!
Yes, very true. But as I mentioned when I pointed this out in the first post, M:tG works great because their entire product is a new batch of verbs every year. Magic doesn’t have any content that needs to stay in continuous use for the next five years.
I totally agree that letting players make bad choices in an atmosphere of complete control is a fun mechanic for many gamers, and that some level of character control should be in any modern MMO.
I also agree that any game where you have tons of free-form skill choices needs a way to undo those choices cheaply (as is the case with Magic, where you can trivially change your deck). Otherwise people will leave.
But at the end of the day, Magic’s system is not an MMO-usable system. Think about it: every year or so you basically throw out all your cards and start over. Imagine an MMO that made you redo everything every year. It’d be called ‘A Tale in the Desert’ and it might have a cult following, but would not be able to find the audience you probably imagine it would.
MMO players, as a rule, become attached to their character and their stuff and they aren’t happy about losing it. When you take their stuff away they tend to throw around words like “I want all my money back for the past year, now that you stole what I earned!” And then they call the Better Business Bureau and then you have to try to explain to them how an MMO works. It’s fun in much the same way that being trepanned is fun.
Games can’t be perfectly balanced anyway, so stop wasting time on that!
OH MY GOD please do not use that argument against me. It is my pet argument and I’ve spent half the blog saying that very thing. I think that “fun” is way more important than “balance”, and I think designers should implicitly accept that an MMO can’t be balanced.
But I made that point IN THE POST, and explained why it’s different here. So why would you arghhhhgdfgfdg.
It’s not about balancing for “fairness”. It’s about balancing for “ability to make content and keep the game running.”
In Champions, the balance was only maybe 10x off, and it was still pretty killer. In Asheron’s Call 1, the difference was quite a lot more. A well-built level 20 character could kill an army of level 60 opponents, maybe ten or fifteen of them. At the same time.
These are power differentials that goes beyond “balance” and into “how in the hell are we gonna make content for all these different power levels?” It’s not about a fair playing field. It’s about making content.
In a classless system where roles are freely mixed, you tend to get very big power differences and it tends to be extra hard to fix them. That’s because none of the roles are especially broken… but when the roles are combined, they go crazy and you can’t keep them in check. So you have to shunt in weird special-case stuff, over and over, hoping that it helps enough. It sucks and it’s very time-consuming.
You can fix it. It can be done. And doing it is a great design challenge that feels good. To repeat, you can make this sort of game work. You will, however, take a long long time doing it.
If you just jot down on your Design Document that your MMO will have a completely free-form skill system, and you don’t allocate a whole lot of extra balancing time, you’re in for a surprise! And it’s not surprise cupcakes, it’s surprise pain.
But <insert game I like> had no classes and it’s balanced!
First, ask how long it took to balance the game. Did lots of players leave before the balance was achieved? If so, that was pretty much my argument. It’s not impossible to do, just much harder to curb because you often don’t have the granularity to tune things properly.
The other common argument is in PvP games where you just assume everybody’s gonna reroll a bunch anyway. The PvP system of “rock-paper-scissors-lizard-spock, choose two” is the classic example. That “works” because most of the combinations end up being completely worthless, but who cares, PvPers will reroll anyway, and there’s very little other content that gets in the way.
PvP players seem more willing to reroll anyway. But if you’re trying to provide a bunch of PvE content as well, you’re in for a lot of pain.
Conclusion: Thanks for the discussion!
These have been the best discussions I’ve seen in a while, and I’m happy for that. I actually wrote that post long ago and then mothballed it, because… why do I need the headache of a lot of arguments? I wasn’t trolling: I stand by my premise. But I knew it would piss people off.
But I’m glad I posted it; I learned some things, and refined some of my ideas based on others’ rebuttals, and I now have like three new blog topics to talk about too.
I wish the blogosphere was more willing to pick up other, less controversial elements of game design, because defending your point of view is a great way to find out what you really believe. Unfortunately there are only a few topics that seem to get “bites”, and I tend to have to state it controversially in order to get people to overcome their apathy and reply. This is frustrating. But I’ll take what I can get!