A couple weeks back I talked about how you can pick two combat roles at once in my MMO, and switch them out in town. A comment from David Grundy:
Interesting on the role switching. But, why only “whenever they’re in town”?
Why create an artificial barrier to a player doing something that you as a designer want them to do? I think the question to ask yourself is; do you want players to switch roles pretty easily so that they can contribute in different situations; the answer you’ve put above sounds pretty much like an emphatic yes. Next question, do you want to create an un-fun, time-consuming and ultimately pointless mechanic for the player to be able to do this?
That’s a fair question. Who on earth will enjoy running back to town to switch classes? Nobody. So why make them do it?
The reason I make it hard for players to switch classes is so that players can’t super-min-max every scenario. I don’t want players switching classes every few seconds between each fight. It would be tedious and time consuming, and you’d have to carry tons of extra equipment around to make it work.
Sometimes “Less Structure” Actually Means “More Tedious”
But it would work: you’d level faster by switching classes constantly. So people would feel competitive pressure to do it. And since I expect to have a fair number of WoW-gamers who have been weaned on achievement-minded gameplay, they will fall right into this trap. They’ll min-max the game until it’s not fun to play, and then they’ll complain bitterly about how tedious the game is. And at the same time, the person who plays the “right” way, not changing classes constantly, will compare themselves to the people doing the tedious thing and will feel dumb for not doing that too.
This design pitfall is called “balancing through tedium.” It happens when the designer goes “nah, we don’t have to worry about that scenario, it’s so tedious nobody would do it!” That kind of thinking works in board games sometimes. It works in children’s games sometimes. But it doesn’t work in traditional MMOs.
Calculating the Price of Tedium
Of course, I wouldn’t let that happen. I’ve seen firsthand how damaging it is to let tedium be the limiter of your game design. So instead, I’d homogenize and simplify my skill designs, watering down each one so that you could switch classes constantly and it wouldn’t mean as much.
Let me give you a really simple example of what I mean by watered down skills. Each combat skill has an “emergency ability” on a 5- to 10-minute cooldown. Normally you’d have access to two of these powers. But if you can switch classes constantly, you’d eventually have easy access to dozens of them! And whenever you used an emergency power, you’d switch to a new class in the next fight, so you’d always have one ready to go.
Assuming these emergency abilities are powerful (they are), this would do bad things to the difficulty of the game. People who had mastered dozens of combat skills would be able to clear dungeons far faster than people who only had two combat skills mastered. So in time it would be seen as “mandatory” to know twelve combat skills and switch between them constantly. And then I’ve failed and everybody hates the design.
Of course, I wouldn’t let that happen since it’s so easy to predict the problems with it. Instead, I just wouldn’t give out abilities with long cooldown timers. Or else I’d create some complex system of shared timers. This would require me to homogenize the skills: they’d need to be on the same timer, so different skills couldn’t have different cooldowns.
In the end, what did I do? I lowered the overall fun level to avoid some (very occasional) tedium. It’s a net loss in fun.
Minimizing Overall Tedium
The above example is actually one of the easiest ones to fix, but it’s also the easiest to explain, so I went with that one. There are actually a bunch of places where switching classes too easily would suck the fun out of the game.
I want to reiterate that I’m not being punitive for the sake of being punitive. I don’t think that mentality has much place in modern games. I’m actually doing the opposite: I’m saving players from being “forced” (through competitive pressure) to min-max their characters in tedious fashion. And to a lesser extent, I’m saving players from having boring homogenized classes.
It’s kind of a lose/lose for me, of course: players will say I’m being a dick, even though I’m doing it specifically to be nice to players in the long term.
Feeling Clever Is Good… But Don’t Overdo It Or It Dies
It’s also important to let players feel clever while they play. And I admit that if you could switch classes constantly, you would feel pretty clever for a while, switching to just the right situation for each battle… but you’d only feel clever for a while, because it would be more-or-less mandatory (due to the social pressure to keep up with your friends). Then it stops being “clever” and starts being “work.”
I want players to feel clever. I also want them to min-max, if that’s what they like doing. Remember that there’s a third set of abilities in the game, along with the two sets of class abilities you get. These abilities can be cherry-picked at any time, and doing so will let you min-max boss fights (and regular fights too, but not so much). I think it’s fun to carefully plan out your boss fights. I just don’t think it’s fun to have to plan out every fight.
And as another commenter ‘Expert Novice’ mentioned, maybe I should have special items that let you switch classes in mid-dungeon, but have a price attached. Or maybe there are “class-switch stations” outside of dungeons. That sort of stuff is easy to add later, if it turns out not to be a problem. When everything is up and running, I can go back and minimize the pain to just the amount that’s beneficial.
And I’ve Got Nothing Against Pointless Mechanics
Going back to David’s earlier question, do I want to create an “un-fun, time-consuming and ultimately pointless mechanic?”… well, even though this mechanic isn’t pointless, I do have a lot of other pointless mechanics in the game. (Even more so than a typical MMO.)
This week while doing skill designs, I added a completely pointless prerequisite for the high-level skill Necromancy. Necromancy is mastery of death, so naturally, the prerequisite should include Dying. So now Dying is a new skill you get by… dying. Ideally in new or epic ways.
“Why!?” If you have to ask why, then I don’t think I can explain it in a way that would convince you. But I’ll try: I want to add a lot of pointless details to my game even though they don’t enhance the minute-to-minute experience of the game. In the big picture, I think they do enhance the game, and perhaps even define it in a way.
The biggest reason they matter is that they are the gears that make emergent behavior possible. But another important reason is that they’re memorable. Interesting. Quirky.
Nobody talks about how tight the reward-loop is in their favorite MMO. What captures imaginations is the fringe stuff. The details. The crazy bits. At least that’s true for me. And it’s my ridiculous fringe project, so there!