Following up on a comment from Spinks over in the Dual Wield Healing comments, I’ve wondered for a while why “players LOVE classes”. I suspect there are a handful of reasons, and I’d love to hear what some of you think. I’m not really disputing that assertion, since I’ve seen plenty of evidence thereof, but I am always questioning why that might be, and if there’s an alternate way (or three) to scratch the underlying psychological itches. While thinking a bit about those itches, I’ve been thinking of other ways to approach the scratching.
One game that I’ve looked to for good ideas is Final Fantasy Tactics. FFT has character “Jobs” that function much like classes: The characters have a core Job that defines their gear permissions (weapons and armor, anyway) and their primary combat abilities. Soldiers are melee fighters, Black Mages are ranged magic cannons, etc. Characters can learn abilities from their active “main” Job, eventually Mastering the Job. They can also use skills they have learned from other Jobs to customize their approach.
Overall, I like FFT’s system, as it allows you to build up a character with a wide variety of abilities that cross-pollinate and synergize, but filters them through the ability to only use a handful at a time. It’s a nice compromise between learning everything and making tactically relevant limited choices. Players can make characters specialists or generalists, and anything in between. This works largely because you tend to field a handful of units in any given skirmish, rather than just a single character. You can build a team that works well as a whole, rather than just try to do everything yourself.
Battletech works in a similar fashion. There are several different ‘Mech chassis designs, and several weapons to put in those ‘Mechs. Players are encouraged to customize their machines by swapping weapons, armor, heat sinks and such, trying to optimize their machine (or team of ‘Mechs in some iterations of the IP) for how they play. Certainly, there are “stock” configurations of the machines, but half of the fun of the Battletech universe is tinkering with the delicate balance of heat, ballistics, energy weapons, range, mobility, size, and half a dozen other aspects, trying to build the most powerful ‘Mech for its weight. The stock designs are not usually optimized for greatest potential, which I suspect was intentionally done to give an impetus to tinker, and a reward for those who master the tuning system.
The rough analogue to MMO class design is the Battletech ‘Mech chassis, and the “spec” for a class (minor tweaks to how the class plays) are the loadout of the ‘Mech. Of course, a MechWarrior need not be tied to a single Mech for his career, which is where the Battletech variability wins out over a class design; it’s like the ability to change your class (chassis) at a whim (or limited by experience/story permissions/bankroll, whatever), allowing for a much greater gameplay variety over the course of a single character’s “life”. This is also where FFT shines; it allows a single character to change their class/spec/loadout often and completely.
I really like this sort of customizability, as I love the freedom it offers, and I can get more invested in my characters since they really are mine. Their progress is dictated by my choice, and ultimately, those choices affect how I approach the game as a whole.
Still, that depth does put off some people. I suspect that it would similarly put off people in MMOs who LOVE their class and can’t imagine playing anything different. It’s a lot to keep track of, and some people don’t want to bother with learning that much. There’s nothing wrong with that.
*Quick tangent… I also see class distinctions as yet another way to artificially extend playtime, since you can’t take an existing character and just change their class like you would a Job in FFT. You must start a whole new character and grind through the levels. The ability to change your class completely in an MMO doesn’t rob you of identity any more than the ability to change your spec or gear. It’s your character, and you can always just stick with one class, even if there are options to change. When there are no options, though, the player interested in exploration of game mechanics is unduly forced to jump through altitis and grind hoops.*
One of the game designs that I’ve toyed with in the last few years is a Tactics-esque game that has a FFT/BT level of depth for character customization, but has what I’m calling Autopilot Character Development. For those who don’t want to make those choices of how to build a character, there would be “templates” that could be assigned to a unit, automating that progress, allowing the player to just focus on the tactics and strategy inherent in a larger campaign/storyline.
For example, a unit might be given the Scout Template, which would automatically assign them to the Scout class for a while, as it learns some Scouting abilities, then later, assign it to a Ninja class where it can learn some greater evasion and attack abilities. At any point, the player can turn off the Template and take control of the progression, but if they just can’t be bothered with the minutae inherent in the system, the Autopilot lets them get on with playing the upper-level game. (Here “upper-level” meaning higher concepts, like tactics and strategy, not high unit level.)
Put another way, this sort of Template system could be overlaid on an open skill system to create a loose sort of “streamlined” class-based system. UO could become Diablo, as it were. The key here is that you would always have the option to go back and take the reins, mixing and matching to make your Scout dabble in magic or your Barbarian toy with bows. This, of course, means that you would also be able to change pretty much everything about the character, from the most basic stats (the prototypical SRT, DEX, whatever) to skill levels to combat skillset (a limited set of usable abilities, like the FFT system).
Is it a lot to keep track of? Of course it is. Is it a lot to dig into and potentially have fun with? If done well, definitely. Is it good design? I think so, largely because of the experience I’ve had with games. (Of course, this mostly applies to those games that require a huge investment of time and character building. Team Fortress 2 and Smash Bros. work because each round of playing with a class only takes a few minutes. When that play session extends to hours, weeks and months, it’s onerous to think of “replay” as “rolling another class”.)
I played Titan Quest through as a Sage, a Hunter/Storm ranged DPS machine. I used Hunter as my “main” class because arrows are infinite, and I could attack at range without burning through mana reserves. I used Storm to augment that plan, buffing my offense with elemental punch, making my basic ranged attacks sufficiently powerful to kill all but the hardiest enemies long before they got to melee range to bother me. Ranged enemies went down even quicker since I had great range and high damage… and they were typically slow casters with little defense. I had a blast, but once I finished the game, I wanted to try another class build.
I didn’t want to spend the time grinding through the lower levels of the game building up a new character, though, playing old content just to see how another class would approach it. So I found a little program called the TQ Defiler. It let me edit my character, changing his class to anything I felt like. I would not have played the game as much as I did without that freedom. In my younger, stupider days I might have jumped back in with another character from the very start, but with life constantly intruding on my gaming time, I don’t have that luxury any more. Of course, the TQ Defiler also allows for other sorts of hacks which make the game much easier or harder, but the part that interested me was the class swapper. There is a “respec” option in the game, but it only allows you to change the way you’ve allocated your skill points, not change your class or secondary, and the cost in game currency increases with each use of the service.
Why? What does that add to the game? “Replay value”? In my time-constrained world, playing through the same content with a different approach is pretty low on the replay value scale. Yes, it’s technically “replay”, but the bulk of that sort of replay is just repetition, which never sits well with me. (Mostly because DIKU design is very repetitious to start with; repeating the repetition just gets too stupid too fast.)
“Class identity”? Thing is, if you have the option to change, you don’t lose that identity; those classes and builds are still there, you just gain the ability to make more choices in the game. Remember, I like choices. Purist players in a freeform system will always have the choice to stick with their initial choice, but it doesn’t work the other way; those who want freedom can’t drag it out of a class system without a hex editor. (Which is effectively making the game behave in ways it wasn’t built for, but arguably should have been. That sort of hacking doesn’t work in MMOs, since the admins tend to frown on it, banhammer in hand… understandably so, if disappointingly so.)
In a freeform system with Autopilot, you could let the Templates handle the minutae of maintaining a “class identity”, and just go ahead and play your class. Those who want to do something more freeform could use the Autopilot a bit, or just go all in and do their own thing.
Guild Wars already has something somewhat like this with their Build Templates that you can save and load when you do your “free respec” thing in any town. They are shorthand precooked “builds” that can be used at any time you would respec, so you can quickly change from a “farming” build to a “questing” or PvP build. You can also change around your “attribute” numbers willy nilly, to accent your particular build of the moment.
I’m just extending the concept to push that freedom into more aspects of the game, all the way down to the most basic of character customization, the “class” choice. I’ll reiterate, though, I’m talking about adding choices, and adding an Autopilot for those who want the more constrained experience. This system wouldn’t destroy the ability to make a killer Rogue or buffalicious Tank, it would augment the game as a whole to allow for more variety and player ownership of one of the few things they truly can control; their character or team. And yes, this design ethos would apply equally well to a Tactics team-based game as to an MMO. Any game that uses classes or jobs could benefit from this sort of freedom.
I know, some people wouldn’t like that sort of freedom. Some want strict predictability and/or relatively simple decision making. That’s the point of the Autopilot, to let those players just get on with playing the game. For those who want to dig deeper, though, why not let them do so?