One of the things that makes tactical RPGs (Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, Front Mission) so great for me is the depth of customization that I have when building and developing my party. Atlantica Online is the only MMO that I’ve played that dug into this notion of letting the player control party of adventurers rather than a single avatar. (No, Gibberling triplets don’t count as a party; I can’t tune them individually.)
FFT is especially fantastic since I can change character classes and even equip characters with certain off-class skills. The flexibility is a huge strength in the game design. I can field a monoclass team or set up a balanced mix, depending on how I play, what gear I have, or what challenges I want to tackle. The off-class skills make for even greater depth, since I can patch up holes in my battle plan or reinforce strengths. Success often hinges not only on smart battlefield tactics, but also on long-range strategies of party development.
I’ve written before about disliking rigid class-based design, but if there is flexibility to move between classes like that, where it’s easy and often useful to do so, I don’t mind classes. It’s even better if the base class design bleeds across boundaries, like the cross-class skill design of FFT or the dual-class design of Guild Wars or Runes of Magic.
A party system makes rigid classes easier to work with. Final Fantasy X, for example, has a fairly rigid sort of “class” design for the characters for a good chunk of the game. You can unlock the Sphere Grid to train characters in cross-class abilities later on in the game (which is awesome, but not necessary), but for the early game, characters have pretty clear roles that roughly parallel class design. Auron is the tank with piercing weapons, Wakka is the guy to call for aerial enemies, Rikku is a thief, Lulu is the mage, Yuna is the healer, Tidus is the fast warrior, and Kimahri is malleable. He’s sort of a blue mage (who uses skills he can learn from enemies), but he also chooses one of the other roles early on from the other character skill paths. (So you can have two tanks, two white mages, whatever.)
The combat works because you can swap characters out almost any time, tailoring your party to the tactical situation. If you need a screwdriver, you’re not stuck with a hammer. Also, you typically have three characters in your combat party, which means that you’re equipped with a variety of tools even if you’re not switching characters out.
MMOs are generally designed around the notion of people playing together, though, where “parties” are comprised of people each playing a single character. That’s not the only way to design an MMO, though, and it surprises me a little that we haven’t seen more devs work player-controlled parties into these games. Maybe that’s just not where the market is, but it does seem to me that it might be worth exploring the design concepts a bit, at least in theory.
Atlantica Online manages to let players control a party of characters but also encourages player grouping with dangerous dungeons. Attempt those solo and you’re most likely to be demolished as the enemies gang up on you. It’s also still a good idea to group up in some areas to make progress faster or more fun. Of course, combat in Atlantica is different, since it’s tactical and turn-based (with a timer). There are some different fundamental design choices being made there as opposed to the MMO mainstream, and I think it’s healthy.
Are there other party based MMOs out there? Is there much of a market for them?
A MechWarrior MMO would really work best as a single-character avatar game, but a BattleTech MMO could be party based and more tactical. MechCommander was a fantastic game. Of course, not everything needs to be multiplayer or an MMO, but there’s some potential there at least.
If nothing else, commanding a party would make for more tactical decisions, including flanking and blocking, that we just don’t get as single-character pilots. It also need not eliminate multiplayer game aspects, since it’s really just giving each player more tools. Players can still play together, and may even need to for some content. You could get some truly massive, tactical battles going on with party based design. It’s almost a middle ground between WoW and StarCraft multiplayer, if you want to frame it in Blizzard terms.
There is a diminished sense of “role playing” as you take on the role of a disembodied commander, as opposed to the very personal single avatar. That doesn’t completely preclude role playing, and modern MMO design isn’t firmly rooted in playing a role anyway… but it is still a downside of a party design.
There are also tech hurdles, especially if we’re going to allow the party to be split up. Atlantica Online parties are static in combat, but malleable outside of combat. RTS-ish tactical combat means controls and UI a step beyond hotbar Rock-em Sock-em Robot combat, and it would be more susceptible to lag.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is the complexity. Party based design has the potential to be an order of magnitude more complex than the mainstream is used to. Still, would those players who are fussing about the “dumbing down” of the genre welcome this sort of complexity?
All in all, I’m not surprised that this sort of design isn’t the mainstream, but I do wonder why more devs haven’t tried it.