Classy Characters, part 1

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Over at Zen of Design there’s a new post on Classes that’s drawing a fair bit of attention. Discussion of Classed/Classless systems always draws a fair bit of controversy. The proponents of Classless systems are pretty populous and vocal, meanwhile game after game comes out utilizing classes.

Damion gives some advantages of classes:

* Easier to balance. It’s much easier to balance 10-20 strongly unique classes than an infinite realm of possibilities.
* Stronger power differentiation. Yeah, you heard me. It’s much easier to, say, make powerful ‘from stealth’ attacks for a rogue class if you know that rogue class can’t also mix that with godlike healing or invulnerability tanking. If anyone can do anything, you’re forced to water down all the powers, and everyone ends up somewhat alike.
* Stronger player differentiation. There were an infinite number of possible character builds in UO, SWG and M59, but all of them were dominated by ‘flavor of the month’ builds that completely overshadowed all of the flexibility players could have. There was tons of variety, but truly ‘competitive’ builds tended to be quite limited.
* Easier to fill parties. It is tremendously easier to say “Need a level 40 cleric” than to say “Need someone with 95% healing, 95% buffs, 95% resurrection and 95% anti-undead”. And much easier to make that information searchable on a ‘looking for group’ list.
* Tactical transparency. Player vs. player is a much more interesting and tactical experience when you have some idea going into a fight the approximate limits of your opponents. Imagine playing WoW where anyone can blink, stealth, firestorm or invuln bubble. Fighting ceases to become tactical, and instead becomes pure twitch.

On points number one through three I agree. All of these points have to do with issues of developing a game. It’s clearly easier to develop a classed game.

But I find points four and five unconvincing.

* It may be easier to “say” that you want a character of a particular class, but ultimately with a classless system you are more likely to find a character who has some or all of the desired abilities than in a strictly classed system. In Guild Wars parties can wait around for hours at a time for a Monk (or other build-specific character, but usually a Monk), and Guild Wars isn’t even a strict class system, as secondary classes allow any character to take most skills from another class.
* What Damion refers to as “pure twitch” is, in other contexts, called “Player Skill.” Guild Wars seems primarily geared towards Player vs. Player, but it doesn’t interest me that much as a Player. I’ve probably spent about 1% of my total time in Guild Wars engaging in PvP. Guild Wars is a classed game and, as such, it contains plenty of hard counters. Is it fun to see that, no matter how good you are as a player, unless your opponents are using a strategy that your particular class counters you are unlikely to be able to contribute much? Some people enjoy knowing that their one trick is pretty much a guaranteed win if the opponents are using a strategy that allows you to use it. I greatly prefer that all players be on even-footing in a Player vs. Player environment. Classed systems, by their nature, don’t offer this.

What it comes down to, then, is that it’s easier to develop class-based games. I don’t disagree with this. Classes also provide an easy frame of reference for people to think about. It’s easy to develop a character concept drawing upon past experiences of books and movies and other games. “I want to play a Warrior” or “I want to play a Spellcaster” or “I like playing Support roles” tend to be easily mapped onto new games. A Warrior in World of Warcraft is the same as a Warrior in Guild Wars. The Mage character in Diablo is easily understood as the digital counterpart of a D&D Wizard. The pitfall is that every game has their own twists on how these archetypes fit into the gameplay, and a game may not necessarily implement your chosen class in the way that you expect. When this happens it can be a particular problem because you now have significant time and effort dedicated into your character, but can do nothing to change his class to more fit the playstyle you prefer.

Furthermore, most games have at least one “unique” class that tries to put a different spin on things. Who can say what a Druid is? Usually it’s some manner of melee/support/spellcaster mix, but what of those three roles will any particular game favor? It’s impossible to say. Unless you’re really attached to the idea of making an ecologically-friendly character you’re taking a big risk that the class will not play in a way that you enjoy and that your time will be wasted on building up that character.

This post is getting a little long, so I’ll continue it in another post.

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