Friday, December 02, 2005

Games with Class

I'm here to talk about the worst element of massively multiplayer online games: selecting a "class".

Back in the day, there was tabletop role playing. Perhaps you remember it? D&D, Vampire, Rifts, and so forth?

One element that most of these RPGs had in common was a "class and level" system. This is a system virtually every MMORPG has inherited. Let's examine it a bit closer.

Why do tabletops have classes and levels, rather than incrementally increasing skills and stats in miniscule amounts as they are practiced and used? Because tracking that crap is tough!

Yes, the reason that classes and levels were used is because updating your character sheet in eighteen ways every half hour is a pain in the ass. Better to keep track of only two changing numbers (HP and XP) and use them as a kind of "approximation" of your character's growth and death.

You'll notice that the first RPGs had a specific number of classes: just a few more than the intended party size. That's no accident. The approximation of "having a class" is only good if everyone in the party is still unique. Otherwise, it's boring.

However, as time went on, people started demanding uniqueness between games as well as inside any given game. So multi-classing, race/class combinations, and prestige classes came into being. This is D&D terminology, but you see the same thing in most other tabletops: a steady explosion of options, both to start and as you proceed.

If you told the standard D&D geek in the seventies "You went up a level! Choose a feat from this list!" His reply would be, "I get to choose?"

As the tabletop gamers got more and more skilled at tabletop gaming, they required more and more complexity, preferably without added upkeep costs (more choices, less writing).

Complexity - preferably combinatory rather than explicit - is how all games proceed over time. A desire for uniqueness and agency pushes the game ever further towards a feeling of "freeform", even if the game keeps its matrix of rules and stats.

So, why is it MMORPGs have classes and levels?

The maintenance required is what keeps tabletops having levels. I don't want to erase 4.04 and write 4.05 every single time I take a swing with my sword. But a computer game handles that automatically. So why levels?

Classes are useful approximations, so long as your place within the group remains distinct. As your concept "group" expands to include other games and other parties, your concept of "distinct" gets ever more demanding. Experienced tabletop players probably compare their present character to at least twenty other characters, whereas new players typically compare their character to only one or two others.

In a MMORPG, your character is one of twenty thousand you commonly see.

The jump frow "two" to "twenty" is the difference between D&D and AD&D 3rd edition. 3rd edition offers at least a factor of 100 more uniqueness. The jump from "twenty" to "twenty thousand", however, adds functionally no uniqueness over 3rd edition. The typical MMORPG is actually simpler than AD&D 3rd. And way simpler than GURPS, Mage, Nobilis, or any other ruleset with actual quality.

The level grind is simply an attempt to distinguish yourself from the pack. It offers new skills, experiences, and graphics. The last of which is downright silly: why can't I just paint my evil armor-of-doom pink, if I want to look unique?

But the very concept of "classes" is wholly inappropriate. Classes are an approximation tool to make bookkeeping easier for humans. They are limiting your MMORPG, and the only reason they are included is out of inertia.

Levels are simply another approximation tool to make bookkeeping easier. But, again, your computer can handle an almost unlimited amount of bookkeeping. So why are you using levels?

No, both of these concepts belong to the realm of pen and paper. Throw off the shackles of your ancestors! Stand proud and allow your players to be unique!


Textual Harassment said...

I think levels and classes are still useful for the player's ability to identify and quantify his character.

It's much easier to say, "I'm a level 23 priest" than to list all your different abilities. People would rather ask for such-and-such mage instead of someone who can do fire spells or someone who can heal.

Also it's easier to balance classes. If the player has to pick from groups of abilities, you can stick him with the less useful skills that nobody would pick otherwise.

I'm actually with you concerning complexity and uniqueness, it's just that I get the idea that hardcore RPG players (which I am not) don't want their stats hidden, or too complicated to figure out. They want to be able to do the bookkeeping themselves if they want, in order to optimize their characters.

Patrick Dugan said...

Textual Harassment makes some good points, but they apply more to lineated stat hauls like World Of Warcraft than to better designer but less popular MMO's that focus more on emergent social dynamics. To illustrate, imagine an MMO with a skill system similar to Fallout, where diversity and gradients are the name of the game. In such a situation a player would be encouraged to think of their character not as a class and a number, but as a character, as a virtual someone who gets by according to an idiosyncratic style. Thats where the genre needs to go, IMO.

Craig Perko said...

Textual: I'm in full agreement. For quantification, it's important. But I think quantification is not necessary on a game-design level: people will quantify and label on their own time, without your help.

Similarly, you're right: it's easier to game balance. But these days, we have algorithms which aid our balancing that people never thought possible a decade ago. It's "easier" to say Pi = 3, but you're always going to get an insufficient answer.

I think it's possible to let people see the bookkeeping if they want to, without being forced to do the bookkeeping. If the stats are complex, then you can use more complex methods of displaying them - perhaps derived from your balancing routines.

I just don't see a need for classes in an innovative game. They're not evil, but they're a limitation we don't need!

Darius Kazemi said...

Unless you have the IP for a PnP game and are building an MMO off of it... and you HAVE to...

Craig Perko said...

You're completely right, of course. But I don't think I would ever count such a game as "innovative". :)