While in the recent months I've expressed my dissatisfaction with the possibility of yet another Medieval/Fantasy sort of MMO, I'm also a believer if you do something, you should do it right. Today's discussion is about archetypes - more specifically, the Mage archetype - how Funcom and Age of Conan implemented it, and what they could have done better.
Of course any opening paragraph such as that carries a bit of weight with it. Here I am, Joe Gamer, playing armchair referee and spouting that my ideas are better than a team of game developers. It's not my intention to portray this sort of arrogance. I'd like to think of a set of ideas - which is really all this is - as more of a constructive criticism to a just released game than a direct attack on their core game design.
Age of Conan was released about 2 weeks ago, and as most new MMO's, it has its fair share of problems. This isn't the place to discuss those, as I've already given a general overview of the 12 AoC Classes and done something on the Age of Conan Extended Beta. No, this will be specifically targeted at the Mage Archetype, and more specifically the Necromancer and Demonologist classes.
Age of Conan follows a very traditional archetype structure with their Mage classes. On paper, all are "high damage, low survivability" classes. I've left the Herald of Xotli out of this discussion because it's not a typical Mage archetype, which I consider a good thing. I think many will agree with me when I say the Herald of Xotli class is designed fairly well and provides for a "fresh" feel to a Mage archetype. Arguably, it can be considered the "most working" Mage class at the moment in both PVP and PVE.
The Demonologist and Necromancer follow the typical Mage archetype stereotypes by being ranged magical users with little or no defense and a very small hit point pool. We refer to these types of characters as "glass cannons" because they are designed to usually output a huge (and dangerous) amount of magic damage but be short lived themselves if under fire. This method has been used in nearly every MMO, from Everquest to World of Warcraft.
So, what's the problem? Well, aside from these two classes being mostly broken at the moment (as admitted in a recent developer announcement that changes will be coming soon) - these classes lack any real creativity or ingenuity in their design. By this I don't mean being forced into using the same 1-3 abilities every fight (though that's pretty much the case now) - I mean that they're forced into this Mage archetype with almost no thoughts of creating a different or dynamic gameplay experience for the player.
The real problem lies with the glass cannon mentality in itself. This old and tired standard of low hp / low armor / high damage classes is nearly as bad as the leveling system itself in an MMO design. I, as both a MMO player and MMO designer, have never understood why this stereotype is embraced time and time again. It's an overly simple system that leads to a "Rock, Paper, Scissors" system in both PVP and PVE encounters.
Gandalf Tanked a Balrog
I use Gandalf for this example because he's (arguably) what the entire Mage archetype is based off. Of course, other characters such as Elminister and Raistlin helped popularize this (among countless others); I suppose nearly all modern Fantasy MMO's are just a rehash or Dungeons & Dragons at least in some shape or form, but that's another topic of debate.
The dramatization of the Gandalf vs. Balrog fight in the LOTR movies is a perfect example of how a mage Archetype *should* be. Now, before we start talking about how the Balrog was probably level 25 or so while Boromir was probably only level 15 or so while Gandalf was 25 or 30, let's assume for all purposes that D&D levels and stuff don't apply here. While it's clear that Gandalf is the "most powerful" in the group, if you applied modern MMO mechanics to this Gandalf vs Balrog fight, Gandalf would have ran up to the bridge and got one-hit killed by the Balrog with a huge sword.
That didn't happen. Gandalf used a nice glowy shield from his staff to completely deflect all of the Balrog's damage. In this case, Gandalf "tanked" the Balrog because he negated all of the damage the Balrog tried to do to him. Most people know the rest of the story, but that's not relevant to this discussion.
There we have it. The atypical Mage archetype displayed a hybrid-like nature in fulfilling the role of a "tank" in an encounter with an enemy. A soldier with a shield might have been able to deflect the huge firey sword and not get sliced in half. A mage did it here by means of magic. This mechanic of "tanking" can be imagined in countless different ways; from causing the enemy to drop their weapon, repelling an enemy, causing mental anguish, controlling them via voice or telepathic means - the possibilities of Mages fulfilling a different role other than "high damage, dies quick" role is always overlooked in core game and class design.
It's this simple mentality that I believe should be embraced by the Fantasy MMO genre. Why are only Soldiers able to "tank"? It makes no sense at all. While I agree that a Knight in armor with a shield should be great at avoiding harm to himself, magic users should have just as many means to avoid damage (if not more - they're using magic!) - at a level at least equal to their Soldier counterparts.
Another slight caveat to this problem is Mage Archetypes not engaging in melee combat. While we can all agree this was solved in the case of the Herald of Xotli, we're left with two Mage classes that don't even utilize the fun new directional combat system AoC has implemented. While I agree that an absolute focus on melee would be redundant, it's realistic to think that Demo's and Necro's would be able to do some sort of magically enhanced melee (or even touch attack) combos. This also opens the possibility of aiming ranged spell attacks to make a more interactive combat style. Couple these sort of melee attacks with the abilities that allow the mage to survive more than 5 seconds in melee range, and we're seeing the start of a fresh new class archetype that throws the old out and embraces dynamic gameplay.
Yet, here we are, 2008, and the first "third generation" MMO is here - Age of Conan. For a game that has really tried to revitalize the MMO Fantasy genre by "shaking things up" (Dynamic combat system, Healers that nuke/damage well, AOE focused melee characters, even a melee Mage with a huge sword ripping hearts out) -- we're left completely underwhelmed by the core design of the two Mage archetype classes Necromancer and Demonologist.
It's probably too late to redesign the core mechanics of these classes. The upcoming fix will only solidify these two classes into their "glass cannon" roles. I doubt we'll see Demonologists hefting up their staff and repelling hordes of enemies or sadomasochistic Necromancers embracing pain to fulfill a "tank role" in Age of Conan. No, the time for that was a year or so ago when these classes were in the core design phase.
This doesn't mean that Funcom hasn't at least made an entertaining game, albeit more focused on melee combat. It also doesn't mean people can't have fun playing these mage / caster classes - of course they can, just as they have fun playing glass cannons in prior games. What I think most players won't find is a truly unique gameplay experience with these classes in terms of game mechanics.
So, what does everyone think? Do you prefer the tired and tested system of typical mage roles or do you think hybridizing them would be a good thing?