Classes in RPG’s are character avatars that allow a player to participate in a game world in a particular way. The Mage class in most games can be best described as the glass cannon. The Mage typically will cast spells from a distance, doing maximum damage but is also left quite defenseless against melee enemies. Conversely, the Warrior is a class that excels in close combat but is susceptible to ranged attacks. Each class plays a particular role in group dynamics and each class is fundamentally different.
All other classes such as the cleric or the paladin or the shaman or the rogue can be designated as a sub class of these two primary classes. The challenge in today’s RPG design is creating enough sub classes to satiate player demand but also provide a unique enough experience to keep the lines from one class to another properly defined… avoiding redundancy.
World of Warcraft, currently the most popular MMORPG in release, is attempting to deal with this very problem. Many of the classes in the game have begun to overlap in many areas. One example is the distinguishing characteristics of the Mage class and the Warlock class. Both have direct damage spells, both use DOT’s to one degree or another, both use AOE spells, both take advantage of pets and both serve as group transporters. Admittedly, one out performs the other in each of these areas but the observation is that these classes are so similar; one must ask the question why even separate them to begin with?
If the defining characteristics of a class-which start out unique- lose their distinctiveness, what drives a player to choose one over another? Can it be the look or the feel of a class? City of Heroes defined several archetypes in their original release. Each of these archetypes supposedly represented a crucial sect of player behavior that would help groups progress through encounters. For example, Damage would be left to blasters, Tanks would serve as meat shields, Defenders provided defensive buffs and group healing, etc.
Cryptic Studios quickly realized that despite the fact that each class was indeed useful, they had to be careful not to overpower one class in comparison to similar classes. But why? Similar to group dynamics in World of Warcraft, large raiding parties would seek optimal group configurations. In COH, this meant finding specific builds of blasters or defenders. Although each class was useful, some classes and class configurations were much better than others. Unfortunately for the players, many didn’t figure this out until they had already spent hours on raising their avatars up.
On the other side of the coin you have games like Ultima Online. Players didn’t choose classes but rather they chose specific combinations of skills built to their play styles. Luckily, UO catered to groups and individuals alike. Optimal configurations were irrelevant in group dynamics. This is due in part to the gradual yet noticeable increase in power for each skill as it rose. For example, becoming a grand master in Magery was just as useful and powerful as becoming a grand master in necromancy. If a player chose, they could master both and increase the diversity in their game-play style. Players were not limited by their prior choices, as they were always given the opportunity to drop one skill and work another. The player had constant choices for which they could weigh the advantages as well as the disadvantages for choosing one path over another.
That’s not to say that UO didn’t have it’s own problems with balancing skills, however, the player population was never left out to the cold because under powered skills could always be traded in, at least temporarily, for over powered skills.
This trading of skills often lead to optimal configurations and populations would typically shift in the direction of powerful skills over less powerful ones. In essence, the players created classes by combining commonly used skills and naturally named their builds. Battle Mage and Nox Mage are examples.
OSI & EA dealt with over powered skills and builds not by directly diminishing the skills; rather they would opt to change the environment to react differently to those skills. For example, if Magery became too powerful, high level monsters such as Dragons and Ancient Wyrms would gain the ability to resist magic at a higher rate. Players would notice these changes and the population would automatically diversify their builds.
Often this type of design change caused the over all population to even out in its choices. Sometimes, however, this design choice nullified a skill almost completely. In the early years of Ultima Online there was a skill called herding, which in an unconventional way, was extremely powerful. The skill allowed players to herd powerful monsters around without danger. It was not uncommon to see a single person herding 5 or 6 dragons around as personal guards. When the player was feeling particularly destructive, he would release his heard in the middle of populated areas. Chaos ensued. OSI responded by making Dragons and other intelligent creatures incapable of being herded. In one fell swoop the herding skill was exterminated.
The fellows over at Flagship Studios attempted to create a game that had 3 primary classes, each with 2 sub classes. The idea was that players would diversify themselves through gear and skill selection. Unfortunately the skill selection was lacking and the gear was not diverse enough to warrant the consolidation of conventional classes.
Hellgate: London has since failed and the community was left to discuss the faults of the developers. Similar to other failed projects, HGL lacked in character customization and repetitiveness among other points. But one must ask, why would customization and repetitiveness be a problem in a game so similar in function to a game like Diablo 2? The repetitiveness came from the necessity for optimized builds as well the lack of class diversification. Supposedly different sub classes often played very similarly and so the players felt bored and unsatisfied by the content.
With upcoming projects like Warhammer Online coming, developers are left with the ever pressing issue of dealing with class diversification and optimized builds. The delicate balance between redundancy and player demand has left game producers in an awkward position… do they continue to make the same mistakes as those before them or do they forge new paths in attempt to innovate? Only time will tell, but I will say this much: Developers will need to take more chances if they want my business, but don’t stray too far from the working model because sometimes all we really want is a new set of graphics and some new areas to explore for an old favorite game.