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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

Extreme Variety and Imbalance in an MMORPG

Posted by Ortwig Saturday June 15 2013 at 10:37AM
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Well, I think I’m going to go completely off the rails this week and talk about ways to completely unbalance a game.  A big part of an MMOs development team’s time seems to be taken up with balancing each of the classes in an MMO.  The reasoning behind this is pretty obvious – if one class is “the most powerful,” most players will pick it, and nobody will play those weaker classes.  A good example of this might be the Jedi class in the now closed Star Wars Galaxies.  It was so head and shoulders above the rest of those classes, that Jedi populations skyrocketed. 

Partially due to the effort to balance classes, there typically are limits on the number of races and classes made available in a game.  The more races and classes available, the harder it is to keep on those classes in sync and on par with one another.

But what if both those constraints were removed?  What if there were so many possible varieties of race and class that imbalance was simply less of a factor?  What if variety were the primary concern?  Two tabletop roleplaying games embraced rather than rejected variety – Talislanta and RuneQuest.  In Talislanta, there were a dizzying variety of races, and in RuneQuest the number of religions, or cults, numbered in the hundreds, and each of those cults had unique magics.  Divine magics, spirit magic and sorcery all used different systems, and had effects that varied widely in power.  Of course RuneQuest used a skill-based rather than a class-system and so there was a common template for creating a character, but the ranges of occupation and magic and skills were huge.  As a result, each character felt unique and the world felt large, mysterious and dangerous.

The way the game accomplished this was to create an extensible magic and skill system.  POW (or Power) was used by all three magic systems, but in different ways.  Divine magic used raw POW to call on the gods and bring down earth-shaking events.  Spirit magic was “smaller” but more prevalent and common; everybody used a little spirit magic to sharpen their blade or light a way in a dark cavern.  Sorcery required study and blood but had the potential to rival and even exceed divine magic in power.  But all three systems used the POW stat, just in different ways.  So at its base, the underlying fundamentals of the system were the same – what RuneQuest did was take those fundamentals and view them through different lenses and employ different mechanics.

Couldn’t the same be accomplished in an MMO?  What if players could select from a hundred different religions and races and unique magics all tightly tied to the lore and culture and mythology?  What if the fundamental system were so flexible that it could allow for extreme variety and accommodate new abilities and specialties?

And what are the side effects of such a system?  Do we end up with a bunch of Jedi’s running around and nothing else?  Does the game become so diffuse that it collapses?  You might argue that in the case of Talislanta, though in RuneQuest it held up remarkably well.  Each character had a sense of self, and a belonging to a particular culture and set of beliefs. 

You also end up with a very different set of characters with a lot of unique abilities and spells.  I suppose these would end up being classified into the trinity (tank, dps, healing) and being analyzed and optimized like any other game.  Is it even possible to break out of that mold?  Is it even desirable?   Is there even room for more specialty-style abilities?  It would take an approach to quest and scenario and dungeon building that provided opportunities to use those specialties.  I guess what I am looking for is more talk and cooperation and strategy between different adventuring parties that are a bit more than tank does X, dps does Y, and healer does Z.  Maybe you have a chance with this kind of variety, for someone to call on Jehosovatz the Sartorian Monk to call on his god and receive a vision that would help them in the next room.  Or for the mage to cause a distracting hallucination that would allow the party to attack from behind.  Abilities tend to have a common thread of damage, protection or healing – isn’t there room for some stranger things in the mix?

Okay, now that I have given a headache to all the developers out there, tell me why I am crazy!  Let me know of ways we can have more variety and provide more that is unique?  Is it possible without throwing it out of whack, and is it okay if we do?  Let me know your thoughts!

MMORPG.com writes:
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