While I was at the Indie MMO Game Developers Conference, I attended a round table discussion about the age-old debate: Skill System vs. Class System. Ok, so this might not be an age-old debate, but recently, it seems as though every time developers get together, whether they be what Josh Williams called "mainline" devs or indie devs, the question of Class vs. Skill is one that is continually examined and re-examined. Below, you will find my thoughts on the matter, informed by what I heard in this roundtable and in others.
Each time that I hear this debate, it is being debated by developers, and I think that it's time that it was had by the players. I am hoping that this will spark a debate in our own community so please feel free to comment on this article and expand on it. Do I think that we will decide which is better? Probably not, but everyone has an opinion. Share yours.
First, let me take a second to explain the difference between a class system and a skill system. In a class-based game, characters belong to a specific class of character. For the sake of an example, let's say a Hunter. Your Hunter has a pre-determined skill set that will improve and grow as he progresses throughout the game. Progression, in this case, means earning experience points until you have enough XP built up to gain a new level. When you gain a new level, your abilities (as determined by your class), improve.
In a skill-based game, classes do not exist. Instead, players have an extremely wide variety of skills that improve as they are used. In this case, if I wanted to improve my character's ability to hunt, I would simply go out into the forest and... hunt. Progression is achieved through directed action in the game, rather than through an experience point system.
Now that we have defined the categories, let's examine some of the advantages and disadvantages that come with each:
Running a game with a class system certainly has its advantages. MMOs are social games that often rely on players coming together in a group to use their multiple talents in synch with the others to defeat whatever enemy stands in their way. By dividing players into specific classes, it becomes much easier to fill a role within your group. Healers heal, Wizards stay in the back and cast spells, Tanks run into the fray. With classes, I can easily look at my group, figure out what resources we have and what resources we need, and bring in another character of whatever class we're missing to fill the void. There is an inherent organization to the class system that can only be found in a class system.
A class system is also the traditional system for this genre. Even going back as far as the original Dungeons and Dragons pen and paper game, advancement in a role-playing game has been done through classes and levels. It is familiar, it is comfortable, and as some of the folks at the conference pointed out, it is also great for balance in a game. My level five Fighter has about as much power as your level five Wizard.
In terms of disadvantages, the class system falls short in terms of diversity. Basically, as someone at the conference mentioned, you choose your character's destiny before you've even sat down to play. Let's say for a second that you were one of those people who was coming to their first MMORPG. They don't know whether they want to be a healer or a tank, they don't even know what that means. By choosing a class system, it is possible to alienate players and force them into a decision that will stay with them throughout the whole game.
This problem doesn't only extend to new players. The same is true for long-time players. Right out of the gate, even if you're making an informed choice about which class you want to play, you are still limiting yourself. If you choose a Fighter instead of a Cleric, you will never have the ability to heal. No matter what you do, you will never be able to attain those skills.
If you stop to think about it for any length of time, classes create a block with reality. If I, as a person, want to learn how to do something, all I really have to do (within reason) is study, practice, and learn. I don't have a Managing Editor class that, as I progress through it, I gain the "Feature Writing 2" ability. I can't say that next level, I will definitely gain "Feature Writing 3". Instead, my abilities increase based on the things that I experience, learn and practice.
The skill system is the system that most closely resembles "real life". If you repeat a task, over time, you will become better with it. If I were to go out today and pick up a sword, I wouldn't know how to use it. Give me some time with it, and I'll probably get better.
Skill systems also have a number of advantages working in their favor. For one, as mentioned earlier, they function in much the same way that real life does. This is great for players who like their game to resemble real life more closely.
One of the points that was brought up in the roundtable at the IMGDC was that a skill based system could have advantages when it comes to endgame content. As it stands right now, the current fashion is to have players raiding or PvPing their time away in endgame. Endgame starts where advancement ends. In the case of a skill-based system, advancement never ends. So, you've maxed out your casting skills? No problem; you can work on your sword skills, or your carpentry skill or your basket weaving skill. The bottom line is that the shelf-life for rounding out your character is much more broad and diverse in a skill-based system.
On the other side of the coin, the skill system has its down sides. First of all, it makes the game very difficult to balance. Is every single skill functioning well and is it balanced with the others? Think too about planning content which, under a class system is easier. In a class / level system, developers can anticipate the level range of players who will be accessing any given section of content. They know how challenging to make the monsters, traps, etc. Under a skill-based system, it is much more difficult to plan appropriate content.
I suppose when you look at it, these two distinct advancement systems lend themselves very well to two distinct schools of thought on what an MMORPG should be. First, you have the MMORPG as a complete "world" or "sandbox". There is no linear progression leading you from place to place, zone to zone through the content. In a world game, players travel "as the wind takes them". Players can and are encouraged to do anything they want, and grow any way they want. Allowing them to advance in any way they want, as is the case with the skill-based system, seems like a natural choice.
Conversely, the "game" model for MMORPGs supposes that players want to be led through a story, and have the traditional rules of an RPG apply. This means that players are directed, via quests, from place to place as their character grows and advances. The convention for advancement in a "game" game is through familiar classes.
Still, that is a debate for another time.
As I mentioned earlier, I have heard this and even participated in the class vs. skill debate, many time over the last few conferences. It really is a question that developers have to ask themselves before they commit to a game design. So, while I have heard the developer's side of things, we still haven't heard too much from the player side, and I wanted to see both sides of this particular story. What do you, as a player of MMORPGs, feel is the most appropriate advancement system? Please feel free to discuss and debate this topic on our forums!