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Community Spotlight: Class-based vs. Skill-based Systems

Posted by MikeB Friday September 3 2010 at 5:24PM
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This week’s Community Spotlight focuses on the thread “Class based vs freeform skill based” by mmoguy43. In the thread, mmoguy43 examines the differences between class and skill based MMOs, and polls the community on their preferences:


On one hand you have classes with their own assortment of abilites predetermined roles and limited choice of direction with stat distribution. I'm sure you have played a MMORPG like this(WoW EQ2,AOC,WAR, etc) to know what it is.


For the most part it is balanced. Classes are relatively equal next to each other in power and each have their own special thing that sets one apart from another.


Skill Based (Classless)

On the other hand you pretty much make what you want. You can choose skills and abilities that define what you can use and your role in combat or otherwise. Your uniqueness comes from your collective whole of skills. They could be focused like a more traditional class or composed of more untility skills and abilities.


Balance is very difficult to achieve. With hundreds to thousands of possible combinations of skills it takes a very long to time to balance everything. There will be several skill builds that will out match other ones but in a group enviroment players could take advantage of more specialized builds.”

Twrule prefers class-based systems:

“I was thinking about this the other day, and I've come to realize that I prefer a class-based system over a skill-based, fully customizable one in most cases.  However, for that to be the case, classes must feel unique in both motif and playstyle - not homogenized, while each feeling powerful on their own.

In my experience, most skill systems don't really provide as much customization as they would seem to, since certain abilities/stats inevitably support the gravitation toward a few basic builds (for example, take Elder Scrolls - you can theoretically do everything, but chances are that you're going to mainly build your character as a warrior-type, mage-type, or rogue-type).  There are more builds possible, but not necessarily more viable ones for challenging pve content or pvp.

My ideal compromise is a system that offers lots of versatility and customization within a uniquely separated class system (such as what GW2 appears to be doing).  In other words, every class has many different "builds" to choose from, but those will still be unique from other classes.”

KirinRahl prefers skill-based systems:

“It seems to me that the ability to make a perfect balance of skills and abilities between different skill combinations (or classes, if you want to just refer to them that way) is vastly overrated.  Sometimes, folks will find a twinky, bizarro thing that makes a class viable and is way overpowered.  When those things are found, that's FotM, and they get a nerf as soon as they can.  These things will continue to rise to the top even in rigidly limited class-based games like WoW or WAR; when they do, they get nerfed, or their interaction with other abilities do.  

Similar to how Bright Wizard/Engie combos used to be crazy because Engies debuffed Corp resist and BW AoE was almost all Corp damage.  Now BW AoE has been moved to Elemental, which makes them not quite so crazy when used together.

These problems come up in games with rigid class and skill interactions all the time.  They also come up in games where you can make your own class and even in the sort that allows you to make your own -skills-.  As such, it seems like sticking with the 'safe, balanced' option is a cop-out.  There'll be problems that need fixing no matter what you do, so you may as well go whole-hog and see what awesome stuff your players pull out of their asses.

I like skill-based systems a lot.  Further, I think that skillmaking/modifying systems (see: Ryzom) are -very- interesting, and we need more games like these.  RPGs with freedom make me happy.  Being just another Engie is a little meh.”

Cor4x breaks down a number of other alternatives not covered in the main topic:

“Something I haven't seen mentioned here, although Loke666 touched on it above, is a segment based skillset similar to that used in Matrix Online and similar to that originally in SWG.

Basically you have a skill tree and a certain number of points to allocate. How you get the skills per tree is not relevant but could be class / level based if you prefer.

The main problem with skill based point allocated games (such as AO) is that you can gimp your character if you are not careful and allocation (such as in AO) was insanely hard. If you like spreadsheets (like me) then you'll do OK in AO.

The problem with skill-use games (such as Darkfall and UO) is that they're rarely balanced (as so mentioned) as to use-time / skill point gain and give rise to macroing and stupid leveling tricks.

The problem with class rigid games (the Everquests & WoW to some extent) is that everyone looks like everyone else.

The problem with class bolt-on AA games (EQ end-game and WoW) is that there is the One Build To Rule Them All for raiding, PVP, and PVE. Generally the best bang for the buck is number-crunched and used. Often these titles do NOT have accurate reporting on exactly what  you spend your points on. Generally resetting points or respecing is difficult and gimping your character is a major source of angst.

The problem with loose class-choice systems (such as CoX) is that you make a few choices from a limited pool set. This allows some customization and you can gimp your character. Same reset issue as above.

The problem with dual-class choice systems (such as Runes of Magic) is that your biggest choice that effects your game is made at character creation. Some class hybrids do not seat well with each other or at all.

All of them are hard to balance.”

I found myself personally conflicted when reading through this thread as far as my own preferences go until I read Cor4x’s post above. Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online’s systems were my favorite implementations. The Matrix Online simply required you level up, which gave you more points to spend on abilities in any of the trees, how far you go was really only gated by how much money you had, and things could certainly get quite expensive. Star Wars Galaxies offered a ton of flexibility, but no level requirements, only requiring you earn the experience for the skills you wanted, and the skill points (out of 250) to spend on them. Balance is going to be an issue with any of these systems, though. Just about every game out there has balance issues, it’s a continuing struggle that often persists through the entire life of a game.

What do you prefer? Class based? Skill based? Something else? Let us know in the comments below!

nerrollus writes:

I will always prefer a skill based rather than a cookie cutter.  Especially when you're able to juggle skill points around to change your class when you want to do something new instead of having to reroll.

Fri Sep 03 2010 5:55PM Report
Thorqemada writes:

The only part of a mmorpg where balancing is extreme urgent is the pvp part and the pvpers always end up with the fotm-build so there is no need to balance that at all bcs the comunity is selfbalancing.

In pve its all about usability and not so much if one char does 5% more dps than another in certain cases.

Developers should stop to balance their games to death but give people skills/abilities that have a use ingame and let the players go for what they want as their favorite build.

Fri Sep 03 2010 7:08PM Report
fnorgby writes:

All I care about is: If you're going to make a skill-based game where you're rewarded directly for what you DO, then you'd better be sure that it's next-to-impossible to gimp yourself.  This is why, IMO, Morrowind and Oblivion were the suck.  I went out picking flowers and hunting deer, and by the time I was lvl 4 the Daedra were totally invincible.  I couldn't even reduce their HP  by 5% before using up all my soulstones and dying.  So naturally, second playthrough I used the strategy I employed in morrowind and picked skills that I did NOT use, so I could control when I levelled up.  Next playthrough, at level 4, I could just about one-shot any daedra I ran across and rifts were cakewalks. 

I would prefer skill-based any day of the week, but TES has left a very bitter taste for me.   I'll believe it's possible when I see it happen.

Fri Sep 03 2010 8:01PM Report
gzwholesale writes:


Fri Sep 03 2010 9:07PM Report
gzwholesale writes:

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Fri Sep 03 2010 9:07PM Report
waveslayer writes:

best Character building I have played yet was Anarchy Online which had had a combination of classes and skills, allowing for a wide variety of ways to make each class, would love to see Funcom make AO 2 and not change anything about the character building of the original

Sat Sep 04 2010 7:35AM Report
NomadMorlock writes:

I prefer a skill based system.

I understand the view of many game developers when it comes to the balance issues and dominant builds and why class systems have replaced skill based systems in most of todays AAA mmo's.  I think there are points however they they overlook that greatly affect game play.

In my personal experience a skill based system without classes and levels provides more immursion.  As Star Wars Galaxies was mentioned above, I'll use this as an example.

One character per server with a skill based system allowed you to become a known part of the community.  Most players in this environment play a single character, under a single name.  Your reputation means something and you really get to know the other people you interact with and group with.  That might mean that you know someone is a great player or a reall ass hat.  Either way you think twice about the things you say and do.

The desire to log in and immediately work on leveling to end game is absent.  Instead you spend more time interacting with the community, exploring, and refining your character.  This isn't to say that you don't work on earning experience to allocate to your skill boxes, but the urgency to get there does not seem so prevalant as most players are always in some sort of transition from one set of skills to another.

You are not locked into a specific "build" for your character.  You have so many options that you are constantly re-inventing yourself until you find the skills that compliment your play style.  This provides content re-playability but with the same character.

The ability to choose your own trade off's.  If you want to be all combat focused you can, but by doing so you may not be able to craft or only craft to a limited level.  Perhaps your play style is to be a little more utility focused.  Most players will find their own balance there and understand what they have to sacrifice to have their utility, or crafting skills (or even entertainer skills for SWG).

Overall I think the things mentioned above bring a different feel to daily gameplay that I tend to enjoy more than just leveling a character to max level and then searching for the end game play.

It may be more difficult for game designers to anticipate what you will do and make it more challanging for them to create content to challange you, but creating more class and level based games because its just easier, doesn't make it better.

Sat Sep 04 2010 8:24AM Report
Kelvrek writes:

I prefer a skill based system because of the flexibility it provides.  It also gives more immersion because you're not totally sure of what other players can do.  There will be balancing issues, but let imbalances happen.  I think EvE handles a skill based system quite well; although I would like to gain skill points for actually PLAYING the game instead of just letting time pass.  In PvE games, imbalances don't really matter.  Sure, some content will be easier for maxed out players, but that shouldn't hurt the experiences of anyone else.  After all, life isn't fair, and perpetual worlds don't have to be either.

Sat Sep 04 2010 3:20PM Report
Khalathwyr writes:

I prefer the original SWG skill box 250 skill point system out of any system I have ever played. Hands down. Next I'd say it was a toss between UO and AC. Those variations on skill-based are for me. The thing I like about Rift and the reason I'm following a class based game is that the class system with Rift offers a ton more flexibility within a large suite of class (8 in each of the 4 traditional archtypes - Warrior, Cleric, Rogue, Mage) that allows you to mix and match skill based style out of all the 8 classes within your archtype.

So I could say "Trion, your idea of a Paladin was okay but I think they should have a pet. So I'm going to put some points into Beastmaster (both are Warrior classes) and give him the pet he deserves. Win.

Sun Sep 05 2010 3:10AM Report
SwampRob writes:

The problem with a skill based system is that the skills in question are almost all twitch/response/aiming skills; basically physical skills.

I won't deny that the better players will also use knowledge of the combating classes strengths and weaknesses, but the edge there is far outweighed by the physical skills.

I would be much more in favor of a skill based system if one could be designed to give a large edge to strategy over physical skill.     Think chess vs one-on-one basketball.

Sun Sep 05 2010 8:43PM Report
Rockgod99 writes: I prefer skill based systems. I enjoy the freedom to custom craft my own avatar over following a class template that restricts me to a couple options. Mon Sep 06 2010 6:38AM Report
TheMaelstrom writes:

Here's my take on this: SCREW "balance". It's a friggin' myth.

There are twu reasons that I can think of that everyone is pissing and moaning about balance these days:


1. There is a huge influx of new players out there thanks mostly to WoW's success. The main problem I see here is a generational one: there are no losers in today's American society. It's ridiculous and it goes to ridiculous lengths. Every kid is taugh about how special they are. Every team gets a trophy no matter what place they finish in. It's not healthy, it's not realistic, and the effects of it can be seen in everything from your local teenage store clerk to - yes - your average MMO player. The previous generation of gamers didn't play MMOs to be "the most uber." We played because we enjoyed the interaction and challenge. We chose a class that we thought of as fun, regardless of how it performed compared to some other class.... which leads to my next point.


2. Boring class / skill systems - If you make every class FUN to play instead of trying to make every class "balanced" against other classse, people will pick the class they find the most fun. Or at least, we used to. I seriously doubt even that will solve the problem based on today's MMO demographics.


I'm really excited for RIFT: Planes of Telara. The class system is really interesting, and Scott Hartsman has already publicly stated that with so many combinations / possibilities / skills, they're not going to try to balance everything. This makes me REALLY happy, but it also makes me nervous. If the new generation of MMO players come into RIFT and start whining and crying and calling for nerts all over the place, they'll ruin the entire reason I want to play this game so much.


In closing: SCREW instant-gratification in games.

Mon Sep 06 2010 6:45AM Report
Curious writes:

Is it possible that class-based systems are popular for AAA-developers because class-based systems are easier to write stories or quests for?  Everyone is ensured to be able to complete the stories or quests, as opposed to the mission killing half of the people who attempt it because they didn't have any combat skills.

I can't say if this is correct, or even if it's good or bad.  But with TOR coming next year, and the emphasis they are placing on story, is it possible development teams don't trust in or want their players' ability to create their own stories?  Because I can see how skill-based systems would be a serious hurdle to developers with that mindset.

Having said that, I much prefer skill-based systems to class-based ones.  They are really much more immersive.  I also believe that a biochemist should not have a fighting chance against a marine.  Not without some serious preparation and a potent nerve gas anyway.

Mon Sep 06 2010 9:11AM Report
NortonGB writes:

I think a versatile system that's lets you chose the skills you want to play the way you want, classes are only needed if the devs want players to choose between certain class story or quest lines or perhaps give certain skills class bonuses.

The above type of system should become common place in future mmos but for some reason many devs lack imagination & creativity imo.

Tue Sep 07 2010 11:48AM Report writes:
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