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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!