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Illusion of Choice

Michael Bitton Posted:
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In the early days of the MMO genre, classes were frequently hyper-specific in their function. Everyone had their roles. Naturally, as MMOs became more popular, players began to look for more flexible options in their games, leading to skill-based systems or even talent trees that allowed players to tailor their classes a bit more towards their preferred style of play.

World of Warcraft introduced the latter example, talent trees, to the MMO genre. Many enjoyed the flexibility of the system. However, over time, talents didn’t seem to necessarily address the issue, with players often remarking that talent trees are an “illusion of choice”. The “flavor of the month” or cookie-cutter builds were still alive and well despite the seemingly flexible system.

Still, players have enjoyed more flexibility over the years, sometimes being able to play multiple roles with the same class. Recent trends, however, have taken this a bit to the extreme with the intention of giving players true choice. We’re increasingly seeing new MMOs put an emphasis on free-form systems that sometimes do away with classes altogether, for example. RIFT with its archetypes and multi-Soul builds, The Secret World with its skill wheel, and the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online, are just a couple of examples of games that allow or will allow players what appears to be ultimate freedom in creating characters that play how they want to play. But is this really freedom? Or do these games' skill systems represent yet another illusion of choice?

Unfortunately, these sorts of systems have been proven time and time again to be just as susceptible as the less-flexible class-based systems in terms of enabling cookie-cutter, flavor of the month builds. We can even go all the way back to Star Wars Galaxies in 2003 to see this. Having played SWG for a number of years, there were countless flavor of the month builds that rose and quickly fell into obscurity with almost every major balance patch. I remember  SWG at launch, where playing a Creature Handler with three rancors was the way to go. Sure, there were other things you could do and I generally hold the game’s approach to this issue as positive overall (mostly due to the fact you had to re-gain experience to make major changes to your build, with distinct professions preserved), but competitive players were largely playing the same overpowered profession combination builds at any given time.

Fast forward to RIFT and we experience the same problem all over again. If you wanted to DPS as a Mage archetype in raids, well you had better be using X build. This isn’t different from having a traditional class-based system except for the fact that this build may or may not involve any Souls you’re remotely interested in. The Secret World, which seemingly features the most flexibility of all the aforementioned designs, suffers from the same issue. Specific weapon and skill combinations can be considered most optimal for a given team role and activity. It would be one thing if there were optimal builds for each weapon in terms of DPS, tanking, or healing, but it’s another when you’re essentially restricted to a couple of weapon types altogether for specific types of activities or team roles. That doesn’t really give me the feeling of having choice.

The problem I have with this is that I feel, ironically, that these more free-form systems are a worse example of an illusion of choice than something like talent trees.  If I’m playing a Rogue, there very well may be a talent build that is the best for raiding DPS, but in the end, I’m still playing a Rogue. I’m still playing the class I want to play, incorporating the themes and visual styles that I find interesting. That identity (gameplay and often aesthetic) is preserved.  In games like RIFT however, DPSing as a Mage may require me use a build that focuses primarily on lightning magic, something I may be completely uninterested in.  In TSW, your tanking options are relegated to a couple of specific weapon combinations for optimal performance.

In the end, builds in these free-form games are often more hyper-specific than they are in class-based games and you lose all of the class identity potential at the same time. I just don’t see the trade-off as worth it. While I definitely don’t require the lack of flexibility offered by classes in older MMOs, I don’t think throwing class identity to the wind and going for completely free systems is always the right solution. For the Elder Scrolls Online, this system may be part of the identity of the series, but from a gameplay point-of-view, I feel it is almost certain that we’ll be seeing the same issues crop up.

I don’t mind my Paladin sucking at tanking one patch and being overpowered the next since I’m still playing my class of choice.  Or maybe it’s just my particular tanking build that’s nerfed and I need to readjust. I can hang with it. I’m still wielding a one-handed weapon and shield and use holy magic if that’s what I’m into. Feeling forced to switch from lightning to fire to ice to death magic any given patch as a Mage archetype, however, is just jarring and really disconnects me from my character altogether. 

As long as there are viable builds for all team roles at any given moment, developers don’t have to think about their skills the same way in a more free-form game. If a Paladin is designed with trees allowing it to tank, heal, or damage, developers will ideally try to ensure that they’re all viable even if specific builds aren’t. Sure, this often doesn’t work out such that all options are viable during any given patch cycle, but that structure and design intention is there for developers to look at and tune and those options are often clearly communicated to players when they consider their class choice.

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB

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Michael Bitton

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB