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Is The Genre Stronger With Fluid Classes?

Lewis Burnell Posted:
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As is customary with this column, most of my topics come about from talking to friends. This week's is no exception and as a small group of us chatted about classes in MMO’s, most of us agreed that they were often restrictive and unnecessary. I suspect that such a view isn’t as popular amongst the majority as it is my group of friends, but it certainly started a lengthy debate.

The discussion came about after Guild Wars was mentioned. Although the game did have classes (or professions as ArenaNet like to call them) they provided only a basis for your playstyle, with players then able to mix and match by choosing a secondary profession. You could, as one example, be a Mesmer/Warrior or Ranger/Monk. What was particularly clever about this approach was not only the flexibility this afforded, but that builds and playstyles were instantly transformed. Interestingly, your base profession (or that which you picked first) also defined your primary attribute.

The variety in playstyles and tactics that this class system afforded, as far as I’m concerned, is unrivalled. It resulted in some fascinating builds: some that were ridiculously strong and some that were hilariously terrible. That was part of its charm and in its flexibility, there was a learning curve to understand not only skill interaction across all the professions, but the potential of how they played out when combined was enormous.

Beautiful, but the ranger is Black Desert Online is highly restrictive.

You might be thinking at this stage, “Well, of course we need classes, without them even Guild Wars’ system would be possible.” and while that’s certainly true, a rigid and restrictive framework surrounding classes - as far as I’m concerned - is something we should have dropped a long time ago. I look at the likes of Guild Wars 2, a game that should have built upon this system, and yet instead they returned to something forgetfully traditional. For all the accessibility Guild Wars 2 gained, it lost so much in the process. Those moments in Guild Wars where you were growing tired of your mesmer, only to mix it up and find yourself drawn back into the game, were all too common. Even spending hours tinkering away with builds, irrespective of success or failure, the customisation offered so much depth that it’s strange to think developers are so wary of providing such freedom.

Black Desert Online, for all the “freedom” it proposes to the player, is still incredibly rigid and I don’t feel that its class system particularly helps. I adore playing a Ranger and yet the reason why I do is because I have a certain taste for it. I like wielding a bow, but also utilising nature magic as well as a sword and shield. I could fulfil most of this brief in The Elder Scrolls Online but even then, it never felt exactly what I wanted. Even Black Desert Online’s ranger with its wonderful bow skills sorely lacks an affinity with nature, or even the flexibility to wield a sword and shield. Guild Wars provided this flexibility and while its system wasn’t perfect, it was a damn sight better than all its competitors, past and present. What’s not to love about a necromancer/assassin belding life drains and hexes while still maintaining teleports and movement speed?

Fundamentally and this is a much wider issue with the genre, is the fact that developers are frightened to death of overwhelming a player base that’s becoming more and more casual. Even ArenaNet deemed their own system far too complex: the dreaded “Our user feedback said…” rolled out all too often. As far as I’m concerned, complexity is a very good thing and freedom to create even better. So what if the ‘class’ system can result in players using poor builds or builds that developers have to intervene against. Allowing players to come together to discuss builds - their strengths and weaknesses - while working together to help new players, pass advice and make recommendations is surely what we should be aiming for. Instead and what we have now, across all games in the genre, are a few key builds that are optimal and rarely adjusted.

Guild Wars 2's ranger doesn't fare much better when it comes to flexibility.

While Guild Wars had “meta” builds these changed regularly and much more rapidly than any MMO I’ve ever played. The sheer amount of possibilities allowed for this and it only took one player to tap into a certain choice of skills and profession pairing to blow it wide open: across PvE and PvP. I can’t remember the last time this happened unless directly affected by an expansion pack adding new classes or skills.

Going forward, I really want to see developers have faith in their players to make their own choices irrespective of the consequences. To also give players the freedom to mix and match their playstyles around a loose framework. There’s a sense that Camelot Unchained is fulfilling this while sadly, Crowfall is sticking to something typically traditional. Here’s hoping future MMO’s take a risk and let us decide for ourselves exactly how we want our class to play.

What are your thoughts on rigid classes? Should they be much more fluid? Is greater flexibility to classes and how users play them a cure for many of the genres ills? Let me know. 


Lewis Burnell

Lewis has played MMOs since Ultima Online launched, and written about them for far too long.