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Debate: Class vs. Skill Systems

By  on February 04, 2006 | Editorials | Comments

Debate: Class vs. Skill Systems

Debate: Frank and Garrett debate class vs. skill systems

Garrett Fuller: The most important element of MMORPGs is character development. After all this is how players interact, represent, and really enjoy the game. Giving characters a class or job system to start with allows players to choose which class works best for them. Whether a rogue, mage, healer, or tank, most players enjoy playing one of these roles. These are the classic arch types for any fantasy RPG. For science fiction games things can expand even more. You can have bounty hunters, mechs, techs, mentalists, martial artists, etc. These class groups give players the option to select something from the beginning that appeals to their play style.

Having an open field of skill for players to choose from can throw the system out of balance. Players start with a basic template and use skills to define themselves throughout the course of the game. Problem is, whatever the best skill set becomes, everyone gravitates towards it. Pretty soon you have the entire game playing one skill set. In Ultima Online you had players start out with a large option of skills from the beginning. Eventually large amounts of players moved to a caster template. The reason being that casting was a much quicker way to down opponents in a fight than swinging away at melee.

Giving players the option of a class or job at the beginning allows them to grow within the community. It’s a great feeling when someone has that one skill for their class the entire party needs. This has been the premise for RPGs from the beginning with paper and pencil D&D.


Frank Mignone: We live in a world of rules and limitations…do this, don’t do that, it’s the price we pay for living in a civilized society. MMORPGs are meant to be a little escape from that reality, a trip into the world of the fantastic, where anything is possible. Lately, it’s getting harder to tell the difference. My druid in WoW tried to pick up a sword when an invisible Blizzard employee snatched it away "You can’t use that! Druids can’t use swords, everyone knows that!" Says who and since when! What is next? ‘No Loitering’ signs in Ironforge?

Let me play my game, my way! You said in games without job classes or some means to focus a player’s skills, everyone ends up being the same thing. Is that why I seem to see more Hunters and Shaman in WoW then any other class? If you limit my ‘abilities’ to only a few job classes, the odds that I will start to be like everyone else increases drastically simply because there is less choice. If I want to be a wizard who wields a long sword and a staff, let me (worked rather well for Gandalf, if I remember correctly, so why not me?).

Eve Online lets me learn the skills I want to learn. I can focus on combat, science, industry, mining, or any combination I choose! The only limitations revolve around prerequisites, which make perfect sense. I mean, you’d have to have a firm understanding of basic mining skills before you can comprehend the advanced skills. But at no point does the game tell me "Congratulations on learning those advanced mining skills (we have to take away your battleship now.)!" The only limitation I want placed on me when I play an MMORPG is my own imagination.


Garrett Fuller: Skill sets work very well when contained in a class or job structure. There are plenty of archetype character classes which players are drawn too. I have friends who only play healers. People love combat, so they hack and slash there way through the fray. Some players love thrown weapons or archery. Giving players a fun class or job selection allows them to enjoy their preferred play style right from the beginning. Now, I believe having certain skills and abilities among the classes makes perfect sense. Developers should strive to keep these abilities within the class structure of the game. Some fighters may want to use daggers, some war hammers. Overall it creates a better group structure for players.

MMORPGs are all about playing with a community. That community gives each player a role to fulfill. By having player jobs or classes it helps people add their role to the group, realm, community and game as a whole. In Dark Age of Camelot the eight man PvP groups that ran around the realms fighting each other was one of the most dynamic parts of the game. Each class had a role and the group functioned as a strong unit together. This made players work hard to help each other win fights. In games that have classes for characters to play the group dynamic grows drastically. If you just allow open skills, then players will be using the same facilities to bring down their foes. With classes you have the tank running up and hacking away, the healer supporting the tank, the rogue or damage-per-second class attacking from the side, the mage handling crowd control. There are so many fun aspects to working as a group.


Frank Mignone: Why is it assumed that everyone will learn the same skills in an open system? You just said that with class restrictions, people pick different ways to play. So if the skill system were open, those players would suddenly want to play just like everyone else? Players seek individuality in their appearance, abilities, and play style. With class restrictions, you severely limit their options.

Star Wars Galaxies had a hybrid system at one point, with dozens of job classes. Then they let you pick and choose skills (limited by prerequisites) from the various jobs, letting you create a unique character. It was a very flexible compromise. Recently, those job classes were reduced to a paltry nine and you can no longer customize between the jobs. Before the changes, I was a bounty hunter-creature handler-medic. Then Sony cuts off my arms and legs, puts the offending light saber in my mouth and says "Here Slug-boy, now you can be a Jedi." Keep the light saber and give me back the freedom to choose my own skills!

The skills an avatar learns should be at the choice of the player. SWGs proved that if players have that choice, and then you take that choice away, the player go away too. People want choice and the chance to stand out as a unique individual. Part of the fun of MMORPGs is making a character that is unique to you. Making my avatar look, fight, and play like a lot of other people based on a pre-determined skill-set violates this principle.


Garrett Fuller: The reason players will gravitate to a certain skill set is because those skills will work better than others in a combat situation. Those players who specialize in them will always win over players who took the lesser skills. This becomes an issue of game balance and can easily be cured by keeping a class or job system in place.

As I said earlier I do believe in having some character options, but keep it within a class or job system. That class system forces players to work as a group much more than running around with a group of similar players. When it comes to individuality it is the job of developers to allow players to customize their appearance, armor, weapons, and guns. Classes and skills should be set up to balance and enhance game play.

SWG using a hybrid system of cross training in skills worked to some degree. Still, the game had you maintain a starting profession. Eventually many players took medic so they could heal themselves which lead to everyone having the same skills. Now, I certainly don’t condone what SWG did to its player base. The one thing that must stand true to any game is to stick with your system, especially when players have worked hard to achieve goals. By changing the entire class system of the game after two to three years of play, you will lose your subscribing audience.

I’d like to ask players what they think. Do you prefer a class system which allows you to work as part of the RPG group dynamic? Or do you like to specialize in skills on your own? To the forums everyone!


You've heard what they have to say. Now it's your turn. Cast your vote and leave your comments here