Like School in Summertime

Can of worms, anyone?

Over at Zen of Design, Shubert dares to revive the class based/skill based debate. It’s such a messy subject, Lum doesn’t even want to touch it… and that dude has some filthy hands, I assure you.

Why is it one of those subjects that elicits passionate debate no matter how many times it’s dredged up? Because, silly, there is no right answer. Except for mine, of course.

I played UO back in the day and loved it for a long time. But I was a fan of class-based gaming from D&D onward, and definitely missed it in Britannia. When EQ came along, I rejoiced for many reasons, one of them being that I was back in a class-based system. I felt it gave me much more of a singular identity from which to build my character.

Of course, my monk was the same as every other monk, aside from my gear. That seemed to change with the arrival of Alternate Advancement, but only until players decided on the de facto standard AA build and everyone did the same thing. See, that’s the thing about choices; we all want them, so long as we don’t ever make the wrong ones.

Skill-based systems are ostensibly about choices. Want to fight with an axe? Cool, raise your axe skill and don’t worry about swords. The degree of freedom can vary, of course, just as it can in a class-based system.

Nowadays class-centric games have skills and spells and talents and achievements, supplying various options for you to build your own vision of your class… at least to a certain degree. So everyone’s happy, right?

Wrong. Because balance is the sword dangling over the heads of all MMOs, no matter what system they use. Despite the sundry ways two members of the same class can be different from one another, if one of them sees their class as inherently broken then all of that doesn’t mean squat.

So is the solution skill-based, class-based, some hybrid of skills and classes, dual-classing, or some hodgepodge that hasn’t been invented yet?

The honest truth is that it doesn’t matter. You can design in whichever direction you want to go, so long as you work really hard to make all your options as fun as they can be. Some players will prefer one direction or another, so the style you choose may cost you some potential customers, but there’s simply no way to avoid that. There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems, and having some combination of class structure with skill choices may allow you to cast the widest net.

The thing you can’t do is to try to make the perfectly balanced system. It doesn’t exist and never will. Why be so hopeless? Because balance hinges far more on player perception than even the players themselves realize. Sure, there are legitimate balance issues brought up all the time, and designers will keep on making mistakes because, believe it or not, designing games well is hard work (honest). But the thing of it is, if a player is convinced that his class is horribly broken, no amount of data to the contrary is going to convince him that he’s wrong. That’s just how it works, so be ready for it.

What’s the ultimate solution to this riddle? There isn’t one. Spreadsheets and parsers only tell one side of the story. Player perception is going to tell the other, and it’s a never-ending juggernaut of passion and opinion.

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