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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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

13 thoughts on “Like School in Summertime”

  1. I think ultimately the solution will have to be some hybrid between class and skill systems. Deep down everyone wants their character to fit the mold of their class but have unique skills based upon their choices.

    At the heart, these are role playing games, and weather the players want to admit it or not, everyone likes to perform their “role” to some degree.

    For me, I liked the way eq1 worked, where you had your base class but you could choose to do different things through the various AA’s. Of course it reached a point where you were a jack of all trades for your class, but new aa’s were being introduced often enough that usualy there was someting to be looking forward to. I would have made AA’s a bit tougher to grind out, but thats just me and I hate being stranded at the top of the mountain so to speak while I wait for new ways to improve my character to be implemented.

    Eq2 does a good job of offering choices to SOME of the classes out there. Brigands/swashbucklers, for example, have 5 legitimate lines to choose from. Critical hits/debuffs, procs/debuffs, tanking ability, 1hand double attack, and deaggro lines are all useful and can have a case made for them. An assassin on the other hand would be a complete fool to choose anything but the line for crits/harder and faster decapitate, and the line for spell crits on poisons. Its sad, but based on their class abilities no other lines are a viable option really. The only thing they will ever do as well or better than another scout is dps, and so they must choose to augment that or become an obsolete character compared to others.

    In the future I hope to see more games and more things in eq2 that offer real solid choices for character progression based off of your basic class. Just as a whole I find it more fun to have situations arise where some other set up is just going to be a much better option for me. What I would never want to see is that other option being required to the point that extra “bodies” are needed to be brought in to take the place of someone who is “spec’d” a different way. A good way to make sure that never happens is always have an option at some “price” available to change things or the less prefered method of making all things equally bland so nothing really gives you a feeling of being more powerful in a certain area. I always vote for the former.

  2. I don’t see how a skill based system (like in elder scrolls) can ever be applicable in an mmorpg. They are very good at allowing a person to grow into a character role, which works great for single player games where it really doesn’t matter which path you choose, but in a multiplayer environment you are inevitably going to find yourself compared to other players, especially in the raiding clique. MMO players are at their core a min-max crowd, and developers bank on the assumption that players will stick around after they reach max level to earn more gear, more achievements, etc.

    Unfortunately I can’t think of a better way to express this than with diablo2. Players were granted a maximum number of skill and ability points to place, and there was always a “perfect” build; where skill and ability points were placed to reach the maximum potential keeping in mind the bonuses granted from the best armor available in game. I think I leveled about 3 sorcs to level 100 until I achieved this, and then had to level another few sorcs to 100 everytime they released a patch that attempted to balance abilities which always screwed my perfect build.

    I think the class system is by far the most effective and fun(important) system that can work in an online game, and I think eq2 has chosen a great system, but it’s certainly not without its flaws.

    A class system cannot have too many classes. I think 12 is a very high number. When you introduce more than this, its impossible to treat every class individually and create something that is truly unique and fun. In EQ2, its impossible to escape the reality that your class is somehow planted in some giant balancing matrix somewhere. EQ2 was right to remove the heirarchy of classes (scout->rogue->swash for example), but this was ultimately just a cosmetic change. Subclass comparisons (sk vs. paladin, ranger vs. assassin) will continue forever.

    Abilities should be unique, creative, and useful. Having your abilities replaced every 13 levels is indescribably dull. You play the same way at 60 as you do at 20, except mobs have more hp and you do more damage in return. This is a fatal mistake – characters should evolve naturally until they reach max level. Skills should never be replaced, rather they should grow with the character or become obsolete. Although EQ2 does introduce 4 unique and unreplaced abilities for each class by endgame (and honestly any dev team that can come up with 96 unique abilities like that is in a league all its own) , it does little to solve the problem.

    Regardless of its impracticality, I will always push for EQ2 to remove subclasses and a full redesign of the ability system and skills system (so that skills have a more pronounced influence). I have played every current NA MMO(some currently in beta), and, in combination with the 2 years i’ve already invested within, know I will stick with eq2 until the day it dies. I am very passionate about the future of this game, maybe to much so, but I’m fairly sure there’s always room for someone who thinks big :p

    I am very anxious to see the achievements that will be available with EoF. My biggest hope is that there will be multiple paths for each playstyle.

  3. I thought the subclass system in EQ2 was a bit of a PITA — not so much because you had to make level 20 to get your final class, but rather it caused the developers to cut up the original EQ1 classes which essentially nerfed them. I mean enchanters are enchanters – they shouldn;t have been divided into coercers and illusionists — it just weakened both classes by the split. Granted this was not true of all classes but I think Druids, and Shamans, and Rogues got weakened by this division of original classes.

    I would rather as a point of design that they had brought all the original classes over intact rather than splitting them to squeeze them into the subclass concept.

    Generally I don’t think subclasses work. It is better to pick the class you think you want and then have some quickie zone like the Trial of Isle to scope out your class and see if you like it. At least there you can find out about the classes in a few hours of play and not regret it 20 levels later.

    Generally I am disappointed in the achievements — I don’t like the way they are “weapon depdenant” — I think they should be weapon independent.

    Too much emphasis is being placed on avoiding being too much like EQ1 — if there are things in EQ1 that are popular ( can you say Beastlord) they should have carried them over into EQ2.

  4. It is debatable whether Swashbucklers really have 5 lines available to them. Most raiding Swashbucklers are strongly encouraged if not forced to get the last skill in Strength line. Then if they want to max dps which they normaly do when raiding the only logical choices are Wisdom or Agility lines and we are right back where we started.

    The heirarchy system might have been neat from an emersion point of view but from a practical point of view it just got in the way. As a result, the classes still suffer from not fully developing till around level 35, lvls 20-30 being a hump that some have difficulty getting over because abilities don’t shine till after 30.

    I think EQ2 just like Vanguard are visions of how EQ could be improved. EQ2 has changed a lot over time however because many of the ideas that where implemented, while good on paper did not pan out in practice. This however is somewhat off topic. :P

    When I think of a skill based online game I think of Planetside. From what I understand, the role you play depends on the skills you choose. The higher rank you have the more skills you can get and thus the more roles you can play. However, most people tend to specialize in a particular field. The skill based system works in Planetside because there are relatively few skills and often skill use is mutually exclusive due to equipment and other requirements. Having fewer skills makes the skills easier to balance.

    When I think of a skill system that doesn’t work for me, I think of the old AD&D weapons specialization system. All classes must choose a handful of weapons to train in. If you can’t find that weapon, too bad, fight at a disadvantage. In a sence, this is more realistic but less practical in that is severly limits your options. This carried over to some of the AD&D based CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate where the number of enchanted weapons where limited and some weapon types had +2 weapons at best and others had +5 Holy Avengers.

  5. Hey, this is Gavan Woolery, the Genesis ( – or World-of-Sporecraft as people have been calling it) guy. I have to say, you have some brilliant thoughts here. I think you are right in many respects…some debates will rage on forever, with no clear solution in sight. I know the proposed perma-death/reproduction in my game has caused no end of speculation. However, I have to disagree with you a bit on making a perfectly balanced game. I believe it IS possible to make a perfectly balanced game…it is all a matter of discrete mathematical computations. The thing is, we INTENTIONALLY do not make perfectly balanced games. If we did, classes would be meaningless, because they would all be viewed as ultimately having the potency. Allow me to make a simple example…lets say I make an RPG where characters only have two stats to differentiate them: attack and defense. A perfectly balanced game could easily be made with this system (although it would be about as fun as a soggy paper bag). We like to throw in tons of variables that are hard to compute in terms of equality, like movement speed and so forth (ie how valuable is movement speed in terms of your player’s survival, versus, say, their attack power?). But believe it or not, these variables can be balanced, even just using statistics if nothing else. It is important to have the balance rest in the players perception, even if it is just an illusion, so that they believe THEIR choices are what makes them succeed in the game. Anyway, just my thoughts on the matter…as you said, I am sure there is no right answer…besides mine :)

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  7. Not sure if this solution has been mentioned yet. I played the old school text MUD (multi user dungeons) and there was one format called “ACK MUD” that had a true multi class system. Basically, you pick the order of your classes, giving you access to all of the abilities. Depending on which order you put the class in determined how effective you were at each class ability. Example: You picked … Fighter, Priest, Mage, Rogue.
    Fighter abilities 90%
    Priest abilities 70%
    Mage abilities 50%
    Rogue abilities 30%

    This helped solve the following problems.
    1. Defined primary role in group play.
    2. Simple character creation for newbies.
    3. Freedom to solo play without dependancy for certain abilities.
    4. More flexibility compared to single class archetypes.
    5. Somewhat balanced in that everyone has access to the same abilities just different in their effectiveness.

    Reply for the two main problems you mentioned above.
    1. Skill based less horrible balance.
    2. Class based more player control.

    1A. Eventually, power players are always going to get the similar templates of skills for PVP, so why bother limiting everyone else? If everyone has access to the same abilities this creates an anti monopoly. Different class combinations can be made to counter other class combinations. In real life, you use the right tool for the job, no body cares about the ultimate screwdriver! Maybe some do but that is not the point.

    2A. Freedom of choice without limitations. This is not a perfect solution but it’s a happy medium. You’re not really forced into a particular class role because you can still perform all the other functions. The power to choose your class order, gives you more creative freedom.

    The one main complaint was uniqueness. Since everyone can do the same thing, no body felt unique. Aside from that drawback, this system was very popular with MUD games. I don’t know why they haven’t tried it with MMORPG. As for uniqueness, there are tons of ways to make characters unique. Just to name a few: character appearance, class geared equipment, race selections, race vs prime class appearance.

    Elf Mage Prime = Skinny Elf
    Elf Fighter Prime = Buff Elf

    If anyone wants to discuss further, you can email me at:

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