posted: July 18th, 2006
I’m not a 23rd level Artist or an 18th level Geek. I’m not even multiclassed as an Artist/Designer, but I don’t feel bad about this. The fact is that people in the real world simply aren’t divided into classes that dictate what they can and cannot do. So why do games do this?
Probably the greatest reason is because this is how Dungeons and Dragons works. You could argue that classes are a connection to that ancestry, a sort of homage, or you could simply say that it’s because designers tend to work through evolution rather than innovation, but either way the idea of classes in MMO’s comes to us from classes in Dungeons and Dragons.
Personally I haven’t really liked the concept of character classes for years. I’ve got two big objections to them. The first is the limitations.
To me it seems wrong to say that a person can’t learn to pick up a sword simply because somewhere along the line he identified himself as a ‘mage’. Even stranger to me is the limitation that he can’t put on a simple chain-mail shirt because he went to the wrong school. There are, of course, arguments that can be made for this. Armor is heavy and a mage does not devote enough of his attention to physical development to wear it. The metal of the armor interferes with the wizard’s ability to cast spells. Maneuvering in heavy armor is a skill and a wizard has no experience in how to do so. Well, since the physical power of a character is determined by an attribute rather than a class I don’t see why a mage with a higher strength than a fighter wouldn’t be able to wear the same armor. As for the spell casting, we aren’t talking about the wizard wearing armor and casting spells, we are just talking about the wearing of armor (and that doesn’t address leather armor, anyway). Finally, while an untrained wizard might not be able to maneuver as well in a chain-mail shirt as a highly trained fighter I have to remain dubious that a person with an IQ of 150 who spends his time unravelling the mysteries of the universe can’t figure out that his head goes through the big hole and his arms go through the two smaller ones.
The second objection I have to classes is almost the opposite of the first; the things a character can do simply because of their class. Actually I suppose I don’t object so much to the fact that a thief can sneak around simply because they are a thief. What I really object to is the fact that to get better at sneaking around a thief has to do things completely unassociated with sneaking around; namely killing monsters. Because skills for characters in most games are tied to levels and levels are tied to killing monsters characters improve in skills completely unrelated to what they are doing by beating up on orcs and kobolds.
So what’s the upside to classes? For one they give us defined roles. When a player is trying to form up a group they can search for a tank by looking for people who belong to a tanking class. When they need DPS they look for someone belonging to a DPS class.
Classes are also easier for inexperienced players to grasp. If you want to run around in heavy armor with a sword you chose a Fighter. You don’t select the sword skill, the shield skill, the light armor skill which you need to build the medium armor skill which you need for the heavy armor skill. The advantages of simplicity should never be underestimated.
Another thing that classes do is protect the value of certain skills. While it might be too expensive for a wizard to follow the entire skill path of a rogue it probably wouldn’t be that much to just pick up some skill at disarming traps or picking locks.
On the other hand classless systems give freedom. Properly designed they allow people to make whatever character they are interested in playing (within reason). This can give people a powerful ownership in their character.
So ultimately which one is better for the mass market? Is the more comfortable and established class system the way to go or would a well designed skills based system ultimately draw more players? Under the ‘something for everyone’ philosophy that I like to try to hold to can we bring the two systems together? Is there a way to make a system where players can choose either skill based or class based progression?
These questions are what I am turning around and around in my head right now.