Class-less MMOs: Pie In The Sky

Some MMO traditions are more wearing than others — for me, it’s the class-centered gameplay that seeks to put players into defined roles and force them to stay there. Our biggest choice for character development happens before we even set foot in the game, at the character creation screen; after that, we’re just making variations within set parameters. Now, I understand why class-based MMOs work, particularly for devs and coders who have a nightmare of a balance issue with players who often min-max and look for every exploitable opportunity. You can’t just give these people free reign in a class-less MMO… or can you?

Recently, Scott Jennings mocked wet-behind-the-ears designers who tend to leap at the idea of building a MMO free of the traditional class setup:

If I had a quarter for every armchair designer (or actual designer for that matter) I’ve listened to that began their “How I Would Save The MMO Industry Singlehandedly” speech with “ditch classes and levels”, I could fund World of Progressquest singlehandedly. It’s the quickest way to indie cred: instead of saying you really like Angry Johnny and the Killbillies, you say you really wish someone would make a game just like Ultima Online (which effectively had classes and eventually patched them in explicitly) or Asheron’s Call 1 (which had levels as well as implicit classes) or Game No One Has Ever Heard Of But Makes A Ton Of Money And Has No Classes (but does have levels and an insane soul destroying grind) or My Favorite MUD No One Ever Heard Of But It Totally Ruled. Saying “I wish someone would ditch those damn levels and classes” isn’t proposing a game design. It’s proposing the absence of one.

I’m not saying that abandoning classes will save MMOs, but the rest of this is a pretty cynical way of looking at game development, and also flawed — but more on that later. I see what he’s saying, that it’s far easier to say an idea than it is to properly implement it, something bloggers and critics often completely overlook when aiming snarky comments at entertainment creators. But I call this cynical because not having classes doesn’t denote a lack of game design, just something different than what we’re typically used to.

Dungeons & Dragons is most responsible for the class setup that became the norm in most RPGs and MMORPGs — you force players into a role, giving them strengths and weaknesses, and then encourage them to group to combine those strengths and overcome those weaknesses. This is what EverQuest and WoW latched onto, and it’s become the industry standard. People understand classes and identify with them — not a bad thing. But that doesn’t mean we need to roll over and just accept that this is the way it’ll be, now and forever, because any other ideas are just too. darn. hard. to design and program.

Besides, what Scott said isn’t entirely true. There have been class-less MMOs that have found a way to work, beyond what he mentioned. Eve Online is a huge example of this, a skill-centered game where players can train up whatever they like.  You can even make a weak case for the original Star Wars Galaxies, pre-NGE.  Free Realms is going to let characters change “outfits” (aka classes) on the fly, not penning them in to any one role. Champions Online promises to let characters mix-and-match superpowers to be whatever they dream of, without class restrictions.  Darkfall, myth or not, is very up front with its thumbing of the nose as class boundaries.   Other titles, like City of Heroes, Guild Wars, Wizard 101 and Runes of Magic, tried to shake up class boundaries by letting players mix-and-match hybrid classes that break out of standard roles.

In the pen-and-paper world, GURPS and the HERO System found an acceptable substitute for classes with their point-based character building systems. Several single-player RPGs, like Fallout, have eschewed classes for skills, abilities and perks. All of these are “game design”, just more difficult for a MMO to handle (especially if you’re throwing PvP into the mix) than if you put a seatbuckle on players to keep them from wriggling out of bounds.  And what I’ve found is that character creation and growth in these types of games are far, far more involving and captivating than picking a class and letting the game hold your hand as you level up.

Yet why is it a bad thing, something deserving of scoffing by others, to set our standards high for this?  Why shouldn’t we be asking and daring MMO devs to be unafraid of challenging the class design status quo?  Does anyone really think that, 50 years from now, we’ll still be content with playing class-bound MMOs just with prettier graphics and brain uplinking?


4 thoughts on “Class-less MMOs: Pie In The Sky

  1. Morane February 19, 2009 / 12:07 pm

    A class-less MMO? Great! Hey, I can dream can’t I?

    As you point out several MMO games have made the class-less system work so it’s clearly not pie-in-the-sky. Some comments I would like to add:

    1) Removing classes doesn’t eliminate the issue of balance, it just shifts it to gear and/or abilities. Pre-CU SWG apparently suffered from this problem, there were only a few viable talent builds.

    2) For any enterprise involving a group of players, assuming that there a number of functions to be done and gear/abilities affect how well those functions are performed, it will always be better for some people to focus on specific functions. Therefore there will always be roles so long as it possible to focus on a specific role.

    3) Having a fixed class system enhances the revenue stream for game companies because re-rollers spend more time in-game after they’ve reached the end-game with their main character.

  2. g30ff February 20, 2009 / 12:57 pm

    Classes don’t really bother me, but I would like to see the ability to fill multiple rolls a little more.

    When I played WoW, I was completely dedicated to my warlock. I avoided alts and sunk all my time into him. I liked being dps, but sometimes I wished I could do something else. I ended up getting pretty envious of Paladins and Druids and their ability to play any style they wanted. I wanted that flexibility in my class.

    I was really hoping to see a hybrid type of class in WAR that I could make my main, but as you know, WAR is extremely locked into the class architecture.

  3. BVD March 30, 2009 / 11:46 am

    A February article… I’m guessing nobody will see my little comment here since I’m so late in posting it.

    Personally, I get excited about the concept of a “class-less” MMMORPG. One of the things that I think may have held back some of the other games that attempted it though is the fact that all of those games are combat based – thus only “fighty” and “healer” classes succeed.

    Show me an MMMORPG where I can create a viable character who relies on his wits / skills to get by. On the rare occasions I do have to worry about combat, perhaps the character’s skills could earn him enough income to hire NPC bodyguards or even PC bodyguards to keep the PK’ers away (in turn, those PK’ers could earn income by hiring themselves out as bodyguards or hitmen, as a PK’er is wont to do). Now that’s something I’d be interested in trying out!

    Besides, it’s almost laughable when you think that most MMMORPGs glorify burly bruisers who in this day and age would be hard pressed to get a job bouncing at a local adult entertainment establishment…

  4. BoB December 11, 2009 / 12:31 pm


    No doubt no one will see this one but oh well…

    From my 14 years of experience with RPGs and MMOs, the idea of ANY class is foreboding, I don’t care what you WoW fan boys say about this idea but why not ditch the idea of FPS, RPG and strategy and create a game completely free of the previously set boundaries. I mean like build a game that isn’t FPS or MMO, make something that brakes EVERY MMO rule, make the lvling up and attributes AUTOMATIC and shit, so there’s still the lvling up and shit but you don’t have to go through all the stress of it. I mean seriously I’m getting awfully bored awfully fast of all these rerun MMOs.

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