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?