Classless is a pain in the assless

(Edited with further reading posts at the end.)

Sad classless panda is sad.

AKA: Elder Game’s Eric reckons “classless” is really rather more difficult to design for MMOs than most people are willing to admit. My first reaction was Noooooo! Do not say this! Do not want to hear it! Lalalala!

But common sense generally recognises itself, and certainly in the case of Asheron’s Call what Eric writes jibes exactly with my own experience as a player. Yes, you could technically put your experience points anywhere you liked in AC, and for example end up with a character built like a stick-insect who was capable of crossing the entire map in under two minutes, they ran that fast. But you wouldn’t be able to fight those pesky reedsharks nipping at your backside while you ran, and you’d be easy prey for any zephyr or lounging virindi waiting to shoot a lightning bolt up it.

I know all about this, because my first character — first ever, fresh off the Pen’n’Paper table MMO character — was made in an attempt to approximate reasonable tabletop RPG design. In other words I was careful not to min/max my stats while still having one stat that was a little above the rest, and I picked a nice, rounded variety of skills (Monster appraisal!) that I thought would help me in this new world of online role-playing.

As a result, Eloise was a gimp and remained a gimp for a long time, until it became possible to slowly move stats from one attribute to another and to drop/acquire skills. The very fact that the AC community rapidly evolved a term for being a sub-optimal character — “gimp” — shows that the players, at least, perceived some builds as good and most others as, well, crap. And while players are asshats and often meaner than a sackful of weasels, many of them also know how to crunch a mean number and the whole gimp/not-gimp thing wasn’t just a matter of perception. There were smart ways to spend you character creation and xp points, and there were less smart ways. The smart ways would enable you to kick the crap out of mobs, which is essentially what one does in most MMOs… and the less smart ways would have you struggling to do the same thing while wondering where you went wrong and why you were at the lifestone yet again.

(Tangent time. There’s always someone who asks “Why didn’t you just reroll?” and I’m never sure how to answer that because simply asking the question implies a wide chasm between how the asker and I approach our characters in games. Sure, lots of characters get made for the purposes of trying something out or experimenting with a given role and then usually get deleted. But in many cases, the characters I make in MMOs will gel and become characters, not just waldoes for me to manipulate in the game world, and rerolling is just plain murder. There’s a point up to which that can be done — past that point, it’s not happening. And as I said, if I have to explain it or if you’re asking, we’re probably not on the same gaming/character page to begin with.)

I demand the freedom to be a gimp!

Sure. Here, have it. There are times when we’re all happy to play a sub-optimal character, either because it’s fun or because we’re role-playing or because we’re kinky that way, or even because such a build can fill a particular specialist niche in a game, like crafting mules in AC. Whatever — when you have a classless game, you’ll have kinky-build characters. The stick insect. The quick hulk with no hit points. The mage with the enormous brain and BITE ME tattooed on his chest.

But no player in their right mind wants all kinky all the time, no matter how loftily they may speaketh of RP and how it’s only the character that matters, not the numbers. I call bollocks on that one. Most of the time you want a character that will perform consistently within the parameters of the given game, given some variance for player skill (said variance being, er, rather variable depending on what game you’re playing). Most players, for that matter, want to know that their character SmashMouth001 is almost identical to SmashMouth002, and that the only real difference between them is that SM001-player actually knows how to mash buttons and in what order, whereas poor SM002-player does not. I’m not sure I’m that happy to be part of the herd, but classes are what they are in most games and they do provide a way to compare and contrast oneself with other players when it comes to examining roles and one’s performance of said role. They also make it a damn sight easier for designers when it comes to examining metrics and seeing how one group of players is doing in comparison to another.

Beyond that, though, it was also pretty obvious pretty quickly in AC that mages — anyone with any kind of magical skills, of which there were 4 major schools — had a gigantic leg up over anyone who didn’t. Pure combat mages basically kicked everyone else’s ass, in most cases, and any character with even a smidge of magic was usually far superior (better survivability, better buffs, better heals, whatever) to a similar character who had, say, picked Person and Monster appraisal over magic.

Secret and Classless

So here’s what worries me, since I’m so busy waiting on The Secret World even though I’ve said nary a thing about it lately. (It’s playing hard to get? I’ll play blind blogger. So nerh.) From the on-site blurb:

Freeform gameplay – Experience a game that has no classes or levels. Truly freeform character customization allows you to create the alter-ego you want to play, and gameplay that goes beyond the usually rigid MMO structure allows you to play the game the way you want to play it.

Hundreds of powers – Wield fiery katanas, gold-plated pistols, and deadly automatic rifles. Learn martial arts, black magic and voodoo. Choose from hundreds of powers to create a character completely customized to your liking.

Yeah! Um… uh oh… Ack!

Now, a few of the other things that have been said do indicate that classlessness does not imply role-lessness, and if there’s one thing MMO players are conscious of these days it’s roles, perhaps even more than classes. So although you’re not called a “fighter”, it sounds like you can pick a power deck (or whatever it’ll be called) that will allow you to perform fightery-type roles, or healery-type roles, or whatever it is you want to play that day. Maybe. If it’s done right.

It’s not that it can’t be done, and that’s not what EG’s Eric is saying (mostly, I think). It’s that it’s a lot more expensive and intensive and it’s a pain in the ass once you have designed it. I can see that — that actually makes perfect sense, sadly. I’ll just have to hope that the TSW team are aware of this and have worked out how to present us with a classless, level-less system while still having some pretty rigid, manageable mechanics underneath.

I’m having trouble working out how a fiery katana is going to compete with a deadly automatic rifle, for instance. (Okay, that could just be part of the “wear what you like, it’s not what you’re actually using” appearance system they’ve been talking about… but what if it isn’t?) How are they going to avoid having a handful of optimal builds — or powersets or whatever they’ll be called — and a million gimp builds? Because for every Jane who doesn’t mind that it takes her a bit longer to kill that zombie or that she can’t down that boss because her character is gimped, there will be 999 Joes who resent that very much and will always make sure they use the best available build the community has worked out, no matter how cookie-cutter it may be. Killing shit > original build. Killing shit easily / killing elite shit > other stuff.  You get my drift. We gamers have fairly simple minds when it comes to certain mechanics.

Ultimately, classless and level-less and number-less weren’t that easy to manage even in tabletop RP, and that’s not just because we RP geeks love us some numbers and some dice*. It’s because classes and levels and numbers-based mechanics provide us with systems that help ensure at least a modicum of parity and a reasonable amount of fairness all the way around the table, both between the players themselves and between the players and the person running the game session. And indeed, a diceless RPG system is harder to set up and maintain as a GM than a more rigid system — I’ve been there. That’s not to say it isn’t rewarding, but it certainly is more difficult and more time-consuming to manage. (Players bitching that other players have more powers or can do more. Players bitching that they should be able to do A B or C, when a more mechanics-based system would enable you to just say no. Making sure confrontations are confrontational and not constant cakewalks. Et-ad-nauseam-cetera.)

I guess we’ll see, as far as TSW is concerned.

And one day there may even be a beta and I may even be in it. Shut up, vaaaaaaporwaaaarrrrre raven!

Further reading

Aim for the Head – The Skills of EVE

Psychochild – Stay Classy

Rampant Coyote – Defending the lack of Class

Tish Tosh Tesh – Classes, Trinity and Balance, Oh, My

(slightly tangential, or at least inspired by a whole different original post) Big Bear Butt – The (Un)Holy Trinity


* Amber. Yes, I know. One exception does not actually entirely disprove the contention.

22 thoughts on “Classless is a pain in the assless

  1. “It’s not that it can’t be done, and that’s not what EG’s Eric is saying (mostly, I think). It’s that it’s a lot more expensive and intensive and it’s a pain in the ass once you have designed it. I can see that — that actually makes perfect sense, sadly.”

    To be honest, I think the opposite is true, and that “wisdom” comes from a bit of dabbling with paper & pen rulesets.

    See, the whole point of classes is that it lets designers break down the abilities of players into broad categories, and then balance the broad categories against each other. Now tell me one MMO where that has worked, and didn’t need constant tweaking.

    The thing is, players are great at crunching numbers and finding the “best” specializations for fulfilling a role. That won’t change, whether you’ve got a classless system or a system with classes. If you’ve got a system with classes, though, that can be bad. Players who rolled a different class will bitch and moan until you rebalance stuff.

    In a classless system? Just roll with it. Sure, it’ll most likely mean that most players end up with very specific configurations, according to the role they want to fulfil in a group. I say let them. Then balance the difficulty of encounters such that the configurations that emerge naturally are challenged, instead of trying to balance the classes. At least, that’s the approach that worked best for our paper & pen sessions.

    And if you’ve got a mean streak (and yes, when I run a game I do have that), throw in encounters that require skills people don’t normally max. Translate that idea to an MMO, and you might even arrive at one that does not only reward the healer/tank/DPS roles, but also the bards of this world. They do exist, after all (crazy, I know).

    So, yeah, maybe that’s naive, but it worked for me in paper&pen, and I’d love to give it a spin in an MMO. SOMEBODY HIRE ME FOR THAT GODDAMIT 😀

    (As an aside, I do actually think that the main reason few people do that is that we players as a whole like comparing stat sizes. Those groups that play classless P&P tend to not go back in my experience; it just takes some getting used to. And it’s usually easier to start with people who lack RPG experience.)


      I’ll just point out that I have a long history of consulting for games and have previously worked with a skill-based system in Meridian 59 that is generally considered well-balanced.

      So, uh, hire me instead of that loser. 😉

      Writing a blog entry as a longer response to this issue. Watch for the trackback! 🙂

  2. It can be done; you’ve seen it, Ysh, so don’t lose faith yet! While Fallen Earth is clearly not the epitome of game balance, I don’t think the shell is that far off. In fact, I’ve recently returned to the Wasteland and found the combat changes a breath of fresh air.

  3. I’ll second unwesen on this one. I’ve hinted at it obliquely with my recent Mongolian BBQ article (let the players make choices already) and previous ones, like my Autopilot character development idea. If there’s a fallback position for those players who don’t want to make choices, say character templates within a skill system, then you can effectively have “classes” for those who want them and an open system under the hood ready for tinkering.

    I also think that “balance” is highly overrated. It’s a fluid thing anyway. Look at how the Magic The Gathering game changes over time. It’s never perfectly balanced, because there are so many moving parts, but it’s those moving parts that makes the game so interesting. There are broad sweeping mechanics and themes (color and color identity), but the MTG “skill” system of tons of moving parts and incredible deckbuilding freedom produces a much more interesting, dynamic and engrossing game than any silly class-based game.

    I’d note that any system that gives players a lot of choices in their “build” need to have good, fast and cheap ways to change those choices, even on the fly (see MTG sideboards). Irrevocable choices in a big system are just asking for trouble. In other words, I want to be able to gimp myself if I blasted well feel like it, but if I change my mind, I should be able to change my character.

    1. Arguably, regarding templates on top of a skill system, that’s what Champions Online is doing with their F2P conversion, and even monetizing the freedom of the skill system underneath.

      Was it hard to put all that together instead of just making two tanks, two healers and three DPS classes? Yeah, it probably took more work. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. If you do it right, you can even shove a lot of the burden onto players; it’s their decisions being tested after all.

      1. Isn’t that exactly what you *don’t* want to do? Theory: the rate of gimpage (or perhaps the degree of gimpage) in a free system is much higher than in a classed one – I know this is true in my personal experience, but I can’t assume that safely. Certainly, letting me gimp myself and then telling me it’s my responsibility has made me quit games before.

      2. No, I *want* to shove that responsibility at the players. I want players to learn the game system, and they have to make decisions to do so.

        Thing is, I’d make it so that they can change their mind easily if they screw up. Making mistakes is only a big problem in gaming if you’re stuck with them. I want players to be able to gimp themselves, know that they have done so, and learn exactly why… then change their approach and try again. That’s an age old learning process.

      3. I’m in 100% agreement with Tesh. The short term fix is to make players unable to gimp themselves, but the long term solution that leads to better games and more solid design is to let playing gimp themselves but also allow them avenues to recover from being gimped.

  4. Yes, a classless system is going to be more difficult to implement. But I don’t think that means it will be impossible.

    The big challenge TSW will face is making sure that there will be more than one build to which everyone gravitates, or that there isn’t just one build that easily blows away anything else. The skill system they’re proposing (5 active, 5 passive) could very well amplify the min/max game. It could make it very possible that someone with a katana, some fire skills, and some passive fire or armor buffs could tear mobs and other players down in a couple of seconds, where hitting that person with a rifle would be tough because of dodging passives or a shield skill. My understanding is that this is, in fact, the case in Fallen Earth PvP right now: melee is better than rifle or pistol.

    The biggest issue for TSW is going to be PvP and how easy it is to switch a build up. If I go into PvP and get torn down by a fiery katana guy, I’d like to be able to quickly switch to a build that gives me fire resistance before the next round without having to go grind XP to buy the right level of skill to do that (or however it is that you earn skills).

    In PvE, it will be less of an issue unless there’s a build that’s clearly superior for making money or farming faction or what have you. This was why Guild Wars kept nerfing Shadow Form; it was much too easy to farm just about anything with that skill.

    I’m sure that after launch the hivemind of players will find a way to min/max a build that really is outside the bounds of what Funcom planned for. I think it’s inevitable, despite how much they may try to minimize that. And that’s what patches and updates are for. Funcom will have to stay on top of the meta-game, watch as it unfolds, and adjust accordingly.

  5. I’ve only ever played one classes game, but I think that roles are naturally formed in the players mind.
    Some tend towards support as it’s the role they gain the most enjoyment from, other want the glory of being the powerhouse.
    Classless systems that allow players to switch between roles will retain players longer, there will be less alting and more enjoyment overall.

    Funny enough, My work colleagues & I recently took a test to identify the role of each member within the team. Replying to this post instantly made me think of it ,OK not from a work perspective but it clearly demonstrated that nearly everyone will span more than one role.

    As MMOs evolve and change with each new appearance, perhaps it isn’t advisable to Pigeonhole players right at the start anymore.

  6. I think the first poster hinted at this, but…

    The bottom line is that most developers are more concerned with the MMO letters in their name and not the RPG. If they were willing to dip into the rich design history of PnP RPG’s they would uncover a wider range of options pretty quickly – and see that its not really all that hard. EVE is best poised to do this and do it well with Vampire given the CCP/White Wolf merger.

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