Having seen over on Book of Grudges that the Warhammer Online Open Beta client was finally available for download by those of us in the rural gaming backwater that is the European Union, my mind was sent wandering along those ancient paths that wind through the Forest of Contemplation, and after several minutes of travelling I found myself once again breaking out from under the canopy of foliage and into the open spaces of the Grove of Character Class Cogitation. It wasn’t really so much of an angst-ridden introspection on why I can’t just pick a goram class and stick with it, but a more general ponderment as to the number of classes and the variation.

Concerning the number of these classes there can be no question, there is most definitely a number of them, and ‘dat shit be huge yo’ as I believe the children of today say down on the roads and byways. Can we really say that there are twenty honest to goodness classes, though? Everyone is aware of the mirroring of classes between the forces of Order and Fanboys, sorry Destruction, and that, for example, the Warrior Priest and the Disciple of Khaine could probably be considered one class for all intents and purposes. Alright one and a third classes. Fine, one and half classes but that’s my final offer. You push a hard bargain. What I’m driving at, perhaps slightly too fast to avoid a nasty collision which will give us all hideous whiplash-related injuries, is that the philosophy behind the classes is essentially the same, albeit with slightly different spells and weapon styles. Consider these classes as conjoined twins, separated at birth through complicated and lengthy surgery, and split down the middle as best as possible. Of course, whichever twin you’re playing, the other twin will always seem to have gotten the better deal, and if you read some of the more ‘passionate’ forums it would seem that there are many class pairings where one twin was given the only available head and the other twin was given a second arse in compensation. Such is the nature of sibling MMO rivalry.

What triggered my desire to make a post, though, was on considering the nature of the classes as a whole; specifically I was pondering about the classes that I have at level seventy in World of Warcraft and whether they were represented in Warhammer. I don’t know why, my brain just went barrelling off along this lane of thought like an excited puppy chasing a cat, and I was forced to follow at a stumbling jog as I was hauled along by the tentative leash that I hold over my mind. Anyway, I have three classes that qualify, my paladin and shaman are both present and correct in Warhammer, taking them as the hybrid melee/healer/caster types that they are, but I drew up short when considering the druid. The druid is the first class that I played and reached the original level cap of sixty with in WoW. I played it back before it was really cool (read overpowered) to be a druid, before we were feralised and became little Tasmanian bundles of whirlwinding furry fury. I will always have a soft spot for my Alliance druid, despite the fact that the model they use for the dire bear form looks like it’s suffering a permanent stroke, all twisted lips and tongue lolling. It’s swings and roundabouts though, the Horde’s bear form looks much cooler, but then they have to suffer the fact that their cat form has the body of a lion but the face of Danny DeVito after having been hit with a spade one too many times.

I came to realise just how underrepresented shape-shifting classes are, not just in WAR, but in many of the MMOs that I’ve played. WAR has the Marauder of course, but they really only shape-shift their arm, so they’re really a shareware shape-shifter: the fundamentals are there but the feature set is severely reduced. Other than that, I can’t really recall any shape-shifting classes in other MMOs that I’ve played, DAoC (the early years, at least, not so sure about more recent expansions), EQII, AC2, LotRO and many others. Is WoW the only major mainstream MMO that has decent, honest to goodness shape-shifters, or have I simply got brain ague, and I’m forgetting all the thousands of shape-shifting MMO classes that actually exist?

If I’m correct and the shape-shifter is indeed a rare entity in the MMOsphere, I have to wonder why this is. Clearly the WoW druid is a fairly complex beastie to put together, what with them being about five classes in one. Yes, five: you’ve got the Bear form tank, you’ve got the Cat form rogue, the Moonkin form mage and the Tree of Life form healer. And then you’ve got the humanoid form, where admittedly you generally only get to poke critters with your wooden staff until they get so annoyed that they turn around and bite your hippy-haired head off, but it’s still a form. In druid circles we call it Worm Food form. So yes, there are a lot of mechanics to squeeze in to the class, although being a true hybrid, they are all mechanics that are lifted more or less wholesale from the traditional pure classes. Also there’s the question of balance, if a class can do all things, then why would people play any of the singularly skilled classes? Well, the trick is that the druid does most things well, but not quite as well as a pure class would, and when coupled with the fact that some people just don’t ever want to tank, say, then these people are much more likely to pick a more restrictive class that does what they like to do, and does it better than anyone else to the exclusion of flexibility or support skills. In MMOs we call these people DPS.

So it’s not as if shape-shifters have to be the only overpowered class anyone will ever play, and it’s not as though they require a disproportionate amount of time to develop, being that many of their forms and abilities should sensibly be based on those that already exist for other classes, so again I do wonder why they don’t seem to be an option in many MMOs.

Lord knows you only have to look at Second Life to see the sheer volume of slightly odd types who like to turn themselves into animals and ‘do it like they do on the Discovery Channel’ with one another, if you know what I mean. Based on that evidence, you’d think a shape-shifting class would be compulsory in any MMO that took its subscription numbers seriously.

So in conclusion: World of Warcraft, 10 million subscribers because it offers druids and thus a chance at simulated furry sex in an environment far more appealing than Second Life; Age of Conan, failed to do well because their Bear Shaman couldn’t actually shape-shift into a bear, they went with boobs over bears, and they paid the price. On the Internet every third thing is a boob, if you want to titillate people online these days, go with bears.

I have to confess that I’m not sure that’s the conclusion I was really aiming for when I started this post.

Oh well, tune in tomorrow for my next post: “Gnomes in MMOs” and why I’ve concluded that they’re the reason for the current increase in benign prostatic hyperplasia in young male gamers.

Posted by Melmoth at 9:53 am