The age old question of character definition continues to wend its way around the hills and vales of Blogland, asking whether ’tis better to suffer the confines and restrictions of fixed character classes, or to take the concept of class away and give players the freedom to create munchkins and gimps in equal measure. Rather than skill points, Champions Online attempts to kowtow to those who fancy freedom by providing pools of skills from which the player can choose, reigning in advancement by placing a prerequisite of a number of basic skills on the more powerful abilities; favour is given to those who stick with one pool of powers, opening up the most powerful abilities sooner by requiring a smaller number of basic powers from that pool to unlock the powerful ability, as opposed to a larger number of basic powers from random other pools. Still, despite the incentive of the power frameworks, as they are known, it is quite easy to create a character which is nigh-on unplayable, the cost of undoing such a mistake… prohibitive.
This is the fundamental design issue with non-class-based systems (skill points as used in EVE are one such system, but not the only non-class system, as evidenced by the Champions Online example previously), with freedom comes great opportunity to gimp your character, with it also comes the power to munchkin a character so hideous in design that the developers, arms across their eyes, reel from it in horror as if the very concept of it burns their eyes and threatens to corrupt their soul. When a game such as Champions Online includes PvP, the need for balance quickly makes the freedom of creativity awarded to the players a rod for the developer’s back. Even EVE Online, which has taken the skill system and implemented it fantastically well, has encountered issues where the developers have had to adjust the game in order to counter very specific character builds which exploit certain skill and ship combinations to create something far more powerful than the developers ever envisioned. Yet EVE has shown us that skill systems can work, and work well. It’s still quite possible to create a gimped character in EVE, but the odds are against it, especially with the certificate system in place that allows an inexperienced player to see easily what basic skills they should be working on when aiming for a certain career path.
My thought is thus: why not have a mix of the two systems? I would suggest that the primary desire for non-class systems is the freedom to create a character that the player wants, admittedly in a large number of cases this would be a dual-wielding melee maniac who can shoot fireballs from their forehead and heal themselves at will, but a lot of the time players just want a bit more flexibility in customising their character and making them unique. Taking World of Warcraft as an example – a game which has tried with its talent point system to provide some limited flexibility within the scope of each of its classes – what would a dual character development system look like?
The example for this came to me recently when I had cause to play my Paladin briefly: I needed to travel across a large expanse of Ye Olde Azeroth on foot, and the Paladin’s Crusader Aura, in combination with an epic mount, just makes this a lot less effort, and there’s something compelling about watching your mount’s character model animate slightly faster than the developers originally intended, it conveys that extra sense of speed and simulates well enough the wind rushing through your character’s hair. Of course this caused me to rue the fact that I didn’t have such an ability on the Shaman that I’m currently levelling, who has a nice travel form which is all but redundant now that mounts are available from level twenty, except for a few special cases where I might be able to use it to escape from enemies, and of course it still has its uses in PvP. I thought to myself that I’d gladly give up my travel form for a Crusader Aura on my Shaman. I’m sure most people would, other than the PvPers and maybe a few Furry role-players. So that’s probably an easy exchange, what else would I give up? Well, my Shaman has several other fluff utilities – Water Breathing and Water Walking to name but a few – would I give those up too? My answer was still yes, because I like Crusader Aura that much; I’d give-up my travel form and the various fluff water-based abilities too. What about Astral Recall? Astral Recall is a spell which emulates the character’s hearthstone, allowing the Shaman to return to their bind point more often than other characters. It’s pretty useful when you need to whip from one side of the world to the other and back again, and it certainly made my levelling life a lot easier. That one would certainly be a more difficult choice for me.
There are many fluff abilities granted to classes in WoW, things that are there to make life a little easier, or to entertain and amuse, none of which affect the fundamental operation of the class. In a redesign of the game I think it would be viable to keep the core skills and spells of the class, and yet provide a more flexible non-class skill system outside of these core class abilities, a pool of skills and spells that players could dip into as they advance, made-up of those fluff abilities which are fun to have and often make life easier, but which would not gimp or overpower a character upon their application. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of MMO players like fluff items, one only has to look at the clamour and furore caused by various mounts, non-combat pets and housing items, to see that this is the case. Players also – and I honestly don’t know why developers, in general, seem to have such a problem realising this in their games – like to have the freedom to express themselves through their character, although this partly ties in to the fluff items again: given a restrictive class-based system, players attempt to express themselves in other ways. To see such an example of this one only has to look at the costume customisation options in games such as Everquest II or Lord of the Rings Online to see the creativity that many players put into expressing themselves, or for a more extreme example: City of Heroes, where creating costumes and character concepts is often more of a game to the players than the levelling game proper.
Giving players freedom of expression when it comes to the way their character operates at a fundamental level is a difficult thing to do, few MMOs have attempted it, and fewer still have achieved it with any success. Perhaps, though, there is a way to give players some freedom of expression, a way to customise the abilities of their character to their own taste whilst at the same time maintaining a tighter control on the balance of combat encounters with a class-based development system.
Meridian 59 has what I consider a hybrid system. There are different schools of spells with different characteristics. Want to use fire spells? Choose Faren. Want to be a healer? Choose Shal’ille. Each school has 6 levels. Your intellect attribute determines how much you can learn. Characters range from low-intellect “pure fighters” who focus on weapon skills and anti-magic protection to hybrids and “pure mages” who can get high levels in up to 4 of the 7 schools. The one restriction is that you can’t learn use the healing/protection school at the same time you use the evil/necromancy school.
The problem for the longest time was that the schools weren’t really well balanced; a few of the schools were “must haves” and others had pretty much nothing but joke abilities. After some balancing, character choice became a lot more interesting given that M59 is PvP game. It was a nice mix of both worlds: characters were fairly individual and the optimal build was up for discussion, but if you tell an experienced M59 player, “He’s a Riija/Qor/Faren build” they pretty much know the character’s capabilities.
I like this idea. When your character in combat is defined by fundamentally necessary skills, and buffing your character requires armour identical to everyone else’s, being able to separate an entire class of ‘fluff’ or ‘vanity’ items and spells sounds ideal. As you point out, some of the effect is already seen, in customisation of what is worn outside of combat. Either picking individual armour selections or choosing a certain non-combat pet is a way to distinguish yourself from everyone else who has made the same class and talent choices.
Offering a sense of individuality amongst a sea of conformity would be a valuable addition to any MMORPG.