Redefining MMOs: Flexible Character Classes and the End of Niche Protection

Massively has laid down the gauntlet to bloggers to write about aspects of MMOs that are being redefined. And much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, character classes ain’t what they used to be.

Let’s go back to the pen and paper era. Dungeons and Dragons originally introduced character classes: some would be instantly recognisable to MMO players today and others wouldn’t quite fit. The D&D cleric was a healer but had a huge amount of utility spells too. The D&D warrior was a heavily armoured fighter but not really a tank as we’d understand it today. The D&D thief wasn’t really a dps class (although they could get in the odd lucky backstab) so much as a utility build.  Fans quickly developed rules for all sorts of weird and wonderful new character races, classes and subclasses. TSR themselves hefted in with druids and bards and assassins until there really was something for everyone. A lot of those classes had very specialised abilities, but it didn’t matter because a human GM was running the game and could balance encounters to make sure everyone felt useful. If the player party was lacking some vital role (ie. healer) then the GM could allow an NPC healer to go with them to help out.

Coding up the Classes

MUDs took some of the D&D classes and worked the mechanics around to get a playable game. Many utility spells were removed from casters because they needed a human GM to resolve their use (e.g. mind control or telepathy). The ones that stayed in were the ones that were easiest to code. MUD wizards often took a ‘more is better’ approach to classes and included more and more strange and wacky classes or races to attract new players to the game. Balance became an issue. MUD wizards wanted all of their classes to be popular and to be played so experimented with niche protection – some classes were given useful buffs, others had spells that were needed on different encounters.

And that’s where we move into MMOs. Earlier games like EQ and DaoC had a lot of classes, they were wildly fanciful, not well balanced, and there was really something for everyone. Many classes were given niche protection by being given essential raid or group buffs. Others were given the niche of off-healer or off-tank – these would later be considered as hybrids, their healing/ tanking wasn’t as strong as the main healer/ tank but in return they had better damage or buffs. Others were considered utility classes, with crowd control or several essential raid buffs. Putting a good PvP or raid group together was tricky, and a class could go from desired to undesired in the space of a single patch.

It was considered to be OK for a group friendly class (such as a main healer) to have pitiful soloing ability. It was a payoff for having such strong niche protection in groups. It was also considered fair by the player base for a PvP friendly class (such as a stealther) not to be in demand for PvE content.

Because there weren’t many MMO choices, and the levelling curve was so slow, people tended to stick with their main characters. Even with all the checks, balances, and niche protection, it would take a lot of time and effort to switch classes. It was considered quite radical when games actually allowed players to even respec, and it certainly wasn’t encouraged. (In DaoC, you had to go raid a dragon to be able to do this when it was first introduced.)

The era of ‘what if I want to actually play the whole game?’

More recent games set about reducing the number of niches to be protected, and addressing the (obvious) fact that people might want to both solo AND group, and they might want to play PvE AND PvP, and they might not want to go level up a new alt just to do it. In fact, with the amount of competition in the market right now, if a player picked a main class that didn’t work out, they might just leave the game and not come back.

WoW raised eyebrows by allowing unlimited respecs (at a cost), right off the bat. Guild Wars took this a step further by not only allowing but encouraging free and unlimited respecs between adventures; rejigging your character to face the challenge at hand became an important part of the game.

Later on, LOTRO would give their main tank and healer a solo friendly stance, boosting their soloing ability, but which they could turn off in groups for better tanking or healing. WAR let players configure their characters for different facets of the game without requiring them to change all their talents and skills. WoW’s dual specs take a sledgehammer approach and lets you save two very different specs and switch between them easily.

In any case, the trend is very clear. Players are being given options to respec or tailor their characters flexibly within game. Decisions made at the start are not set in stone. Champions Online doesn’t really have fixed classes, instead allowing players to build their own skillset. Free Realms lets them train up many different careers and switch as often as they like, Final Fantasy 14 is going to use a similar mechanic.

Whatever the game has in store, we expect our characters to be able to adjust and deal with it. And if we plan to play for several months or even years, our interests in game may change and we expect our characters to be able to adjust to that also. This gives designers more freedom in encounter planning also, you don’t have to require that every group has 17 different buffs and that each class has a specific role to play in every encounter.

But what will the fallout be of throwing away the niche protection? It served a useful role in making sure that people mixed with strangers and kept the game sociable. If you needed a minstrel for your DaoC group and none of your friends played that class, you’d be motivated to go play with new people. If one of your mates could just switch class to fill that role then yes, it’s easier to get the groups together, but what happens to the community?

We’ll find out in the next few years. Step lightly for here be dragons.

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18 thoughts on “Redefining MMOs: Flexible Character Classes and the End of Niche Protection

  1. Is a game like WoW at lich king level still an MMORPG?

    It looks and feels more and more like a “shooter”. They removed all strategic elements from vanilla. It is no longer “difficult” to pull a dungeon. Just grab as many mobs as you can and consecrate. If you add another group by accident, you just speed up the run.

    The only thing that counts is to get out of the fire (every boss drops fire) faster and faster.

    IMHO, vanilla WoW was a bit like Commandos

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commandos_%28series%29

    but lich king plays more like Doom.

      • What I meant is that the game(s?) changed from a more strategic game to way more hand-eye coordination.

        It’s hard to implement niches if the core part of the game is to jump out of fires. :-)

    • I’m disinclined to say it’s not a RPG. I mean, maybe it’s the role in the game you’re playing, but as a tank I have more strategy involved in a lot of fights now at the raid level because I need to coordinate with other tanks. This is even true for trash, something that was never true in Vanilla WoW (with perhaps the exception of Naxx).

      I’m not worried about the tank role going away either. Something tells me that as long as a game has “dynamic boss fights” there’s going to need to be some gal or guy taking it in the face for the team.

      • Stratholme undead was difficult to pull. There were millions of way how you could add the whole instance because of these flying gargoyles. You could only line-of-sight pull them or you needed a counter spell from a dd.

        The corehounds in MC. Tons of ways to pull the wrong.

        There were mobs with fear which feared you into the next group if you didn’t pull them back enough (e.g. heroic slace pens).

        Heroic ramparts, the trash mobs would just one hit any clothie. You better grabbed them immediately. In Naxx there are bosses which don’t one hit a clothie.

        They removed most pats in instances. Pats were annyoing but somehow rewarded knowledge of the place, which was cool because you could improve.

        Heroic Magisters’ Terrace or heroic Mana-Tombs. Every mob in these instances had one way or another to piss of the tank. You had to use your group to beat them and depending on you group you had to use different “strategies”.

        Now, where do you need that in Lich King? Which trash group is not “pull it together and AE it down”?

      • I personally remember some of the things you describe being challenging (I’m thinking HMgt and MC trash specifically), and I could add a few (AQ-40 trash among them). I can also think of a lot of WotLK exceptions to what you’re saying as well.

        I don’t see how this relates to your previous point about how this makes WoW in Wrath being less of an RPG? Please clarify.

    • You are quite right, the “don’t stand in glowy crap” or fire thingie has become quite common in WoW raids.

      I personally believe dual classing in WoW to be a sign that the Anti-Christ is already on earth.

      Yes, I might be the only dual-classing hater left on this planet, but let me be the prophet of doom: The rise of the hybrid in WoW is very apparent in armory scans. I say this was totally unnecessary, as tank classes like warriors in prot spec were given already increased soloability.

      I always wondered that people lamented that their Paladins could not compete with a Warlock in soloability, i.e. downing mobs as fast. They were more durable, next to impossible to kill, and could kill fast later on. Nowadays they kill faster and are even harder to kill. Note, I played both Paladin and Warlock and if I ever had a gripe with the Paladin, it was not that I felt I had to kill stuff faster.

      So yeah, either go the whole way towards making everyone equal and give players a chance to express themselves through personal player skill (hard to do in most MMOs, actually) or if your game has classes, make sure that classes stay unique and have their special strengths and weaknesses.

      Moonkin Druids were often not taken by players because of “not enough DPS” in Moonkin form. Then they gave the buggers superb DPS AND a elemental resistances debuff similar to my Warlocks Curse of Elements.

      The idea was to make classes more interchangeable. But well, given the extremely lowly “mass AoE” way all WOTLK 5-man-instances played (YAWN) I really had my gripes with this and quit after one month of WOTLK. And having killed the dudettes in Naxx already before some people even had entered for the first time – ok, just needed this for my ego! ;)

      So yeah, either do away with classes or make them meaningful. What Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street did in WOTLK seems totally wrong to me. I like this guy and his qualities as a community manager and the way he communicates with players, but regarding class design and the imba at release Death Knights, I think he wants to impose a classless system upon a world build upon the very same classes he almost tries to abolish or even worse, to reduce them to Tank, DPS, Healer. They also created special forums for the simplified trinity, brr…

  2. I think for niches to work you have to have non-niche stuff be trivial.

    It would really suck to be an almost totally non-combat healer in a game where most people make money by farming (killing) mobs solo.

    It would suck to be the non-combat healer in a game where pvp is a significant factor.

    Even where a healer has a tank/dps buddy who will pair with him it’s still very restrictive. Your buddy online? No? Better play Peggle instead then today.

  3. To have less defined roles does not necessarily hurt the social aspect. It may reduce the socialising factor from finding the right role for your team, but that it just one of many factors that could contribute to support the social activities.

    It is interesting to note that while character development perhaps has become more open-ended and less “on rails”, the mission/quest aspect of MMOs has rather gone the other way in many cases.

    • That’s very true. Defining roles in MMOs has been very dependent on game mechanics so far (actually one thing I forgot to mention is that I think devs are trying to make different classes represent different playing styles now with completely different mechanics), but it doesn’t have to be that way.

      In games like Vampire, the different clans did have different abilities but their niches were more from a storytelling point of view. The idea of putting together a ‘balanced group’ didn’t really work. At most you’d get some psychic type abilities and some combat type.

      I do think though that if every player can instantly switch to any class, a group of players has less reason to socialise outside that group unless there’s anything more in the game to encourage socialising. (ie. much easier for it to become a ‘less-massive MO’)

  4. Gah, I’m writing an article for a major website covering the topic of classes and class balance. I’m also looking at D&D classes as an example where a fighter wasn’t just someone to absorb damage while the cleric healed and the rogue backstabbed repeatedly.

    I guess I’m not a unique snowflake. :( Thanks Spinks!

    • I’ll look forwards to reading it. I think there’s a lot to say and I’d love to see your thoughts.

      One other thing is that pen and paper games tend to be all about describing what you do and then rolling dice. They’re differentiated by roleplaying fluff as much as anything else. Classes in computer games can be made to actually play differently from each other — you’re really acting out the role in a more direct way.

  5. A good article Spinks. Here’s my question for you.

    What’s the difference between “niche protection” and “identity construction”?

    • Its a good question. Are you more than your buff/s?

      If an encounter can’t be done without a stamina buff in the group, then do you need a priest or just a stamina buff on legs?

  6. Pingback: A holiday, a holiday, the first one of the year! Best of 2009. « Welcome to Spinksville!

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