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.