Thursday, June 11, 2009
Class vs. Skill
In the open Sunday thread there was an interesting question about class-based games like World of Warcraft vs. skill-based games like Ultima Online. Of course that discussion was immediately derailed by the old "Is UO the best game ever or a relic people should finally get over" discussion. Thus is the way of the internet. So lets forget about specific games, and have a look at class systems and skill systems in the pure abstract form.
Class systems at their core are simpler, because they are less flexible. Apart from mixed systems, like talent trees on top of a class choice, a pure class system means that you can't gimp your character. If there is only one possible build, there are no problems with people choosing the wrong build, or every patch leading to everyone switching to a flavor of the month build. Balancing 10 classes is hard, balancing a million possible skill builds is impossible.
In principle you could imagine any game with either a class or a skill system. In practice it quickly becomes evident that open virtual worlds with no goal are more suited to skill systems, while linear games with an end-game are more suited to a class system. Imagine you had to organize a raid in a game with no classes, and you would need to know from every applicant exactly what skill build he has to make a balanced raid group. On the other hand class systems notoriously fall short when it comes to offer players alternative careers to adventuring. If the whole purpose of the game is to get from killing your first 10 rats to killing the final raid end boss, then the fact that you can smith a weapon becomes secondary at best. Sandbox virtual worlds work better with skill systems, allowing some players to concentrate on becoming a master smith, if killing monsters isn't their favorite part of the game.
The development in general has been away from skill systems and towards class systems, because "guiding" players, aka having a path that runs on rails and offers little freedom, turned out to be more popular. A virtual world is not inherently competitive, but the players in it are. So they prefer running along those rails, because that makes it easier to see who is ahead of whom. If everybody can run in whatever direction he likes, there is no race.
That also leads to class systems being more similar from one game to the next. Class systems nearly always are combined with levels. You start at level 1, do quests and kill monsters for xp, and a certain sum of xp gets you to the next level, until you reach the level cap. In abstract thinking it is easy to design a huge number of variations of this, but in practice nobody does, and games only differ in what classes exactly are on offer. The fewer games with skill systems on the other hand offer a much larger variety of game design. For example there are systems where you total sum of all skills has a cap, in others there isn't. In some games you gain skills by using them, in others you gain them in real time. Did you ever hear of a class system where you gain levels in real time, or one without a level cap? I haven't. In skill systems all this exists.
And then of course there are various systems where designers try to mix class and skill systems: Talent trees for example. Or weapon skills and crafting skills where what skill you can learn and how high you can get it is determined by your class and level. Usually this ends up with the class system dominating, and the skill point part being reduced to being secondary.
The disadvantage of both systems is that neither tells you anything about whether a player is actually good at anything. While it is possible to advance your class or your skills by playing the game well, most of the time there are also ways to advance your class or skill by grinding something without challenge or risk. The famous skill systems where people run against walls to improve their running skills, or shoot magic missiles at trees to improve their magic. Real-time skill systems where you don't actually have to play to advance, you just need to log in from time to time and select the next skill to train. Class based systems in which you advance by killing monsters that couldn't possibly hurt you, or where you become a better mage by carrying a parcel from one NPC to the next without any fight. In every jump-and-run game or other single-player game as simple as Tetris, your progress is strictly limited by how good you are at the game. Makes you wonder why that isn't possible in a massively multiplayer virtual world. Both classes and skill point systems are just crutches that enable the game to give rewards to players for not much, creating a permanent illusion of progress. Obviously that is more popular than reaching the limits of your abilities.