Tobold's Blog
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.
The answer is obvious (and you mostly gave it in the last line): the key of success in MMO making is allowing morons to look like winners. Any kind of challenging content would discriminate the morons losing their $15.

Class systems are better for this, as skill systems would allow morons to go completely wrong way, collecting non-synergic skills.

BTW have you noticed that in WotLK there are much less sockets in gear than it was in TBC? Why? People love socketing! Because the morons socketed wrong gems. Now, unless you put +SP gear on a rogue, or replace for lower ilvl, you can't misgear your character.
There is an issue with skill-based systems once the theorycrafters get their hands on them. Pretty soon, a handful of "best" skill mixes get identified and everybody converges on them, just as happens with WOW talent trees.

These "best" builds can end up as little more than classes in disguise and, unless the system is designed very well, end up offering less real choice than a true class-based system. Is a system with only four realistic choices (e.g. for tanking, healing, melee and ranged DPS) really better than one with 30+ choices?
I have the impression you keep ignoring the big elephant in the room, Tobold. ;) These games need *character progression* to keep you playing and paying.
I would love to see an MMO in which progress is strictly limited by how good you are at the game. But I doubt people will keep playing such a game for years like they do in current MMO's. I think you'll need a lot more expansions to keep people playing and paying.
I think class systems are simpler for players to understand and organise. I really enjoyed the profession system in SW:G pre-nge but it was certainly a pain trying to figure out who was 'high' enough to take on a group to a dangerous area with you. Having classes and levels make it easy to know who to bring alone.
Sven got it right.
Skill systems have histroic glamour, but are inferior to mixed systems, like WoW.
Skill based systems are superior in terms of flexibility.

Classes are limiting and create even more stereotypes than Sven described. Theorycrafting is not limited to skill based systems, and they generate more "viable" specs than class based systems. These are flawed to the point that classes are inherently second class or overpowered, as it happened to Warlocks or Mages.

Guild Wars has an interesting hybrid, there are classes, but secondary classes and a pool attribute points to determine the relative power of the skills used.

Skill systems can also differ a lot. Ultima Online allowed me to start as a swordfighter, training attribute points and skilling swordsmanship early on. Then I dropped swordsmanship and used spears/lances. Later my warrior became a bard. I made a second char to become a tamer/mage, which soon became my favorite.

I could pick my armor based on choice, not on class. Full plate armor was not good for every type of fighting style and a big no-no for mage-based classes. I often picked a plate breast and only used chain and leather to protect the other body parts of my figher.

I do not see why new players/starters need a CLASS to get guided. Skill systems do not prevent archetypes, like fighter/mage/healer. Players got that choices in UO or the option to create their very own starter char. New players will spec wrong in a class system and get told so by veteran players, too. Plus it is often not as easy to un-learn and re-train skills. In WoW you cannot make too much mistakes early on, you will rise quickly to the 50 gold limit.

All this care for new players are just fake arguments. Most posters here are veteran MMO gamers, after all. I do not understand why people are so attached to fixed and rigid class systems.

Another problem is the believe in the eternal "character progression" scheme. It is true, progression is fun.

But adding +10 levels and the same grind under a new name and making all skills more powerful plus adding 2-3 new ones does NOT work. It gets repetitive and boring, new content gets consumed ever faster and power creep always happened so far in such +X expansion stages of a game.

It works in a single player game, but stretching content in this or that way is not really progression. It is a hamster wheel that turns slower and slower.

My suggestion for a better MMO world would be a meaningful economy, including item decay, extensive player crafting. Personally I would like more events and story elements, but this system can also be applied to PvP systems, though I fear they always failed so far, as eternal PvP IMO just does not work as motivating factor - for a MMO.

It would be cool if I would be identified as Warlock or Mage based on my armor/gear choices, and not because it is written in brackets under my name.

As long as we cling to classes and find no alternatives to the +X stat progression schemes, MMOs will always be the same crap served with a new flavor.
Something that designers discovered in pen and paper games some while ago is that ... players LOVE classes. They really do.

I think it's partly because they give a character some identity (think how often in real life we categorise people by what they do for a living), it also makes it very easy to slot them into a group and for the player to have a specific role.

So it does make it easier, like you say, for other players to use classes to put groups together.

Gevlon notes that classes are good for morons. If this is just so that theorycrafters can feel good about themselves then that's a silly decision for going skill based. What he means is that classes make the game more accessible, easier to understand, they package character creation choices in a simpler way so that people understand the ramifications of their decisions. I see that as a good thing. I'm not a moron but I don't want to have to read through pages and pages of forum posts just to make sure that I don't make a skill choice I will later regret.

But I also think that more flexibility in class switching would be good.
Class switching and class identity are contradicting each other, spinks. I see that you are yearning for a skill based system so that you can finally have the char you always wanted to have. :)
Yeah well, I'd be pretty comfortable with a skill based system :) But players do love classes.
Classes not only make the game easier for players, but are also easier to design.

5 man instance, you design the numbers around the 1-2 tank classes (who are limited to one armor type, and one tier of that armor for that instance), 1-2 healer classes (who basically pump out similar HpM anyway), and then set a DPS standard.

Much harder to design and balance that same 5 man instance if you game is full of skill-based characters, each an uneven mix of tank/healing/dps. EVE mission design is a good example of this, showing that missions overall have to be rather generic in terms of combat reqs in order for them to be doable for the majority (and even then people complain about imbalance)

And much like the rest of the genre, the easier a system is, the more likely its going to catch on with the masses. It's no surprise WoW gets easier with each patch, while any game requiring more than bashing your head into the keyboard is considered niche.
Spinksville nailed it. Humans tend to lump things into categories. This is probably because humans tend to make observations and judgments about the world around them, and that requires simple terms and simple classifications. Simple does not mean "moron" these days but the need for simplicity can lead someone to class a group of people as “morons” in order to make an observation about them.

Humans look for patterns and put names to them. Just look at the very first post that lumps a great mass of people into the category of "moron." I really hope he doesn't actually think that most of his fellow brothers and sisters are morons in a technical sense, but using a demeaning title to slap on someone helps make the observation, draws attention to the observation, and addresses the fact that you really can't get to know all these people well enough to know exactly why they play the way they play, or why they like classes etc. It's easier to start with the assumption "people (not me) are stupid" and then carry that on to explain why they do things in a certain way.

A skill based system is much more like life, where it is much more difficult to categorize people/players without making sweeping stereotypes like moron, rube, elitist jerk, hardcore, casual, explorer, ganker etc. etc. I hear that also leads to a sort of informal class system, where players and communities develop standard builds.

This all goes along with the other excellent points made about the difficulty of balancing around skill based systems.
Skill based systems are better for sandbox PVP games.

Class based systems are better for themepark PVE games.
I really don't see it as Class vs Skill. To me, class systems are just a superset of bundled skills, which as pointed above makes player recognition and game design easier. They also make other skills inaccessible, which is a hidden advantage I think as it allows for flavor segregation between similar role classes and encourages alts.

I am honestly much more bothered by levels than classes, those are definitely more artificial.
To gevlon and your last line:

The problem with making MMO's based on player ability is already shown-you wind up with things that we already see on modern FPS. Players so inhumanly good at the game that they drive out the less skilled. Also, even when it's less competitive, people will quit once they reach their level of skill, or will not be engaged.

Most people have a cap of skill that they wont surpass except by trifling amounts, and will probably get worse at. That's why offline games have difficulty modes, and that usually you don't need to advance in skill dramatically from start to finish to beat the game.

It's good, otherwise players would get permanently stuck without experiencing the game's content. Could you imagine an MMO where to get cap you'd have to be as skilled as Gevlon is in economics? Most of the people would hit mid-level and flee.

Maybe with the first-person MMO's like huxley we can see how it works in practice. I'm betting though that unless they include something like a medic class, where people who like FPS but suck at them can still contribute, you'll see only a hardcore left.

As for class versus skill system, I like class systems better. There's no real identity to being a collection of skills, but there is one in being an archer, or a healer, or a pet class. You are probably going to pick one skill that defines you anyways, unless you want darkfall where everyone is good at everything and there is little difference.
My main concern is time-investment. In a skills-based game, if I only play two hours every couple of days, I will eventually be able to compete with people who spend 8+ hours every day, whereas in a class-based game, I will always be a second-class citizen because the character I work on will never be the end-game, but an artificial system of advancement like gear.

That's my biggest problem. I love that MMOs are time-sinks; I just wish that time-sink game something more tangible to appreciate (such as finally being able to actually play the game) instead of constantly banging out head on a glass-ceiling based on tiers of armor and raiding.
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