On “Classes vs. Skills”

From Psychochild’s blog:

The challenge is this: Point out an advantage of either a class-based or skill-based system that hasn’t been discussed to death yet. Or, if you’re feeling bold, describe a system that goes beyond either of these systems.

I really wanted to contribute to that discussion with something worthwhile as I have some ideas but then I didn’t find the time and only scribbled down some notes.

As I wrote in the first comment on Ubiq’s blog I mostly agreed with him and for my “dream mmorpg” I was planning an hybrid with skill-based advancement but within a class system, no levels and with class adaptability.

Adaptability is particularly important. Similarly to Final Fantasy XI, you would be able to switch between “roles” to level and use separately (permeable barriers). The goal is to let the player adapt his character to a group, bypassing class requirements and “mechanics of exclusions” that often force certain classes in perma-LFG.

So your class won’t preclude you to take an offensive, or defensive, or support role (see Raph’s analogies). You would be able to switch between those depending on the group’s needs, while also requiring them to be “leveled” separatedly (which broadens the character progression without the negative effects of the “stacking”). You could ideally switch from “battle” to “mage”, but without the overpowered “battlemage” option.

(The original idea was explained better here and here.)

Another basic point is to enclose skills into “spheres” or skill groups. These would correspond to different “kinds” of gameplay you support, so that, for example, trading and crafting would go in their own sphere, with their own independent pool of points. The important part is that all player and all classes have access to all those spheres (then it’s their choice to spend time into them or ignore them). This was the main critics I had about SWG. If there’s crafting and combat then ALL players need to be able to craft and combat. And NOT a class for combat and one for craft. These pools will then level separatedly one from the other (or have separate caps).

This is part of the “gated content” concept, as the idea of parallel progress and content. Opposed to linear, selective or exclusive content. All kinds of different activities and playstyles should be made available as “parallel” content. Without classes that lock out of parts of the game. And without an “endgame” to reach later on that dramatically changes the way you play.

Everything the game has to offer should be available without requiring an exclusive choice from the player, and without requiring to be “reached” (the level 50 RvR in DAoC, raid content in EQ and WoW). Which also doesn’t mean that all the game world is completely open without requiring any effort (see “threshold advancement” in Ubiq’s speech).

Then within each sphere you would need a certain amount of “templating”, so that not every player can do everything and be alike. With the possibility to gain points to lose them (?!). I mean that instead of fixed templates that you are stuck with (see what I wrote here below about “permeable barriers”) the idea would be to use a system similar to Ultima Online where you can let skills decay so that you can specialize in something else if you want to experiment something different.

An hybrid system similar to what I have described would retain the advantages of classes that Raph pointed out as well (but not completely) the advantages of a skill-based system. And the concept of class adaptation and role switch would also address the other quirks about the “balance” (and “versatility”, which is a great strength in the eye of the players).

But this isn’t enough. The truth is that I still haven’t found a solution that satisfies me. For example I like both passive and active systems. A passive system is one where you go adventuring and while you do that you see skills improving in the background (this happens even in WoW, to a limited extent). I love that kind of feeling of accomplishment, so it’s something that I don’t want to lose. At the same time I like an active system where it’s the player to “manage” his character in detail, so with some control. This is why I’m still looking for a solution that joins those two together. Still a work in progress.

Originally the system I wanted was inspired by the pen&paper Stormbringer (which is also the inspiration for the setting). You go around adventuring but only if you achieve a particular objective you have an occasion to improve (goal-driven progress). Grinding monsters just wouldn’t work if not in the case it was part of a quest. When the achievement was reached then the player had the possibility to rest. The system would flag automatically all the skills that were used along the way. The player would then choose between the skills flagged to decide which one to improve (he could have used ten skills, but he could have only a couple of attempts to “allocate”). Then, the server rolls dices for each “attempt” and tells the player if those attempts were successful or not.

I discared that system for many reasons. One was that the achievements were meant to be not repetable, but this would have turned the game in some sort of “badge collecting” that I just didn’t like (from grinding mobs to grinding quests, it’s better, but a dream mmorpg should aspire at more). Another was that the “server rolls” would have been random and just too frustrating to watch. And another again was that it required either too much micromanagement (in the case you had to do that frequently) or not enough (in the case you made the achievements too spaced out). It was just a system weak on “fun”. It wouldn’t work. I needed something else.

Again, I still haven’t found a solution, but at least I know more or less where to search one. I want one that is more automated, more in the background. And, in particular, I want one where the skills improvements are gradual and better paced. It would be better also if the improvements arrive in a less predictable way. If you transform experience points in skill points (as in Warhammer), then you know exactly when you are going “ding” the next skill level. While I would like a less predictable system where the “ding” is less expected and awaited. So passive and active as two aspects that I want to join somehow.

There are basically a bunch of goals that I want to reach, but I still need to find the right combination of the puzzle so that they all match together:

– No levels, more realistic progression
– Percent skills, because they are familiar at least as much as levels (see also the principle of “transparent mechanics”)
– Different skill groups so that the player doesn’t gimp the charater by selecting skills that take away points from combat
– “Passive” skill-ups through server checks
– “Active” character management for the player (control, allocation)
– Customization
– Adaptability (possibility to switch classes/roles to adapt to a group, instead of being excluded or included on requirements)

One possible solution that I’m considering is this one:

– Capped spheres/skillgroups, so that the player can customize and “template” each while still having access to the different parts of the game.
– Use-based, percent skills (server checks in the background) which each its own rules
– A system with special abilities on top, to unblock/enable through questing or PvP

Rough example: your “sword” skill % will be involved in to-hit rolls. But you would need PvP achievements or questing if you want to buy special attacks. Basically each special skill would have a requirement of base skill, but the base skill would be independent from the special one. An “eviscerate” special attack could require 70% in axes, swords or whatever. The special attack would need to be unblocked through achievements, while the percent base skills through use.

That’s where the “dream game” sits at the moment, even if I’m still not completely satisfied. You may even say it doesn’t sound too far away from WoW if you think at the skill progression as a level progression, but there are still some core differences that I see as improvements:

– Class adaptability and balance (solo/groups)
– Narrower, more realistic power growth
– Percent-based mechanics, transparent and easy to familiarize with
– Less linear growth and progression (as you pick up the skills to use and improve)
– Different spheres/skillgroups to explore that would open the game toward aspects that aren’t just focused on combat

Instead I just cannot understand this (from Raph):

And really, the fact that there can be multiple reasons to play is at the heart of it. This is why class-based systems have real trouble absorbing crafting, for example, and we often see the notion of having a separate parallel class system for crafting alongside the combat classes. It’s like asking a hockey team to also do embroidery during the match.

I have real trouble grasping that concept. I can understand having “multiple reasons to play” if I can access different parts of the game. But if those parts are accessible only through an exclusive choice (like a crafting class OR a combat class) how this brings to “multiple reasons to play”? The game forces you to select ONE, where it could have offered instead those reasons to play one by the other.

Take together “more than one thing to do” with “multiple reasons to play”. How you can achieve the latter if you can only pick one between the things that the game can offer? What’s the advantage of a system that precludes large amounts of content to be experienced?

I just cannot get it. Maybe he’ll explain that more.

About the rest of the discussion that spawned multiple blogs, this is a note I had taken:

Secondly, a skill based system kills “lesser skills” and “sidetracks”. You are encouraged to “maximize” what you have, so you are almost forced to leave behind some fun possibilities just because they don’t fit the “template”. Instead of taking advantage of the diversity of many skills and the freedom you are supposed to have, concretely only the opposite happens. You finish to be stuck in a template and locked out of activities that would be fun, but that would be detrimental for your character efficiency.

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