Whynots (skill systems, classes, roles)

(enjoy the proverbial “wall of text”)

I comment this because most of the points Babylona proposed touch my “dream mmorpg” I was planning. Some of the ideas are now almost 7-8 years old, coming from when I was working on a MUD that never got actualized. So it’s all stuff I’m carrying along from a *very long time*.

To begin with I have to say that Babylona’s starting point is already half-broken. The “I wonder how that kind of thing might be done in games” doesn’t work because we are talking of completely different genres, with different goals and principles, going toward diametrically opposite directions. In fact that discussion is more relevant if applied to MUDs and the other “roleplay” variations like MUSH and MUCK. In those types of game the roleplay depth of a character has a meaning and a purpose. It can be the focus. This doesn’t work on the common commercial mmorpgs because they are completely focused on the function. Raph isolated this brilliantly in those few slides I linked some time ago. He talks about the ethical problems but he also describes how we fundamentally perceive these games:

We’re very good at seeing past fiction.

This is why gamers are dismissive of the ethical implications of games -They don’t see “get a blowjobfrom a hooker, then run her over.”

They see a power-up.

We see past fiction. If there’s a roleplay value, we go past it. We dig an hole a go through it. The “roleplay” gets in the way. It’s like a barrier, or a lens. (Babylona calls this the “magic curtain”)

In general it’s good to give (roleplay) depth to a game but this doesn’t work if you revert the model, trying to make the “roleplay” lead the rest. It doesn’t work because you break the basic principle of one genre opposed to another. A good roleplay game is the one with “less rules as possible”. The more freedom you have the more the roleplay can flourish. Rules and roleplay are inversely proportional. You don’t even need the “design” because the players are already writers of themselves. They narrate themselves and the surrounding space and they don’t need anything else if not a matchmaking service (like friendship and common interests) that allows them to gather and set a list of implicit rules (a “setting” would be one). Online, this works best as “text” and guys like Matt Mihaly know rather well why.

Designing this in a fixed form (read as: building gameplay rules) doesn’t work because it forces a model where this model is inappropriate or conflicting. The post she quoted at the origin of her thoughts began with:

I can’t teach you anything useful about RPG design if you persist in thinking that mechanical character creation or the character sheet have anything to do with the character at all.

Well, I think it is evident how this MAY be applied to a PnP game session or a MUSH, but it simply wouldn’t work on a game that focuses on functional gameplay. In WoW, DAoC, Everquest, FFXI or whatever else, you definitely ARE the character sheet and the numeric stats. This simply because you are involved in a simulated world (by programmed algorithms). You play with and along the “machine”. And not exclusively with other players shaping the world like in a “full roleplay” environment (besides, it would be interesting to figure out why “full roleplay” environments often drift toward SEX – see the latest discussions about Second Life). In the classic mmorpgs we know, the world is already shaped and defined, it’s not a blank page where you draw your wishes (and this is why I often say that “authorship” is fundamental in mmorpgs).

But lets go past this “wall” because there’s interesting stuff after it. There are a few “whynots” that I thought about while reading:
– Game mechanics based on “time” usually aren’t that fun or exciting
– Lack of individuality (uniqueness bound to persistence)
– Balancing nightmare (not on diversity but on viability)(lack of templates)(OOC research required)

The first point started off as an alarm. As I read that the skill system she was proposing was regulated on “time”, the alarm went off. Time is usually not the best element of which to found “fun” gameplay. Time is never fun. Even when it doesn’t discriminate between the players, it’s felt as a limit or a barrier. There may be a number of different practical implementations for the system she is suggesting but none of them seems particularly attractive. They suggest a pretty annoying and boring “maintenance mode” where you are forced to constantly grind chosen skills in order to maximize them and then “refresh” them before they decay.

If this is based on “time” it means that the system tells you what to do “today”. The system sets your schedule and it becomes one of the most unfun mechanics you can impose on the players. As much awful as the PvP rank system on WoW. You are always at loss and always running here and there to keep your current skill set. Yes, maybe it makes more sense for the roleplay perspective but as Raph said, the players look past the fiction and will HAVE TO play with the math below. Hence make choices that aren’t based on the roleplay itself but on the function.

Instead if it is based on a capped, finite number of “skill points” that you have to distribute and use (and then lock), you just repeat a rather well known and reused system that everyone probably remembers in Ultima Online. With the only difference that some skills would be precluded through the use of specific equipment. Which would help to encourage standard templates within the system (or at least to have them defined already in the planning stage).

I believe that Babylona bundled together contrasting needs. The needs themselves aren’t “bad”, but she doesn’t go straight to the point (because she started from the broken principle above, which makes her “miss”) and so she doesn’t address properly those problems that should have founded those considerations. She suggests a skill system completely open and free. The goal, from what I understand, is to let the players be creative with it and instill in their characters that depth and uniqueness that is lacking in other games. Plus, letting them develop different competences that do not stack with each other but that add different purposes and roles to the same character.

Since I’ve also considered these points I can offer my thoughts on the problems to deliver such system. The first problem is the “lack of individuality”. It may sound odd since the goal is exactly the opposite: allow the players to build unique characters. But this is the consequence of allowing the characters to develop competencies in different roles. You cannot go down both paths. Or you cap the skills and force the templates, or you remove the barriers and allow everyone to fill every different “role”. It’s in this second case that you “lack individuality”. Yes, you can still prevent the skills from stacking and generate insane unbalances, but you still remove the uniqueness of the character from the persistence point of view. Just think to WoW and its talent system, it would be like giving free respecs at no loss. Maybe we can wonder “why not?” but the fact is that many players had a strong, opposite reaction to that. My guess it’s because it would remove again the “choice” from the game. You can do everything, cover every possibility. The resulting characters would become more or less “complete”, but all moving on the exact same chart and with the same exact starting point and end.

So we add boundaries to the skills or not? We allow the characters to fill different roles or not? This brings to the third point I listed above. It’s true that we like better the freeform skill systems but it’s also true that the more freedom you give the more the balancing process will be hard, if not impossible. Defining strict classes allows the developers to anticipate safely what the character can or cannot do, while freeform skill systems will be directly exploited by being used OUTSIDE the intended purpose. The players will have lot of fun to break the preexistent patterns while the developers have nightmares trying to fill all the holes in the system and FIGHT against the creativity of the players. That’s the direct consequence of a freeform system. The players will exploit the functions because that’s what the game is about. Strict classes may be bad from a perspective but they allow the devs to anticipate and regulate the behaviourts of the classes more easily. We can see how many problems these games have *already* with the balance (in WoW some of the planned skills given to hunters and rogues were already considered as “exploits” thanks to their “creative use”, someone remembers?), now think to what could happen with a truly “freeform” skill system.

This is also not the only problem because freeform systems also put strains on the players. It takes knowledge to find viable possibilities that aren’t badly gimped. Most of the times the game doesn’t offer enough feedback to lead new players and the result is that they will have to read guides and tutorials OOCly just in order to start moving the character toward a viable direction. Not doing so would be equal to a lot of frustration and hitting on walls that are felt as impassable. The shorter path leading to a canceled account. Of course the possibility to adjust the skills along the way prevents a direct failure but it still forces the players to see beyond the “magic curtain” to understand a system that is overly complicated and that ultimately doesn’t add a real freedom, but just the same old templates made more obfuscate and probably with more FOTM than ever thanks to the frequent, unavoidable nerfs as consequence of a nearly impossible balance process.

The final outline doesn’t look so exciting from my point of view. These ideas would bring more problems than solutions.

I left out two points because I find them more interesting and because I recycled them in my own dream mmorpg:
– Switching roles (multi purpose)
– no caps to skills (endless progression)

The first is interesting because I started to think about it when trying to solve the “healer problem”. We always have problems in every single games about finding healers for the group. Noone wants to play healers. The first direct fix is to make them fun and give them different functionalities instead of just forcing them to watch health bars all the time. The other fix is to allow the characters to step out of their roles and filling spots to an extent. Like a temporary class switch that would allow the group to still be able to play in the case they cannot find a proper healer.

This is one of those points I find valuable because they are aimed straight at solving one problem we all know. So aimed to make the game more directly enjoyable and reduce the downtimes due to the search for specific classes. The goal is set. Once the goal is set we can explore different solutions and see which one works better. During my tinkering I’ve defined a few. But without filling another page with all the examples and considerations I’ll just make one example that is coherent with the arguments I wrote here.

One of my ideas was to define each class (or template) in *all* the different roles. I basically detached the concept of “class” from the concept of “role”. The class was just used to define the form on which the role was executed. But all the roles were accessible. Not stacking, but accessible. This means that a “cleric” would be a class defined into multiple roles. A “tank” cleric that goes in melee with a blunt weapon and uses specific styles and melee skills, an “healer” cleric that casts heals from range and keeps some buffs up (its standard role), a “smite” cleric that has powerful offensive range attacks, dispells and other specific skills. Till to define unique roles, like the possibility to raise or dispell undeads, call the help of the gods for limited power-ups, set up shileds and barriers and so on. ALL of these “roles” would be absolutely open and accessible to EACH cleric in the game. But not stacking. This means that, before an encounter, you could flag and equip yourself as a “tank” cleric and do your duty at best as every other tank. But without the possibility to be a tank, a caster and an healer all at the same time.

This idea actualizes one of the purposes chased by Babylona. She wants the skills to be open so that the player can explore all the possibilities without limits but not by shaping too powerful hybrids. I’ve already explained the problems of open skill systems and the problems of the uniqueness. My idea was a way to set a precise goal (the problem of finding proper classes to build an efficient group, healers in partcular). Solve it and at the same time avoid the other problems. In my system a cleric would always be a cleric and would always be different from a warrior. It would retain the uniqueness of the class. But at the same time it would be designed as an all around class that can switch freely between different roles, depeding on the situation.

My idea was the result of needs and obstacles. A compromise that was still able to produce a viable result (from my point of view).

(btw, my proposed PvP system was also based on ranks and roles on the battlefield that can be unblocked and then flagged active under specific conditions. Exactly to not make the characters exponentially more powerful with each rank, in order to not open gaps between experienced and casual player. But actively reducing them and encourage them to play *together* toward shared, truly communal goals)

Now the other point, the uncapped skills. I used to have overly complicated ideas that were just insane, but what I’ve learnt along these years is how to shatter those ideas into “atoms” and analyze them for what they are at their core. Simplifying them and looking at the essential. See why they work or why they don’t work, see of what they are made.

In this case, what are the negatives of uncapped skills? The traits I was able to isolate are:
– In PvE: gaps between the players, favor elitism and closed communities, difficulties to group and catch up with friends
– In PvP: unbalance

Both, in their relative case, are game-breaking. What are the positives? I found just one: feeling of achievement lasting on the long term. Actually this positive trait is minimized in Babylona’s proposal. The uncapped skills are possible in her model because the cap is set before. Or the cap is based on “time”, or the cap is based on a fixed pool of points to spend on the different skill. A skill going over it’s “standard” value would bring to an highly specialized character, while the points spent more uniformly would bring to more all around classes but with less specialization and effectiveness, which reminds again the Talent system in WoW, or the specializations in DAoC.

This is again a balance nightmare. Unavoidable. A single specialized character would always be FELT as insanely overpowered. If he invests all its resources in ONE skill he would be able to one-shot almost all classes. Of course he would do just that and nothing else but the other players will perceive only the overpowered trait and the fact that this character, even if with many weaknesses, is able to push the “I win” button. The devs will have to work endlessly to balance the specialized characters with the multi-purpose ones. In general this never worked and the final result is the freedom removed from the system instead of added. It would be hard even to keep the game in a playable state. The “fun” being far from it, and the newbies thrown in an endless confusion trying to plan their character in the less worst way.

Again my point is, what’s the actual goal? The positive trait I isolated above is the feeling of achievement in the long term. Babylona’s system doesn’t take advantage of it because a skill beyond its cap is just a result of a character that does that and just that. Not the result of a character that played for longer and in the long term. Again my dream mmorpg uses uncapped skills but in a way so that the negative traits I listed above are reduced and those positive valorized. The system is based on percent skills. A value above the cap is useful because of the penalties. If you have a 105% on a skill and the action you are trying to perform has a -5% of penalty, the 5% overcap would be useful. At the same time, under normal conditions, there isn’t sensible difference between a 95% and a 130%. In a fight 1vs1 the huge gap in numbers between the two characters would be barely noticeable in the practice. This is how I prevent negative gaps of power between the players. The merit of skill based systems opposed to level based systems is that the gaps between the players are reduced, hence making them ideal for PvP games. Adding uncapped skills in the way Babylona planned would reintroduce the gaps in the game, making it unbalanced and gaining almost nothing from the “achiever” persepective.

In my idea the skills can go beyond the cap and never really stop. But every small +0.1% comes just an an increasingly hard chance. This means that the character always progresses, it NEVER really stops. You can play ten years and still gain something. But at the same time this process isn’t strongly functional. It does’t add a sensible advantage and grinding it would be just an unrewarding practice. It wields no sensible and worth benefits and it’s just there as an added mechanic to further improve your character without making this improvement THE REASON why you play. Just a side-effect.

That’s my way to shape the system in a way that, once again, tries to maximize the benefits and minimize the problems. Percent based skills and actions are easy to parse for every player, this makes the ruleset more transparent for everyone, both experienced and new players.

The mechanics about how these skills are designed and improved are explained with more details here. The system needs a revision but the goals and the base mechanics of the skill system I imagine are still mostly unchanged.

Babylona doesn’t invent anything, she just mix together various ideas coming from other games. Which I don’t criticize, because all my ideas are also coming from what I saw before and a re-digestion of all that.

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