In traditional RPGs, experience is often regarded as universal – you gain it by taking part in various activities related to adventuring, but what kind of activities those are hardly matters, for you use the same pool of experience to make your character stronger in different areas. And fair enough – when you step into such a game, you expect to be playing a specific role, a class, an archetype to which are tied some specific elements and traits, some related to combat, others not so much.
The traditional approach works well in tightly scripted games with limited scope, such as most tabletop games and their CRPG adaptations. Such games focus heavily on adventure of the moment and there’s no persistent world populated by other players out there, no player economy with it’s supply requirements and whatnot to speak of. The world outside of the view distance of the adventuring party may almost just as well not exist at all in the very moment.
But universal experience is problematic when it comes to games featuring more open world design, such as most MMORPGs. In many games it would just seem odd to get better at combat by, say, picking herbs or opening locks. And indeed there’s also the issue that no matter how well balanced a system is and no matter how many options there are for gaining experience, one method is always going to reign supreme in terms of pure efficiency. If both, crafting armour and battling orcs add into the same pool of interchangeable experience points and crafting armour turns out to be more efficient in terms of experience per time unit, people who would prefer to make their characters more powerful by battling orcs will be dissatisfied. And vice versa.
Because of these issues and some more, use-based systems have been invented. In your typical open world game the player’s blacksmithing level is a separate number from their combat level, and where as crafting armour will grant blacksmithing experience, battling orcs will grant combat experience.
Use-based experience works well enough for crafting and combat. But what about class-defining skills like picking locks, identifying magic items and similar activities that aren’t related combat?
The case of the learned wizard
In a typical fantasy world, swordfighting, spellslinging and woodcutting aren’t the only activities characters partake in. Druids tame animals, clerics call to their deities for aid in all sorts of situations that aren’t at all related to battling foes, wizards teleport people around and rogues pick locks or pick pockets. We come now to an area that to this date has been lacking in implementation when it comes to the MMORPG genre: non-combat class skills.
Think of the typical fantasy wizard, one who is deeply learned in the arcane arts and could be regarded as extremely powerful. How do you think the wizard reached this level of skill in wizardry? Was it by battling hordes of orcs, or rather by studying books and scrolls? Maybe by experimenting with different power words and reagents?
Being a wizard is much more than being able to effectively hurl fireballs at enemies. But in the majority of MMORPGs, hurling fireballs at enemies is the way one trains to become a powerful wizard. In fact, hurling balls of fire is often the purpose of the wizard. Along the way they might learn to use a portal spell or another trivial non-combat ability, but progression-wise these are tightly tied to the wizard’s ability in combat.
Part of the problem is balance. An online multiplayer setting will always be somewhat competitive, and hence class balance is a delicate topic. Training to be good at combat is part of balance too, and if different classes were able to hone their combat skills in very differing ways, players may find some ways unfair due to reasons related to efficiency.
But balance is only one thing. Maybe the real problem is implementing a proper training system for non-combat class skills. Its easy to figure out a satisfying way of training combat – slaying monsters. But how would a wizard train their skill in portal magic, or a druid their skill in animal taming? Repeatedly killing monsters for experience may be grindy, but not as grindy as, say, casting a few hundred portals to another realm for no other reason but to level up one’s portal creation skill. If anything, such a system would encourage macroing and not feel satisfying in the least.
Despite the difficulties of implementation, it wouldn’t be impossible to have non-combat class abilities make a bigger part of gameplay in MMORPGs. Surely there would be a way to implement a separate thievery or lock-picking skill for rogues that would be somewhat entertaining to train. Couldn’t be more boring than typical mining training, right? And as for non-combat spells, a modernized and improved version of Asheron’s Call’s original spell research system could well work even in a class-based game. And how about druids taming animals? There have been animal taming skills in games not even utilizing a class system before.
What I am sure about is that tying all of a class’ abilities to combat is, in a word, lame. And neither does it make sense that a fighter cannot learn a combat spell or how to magically open a shut door, but is then capable of learning the ability to permanently enchant equipment with powerful magic – a deed you would expect from a wizard rather than a fighter. Take the latter sentence as a note aimed at certain developers. Anyway, the area of non-combat class abilities is thirsty for innovation.