Category Archives: Class and skill design

The evil of homogenization

In most games, players generally expect all players to have an equal chance in winning from the point of view of game mechanics, the end result being mainly reliant on the skill of the players or sometimes simple luck.

This expectation is not easily justified in the world of roleplaying games, where winning alone is difficult to characterize. Some would go as far as arguing there are no winners or losers in RPGs.

Despite this, a lot of very competitive gamers play massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. They create pressure on the developers, pressure not only to make games more competitive, but to make what little competition there already is in these games more fair or balanced.

Balancing is always important, even if a game’s playerbase isn’t particularly competitive. As a developer, you want different options of gameplay to be at least viable, even if they aren’t optimal. If you implement different choices but they are never utilized, you are wasting development time (or alternatively, attempting to trick players with false choice).

Even in a non-competitive game, balancing can still be a fairly complex deed. Making characters and playstyles varied, not too similar to each other yet still viable, is a demanding task. It is easy to imagine then that balancing in a way that makes different options not only viable but also equal in terms of performance is very difficult.

Traditionally in RPG balancing, complete equality in terms of performance has not been a goal, because it hasn’t been needed or called for. The players don’t expect it. A lot of players don’t even want it. But again, the player base of the MMORPG is different from that of other RPGs. These players often have a history in competitive online gaming and expect completely different things.

So we can see that satisfying both, players’ demands of fairness and of variance are very challenging to simultaneously achieve. What can the developer do?

While going for the lowest common denominator isn’t usually the best recommendation, I think the safest answer to the question would be to aim for a middleground. A game doesn’t need complete balance, but options don’t have to be extremely far from each other either in terms of performance. If you are giving players the option to play a gnome warrior or an ogre warrior, it’s fine to let the ogre be more powerful in the job – as long as the gnome is still playable despite some possible difficulties. If the gnome tries hard enough, maybe they can reach almost similar levels of performance as the ogre. Or maybe the gnome has a special ability, like being able to move silently. This approach keeps some level of variance and choice in place yet doesn’t go overboard with homogenization.

Talking about homogenization, this is the big problem with balancing. When developers try too hard to make performance equal for all the possible options, homogenization tends to happens, and unfortunately it has the capability of diluting gameplay. We can see this in effect in a couple of games. Darkfall made all the races use the same model to unify their hitboxes. World of Warcraft’s developers got stuck on looking at damage-per-second numbers and little by little made most of the classes of the same role feel very same-y – things that were unique to some classes, such as rogues’ crowd control or paladins’ strong multimonster tanking capability, were either given to everyone or removed.

My strong opinion is that the latter is bad design. Yes, greater balance and fairness is achieved, but something is lost on the way, something that is very close to the heart of the RPG genre. Variance in gameplay, immersion (the gnome and the ogre shouldn’t have an equal Strength score), the feeling of playing the character you chose – you know, roleplaying.While loudmouths on your game’s forum will never seem satisfied, in the end my belief is that it is better for a game to keep true to the genre, at least to a reasonable extent. Overdoing balance and homogenizing things along the way has the problem that in time, even the majority of the more competitive sorts who have been asking for fairer gameplay will come to realize your game has become bland, lost some of the magic that originally drew them in. In the end, diversity is a very big part of the draw of RPGs.

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Attributes in non-combat gameplay

To continue with the theme of putting combat and non-combat gameplay against one another, when was it it that attributes (or stats/abilities if you prefer) such as Strength, Intelligence and Wisdom became strictly combat-related variables? After all, RPG players are used to attributes affecting many areas of gameplay, not just combat.

The idea of attributes is to represent the character’s capability in physique, brain power and the like in a general way. But the truth is that in the world of MMORPGs, attributes have just about always been regarded as combat stats and not much more. One reason for this is that the genre tends to be quite combat-heavy – and that’s because combat is some of the easiest content to create. But the other, possibly greater reason is that coming up with meaningful non-combat uses for attributes in a massively multiplayer online world is difficult. Where would it make sense to make an Intelligence check, for example?

Attributes could be made use of in quest-driven MMOs, but hard-scripted quests that don’t branch are cheaper to make and have no place for attribute checks that might indeed branch the story. The way to utilize attributes would be that a quest could for example at some point make a Wisdom check that would be used to determine whether a character has some (possibly divine) knowledge available to them or not. Depending on whether or not the player would pass the Wisdom check, the quest would branch differently.

The fact quests with multiple branches are more expensive to make isn’t the only obstacle in the way – there’s also predictability. Unlike in a game session with a Dungeon Master capable of making up and modifying adventures on the fly, in an MMORPG multiple people will complete the same quest. Even if the quest can branch multiple ways, it cannot be dynamically changed. What this means is that eventually players will discover the attribute levels required to pass a given quest’s attribute checks, and they will make it known on the internet. Not much fun to it if players feel forced to use a search engine for every quest-related attribute check they come by.

Scripted content in the likeness of quests isn’t the only place where attributes could be of use though. If an attribute like agility increased a player’s run speed, it would be useful in not just combat but just about everywhere else, too. Maybe Intelligence could increase a player’s chances of  getting a discount from a vendor. Dexterity could increase the chances of lockpicking or thievery further, or maybe increase the rewards or skill gain rate. Charisma could increase the gold gain from selling things to a vendor, or increase the rewards from tasks done for NPCs. And Strength could increase the rate of mining and inventory weight capacity, to give a couple of examples.

Many of the things I mentioned above have been done (the most common one probably being Strength increasing inventory capacity), however, none of them are particularly common in MMORPGs, and most of the time if an attribute has four or five uses in combat listed for it, there’s only one non-combat use, if that.

More importantly, even if an attribute affects a non-combat area of gameplay, it can still in some games only be increased by partaking in combat. It rarely seems to be the other way around, and while combat oriented players are generally more picky about balance (the PVP crowd especially) and hence a developer probably doesn’t want to force them to do non-combat content just for the sake of minmaxing, it is not just unfair but also, to put it in a word, lame to then do the same to non-combat players. Then again, such an approach is understandable in games that focus solely on combat – take Shadowbane for example where farming characters, no matter the class, would have had to allocate a lot of their attribute points into Strength for inventory capacity – forced combat made sense here because after all the game was advertised with the slogan “We don’t play to bake bread – we play to crush.” But generally speaking, it such an approach makes no sense.

I would like to see attributes utilized more in non-combat gameplay – for the sake of realism if nothing else. I wouldn’t want to force combat-oriented players to start doing non-combat content just to increase their attributes, no, but a character who’s been a miner all their life without a fistfight’s worth of combat participated in should have a Strength score higher than that of a brand new character. Combat attributes, such as those from gear, could in fact be separated – armour gives armour, and maybe in some cases increases a mage’s spell casting speed or something similar through an enchantment. And I am sure there would be other ways to balance it out, but to put it simply, it would be nice to be able to look at attributes as something a little more than numbers that increase my Damage-per-Second.

RPG classes – not all about combat

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.