05 February 2010

Classing Things Up

I suspect the major appeal of RPGs and their massive cousins is the concept of classes, or roles. To the unfamiliar, the idea can seem alien at first but one quickly understands that the same theory applies across all of life: people are different and they are good at different things. The characters in role-playing games just have their personalities (at least superficially) carved out for them at the get-go. They are archetypes and archetypes that have been used and reused excessively since Dungeons & Dragons created those molds those many years ago. While a player can take things a bit farther and make his character become more than this archetype, the roles in RPGs are typically shallow and easy to understand. People, on the other hand, are more complex: while a wide receiver may be a role, the athlete himself is much more than a robot who chases balls up and down a field. An Orc Warrior, on the other hand, is just there to hack things up and has little interest in personal exploration, unless he is exploring how much he can drink or how many dwarves he can behead without getting tired.

Of course, that's not how our Orc Warrior is. Ours is a sensitive goon with artistic tendencies and a refined love for the crafting of armour and slaying of elves, who raided his Orc village many years ago and sparked his need for vengeance. But that's you and me: we are the nerd's nerd, the role player, who likes to make sure his Orc or Dwarf or Hobbit fits nicely into the world in which he resides. He has cares, friends, families, preferences. At its core, however, the class it just about utility. The role is simply a means for defining what can we do, and do better than everyone else, so that we fit a role in the party so that we can descend into the dungeon, kill baddies and take their loot, so that we can buy better gear to go into better dungeons and kill better bad guys for better loot.

I'm talking in generalities, of course. The second large appeal of RPGs is the story. We're not just bopping goombas to save some random princess, we are part of an epic tale and the dungeons, and the loot therein, is just meant to progress us forward in that story. Some RPGs are more action-centric (hack n slash) while others are more focused on story, and MMORPGs fit somewhere in between. There's a story, but it's not always crucial. There's a lot of gear...a lot of gear, but there is a lot more to these games besides phat lewt, even if it has become the center of attention for a while now. Even that, the acquisition of ph4t l3wt as such, hinges on the performance of each class and the synergy between them. The class-to-class relationship informs the dynamic of the "dungeon", which informs the gear therein (the carrot on a stick, if you like).

Now I don't doubt that there are some sickos out there who would run a 12-person, 5 hour raid for a single piece of cool armour even if all the classes were the same and every encounter in the raid dungeon were handled the same way, regardless of class or maybe even if classes didn't exist. Most of us, however, enjoy the interplay between classes and the problem solving it creates. That's the whole point of the modern MMultiplayerOG, especially the "endgame" portion where you've gotten really good with your class and you want to try out some rather severe challenges with other folk who are, or should be, good with their respective roles as well. And so, games with good, well designed and distinctive classes have the makings for a great game.

This is one of the joys I'm discovering with LotRO. I am a self-medicating altoholic because I love so many aspects of so many different characters: I love the variations among classes and I love coming up with characters with rich stories, especially in Middle-earth. I've been the same way with other such games. I have to try everything, not just to find out what I like but because I like variety. Some games do this very well, others not so much. Another challenge in creating a game with solid classes is making them different enough to not be a D&D or WoW ripoff while still paying homage to the classic role balance that is key to multiplayer games. This mode has even spilled over into shooter games, with the obvious reference being Team Fortress. Team Fortress 2 has adopted even more than just classes from the RPG mode as there is now crafting and unlockable achievements, complete with loot rewards. Scary and somewhat exciting. On a side note, I find it sad that Gauntlet is less referenced as an originator of class-oriented gameplay, but I digress.

So I have tried many a class in my day, and currently have one of each in LotRO since December's Adventurer's Pack add on. Of course, I've not tried them all extensively but I've found something to love about each one. They're like my digital estranged and oft neglected children. I love them all in their own special way, even the rickety and gaunt looking elf who probably couldn't take a punch from a small gnome.  The same applies to the aforementioned TF2: I've played and loved every single one of them (not you). Not all people are like this, though, and would rather stick with one class and specialize in it. I can't do that and so I am a prime target for RPGs and MMOGs.

Now, where is the glass ceiling for this model and have we already reached it?

As video games are a relatively new medium, and online role-playing games are even newer, it is probably safe to say that the surface has only been scratched. Think about something like Texas Hold 'Em; 52 cards in the deck, five cards on the board, two cards in the hole per player, a lot of combination. Each combination of cards, including discards, results in a different play based on suit, card number, player tendencies, bet amounts, and other facets of the hand. Now Texas Hold 'Em is as intricate as any card game, or poker variant, and as complex as any other strategic game for that matter. You essentially have three variables to each table: the cards, chip count, and player strategy. Each of those has a very high number of variants in and of themselves; the random nature of the cards, the size of a player's chip stack and how they choose to bet with it, and the individual play styles, which changes from hand to hand. With basic rules in place and three core facets, one of the most popular, intriguing, and fun games ever has been created.

Think of the card values as classes: 12 in all. Now 12 can be excessive in my opinion, even for a massive online game, but it's definitely been done successfully. The point is that there 12 different cards per suit that can and have to be played differently each time and work better or worse in conjunction with other cards. To continue this analogy, if it's going anywhere, the suits should represent the way each class can be played and customized. This is called Traits in LotRO and Talents in World of Warcraft and, I feel, is one of the keys to providing more utility and fun for the class model. Some games do this well, others do not and each class feels largely the same regardless of their setup options. Then there is the board, the community cards that all players can use. This could be taken in a number of ways but I think this kind of public resource pool could be capitalized in MMOGs; why not have player choices in instances that help regardless of choice but cause drastically different outcomes depending on how they're played? Instances have been moving in this direction of random choice and maneuverability, like LotRO's skirmishes and WoW's new group making technology, but it's based on the same class roles and only changes based on the number of players in the group. How exciting would it be to have the instance tasks themselves change based on the different classes involved?

I'd like to briefly get specific with LotRO, as it's my game of choice, before closing out this long post. Imagine if a skirmish like Trouble in Buckland provided a completely different challenge if you had a duo of Burglar and Lore-master (both crowd control classes) rather than a trio of Hunter, Guardian, Minstrel (Damage, Tank, Healer)? Making an event context-specific per class combination could provide amazing and  entertaining challenges that had to be played differently each time, just like a hand of poker. There are many ways this can be explored but I've rambled enough.

In summary, RPGs in general can and should expand play based on class combinations, even moreso than they have already. At present each situation will be handled differently by different sets of classes but tailoring them to specific combinations that play to each classes strengths/weaknesses can provide an even more dynamic experience for those loyal fans.

Ramble on!

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