Rants tag

Rants, ruminations, and rambling remarks from my mad, muddled, meandering mind.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Social Mobility, or, No Class

The MMO Gypsy has a post up about instant class switching—specifically in WoW, I think. I'm not sure from her tone whether Syl thinks it would be a good idea or not. She refers to an earlier post by Tesh regarding a move by the folks behind Allods to implement such a class switching scheme, though it seems extremely limited. [Late Breaking EDIT: Kleps has a counterpoint to Syl's post (and this one).]
When Blizzard first introduced dual specs, I didn't like the idea. I thought it was catering to PvPers who wanted to have their cake and eat the PvE Raid, too. But once it was implemented, I went ahead and got it for two of my characters, with varying degrees of success. All too often at the time, switching specs also meant different gear stats became important. For instance, spell crit was very important for my Disco Priest because of various crit procs. Switching to Holy meant spell haste was more important. But I didn't have the time or interest to develop another set of gear. I suspect hybrid classes like Druid and Paladins had it even worse.

Once I started playing Star Trek Online, the cry for dual specs came out once again, or at least multiple skill tree options. I advocated for the specialization of characters, though I was not averse to the relative ease of respec'ing. Part of my argument was a reference to Blizzard's approach to specialization.

But just because the Elephant and its predecessors forced specialization on players doesn't mean it was written in stone from on high. This blog is, if anything, a record of how my opinions have changed over the past few years. No need to cling to foolish consistencies. More recently, I railed against class/race restrictions in the upcoming Wildstar. SWTOR's class/race restrictions chafed a bit before that. I welcomed WoW's expansion of class/race combinations, and the fact that Blizzard came up with reasons for it within the lore.

Rift, while maintaining the four RPG archetypes(Callings), allows for instant switching of Souls and roles. With the upcoming expansion—maybe sooner—every Calling will have Souls to fill every role.

And finally we come to my current games. EverQuest II, a relic of the golden age of MMOs still has classes, but having just introduced paid-for 85s, what's to stop SOE from allowing complete class switcheroos, for a price? EverQuest Next promises to do away with designated Tanks, if not Healers. I have no idea what Zenimax has in mind for The Elder Scrolls Online.
The Secret World is a classless game. A character can develop the skills for any weapon in the game, and their abilities and role are tied to the weapon instead of the character. For all intents and purposes a player can "switch classes" at any time. Gear, in the form of talismans, is still specialized, and I carry multiple sets in order to be effective in the various roles. The standard way to unlock the skills and abilities is by applying XP earned through playing, but boosts are available in the cash shop. Is that any different than the proposal to level up a character as one class, then pay to switch?

I wrote a while back about character backstories and how class could play into that. Of course, it may not be essential, since my characters' backstories in TSW involve professions only peripherally related to their preferred weapons. At the same time, the RP community in TSW is as robust as any I've seen in a game; perhaps better than most.

The goal of every MMO developer is to maximize the number of people paying to play their game, regardless of their business model. Separating players from their friends for whatever reason is antithetical to that goal. If the group has too many of one class/role and not enough of another, why not make it reasonably easy to change the character imbalance without changing the player composition?
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  1. It's all about the character. Characters are real. It's their world, we're just lucky we get to watch.

    If there's a coherent, convincing internal logic to a class change that the character would understand from a perspective coming from within the culture then yes, fine. Otherwise definitely not.

    Reference to the commercial realities is appropriate to managers and accountants within the corporations producing product. Once we as players begin to buy into that logic then it's game over. Literally.

    1. You're looking at it from a roleplaying perspective, and it's perfectly valid one. I don't think I would ever take advantage of it if it were offered. But not every player share that sentiment. And in RL sometimes we change careers. A soldier can join the clergy. A doctor can become a politician. Why couldn't an MMO character do the same?

    2. I posted a longer version of my thoughts on this over at Syl's. There's a fundamental difference between a change that the character makes and one that the player makes, even if the end result is identical.

      I have no problem with a character changing from, say, a Warrior to a Wizard. As you say, in our world people change careers all the time. What they don't do, though, is snap their fingers and instantly lose all their fighting skills while gaining a complete knowledge of liturgical ritual. They have to retrain and it takes a good while.

      In EQ2 that you recently started playing it has long been possible to change faction from Qeynos to Freeport and vice versa. Over time that's become less of a big deal but even now you have to go through a series of quests and there are still certain certain classes that only one faction supports. If a Qeynosian Paladin decides to go work for Lucan in Freeport he loses his Paladin abilities and becomes a Shadowknight, for example.

      As I say, over the years this has become a relatively brisk and painless process but originally it was a major commitment. Even now ti takes many hours and for a period your character will be accepted by neither side and will have to go live in a hole in the ground (literally) with the rest of the Exiled.

      This is fine. It's still fine if instead of taking many hours it just takes a minute or two. The problem isn't with making the change to your character too easy, it's with having it make no sense in the context of the world in which he or she lives.

      As usual it comes down to whether you think of these things as "games" or "virtual worlds". Devs used, very definitely, to think of them as the latter but sadly that hasn't generally been the case for a long time now. Which may be why new MMOs consistently struggle to hold the attention of their audiences for very long.

    3. What if I *am* my character though? what if I don't have this detached view of my characters in WoW like many have with their many alts?

      You can argue snapping the finger to switch abilities makes no sense, okay. but then you can't argue for alts either, not for my type of playstyle. :) changing character is even weirder to me than changing class. what would be nicest of all no doubt, would be constant, accumulative character growth.

  2. In TSW the internal logic is coherent. There's no reason why a character in that world couldn't be proficient with a variety if weapons and then use a shotgun in one situation and a pair of pistols in another. Nor is it strange that they'd have different skills, tactics and combat roles when packing different weapons.

    Whether it can be coherent in another world I guess depends on what you think it should take to retrain for a new career. Hard to explain how someone that was a smuggler is now suddenly a Jedi Master. But could an Imperial Agent decide to turn Bounty Hunter one day? I'd believe that they could.

    1. Those divisions are inherent in the class structure of SWTOR. As I recall in the original system of SWG, literally any character could be developed in a force user through a series of quests or whatever the mechanic was. Much like the loosening of race/class restrictions in WoW, if they wanted to develop class switching in SWTOR they could come up with a lore reason. At the very least you could expect force users to slide from one advanced class to another and the non-force users as well. We won't get into the on-rails storylines and what might happen if you tried to jump the track.

  3. If you have no classes, then people calculate the optimal point investments to make the best DPS, tank, or healer. Everyone then goes those.

    Classes allow for non-optimality -- sure, your mage may do 1% less than a warlock, but it would take you months to get a warlock at the same level of gear and skill. And you probably picked a mage because you liked the archtype/playstyle. Probably don't want to have to switch playstyles, but if you could fully respec on a whim you'd be expected to in order to optimize.

    1. Many of the fights in TSW are highly situational, and optimal stats, etc., for one will not be optimal for another. Classful games are optimized for those classes, classless games force adaptability.

    2. So...people should go and respec for the optimal point spread for every fight? That's a good thing?

    3. Depends on whether you'd rather have an exciting, dynamic set of battles that keep you on your toes, or a set rotation that you probably tap out in your sleep. And get this, with the last patch, they added another layer of nuance to the progression system with Augments. And they're going to continue.

      WoW, did some of this sort of. Back when you had to have a special set of fire resist gear back in Molten Core days. Except this is more flexible, since it's tied to abilities, not bagslots.

      Did I mention that the game itself has a means for determining whether some is even capable of raiding? And it's not simply a gear score either. The Gatekeeper may one of the hardest fights you'll ever master. And I'm sure you would master it, but there are people who don't.

    4. "Depends on whether you'd rather have an exciting, dynamic set of battles that keep you on your toes"

      That's exactly what WoW raiding is? Perhaps you could clarify what you mean by exciting and dynamic if you disagree?

      I mean, the whole POINT of raiding is that you have to figure out new boss fights and react to their abilities and coordinate in a high pressure and exciting situation rather than just hit your "standard" buttons.

      "WoW, did some of this sort of. Back when you had to have a special set of fire resist gear back in Molten Core days."

      How does this have anything to do with being exciting or dynamic? Whether you need to equip a special set of fire resistance gear changes NOTHING about what you actually do the fight. Changing gear does not change playstyle of tactics, it's simply busywork outside of raid with no added depth.

    5. Throwing this out there as an example:


      Warning: some NSFW language.

  4. "The goal of every MMO developer is to maximize the number of people paying to play their game, regardless of their business model."

    I fundamentally disagree. A developer's job is to make a good game: that's it. Let the marketing department handle maximizing who is playing it. Otherwise, what we end up with more often than not is a game with no depth that tries to be a bit of everything for everyone. Even if MMOs are huge, massive experiences, that doesn't mean they can perfectly appeal to every demographic and playstyle nor should they try.

    I agree with Bhagpuss that, as fans and players, our attentions need to be less on the business side of games and more on the game side of games. I don't care if allowing for paid class changes will drastically improve the game's bottom line. I do care if it will hurt or diminish the game's integrity, or if it will drastically change the game's culture for the worse.

    1. I think that's a noble and naive view of game developers. But they're not out there making great games for the heck of it. They have families to feed. Of course they should make good games. But it will not matter if they made the ultimate game in the universe if they don't have a business model that can support it.

      And do you not think the marketing of the game influences its design for good or bad? In a subscription game, the game has to keep people subscribed, keep them on the treadmill. A game that makes money off lockboxes has to entice players to buy those keys. A game with DLC better make some pretty damn awesome DLC, and exciting lead-ins to it.

      And as a player, I can't help but think about and make decisions based on the business side of games. Every time I make a decision about whether to support a game through a subscription or through the purchase of cash shop items, I am looking at the business side of the game.

      I've interacted with a few individuals involved in game design and development, like Psychochild, Tilty, and Rockjaw. They're great folks; but without a hefty revenue stream, those great folks get laid off. And when that happens, we can only hope they land on their feet and go on to make more great games.

    2. Let’s say you are running a restaurant. You have a great chef and a great kitchen staff at your disposal. Would you rather they a) focus on delivering good food that was designed and prepared with quality, innovation, and taste first or b) work on delivering food that appeals broadly to everyone, which may guarantee more people in the seats, but probably won’t impress them enough to come back?

      Truthfully, you want to strike a balance between the two. You don’t want your chef to sacrifice his skills, talents, and dreams just to make hamburgers and french fries. You also don’t want him cooking Cockroach a l’Orange because despite his best arguments about the dish’s integrity, you know no one will buy it.

      When I said developers should make a good game, I didn’t mean to say that a good game also meant something that couldn’t be marketable. I understand that this is someone’s job and they need to make money to continue working at it. I also understand that a game that isn’t good, no matter how massively marketable and addicting it may initially be for many people, won’t retain players and probably won’t survive.

      If you take a stance that a developer’s job first and foremost is to maximize profitability, I think that’s a recipe for disaster. The final product probably won’t stand out, because the market dictated your best shot at a profit is making another World of Warcraft clone. Developers become less worried about delivering something that is fun and innovative and become more concerned with how to hook a whale. Instead of taking a chance, you end up with yet another run-of-the-mill game that’ll be forgotten about in six months.

      I firmly believe that good games really do sell themselves. More so if you have a competent marketing team that can highlight your strengths and minimize any perception of weaknesses. While I don’t doubt Ultima Online, Everquest, and Dark Age of Camelot were all created with a certain level of profit in mind, I do believe (naively or not) that they were designed as innovative games first, not after their monetization.

    3. I hesitate to guess what a gourmet restaurant with a top chef at the helm makes in a big city. But I can tell you that Olive Garden, Chili's, and especially McDonalds all make way more. I'm not arguing quality here, but business models. As Keen said in a post on Friday, the business model doesn't matter if the game sucks. However, it won't matter how awesome the game is if the business model doesn't support it. Give the people what they want and you'll make a profit. And make no mistake, AAA MMOs are about maximizing playerbase and profit. That is why they are so dilute.

    4. I work in the game industry. There are a LOT of innovative, awesome ideas that never see the light of day, sometimes even whole games that are finished, because of hard business realities. "A good game will sell itself" is a lovely ideal, but it certainly isn't the norm. As with so many things in the business world, it's often who you know, not what you know, and as such, devs absolutely have to bend their designs to business concerns. At least, if paying the bills is important. There *are* those who just do their own thing and hope it works out. That's part of what makes the indie scene interesting.

    5. All strong points guys. I don't want it to seem like I am thinking purely from a stance of idealism. Clearly, gourmet restaurants do exist despite more profitable ventures because there is enough demand for them to be profitable despite not being something for everyone. That's largely where I think the difference is here.

      Games designed with the game first can and often do succeed. There is a demand for new, quality experiences that a strictly market-first approach may never be able to produce. Competition, as a driving force of capitalism, demands innovation, which requires risk. I understand that there are hard business realities that do counteract specific games from ever seeing the light of day, but that doesn't mean we should give up on trying to appeal beyond only being massively marketable.

      If the job of a game designer is simply to design a game that maximizes profit, then you cannot separate the quality of that game from the business model. Effectively, the business model and the game are one in the same. Doing so, I feel, completely undercuts the point of games as a medium and won't last.

      The key thing that I agree with that Tishtoshtesh says is that "devs absolutely have to bend their designs to business concerns." I agree! The key word there though is 'bend'. It implies that they designed the game first, and then modified it for practicality/business concerns. That's perfectly fine. It's also a lot different than the "goal of every MMO developer is to maximize the number of people paying to play their game", which I still feel is a pretty outrageous claim.

    6. I'm not sure what your educational background is. I've taken quite a few business classes, though it was not my major. The goal of any for-profit business is to maximize said profit. When I said, "The goal of every MMO developer is to maximize the number of people paying to play their game, regardless of their business model," I was referring to the companies, not individual artists. Individuals may want to make the best game possible, but they still have to put food on the table. You can call me cynical, but I know of only one MMO that started out happy with a niche, and that was EVE. Every other post-WOW AAA MMO has tried to shoot for multi-millions of players. Many (most?) are profitable, after restructuring and resetting their ambitions. But they all still would like to have more paying players, regardless of business model. WOW is an anomaly, it seems. But every company thinks they can create the next WoW, and effectively print their own money.

    7. that comment is just full of hyperbole
      I'm sorry but if every designers goal is to maximise the amount of people and profit than they would theoretically need to create a game that appeals to the broadest variety of interests but we know that doesn't work... and there is many carcasses within the mmo graveyard to prove it. You want games to create a wow game, one that can appeal to the largest playerbase but apparently wow is an anomaly.

      As a company i believe you want to maximise profits in your market and there are a variety of markets within the mmo industry. I think believing companies can or should be able to be everything is the naive and more misguided approach.

      Lastly some of the biggest games lately, the ones that have completely changed the gaming paradigm are the ones they were trying to create a good, interesting and new experience first. Minecraft for instance wasn't established.. and Kickstarter has done very well because of this as people do want a good game to be the priority rather than the business model and the resultant restructuring of ideas.

  5. As with so many other things in these games, and life in general, really, I find it interesting that speaking of options somehow turns into threats of mandating behavior for those who are not interested in those options. If a company makes MMO character class swapping an option, that does not in any way mean that players must make use of that option. What other players do with their characters largely doesn't matter to what you do.

    A few related thoughts: What about alts? Do we think of each character that we come across as a different player? Do we play with players or characters? What about that one character that we always played with... what do we think of him when he shows up as a different species, and as a female? In a fantasy world where any rules of reality are pretty much ignored from day one, are we really struggling to believe that learning a new job is a bridge too far to believe in the fiction?

    So much about these MMO things is already mutable, and that's a good thing. Player customizability is one of the great things about games in general, and MMOs in particular, where getting a player involved with their character(s) is key to maintaining a long term customer.

    It is possible that allowing class swapping may well mean fewer alts, and consequently, less time investment and smaller subscription numbers. That's why I suspect most devs don't bother with it.

    That said, I suspect that it may well also make for deeper involvement with single characters. If I've been through all sorts of ups and downs with my character, from that time as a Priest where split second heals won the day, to his day as a Warrior where the front lines only held because of smart tactical decisions, to her time as a glass cannon Mage, where reckless abandon wasn't very successful, but so incredibly fun... I may well wind up loving that character far more than if it's just Rotation Rogue in the endless Raid Parade. That vast swath of memories are on that single character, not a stable of alts, and that can make a difference.

    Another tangential thought... speaking as a designer, I'd even push it further and steal a concept from Final Fantasy Tactics. I'd allow for a number of passive and maybe even active abilities to carry over on the character, no matter what class they are. My Druid that put time in as a Hunter might have a "Beastkiller" passive that allows greater damage to Beast type enemies, or he might have picked up a healing boost from his days as a Shaman. There's a lot of design space to be mined there, and even if were not talking about gamebreaking abilities, those are still abilities that I've taken the time to splice into my character, and really make it mine.

  6. I'm like school on Sunday...no class

  7. Star Wars Galaxies allowed wholesale instant class switching. In fact for a long time there was a guide up on the forums on how to max out a crafting character in a very short period of time, after which you could switch them over to something else.

    I think mostly this is just a tricky idea to implement because it plays some havoc with the marketability of character slots. TSW gets away with its flexibility in part because of the very limited number of character slots. Flexibility is found within a single character rather than over a stable of characters. Same with STO. A standard MMO like WoW though, I think it would not net you a lot of sales. Either you have players already invested with a stable of characters or you have people with only one high level character that are reluctant to let go of their investment unless the price is right - and I'm not sure the price point would make it worth while.