Small Comparison: Skill based MMO vs Class based MMO
Main differences between a skill based MMO and a class/level based MMO. My own personal on the subject.
Class/level based design allow player to be associated with a strong role, giving them a set of abilities that define what their character is and what it can do. Along with levels, it serves as a general ruler to help the player know where his character stands compared to that other player or this one mob.
Corralling players into a limited set of character-development choices often help them in their development decisions. Here are some of the perks of a class based system:
Simplify game balancing: In a skill based system, the number of available skills offers an amount of combinations that ramp up exponentially. In a class based setup, that issue is simplified at least geometrically. And same class/level characters won’t differ wildly; this also helps predict power levels easily.
Ease player role identification: It is easier for a player to know and identify to a role. By playing a healer, he knows what to expect. This makes it natural for a player to find his niche in the game or in a party setup.
Lighten the need to anticipate characters evolution: Systems that are too open can seem too daunting or frustrating to the category of players that do not care about studying the game system or plan out a proper character build.
Skill based character systems are more of a free-form design, and break away from the restrictions of class-based systems which can be considered less realistic while stifling freedom and creativity in character development.
Freedom of choice: this is a windfall of character customization at hand, but more importantly it allows for more flow in character building, something more “organic”, and characters would be very different from each other. Two characters playing the same base role could have a wildly different approach of the task, or could change their skill set to adapt whatever situation they face.
Versatility: players can build themselves a character that suits their play style, and they can usually fit multiple roles easily. They aren’t restricted by a choice made at creation, aren’t forced to re-roll to fit a new role, nor to wait for a necessary healer to show up to complete the group.
A more tactical approach: in most class-based situations, each class knows what they can bring to the encounter, and what to expect. You only have to find which of the class given tools are meant to beat this particular encounter. In skill set based games, you have to think ahead, discover skills synergy, interesting builds, counters for a foe in particular, etc.
In my opinion, while class-based systems bring a certain amount of hand-holding to the table that can help beginning players, they also pigeon-hole them into a class or an archetype by removing the aforementioned freedom. In the end, there is not much to distinguish Joe Warrior from Bob Warrior at the same level in terms of character development, and this lack of freedom ends up normalizing play styles just as it normalize characters.
As a word of warning though, skill-based systems have a couple weaknesses that can effectively hinder the game unless addressed one way or the other:
Prone to trends: once the community discover a great build, it starts to spread and finally end up representing a great share of the active players, rendering dozens if not hundreds of skills rarely if not never played.
Hard to balance, hard to evaluate: at an equal level of experience, the power level of two characters could vary in a huge way, rendering encounters design much more tricky. In the same vein, since it’s all down to skills themselves, the lack of granularity makes it harder to fix overpowered skills combo. Balancing issue are much most time costly in a skill-based system since there are so much variables to account for.
Hard to manage expectations: with varied if not diffuse builds; it is hard to teach players what they will wound up doing later in the game.
If I had to build a skill based system today, I would opt for some sort of soft-class system, by creating for instance some role templates for beginner characters (predetermined starting skill sets for instance, teaching the player the basics of different roles: bruiser, tank, support, etc..) or by creating a gating mechanism for skills, like the creation of “role skills” and such (i.e. dedicating a whole skill family to a certain play type)
A good modern example of how a skill-set based game can fail would be The Secret World. While the game does have some strong design elements, his classless design is too wide, too open, and lost many players on the way.
With too many opportunities to cripple your experience for an extended period of gameplay, players have paid the high price for freedom. As a direct result, they’re desperately trying to cling to whatever to make their experience more “rational”, for instance using equipped items quality levels as substitute for levels.
Level-free open-mechanics game system? Ain’t done yet.
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