Class vs Skills

Yesteday’s post about levels has spawned an interesting and long running conversation.

Today I want to look at a related issue. Class-based vs Skill-based character systems. This question dovetails nicely with some of the side-conversation of the levels discussion.

The first “mainstream” graphical internet-based MMO was Ultima Online, and it uses a skill-based system. In case you never played it, and going from more ancient memory, every character had the same bunch of skills, all level 0 when the character was created. By doing stuff, the character would improve the skill related to that activity. So fighting with a sword would increase your sword-fighting skill a lot, and your strength skill a little. Casting spells would improve your magic skill a lot, and your intelligence skill a little, and so on. The catch was, a character could only have a set number of skill points (I want to say it was 300). A skill maxed out at 100, at which point you would be a GrandMaster of that activity. If you were a grandmaster swordfighter then spent a ton of time doing Carpentry to get that skill to rise, your swordfighting skill would slowly drop (though they later added the ability to “lock” a skill so it would never atrophy).

This was a great system because everyone could be who they wanted to be. If you wanted to be a healer/archer, you could do that. If you wanted to be a Grandmaster Carpenter and Swordfighter, you could. But you could never be Grandmaster at more than 3 things, and realistically you could only be GM at 2 things (you needed some “extra” points for other stuff, like Magic Resistance).

Anyway, after UO came EQ and that was a class-based system. And so the epic battle between skill-based and class-based MMOs began. Back in those days, the proponents of Class Based systems said they were better because they limited players (I chaffed hard against the Class-based bit back in those days) which forced classes to work together to make up for each others’ deficiencies and to prevent everyone from Min/Maxing their way to cookie-cutter characters. The forum battles were bloody, bitter fights.

Fast forward a decade or so, and it feels to me like the pendulum is starting to swing back and that folks are getting tired of class-based systems (in part because class & Level – with a capital L – tend to go hand-in-hand) and starting to want skill-based systems.

So far I can’t think of any pure skill-based MMOs beyond UO. There are MMOs with Classes which contain sets of Skills that let the player sculpt a character within pre-set parameters, but have there been any other completely classless MMOs in recent years?

Should there be? In UO, the only way to determine if you could best an opponent (be it Mob or Player) was observing gear, engaging in battle or asking people how tough an ettin really was. Nothing had Levels and I don’t remember there being any kind of Con system (though maybe I’m forgetting). And since dying meant potentially losing everything (anyone coming along could loot your corpse) the world felt very dangerous indeed.

Are we ready for that again? In a purely skill-based system, how do you determine relative strength? If you’re a master swordsman and I’m a decent swordsman and a very good mage, who wins? Do we even *need* to know this ahead of time?

10 thoughts on “Class vs Skills

  1. “So far I can’t think of any pure skill-based MMOs beyond UO”

    Darkfall has no levels, it’s pure skill based (set to release in January 2009 in EU). They also have no classes per say. Any character is allowed to pick up any skill, and then they refine those skills by using them every day. They also have full looting, etc. Gear has very little meaning, it’s all about the skills. You have to learn skills for the most mundane things (like swimming) and boast of over 500 skills and 500 spells (separate) for characters to learn.

  2. Near as I can tell, though, Darkfall is Ultima Online in 3D, nothing more, nothing new.

    SWG used to be skills-based (I use the term “skills-based” because entirely too many people and devs interpret “skill-based” to mean player skill) though it did have classes, if I remember.

    Many opponents of pure skills-based (or skill-tree, would that be better?) games say they lead to min/maxing and cookie-cutter builds. Research has shown that a large portion of the population tends to gravitate towards building the closes approximation of their favorite “class” that they can anyway, so why not just have classes? As far as min/maxing goes, can anyone tell me no one does that in a game with classes? There are no cookie-cutter builds in WoW? Seems to me (pre-TBC when I played and raided at least) that many guilds wouldn’t recruit you or take you along unless you had a specific min/maxed cookie-cutter build…

    At the end of the day, min/maxing and cookie cutter builds are more an indication of players than anything else. Classes or skill-trees, if I’m a sheep with no imagination and I only do what someone else says is “the best” then I’ll use their cookie-cutter min/maxed build. Until someone else says theirs is “best.” If I wake up and realize I’m not competing with anyone else and they’re not paying my $15 to tell me how to play my game, I’ll just come up with my own build for my own character in the game I’m paying my own $15 to play.

  3. Should there be classless MMOs? Yes, certainly. There should be tons of different kinds of MMOs so everyone can find the one that best suits them.

    Classes have the advantage of identifying people’s roles. Its easy to tell what role someone has. Paladin? Tank. Warlock? Ranged DPS. Ranger? Dead. Simple. Skill-based systems CAN have that as well; I think ‘Certifications’ in Eve Online are intended to identify a player’s role. But most don’t for some reason.

    Classes are also easier to balance than skills, since you know exactly what abilities someone has based on level. In a hypothetical skill-based game with 100 skills where you can have any five, there would already be billions of possible builds you could have. While the player base might gravitate to one or two cookie cutter builds, there’s always someone out there who will discover build #1,000,0005 which is unbalancing.

    As for class vs skill based systems, my preference depends on the type of game I’m playing.

    If I’m playing a directed quest experience, cooperative PVE game (like EQ2, WoW, LOTRO), knowing what role someone has is important, so class-based leveling systems are appropriate.

    In a competitive RvR team-based e-Sport type of game (WAR), balance and identifying player’s roles are both important, so class-based systems are appropriate. However, levels and RvR don’t mesh well for me.

    In a sandbox game (Eve Online, Ultima Online), being able to be whatever you want to be is important, so skill-based leveling systems make the most sense. I guess Darkfall is going for this niche.

    You ask if we are ready for more skill-based games? I think definitely. Directed-quest cooperative PVE leveling games like EQ2, WoW, LOTRO, DDO, AC, etc., etc. are fun – I love EQ2. I love the ding! level and the feeling of accomplishment when I get my epic weapon, and all that. But the market is over saturated with games like that. I think people are ready to try something a little bit different, to see what other kinds of virtual worlds we can experience besides the kinds we have now filled to the brim with eight tiers worth of kill 10 rats quests.

    I think many players are ready for something different. Most of those “different” kinds of games will probably flop, but you won’t see another successful MMORPG until they make something that is NOT like WOW. Because we already HAVE WOW.

    After the pendulum swings back and every game is a Darkfall clone (heh), then I’ll start crying out for developers to bring back the WoW-style class-based leveling grind.

  4. The best model is a skill-based system that includes class options and lets players create new class templates to share. That allows the freedom of pure skill systems while offering the simplicity of a class system for those who want it.

    Skill systems are used in more world/roleplay-oriented games. Class systems are used in more arcade-style games. Class systems streamline gameplay and enable more balance of power between players. In a world-focused game, power balancing is less significant.

    The preference for class systems since EQ largely explains MMO developers’ obsession with balance. Diablo 2 isn’t an MMO in the same sense, but it demonstrates how an imbalanced game can be fun because of its imbalance if gameplay emphasizes exploration and unique, personal experiences. The classes in that game are only basic templates, similar to my suggestion. A dozen characters of the same class can have remarkably different skill selections.

  5. Anarchy Online is the best skill-based MMOG I’ve played, and the game I still hold all others up to in terms of class development. There was a pretty good mix — implants, nanos, base stats and a huge variety of other stats one could play with to really customize their character, within a chosen class. Really made things like PVP just crazy chaos since one couldn’t necessarily tell how good, bad or indifferent any one player might be based on looks alone. One could argue it was still a level-based game, but all “leveling” did was give you more points to spend on your stats however you wished. Race defined how expensive or cheap base stats were; class defined how expensive or cheap all the other stats were; levels gave you the points to spend. I still that’s brilliant character development and wish other MMO’s had adopted a similar approach to builds.

  6. The issue here is that the flavor of the month problem quickly becomes insurmountable. Let’s say that a Druid healing spell turns out to be overpowered. Not all healers play druids, so that limits the scope of the problem off the bat. Meanwhile, druids have other healing spells, so the devs can nerf the broken spell while buffing others to keep overall healing output at a reasonable place. If you allow 100% skill based choice, the healers will take the best of each type of spell, so you might as well drop most of the mfrom the game.

  7. Assuming there is a “best” don’t we usually take the “best” anyway? The exception was WoW which for the longest time allowed “downranking” where people would take the lowest rank of a certain spell to draw aggro or cast a small heal while at the same time saving mana. I hear downranking was removed in WotLK finally?

    Take a look at the list of Healing Prayers spells in Guild Wars for the monk profession. GW is skills-based, and never used spell ranks like WoW did. Each heal works its own way and you can take a single (or a couple) specific styles of healing prayers and design a build from it. Someone else can heal just as well but using totally different healing prayers and totally different builds. And that’s not even touching the Divine Favor or Protection Prayers list…

    Will a skills-tree, or skills-based MMO see constant tweaking, balancing, and even nerfing? I’d sure hope so, just as they do with class systems and their skills.

    UO and AO ultimately “failed” probably because they were among the first of their kind, so didn’t have much of a reference to the eventual effects of their design. I would hope developers these days would have a greater pool of knowledge of the pros and cons of the old ways and come up with newer ways of handling things. I’m hoping Adventurine does but I’m not holding my breath; the little tiny bit I read about Darkfall literally makes it seem like a 3D version of the original UO without accounting for its failings. But I could be (and probably am) wrong about that one.

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