Would You Rather Have Class or Skill?

The Debate to Find the True Advancement Formula for the Indie

By Cody “Micajah” Bye

April 14, 2007

In the round table discussion room, even before the particular topic was
introduced and convened, the battle lines were being drawn.

“I am a big fan of the Asheron's Call system,” I heard one participant
whisper to another. “Skills are the way to go.”

“But classes and that system are so…comfortable,” another participant said.
It was obvious that people had there favorites, but everyone was eager to draw
out the relationship between the two systems and what it meant for the
development and end-product of MMO-genre game and the livlihood of indie MMO

While there was no yelling, swearing, or red-faced tirades at our last IMGDC
round table of Saturday, the debate concerning integrating a skill system or a
class system into an MMO for an indie developer was something that all the
members of the panel took very seriously. As one of the fundamental (at least to
some) ways of creating a game, the developers and press on the forum were very
interested in the various drawbacks and benefits that having either of these
systems would help create.

Choosing Classes or Picking Skills…

Many of the developers on the panel were wary of the limitations and
pigeon-holing that a class system often engenders. This was there biggest
sticking point and – to most – it was the fundamental flaw in a class systems
design. They were eager to point out that class systems often give players no
flexibility outside of their chosen role. Even with the addition of
“versatility” points – like the alternate advancement system in EQ, for example
– gamers just do not have the ability to really explore outside of their
characters packaged abilities. While this limitation is often ignored, many
players who had interacted in Ultima
Online, Asheron's Call, 
or Star Wars Galaxies couldn't play in games
like WoW and EQ were their field of vision was so limited.

However, with the success of class systems in the “mainstream” marketplace,
there were members of the panel who believed that there was a certain amount of
comfort in picking a class rather than filtering through a list of skills. Most
players familiar with MMOs, Dungeons and Dragons, or fantasy-as-a-genre, are
fairly familiar with the classes that many developers inherently put into their
game. It's easy for a gamer to describe what a wizard does...millions of readers
have picked up the Harry Potter series...a wizard deals in magic! Thus, when a
developer uses a class system, he's nearly guaranteed a sense of familiarity
from many of the MMO gamers.

Class systems are also easier to integrate in a “balancing” sense than
your typical skill system, allowing for developers to augment characters with
broad strokes rather than fine-combing detail. When a developer constructs a
dungeon, he looks at all the classes players can play and develops schemes for
the way the dungeon can be successfully finished with a variety of the classes.
With the class system, it’s easy to figure out the combination because the skill
sets in class systems are static.

When using a skill system, however, the developers are forced to look at
every potential combination of class skills that could be used – alone or in a
group – to defeat the dungeon. Exploring these situations can be very expensive
for the developer, and – as we know – indie developers have a particular
sensitivity to a loss of funding. For instance, if a character has access to
over 50 combat based skills, the developer has to explore whether sets of skills
will be able to successfully navigate the dungeons or not. Time and man-energy
are spent exploring these possibilities, and it could lead to setbacks in game
development as well as uneeded loss of funds. And when indie MMOs are concerned,
funds are often of the highest priority.

Skill systems, despite their costs, seemed to be the system that many of the
developers on the panel favored – at least the individuals that were the most
vocal. The biggest benefit from the inclusion of a skill system would be the
ability to provide the player with more freedom. Dr. Richard Bartle was very
interested in the options that the skill system allowed. He explained that if a
skill system was used, the players could determine how they wanted to start
their character – be it as a blank slate or by selecting a “class” or “template”
that could be used to achieve a certain type of character, be it a fighter,
healer, or rogue. This way, the free-minded players would not be pigeon-holed,
but the class-comfortable users could decide on a “class” they wanted to

Other members of the panel also argued that skill systems allowed players to
truly create a customized character. While physical avatar changes help
alleviate some of this "unique" dillema in a class-baesd system, truly unique
characters are impossible to create. Practically every Shaman in WoW fights like
every other Shaman in the basics. By giving players skills to choose from, you
can have an infinite number of options if there are enough skills provided in
the game.

Outside of the Box

Other developers wanted to pursue even grander forms of freedom. Dr. Celia
Pearce, an emergent worlds researcher and a developer working on an independent
title known as Mermaid, is eliminating these systems altogether, basing
character actions more on actual player skill than with competitive,
number-increasing scenarios. Without levels and skills to advance, she said, the
game world will be opened up. The more experienced players would actually be
encouraged to help the new players – allowing for a greater sense of community
than what is being fostered in typical mainstream MMOs on the market today. Her
MMO title will be one of the first of its kind to truly explore a system that’s
inherently different from the majority of most modern massive games.

Still others, like Kelly Heckman of GamersInfo.net, wanted to throw away the
“balanced classes or skill levels” argument. Instead she wanted to see
developers make classes inherently different, making attaining new levels of
power even more difficult for players who picked particular classes. It would
fall upon the developer, she argued, to inform the players that certain
classes/races/templates of characters would be inherently harder to play. While
she believed in an unbalanced playing field, Kelly also wanted to note that if
the character was a lower or higher power level than the design documents, the
developers still needed to balance the class to the original level of power
stated in the design documents.

Another interesting point was brought up by Dr. Bartle, who mentioned that
most of these class/skill systems were still inherently based upon D&D – a
point that Jeff and I have discussed and I've written a href="http://cody.blogs.tentonhammer.com/?p=11#more-11">blog about. He
wanted to make sure that the developers knew where many of these problems were
originating from and urged them all to look beyond the initial system to try to
find something that provided even more freedom than what D&D offered.

And the Debate Continues….

While there was no “answer” to be found in today’s panel discussion, it was
intriguing to see what the independent developers thought of the various
systems. Unlike big name AAA development teams, many of the indie developers
have no “big brother” looking over there shoulder to make sure they’re making
the next WoW or EQ. Instead, the developers in the panel were eager to explore
and discuss some of the more intriguing designs that have been spawned by
developers over the years.

These kinds of discussions will continue on into the future – between
development teams working on big or small titles - but it may be the indie
development teams that will take the initial steps in changing the way our
“systems” work. Don’t be afraid to try out a small title, you may find the
unique skill or class system more to your liking than you originally thought! If
you prefer a class or a skill system, make sure you href="mailto:[email protected]">email me and let me know!

Make sure you head back to the IMGDC portal and href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/index.php?module=ContentExpress&func=display&ceid=566">check
out the rest of our indie MMO articles!

Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016