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Updated Fri, Feb 13, 2009 by Ralsu

The Balancing Act: Games with Class

By Ralsu

I'm a die hard Diablo fan. It was Blizzard's action role-playing game that led me to make the bold upgrade from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 back in 1995. I completed Diablo with each of the 3 base classes: warrior, rogue, and wizard. In the end, my experience with each was almost identical. Each of the 3 classes could learn any spell if my INT score was high enough. Each could wear the same heavy armor if I dumped enough points into STR. In the endgame levels, my strategy was the same for all 3 classes: turn some succubi into tone and whack them with a stick or sword.

When playing a game feels the same no matter which class the player chooses, the developers have created nothing more than a treadmill. Why do treadmill games exist if the game would have more replay value with distinct classes that deliver varied game play experiences? Let's explore.

The Balancing Act

Try being the only healer who doesn't have a buff to movement speed. Or try being the only caster who can't teleport party members all over the world. It's easy to be jealous of the special abilities other players get to enjoy. For every signature skill that makes players envious of Class A, developers must create a skill with equal impact for Class B. It's a delicate balancing act for sure. This balancing act becomes even more complicated for games that include player-vs-player (PvP) combat. That wizard ability to teleport the party might be supremely useful when in groups, but it's not going to mean much for PvP.

The demands of designing enough balanced skills proves too much for some companies. Instead of allocating resources to building class, many developers must opt to go with a more generic system. The benefits of taking such a "shortcut" include more money to spend on content and less complaining from gamers that the classes are improperly balanced.

Games with Class

The key to fun game design is to give each class a handful of unique and useful skills that promote exclusive strategies for each class without overpowering any of the classes. For a game like EverQuest, that meant making warriors able to wear the best armor but weak in damage. Necromancers got undead pets and spells involving the manipulation of life force. Enchanters could control crowds of enemies like nobody else. Druids could change shape and call upon natural forces to heal or do damage.

The class the player chooses does matter a great deal in EverQuest. The gaming experience for a monk is vastly different from that of a paladin. Within archetypes, experiences vary, too. The magician is a very different kind of caster from the wizard.

DDO Has Class

Without a doubt, Dungeons & Dragons Online can be counted as a game where the choice of class (most of them anyway) makes a huge difference to the game play experience. Rogues are adept at picking locks and disarming traps. Wizards do quite a bit of crowd control. Rangers dish out damage. Paladins provide support and slay casters. I could go on. Let's just say Turbine did a fine job maintaining the balance inherent to the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) system. DDO's not perfect, though.

DDO @ Ten Ton Hammer's Zed astutely posited that DDO would break from the pattern of the holy trinity (tank, healer, crowd control). It does, but it just eschews a tank for a pair (or more) of damage dealers. The cleric is still there healing. The wizard or bard is still their mesmerizing foes. One game on the horizon that might be brave enough to completely blur the lines of the holy trinity is Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. Or would that just lead us back to feeling like the choice of class doesn't matter? I told you it's a delicate balancing act! In the meantime, I'll just be glad DDO is a very different game playing as a fighter or bard.

Parting Thoughts

For me, games that allow players to turn their characters into masters of some skill (teleportation, trap finding, alchemy) are far more appealing than games where any character can do any thing. I like to feel I have a place in my virtual worlds. DDO gives me that feeling. When my bard joins a party, I know the other players are counting on me to keep monster crowds under control. When I play my cleric/wizard combo, I am buff master who makes everyone else in the party better. Sure, it'd be nice to be able to wade into a group of hill giants and start whacking like the fighter int he party. It would be gratifying to know that I am the only one who can save the party from the fire trap ahead like the rogue. But in the end, the diversity of classes in games like DDO generate a community that I feel most closely simulates the world in which we live--everyone has a place, and everyone must depend on others to be able to slay life's dragons.

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