Class Warfare: Are Classes the Wrong Choice for The Elder Scrolls Online?

Posted Tue, Mar 05, 2013 by ricoxg

There are some defining characteristics to any Elder Scrolls game. Lore is definitely one of the big ones, and if you haven’t yet read Gunky's Lore Primer you really should. Another one of those critical and defining characteristics is the odd combination of classless skill-based and level-based progression that’s always been unique to the series. However, Zenimax is tinkering with the formula a little with the new online version of the game, The Elder Scrolls Online, and we have to wonder whether or not that’s a good thing. We’re going to take a look at some of the problems and advantages inherent in each system, and then focus the lens on what that means for ESO.

Levels Can be Good

Level-based progression and classes have been the tried-and-true RPG development standard since the old pen-and-paper days. Early RPGs obviously adopted the model because it was already what fans of the genre were familiar with, and it quickly proved to be a solid choice. Level-based progression has become common in PC gaming for the same reasons it was used in the table-top games of years past.

If you have a system of classifying the relative power of the characters that also advances the power of the various classes at a similar rate, it allows the Game Master, or developer, to construct appropriate challenges based around that relative power. It’s also a simple mathematical formula to increase the difficulty of the encounter to account for multiple player characters. The hard part in this system is really just adjusting the over-all power of specific classes at specific levels to balance with the other classes.

That’s a technical way of saying that, in World of Warcraft for instance, a Warrior and a Mage should have about the same amount of difficulty killing a mob as maybe a Paladin and a Necromancer. There are some fluctuations because some mobs’ traits make them more susceptible to one class or another, but in the end, the playing field should be relatively level.

World of Warcraft classes

WoW may not exactly set the standard for great class mechanics, but it is a well-known example.

So, the advantage of level-based gaming is that it’s just much easier to plan for and to build games around. If you know about how powerful characters will be when they’re in a specific area, you can build the mobs and quests to be appropriate for their levels. It’s a tried system, and it’s the same that’s worked for decades for that very reason.

In PC games we also see the inclusion of a level requirement for equipping gear. Going along the same lines as general class/mob power, this also helps prevent low level characters from getting the Epic Laser of Murder-death-killing from a friend and then going on a rampage of newbish glory. The use of levels can protect the integrity of progression through equipment as well.

Where Levels Fail and Skills Pwn

I guess one might conclude that level-based progression is an obvious choice, and wonder why developers would consider anything else. But level-based progression has one blindingly obvious flaw--it’s not very realistic. There are no level 50 basketball players, or level 3 journalists in the real world.

Skilled-based progression means that even a thin bit of metal can be deadly in the hands of someone skilled at stabbing.

In real life, you don’t get better at every possible skill each time you complete a random task at work or hand in an assignment at school. You get better at specific things by doing them, and there’s no real measure of how good you are at something compared to other people until you compete or at least work side-by side.

Where level-based progression fails, skill-based progression succeeds incredibly well. It’s this component, more than just about anything else, that truly separated the early Elder Scrolls games from the pack. I’ll never forget the days I spent in the Mages Guild of Daggerfall, firing my spells over and over to skill up in that discipline. The same process that creates a gold medal high-jumper in the real world was the one I used to become a master at face-melting fireballs in a virtual one--practice, sleep, wake up, and practice some more.

Skyrim forge

…because killing all the skeevers in the world won’t make you any better at forging a new breastplate.

Then, skill-based systems do have their Achilles heel. Besides the obvious problem of finding a balance between making mobs hard enough for players without being too hard in a world where there’s no level-based measure of how powerful the character is, skill-based progression in online games has become a target notorious for hacking. From something as simple as taping a key down in Ultima Online, to something as complex as a mouse-click script in Darkfall, exploitation is rampant. What’s worse is that it’s insanely hard for developers to detect and stop. Legitimate practice and taped keys often look alike in the log files.

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