Toldain Talks

Because reading me sure beats working!


Toldain started as an Everquest character. I've played him in EQ2, WoW, Vanguard, LOTRO, and Zork Online. And then EVE Online, where I'm 3 million years old, rather than my usual 3000. Currently I'm mostly playing DDO. But I still have fabulous red hair. In RL, I am a software developer who has worked on networked games, but not MMORPGS.

Friday, December 18, 2009

MMO's With No Class?

Psychochild has an article up at Gamasutra called Rethinking the Trinity of MMO Design.

Brian wants to look at alternatives to the "holy trinity" of Tank, Healer and DPS. Now hold it right there. Back when I was playing EQ, the "holy trinity" was Tank, Healer, and Enchanter (me!). (People also looked for a slower/debuffer, and maybe a monk or a shadowknight as a puller.) But the statement certainly works today. In a sense, we've all got a lot better at understanding how the game works and what to do.

As a control class, I've done a lot of thinking about how my contribution fits into the game overall. In the beginning, EQ2 basically squashed the controller role almost completely. Sure, we had the ability to mez, but it was nearly superfluous. If you were grouped with any AE centric, class, they would break your mezzes with great regularity. And we soon found that in fact, I didn't need to mez in order to beat any particular encounter. And the chances of pulling multiples were pretty low, if you had a tank that knew what he was doing.

Anyway, here's the way I finally ended up thinking about it. Abilities (and hence classes, to some extent) can be divided up into offensive and defensive. Anything that puts more damage or enables more damage on the mob is offensive. Anything that decreases, mitigates or heals damage done to our side is defensive. And here's the thing: More offense is always useful, but more defense than needed is useless and wasted.

Killing is what brings rewards, not surviving. With lowered death penalties, the concern for survival is much reduced. So people want to kill as fast as they can, for good reason. Which means mezzing is something I do in a PUG only when specifically asked to do so. At some point SOE figured this out, and made a few dungeons where mezzing is a must.

Psychochild looks at the origins of the FRP MMO, Dungeons and Dragons:

Each class was based on a fantasy archetype, but without explicit roles; there was no rule that a Fighter could only absorb damage (be a Tank) and not be an awesome machine of death (be DPS). Each class had signature abilities, but statistics and options allowed characters to fill a variety of roles despite their class.

I don't quite think this is accurate. I think that the roles were pretty clearly understood. Very early on, the mages wanted the fighters to stand in front of them. Clerics would start out as melee classes but fade back as they increased in level and fell behind the fighters in melee damage output and hitpoints, though not necessarily.

Yes, the game was more sandboxy. But I think the key to understanding the difference between tabletop and online roleplaying comes to one word: repetition.

In the tabletop game I ran last weekend, we had 4 encounters in 10 hours. There was some role play, some puzzle solving and administrivia too. In 10 hours of online play you might have 400 encounters. Or maybe 800 or 1000. There's another aspect of repetition, namely, almost anywhere you go, thousands of other players have done it before you, and will do it after you, too. They've posted about it on the internet, and refined strategies to it, too. Individual players and groups will run the same instances dozens of times, if not hundreds. This never, ever happens in tabletop, where story is king. Why would we go beat the same bad guy again? Didn't he stay dead? Well, sometimes not, but that's part of the story.

So the game becomes not like solving a unique puzzle, but optimizing throughput. And roles get pretty stereotyped.

I've got EVE on my mind a lot lately, so let's look at EVE's approach to character classes: There aren't any. There are different focuses for skills, there are different ships, there are different activities. Just as an example, I've been killed in game by a very wide variety of ships. Some are more popular (*cough* Raven *cough*), but there's lots of other things that will work, depending on what you plan to do, where you are, and who you are with.

The point is role flexibility. Brian thinks this, or the version of this that is skill-based, has problems:

Unfortunately, skill-based systems also have some well-known problems. The first is that they can be hard to balance, especially for inexperienced designers. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that players will take the most powerful set of skills available, leading to a lot of "flavor of the month" setups.

Part of the flexibility in EVE isn't skills, it's equipment. You can literally change your role by changing equipment. You might not be all that good at the role, but it might be good enough.

Imagine an MMO where Toldain says, "We don't have a tank? Ok, let me get my armor..." That kind of seems weird, I grant, but we already have the ability to switch AA specs on a whim, and people with different specs for raids versus groups versus soloing. Likewise gear.

All of this flexibility has been sort of grafted on to the basic class structure of the game, and it is still pretty class centric. But what if you designed that stuff in to start with?

In fact, tabletop is headed that way, too. In 4th Edition D&D, which as PC mentions, is strongly influenced by MMO's, the ability to use armor can be learned by everyone, by the expenditure of customization points known as feats, which you get ever couple of levels. You can get more hit points, and the ability to use a giant sword, too, via feats. But that doesn't really turn a mage into a tank, though. But it allows characters to have a backup role.

Ok, Brian is on the same page as me:

Party composition was also not as strict. For example, being without a Fighter class in heavy plate armor (a Tank in the trinity design) wasn't always a disadvantage; in fact, the party could use stealth easier without members stomping around in a loud metal suit of armor. Magic items such healing potions, magic wands, spells scrolls, protective items, and so forth could also partially replace a missing role.

I would call this strategic flexibility. EQ2 now has quite a lot of it built in, in fact. The way it works is that one class is the best at some aspect of the game, but there are other ways to get that ability, if not at as good a quality. I've been through pretty tough dungeons with a scout tanking. There are tinkered items that can duplicate most of the utilities in the game, including rez, FD, Call of the Hero, and of course, repair. And any character can learn it.

The racial abilities also allow for opening of boxes. I know it's a sore point with the scouts, but it fits with the trend. Nobody is indispensable in a group setting.

It's a good trend, but I'd like to see it built into a MMOFRPG from the beginning. Honestly, something more futuristic might lend itself better, so you can have cyber implants that teach you to do stuff that can be swapped out. But since "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", there must be some way to shoehorn that idea into fantasy, no?

But it isn't a fantasy trope, is it? However the fighter-magic user combo is a fantasy trope.

Ok, one more point, more or less unrelated:

Unfortunately, the biggest drawback of allowing tactical options in combat is that it will run into technical limitations given internet latency and cheaters. The phrase "using terrain" in MMOs usually refers to the exploit of harming NPC opponents while putting them in a position to be unable to harm the character.

I do not understand why this is considered "cheating". I'm aware that it is, and that gamedevs have done all kinds of things to get rid of path kiting. Why is path kiting bad, but quad kiting by druids in EQ1 good? In order to do path kiting well, I must have found a good spot, and have a good ranged dps. Melee means nothing.

I think I understand why. It's because pathing wasn't very good in those days, and I think gamedevs felt we were picking at a sore spot, rather than winning as intended.

Use of terrain is in fact one of the big missing elements in MMO's, as far as I can see. At this point in EQ2, terrain affects "sight lines" and hence aggro range and spell/ranged targeting issues. This gives a good range of pulling situations, and positioning issues. Which to my mind keeps the game interesting. What about movement rate issues? We see the need to position mobs in spots for better DPS in raids, has this happened much in group content?

I don't understand Brian's reference to internet latency in this context. Tactics are limited by the speed of combats, not by internet latency. Faster combats than in EQ1 are probably good, but I think we've gone a bit too far. There's little time to think on the fly.



Blogger Rita said...

RE: Using terrain/path kiting

At first glance, this seems like it *should* be a valid strategy somehow. Common sense says that IRL you would find high ground and fire on your enemies such that they can't fire back.

The problem is that IRL those enemies would realize they can't get to you, and they would run away. You could maybe ambush a couple of unsuspecting enemies now and then, but you couldn't sit there and do it non-stop.

Mobs in EQ2 would require some serious reprogramming in order to think like that. Given the way they DO think currently, the devs had 2 options: 1) let the players kill the stupid mobs non-stop, with no risk to themselves, or 2) let the mobs warp right up the cliff and smack the player in the face.

That said, my HOPE is that we get more intelligent mobs in future MMOs, so that realistic strategies like this become valid in the virtual environment.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Rita said...

RE: Classless skill/feat-based games

Planetside did this, and did it extremely well imo. There are no classes in PS. You're a blank-slate soldier when you start, with something like 6 skill points to spend. And you gain 1 skill point with each level (last time I played, the max level was 20).

Personally, I didn't much like to group. Planetside Karaya is usually specced to suit my crazy Rambo-style method of play - jack of all trades, master of none. Just light, fast ground vehicles, basic medic skill, basic engineering, hacking, sniper rifle, medium armor, and basic heavy weapons.

Of course, I didn't take that game very seriously. I played it to let off steam when I didn't have the patience for EQ. But there were many guilds (or "outfits") that had players specced to fill specific roles (air support, infantry, armored cavalry, etc), but the flexibility of the skill system allowed players to "cross-train" in different roles, such that no one really fit into an archetypal class.

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Thanks for the comments. :) A few further thoughts:

I think that the [D&D] roles were pretty clearly understood. Very early on, the mages wanted the fighters to stand in front of them.

Was that because Fighters were supposed to be tanks, or because Mages were so fragile. A subtle difference, but I think it's important. Fighters could survive on the front lines, but at lower levels they were only marginally less fragile than Mages. A Fighter couldn't take endless abuse.

I didn't talk about it, but there's also the issue of multi-classing in D&D: if the Fighter stood on the front lines and the Mage cowered in the back, where did the Fighter/Mage go? :)

I do not understand why this is considered "cheating".

As Rita points out, it's the repeatability of the tactic to get progression with little danger to the character. These types of exploits also tend to be available only to certain types of characters (often those with ranged ability).

I don't understand Brian's reference to internet latency in this context. Tactics are limited by the speed of combats, not by internet latency.

You can see some of this based on the comments on Gamasutra. Some people advocate that there should be collision-detection as part of the strategy. This is highly susceptible to latency and can be frustrating if you move into a blocking formation only to have lag let the enemy slip between the ranks.

One possible solution would be to have more of a turn-based set-up instead of real-time. This is one of the reasons why you do so few encounters in paper RPGs: because one round of combat may take several minutes of discussion despite being at most a minute in game (for old D&D, mere seconds for other systems and modern D&D). This might be an improvement, however.

Thanks again for sharing your insight. :)

3:29 AM  

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