The Secret to MMO Class Design

Psssst.  Hey.  Come here.  I gotta secret I want to tell you.  Everybody who’s making MMO’s these days?  Yeah, they’re doing classes wrong.  Way wrong.  And it’s primarily why MMO’s can’t seem to rise above the current level they’re at.  It’s why there’s no sense of stickiness as some wonder.  It’s why class distinctions are largely irrelevant, and everyone just plays really expensive solo games.

This post owes a large credit to J3w3l again, who’s recent musings on skill trees in MMO’s was pivotal to my own thoughts on the matter.  She talks at length about how skills tend to be hard to figure out and make a character feel largely directionless and difficult to play.  You should go read that post, it’s very good.  I got to thinking about my own play habits with games these days.  I’ll go pick up a video game and try it out for a few months and then put it down and never go back to it.  Even if I do think it’s a really good game.  Some games have managed to pull me back (I’m currently in Mass Effect 3 multi-player right now, god help my carpel tunnel).  But without a really good hook or something else compelling about the game, I rarely return to them.  This is behavior that happens irrespective to whether or not the game is an MMO or a regular single player game.  MMO’s don’t make me deviate my behavior any from single player games.  And they should.  That they don’t, is a problem.

But that’s the secret.

It’s not horizontal versus vertical leveling progression, that’s the secret to success with classes.

It’s not Trinity versus non Trinity game-play though god help us, we’re going to talk more about that before we’re done here.

It’s not about genre, or end-game content, or even PvP versus PvE.

The secret is Team play versus solo play.

Oh yeah, sure.  You say that’s obvious now, but before I said that, the thought never even occurred to you!

Let’s go on a short history trip.

In the post Ultima days, we got Everquest and Everquest 2 and eventually WoW and all the WoW clones that came after.  In those games, class definitions were focused around team game-play, or more simply, Trinity game-play.  Now as time marched on, people started seeing the limits of Trinity game-play and began to chafe under those constraints.  Bad behaviors by groups that required a rigid setup for content and/or the failure to find people good enough to fill the roles as needed were just some of the problems.  I’ve detailed my issues with Trinity game-play in lots of other posts but as a result, players started demanding games that didn’t require such an intense commitment in terms of time and social capital.  What many gamers thought they wanted, myself included, was more of an ability to solo in our community-based games.  Yes it does sound batty when I describe it that way.  And gamers, and this really needs to be said more often, gamers are absolutely terrible at knowing what they want.  But game developers want our money.  And so they rushed to comply with our new demands for isolation from the carefully built communities they had made and invited us to.

And that brings us to the current paradigm that we have in place now.  An equally bad system where everyone can do everything and nothing matters any more.  Team battles are a convoluted mess of chaos and drama, as nobody knows what the hell is going on, mistakes are frequent, and coordinated efforts require significantly more investment to execute.  Guild Wars 2 is an obvious example and I swear sometimes I feel like I’m punching on that game the way I used to punch on WoW.  Wildstar, another favorite punching bag, has the same problem.  The Secret World is another one that suffers from this paradigm, though everything else, and I mean EVERYTHING else about The Secret World is miles above it’s contemporaries in terms of design and game-play.  I love that game.  But over the years, many developers attempted to cater to players who thought they wanted freedom from the Trinity and rushed to make classes, and characters, and progression paths that would allow for maximum utility and maximum freedom of choice.  And as is often the problem with the paradox of choice, when anything is possible, nothing matters any more.  Blizzard never made this change though.  They just carried on with the Trinity because fuck you, they’re Blizzard and they have so much money, they have a giant statue of an Orc riding a War-Wolf in front of their building.


Yes that is real, and yes Blizzard had it made, and no, they don’t give a shit about your fancy class design arguments.

So what made the Trinity actually work here?  As many problems as it created, the one thing it did really well, was encourage teaming.  That cool dude who could solo that mid-level boss might be around tonight and need some people to help him fill out the dungeon requirements.  That girl that would flirt with you might be healing again and that was always fun.  The guild chat one night that you once made the entire conversation a series of euphemisms, and got accused of being Emperor Palpatine for turning everyone to the dark side?  Those were all good times.  Without strong teaming mechanics, which the Trinity provided, none of these scenarios could have happened.  Teaming gave people reasons to hang out and reasons to come back.

Man did I HATE having to write something nice about the Trinity mechanic.  Ewwww!

So how do you encourage teaming, without the Trinity?  How do you actually do both?  The Trinity fails for solo game-play, and we see how the solo-centric designs are failing team-play.  Most modern MMO’s are screwed at this point.  To completely alter their class systems and combat/questing mechanics to enable better teaming, might be too much change for most. That won’t stop us from trying though.

If we could alter these modern MMO’s to be better for teams, one way to go would be to add mechanics to existing skills and powers that enable or improve teaming within the confines of the combat mechanics of the game.  For example, shield skills in Guild Wars 2, could have an added aggro mechanic that stacks their defense as a player uses the skill, thus increasing their aggro and defense to that aggro, before eventually degrading over time.  Pulling off fixes like this though is tricky.  The first and most obvious problem is balance, of course.  If you over-power something, you then have to take something else away.  This creates a lot of tension and drama from your most vocal players, but may be worth it if the overall health of the game improves (remember, gamers don’t know what they want).  The other trick is that you can’t make these changes optional mechanics, or mechanics you turn on and off.  They have to to be fundamentally built into the powers and skills and mechanics of the game.  Otherwise, they’re going to feel bolted on, clumsy, and self-defeating.

You have to build these kinds of class mechanics into the DNA of your game.  If your game isn’t designed for them right from the start, then it’s going to be much more difficult to succeed.  This means that your combat mechanics must be built to function for teams of varying sizes as well as teams of one.  PvP too.  Questing mechanics must scale, and rewards to encourage teaming also need to be considered.  More xp and loot for teams, how do you balance that?  It’s not easy, but it’s also not as hard as you might think.  Above are some possible fixes for a solo-focused game.  What about games with teaming already built in?  Roll up your sleeves, because now we get dirty.  (Yes, that was a euphemism).

We’re not going to take Trinity game-play as our example because Trinity game-play sucks (ahhh, much better).  The Triangle is awful.  Instead we’ll make a pentagram.  Wait wait.  There’s that dark side again.  Okay, a Hexagon.

TrinityandHexWhile this example will assume many of the rules of Trinity game-play, including aggro mechanics, don’t take that as an endorsement of aggro mechanics as the end all-be-all of combat design for an MMO.  We’re rolling with it because we’ve got the most experience with it.  Moving on.

When adding, buffing, debuffing, and crowd control, we have to make them just as effective from a damage mitigation standpoint as DPS, tanking, and healing.  This allows you to create team roles that synergize in multiple ways.  So this means you’re on a team with no tanker but a crowd controller is shutting down the aggro anyway,  so it doesn’t matter.  Was there a DPS shortage tonight?  Debuffing the mobs works great as an alternative.  Or hey, we could buff the team’s damage instead.  Look at that!  Two totally different ways to do the same thing.  Shut up!

Above I mentioned damage mitigation.  Here I’m defining it as any mechanic that reduces incoming damage to a player.  Aggro control is a form of AOE damage mitigation (for those who aren’t doing the aggro’ing).  Crowd Controll and Debuffing, obviously reduce incoming damage and those can be measured as mitigation.  Defenses obviously provide damage mitigation, but even DPS is a form of damage mitigation in that you can ask the question: how much damage would that mob have done if it were still alive to do it?

But LockOn!  Balancing Trinity game-play was unbelievably hard to do.  Blizzard has arguably never stopped doing it.  When there were just 3 things to worry about, classes got out of control and someone would end up gimped or O.P’ed!  Now you want us to make it work for 6?  That’s too hard!

Here, let me show you what I think of that argument.


Now get over yourselves and get to work.

Once you have viable team options, the next step is to take those team roles and make them workable solo.  Are Tanks soloing but don’t have enough damage to level fast enough?  Well maybe we can give them minor self-damage buffs to help get them through their solo fights.  Is your healer not doing enough damage either?  Well what about adding in some debuffs so that their attacks do punch through.  Damage is too flimsy?  Haven’t we spent the last 10 years proving that glass cannons aren’t fun to play?  We’ll add in some crowd control, or hell screw it.  Give them actual defenses.  You can still be a DPS’er, or a healer, or a tank if you want.  But now you have a few extra tricks up your sleeve that give you the ability to do other things too.  Customization within the role.  I haven’t even mentioned the class possibilities with just Crowd Control, Buffing, and Debuffing.  Yes, you make those classes too, because those play styles are ALL viable now.

Holy shit!  By using more than just the 3 roles as defined in the Trinity, you mean we have other options that help mitigate the effects of not enough flexibility in any of those given roles, so that a class can perform solo or on teams MORE effectively??????  All while providing new game-play options that provide a richer play experience all around????  This is madness?  It’s like the Trinity was the whole problem to begin with!

Yessssss, my pretty.  Yesssssssssssss.


Now go out and spread the secret.  Ask your developers for classes that provide both teaming and solo play options that integrate together and don’t require completely different play-styles depending on when your friends are around or if you just need some quiet time at night.  These are the kinds of classes we really want.  No really.  Now get to it!

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3 Responses to The Secret to MMO Class Design

  1. Aenar says:

    What if we removed the DPS role? Give every class the same average DPS and add an extra function on top. Tanks grab aggro and deal damage, healers charge their heals by dealing damage, a buffer or debuffer contributes the same damage as others before their specialty, and they increase the team effectiveness all across the board… Solo play remains viable for everyone and group encounters are balanced around requiring the same balance of damage vs. specialty across the board.

  2. LockOn says:

    The problem is that it’s dangerously close to the modern design paradigm where everyone is good at everything. The truth is, everyone is good at doing dps, and not much else really.

    The trick to avoid is you don’t want classes to be good at only one thing (that’s the Trinity), and you don’t want them to be good at everything either (modern design). By giving everyone dps you’re dangerously close to the “good enough to not need anyone else so why bother with teams” issue.

    And you’re removing DPS as a way to distinguish between your classes, and essentially, limiting options. I’m not saying it can’t work, but it would require special thought into how to make the other roles distinct enough for them to matter. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment Aenar!

  3. Imakulata says:

    Thanks for the post, LockOn. It’s really a nice read.

    Thinking about Aenar’s post and your response, with everyone being DPS-hybrid, they would have an “offensive role” covered, so the variety can be achieved by options in a defensive role, such as tanks, healers, CC etc. If a developer can create synergy between the roles (which I admit am not sure how to do) so that healer+tank+CC is stronger than single-role trio, it will scale down even to single player well (although the single/duo mobs should be significantly easier due to expected lack of role synergy), yet encourage (or force) players to cooperate with and depend on their group mates.

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