I've been talking quite a bit to folks around the office as well as fellow developers about MMOs. Since I've been a lifelong roleplaying gamer, going all the way back to the Red Box of Dungeons and Dragons as well as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1st Edition), there is a certain vernacular that a generation of gamers - call them Generation N - are used to using and have become accepted terms across a variety of genres.
One of the core aspects of Dungeons and Dragons is the notion of "classes". That is, Classes serve a set of predefined terms, abilities, and modifiers that skew that character to a specific role in the group. When someone reads "Fighter", or "Thief", they have an expectation. Not only does this provide a specific level of tactical invisibility - people know what they can and cannot do, based on which class they provide - but it also provides an unappreciated but definitely required accessibility for both experienced and the new player.
Accessibility is a huge part of MMO design (and Game Design in general) if you want your game to carry more than 100,000 subscribers, and the one thing that the high population MMO games all share is their commitment and use of classes. Classes give experienced players a preconcieved notion as to the capabilities of their character from inception, and let inexperienced players easily identify with their character abilities and be able to play effectively from the start.
It's easy to look at WoW and say that is the paradigm for classes and accessibility - and you'd be right. The numbers of subscribers, and simply put, the ease at which it guides a player from 1-60 is something that all developers should stop and admire. Whether you agree with their art style or lore choices, you can't ignore that Blizzard always gives you something to do, somewhere to go, and something else to see along a highly polished path.
Unfortunately, when classes have been implemented in MMO's, few games embrace one of the key aspects of a class-based system: multiple clases. Multiple Classes allows more hardcore players to expand and try additional classes while sticking to what they know and enjoy and creates a player-driven, optional layer of depth that games like WoW are missing. Too bad more games haven't tried something similar as Final Fantasy XI.
I should devote some time to talking about why I don't like Skill-based systems that eschew classes entirely, but I think my strongest arguement is in the continuing popularity of games that use classes as their means of character progression. WoW, Everquest/EQ2, Lineage 1/2, LOTRO, all have done exceptionally well with a class-based systems, far outpacing their skill-based bretheren.
Which begs the question: do skill-based games fail to draw in casual gamers due to the inherent obtuse nature of skill-based progression?
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