800 XP

So I’m thinking about class warfare.

No, no, I’m not plotting the overthrow of the government, put that Carnivore DOWN. Thinking more about MMO gameplay, and specifically how the interactions between players are governed.

Basically, most MMOs right now devolve into three very specific sets of gameplay:

1) Kill other humans. Won’t touch on this right now, since it introduces issues all its own. And every PvP discussion seemingly always goes back to gosh, weren’t those old UO days just swell, when we could kill people that didn’t want us to? while leaning back in the rocking chair kicking back a sarsparilla and wondering when we let women vote.

2) Kill mobile bags of improvement. Little bags of “XP” and “GP” and “PP” and stuff.

3) Dancing and everything after. I’m never talking about this. Ever.

So, MMO gameplay in its purest form involves searching out little bags of improvement and popping them. Experts in this will find the most brutally efficient means of popping bags of improvement. In a skill-based MMO, that means finding the one (and only one) template of skills allowed that the developers somehow overlooked which makes you God. There’s always at least one of these. You can tell which one it is, because it’s the one that everyone outside Newbie Town is using. So the skill involved in skill-based systems is in, well, finding which skill it takes no skill use. Skillfully. There’s not much room for discussion here, since the gameplay involved is in seeing which skill the developers screwed up and lets you be TankMageGod.

Probably through no coincidence whatsoever, class-based systems are far more popular in MMOs. They’re popular among developers, because instead of finding the one (and only one) template of skills, players will find the most broken CLASSES, which means that there might actually be a small amount of variety. That variety is always: Tanks, Damage Dealers, and Healers. This is the Holy Trinity of MMOs (Unitarians tend more to skillbased systems). No matter how many classes a game has (and DAOC, as an example, has 8,312) there are always just three. You either take the hits, give the hits, or heal the hits. Sometimes you do more, but Game Design 101 teaches us that there have to be Three Boring Classes which to compensate for them having no chrome are the min-maxer’s choice for being the best at one of these three. And since they are the best, players will very shortly figure out that there’s no sense in being any of the other classes.

Why not? For much the same reason that players hunt out the most boring Mobile Bags of Improvement possible – Return on Investment. Developers can make some insanely wackily complex encounters that require problem solving, cooperation, and the participation of players who aren’t members of the Three Boring Classes, but unless the risk-reward ratio is COMPLETELY broken in their favor, players won’t go for the bait. They will sit in one place and keep killing the most boring MBIs Over and Over and Over again – while posting on message boards about how boring your game is in another window – because it’s the quickest way to, um, get the most powerful member of the Three Boring Classes as quickly as possible. After which you might, you know, do some of the more interesting encounters or… yeah, right. There’s always more MBIs.

The thing is, as long as challenge is dangerous, it will be avoided. People generally will not take unnecessary risks with things that are meaningful to them. They will take the road most taken. It’s not their fault so much as it’s human nature.

So what can be done about the Three Boring Classes and the endless MBIs?

1) Make the non-boring classes better at the boring stuff then the Three Boring Classes. That way lies madness, my friends. Not only will the now disenfranchised TBC member be (rightfully) up in arms that the compact he made with you is broken (play a really boring class in exchange for being really good at something), the class you just made better will expect that their position in the class warfare be never relinquished, ever. If you just made a T64 tank more powerful than an M1A1, that T64 tank driver will never, ever let you roll him back to reality, with rear-mounted gas tanks that blow up and automatic cannon loaders that occasionally load a crew members’ arm into the gun barrel. And let me tell you, those kind of accidents are pretty gruesome. Best to not tamper with the Three Boring Classes.

2) Dancing. No wait, we’re not talking about dancing. Next.

3) Make special encounters that reward people with nonstandard classes/templates. Like, say, a room with a door that only your Thief Class That Is Always Ignored Until Someone Notices It Is Wackily Overpowered can open. This can either work out pretty well, or it can just cause resentment that you’re requiring something the players don’t always have (namely someone who isn’t a TBC) and eventually people will just bot your Wacky Theif Class and you’re back to square one.

4) Think outside the box. If all anyone is ever doing in your game is staring, with inflexible MonitorLock vision at your game client watching the MBIs fall over and over again, you’ve done something. You’ve made a boring game. If you disagree and point to all the great places and incredible environments and groundbreaking gameplay that all your players are carefully avoiding in their mad rush to the one safe MBI camp point you forgot about, I think I just finished that thought for you.

Here’s the thing. Very few people play these games because they enjoy the process of hunting bags of improvement. They are improving themselves as quickly as possible to get to the point where they can actually play. That point may be the cool “endgame” that you tacked on as an afterthought, or it can simply be the point in the game where taking risks is no longer as risky as it was on the mind-numbing way to the top. The TRUE objective of every MMO player is to get to the point where the game is fun. Note: for most people, risk isn’t fun. It’s risky. People don’t like to feel as though their time has been wasted. They want to get to the point where the mindless character development is done and they are on an even plane with their friends, and can spend time dancing.

Yes, it always comes back to the dancing.