MMOGology: A touch of class

With all the Age of Conan news hitting the press lately, the Conan hype machine has finally caught me in its greasy, barbaric cogs. With a visceral, action-based combat system, player-city building and mounted combat, it looks like Age of Conan is doing enough unique and exciting things to make it stand out from your typical World of Warcraft clones. As the May release date draws closer, I've been scouring the Web for more detailed information about the game.

Any time I get excited about a new MMOG one of the first things I check out is the list of classes on the developer's site. When you start the game you'll select a race (Aquilonian, Cimmerian or Stygian) and up until level five you are considered a "commoner". At level five you'll select a major archetype which consists of rogue, priest, soldier, or mage (mages being limited to the Stygian race). You'll stick with a particular archetype until around level twenty. At level twenty you'll finally specify which particular class you want to play. that class being a refinement of the archetype you chose at level five. As an example, the Rogue archetype can become a Ranger, Barbarian, or Assassin, depending on your race. [ Edit: Apparently the information I had on staged class selection was outdated! Thanks to my readers for informing me otherwise.]

The list of classes available for play at the time of this writing includes: Assassin, Barbarian, Bear Shaman, Conquerer, Dark Templar, Demonologist, Guardian, Herald of Xotli, Necromancer, Priest of Mitra, Ranger and Tempest of Set. While there are definitely some interesting nuances among these classes, most fall into your standard archetypes: Damage Dealer, Tank, and Healer. Almost every MMOG I can think of has this type of structure for its classes. Is this a good thing, or should developers move beyond typical perceptions of class structure?

In single player games it's often possible to create characters that cross the boundaries of typical, cookie cutter classes. Roleplaying games based on the Dungeon and Dragon's system, like Baldur's Gate for example, allowed for multi-classing which allows you to advance your character to a certain level as one class, and then proceed to advance in a secondary or tertiary class. In this way you can create fighter/mages, cleric/thieves, etc. Choosing from two or three classes comes with the trade off of never completely advancing in any one class, but distinguishes your character from a roleplaying perspective and allows for an expanded play style.

In another approach to class selection, Dungeon Siege allowed players to grow characters based upon actions most frequently used. If you found yourself hacking and slashing your prowess with melee weapons grew. If you hung back and plinked foes with your bow your ranged skills grew. If you cast fireballs and healing spells your magic skills grew. This system allowed players to participate in all three major class areas (caster, fighter, archer) to any degree they wished; the limitation being that they would advance skills based on frequency of use.

Of course, in single player games you don't have group dynamics that rely on specific role requirements. From a group dynamic perspective, it may simply be easier to group up when you know the exact role you're expected to fulfill in your group. If your group is short a healer and the class structure is simple you don't have to search long and hard to figure out which players are a healing class. It could be argued, then, that a rigid class structure is much more important in multiplayer games.

Despite that, MMOGs like Dungeon Runners allow for custom hybridization of characters. At any point you can spend points to level up in a skill outside of your primary class skills. This allows warrior types to access magic and ranger types to access warrior abilities, for example. World of Warcraft also allows a limited type of this customization through specialization in a talent line. Shadow priests are more damage focused than healing focused and restoration druids are healing focused rather than emphasize damage output. This provides players with a degree of flexibility within their chosen class.

What are your thoughts on class structure? Is it better to have simple, easily defined classes to reduce instances of role confusion in grouping? Or, instead, do you prefer a more complex and organic class system that allows for hybridization and role melding?

MMOGology [mŏg-ol-uh-jee] – noun – The study of massively multiplayer online games via the slightly warped perspective of Marc Nottke on a weekly recurring basis.
This article was originally published on Massively.