In 1974, the first roleplaying game was published under the name Dungeons & Dragons. Being the first of its field, it still had certain rough parts, which later designers would consider fundamental failures. Modern tabletop design looks at things like classes and levels as being relics in many ways -- elements that made sense as a crutch when the design of RPGs was one step removed from tactical wargames.
Compare that to, well, pretty much every MMORPG on the market. While there are certainly games that don't follow the class/level model, they're outnumbered by games that embrace it wholeheartedly. As a result, it's easy to look at the way game development has gone and feel as if the design of online games has not only stagnated but actively slid backward, going from a more advanced system to a far less developed one.
The class model isn't universal. The first MMORPG on the market (Ultima Online) featured a skill-based advancement model. Several other games have used the same metric. But class-based games are by far more common, helped substantially by the fact that the past two major market leaders (EverQuest and World of Warcraft) have both featured the requisite ornate class system. By default, it's easy to assume that an MMORPG will have classes. It's not even limited to gameplay types; Pathfinder Online is clearly billing itself as a sandbox game, and you can bet dollars to donuts that it'll have classes, given the game it's based upon.
By contrast, in tabletop gaming, even Dungeons & Dragons has been backing away from some class stratification over time. These days, strict class/level games are seen as throwbacks, usually intentionally so, to an older time of gaming. Modern editions of D&D include a variety of skill options and make switching between classes trivially easy, and most games veer even further than that. Classes are seen, essentially, as a crutch that D&D gets away with purely by virtue of being first.
At a glance, it's easy to look at all of this and think that we're still just stuck in a primitive form of design and that we need to get some designers in the mix willing to break out of the mold. But I think that there are more differences between the two than seem immediately apparent, differences that tie back into the way that each type of game gets played and what they have as a strength.
Tabletop games have one big advantage over any sort of computer game: They're being run by a person. If I'm sitting down with my friends to play something, I can see exactly what sort of characters they've created and plan challenges accordingly. If we have a full team of scholars, I'm not going to be throwing them into combat at all times. If they come up with a way to bypass a problem that I hadn't thought of, I can bend to take that into account. There are no real "exploits" outside of corner cases with the rules.
On the other hand, computer games (and MMORPGs by extension) have two big advantages. The first is that they are visual, which means that something that looks cool is going to come across better. The second is simply the fact that mathematics are much easier to handle with a computer chugging away in the background. Rather than giving players fistfuls of dice, the game just handles everything behind the scenes, transparently.
The result of these two pressures is that computer games focus on combat a bit more heavily. This is a point that I've made in the past, but there's also the fact that social interactions are hard to code in a satisfying fashion. It's hard to code for the different ways that people can try to solve a problem, so generally, games give you a hammer and a whole box of nails.
In other words, traditionally, computer RPGs have had more in common with tabletop wargames than with traditional RPGs. And in a wargame environment, classes are actually a design advantage rather than a disadvantage, since they allow you to adjust overall strength by tinkering directly with a class instead of an individual character's skill balance.
You see the problem in most freeform MMORPGs, where you can really pick any configuration of abilities you want from a huge list of options. Champions Online started out with exactly that problem: Players had several power choices essentially made for them from the start. There were far fewer choices than it seemed on the surface because when you can pick any skill, there's no motivation to pick the non-optimal skills except trying to make those skills work.
In a tabletop game, again, this is not an issue. You can pick skills based on what you want, and several of them aren't even focused on combat. More modern games generally have one or two combat skills, dozens of non-combat skills, and a variety of other tricks that can be applied to various situations. The game can be balanced around what you have, not around the optimal configuration, because there are other things to do aside from battle.
Meanwhile, having an open list in an MMORPG leaves players with every reason to just pick the optimal skills out of any given set of options. Most MMORPGs that do have open progression don't even force you to choose between potency in given areas -- you don't have to be a great crafter or a great warrior, something that you do have to choose between in a tabletop game. At best, you have to choose different flavors of crafting and combat.
When games give players a more limited set of choices, the design looks tighter. It curtails options, but it means that you don't have a large pile of skills and options that are completely useless.
And as a result, the design of classes has become very advanced. Compare picking a class in old-school AD&D and in Star Wars: The Old Republic. In the former, you just level up and mark off a handful of bonuses as you keep leveling. The latter, however, has a computer handling the bookkeeping, resulting in a festival of different options available. You have specific talent builds for each of the game's sub-classes, dozens of skills to use during combat, and a plethora of stats that can be fine-tuned to give a .01% bonus on certain abilities. Trying to handle all of that in a tabletop game would leave you with a character sheet the size of a college course catalog and require a graphing calculator just to determine whether or not you hit.
That might be fun as an exercise in perversity. Probably less so in actual, you know, play.
When you get right down to it, it's mostly an exercise in divergent evolution. While the class/level system wasn't well-suited to the tabletop RPG environment, it flourishes quite well in MMORPGs and produces some interesting design interactions. Whether or not it will always serve that function is debatable, but it's certainly evolved, just in a different direction. And it's interesting to think about the functions it does serve, the positivity that it provides in a genre that can be pretty complicated to balance even without dealing with an open system.
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