Unfortunately, it's also a concept that winds up feeling kind of amorphous. American readers who try to convert to the metric system know that sense. You grow up with a certain basis of comparison, and trying to wrap your head around a completely new one without any foundation is a bit tricky.
But I want to help. See, I come from video games. I play a lot of video games. And I think there are parallels to be drawn between existing games with certain mechanical structures and what each of the paths is trying to accomplish. So let's see if we can't fit WildStar's paths into more familiar frameworks before smashing them all into one game.
Soldier - Mega Man
That's right. I start out going old school.
What we've seen of the Soldier path puts a lot of emphasis on the idea that you kill all the things. But that's just a blip on the radar for most MMOs. Our characters kill seven things before breakfast because that is how they roll. But a Soldier is more than that, and so were the Mega Man games for the most part.
Yes, every single game in which you played as the Blue Bomber involved a lot of things to blow up. But that was just part of the equation. The part that made the games fun was that your ability to switch tactics took precedent over your ability to fire at enemies. Sometimes the best path through involved avoiding enemies, sometimes it involved just killing a few, and sometimes it was even more advantageous to take a hit because it meant bypassing something else.
As you progressed through the games, you gained access to new techniques, but with rare exceptions (looking at your Metal Blade here, Mega Man 2) they weren't strictly better than what you started with. They were tools, and properly using your tools allowed you to get through levels with an astonishing variety of mechanics. You were always surrounded by combat, but there's a great deal of difference between fighting enemies as they drop onto a lift and fighting enemies that illuminate your surroundings even as they shoot at you.
Soldiers wind up with a lot of combat-based extras, but it's not just standing and fighting. It's about facing a variety of combat situations with shifting tactics. Go grab a copy of Mega Man 4 and see just how much you can do with combat in a side-scrolling game, then imagine that thrown into an MMO.
Explorer - Tomb Raider
I freely admit that prior to the reboot game launched this year, I had precisely zero interest in tombs and the raiding thereof. But what made the reboot fun as a game was the idea that there was always something new out there. No matter where you were, there were cliffs to scale, doors to break down, tunnels to crawl through, and hidden little pieces here and there that were so easy to miss but added so much to your overall experience.
Not that this meant you got to play a pacifist. But even then, exploration had its merits. Finding the right place to attack from was just as important as figuring out whether or not you should attack. A secluded high perch could be reached if you were careful, and it made the ensuing firefight a lot easier than if you just sat on the ground like a chump.
Exploration isn't just about clearing a map; it's about accessing hidden places and teaching you to think according to different movement patterns. It also doesn't mean you avoid fighting, just that you aren't stuck thinking of a battle in strictly horizontal terms. Imagine that you're not just breaking down walls and climbing rocky cliffs in a single-player game -- you're doing it as part of an MMO, seeing what's over the horizon in a place where most people might never even know was there.
Scientist - Metroid Prime
Making science sound cool can be an uphill battle. We do not have a pop cultural basis for science being a cool thing. The scientists figure out how you kill something in the background while the hero goes off to actually kill it, with none of the wild-eyed wonder implicit in a profession dedicated to figuring out how everything works. And the early description of the Scientist path, which came down to "scan stuff and get buffs," didn't really help matters.
But I think that's a matter of presentation because it's not really what scientists do. What scientists do is closer to what Samus Aran did in Metroid Prime.
I remember that the idea of a first-person Metroid game seemed like a terrible idea right up until it came out, at which point it seemed awesome. There were a lot of reasons for that, but one of them was the existence of the Scan Visor. It disabled your weapons, but it also gave you a chance to analyze everything that came up. Often, that was how you activated mechanical devices. Other times it was how you knew what a creature's weakness was. It gave you a glimpse at a much bigger story than you were immediately presented with.
Sometimes it wasn't just a matter of analysis saying "this guy's weak spot is his chest." It was a matter of the chest being visually impervious. Only on a scan did your systems notice flaws that you could then target.
Sure, the group can take down the boss without a scientist, but it's going to be a lot harder if you don't have someone able to analyze and disconnect his wireless interface with the turrets in the room. Everyone might go through a series of quests involving a herd of rowsdowers, but only the Scientist knows why this particular group is so important. Only you can turn on the old machinery that offers additional rewards in a given quest; only you can slowly refine your ability to take out certain beasts as you study the biology. Because you stop, you observe, and you analyze.
Settler - The Sims
Settlers almost seem like an afterthought even on the official path description page. Most everyone else gets several lines about what you can do with the path and a bunch of different potential options, but all of the Settler options boil down to some flavor of "build some stuff." The thing is, you don't need a whole lot of ways to build stuff, just a whole lot of stuff to build.
Most of my playtime with The Sims was spent in The Sims 2, where I don't think any of my Sims actually moved. Every neighborhood had a few starter homes, places for new families to move in with a modest (read: cripplingly low) budget to buy appliances, beds, and hopefully a shower. The idea was that you would live there for a while and then move on to one of the nicer vacant homes; what generally happened was that I'd click over to my build mode and just turn the starter home into a nicer home.
Admittedly one of those houses was a bright pink monstrosity with seventeen fireplaces and an entrance that required climbing two flights of stairs, but "nicer" is relative.
The point here is that the fun wasn't just in building something new. Part of the joy was figuring out what I needed and the designing around that function. One of my Sims learned how to teleport, so her combination house and store didn't have any doors into her personal living space -- she could just teleport over when she wanted. Another one lived as a military man and had a large training field setup in the yard, but his actual living space was tiny because he found the exercise to be more than enough fun. You could enhance within a large framework.
Ultimately, Settlers are all about building up the shared playspace, but they do so by finding items that everyone needs and creating them. Sometimes that means setting up new little hubs; other times that means making one hub that much better. Sadly, you probably won't be able to build swimming pools and then remove the ladders out when you want to get rid of unwanted players.
Feedback is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. As you do. Next week, it turns out I've still got a little more to say about the game's business model, poor decisions, and fairness in terms of expense.
Here's how it is: The world of Nexus can be a dangerous place for a tourist or a resident. If you're going to venture into WildStar, you want to be prepared. That's why Eliot Lefebvre brings you a shiny new installment of The Nexus Telegraph every week, giving you a good idea of what to expect from both the people and the environment. Keep your eyes peeled, and we'll get you where you need to go.