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Redefining MMOs: Breaking the Mould

Lesley Smith

Just think about that title for a second. Of all the games genres you've played, isn't it MMOs that feel most like carbon copies of one another? Level systems, the character creation process and class archetypes are nearly universal, with hundreds of games sharing the same characteristics. Don't you sometimes wish that MMO developers would step back and reassess the genre they have collectively created? This week, as part of Massively's "Redefining MMOs" series, it's my turn to muse on a topic and I've chosen to look as whether it's time the MMO mould (or mold, as my American editors would say) should be broken and re-examined.

Many aspects of MMOs, such as classes, levelling, raids and bosses, endure simply because they work. After all, if it ain't broke why fix it? But sometimes it feels like you need a breath of fresh air, to step back and smell the roses. This is especially the case when carbon copy MMOs start being rolled out. In the last few months I've tried MMO after MMO and can literally play each one blindfolded. Mages are mages, warriors are warriors and clerics by any other name are still priests. While the archetypes of these classes -- the healer, the tank, the caster, the melee damage-dealer and the pet-toting badass -- differ slightly between genres and titles, they are part of a formula that seems to define the MMO genre.

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Character creation and class:

For a moment, let's imagine you've never ever played an MMO or an RPG before. That's right, it's an alien concept that baffles and confuses you. You've been given a copy of [REDACTED] (aka the most popular MMO that everyone and their pet cat is playing). What's the first screen you see when you create a character? Yes, it's the 'pick a class' screen. Druid, mage, warrior, rogue, cleric, shaman ... these names might mean something to you but the specifics (and the stats) differ from game to game. How do you decide a class? Well, if you're anything like me, you ask your friends.

"Play a caster," one might say.

"Aww no, you want to kick butt. Pick a warrior," chimes in another.

"Why should you die? Just sent a pet/minion in your place while you stay far out of range," the third chips in.

The problem here is your friends might know you very well but they are not you. Most likely they're suggesting the class they themselves play but this probably doesn't help the first time player. And it's all very well seeing lines of text explaining the lore and the logistics of each class but if you're anything like me to need to trial before you can comprehend. This is where MMOs could get really revolutionary, they could let the player try each class and then choose rather than forcing said choice upon them.

This is why I think you should be able to have the option of creating a generic character and trying each class before being able to pick one. In some MMOs it can be almost terrifying to see dozens of other toons wearing the same gear as you, casting the same spells or carrying that same sword - ever more so when you meet your inevitable doppelganger. In those games it's not about learning, rather it's just mimicry of those you see around you. But by making classes a little like professions, people would be able to pick and choose without rolling ten neglected alts, left to rot in cyberspace as they try to decide on their final class.

In the past games like EverQuest II and, more recently, EVE Online have implemented mechanics which allow you to get to know the game before becoming locked into a specific class. By and large this system has been ignored in favour of the more well known pick-your-class-at-character-creation-and-like-it system which now reigns supreme.

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