Each class needs a distinct mechanical identity
One of the biggest issues that Final Fantasy XI has faced and handled for many years is the fact that the game has a large number of classes performing the same role with similar equipment. Samurai, Dragoon, and Dark Knight are all physical damage dealers that wear medium to heavy armor and use heavy two-handed weapons. In order for the three classes to each matter equally, each needs a distinct mechanical identity, even though all three have the same basic method of operation.
The reason for this is obvious: When players choose one class to play over another, there needs to be a reason. Flavor only goes so far in making up that gap. If you're told in fiction that all three of those classes are different but they all play identically, then it's going to come down to minor details to decide between them. Each class needs to be fun to play on its own merits, even compared to other classes that have similar functions.
Needless to say, the three classes listed above do a good job of having unique mechanical identities. A counter-example would be all of the crafting classes from Final Fantasy XIV. Yes, they each produce different items in the end, but playing one doesn't feel significantly different from playing another. Granted, some of this is just the nature of crafting, but there's definitely no sense of a unique identity when playing a Goldsmith instead of an Armorer. (And it's even worse for Armorer and Blacksmith...)
Classes need to be useful to other classes
At the same time that you need each class to stand on its own, this is not a game where standing on your own is nearly enough. Classes need to have abilities with some broader applications. FFXI might have a stricter system for allowing players access to the abilities of multiple classes, but both games let you mix and match different sets of skills. It's one of the main mechanisms of rewarding you for playing different classes instead of just sticking with one to the level cap and never branching out.
FFXI arguably has certain classes that not only fail this criteria but ignore it altogether. Dragoons might have their own identity when you're playing one, but the class has next to nothing to offer any other classes. On the other hand, sometimes it feels like White Mages exist solely as a toolbox for other classes to exploit, which definitely hasn't helped the class in recent development.
Meanwhile, FFXIV's Marauder succeeds beautifully at this point. There are abilities in the class useful for anyone tanking, abilities useful for damage, abilities useful to anyone using a weapon period, and some abilities that are just useful to Marauders. The class certainly has its own flavor, but it has a suite of skills that can be applied to several different situations and configurations.
The class needs a cool factor
Let's be totally honest with ourselves here: Cool matters.
We'd all like to believe that we soberly choose our classes and talents and abilities and whatever through numerical consideration, but the fact of the matter is that we choose things based partly on what just plain sounds cool. There's a reason you don't have a class in either game whose every move produces an awesome-looking light show while dealing damage equivalent to every other class. It's because huge light shows and flaring bursts of energy are part of the cool of the series, and if one class has all of the cool stuff, no one is going to play anything else.
Fortunately for everyone, there's something cool in every class in every game, at least for a given definition of cool. Unfortunately, some classes do kind of get a disproportionate amount of cool. Scholars are seen as being better than White Mages for a lot of reasons, but one of the main reasons is that they can do a whole lot of stuff that White Mages can't, which is just plain cool. Similarly, the non-combat classes in FFXIV can have trouble matching the more obvious cool of the other classes. Utility is there, sure, but as cool as crafting a huge sword can be, it's even cooler to start cutting a path of destruction with it.
These three critera, broadly speaking, are a good place to start looking at the classes of both games. Bear in mind, naturally, that there's going to be a fair amount of subjectivity involved. Still, there are classes that hold up better than others, and I'd like to take a look at the way these class designs break down... after a moogle interlude next week.
As always, feedback can be directed to email@example.com or just left in the comments. And the week after moogles, let's look at the first physical classes of FFXI as a starting point.
From Eorzea to Vana'diel, there is a constant: the moogles. And for analysis and opinions about the online portions of the Final Fantasy series, there is also a constant: The Mog Log. Longtime series fan Eliot Lefebvre serves up a new installment of the log every Saturday, covering almost anything related to Square-Enix's vibrant online worlds.