Friday, May 7, 2021

I Got Class

put up a post about classes that started me thinking. It does seem like a given that more classes must be better, doesn't it? 

Without getting into the whole choice paralysis quagmire, when I look at a new game, the more classes there are, the more interested I'm likely to be. Conversely, when I see one of those generic Warrior/Mage/Thief/Healer set-ups, my inclination these days is to pass.

As a casual player (let's not start that discussion again...) there really aren't many downsides to a game having more classes than a community college. All I have to do is pick the ones I like and leave the rest. It's not like it's going to affect anything I'm going to be doing. A game would have to be very old school to insist on specific classes for solo leveling or at-cap solo content. 

Yeah, you'd think so, wouldn't you? Except it doesn't always seem to work that way. For example, I've taken all the core Guild Wars 2 classes up the eighty level ladder to the top and while it's true to say it's never been what you'd call difficult, boy, did it vary in how tedious or frustrating it felt.

I'm not alone in thinking that. You can hear people saying it most days in Queensdale, the starter map of choice for people with strong opinions. At nearly nine years old, GW2 still manages to attract an astonishing number of new players and they're not shy of introducing themselves and telling the world at large what they think of the game. 

Maybe it's the great community that ANet like to brag about that makes people feel comfortable about outing themselves as newbies and asking questions. Like the ever-popular "I'm new. What class should I play?".

Alright, the questions are usually more nuanced than that. And the players asking them aren't always exactly first-timers. Often it'll be more along these lines: "I'm thinking of starting a new character. I tried a Mesmer but I didn't really get on with it so now I'm thinking maybe a Guardian would be easier?" (Yes, a Guardian would be easier. The only thing easier than playing a Guardian would be hiring someone to play the game for you. Which, if you're playing a Guardian, you pretty much already did...).

Okay, okay. Cheap shot. My point is, even with just nine basic classes, plenty of people clearly feel overwhelmed.  

Except GW2 doesn't have nine classes, does it? It has nine classes multiplied by how many weapons each class can use because each weapon changes 100% of  the combat skills. (Yes, alright, 50% if you have two weapons and only change one. Don't be picky!)

I've been playing an Elementalist since 2013. Actually, since 2012, but at first I was moving from class to class like Tom Cruise on top of a train. Within a few months of GW2's launch I'd played all eight classes to the cap. It only took about two weeks for each of them. 

It took me a while to settle on a favorite but eventually I ended up mostly playing Eles on all three of my accounts. You might think that would mean I'd have a good idea by now how to play the class. I mean, 10,000 hours and all that, right? 

Nope. I can play a core staff elementalist and a staff Tempest and that's it. I have no more idea how to play an Ele wielding dagger and scepter than someone who'd never played the class at all. 

Exaggerating for effect there, obviously. There's a good deal of transferable knowledge in the traits and so on. But the spells? The rotation? The synergies? Not. A. Clue.

GW2 players and anyone paying attention will have noticed the word "Tempest" a couple of paragraphs back. That's another class. Wait, didn't he say there were only nine of them? Thanks for noticing and why, yes I did!

Tempest isn't a "class" nor yet a "profession" (We'll get to those. Be patient.). Tempest is an "Elite Specialization". Elite specs are what Anet use to make absolutely sure the game will never be balanced and most classes will be considered "broken" until the heat death of the universe.

When they were designing the first expansion and following some kind of precedent from the original Guild Wars, where collecting and combining skills to make different builds made up a huge part of the supposed charm, ANet thought it would go down well with the fans if they added a way to change your class without, y'know, actually changing your class.

Not that we have classes in GW2. Profession is the preferred term. (I said I'd get to it). And there are eight of them.

Sorry. Sorry! Nine. I meant nine. I forgot Revenants. I always forget Revenants and that's because I can't understand them. I have one. I levelled him to 80, no idea how. Never knew what he was doing. Never knew what I was doing, come to that. Didn't matter. Leveling in GW2 is that easy. They could put a thousand classes in there and it wouldn't make any difference. They could all face-roll to cap. Although as I said some of them would bore you into a coma doing it.

The Revenant, though, isn't a true core profession. It can't be. It isn't available in the core game. Not that the core game exists any more. And yet that core game set to remain the de facto default setting so long as it's all ANet's willing to give away for free. 

Come to think of it, you can't buy Heart of Thorns any more either, which is where the Revenant was introduced. If you want HoT now, you have to take it rolled up with Path of Fire, the second expansion, the one that doesn't include any new professions at all. Just nine more new elite specs.

Confused yet? Don't worry, so are the devs. Someone didn't think it through, did they? I guess when upper management were all chanting "We don't need expansions. We won't make expansions" it seemed safe enough. No more expansions means no more awkward additions to the roster and no more balancing nightmares. Well, no new balancing nightmares.

So they're making another expansion. And it has to have more classes - sorry, elite specs. Otherwise half the potential audience would walk away. And it doesn't matter what they're called, they're classes and with two expansions down we've got twenty-seven of them. 

When End of Dragons arrives we'll have thirty-six. We'll have to. People expect them. There'd be hell to pay if an expansion didn't come with more legendary weapons and a new elite spec for each of the professions.

New legendaries are safe. They don't affect gameplay at all. They just need to be flashier than the last lot. Elite specializations, though, those either have make the core class more powerful or allow it to do something it previously couldn't. If not, why would anyone be interested? 

That's what happened with every expansion to date (all two of them). The introduction of new classes brought sweeping changes to group composition in both competitive and co-operative play. For a while everyone wanted druids or weavers or firebrands or soulbeasts or scourges or whatever Metabattle told them they wanted. 

And for every new class that made flavor of the month, another lost their chair. (Maybe that's why ANet started selling actual chairs in the Gem store...). 

I focus on GW2 because I know it, because I play it and because I think it's a fairly extreme example of the problems that can come with adding new classes. 

At first sight ANet's task looks manageable. Just nine classes. That doesn't sound too bad. World of Warcraft has a dozen. EverQuest II has twenty-six. Only, as I think I've made clear, that's not really how it works.

If the third expansion follows precedent, GW2 will effectively have three dozen classes. Leaving aside the separate issue of who has access to what under the variety of various current, legacy and future combinations of expansion ownership and membership level, there's absolutely no evidence the developers on board have the capacity to balance the classes they already have so how they're going to manage with nine more on top is anyone's guess. Anyone's guess so long as that guess is "badly".

The worst part is that in order for the expansion to be as attractive as possible to the maximum number of players, the new classes will have to outperform the old ones for at least a few months before eventually being dialled back. Or players will have to believe they do. It's the same thing.

As anyone who's ever played an mmorpg and gotten themselves involved with the conversations around it will know, what players believe is going on and what is really going on have very little to do with each other. And it's not facts that matter. It's feelings.

More classes mean more people feeling their class is being ignored, more people calling for buffs to their favorites and nerfs for everyone else. It's not just just class envy, either. With the perception that one class is better than another comes the expectation that some classes are more worth playing than others. Even if someone enjoys their underperforming class there's peer pressure to drop it and swap to something more efficient. Or at least more fashionable.

I watched that happen in EverQuest when Beastlords were added. BLs weren't the best at anything much but they were great at lots of things. Having one in your group meant you could do without several other classes. I played a Beastlord then and even in friendly groups with people I knew well there was sometimes tension.

The bad feeling was such that a decade later, when it was announced the class was finally coming to EQII, the forums almost caught fire. Even today you can hear people complain about the very existence of Beastlords in the game.

If you play on your own, the way I play EverQuest II, that doesn't matter. I played a bruiser for years when aparently it was the most useless, broken, worthless class. I didn't even notice. Now I play a Berserker, which I learned recently is dangerously overpowered and ripe for a few hard swipes with the nerf bat. Didn't notice that, either.

But I can bet I'd be brought up to speed pretty fast if I ever decided to start grouping again. Players who talk to each other in mmorpgs tend to talk about which class is better quite a lot. It takes a strong personality to keep on playing the outliers when it feels like everyone's looking at you with either pity or contempt.

Of course, there's always the old saw about bringing the player not the class. That one works two ways. Sometimes it means design the game so any class can do the job and everyone can play anything they want. Sometimes it means if the player's good enough they can outperform most players even when they're playing at a disadvantage.

I don't mean any of this to suggest mmorpgs shouldn't have lots of classes. Not at all. It works for me. And even though the game isn't all about me, the flip of this coin is that nothing in mmorpgs is ever truly balanced. Balance itself is a myth. Yes, adding new classes always creates winners and losers but every balance patch does that anyway, if it does anything at all. With new classes you can just see it coming.

All I'm saying is that more classes isn't a universal good. It sounds like it would be but it's not. At best it's added complexity. At worst tt's a recipe for chaos, disruption and discontent.

And I'm fine with that. Just so long as they don't nerf Eles. 



  1. I'm totally anti-class at this point. Skill trees were once going to be the future, but they never caught on much as a mainstream mechanic. I still strongly prefer them.

    Of all the things EVE Online got right, their classless skill-tree time-based-advancement system was perhaps the best. Of course CCP, being CCP, is replacing time-based advancement with money-based advancement (these presumably being fungible) as fast as can. But the skill trees are still there, and still nice.

    1. I'd guess that players who aren't crazy about alts would generally prefer skill trees while altoholics will tend to favor classes. Classes definitely make each character feel more individual to me, counter-intuitive though it sounds.

      I did deliberately sidestep the issue of too much choice in the post because one of the main things I like about a class-based system is the reduction in choices I have to make. I actually prefer it when it's literally one big choice at character creation and then just filling out all the skills over time. There aren't many games left that keep it that simple, though.

    2. I think this is the biggest issue why I always bounce of ESO after trying to get into it yet again. I just get stuck on what to spend skill points on. If you're going to have a game with such complex and wide-ranging skills (where the default classes are almost irrelevant), you need skill build switching to be super easy and cost-free (or negligible). Having standard respec costs for such a complex system punishes the player too heavily for experimenting with new builds. I do not play a game with such customisability only to follow a cookie cutter build because my characters are too poor to respec.

  2. Interesting post, as usual.

    I've tried to sort my thoughts on this topic but it's hard. My favourite WoW class is Rogue. People say Monk should play a bit similar with their version of combo points, but it's one of my least favourite classes.

    My GW2 main was a Warrior (2h sword) and even when switching weapons he still felt very warrior-like and decidedly different from my Thief. In the end I also played a Guardian and liked it more, but it looked and felt like a WoW Paladin and that was my Paladin phase I guess, so it made sense. Not sure what to make of it in the end.

    I think in general I like to choose a class to have a framework but I don't want to be completely boxed in to one play style. That's also why I try to avoid pure DPS classes in WoW these days. And then there are games where class is more of a cosmetic choice and your play style trumps all. Borderlands 3 and Destiny 2 come to mind. If I want to play Sniper and avoid melee I can do that with most classes, some are just a lot better at it.

  3. I think Guild Wars 2 is both an interesting case to examine this but also a real outlier. One of my abiding memories of the forums for Guild Wars 1 was the never-ending meta discussions (or should I write 'wars'). Build discussions and arguments were the bulk of the content. I would argue that ArenaNet never really bothered or cared that much about balancing the new elite skills as they were introduced, and it sounds like this approach carried over to elite specs in the second game.

    Not that ArenaNet really is alone here. Blizzard has struggled with balance with only up to 12 classes (or if I'm generous 36 spec class-variants) the entire lifetime of the game and still does. Again there are plenty in the more vocal parts of the community that press metas hard with new rebalancing and argue endlessly over what is OP or weak.

    I'm sure if a game only had 4 classes full stop, there'd still be pressure from those invested in metas and min-maxing to play the 'best class' for each role. As you yourself wrote it is perfectly possible to level to 80 in GW2 on any class, the inherent differences in soloability don't figure much (and as a Mesmer main I'm well aware of them! ;-) ). I suppose the strongest arguement against adding classes comes down to economics: the cost of doing so. GW2 is an instructive example in that regard, with the system of elite specs, adding a new class now bring extra costs that other game's do not face - if you add a new class now you have to bring the expected number of elite specs (one per expansion so far), so it isn't just the usual cost of designing the class abilities, weapon interactions, and unique animations for each playable race, but also the elite spec variations of the same. I imagine if they added a new class now with only one elite spec for the expansion in which it was added, it would be called out as inflexible or weak by the same elements in the community.


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