Part four of my continuing ramble about MMORPG features and which games got them right.
Class Design/Character Development
In this post I want to talk about games that I felt got class design and character development right. For me this is one of the single most important features of an MMORPG, as I'll be spending dozens if not hundreds of hours with characters in each MMORPG, so they really need to be fun to play, interesting both solo and in a group, and develop over time in a meaningful way that is controlled by the player rather than developing along a preset path.
Many games have had good class design. Most developers seem to realize how vital this feature is to the success of their game, because if players don't connect with their character and have fun, they won't play. Everquest actually had quite good class design. The classes were interesting and varied. The issue came with class balance, where some classes could solo or group and level at a prodigious pace *coughdruidscough* while others were hopelessly slow and truly terrible solo. I'm sure many or most of those balance issues have been hammered out over the past 12 years, but EQ still can't win the prize because until the introduction of "alternate advancement (AA)" and acheiving a high enough level to participate in that feature, players had virtually no control over character development. Warhammer Online had some very cool class concepts, but the need to make everything perfectly balanced hammered all the life out of them.
Which is sad, because Dark Age of Camelot was one of the contenders for the top prize here. The game had a huge number of classes, most of which managed to be distinct and interesting to play, AND the player had a huge impact on how the character developed as the skills your character knew were entirely dependent on choices the player made. Eventually there were stock builds that were considered "best", but at least players had a choice. Shadowbane, for all it's many faults, also had very strong class design and character development. I probably spent more time designing characters in a character designer for that game than actually playing it. Star Wars Galaxies (pre-NGE) also had very engaging (if sometimes confusing) character development. Post NGE . . . well, we don't talk about post NGE here.
World of Warcraft in The Burning Crusade era was also a strong contender. WoW has excellent class design, and at that point in the game the talent trees were deep and meaningful. You could spec your character in a multitude of creative ways and be effective, even if as is often the case there were "best" builds for each class. Unfortunately, the current iteration of WoW has removed most of the choices from character development beyond choosing one of three talent trees. There are very few choices to be made, and essentially you can only have the "best" build for your character - no creativity allowed. A pox on that.
The game that I think did the worst job overall is, sadly, once again Star Trek Online. There are a host of skills to spend points on as you level your character, but they seem to have a fairly minimal impact. The only things that seem to really matter are your class (1 of 3) and your level (which determines which class of ship you can captain). Having lots of apparently meaningless choices and very few classes (with very few differences between the classes) makes STO the loser in this category.
So I've discussed the games I think almost got it, and the one I think really didn't, but what game do I think did it best? Right now, it has to be Rift. The class design is interesting and varied, and the character development paths are almost endless. Very few games have ever offered such a combination of class design and player choice, and certainly none I can think of have executed it so well. With classes like the Riftstalker (a rogue that can tank) and the Chloromancer (a mage that can heal), it's hard to argue Rift doesn't have creative classes. Having the ability to mix and match those classes in combinations of three, and then spend points in those three as you wish makes for endless creative possibilities when developing your character. Want a rogue that can heal a little, tank a little, and dps a little? Go for it. Want a cleric that can dps and tank? No problem. Want a mage that can heal but also lob giant fireballs? Just spend your points right. Balance is certainly a risk, but so far things generally seem to be working out.
Now pardon me while I go back to playing my stealthing, teleporting, self-shielding melee rogue.