Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hybrid Classes

I was recently steaming over a particular facet of generalized online game stupidity: pigeonholing. I stumble across it whenever i play League of Legends for one thing. The game is balanced enough to allow various skill and item builds for each character but but all you'll ever hear from other players is "OMG dood u didn get item XYZ for character ZYX u suk OMG surrender naow OMG". The troglodytic mush that clutters their skulls in place of a brain can only hold one association for each symbol. They cannot fathom that one character class might have more than one appropriate build depending on situation.

This phenomenon is much more widespread in so-called MMOs, where the winning ticket, be it character, spell or item, gets popularized almost instantly. World of Warcraft is as usual a prime example. The game initially included several hybrid classes and plenty of viable hybrid builds for the others which mixed healing, damage and other effects instead of specializing. Players simply could not handle this concept. To almost the entire community, there was no such thing as a hunter pet offtanking in instances and hunter traps were not crowd control because hunters were a 'damage class' and that's all there was to it. Druids were pigeonholed as healers and any druid seen using a damage spell risked getting kicked out of groups. Paladins refused to heal anyone but themselves because they weren't a 'healer class'.
The sickening aspect is that even though this mass stupidity was easily proven wrong at every turn, the developers insisted on catering to it. Classes were given more and more specialized gear, fixing them into a particular role. Druid talents were changed so that a druid was forced to specialize in one particular role by staying shapeshifted at all times. On and on the individual flavor of each class was homogenized into only the fixed role they were to play.

EVE-Online suffered from the same problem. The initial setup included four general classes of ships which had obvious strengths and weaknesses but also a great deal of leeway in how they were fitted. Players could strap at least one gun and some armour onto their cargo ships so they weren't completely defenseless. Cruisers were exceptionally versatile and could be fitted for anything from mining to being floating chunks of armour that would bait enemies into traps. As CCP expanded the system though, they gave players more and more specialized ships so that every possible role in the game acquired a 'best' option. They started putting in specialized gear that could only be used on a particular ship type. Even cruisers' versatility simply got translated into a host of specializations, one for each role.

It seems hopeless. In City of Heroes players refused to acknowledge more than one or two of the half-dozen tanker powersets. In Warhammer Online the initial game mechanics that would make each class unique were largely ignored as classes got made into nukers/tanks/healers. Rift castrated its rather flexible skill trees by shifting the game's focus to small-team instance runs. It's just one more facet of every game's inevitable slide down into oversimplified repetition.

I have to wonder what will become of The Secret World's skill system. At the moment, it's fairly open, light on crowd control but with seemingly endless possible combinations in terms of skill synergies, playing the numbers. However, players are already policing each other into overspecializing, ignoring how useful it can be for a damage-dealer to offheal or for a tank to buff his team. How long will it take this time before the developers give the lady what she wants?

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