Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Versatility, Omnipotence and Scrapping

You know, it's a funny dance you get to see in role-playing games between specialization and utility of said roles. Really, it falls into the greater issue of challenging complexity versus facile simplicity. A product line initially boasts nuanced features to capture a core base of jaded connoisseurs, then strips itself to the lowest-common denominator. Apropos of nothing, Cocaine-cola initially tried to pass itself off as a health tonic.

Though they've been given a bad name by MMOs, RPG classes remain a valid notion, feeding into a player's identity and utilizing the capacity for cooperation. Yet there's a balance to be struck between canalizing a player's tendencies and restrictively dictating a role. A wizard would still be expected to use some kind of weapon. A fighter still needs enough intelligence to learn a few skills. If your thief goes down, it pays to have a second character with at least rudimentary trap-dodging skills. You may be playing a role, but in the basic pen-and-paper RPG scheme (at least as I see it from the outside) you're still supposed to be able to create and act out a relatively balanced, internally consistent alter-ego.

In contrast, most cRPGs are created for min-maxing munchkins. It was a relatively gradual process, sure. In older single-player RPGs like Planescape:Torment, the capacity for playing a well-balanced character was there and all that was missing was varied enough content to warrant varied player strategies. As a matter of development time and cost, fleshing out more than one gameplay aspect (hack and/or slash) didn't pay. As it turned out that players actually liked not having to think, classes became more and more narrowly defined, paralleling D&D's own swelling roster of over-specialized prestige classes. MMOs have truly exacerbated this human failing by continually having players compare themselves to each other. Fearful of being caught using a weaker build, players constantly demand their own build be the best. The logical solution for developers is to restrict options to... well, one option. If you heal, pick the green skill line. If you want to do damage, pick the red one. Problem solved.

However, such stupidity has a corollary, of which I was reminded while playing Smite the past few months. Like most online team games, Smite uses a rock/paper/scissors role set to force players into interdependency, or as they're more commonly known these days, tank/healer/nuker. The specifics don't particularly matter. Yes, there are three kinds of nukers, since most gamers are petty sadists who want to inflict damage, but the point is that min-maxing, as in online RPGs, is written in stone into the game's basic ruleset. If you're a magician, you max your magic. If you're a hitter, you max your hitting.

Now, because these roles truly are so restrictive and dull, companies used to introduce "hybrid" classes to spice things up like, say a scissor-shaped rock or a rocky paper. Sometimes these can get subdivided further and pigeonholed again, as happened in WoW. Druids / Shamans / Paladins were originally meant as hybrid classes with moderate utility in various aspects of gameplay. Gradually, switching specializations became trivialized and the specs streamlined so that players could pick unambiguous "right" skill tees focused on either healing or tanking or damage. Problem freakin' solved, amirite?

Now, one thing these online multiplayer RPGs have in common is their supposed team-oriented setup. That is after all the whole rock-papering point of scissors! Then again, if stroking players' egos by giving them characters with one single "correct" min-maxing choice so they feel like they're amazing at that one thing just sells like hotcakes, won't telling them they're amazing at everything and don't even need a team sell like even hotter cakes? Enter the scrapper.
I speak of course of City of Heroes. To their credit, its creators were very honest about the original playable classes. Ya had yer tankers, defenders and blasters, plus the controller archetype which sprang up in the early days of MMOs while companies were still putting some effort into making PvE interesting. Ah, but you could also play as a Scrapper. While the others were built around interdependency, Scrappers were meant as the solo option: lil' bit o' toughness, self-healing and plenty of damage and what's this about a multiplayer game? You're a one-man army. Can I have your autograph?

Scrapper classes are the foremost evidence that players in such games don't actually understand or care what it is they're playing, that they're in it only for a facile pat on the back. Getting back to AoS games, League of Legends popularized the concept of a "solo" lane. While the other four members of your team get into little 2v2 and 3v3 skirmishes all throughout early game, you, the team's soloer, sit in your own little lane and exchange potshots with the enemy team's soloer for twenty minutes until everyone else is done with their lanes. This non-role attracted various skill/item setups revolving around self-sustaining and 1v1 dick-measuring. Of course being less intellectually challenging than having to figure out how to use just a sheet of paper, pair of scissors or rock with their built-in weaknesses, it became wildly popular. Smite standardized the solo role by coming up with a class called "warrior" composed of characters whose abilities share no synergy with anyone else on the team, helping no-one but themselves. Self-healing, self-protection, self damage-boosting, self-speeding, self mana recharging, etc. Thus the problem of having to play as part of a team in a team game was solved once and for all.

Hard-coded min-maxing was idiotic enough, but scrappers completely defeat the purpose of a team game. The point of hybridizing one of the main archetypes is not to make that character self-sufficient. An arcane trickster does not get plate armor. If you give a tank a self-heal, you don't also give him nukes. These mixes of abilities must still integrate into the larger concept of RPG interdependence. There is no place in a team game for the little snots who simply want to run around doing their own thing. It's bad design, kow-towing to a segment of the audience which will only continue to drag down the quality of gameplay because they simply fail to grasp its most basic aspect.

It's actually quite funny to think of why CoH implemented Scrappers to begin with. The cause has a name: Wolverine. Ironically, the core element of Wolverine's personality is that he's a freaking terrible team player! Wolverine's a crappy, squishy self-healing tank who gets knocked out of fights, gets baited and runs off constantly dumping the aggro on Cyclops and Jean. Beast, Colossus and Iceman, now them was the good tanks.

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