It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, partly because I haven’t had much that I can write about. Bel started the ball rolling with A Tank Is, and I thought I’d follow up with my own. I almost started with A Healer Is, or A Rogue Is, because people who know me would likely expect to see one of those (and probably be very surprised about the other), but I realized what was going on behind the scenes, as it were, and I thought I’d share here.
I’ve played a lot of classes through a lot of games. My friends, if they weren’t so nice, would probably call me indecisive or schizophrenic in the things I choose to play. I’ve been a thief (UO), an enchanter (EQ), a druid (EQ, WoW), a rogue (WoW, EQ2, Rift), a tank (WoW, Rift, SWTOR), a healer, a support, everything. It doesn’t always look like there’s a method to the madness, but I’ve realized, for me, what drives me to each thing I play.
A Class is Identity
Black Mages, http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Black_Mage_(Job)
When I pick a class, I’m picking an identity. I’m declaring to the world (or, well, the game) what kind of person I am, and how I interact with the people, places, and things around me. The industry term for this is “player fantasy”, and it drives a shockingly huge amount of inspiration, dedication, and attachment. It’s more than just the class that determines this, but a player’s class is a big part of it.
I look at the Black Mage above, and I see someone focused, someone intelligent and a bit mysterious, who needs no physical might to make his or her mark on the world. I like that. I want to be that. By comparison:
This is the rogue to me. The Prince of Persia isn’t incredibly strong, and doesn’t wear heavy armor, but he’s fast, smart, and tricky. He’ll win the fight with this big brute because he’s quicker and cleverer. I like it, for the same reasons I like the Black Mage—he wins with his brain.
Classes and Roles
I look at the two examples above, both near and dear to my heart, and something stands out. I like them both, for the same exact reasons, but they both do very different things. They both fulfill my player fantasy, but it’s divorced from my role. Bel will attest that I will cheerfully tank things, when there is a rogue-tank option. I quite enjoy it, but the important thing is that my player fantasy is fulfilled. I’m not a big, muscley meatshieldy plate-wearing type. I’m the quick, clever, faster-than-my-enemies type. If I need some additional protection, that’s going to come from my speed or my magic, not armor or straight burliness.
What I do isn’t necessarily tied to my player fantasy—I just want to be faster and smarter than my enemies, and sometimes trickier and sneaker too, if I can manage it. If that means I’m a sneaky, killy Assassin or a tanky, maneuverable Riftstalker or a clever, resourceful Enchanter, I’m accomplishing that goal; I’m getting to play out my fantasy.
A Class is a Function
When I’m dropped into a new world and asked to represent myself, to make my character, I need to make informed decisions. Whether that’s a class, or a starting ability package, or a weapon of choice, or a vehicle, my initial choices tell me what I’m good at and what I’m able to do. It tells me what make me different from the people around me, and what I can do well.
In a lot of ways, it helps me know whether I will enjoy a game. If I pick a class that isn’t good at the things I like to do, and I try to play the way I’m used to playing, I’m probably going to be disappointed. I’ve played games where I’ve switched classes partway through and rediscovered a game I thought I didn’t like—I played a Magician in Everquest for months before I tried the Enchanter on a whim and realized that, while the Magician was okay, the Enchanter was far more fun and fulfilling to me.
Classes and the Trinity
Whenever the argument about “The Trinity” or other role-based systems in games comes up, the first thing I see is “there are never enough healers or tanks” and “no one likes to wait around”, or, the worst, “people don’t want to be forced to play something they don’t like”. There’s usually a call to “abolish the trinity”, and to let people do what they like.
I don’t have a fundamental problem with this viewpoint, but the most common solution I’ve seen – abolish roles entirely – isn’t the right one. The Trinity is the foundation of group-based play. Whether that’s the MMO-standard Tank/Healer/DPS, or the team positions in soccer, or football, or League of Legends, the roles provide a means with which the individual participants in the group can become, together, more than the sum of their parts. Role-based play, regardless of what those roles are, is at the forefront of nearly every deep team game, and even quite a few non-team games. Chesspieces play a variety of roles, dictated solely by movement, and the game of chess is built around both the strengths and the limitations of each piece; it forms a deeper game than if every piece were a Queen.
Making it Better
You can’t just rip out the foundation without building something in its place. It’s something we’ve seen tried in various places, and the resulting gameplay is frequently-to-always unsatisfying for the players who enjoy team-based play.
That being said, the aforementioned arguments aren’t invalid. Frequently there are too few tanks or healers, or supports, or clerics. I submit that “not enough tanks or healers” is a symptom, not the root of the problem. How many games allow only burly platewearers to tank? How many allow wizardly mages to tank?
In League of Legends, a common complaint is that no one ever wants to play support. Let’s analyze this: There are 115 champions in League. Of those, nine are listed as “Support” within the game, and 12 are listed by one of the top players of the game (here: http://blog.ibuypower.com/2013/08/chausters-conventional-support-rundown/). Somewhere less than 10% of the available champions are Support, and of them, half are spellcasting women. Tropes aside, if “spellcasting lady” isn’t your player fantasy, you’re SOL.
If you make a game where you satisfy a wide enough variety of player fantasies for all of your roles, I suspect you’ll see a good distribution of your roles. What this means, more than anything, is options. Don’t abolish the foundation, give many, many ways of fulfilling it. If I can be creative with how I fit into a team, it will be much more satisfying than playing something I don’t like just to fit into the team, or worse, not having the team at all.
It’s on the Designers
Hundreds of years of team-based games tells me this: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A team should become more than the sum of its parts, and whatever paradigm you come up with to accomplish this, that is the core.
Designers are in the position of fulfilling player fantasies, and making sure that the player fantasies they create satisfy the roles they make for their game, and are distributed enough to make sure enough options exist for every role. Let me play a mage tank, and a rogue healer, and a platewearing stealther. It’s what design is for—creativity.