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Role Playing versus Role Class in MMOs

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Growing up in the 80's and being a bit of a nerd meant getting together with friends each weekend to play Dungeons and Dragons, in the 90's our interest shifted to Deadlands.

I often found myself drawn to multi-class characters, this allowed me to play a role that added uniqueness and diversity to my character. While not a true min-maxer, I would often find myself taking a level of Fighter for that extra feat early on and then supplementing with Sorcerer or Paladin depending on if I wanted to be a more melee focused and often honorable to a fault character, or if I wanted a character who wanted to seek power and worldly knowledge.

During these games my character would often follow alignments focused on either lawful good or lawful evil. Though I did have a friend who often played as chaotic good, and his character would ruthlessly butcher all opposition to his diety, often times resulting in significant confrontations and my character often needing to hide his or her true intentions.

The games were always as good as the roles and characters we played, fun was what we made and often times when I would GM I'd want to focus on the characters developing their own stories while working or being at odds with each other. As an avid fan of the Dragonlance novels I always liked the aspect that friends and companions may work towards opposite goals, but still have to rely on each other to accomplish greater tasks.

When MMOs became mainstream, such as Ultima Online and Everquest I was immediately drawn to them. I felt these games would be a great way to stay connected and game with friends who were no longer physically close or had a dedicated weekly day they could spend with a group.

While the first MMO I played with friends for almost a year was FFXI, it wasn't until WOW that we all began to lose interest in pen and paper games and focus on our online avatars.

However, something was lost in this translation from dice to digital roles (pun intended). Somehow gamers lost the ability to play a character role and instead are now pigeon holed into a class role. I'm no longer capable of being a magic weilding fighter looking to gain power, but rather I'm simply a fighter looking to protect my companions or a magic weilding glass cannon.

Most MMOs seems to focus on this same formula, the holy trinity of Tank/Control, Healer and DPS. While some games such as WoW or Rift allow characters to change these roles in game, they still don't allow you to have a custom character. Take a Paladin in WoW to 90 and at end game you'll have the exact same build as any other Paladin. There is nothing unique about one Priest Healer versus another, other than the avatars look. Likewise a Sith Juggernaught in SWTOR will always be a tank, you rarely see them DPS spec unless they solely focus on PVP, and heaven forbid they are allowed to pick up a blaster like Luke Skywalker did in the movies quite often.

Some MMOs have attempted to mask this, such as TSW with it's classless system of skills, however, if you're going to participate in group content of any kind it behooves you to select abilities within a particular deck (class role) in order to be effective in the game.

It could be argued that EVE has removed this, but you're still tied to ships that do specific tasks. Yes, you could mine in a battleship, but it's much easier to mine in an actual mining frigate and switch to your cruiser to rely on more combat focused encounters.

Lately I've been drawn to more button mashing online games such as GW2, Tera and Neverwinter. While I think GW2 is the only current MMO that doesn't require end game groups to consist of a specific group of class roles, I find the grouping system to be lacking, making it difficult to find a group to play with.

I feel we have so much saturation in the market with MMOs that the game industry really needs to begin to think outside the box and re-evaluate everything about how an MMO is designed. Do we really need classes and levels? Can we come up with a game that engages players and give them multiple paths to success, power or wealth? Is there a way to make diet MMO taste more like original pen and paper role playing?

What are your thoughts and suggestions for the next generation of MMOs?

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