Monday, March 29, 2010

On Specializations

The traditional Fantasy MMO includes the Holy Trinity archetypes: Tank, DPS, Healer. From a cooperative standpoint, the Trinity works very well. A class to take damage, a class to deal damage, and a class to heal damage. From a PvP standpoint, there also appears to be fairly equal rock-scissors-paper effect. Healers outheal Tank damage, Tanks outlast DPS damage, and DPS can kill the Healer faster than they can heal.

However, the traditional Trinity has three flaws. The first is that it requires a specific group composition in order to work. Three Tanks? Sorry. Three DPS? Sorry, again. Encounters designed around the Trinity need all three parts in order to work.

The second flaw is that Tanks and Healers are at a disadvantage when soloing content because they don’t deal much damage. This one is particularly nasty because it offers a slippery slope as Tanks/Healers complain about their solo viability. A developer who caves on that issue and increases the damage dealt of the Tank/Healer, decreases the importance of the damage dealer. And equally important if your game has PvP, it can quickly make these classes too powerful.

The third flaw is also in the elegance of the design. The rock-scissors-paper thing is only fun when you are the rock and they are scissors. If you are the scissors, and all you see are rocks, you aren’t going to have much fun in PvP.

Jack of All Trades or Specialist
The solution to all three of these flaws is pretty straight-forward: Acknowledge these flaws exist and then proceed to ignore them.

No system is without tradeoffs. Ultimately, you really only have two choices. A bunch of Jack-Of-All-Trades where everyone is the same, or specialists in specific areas. Once you allow the specialists, you open the door for all the class balance issues and cries of ‘overpowered’ that accompany it.

This is because without designing everyone as exactly the same, the perception will be that they are never exactly equal. Ironically, even when they are equal. This is the conundrum in introducing “classes” or “careers” or “specialization” in a game.

The only solution to that problem is to embrace your design decisions and keep your vision as fair as possible. You need to accept that not all people will be equal in all situations.

Skill-based Specialization
In skill-based games, you DO specialize because you make choices about what you are going to do. As an EVE pilot, everyone starts out by specializing in a specific ship or types of ships. In Darkfall, your playstyle and what abilities you choose to use makes you better at THOSE abilities. If you don’t use magic, you’ll simply never be good at it.

Although, in both of these games, it’s possible for a very advanced player to learn everything. In effect, you can become a Jack of All Trades (Master of EVERYTHING) by leveling up all skills.

This strikes me as a flaw in this type of system.

In my mind, there should be more severe tradeoffs. And they shouldn’t be easily reversible. Specializing in Magic should mean that you sacrifice Non-Magic Stuff. Casters should be powerful, yet frail and weak. Melee should be tough as nails, but have no magical aptitude or protections.

In fairness, Darkfall has some tradeoffs. Wearing plate makes it harder to cast spells, but it doesn’t make it impossible. And at the extreme end, some skill choices completely cut you off from using some schools of magic. But that’s a fairly extreme example and not one that you are forced to make. And it doesn’t really stop someone good at magic from benefiting from having high melee skills (able to soak damage).

But I digress and I don’t want to nitpick specific games. I think what I’m trying to get at is that I like semi-permanent choices. I like players to have roles. And if you choose a role, in fairness, everyone else shouldn’t be able to benefit from the things that should be unique to your role.

Role-based Specialization
I think there are two types of role-based specializations. We are all intimately familiar with the first concept. Classes. You choose a class, and that class defines your role.

I think what I like better is the concept of Skill-trees. Basically, you make role-based choices through your skill selection. The concept here is that you are presented with a skill fork in your character progression. You may choose either fork, but doing so eliminates the skills provided to you in the other fork. Choosing Melee, in this scenario, would remove the Magic fork from your available career progression path.

It seems to me that these types of Tree forks provide the Role defining characteristics that I like, while still allowing people the flexibility to choose a non-standard bundle of traits (rather than a Class).

Again, Darkfall has these types of forks in the magic shools, but that’s not much different than choosing to either use an Axe or a Sword. Such forks need to be made much earlier and have a bigger impact on how they define your actual role. Rather than just the flavor of the damage spells and debuffs.

Skill-based Trinity
So circling back to The Holy Trinity, I think these would make some good fork choices. You can either Tank, or DPS, or Heal. You can’t do all three well. If you choose more DPS forks, you are easily killed. Choose too many Heal forks, and you can’t kill or be killed. Choose too many Tank forks and you can take a lot of damage but can’t DO anything else.

Now obviously, we could complicate it by having more Role choices. Magic or Physical? Range or Melee? And so forth. Choosing the Physical path eliminates the Magic fork (and healing). Choosing the Magic form eliminates the Physical fork (and tanking). And so on and so forth.

My vision here is that this is still a skill-based, rather than level or class based game. The difference is that your skill choices are semi-permanent forks where your decision impacts your future progression. These choices, rather than a class, determine your in-game skills. For example, one choice could be “Advanced Constitution” or “Advanced Dexterity”. Choosing “Dexterity” increases your physical DPS, but sacrifices your ability to resist damage (“Constitution”).

Anyway.. just my $0.02 as an Armchair designer..


Carson 63000 said...

The thing about permanent or semi-permanent choices is that they're not really that permanent in a game where you can have multiple characters.

Like in a traditional class-based "holy trinity" fantasy MMO, your choice of class limits the roles you can fill - well, usually, anyway, of course there are classes like WoW's druids that can do everything!

But leave aside the druid, if I want to be able to tank, and heal, and dps (ranged and melee!), I could just level a warrior and a priest, dual-spec them both, and there I am.

So I lean more towards the design where it is assumed that players with significant enough playtime to spend will eventually be able to do everything, so why not let them do it all on one character? You put mechanics in place so they can't do everything all at once and be overpowered (respeccing requirements, game rules like "can't cast spells in platemail", systemic things like only being able to fly one spaceship at a time in EVE, etc.), but then let them have at it. They'll just relog onto an alt if you don't.

Hirvox said...

It should be noted that Eve also uses a skill system with diminishing returns. Training a skill to level 5 takes longer than training that skill from level 0 to 4, sometimes even an order of magnitude longer. Thus a newbie can be almost as good as the veteran in a specific field very quickly. And because a true master of all trades takes 28 years to train, there's always going to be some hard choices.

sid67 said...

I don't really care if people have alts. If they want to take the time to create multiple characters, more power to them.

However, one character shouldn't be able to do everything. It makes the choices we make to develop that character meaningless.

Choosing a role should mean that you sacrifice your ability to do something else.

I'll freely leave the choice up to you, but I'd like to see some trade offs for people making decisions.

Otherwise, you end up with this weird thing where you put away your 2-handed sword in the middle of a fight to cast some spells with your staff. WTF is that?

On a separate note, dual-spec is a dubious design choice at best and a great example of a developer caving to forum pressure from a few classes.

It greatly benefited some classes who had previously needed to make sacrifices to excel in certain areas. While for other classes, there is little to no benefit outside of what flavor of DPS.

When you consider that players fight for raid positions, a Warrior who can DPS or Tank is more valuable than a Rogue. Likewise, a Druid who can DPS, Tank or Heal, is more valuable than a Mage.

Where is the tradeoff?

I mean, if that's the direction that you are going go, what's the point in having a class?

Stabs said...

Picture this: month one of your new MMO and players race up to end game all soloing quests for max exp efficiency with dps heavy builds.

They get to end game and they have some guys with a few points in tanking and healing and start clearing content.

Next thing the tortoises with tank heavy or healer heavy builds finally max out their characters and become available.

The cutting edge guilds all ditch their tanks and healers and replace them with new and better versions who didn't spend points in dps.

Or you can have respecs in which case everyone levels as dps then changes to healer/tank/dps at end game and there really isn't much choice. All healers have the same talents as any other healer. Same for tanks etc.

If you don't allow respecs then you have built a system which will shunt some players in a corner where their only option is to bitch and moan on your forums (cf dps paladins in WoW circa 2007). The gloom despondency and negativity these players spread will cause your game to hemorrhage players. And of course if you give in to them (as many developers have done) you teach your player base to manipulate game development by whining on the forums.

It's a lot easier from the armchair than it is in practice (I say from my armchair!).

sid67 said...

The cutting edge guilds all ditch their tanks and healers and replace them with new and better versions who didn't spend points in dps.

I recognize that's a possibility. That's why I say semi-permanent choices. Make it reasonably possible to change, but not without some associated cost.

The 'how' of that change can be any number of things. Unlearning/Relearning, free respec once every X days (30/60/90). I'm not really advocating that we pigeon hole people into one thing forever.

I'm simply advocating that no character should be able to fulfill all roles. That decisions, once made, have some weight and importance.

Jesse said...

What about the secondary roles of crowd control, buffs, debuffs, and pets? Typically they have been tied into various other roles, but if they were on their own separate tree you could pick both a main and secondary role.

Anonymous said...

I think the current issue with the DF specialization system is that it's not finished (or even close), and so the choices are limited and you either end up with extremes that limit you(destroyer) or mini-benefits that still allow full access. I think ultimately once the system is fleshed out (DF2010 hopefully...) the choices won't be so simple and more unique roles will be established.

A fire spec that limits other magic, a buff spec that limits melee, archery buffs that impose stat hits, stuff like that. Combined with more specialized armor (what shade and bloodcraft are now, but again more fleshed out), and again you get more choices.

What is nice however is that the choices are not permanent, and this allows people who have capped archery to switch to magic and have another area to develop, while at the same time it allows a new player to hyper-focus archery and catch up (in that area) quickly.

Dagda said...

If I may offer my own bit of armchair design: The tank, heal, and DPS are roles that naturally emerge because of the underlying system that's central to most MMO's combat: Damage management. The tank prevents the incoming damage from triggering a loss in the short term, the healer prevents the incoming damage from accumulating enough to trigger a loss in the long term, and the dps neutralizes the sources of the damage.

If you want meaningful change, you have to change the nature of the underlying system- coming up with something that has more depth. I'm not about to write out a design document here, so I'll just say that I think the game which currently does the best job of addressing this fundamental design issue is actually Resident Evil 4.

Anonymous said...

I understand now, Gandalf was a paladin/mage/warrior, to do that he had to give up healing!

In seriousness, even if someone is a master of everything it doesn't mean they will be doing everything at any one time, and the amount of time it took them to be a master of everything could depends very much on the game you're playing. I'm not so concerned if someone can do everything if it took them 7 years of skilling up to do it.