In MMOs, on opposite ends of the spectrum there are two models for class design:
- Each class supports very high customization, where the player can invest in particular skill trees / talents / abilities to support their preferred playstyle and capabilities. E.g. WoW, RIFT, SWTOR, WildStar
- Each class allows zero functional customization, any customization is strictly cosmetic (skins, etc.). E.g. Overwatch
For years, the high customization model was the industry norm, starting with WoW and later reaching its zenith with RIFT in 2011. In RIFT each of the 4 classes – cleric, mage, rogue, warrior – had 9 (yes, nine!) talent trees, and you could mix-and-match any 3 trees and decide how to spend your talent points in your chosen 3 trees. I loved the RIFT’s class design – there were so many different combinations and I had a field day trying to create different viable specs and builds, including my M*A*S*H Melee Healer Cleric spec for PVP.
One obvious issue with the high customization model is balancing trees and classes, both within a class and across classes. This was very true in PVE for classes that could play the same role, e.g. tank or healer or DPS.
Exacerbating objectively real balance issue are two factors:
- The ability or inability of players to understand class mechanics and make sensible builds
- The popular misconceptions on class balance. There were times when the community incorrectly believed that specs were non-functional/underpowered or overpowered, when in reality players simply hadn’t sorted out yet how to play them correctly or counter them.
A good example of a misconception of balance was Prot Pally in early Cataclysm. When the Cataclysm class changes were announced, many WoTLK veteran paladins wrote off Prot as a viable PVP spec. I was able to sort out how to make Prot work based on the new mechanics and abilities, even though I had no prior endgame PVP experience with Prot Pally. Sometimes you just gotta think through the mechanics and experiment yourself.
However, there were definitely cases where particular classes and builds were stupidly OP, as was the case with DPS Spellslingers and DPS Warriors in WildStar. The balance was so pitiful that Spellslingers and Warriors were selling carries to 1800 rating in 2v2 Arena for 50 platinum, and it screwed up the economy and created a context of have-and-have-nots, not based on player skill primarily but rather heavily influenced by selection of character class and willingness to spend RL money. I managed to reach 1800 Arena rating with a non-FOTM spec, my “Melee Mage” Esper, but it was frustrating having to face players with faceroll specs, especially when they had already acquired a full set of faceroll Arena gear (gear scaling is a story for another day).
I believe that striving for 100% balance is a theoretical goal and not a practical one. In reality, if the 10% overpowered specs/classes and 10% underpowered specs/classes at any point in time are gradually tuned, a game can have reasonable class balance. In many cases it’s fairly obvious to highly-rated players which trees and abilities are problematic from a balance standpoint. And of course with telemetry and analytics, a developer can do the number-crunching to identify outliers in terms of measurable performance and which classes/specs are prevalent at higher ratings.
In recent years, especially with the mass popularity of MOBAs, we’re seeing more minimal-or-no customization games, where a given hero/class has predefined capabilities. Some MOBAs have the in-match customization where you spend points on things as you level up (which I’ve never liked, I find it tedious). Overwatch has taken no customization extreme – each class is 100% fixed in terms of abilities.
On the one hand, fixed classes makes it much easier for players to understand how a given class should be played, since they have zero control over how the class is designed – the issue then becomes playing it correctly. Whereas with the high customization model there are two hurdles: player understanding of what is a functional spec and playing it correctly.
I believe these two hurdles are less of an issue in our current world, now that many highly-skilled players stream high-rated PVP on Twitch/YouTube, talk about how to play classes, and discuss what balance issues exist. These players are the experts.
I would so love to see more games with class customization as rich as RIFT’s system. I love dialing in how a spec works, kind of like making cookies with the ingredients you like, versus having a fixed menu of cookies to choose from.
Which model of class customization do you prefer and why?