Why Classes are Important

Or, why full customization can be a bad thing. There's a common voice among many class based games that want their character to have the ability to mix and match skills and abilities across all of the games classes. "I want to be a Warrior that can cast a fireball and cripple you with arrows all while healing myself! Why should I have to roll an individual Warrior, Ranger, Elementalist, and Monk to have access to those abilities?'

Giving the player more customization is usually a good thing. It allows for a much higher variety of play styles which in theory should accommodate more types of players (and who doesn't want more players in there game?). However, especially when it comes to games with multiplayer, giving restrictions to players can actually lead to a better a experience for the player (whether they want to admit it or not).

Classes are a commonly used way to segregate character capabilities. They have been around forever, and for a good reason. Classes provide the player with a preconceived notion of how a character will behave. They allow players to quickly stereotype a character on first glance. When a player learns the strengths and weakness of a class, they can utilize that knowledge against all future characters they run into of that class. This can be very rewarding. Let's use Team Fortress 2 as an example. When a player sees a Pyro, they can immediately form a plan of attack (or retreat) based on what they know about the class. Pyros have average health, a high damage output, and very short range. This information is true no matter what player is playing as a Pyro! You do not have to know about the individual person playing the class. A Pyro will NEVER pull out a minigun and start shooting at you while you strafe out of its range. You know this because you know the limitations of the Pyro class. Therefore, you can form a general strategy that you can use against ALL Pyros. This is not to say that your strategy will work against every Pyro, but instead to point out that you can immediately pick a strategy you know has been successful in the past purely based on seeing the class of the character you're fighting.

Team Fortress 2 ClassesAll TF2 classes are easily distinguishable and offer different styles of play

In contrast, imagine if a Pyro could pickup a Heavy's minigun. Or imagine if a Pyro could turn invisible like a Spy. Does sneaking up behind a group of unsuspecting players and then unleashing your flamethrower on them sound fun? Hell yeah! But the problem now is that you've destroyed your class stereotypes. Characters must now be assessed on an individual player by player basis. What you learned works against one Pyro might not work against another. To be successful, the player must learn how to best counter anything and everything! The feeling of mastering something will be few and far in between due to every battle requiring a different play style or strategy for success. The learning curve becomes less of a curve and more of a cliff's edge. When you see a 'Pyro' across the map, how do you react? How can you react correctly until you know what weapons and abilities he has? There is no longer any strategy prior to pre-engagement. Instead, strategy can only be formed on the fly as new weapons and abilities are revealed to the player over the course of the fight. While this can be exciting and rewarding in its own right, it can be quite discouraging for new players. When they finish a match or leave the server, what have they learned? What can they bring to the table next time in order to do better?

In a class-based system, the player can enjoy success in some areas while still failing in others. A player might be be proficient in defeating Scouts and Spys, but fail miserably against Heavys and Engineers. However when they join a server and see a Scout, they immediately know what they should do against them. And likewise, when they see a Heavy, they know what doesn't work and can begin to experiment with alternate strategies. In contrast, without classes, the player might be banging there head against the wall, having no firm knowledge of what to do or not do against the huge variety of enemies they could face. While some might eventually climb the cliff face and reach the top, many others won't even make it past base camp.

Here are a few rules I use in determining what makes a good class system. Like all design rules, they can be broken, but only after understanding why the rule was placed there to begin with.

  • Classes are visually distinct. A player can quickly and easily determine the class of another character just by looking at them.
  • The core function of a class can be explained in one sentence. 'The rogue is a stealthy class that has high damage and low health'.
  • Class strengths and weaknesses counter each other. No class is better at everything than all the others.
  • Classes can have multiple play styles. Not all Warriors must be tanks. Some can DPS!
  • Classes should synergize better with others than with themselves. The best team composition should have multiple classes.