Last time, I left off with a bit of a cliffhanger (okay, maybe more like a mild step-hanger). In that post, I talked about how it’s not enough for an MMORPG to be a place to game with friends, I want it to be a place for good gaming with friends (I’m greedy like that). I even highlighted some of the general elements which I consider necessary for a good game in this kind of genre (character customisation, combat and pacing through the world) and what I expect from each one.
Each of these gameplay elements is quite a deep topic on its own. Moreover, FF14 and ESO definitely want to do all these things equally well, but, if past games in each series are anything to go by, the approaches will be pretty different. With this in mind, I’m going to take each topic one post at a time to try and give it the breathing space it needs. First up, Character Customisation.
The Final Fantasy series (including the one previous MMO, FF11) has a history of job or class systems, with recurring specialties like White Mage (the healer/supporter), Knight or Paladin (a protector) and Dragoon (Sir Jumps-a-lot). Picking a job gives you a very clear sense of your strengths and weaknesses, as well as possible role in a team, while hopefully giving you enough leeway to tweak to your personal standards. Not all White Mages are the same, though they share a common set of abilities and a general strategy.
However, if your class determines too much about your character and his or her strategy, this can be very restrictive. To borrow an example of a progressive trend elsewhere in gaming, D&D seems to moving away from the very ‘Your class decides your role’ outlook of 4th Edition in its currently ongoing playtest of D&D Next. A wizard can do crowd control, but being a wizard doesn’t mean doing crowd control is your purpose or primary option (it just means you are a wizard and you cast spells). These changes, of course, reflect feedback from their players, and other games can learn from it.
As MMOs can get very role-focused, sometimes to the detriment of creating a living character in the world, I look forward to how FF14 might break this mould or improve upon it. The former might come in a similar form to many recent Final Fantasy games, which (mostly) discard the classes while retaining many of the abilities (whether implemented via Materia, Guardian Force, Sphere Grid, License Board, or Crystarium), with mixed results.
The latter could be achieved by allowing more mixing and matching within classes, such as in the case of Final Fantasy Tactics. Each character has a main action set (such as ‘White Magic’), a secondary action set, a support skill, a reaction skill and a movement skill, all potentially mixed and matched from around 20 different classes.
Alternatively, many different valid equipment and/or skill choices within a class (not just the ‘good’ sword and shield or the ‘correct’ damage-dealing spell) would achieve a similar result. A game like Monster Hunter is excellent for this. Each equipment set (of which there are around 25-30, at least) provides a different look and different passive skills, but you can improve the base defenses to more or less even them out, and add some skills to suit your play-style, making few (if any) strictly ‘better’. This means there are many different styles of great-sword user, or gunner, or whichever other weapon from the 12 main types you choose.
The Elder Scrolls games swing very much the opposite direction of restricting or pigeonholing characters. With only a small amount of restriction, these games typically allow the player to do nearly anything and everything to his or her heart’s content (given enough time). This probably would not go so well in a large multiplayer environment where character identity is crucial, and where there are many devotees with seemingly bottomless wells of time to devote to the task.
How would you feel as a specialised wizard if suddenly multiple people around you were doing what you could do, in addition to a load of other things? What does it say about your role in the world if you can cast the most epic spells, go toe-to-toe with dragons in melee combat, and then sneak around and pick the pocket of everyone in a city (oh, and also, so can everyone else)? Anybody who simply had more time to devote to the game than you could do everything you could, and more. However, losing this open-endedness would be a big blow to the ‘feeling’ of an Elder Scrolls game.
I’ve heard talk of class systems with a lot of possible extra tweaking in ESO (based, for example, on the type of armour you wear or weapon you use), so I assume they will try to capture much of the open-endedness of other Elder Scrolls games without the ‘Can do everything at once’ feeling. This might feel something like the ‘I’ve played Elder Scrolls for 50 hours’ experience, where the initial skills you use define you (as opposed to the ‘I’ve played Elder Scrolls for 800 hours, and that’s just on my first character’, at which point things begin to blur since you can adopt pretty much any skill).
Interestingly, I find myself thinking that each game system could learn from the other. If there is too much restriction to a set role, characters blur together with all the other characters of the same role; too much freedom and the choices begin to lose meaning because everyone can do everything (and the only real variable is how much time you devote). My examples up above still apply here, but it’s less about breaking class boundaries, and more about defining individuals.
Good and Bad References
In a broader sense, the question that comes to my mind is ‘how much choice is enough’? Every choice I make about my character is an opportunity to do something differently than others, which facilitates feeling like a unique contributor to a group and the fantasy world as a whole. These choices may take the form of a particular set of equipment, a class, or a preferred skill, and the sum of these parts forms my character, my look, my strategy. So how many permutations do there need to be for character customisation to be satisfying?
This question is part math (actually counting how many choices can be made) and part feel (how different each of these choices feels), and I’d like to hear about your experiences with character customisation in games. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking about games like Monster Hunter, FF Tactics, and Skyrim (where the player has access to several of 18 primary skill trees, each with some branching possibilities, a handful of armour and weapon enchantments from a selection of about 50, and customising the look of the character).
These are examples of games that did this well, but how could it be done poorly? Without examples of ‘too few’ choices it’s impossible to answer the question of ‘how much is enough’. As much as I love the combat system (and you’ll hear more from me about it in the next post), character customisation was not a strong suit of Final Fantasy 13. While you had a lot of choice in strategy, each character had limited resources to distinguish themselves.
You could equip a weapon (from a choice of around 8 variations) and a few accessories from a long list (which could probably be boiled down to roughly 20 unique but often small effects), but these effects tended to feel like marginal changes to otherwise set roles. Two Commandos (damage dealers) rarely felt very different from each other, except that one might be able to become a Medic (healer) when necessary or have a specific ability, while the other could put on his or her Sentinel (defender) hat or have a different ability. However, these qualities were pre-built into the characters, not chosen by the player, and splashing out to different roles was costly and often inefficient (until very late in the game, at which point it was much less meaningful).
My experiences of the strategy MMOs Dofus and Wakfu, while enjoyable and tactically interesting, also left me wanting more character customisation. While the systems slightly differ, in both games your character has a fixed class (from among 15 choices), and every class has skills across 4 different elements, each element representing a slightly different strategy.
Often one or two elements were featured much more highly than the others in every class, and between these element choices and equipment, it was rare to see more than three real variations on each class. While 30-45 different characters might sound like a lot, many of those are likely not to resonate with a given person, and a lack of finer-grained flexibility limited personalisation even when one or a couple character builds did feel like a good fit.
There are plenty more examples I can think of, but what are some of your picks, and how many choices did they give you? It’ll be useful to compare this to the choices afforded by both FF14 and ESO when they’re finished, both in the overall quantity of choices, and the types or impact of those choices. In the meantime though, if you’re still with me, pop over to Part III, which focuses on the combat systems of these games (unless I’ve not posted it yet, in which case wait with bated breath and comment below).