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We had a long discussion in my company about character-classes. We are building a skill based game where you will eventually need to select 8 to enter a battle. I am a fan of classless systems, I have always felt that they are created to extend your gameplay hours in a fake way.

We reached a few conclusions:

  • Classes are there to prevent "best build" scenario where everyone plays with optimal (Personally I feel that this is a weak case, You should be able to design a system where there is no win combination without classes)

  • Classes create variety by offering different style of play (I agree with this but if you have the freedom to combine different skills you can actually create your own class)

  • Classes make choosing style of play easier to players. Most of the times players play the same type of character in different games. (Damage Dealer, Healer, Thief/Assassin etc.) (For me this makes most sense from all the arguments from above, but why force people to only part of the skills when you could offer them as templates)

Why are character-classes used in game design? Do you agree with the above points? Yes or no, why do you think like that?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a pretty broad question, but it's interesting nonetheless (I suggest you change the wording to "character-classes", because of the ambiguity with classes in OOP). I guess one of the main reasons for character-classes is that they are easier to balance. If you only have to deal with a specific set of abilities a class can have you can tweak these abilities better than having to consider all abilities at any time. \$\endgroup\$ – bummzack Sep 11 '14 at 15:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ One you missed: "Classes allow for class-dependent plot elements, event, encounters and outcomes." AFAIK, this is not at all easily replicated (especially in tone/flavor) with a classless system. \$\endgroup\$ – RBarryYoung Sep 11 '14 at 17:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ A nice hybrid of class/classless system is in Path of Exile. What they have is that skills are a center-based web, and your class determines the entry points to the web (well and other things, like visuals, equipment etc). So everyone is allowed to learn everything, but at the same time magic users just plain suck at fencing (by comparison to a fighter of the same level) because they have to use their skill points to ramp up the physique basics. It also allows a great number of combinations and different specializations within a skill "direction" \$\endgroup\$ – Ordous Sep 11 '14 at 18:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RBarryYoung's comment reminds me of Quest for Glory. You could pick Fighter, Thief or Magic-User, and each class would typically have different subplots. There could be overlap, though - you could still choose a Fighter with some magic affinity and solve puzzles with spells, or even join the Mage's Guild IIRC. \$\endgroup\$ – Nathan Sep 11 '14 at 18:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RBarryYoung well, right. I didn't mean to imply it was, I was just making the point that it evolved from copy-catting so in hindsight classes nowadays quite often don't make sense. People stick to the meta because they've seen others successful with it. \$\endgroup\$ – Shelby115 Sep 11 '14 at 19:10

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I agree with your points however I would like to expand them a little further:

  1. Classes gives player identity. He can talk and think about himself as a rogue for example.
  2. Classes can give player the feeling of belonging somewhere/membership. Expanded previous point - if he is a paladin, he belongs to some order of NPC paladins and also other players (often with similar personality and values) this goes as far as creating community around a class.
  3. Classes make the game balance much easier. Effectively your first point but from other point of view.
  4. Classes are part of the RPG tradition and help players get used to your game. Effectively your 3rd point but again, other perspective - it can help you get more players as they will feel like "at home".
  5. Classes can help skillful play. If somebody charges at you with no-class system you have no idea what is his skill set and what to expect, in classes system you can sooner identify threats if you memorize other classes skill sets and thus know how to counter it.
  6. Classes don't prevent you from creating shared skill pool. It just does not work the other way around - if you don't have class system you can hardly introduce new class while if you do have class system, you can introduce skills potentially available to everyone.

From what you read, the mixed system could be the best way to go...but there is always a downfall. Mixed systems are currently modern but also there is not a great(=legendary) game with such system yet ...as far as I know(correct me if I am wrong). There might be some hidden difficulties with semi-open systems.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Point 3 is the biggest reason as a designer to choose classes. If you limit the number of interacting systems it's much much easier to not only plan interesting things in the game, it's also much easier to test the game. \$\endgroup\$ – Eben Sep 11 '14 at 18:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think points 1, 2, and 4 are fair, but players that need this sort of feeling can achieve it for themselves. I once started a game of Skyrim thinking "I want to play as a Paladin!" so I focused heavy armor, and walked around with a 1-hand weapon and healing spells at all time. I was still playing a class, but it was my own custom class. \$\endgroup\$ – nhgrif Sep 13 '14 at 14:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ And to some degree, point 6 contradicts point 4. You wouldn't introduce a new class to a classless system, so that's not a drawback at all. However, introducing a new skill is more difficult in a class-based system than in a class-less system from a balance perspective. In a class-based system, we have to balance that skill for all classes. In a class-less system, we have to balance the skill in the same method we use to balance all the other skills. \$\endgroup\$ – nhgrif Sep 13 '14 at 14:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nhgrif Well, you dont have to like it, but only few players can dynamically adapt their builds(or behaviours) to specific situation. Ever played something like LoL? It was like 80% of people follow the same build, they just cannot get resistance against heavy magic team or keeps buying snowball items even when loosing game. This was an example of items, but open skill set is very similar - you can get some value of skills for you skill points. Classes help average player not hard-core one, he would know what to do regardless system used. \$\endgroup\$ – wondra Sep 13 '14 at 14:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @wondra Your counter-point to my disagreement with point 5 basically reinforces the point I'm making. Classes don't help skillful play. They help unskillful play. Classes boil the gameplay don't to a matter of memorizing what classes have what abilities, what you're a hard-counter to, etc. I'm not saying it's not beneficial to mediocre players--it is. But this is the opposite of the point in your answer (that it is a benefit to "skillful play"). \$\endgroup\$ – nhgrif Sep 13 '14 at 16:57
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Making sense of the world

Part of the reason for this is about world-building and storytelling, which may not seem relevant in the genre or type of game you are writing but if you aren't giving your users any kind of story or world hooks, they will be creating their own to make sense of what they are playing.

If you look at it in that respect, then a character-class system represents the development of an individual in a set of skills. Let us imagine that we had a game in which you could be a musician, a high jumper or a barista. If we just listed all their skills in one place, you might have something like:

  • jumping quite high
  • making an americano
  • playing a C major scale
  • jumping higher than average
  • making a good latte
  • playing the melody from 'Ode To Joy'
  • jumping hella high
  • being able to carry six mochas
  • playing 'Moonlight Sonata'

Now that set of skills falls naturally into three categories and it would make sense to someone playing it that you need to progress through jumping quite high and jumping higher than average to master jumping hella high. If you were to progress from playing a C major scale through making a good latte to jumping hella high that doesn't really make sense and your players would probably find it a little weird.

In this respect character classes map to the real world fact that you get better at what you practice, so higher level skills are available to you as you master their predecessors. That helps the world of the game feel sensible.

This type of increasing specialisation is treated in a lot of games as a skill tree rather than a character class and this makes sense but is basically the same thing.

If you have a skill tree that goes through playing a C major scale to playing Moonlight Sonata that is no different than levelling up in the Musician class really. Of course there is the option to learn other base skills, so you could learn to jump quite high and make an americano and become a high-jumping barista but in many class based systems - particularly "proper" RPGs - this available through multi-classing.

The other way that skills and powers are often represented is through equipment- do you need to have a character class at all if you just let the user choose equipment that gives them the skills they want?

Again I would argue that if you have the best Wizard Hat and the best Wizard Staff to gain all the Wizard skills, you're effectively playing a Wizard class. The terminology changes but the theoretical mechanic is broadly similar.

Classes enable progression and specialisation

Now the big advantage of a class/skill-tree progression system is that you can make the pinnacle of any given class much more awesome because a player has to specialise to get there. A game where everyone is an average generalist is typically a lot less compelling than one where they are diverse and can do a selection of awesome things. Rather than favouring micro-optimisations, this can lend itself to more interesting play and open the door to having different strategies for different situations. If you watch people playing one of the DOTA family of games, the diversity of strategies needed for different heroes is what makes it interesting and keeps people coming back.

If I am playing a game I would rather be able to do a few powerful and awesome things and have to think about how and when to use them. If the game is team based it allows strategy to take place on the level of the whole team rather than just individual players, which is often a lot more compelling.

The sense of advancement and growing in power is easier to conceptualise in a class/skills-tree type framework and that is part of what makes games that offer this type of progression work and part of the reason that it is such a common pattern.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A classless system doesn't necessarily prevent any of the points you seem to make against a classless system though. You try to wrap class and skill trees into the same thing, and they're not, really. In WoW, each class has 3 skill trees. In Skyrim, there are no classes, but there are skill trees. I don't think Skyrim has many (if any) of the drawbacks you mention about class-less systems. I think the difference between these systems is something more like what the question is about... \$\endgroup\$ – nhgrif Sep 13 '14 at 14:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think anyone can agree that a system that let you jump hella high without having first progressed through jump quite high and jumping higher than average is a bad system, whether or not classes are involved. But realistically, these shouldn't be considered different skills really... this is more about skill progression, right? \$\endgroup\$ – nhgrif Sep 13 '14 at 14:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Meanwhile, making a good latte and carrying several lattes at once are skills related to the barista class, but why should one or the other of these necessarily come first? Would it really be problematic if a barista acquired one of these skills but hadn't quite acquired the other? Would it really be problematic if two baristas acquired these skills in different orders? \$\endgroup\$ – nhgrif Sep 13 '14 at 14:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nhgrif you may be getting a little caught up in my arbitrary example rather than the wider point I am trying to make about coherent progression. You're certainly correct about the example I made up as I was going along. I would argue that Skyrim does have classes in practice- something it inherits from Oblivion and back to Arena - but this time around they didn't attach a class name to a given skill set/group of skill sets as they have in the past. \$\endgroup\$ – glenatron Sep 15 '14 at 8:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ But there's no restrictions on which skillsets you can pick. Your class doesn't determine how your stats increase as your character level increases either (the player has full control over where all their stats and skill point go into). If this isn't a classless system, then what is a classless system? You're talking about a system that doesn't have skill trees or any sort of progression barrier whatsoever, yet still has skills to choose from. Can you give me any example of this? I feel like you're arguing against a system that no one is talking about. \$\endgroup\$ – nhgrif Sep 15 '14 at 11:33
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You can balance a classless system, but your players probably can't.

In addition to the other answers above, I'd suggest that giving people classes is a way to ensure that players don't sabotage themselves with a poor build.

Common things people do that produces a sub-optimal build include:

  • Choosing non-synergistic abilities. People who do this may be competent in their chosen abilities, but lack the "whole is greater than the sum of the parts" that other builds exhibit.
  • Dabbling in everything. People who do this often end up underpowered in the end game because they miss out on the ultimate abilities.
  • Choosing abilities for the short term. People who do this pick the most powerful ability in their current situation. This gives them a temporary bump in power, but causes them to fail in the long run because they don't have the final build in mind.

If a person has a build they feel they like, but it ends up being underpowered in your game, it can make them feel like the game is unfair or too hard.

Ways to avoid these problems include adding a "retraining" feature or something like that. With this feature, players are free to experiment with builds and don't get trapped in a poor build.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer makes an excellent point. Sometimes, in Skyrim, for example, I'd get sidetracked with a non-combat skill, which levels up my total character level, and sometimes I felt that it negatively impacted my ability to cope with combat. \$\endgroup\$ – nhgrif Sep 13 '14 at 14:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ If a person has a build they feel they like, but it ends up being underpowered, the game might be unfair or too hard. \$\endgroup\$ – Williham Totland Sep 15 '14 at 10:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WillihamTotland It might, but it certainly doesn't have to. It of course depends on the focus of the game. The problem is, if every build works, what is the challenge in the progression system? Some games want you to think about your progression. If they don't, well that's a different story. \$\endgroup\$ – iFreilicht Sep 15 '14 at 13:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ If they didn't want you to think about progression, they'd use classes. \$\endgroup\$ – nhgrif Sep 16 '14 at 12:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nhgrif I agree. While I personally prefer classless systems, some players just simply don't want to invest that much thought. Someone is bound to choose the stupidest combo in a game, and they'll suffer for it. I think a class-based system often works better for that type of player. \$\endgroup\$ – Thane Brimhall Sep 16 '14 at 13:53
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For the same reason that you can buy a jar of curry sauce.

There are some who make a meal from scratch. They know the exact ratios of spices they like and adjust them and choose meat/vegetables that they like and that combine well with their sauce.

Some people don't have time for that. They know that they want to cook a satay, so they buy a jar of sauce, add meat/vegetables, and then maybe tinker with 1 or two small ingredients? Add some more salt, chili and garlic as desired.

Some people don't even have time for that. They buy microwave meals and click 'go'.

None of these people are wrong in their attitude to curry. Why would they be wrong in their attitude to games?

You like to make your characters from the raw ingredients, others like to take prebuilt bases and customise, and still others just want to get into it straight away.

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Actually the character classes usually play many roles in the game design and the game itself.

To begin with the class system will make the character attributes (as in everything from skill, durability...) much easier to design, you can make up a class background, a story which is usually a base concept for all ideas. So from the development point of view it is easier to create a class system then classless.

As from the player perspective the classes again give some simplicity to the game as the player usually has very little choice in putting some points to modify its attributes. Another very usual thing is that when playing online with other players you can easily see what class did your opponent choose and you simply know how to act against it.

Now just considering this two points you should ask yourself what kind of users are you targeting, the truly committed ones or those hit-and-run users...

So about the classless system.. There is no reason to think that making such system will increase the chance of having an ultimate win combination. I can think of no "pure class" game where certain classes werent overpowerd. In each scenario there is always a way to exploit some ability(s) which lead to an overabuse and destroy the game balance you so much struggled to maintain. The classless games it would seem are extremely rear and adding a PvP filter to that list we can be pretty close to number of zero. You might not agree with this but actually ANY character progression that limits some ability is pretty much the same, even creating a large skill tree where you would need to choose a skill in order to get to a new skill will limit you in getting all the skills you qualify for since you have no more "skill points". This system is far from limited to the RPG, even strategies in PvP where you select a race present the same limitations as selecting a character class. So somewhat most interesting classless games to talk about would be Morrowind, Fallout 1 and 2: These are all non PvP and in each of them pretty much every combination is a winning combination. Mostly if you have any experience with any of these games you would know that you will restart the game with many characters taking "better" paths. To look at somewhat different game you can look at Eve online which has an extremely complex gameplay of waring with spaceships. Even if the game does not include classes it does limit you to fly a single ship. This single ship has specific capabilities, limits and benefits which again presents the same system as having a class, the only difference is you have an "undo" button as you can dock and switch the ship you are piloting.

So my point is this "classes" thing is just one of the many ways where you fragment the player progression into some subsystems and many of such exist. Why this is very important (even more in online games) is so you as developer can easily maintain the ballance over time after the game has been published. There is no way you can expect to create a game which was perfect ballance between different character paths. And if you create some classes and see that a specific class is underpowered at some stage you can simply modify few attributes to make it stronger and ballance is restored and more importantly it is restored without effecting any other characters. On the other hand if for instance you had just one large skill tree and you change a certain skill to help one kind of players it will also affect (some) other players.

I am not saying that classless system is impossible or even wrong, it is simply hard to maintain. And more people play the game, more talking on the web, more exploits will come to life. If you wish to be able to correct those exploits you best be ready for it, one way or another. Some do it with classes, some with ships, the items... still the reason is all the same.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the counterpoint to more people playing the game and more consequent exploits showing up that I have seen in some games is that the result is that skills become very homogenised, so they are limited to relatively few simple axes and become "+2% damage", "+1% armour" and so on. This can balance quite easily but it is completely lacking in character and personality so it detracts from the game. \$\endgroup\$ – glenatron Sep 12 '14 at 9:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, the time of some big game revolutions is pretty much over unless you have some extreme idea plus some obsurd amount of money ment for promoting the game. So what should be done is to contribute to the game evolution and that is somethin it would seem most companies have lost. Anyway, it is best to look at game designes of different eras to get a larger picture. \$\endgroup\$ – Matic Oblak Sep 12 '14 at 11:06
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Before I get into "why they are used in games at all", I'm going to mention "why they're useful now". Character classes are iconic, which helps with continuity and innate understanding. If I know that I like playing a mage in other games, when I pick up yours I can just say "I'm playing a mage", and I'll already understand that I'll be using different spells, and that there will be some form of limited magic resource I will use for my spells. Because I already know these things implicitly, I can more easily just pick up your game and play it.

In the olden days of game design, classes encouraged players to have unique experiences with gameplay, since I am limited in what my choices are, and frequently have my starting parameters change. If my character starts out with lots of HP and defense, I'll be more likely to hop into the middle of battle and destroy your enemies, while if I only have a small amount of HP but higher magic, I'll be more likely to stand at a distance and tactically pick off your enemies. Similarly, having multiple classes can lead players to explore avenues of gameplay they might not have considered before. Having played the game before, they might have only thought they could bash enemies with weapons until they died. However, playing with the rogue, they might realize they can sneak around enemies, or other such possibilities. Each class encourages a different way of interacting with game mechanics, and because of that tends to offer more replay value.

As you noted, this can similarly be accomplished without character classes. However, when you limit them to specific classes, you challenge them to succeed within those limitations, instead of simply allowing them to create something that is "best for them" and have them get bored because the game isn't tailored to challenge their particular build.

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Identity

When you have a class based system the player can quickly identify a protayal of a character type.

This is done through conscious/unconscious memory of earlier experiences in games this would make the player able to make a better decision.

They all enable different play styles, and gamers do identify themselves with their play styles as well as their way of playing their games.

Progression of character

The progression of character is limited to their skillset. This is done because a "true" class-less system could also well be skill-less, telling or making the player need to explore different areas within the game.

A good example of this is GTA which progresses base skills like Driving, Shooting, and Flying based upon the progression of these skills, and the individual players willing to explore diversity in the gameplay.

Template not a cookie cutter

What is good to remember when creating a class based system, is to remember that a class is not a straightforward path, you can allow the gameplay and the traits of the class to contribute to the gameplay.

Even making the game unbalanced can increase the player retention - and the interest value of your game

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for Extra Credits reference, one of the things I would suggest game developers give a good watch through. \$\endgroup\$ – mezzoEmrys Sep 12 '14 at 19:01
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In addition to the points made above, there's also the fact that nearly all RPGs take place in societies that have experienced the Agricultural Revolution. This might not seem important, but one of the effects of the Agricultural Revolution was specialization of labor. For this reason, specialization forms a major part of settings and of how characters interact with the world regardless of how the system is set up.

In Skyrim, for example, I did each of the specializations separately, having different careers as a mage, a thief, and an Imperial agent, devoting myself to each campaign for a while before moving on to the next. Even though Skyrim has a classless system, it still ended up having class-specific campaigns, because Mage, Thief, and Fighter are more than just classes, they're also careers.

Skyrim felt a little unnatural, though, because people in one campaign had no conception of the progress I'd made in other campaigns, which led to numerous NPCs accidentally mouthing off to the Archmage and then being turned into bunnies for their impertinence. The game could have adjusted for this by creating variables like $progress_in_mage_campaign, and maybe another variable to track overall progress, like $badass_quotient, but these would be essentially the same as a very basic class system.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Talking about code variables is beyond the scope of the discussion. \$\endgroup\$ – Evgeni Petrov Sep 12 '14 at 22:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fair enough. I suppose that's what I get for staring at a computer screen all day. My broader point is that classes give us clearly stated ways of interacting with the world, and that when you try to create a system to represent specialization, it naturally ends up looking like a class system. \$\endgroup\$ – Sergei Andropov Sep 12 '14 at 22:26
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Why are character-classes used in game design?

They are a realistic representation of peoples' skill sets.

The classic example is Dungeons and Dragons, which came originally from a medieval table top combat game by Dave Arneson called Blackmoor. Blackmoor came from a wargaming background and so was intended to be a (perhaps loose) simulation of medieval combat. And it would be unrealistic to have infantry performing the same as knights, for instance.

I am fan of classless systems [...] if you have the freedom to combine different skills you can actually create your own class[.]

True, and players are likely going to build a set of skills that suit their purposes best.

If you want to be a strong combat player and rush right in to things, you will pick skills that allow you to do this (a "fighter" or "tank" class perhaps?). If you are someone who wants to primarily kill opponents from a distance and sneak around, you will pick skills that allow you to do this (an "assassin" class perhaps?). That the game designer picks the groups or the player does hardly matters if the game designer does it in an interesting and logical way.

Do you agree with the above points? Yes or no, why do you think like that?

  • "Classes are there to prevent "best build" scenario[s] where everyone plays with optimal [characters]"

    Anyone who designs games will want to limit a player's ability to steamroll the game environment or other players. Everyone likes winning, but reasonable players won't mind reasonable limitations. Reasonable limitations are the job of the game designer, and are independent of classes (though not having an indestructible tank that can fell opponents in one strike, throw fireballs that kill everything and dodge/hide perfectly could be consideration -- which might happen if you design poorly and allow players to "roll their own").

  • "Classes create variety by offering different style of play"

    True, but more importantly they can provide alternate combinations of skills that the players may not have considered.

  • Classes make choosing style of play easier to players. Most of the times players play the same time of character in different games.

    Yes and no. Some people have a preferred method of play, and classes certainly can make this play choice easier, but I would say that assuming that this is why designers include classes isn't true.

For me [easy play style choice] makes most sense [of] all the arguments [...] above, but why force people to only part of the skills when you could offer them as templates[?]

I think templates are the best solution, but there are other things in game design to take in to consideration. The specifics are too numerous to list, but if game designers limit players to some specific skill sets, it is (should be) beneficial to game play overall.

Arguably the biggest reason to use classes is for multiplayer games where player's interact in groups. Not only does it simplify game design in certain critical aspects, it helps encourage rational groupings of abilities so that hopefully players aren't at a disadvantage because they picked all the same "cool" abilities and bypassed the "lame" (but from a game design point, still extremely necessary) skills.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Some people have a preferred method of play, and classes certainly can make this play choice easier <-- Classes can just as easily make the play choice significantly harder. The only way in which it is made easier is if your classes match the classical classes for your genre exactly and all of your players want to play with one of these styles. \$\endgroup\$ – nhgrif Sep 13 '14 at 17:27
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You're focusing a lot on what the character CAN do as opposed to what the character CAN'T do. Having a player to choose a character class forces them to make an interesting decision by restricting access to game elements. And as famed game designer Mark Rosewater would say, "Restrictions breed creativity."

If you implement a classless system, you'll find it difficult to allow the players to pick and choose at will while at the same time restricting them enough that they can't just pick everything. Some classes shouldn't be able to heal. Other's should be able to but perhaps not as well, or perhaps not other players. Some classes shouldn't be able to do damage from a distance. Some classes should be at a disadvantage at close range.

I would also like to highlight a couple other issues identified in other answers, because they're very important:

  • Kai: some playtypes are just incompatible/mutually exclusive.
  • lpdechow/wondra: classes allow you to identify with your character
  • glenatron: classes allow progression in a structured way
  • wondra: classes are kind of an expectation of RPGs these days

Now this isn't to say that you can't pull off a classless system. Lots of games have done so, some of them even successfully. Runescape and Eve Online are two games I've played that I don't recall picking a class, although I would say there are orders of magnitude more games that managed to be successful with classes than without.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a great point. Choosing a class is like choosing a character background which involved training and biases, resulting in skills but also limitations. Simply removing classes and allowing all skills, with nothing to represent background, leaves that out. Of course, a classless system could have other ways besides classes to accomplish this. \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz Sep 15 '14 at 20:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ A character with access to all WoW abilities would seriously overpower the existing classes. Mentionable: Imagine a paladin with stealth and backstab. \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck Sep 15 '14 at 22:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or imagine a druid that had access to everything every other class does, oh wait, they already do #bitter. \$\endgroup\$ – corsiKa Sep 15 '14 at 22:27
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Although there are some very good explanations about the actual usefulness of character classes from a game design point of view, I wanted to act the actual historical original of character classes.

Character classes were invented by role-playing games... as a mean to play roles.

On this Wikipedia article we can see how D&D is referenced as the first game to introduce character classes. On the D&D page we get further detail.

Many Dungeons & Dragons elements appear in hobbies of the mid-to-late 20th century. For example, character-based role playing can be seen in improvisational theatre.

So not only character classes are a great design device to, for instance, make sure that different players in a game session fulfill complementary roles (something hard to achieve if players were completely free to choose their abilities), but it is also itself in the very root of the concept of "role playing" a game.

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From the players point of view classes can help with establishing a play-style and simplicity in resource management.

Imagine all the skills from World of Warcraft were available to all players. The skills in many classes use resources that collect in different ways (Mana, Rage, Concentration, Runes, Combo Points.) Providing all those resources to every player would be overwhelming - yet each resource style introduces a unique playstyle.

Maybe you can provide a single resource that combines all these features - but I think that'd be non-trivial - and easy to get broken and unbalanced.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think classes having different resources is the rarity, and not super relevant to the generic discussion. \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck Sep 15 '14 at 22:19
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The #1 reason I think of why you might choose to use multiple classes instead of a classless system is so that you can give the player the choice between multiple incompatible types of play. This is not possible with a classless system.

For example, in Diablo 3, mages use mana which steadily regenerates over time, and barbarians use fury which builds as they do damage and depletes over time. Obviously these two mechanics are completely incompatible, and apply for the entire duration of the game, and so players would have to be asked to choose between them before playing regardless. This choice is presented as a class choice.

As for other reasons why you might choose classes or class-less, it is really influenced by your design decisions, what makes sense based on the design decisions you've already made, what makes sense to your players, and what feels right for the game you are making. For the most part, there isn't a right or wrong in the classes versus class-less debate.

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A rose, by any given name...

Many great answers above, but i feel there's one thing to add.

I firmly believe that a truly classless RPG system does and will not exist, ever.

You might not predefine classes, but every game that uses a variety of stats will always have certain classes emerge. You won't have wizards, but you'll have INT builds. You won't have Knights, but DEF builds. AGI builds replace your rogues, and DEX builds replace rangers.

Then you'll have a number of builds that focus on two stats, like STR-DEF instead of warriors or DEF-WIS which replace paladins. Maybe even INT-STR in place of sword mages if they have a good tank around.

Finally, there will be a number of noobjacks. Characters who didn't specialize, or specialized in a way that doesn't work.

See, in this so-called classless system, all the common classes will appear, even if you don't predefine them.

What's more important, and here is the interesting part:

They always thrive. Well, maybe with a few exceptions here and there, but most of the time they are superior.

Pretty much every stat constellation that is effective has been popularized by use as predefined class in a number of games. The classes you open up for the players are the ones that were either too ineffective or unattractive to be implemented as predefined class in other games.

So, not defining classes changes very little, compared to the alternative of creating a wide range of predefined classes. What it mostly does is cause inexperienced players to ruin their first characters and then, frustrated, use the optimum build from the forums. In the end, it might even stifle creativity more than it helps it. Because, let's be honest, the number of players that can build unusual but powerful classes like maybe a slow DEF-INT build with Auras and AOE, as well as the possible builds themselves are extremely limited. (P.S. DEF-INT usually doesn't work due to metal interference)

To summarize, classes are an emergent phenomenon inherent to any diverse skill system. They are less rules that dictate play, but more of a tradition created through evolution of play. They are common because they have repeatedly succeded over other classes/builds.

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Classes create variety by offering different style of play (I agree with this but if you have the freedom to combine different skills you can actually create your own class)

If you are free to choose your own skills then people will optimize a single attack combo and do nothing else. Why have 3 different attacks that do 5 damage each when I can have one attack that do 6 damage and use it over and over? That makes for very boring combat scenarios. In a class based system we can give the players a large variety of abilities with different properties, in a skill based system such builds would gimp the character. Thus the restriction that comes with having classes usually increase the amount of viable options a player has. The fix for that is to group abilities into a single skill or force prerequisites, like a "martial arts" skill gives you kicks, punches, grapples etc. But then we basically reinvented classes.

I do love skill based systems for survival games with permanent death though. There you try to build a character that don't die instead of a character that is the best at one thing. Another good case is in open world single player games with unrestricted amount of skills (Think Elder Scrolls:Oblivion). But in arcadey games where you never die I prefer classes all the way. In those games a skill based system almost always means that the rest of the game is very stale and boring. Sure it is fun to think of builds, but why play the game when the best part is optimizing spreadsheets?

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Why are character-classes used in game design?

The main reason is because both the designers and players tend to expect them.

They do also help to simplify and make sense of choices, for players, designers, and AI. They can help organize and make sense of what would otherwise be potentially more complex.

Therefore it tends to end up being easier for many people, especially those used to classes, to design and play games with classes. In general, designing a class-based system and game can be much easier than trying to design a classless system that can support a wide spectrum of choices. That can depend a lot on the details of the game.

Also, classes can provide some useful things that classless systems may (but don't need to) leave out, mainly:

  • Showing how some groups in society are typically trained with a set of abilities.
  • Giving some emergent effects of having some combinations of abilities that work together to provide other abilities, such as some advanced abilities having prerequisites, or some tasks requiring a set of several skills.
  • Showing how people who do the things needed to get some abilities, may tend to get other abilities or biases as a side-effect.
  • Other social/cultural tendencies that tend to go together.

Do you agree with the above points? Yes or no, why do you think like that?

Well let's see:

**Classes are there to prevent "best build" scenario where everyone plays with optimal (Personally I feel that this is a weak case, You should be able to design a system where there is no win combination without classes)**

Some designers think that way. It's not necessary to think that way, however. You are correct that it is possible to design systems without classes that don't have a "best build". Also classes don't prevent "best build" thinking, and many class-based games end up with some classes relatively stronger than others.

**Classes create variety by offering different style of play (I agree with this but if you have the freedom to combine different skills you can actually create your own class)**

Classes don't create actual variety. Classes themselves actually reduce variety. But they can create perceived variety, at least between each other. Whether that's apparent in a game depends on the variety the game presents, and the way players approach it. If the game world consists of a limited set of things to do, then players might abuse a weak classless system to just pick the abilities that they read on the Internet will be best for that challenge. But if the game world has practical uses for a wide range of skills, and the system makes a wide range of combinations viable, then a classless system can end up providing more variety of viable character types. On the other hand, if a classless game doesn't provide any equivalent flavor to these varieties, it can feel less varied because it may seem like the player only has one choice (to be generic). To make a classless game give a matching impression of variety, one may need to design in the same sorts of things you find with classes, but without the limits. See the Fable series for one successful approach classless design with varied and distinct characters...

**Classes make choosing style of play easier to players. Most of the times players play the same type of character in different games. (Damage Dealer, Healer, Thief/Assassin etc.) (For me this makes most sense from all the arguments from above, but why force people to only part of the skills when you could offer them as templates)**

This seems sort of true, but as you point out, classes tend to be offered as exclusive choices with limitations. The same ease can be achieved without the limitations, by offering filters to find things, rather than restrictions.

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I've seen several mention "class identity", and would like to expand on that piece because I feel it is highly important.

In this instance, I will call it "flavor". Imagine the variations you can have on a simple "fireball" skill, but think more of the concept than the name - a flaming ball of fire.

  • A wizard may conjure up one from the aether

  • An explosives expert may shoot one from his gun

  • A priest may create one from holy divine power

  • A necromancer may create one from unholy hellish powers

Each of these could (arguably, should) look very different from each other. However, a classless system generally can not recognize what the player is trying to role-play, so it ends up with a generic fireball which simply cannot look as "cool" as it would on a specific character flavor. Keep in mind that visuals can be considered as part of the "reward" aspect of a game, so players are not receiving as strong of a reward for playing.

If you did include all these variations into the classless system, it becomes more apparent that they are all the same skill, because the player will compare them when making their choice and think, "what is the difference?". Players may feel cheated if they heard about the huge variety of skills but find that 20 of the skills are the same in 20 different flavors. You may now decide to make them slightly different in terms of stats and the players find that the wizard's fireball is slightly better for a specific situation - so even though you included one for the explosives expert, he takes the wizard one. Sure, they might be balanced just fine, but right now the explosives guy is facing a situation that favors the wizard one.

The next place that problem-solving may take you is the "skill-tree", even though some may not consider it quite as "open". Any character may be able to achieve any skill off the tree, but to get to the "most powerful" (and typically "most flavorful") skills, they have to go through the other similarly-themed skills. This is where Estharon's answer comes in play, and I will not repeat his well-made argument. (TLDR; certain classes and ideas emerge regardless of whether they were purposely designed) It is worth noting that without some type of "tree" to encourage specialization in certain areas, it becomes better to pick the best parts out of each area regardless of why your character would choose to be a vampire(regen) berserker(health-pool) spellcaster(spells) wearing heavy armor(armor) and mastering a sword finisher(in case of melee)

In the end, it is much easier for games which allow completely open skill selection to become bland and boring more quickly than games where the skill selection can be more focused, flavorful, and appeal to the role they were created for.

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protected by Community Sep 15 '14 at 15:54

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