Vague Patch Notes: The problem with forever adding classes to MMOs

    
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I DID NOT WANT TO DO THIS AGAIN

The second expansion for Final Fantasy XIChains of Promathia, launched to extremely mixed reception, and there was one overwhelming reason for that lack of enthusiastic endorsement. Oh, sure, there were problems with the expansion’s difficulty and balancing, but one of the biggest and most persistent criticisms was the fact that it was an expansion with no new jobs. People were pissed about that, the developers even admitted that they done screwed up, and literally no subsequent expansion for an online game in the franchise has subsequently failed to add at least two new jobs.

This is why when Final Fantasy XIV’s next expansion goes live, the game will have, by a very conservative definition, at least four different jobs that use swords as their main weapons. And that’s assuming you count katanas as being materially different from swords and ignoring the many Ninja weapons which are clearly swords. And that’s fine. It’s not really a problem, but it does underline the reality that no matter what your game may be, there are finite limits to how many character options you can meaningfully have.

Certainly “four or more jobs are using swords” is not some apocalyptic problem that cannot be solved. A more significant problem is just the fact that… at this point, the game is going to have six different jobs that all do melee DPS. Not only do all six of those jobs need to be balanced against one another, but they all need to feel mechanically different from one another and still be able to serve as part of a party to clear any piece of content in the game.

And beyond even that you just realize that there are upper limits. There are just a finite number of different ways that you can design classes to work. Those limits are expansive, and there’s a lot you can do, but eventually you are going to hit them. And at that point you’re kind of out of luck when it comes to “adding new stuff to do.”

So clearly, the correct answer is to never add new classes or anything similar, right? Right! And thus we come to Star Wars: The Old Republic, which… has had people calling for new classes for a long time, and the lack of any new ones has been cited as a reason for feeling as if each “expansion” is just a handful of missions. Or World of Warcraft, where the lack of new classes is similarly held up as a major problem as it goes from expansion to expansion. (There have been four new classes since the game launched – and 10 expansions. Do the math.)

I'm popular.

Here’s the weird contradiction with any long-running MMO: Players want updates. And one of the obvious updates is giving players access to something that would otherwise be unavailable. A hypothetical MMO with five combat skill lines (fork-throwing, knife-wielding, spoon-flicking, whisk-holding, and spatula-flailing) is going to attract more attention if it suddenly offers peeler-twirling as an option.

But that doesn’t inherently mean everyone wants to play with it. Not only will some people bounce off, but with each new addition, you create new barriers to entry. You can’t use a peeler for the next expansion, after all. How many utensils do you have left? And can you add another line that feels unique compared to the other ones that already exist while still making it fit naturally with the others?

In the earlier days of any MMO, of course, it’s easier. Most MMOs probably have a number of classes that weren’t quite ready for launch or ideas that were in some stage of development prior to release. You never quite launch with everything you want. But the longer the game goes, the harder it is to find new space to occupy and the more weird you have to go, which is how you eventually have a healer piloting autonomous laser guns to heal people or a new job based on one player character from a prior installment.

And yet one of the things I see brought up over and over in discussions about Guild Wars 2 is the fact that the game has always had a core list of professions, apart from the Revenant, who was added post-launch. Oh, sure, we got new elite specializations along the way (or we used to, anyway, though the fact that one expansion lacked them doesn’t mean they’ll never come back), but there are still some classes from the original that don’t have even a close comparison in the sequel. The sequel is very different in structure, yes, but Revenants aren’t really Dervishes even if they have points of similarity.

But can you add new specializations and tricks to the game forever? Is that even desirable? When do you cross over the line between adding new things that enrich the game experience and make expansions more fun… and just adding stuff for the sake of adding stuff? How do you draw the line? Is there even a clear point when that line can be drawn?

yip?

The weird thing, at least to me, is that it can kind of work on your brain even if you know it’s kind of hogwash. Like, when it comes to tabletop roleplaying games, I want to feel like everything important and relevant is contained within a core rulebook. When I buy a new game set in the Marvel universe, I expect that rulebook to contain everything I need within those covers to make pretty much every big hero I can think of. But I also am far less inclined to buy subsequent books unless they contain new gumballs for the game. So I want the core game to require no additional rules whatsoever and I also want new rulebooks containing additional rules or I’m not buying them.

One of these things does not fit with the other! But it’s still how my brain works. I want new abilities in DLC for single-player games, not just new levels… but I don’t want to have to buy or play DLC to feel like I can enjoy the game as written. And I want new character options in my expansions, but I also know that there’s a point when those options get overwhelming.

This is not a problem that can actually be resolved, or at least not unless someone finds much smarter people and they have an utter brainwave. The longer a game goes on, the more complexity creep becomes an element, but you can’t just avoid adding new options forever without people feeling like the game has become stagnant. It’s a needle that has to be threaded, and pressures on both sides will be eternally relevant.

As always, expansions are a delicate balance between giving people genuinely new things to experience and giving them more of the things they already enjoyed beforehand. It is difficult to do both, and while it may be best to seek balance in all things, some things are harder than others.

Chains of Promathia really was a pretty bad expansion, though. Even if the story was kind of a banger.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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