A Class Balance Manifesto for Virtual Worlds

After playing traditional fantasy MMORPG’s for over 6 years, I have come to believe that a class system is an important foundation for how we classify and organize the players that inhabit virtual worlds. Without player classes you have the chaos and uncertainty of an unordered world. I also subscribe to the notion of class interdependency which is enabled by a properly designed class system. Interdependency in an activity such as combat helps to create sense of community which is indeed the whole point of online games. Without the need to meet other players and combine your resources to defeat encounters you have very little reason to play a “massively multiplayer” game.

Avatars in virtual worlds don’t have many ways to distinguish themselves outside of the trappings of outward appearance and the personality imparted to them by the player. Classes help to solve this problem by giving players a sense of pre-defined identity in the context of the world around them. You are what you do in MMORPG’s. Players *expect* that a cleric knows how to heal and that a wizard knows how to cast damage spells. Classes are also very instrumental in supporting the concept of character advancement in that each player is expected to develop his or her class to it’s fullest potential within the gaming environment. Becoming “all that you can be” is a quest in itself and serves to give the player purpose and direction.

The class a player chooses at character creation time will forever influence their role in their virtual world. As citizens in online worlds we accept the class-based career paths that are laid out for us by the immortals or developers as they are commonly called today. We trade a some freedom for the security of knowing that our class will have a meaningful role to fulfill in the gaming environment. A properly designed class system should help ensure that there is no unemployment in a virtual world. Part of the allure of online gaming in that everyone is assured of a place at the table unlike the real world where one can find themselves gainfully employed one day and out of work the next. The ultimate triumph of the class system where every class is utilized to it’s fullest is called a raid — where large numbers of players come together in an organized fashion to vanquish a boss monster. This combined effort of up to 40 or more players is much like a symphonic orchestra where everyone is expected to know his or her role. When it is successful it is one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences in online gaming.

Implicit in online game design is the assumption that all classes are equal. Again this is another virtue of online games that all of us who participate can all be proud of. Why? Because it speaks to the human condition of modern man who cherishes the principle of equality. To anyone who would argue that equality among the classes is unimportant, I would pose the question:

Would you really want to exist in a world where players decided to play only tanks and healers to the exclusion of all other classes?

I wager most people would answer “no” because the resulting world would be predictable, one-dimensional and non-immersive. This is precisely the pitfall that plagued Ultima Online when they allowed players the freedom to choose whatever skills they wanted which let them have their cake and eat it. So thus was born the “tank-mage” syndrome. The tank-mage is completely self-sufficient and needs no one which is fine if your virtual world is all about PVP.

Another advantage of a well designed player class-system is that it should allow challenges to be overcome in a number of different ways. Too often class based online games end up forcing their players to employ the tank/cleric/damage strategy in defeating NPC’s. This creates a problem where certain classes become “must have” for a group which immediately puts other classes at a distinct disadvantage. Many players react to this by abandoning their chosen class for a more desired popular class which creates a further imbalance in the gaming environment. The solution to avoiding this common pitfall to create NPC’s that have abilities and behaviors that require the abilities of all classes in order to be vanquished. For example, a six player group of randomly selected classes should be able to pool their talents and come up with different strategies to defeat enemy mobs. Unique strategies should be encouraged and supported by the developers instead of shunned as being “unintended gameplay”. Online games that offer more variety in play styles and strategies will last longer and be more successful in the long run. Providing players with more re-playability as players choose more classes to compliment their existing characters helps to keep an virtual world alive by spreading the player population over a greater geographical area.

One of the great disadvantages in a class-based system is that the player is completely at the mercy of the devs. One thing we know with certainty: personal skill notwithstanding, ultimately a player is only as good as the class he is playing. As players we trust the devs to give our class the abilities and itemization to let us make meaningful contributions to the tasks we are presented with. It is no surprise then that some players feel shortchanged after years of playing an online game only to find that their class has grown out of favor with the devs or that their primary class role has been outsourced to a new class introduced in the latest expansion. Often even the omission of certain kinds of content can put a class on the virtual unemployment line and make them feel underpowered and unwanted. For example, take a class like a paladin that has invested creating a character that has items and powers that help them versus the undead. Then the devs fail to put any undead creatures in the next expansion. The result is that the paladin class loses utility and is in danger of being marginalized.

Quite often devs create their classes with the best of intentions but after the game goes live the lack of balance between the classes becomes apparent. Players start noticing that certain classes are always in demand for groups while others are shunned. This creates a sense of frustration and the player often ends up bringing his grievances to the company’s official discussion forums. Welcome to the ongoing class balance debate which is common to many online games. The topic of class balance has become an eyesore on most forums and a public relations nightmare for the gaming industry. Official forums paid for by the gaming company end up becoming dominated by disgruntled players who wage an ongoing a war with the devs to get their class issues resolved. A few years ago the class balance debate got so rancorous that SOE dismantled their official EverQuest community forums. Even today, take a look at the discussion forums of any popular online game that uses a class-based system and you’ll soon realize that a significant percentage of the debates concern class inequity — real or perceived. Many players are upset about a particular class enjoying supremacy over another class. Others are concerned that their class has not been receiving enough attention from the devs.

What can we do to ensure that the devs can have better success at attaining balance among the classes in the online worlds of today and tomorrow?

Those of us in the MMORPG community who believe in the principle of class balance need to establish a set of rules and guidelines that can act as a basis for debate, discussion and ultimately implementation. It is important that both players and devs be involved in this continuing process. To my knowledge no attempt at codifying the principles of class balance has been attempted or published. To remedy this I have formulated a manifesto which I believe addresses many common class balance issues that have arisen over the years in my personal experience playing fantasy online games and as a student of the subject on many discussion forums. Some may consider the demands made within this manifesto to be unrealistic and bold. I contend that as more people are spending a significant portion of their lives in class-based virtual worlds that the devs of these worlds need to treat class balance with more seriousness. The devs need to realize that they wield an awesome responsibility in controlling the destiny of millions of international gamers who log on to these online games each day. This manifesto is an attempt to hold those devs accountable to a higher standard.

I consider this a living document and welcome any suggestions and feedback. I will update and modify the manifesto when needed and as time permits.


A Class Balance Manifesto for Virtual Worlds

  1. The developers, immortals or gods hereafter known as the devs shall create and maintain a gaming environment that strives for class balance where all player classes of the same level are equal in power and utility with each other.
  2. At character creation players will be given complete and full disclosure of the devs intended role and vision for that class during all phases of that classes lifespan.
  3. Each class shall have a well-defined primary role and be instilled with a meaningful purpose to fulfill within the gaming environment.
  4. Each class shall be created with abilities and characteristics that are uniquely their own despite the fact that they may share primary and secondary roles with other classes.
  5. Each class shall perform their primary role with equally efficacy and efficiency whether solo, in groups or in raids throughout the career of the player regardless of level.
  6. Each class shall have optional secondary roles which will allow them to partially take on the duties of another classes primary role if the need arises.
  7. No class shall be subject to experience penalties in order to compensate for the increased class utility of secondary abilities.
  8. Each class will have an official design document made available to the playerbase to ensure future consistency of the devs vision for each class regardless of changes to the dev team whether philosophical or personnel in nature.
  9. To ensure that each class has a future and remains viable throughout the life of the game, the powers and abilities of each class shall increase equally at regular intervals in accordance with that class’s primary role as defined in the official design document.
  10. Each class must be allowed to flourish and grow by allowing reasonable freedom to self-determination in ways unimagined by the devs.
  11. Content will be designed so that the worth and unique abilities of each class will be fully desired, appreciated and utilized whether solo, in groups or in raid settings.
  12. When there are more then one of a certain class in a group or raid, the devs must ensure that the abilities and contributions of that class must be accumulate and provide an aggregate benefit.
  13. No class shall exist that is absolutely required for success in defeating encounters whether in groups or in raids.
  14. No player shall be penalized by unfair game mechanics for choosing to play one class over another.
  15. The devs will strive to maintain a gaming environment that promotes class diversity and group synergy where each class is equally desired and represented by the player demographics.
  16. The devs shall release accurate class demographic information to the player community on a regular and timely basis.
  17. The devs must routinely solicit input from a wide spectrum of each of the player class communities regarding issues and suggestions that relate to class balance and engage in respectful and responsive dialog treating all classes in a fair and equitable manner.
  18. When changes to a class are deemed absolutely necessary the devs will communicate these proposed changes in an honest and open manner giving reasonable time for the playerbase to comment.
  19. To further the goals of class balance the total power of a class will be a reasonable and fair combination of the following:
      1) inherent class abilities accumulated through tasks and character advancement
    2) potential itemization accumulated through tasks and character advancement
    3) individual player skill

(note: this article was also published at Gamergod.com)