Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Utility is Dead (or is it?)

We’ve all heard of “bring the player, not the class” and are getting used to the fact that virtually every class and spec in WoW brings some kind of buff to the raid. Not all MMOs handle raid utility this way and in fact WoW didn’t always either. I distinctly remember the time where you absolutely wanted a shadow priest or two in the raid for their mana regeneration, even though their DPS was sub-par. Survival hunters were only taken for their debuff and shamans switched groups mid-fight do chain Heroism on a DPS group.

I rarely agree1 with what Chastity and Tamarind have to say over at Righteous Orbs, but Chastity makes some very good points on the topic of utility classes in his recent post.

The thing about a DPS class is that your personal success, your value to the raid, and the respect you gain from your run, is based entirely on your personal DPS. Nobody whips out recount and says “hey, your Aura increased our overall raid DPS by 0.7k good job!” What this means is that anything which boosts your *personal* damage output is massively more valuable to you than anything which boosts the damage output of the raid.

If I consider the groaning we get whenever we ask a DPS warrior to apply Sunder Armors or a mage to spec fire and use Scorch, Chastity is absolutely right. While players in serious raiding guilds will accept that they have to sacrifice personal DPS for the good of the raid, they severely dislike it. Players in more casual guilds or in PUGs are very likely to go with personal gain every time.

“Bring the player, not the class” is obviously designed to make raid composition easier and to enable Blizzard to better predict what buffs players will have. The name doesn’t say it, but I would bet that another idea behind BTPNTC is to get rid of the dilemma that Chastity mentioned – nobody wants to play the buffer class.

Other games handle this differently than WoW. The chanter class in Aion, for example, is first and foremost a buffer. While described as a hybrid, the chanters attacks are far too weak to count them as a DPS class and while they can heal, they are much worse at it than the cleric class. What chanters bring is a multitude of unique buffs and debuffs which can be essential to a group’s success. Essentially, having a chanter in the group is great, but the chanter itself doesn’t provide a lot of DPS or healing (nor does he provide both at the same lime like a warrior priest in Warhammer Online.) Ideally each 6-men group in Aion would want one tank, one cleric, one chanter and three pure DPS classes – a 16.66% (recurring, duh) representation. Instead, the current class population of the European Aion looks like this:

That’s right, Chanters are the least played class of all – followed by some apparently undesirable DPS classes. The pure DPS classes Gladiator and Sorcerer are way ahead, followed by the pure healing class. Obviously Aion is still young and those numbers can change – but I expect them to go down when people who rolled chanters realize they don’t like playing a support class. The only way I see for the number of chanters to go up is if they prove to be very powerful – but even those effects must be limited. Waybackwhen when I played Ragnarok Online, there was an extremely powerful support class around. The sage could double a physical DPS’ damage output with a single buff in some cases, yet there were only very few sages around.

So support classes are inherently unappealing in the implementations that we know. For one, this is clearly because their individual contribution is hard to measure and people like to see how awesome they are. But that would make tanks very unappealing too (they shine on neither DPS nor healing meters) yet tanking seems to work out somehow. (Though if you look at the above chart, there are far fewer pure tanks – templars – than even pure healers.) I suspect that support classes are also plain boring to play. Most non-healing support in MMOs is based on either buffs or debuffs and these are usually either always on (i.e. Moonkin Aura) or have a long duration (i.e. Power Word: Fortitude.) Experiments with short duration buffs have mostly failed (old paladin blessings) as they didn’t really add any gameplay.

After all this I still believe that you could create interesting support classes. A paladin’s Hand of Salvation is a good example of a support spell that is not boring. Instead, it requires foresight and adaptability on the side of the paladin. If you bring support in the form of buffs, make them conditional and make the supporter actually think about what she’s doing. Moonkin Aura is very boring, Hysteria on the other hand is interesting. I am pretty sure there is an audience out there that would like to play a support class (I know I would) even if they don’t show up on any meters. But you would have to make that class a) matter and b) interesting.

Unfortunately it takes some guts to add such a class to a game. The example of shadow priests has shown us that no matter how good a class is for the raid overall if the DPS (or healing) isn’t competitive, players will whine about it. A lot. You will need good community managers to deal with that, but also a strong hand – as opposed to Blizzard’s caving and homogenization.

But, you say, we don’t want mandatory classes to bring! We like still being able to raid if our shadow priest is on vacation. And you are right of course. While BTPNTC has many disadvantages, it is great that we can now build raids more easily. But the shadow priest dilemma was self-made. A shadow priests DPS plus the mana she provided was just worth much more than bringing a pure dps class in that spot. That doesn’t have to be the case. Assuming for a moment a class that brings nothing but support, why not balance the effects of those support spells so that the group will be as strong if they bring another DPS as they will be with the supporter? Or, even better, have multiple (different) support classes of equal strength in the game. Your group will only have room for a limited amount of supporters (just like you would only bring a limited amount of tanks or healers) , but those supporters could be picked from a variety of available classes.

I think a fun-to-play utility class can be made, but it’s not going to be brought to us by an Asian developer (not to be racist, Asian MMOs just have a different focus than western ones) and apparently not by Blizzard either. What do you think?

1 I have nothing against them at all. They just see the game from a very different point of view than I do. Also, their walls of text are even worse than mine ^^

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