Multi-classing and Player Choice

Multi-classing has been a favorite debate of MMO players since time immemorial, but in the past month or so Tesh resurrected this intriguing discussion again. It’s had many of us thinking about what makes for a more immersive, more interesting virtual world and whether features like multi-classing are a good idea at all.

Skyrim Skill Tree

Multi-classing is fairly common in Elder Scrolls games and while this is a single-player game, this feature will crossover into The Elder Scrolls Online. Will this be a good or a bad thing?

Syl’s response has had my wheels turning for a while now, and while I was eager to chime in and agree with so much of what was said about character restriction, freedom, choice and impacts on the players around you, something about this topic has been nagging me. I think it’s the idea that giving the player more choice is harmless and/or only impacts the players who choose to use it. This isn’t true of course and that could only be true in a single-player game, but we’re talking about MMOGs. One idea that was introduced in the comments of both blogs was that if players do or don’t want to use these features, it should be fine with ALL players because me getting a new hairstyle or turning my mage into a warrior doesn’t really affect the experience of my friends who might believe in restricted classes. This dismissal of the social aspects for the sake of the individual aspects seems common. If multi-class options didn’t matter, all MMOs would try to have it. They do matter and they do have impacts on how the game world feels, which is to say it impacts the interactions between players. But this point of debate is just one facet of it that makes the conversation interesting.

Rowan raised the very interesting point that multi-classing, from a technical standpoint, allows MMO devs to address imbalances without passing consequences off to their players (for example, if there aren’t enough healers, multi-classing allows players to just adapt without devs needing to alter the population artificially). That alone seems like great justification for such systems.

Syl seemed to conclude that it doesn’t matter for a game like World of Warcraft whether multi-classing is offered because the game is so different from what it used to be that class restrictions don’t actually make sense any more. Today, with all the changes to our characters that are possible for a few extra dollars, multi-classing makes more sense than it ever has for the game. She’s got a good point.


Train whatever class (skill sets/profession) you like in EVE Online. Multi-classing is your prerogative, but you’re not likely to do so.

Where do I stand? I guess overall I don’t much care if classes are restricted or not, though I know I’ve enjoyed this restriction in the past …AND I know that multi-classing isn’t all that appealing to me. In fact, I personally prefer specialization. IN FACT …I think most players do because in every game I’ve played where players have no class restrictions, everyone decides to specialize anyway. In my experience, players enjoy having choices, but they don’t enjoy having to make too many decisions during gameplay. At some point there seems to be a line between meaningful choice and having so much choice that we can’t just play the game. Specialization satisfies this desire to just make a choice and get on with virtual life.

Klepsacovic’s insights into the way we use our avatars in games would also support this idea of specialization if his theory is true. Kleps posits that one of the reasons he chooses to play any specific class instead of another is to enjoy one aspect of his personality, to engage the fantasy of a particular identity or as he puts it “to switch characters is to switch one’s mask”.

According to Raph Koster in his book Theory of Fun for Game Design, less choice means a simpler game whereas more choice adds complexity; designers, he thinks, should aim somewhere between the two. Too much either way will make the game less fun and/or appealing to players. World of Warcraft‘s class system has gone from ultra-specialization to now, where players’ decisions in the game are so inconsequential that it doesn’t matter if multi-classing is added. Blizzard has worked hard to remove consequences from player choice in order to allow players to do what they want without penalty. Surely meaningful choices (choices with consequences) are more enjoyable than this sort, no?

Games like EVE Online, on the other hand, encourage class specialization. Because of the way players acquire skill (in real-time,taking months to “master” skill sets), multi-classing is discouraged by the game. Theoretically, players can master every single specialty (which functions like classes) in EVE. But practically speaking, it would take at least a year. Most players enjoy picking a trade and perhaps some complimentary skills, but the general direction of character development is toward specialization. So EVE gives the player all the choice, but counter-balances it with all the consequences (and they can be painful). There are costs to the choices made. It’s on the opposite extreme of WoW. It’s also a good example of how, given the option to multi-class, players tend to specialize anyway.

So multi-classing really comes down to choosing whether to add more choice for players in order to enhance the gameplay experience. Does having all of this choice improve the gameplay experience?

Quote Jamie MadiganLast year, Jamie Madigan of Psychology of Video Games wrote an article about the impacts of more player choice on the gameplay experience. In a study conducted by psychologists, it was observed that players mostly liked having their options open when it came to things like character stats, class and such in the event that they regretted their initial choice later. However, a different study showed that having more choice resulted in people being less happy with their experience, even though they liked having more choices. If an improved experience is the goal, then less choice is more.

I think WoW is a prominent example of what happens when you give players too much choice with mixed results. Over the years, the game has added so much STUFF that Azeroth is quite a confusing place to start your career as an adventurer. Transmogrification, gemming, race change, server changes, the sheer variety of ways in which you can raid …these all seemed like super cool things at the time of their implementation, individually. Collectively, they make the experience muddy and confusing for a new player. It’s harder than ever for a new player to get to know Azeroth. Coincidentally, I find the recent research done by Cynwise’s Warcraft Manual — which shows remarkably low interest in the latest class addition (the Monk) — even more interesting in light of this discussion of class and choice. Of course, we can’t know from Cynwise’s findings alone whether the new class just sucked or whether players had enough choice already. It’s probably a combination of a few things, but even so I think it’s safe to say that adding more classes to WoW no longer increases interest in the class selection process, nor enhances the fun factor. If Jamie’s research is correct, players actually have more fun by dedicating themselves to a singular class than they do alt’ing around.

It’s nice to have choice, but more isn’t always better and the research generally tends to bear this out. I think many of us gravitate toward the opposite conclusion when it comes to game features, thinking that it can never be bad to have more choices. And that sounds great, but this seems unlikely. In other games, more choice might allow developers to address the varying tastes of their unique customers, but it also adds complexity, harms interdependency (the gel that keeps communities thriving), and isn’t proven to actually enhance the experience. I think more choice is ultimately worse because of this.

When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases …the autonomy, control and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, the negative aspects of having a multitude appear. As the number of choices grows further …we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize. – Barry Schwartz from The Paradox of Choice (4)

Hmmm …indeed! I’ve felt the tyranny of choice much more than I’ve expected lately as a gamer. In the past 3 years, digital gaming has exploded and my options for gaming now leave me feeling unsatisfied even when I’m satisfied. The feeling that I should try all the new games is compounded by the fact that I don’t have the time that I used to. At the same time, I remember that I never used to want so many games even though there’s always been many choices. In fact, I remember being very content with buying just one game a year …and that was just 5 years ago! Having all of these choices has somewhat unsettled my game buying habits and having more options has not increased my happiness with games. It’s not that I don’t know what I want or don’t like what I have. It’s that having all this choice doesn’t increase my satisfaction at all. In fact, when I feel compelled to shop at all, I spend most of my time in indecision. Consequently, I wait even longer before buying games, not because I don’t want to play, but because its harder to make a satisfying choice.

Does multi-classing give players too much choice? From a technical standpoint, multi-classing sounds like a great idea. From a social standpoint, I think this has large consequences. Overall, players will probably be more happy living with the class they chose on day one and multi-classing possibly adds very little value in terms of gameplay enjoyment. It does, however, alleviate some technical issues and influence the social dynamics of the game. In the end, I think these are the two more important questions developers ought to consider when implementing this feature into their MMOG.

Scree Tags: #mmorpg #multiclass #playerchoice

7 thoughts on “Multi-classing and Player Choice

  1. Great article, and thanks for the mention! A couple of quick thoughts:

    “multi-classing possibly adds very little value in terms of gameplay enjoyment”

    This depends largely on the game design. The Secret World works well with it, apparently, but EVE probably wouldn’t. Multiclassing does need to be approached with thought, not just as a back-of-the-box selling point.

    I’d also note that there’s a difference between tactical choices made in the heat of battle and longer term, more strategic choices. Indeed, having a huge decision tree in quick tactical combat can indeed be paralyzing and deadly. Keeping things simple (though maybe not merely a “1-1-2-3 rotation” level of simplicity) is usually a Good Thing there. Longer term, slower decisions, though, often benefit from a greater spectrum of options. Doing the same thing all the time might be great for simple, repetitive, addictive gaming (it certainly works for slot machines), but it’s a terribly shallow approach to a game world. (As altitis will attest to.) This even applies to something like a “Metroidvania” game, where your gameplay options increase over time, but you’re rarely asked to use more than a few techniques at a time, even if your overall skillset can get pretty large.

    In home repair terms, you can’t solve every problem with a hammer, but when you’re trying to pound nails, you don’t want to keep picking your tool between every strike.

  2. Nice article about the issues with choice in games! (And I like the new blog layout too; for some reason the old one never quite played nice with my browser, with broken links and display oddities everywhere).

    I always thought that WoW’s dual spec was a good example of the unintended consequences of choice. On the surface it looked like a great addition, and I bet you that many people are still grateful for its existence, but in a raid guild at least it also added the expectation that you would be proficient in and geared for more than one spec, which was quite annoying for those of us who just wanted to focus on one play style (like me). And then Blizzard kept making raids where your group was expected to have a different amount of tanks and healers on every boss, and the “option” to respec all the time became a necessity…

  3. @ Tesh: I think you’re right. Theres a time and a place for every feature. I think ultimately that our MMOs focus too much on giving players “more choice” and too little time making the choices we have meaningful. In some sense, the more choice players are given (especially when it comes to class selection), the more shallow every consequence of those choices. I give WoW again as an example, though the games age gives it a unique blend of shallow gameplay with deep complexity of interdependent choices. For example, skill trees are now very simplified, yet abilities for any given class are numerous, giving it unnecessary complexity. At the same time, talent choices are less meaningful than they used to be. I’m not saying thats a good or a bad thing. It’s just a thing.

    @Shintar: Thanks and I’m really glad you like the new layout of the blog. I think you’ve got a point about dual spec and it really highlights the problem with giving more choice. At what point is the game not actually giving you choices, but rather is making your gameplay more complicated and demanding? It makes you wonder exactly what choice is supposed to do for us anyway, right? Why do I need more class choice? Why do I need to dual spec? How is this making the game more fun? In the case of WoW, its largely a convenience feature when we weigh its true gameplay value, but its managed to make dual spec less convenient (as you pointed out it just made it compulsory, or in the case of raiding its given your team mates convenience and YOU inconvenience).

    Why do you all think we should have more choice? Its difficult to know why we should have more choice in the case of multi-classing.

  4. FF14. Has multi-classing of sorts. I think the implementation is great. The idea of a single character/avatar is way more appealing to me than inviting the 5th alt to the guild. There’s a difference between homogenization and multi-classing. My grocery store has 20+ tubes of toothpaste that do the same thing. What’s the point? You don’t see people throwing away iPhones because they can dial out and surf the internet either. Make choices meaningful and I’m a happy gamer. Make them filler, then we have a problem.

  5. So this is the new place, huh? 🙂 took me a while to find it.
    I have mainly one clarification to make from my side: I don’t believe in player choices / more freedoms not impacting on anyone else in social games. I’ve written posts in the past about how the “it only affects me”-argument doesn’t fly per se in MMOs. however, I do believe that not all freedoms are created equal. there ARE freedoms that do not impact negatively on the social fabric or game mechanics of MMOs. that doesn’t mean they won’t be fought though because there are always groups of people in real life and elsewhere, who can’t abide other people’s freedom, who can’t abide that maybe things can be done or achieved in different ways than their own. I am surrounded by this type of narrow-mindedness every day of my life at a work place where hardly anyone dares to think out of the box and where it’s all about envy in the end. how dare anyone choose a path outside the norm?

    I don’t like this mindset and that’s why in social games too, I cast a critical eye on wherever arguments about player freedom “seem” disingenuous to me; as in not grounded in real impact. soloability in MMOs for instance, is a classic argument with valid concerns from a social and cooperative viewpoint: nobody can claim that it won’t affect grouping heavily in MMOs if you can solo everything. it does.
    on the other hand, there’s no such solid argument against let’s say being able to change your toon’s haircolor three times a week. and while there could’ve been an argument, once, against the type of multi-classing freedom I champion, it is not valid in a day and age where alts and dualspecs have essentially already brought the same side-effects to the table that multi-classing would too. and that’s why there is no solid argument for me against it.

    Kleps was right to bring up the identification factor – what it proves is this: players with a different identification approach to chars (char = class) than myself already have their freedom in WoW and elsewhere thanks to alts. players like me however (one char / one me), who would get the same via multi-classing, do not. and that’s just not good enough.

    • @Syl: If I can make this place easier to find, I’m listening:) Thanks for the welcoming comment.

      So why is multi-classing appealing for you? Also, can you describe the the “one char, one me” statement? On the one hand it sounds like an argument for a single class, but on the other I think I understand that you are saying you’re a multifaceted person that would enjoy a multifaceted character. But if that’s the case, then classes can’t address this for you do they? The whole idea of a class is to break characters into predefined archetypes. So for example, EVE Online is classless, but there are professions and there are archetypes. Players can mix and match how they like.

      I tend to be that player who will play the game as is. That doesn’t mean I don’t form opinions about features I’d like (my blogs are witness to this), but I generally will be happy with what I’m given in terms of a character. If a game doesn’t give me multi-classing, I don’t miss it. However …if a game does give me that feature, it hollows out other areas of the game for me. Now I’m talking strictly in MMOs. You can also take me with a grain of salt because I mostly only enjoy those games because of groups of friends, features be damned.

  6. Pingback: Conversation Leftovers for January | XP Chronicles

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