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