Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Statistically Most Casual Multiplayer Genres

“You filthy casual.”

“No, you.”

Common, pointless banter between gamers who prefer different genres. But really, who is the most casual and most hardcore about their gaming? It’s time for another research post to find out.

Today, I’m asking “out of the active player base, how frequently do the players actually play the game?” This is a PC only test because Steam Spy and Steam Charts makes gathering data easy, but console numbers likely follow suit.

Boring Sciencey Stuff

Skip to the next section if you just want to see the results.

Methodology: For each genre, select 3 popular games, limited to titles at least one month old if possible (to limit newness/hype influencing results). I’ll use Steam Spy to determine active number of players (calculated by those who have played the game in the last 2 weeks). Then I’ll divide the average number of players in the past 30 days on Steam Charts by the active player count to determine the game’s play rate. This ratio will be assessed alongside average and median playtimes on Steam Spy to determine which genre’s playerbases play the most/least frequently.

Flaws: Comparing average player count over 30 days to active players over 2 weeks will produce higher ratios for newer games. Major updates will skew numbers.  As a solution to these two flaws, I’ll take the median results for each genre to assess dedication level. Free to play games may also exhibit different behavior compared to paid games. For the most part, each genre trends towards a certain pricing model. However, I will break down analysis further by payment type when appropriate (i.e. paid MMOs vs. free MMOs).

Many multiplayer games also include single player modes. I will only include games for analysis where I believe the vast majority of active players play multiplayer (hence why there are no turn based strategy games listed). Finally, some of the most popular games are not on Steam (Blizzard games, League of Legends, Fortnite, etc.) and thus will not be counted. Nothing I can do about that!

Now, onto the results.

Top 10 Most Dedicated Genre Fans by Play Rate

Play rate percentage in parentheses next to genre, determined by median play rate from the 3 games representing the genre.

  1. Paid MMORPG (8.22%)
  2. Open World Survival (7.71%)
  3. Paid Team FPS (3.62%)
  4. Free MMORPG (3.57%)
  5. MOBA (3.19%)
  6. RTS (2.71%)
  7. Free Vehicle Combat Shooters (2.66%)
  8. Card Games (2.64%)
  9. Fighting Games (2.18%)
  10. Free Team FPS (1.74%)

Top 10 Most Dedicated Genre Fans by Average Playtime

Average playtime in parentheses next to genre, determined by median average playtime from the 3 games representing the genre.

  1. Paid MMORPG (24:17)
  2. Open World Survival (16:42)
  3. MOBA (13:40)
  4. Free MMORPG (13:17)
  5. Paid Team FPS (12:02)
  6. Free Vehicle Combat Shooters (9:37)
  7. Card Games (9:14)
  8. RTS (7:35)
  9. Fighting Games (6:54)
  10. Free Team FPS (5:58)

Fun Numbers Stuff

Bolded games represent the median play rate within the genre (and usually the average and median playtime as well).

csgo casual or dedicated game?

Paid Team FPS

Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege – 83,035 average players / 2,080,536 active players = 3.99% play rate. 13:38 average playtime. 6:17 median playtime.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – 353,874 average players / 9,768,034 active players = 3.62% play rate. 12:02 average playtime. 4:24 median playtime.

Call of Duty: WWII – 5,113 average players / 172,488 active players =  2.96% play rate. 8:35 average playtime. 2:06 median playtime.

Free Team FPS

Team Fortress 2 – 35,949 average players / 1,317,755 active players = 2.72% play rate. 10:12 average playtime. 2:57 median playtime.

Paladins – 15,128 average players / 868,464 active players = 1.74% play rate. 5:58 average playtime. 1:35 median playtime.

Warface – 3,700 average players / 229,437 active players = 1.61% play rate. 5:17 average playtime. 1:06 median playtime.

war thunder casual or dedicated game?

Free Vehicle Combat Shooters

Crossout – 3,674 average players / 145,657 active players = 2.52% play rate. 7:36 average playtime. 1:12 median playtime.

War Thunder – 12,966 average players / 487,348 active players = 2.66% play rate. 9:37 average playtime. 2:35 median playtime.

World of Tanks – 8,612 average players / 251,340 active players = 3.42% play rate. 11:34 average playtime. 2:55 median playtime.

Open World Survival

ARK: Survival Evolved – 39,088 average players / 507,608 active players = 7.7% play rate. 20:59 average playtime. 5:38 median playtime.

Dark and Light – 676 average players / 8,761 active players = 7.71% play rate. 16:13 average playtime. 2:41 median playtime.

Rust – 29,188 average players / 534,166 active players = 5.46% play rate. 16:42 average playtime. 4:14 median playtime.

Paid MMORPG

Elder Scrolls Online – 9,434 average players / 202,331 active players = 4.66% play rate. 14:50 average playtime. 3:21 median playtime.

Project: Gorgon – 199 average players / 2,418 active players = 8.22% play rate. 24:17 average playtime. 36:17 median playtime.

Final Fantasy XIV – 7,437 average players / 59,686 active players = 12.46% play rate. 42:01 average playtime. 20:14 median playtime.

neverwinter casual or dedicated game?

Free MMORPG

Warframe – 47,354 average players / 1,017,133 active players = 4.65% play rate. 17:14 average playtime. 4:18 median playtime.

Neverwinter – 2,724 average players / 76,114 active players = 3.57% play rate. 12:33 average playtime. 2:47 median playtime.

TERA – 1,742 average players / 56,401 active players =  3.08% play rate. 13:17 average playtime. 2:10 median playtime.

MOBA

DOTA 2 – 435,488 average players / 8,281,350 active players = 5.25% play rate. 17:55 average playtime. 8:59 median playtime.

Smite – 8,703 average players / 272,696 active players = 3.19% play rate. 13:40 average playtime. 3:24 median playtime.

Battlerite – 6,320 average players / 548,951 active players = 1.15% play rate. 4:45 average playtime. 1:35 median playtime.

Fighting Games

Dragon Ball FighterZ- 2,752 average players / 119,920 active players = 2.29% play rate. 6:08 average playtime. 2:31 median playtime.

Street Fighter V – 1,251 average players / 57,222 active players = 2.18% play rate. 7:44 average playtime. 2:18 median playtime.

Tekken 7 – 1,994 average players /  102,398 active players = 1.94% play rate. 6:54 average playtime. 2:20 median playtime.

RTS

Company of Heroes 2 – 4,569 average players / 151,680 active players = 3.01% play rate. 7:57 average playtime. 2:38 median playtime.

Age of Empires II: HD Edition – 9,692 average players / 357,571 active players = 2.71% play rate. 7:35 average playtime. 2:30 median playtime.

Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War – Soulstorm – 563 average players / 30,665 active players = 1.8% play rate. 5:21 average playtime. 1:42 median playtime.

Card Games (CCGs)

Duelyst – 163 average players / 10,404 active players = 1.56% play rate. 3:09 average playtime. 1:57 median playtime.

Shadowverse – 3,011 average players / 113,897 active players = 2.64% play rate. 9:14 average playtime. 2:02 median playtime.

Eternal Card Game – 1,083 average players / 30,391 active players = 3.56% play rate. 11:26 average playtime. 7:05 median playtime.

Random Notes

You might notice popular genres like Battle Royale and ARPGs excluded. Research showed that a lot of ARPG players play solo, and I can’t separate out the numbers. Battle Royale is basically PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS and Fortnite, and I have no data on the latter.

Dealing with paid MMORPGs is a pain. There aren’t that many of them anymore, especially when limited to Steam. Final Fantasy XIV’s higher play rate isn’t surprising since it’s a subscription service, not just buy to play. But even then, Black Desert Online actually had a higher play rate (around 13%) due to all of the AFK players. The AFK nature of that game rendered any analysis pointless. Thus I included Project: Gorgon instead even though it released just 3 weeks ago and on Early Access at that.

Analysis & Conclusion

MMORPGs reign supreme among the most dedicated, hardcore gamers. That’s not too surprising given how many genres have taken from what originated first in MMORPGs in order to hook players’ attentions for longer. Open world survival games and MOBAs join both paid and free MMOs as boasting the longest average playtimes. Open world survival games are essentially MMOs with a bunch of private servers so it’s understandable that their numbers are very similar. The progression in MOBAs is MMORPG-like so their ranking also feels logical.

Perhaps the most interesting note for MOBAs is that longer matches equates to longer average playtimes equates to higher play rates. While match times are fairly similar for other genres, there is a big disparity in MOBAs. Battlerite is a fast game, but it appears more people would rather play a longer DOTA 2 match than 3-4 short Battlerite matches. Additionally, Project: Gorgon and Final Fantasy XIV are more old school – requiring more time to get anything done. Their play rates and playtimes are both fairly healthy. Perhaps being able to login for a quick 10 minute activity isn’t best for a game’s optimal health?

long dota 2 match

On that note, the correlation between average playtime and play rate is fairly high. Designing gameplay around longer play sessions apparently pulls active players in more frequently. However, it could easily be counter-argued that casual length playtimes will draw in more active players total. So while a game like DOTA 2 may keep the active players around more successfully than Battlerite, Battlerite’s player count is probably boosted because it can more easily be played as a “side game”.

Games that are typically played 1v1 such as CCGs, RTS, and Fighters rank lower on the dedicated scale. The question is whether these genres attract players who seek one-and-done play sessions or that longer play sessions result from friends also playing (“Hey dude, just one more game/quest/etc?”) Perhaps the competitive nature of these genres brings people in as much as it repels them? Without teammates to blame, average playtime could certainly falter.

Card games are the key genre to look for in analyzing how 1v1 games affects player activity. This is the only genre that combines MMO-style progression (new cards, booster packs, p2w microtransactions) with duel-centric gameplay. I think it’s fair to surmise that due to card games ranking below RTS in player dedication that the 1v1 gameplay is a bigger factor than progression.

This leads me to my final conclusion – the number of simultaneous interactions and depth of those interactions are the biggest indicator of a genre’s ability to maintain active players. MMORPGs and survival MMOs dominate the charts and offer players the ability to interact freely and with dozens or hundreds of players at once. Meanwhile, CCGs and Fighters practically cut off communication between players. While developers fear toxic players and gamers certainly dislike them, maybe the potentially good interactions are worth the risk after all?

 


Why We Love Doing Dumb Things in MMOs

Kill ten rats, craft a linen hat and sharpen spearheads (0/20). Wow, cool stuff, let’s login to the game right away! …right?

If you look closely, a lot of things to do in MMOs are super dull. Nobody in their right mind will claim that sharpening spearheads or doing dailies are the most thrilling activities a game has to offer. Sometimes it feels like I’m working rather than gaming. Why then do we do these things, and heck, why might we even enjoy doing them?

The Demand for Dumb Things

Even though excitement sells games, I would argue that there is a certain demand for doing dumb things in MMOs. Being deeply involved with something exciting is fun, but taxing. This is something I can relate to from personal experience.

Doing challenging content is one of the reasons I’m drawn to the MMO genre. I raid two days a week, so I would not call myself a typical casual gamer.

However, most weekdays I don’t get to login until 9 o’clock in the evening. After a long day at work, I don’t have much energy left. My head hurts when I hear other peoples’ voices and I lack the brain power required to focus on what’s happening around my characters and what skills I need to use. On such evenings, I like to login to the Elder Scrolls Online and do the crafting dailies on all my characters. Dumb, menial solo tasks are the perfect thing to relax.

Crafting dailies in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)

Others might not even enjoy challenging content when they are rested. Who am I to argue?

My point is: there is a market for dull MMO content. This doesn’t completely answer the question, though. Because why would I do dumb things in MMO games when I could be binge watching my favorite TV series? This brings us to a second incentive to do mundane tasks: the reward.

Positive, Immediate and Certain Rewards

The best dumb things to do have a predictable, reliable reward. In management and behavioral science this is referred to as positive, immediate, certain (PIC). Game developers that want to encourage behavior (in this case, have customers play the game), will have the most success when the behavior is met with positive (you get a nice thing), immediate (you get the thing as soon as you’ve done the task) and certain (every time you complete the task, you get the thing) consequences. Sounds familiar? Indeed, I basically just described the pillar stone mechanic of every MMO: the quest.

But this is not all: a positive relationship exists between behavior and the frequency of PIC consequences. Basically, the more regular the reward, the more likely we are to execute the desired behavior. This makes dailies such an effective tool for getting gamers to login and play. Considering PIC strategies are a big thing in management science as well, perhaps we should not be surprised that the lines between gaming and work begin to blur.

Achievements as a Way to Cope

In-game rewards are not the only driving force behind gaming as if it’s work: the reality is more complex. Let’s look at a gamer type that spends particularly much time doing things that resemble work: the achievement hunter.

The main goal of the achievement hunter is to complete everything there is to do. In-game rewards matter less. Sure, the achievements that offer exclusive rewards are a nice bonus, but what matters is to do them all.

MMOs generally come with a helpful list of all achievements that are tracked as the player progresses. The entire content of a game is basically summarized in one big to do list. And this is interesting, because to do lists are also a huge management tool in – you’ve guessed it – business environments. So why do achievement hunters like to do lists so much, even if it’s reminiscent of working?

The achievement tracker in Guild Wars 2 (GW2)

In an interview with the Guardian, psychologist Dr David Cohen mentions three reasons we love to work on lists:

  • They dampen anxiety about the chaos of life
  • They provide with a plan to stick to
  • They are proof of what we have achieved

The first stands out to me. Are to do lists a way of coping with the overwhelming amount of content that MMOs these days offer? Game system upon game system, mechanic upon mechanic are piled up as MMOs keep adding things to present their players with something new. New players have so many things to take in that a first reaction might be to panic and log off. I know I have felt that way on more than one occasion. Working towards completing achievements brings structure, offers boundaries and reduces stress. On top of this, lists are a proven way to increase productivity – both on the job and while gaming.

I would argue that the desire to hunt achievements may be fed by games, but the basic drive comes from within. In fact, our brains come up with such creative things to track that in-game achievement trackers never keep up. This is why you see players writing things down in notes that lie on their desks, or keep track of things in spreadsheets on their computer.

Playing for Fame

Thus far, I have focused on the “soothing effects” of doing achievements in games. Better known, and well-researched, motivations for achieving in games are competition and prestige.

According to Wikipedia, “One of the appeals of online gaming to the Achiever is that he or she has the opportunity to (…) hold elite status to others. (…) They may spend long periods of time engaging in a repetitive action in order to get one more reward.”

Let’s look at players that spend extreme amounts of time grinding boring things. With the risk of sounding derogatory, I will refer to this achiever sub type as the “no-lifer”. The no-lifer is someone who spends so much time gaming that it is inconceivable that the gaming experience itself is still exciting and fun. The goal is not to ridicule this type of player, but rather to understand what drives them.

A while back, I saw a video by the well-known YouTuber Trainer Tips that finally made me understand the draw of the “no-lifer” playstyle. “50 Raids in one day with the world’s #1 Pokémon Go player” offers a fascinating insight into the prestige earned through an extremely grindy playstyle. We see a day in the life of BrandonTan91, the Pokémon GO player with the highest amount of experience (XP) in the world. Brandon spends every day in his car, driving from pokémon raid to pokémon raid. He runs complicated calculations to determine the most optimal routes of earning XP. So far, this does not sound very appealing.

But here is the trick: Brandon does not play alone. He has accumulated an entire crew of Pokémon GO players that drive around with him, helping him beat the raids. In interviews, these followers consider it an honor to play with him. It is clear that Brandon is a hero and inspiration to them. Before they met him, they didn’t even spend half as much time playing the game. When asked, all these players recite their accumulated XP count by heart: clearly, this is a social status indicator in their game community.

It is easy to ridicule BrandonTan91’s playstyle as “no-lifer”, but it’s just as easy to see the appeal of spending your days playing your favorite game, together with other players that are just as enthusiastic about that game and treat you with the greatest respect. Even though I may never personally enjoy grinding in Pokémon GO, it is clear to me that these players are genuinely having fun.

For those of you that think Brandon lives in his mother’s basement: if we may believe the YouTube comments, he has found a way to monetize his hobby. For a fee, he catches pokémon for other players. We’ve come full circle: from gaming as if it’s work to gaming that has become work.

Conclusions

We’ve seen that playing as if it’s work is stimulated from within the game: by offering daily or weekly tasks with positive, immediate, certain (PIC) rewards, and by having achievements to fulfill. Moreover, though, it comes from a natural desire within. Keeping track of accomplishments reduces stress and provides with a plan, goal, structure and boundaries. In-game achievement trackers offer a reminder and proof of what is achieved. Finally, prestige is an important drive to live a “no-lifer” lifestyle. The more time is spent gaming, the higher the potential for increased social status within specific gamer communities.

Does working make a game come to life?

Right when I thought I had it all figured out, another thought crossed my mind. What if menial tasks are what makes me feel engaged in the gaming world? When I start losing interest in an MMO, boring, repetitive actions are usually the first victim. I will only login to play dungeons or raid with my friends and stop caring about gear and crafting altogether. When someone asks me whether I still play a game, I almost feel guilty when I reply with “yes”. Even though I technically login and thus play, my heart is not in it. The dumb things I do in MMOs make me feel part of the living, breathing online world – without them, I feel like a pretender.


Six Features no MMO Should Launch Without

Lately I’ve been having a lot of fun with the new outfit system in Elder Scrolls Online. It’s a good system with a lot of options, and it’s helped me enjoy the game a lot more.

My sorcerer showing off her new outfit in Elder Scrolls Online

But there’s a part of me that’s still a bit resentful it took them this long to add an outfit system in the first place. In this day and age, that’s something I expect everyone of today’s top MMO games to have as a launch feature.

That got me to thinking what else should be considered mandatory for any MMO launching in 2018. Not every MMO can offer everything, especially at first, but there are some minimal thresholds that need to be reached. These are corners that developers may be tempted to cut, but definitely shouldn’t.

An Outfit System

Since it was the inspiration for this post, it makes sense to start with outfit systems. The ability to customize the appearance of your character’s gear is one of those things that seems frivolous until you’ve had it, but once you’re used to it, it’s incredibly hard to accept life without it.

Obviously, role-players benefit the most from this ability. Indeed, the ability to freely customize your character’s outfit is all but mandatory for role-play.

But even if you’re not actively role-playing, you can still find plenty to like about outfit systems. It just isn’t that exciting to be waddling around in some ridiculous clown-suit cobbled together from whatever gear happened to drop. Much better to be able to put your personality and creativity on display with a custom outfit you designed yourself.

Personally, I also love checking out other people’s outfits. Sometimes I’ll just sit around a social hub and study what other people are wearing. It’s amazing how creative and stylish some can be.

Outfit systems add color and culture to MMOs, and it just doesn’t feel the same without them.

Robust Matchmaking

A group doing the Scarlet Monastary dungeon in World of Warcraft

Not everyone is a social butterfly, and not everyone can commit to a set play schedule. But that doesn’t mean those people should have to miss out on group content.

To this end, any modern MMORPG must have robust matchmaking features to make finding groups easier for anyone at any time. A LFG chat channel or sign-up board isn’t good enough. You need a proper matchmaking system wherein the game creates groups automatically.

These systems have many advantages. You can continue to quest or farm while queued, instead of standing around a city spamming general chat. You don’t have to worry about elitist players serving as the gatekeeper to all content. It opens up group content for all.

Despite these obvious strengths, though, matchmaking tools are still viewed as an optional frill at best by far too much of the MMO community. The Secret World took years to add one, and by then the game was already in decline. Destiny 2 still doesn’t offer proper matchmaking for raids. ESO launched with a dungeon finder, but it was in such a poor state as to be virtually nonfunctional for a very long time.

Voice Acting

Voice acting is expensive and time-consuming. I understand that. But it also makes games vastly more immersive and adds crucial emotional weight to stories. There’s a reason silent films went out of fashion.

I don’t necessarily expect every line in every MMO to be fully voiced, but at the very least major story moments should be. In a world where games like Elder Scrolls Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Secret World Legends exist, any game without robust voice-overs will stick out like a sore thumb.

Equally Viable Progression Paths

The plent Nexus in WildStar

I’m not a fan of MMOs trying to be all things to all people, but it is nonetheless common for MMOs to offer several different forms of content, and that’s fine if it doesn’t go too far. If that’s to be the case, though, the developers must work to ensure all playstyles have a viable and rewarding progression path ahead of them.

If your game has questing, raiding, and PvP, those should all be viable paths for players at endgame. Questers shouldn’t suddenly find themselves locked out of progression if they don’t raid, and raiders shouldn’t have to PvP for the best gear.

It can be okay to reward some groups a little more than others — it’s not unreasonable for hardcore raiders to have better gear than people who only solo for twenty minutes a day — but it should never reach a point where fans of one playstyle find themselves hitting a brick wall, with no further way to progress short of playing content they don’t enjoy.

My personal preference is for currency based systems, where harder content rewards more of the currency needed to upgrade your character. This rewards the top tier of players without completely shutting down casuals. Everyone wins.

It’s so simple, and yet even the titans of the genre often struggle to give everyone a fair shake. Even the mighty World of Warcraft has had at best a spotty record of giving all playstyles equal opportunity to advance.

This isn’t even a matter of limited resources or tricky design problems. It’s just bad decision-making.

Text Chat

A cutscene in Destiny 2

Those of us who’ve been around for a while are likely to have a hard time even imagining an MMO without chat. I know I do.

But with the growing popularity of MMORPGs on consoles, this is something that is actually coming to pass. I’m sorry to pick on ESO once again, but its console version lacked text chat for some time before it was finally patched in. Destiny 2, meanwhile, still has not chat at all on console, and no public chat channel on PC… though given what I’ve seen of public chat in MMOs, I can at least sympathize with their reasoning there.

MMOs are a social medium, so the ability to communicate with other players is part of the bedrock of the genre. Yes, there’s voice chat, but not everyone has the hardware for it, nor is everyone comfortable using voice chat with strangers. Text chat is an option no game should be without.

A Free Trial

In my view, the best business model for an MMORPG is buy to play with an optional subscription and/or micro-transactions, but it does have one flaw that I find frustrating: Free trials seem to be going the way of the dodo.

Buying a new big budget MMO is a fairly big investment if you’re not sure whether you’re going to enjoy it. I’m rarely willing to take a chance on a game if I haven’t had a chance to try it first. I don’t expect everything for free, but a chance to try a small sampling of the game before I buy doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Instead, developers seem to be expecting fence-sitters to wait for Steam sales, or at best the occasional free weekend, but those just aren’t as convenient as an on-demand free trial. I’m willing to pay top dollar for a new game, but not sight unseen, and developers are losing money from me by not offering better trials.

To be fair, this isn’t just an MMO issue. I’m also very frustrated by the how often single-player games no longer offer free demos.

A Plan for Toxicity

A Play of the Game screen from Overwatch

Of all the things on this list, a plan to deal with player toxicity is one that I can’t think of any MMO having at launch — or at least not a very clear one. And I find that baffling.

It’s far too late in the game for developers to pretend to be surprised when their players behave badly. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in online gaming is familiar with how prevalent toxic behavior is.

And it’s something that can seriously damage a game. It eats away at communities. It drives away veterans, and it makes new players hesitant to invest.

Yet the preferred strategy among MMO developers still seems to be to pretend the problem doesn’t exist and make only a token effort toward moderation. When Overwatch launched on console, it didn’t have a reporting feature, which is so incomprehensibly naive I can’t even begin to know what to say about it.

I’ve said before that I’m not a behavioral expert, and I don’t know what the magic bullet to solve toxicity is, but I desperately want to see developers start to take it more seriously. I want to hear them trumpet their plans for a safe community as loudly as they do their innovative game design and top of the line graphics.

* * *

What say you, dear reader? What are the features you don’t want to see any MMO go live without in this day and age? What’s on your list of essentials?


Examining Class-based Versus Skill-based Progression

Normally one of the first things you do in any MMO — or any RPG period — is choose a class. It will determine the strengths and weaknesses of your character for the rest of the game, and is probably the most important decision you can make.

A character in the skill-based MMORPG Secret World Legends

But some games don’t nail you down like that. These are games based on skill-based progression, where any character can pick and choose whatever abilities they like with little or no limitations. With time you might even be able to unlock every skill on a single character, depending on the game. One example might be Secret World Legends, and while it does technically have classes, I would also cite Elder Scrolls Online as a largely skill-based game. Class systems are so common I hardly need give examples.

But which system is superior? The dominance of traditional classes would seem to argue strongly in their favor, but there are advantages to skill-based progression as well.

Let’s look at the arguments for each.

The Case for Classes

By far the best argument in favor of traditional classes is approachability. With clearly defined class options, you can quickly and easily find something that fits your preferred playstyle and jump into the game. If you’re an experienced gamer, you’ll already have a pretty good idea of what classes you like, simplifying the process even further.

For instance, I usually like playing as rogues, or similar classes. If a game has a rogue class (and most do), I can just pick it and start stabbing away, without the need to agonize over the other options.

Classes make things easier to parse for other players, as well. To continue the above example, if I’m a rogue, then other players will immediately have a good idea of what I can bring to a group. In most cases, that’s going to be damage and a bit of crowd control. There’s no need for me to waste time explaining my build and what I can offer.

Even as you progress through the game, it continues to makes things easier. Rather than flailing wildly at different skill set-ups until I find one I like, I will have a smaller selection of builds and much less risk of crippling my character through sheer ignorance. I’ll know right away that as a rogue I want medium armor and daggers or swords as weapons. I’ll know that agility or dexterity is probably going to be my best stat.

A group of rogues in the class-based MMORPG World of Warcraft

All that without any need for outside help.

Another advantage to classes is that they help give a clear identity to each character. In skill-based systems where everyone can do anything, characters start to feel interchangeable, and it’s much harder to impart a sense of identity to your avatar. Classes provide obvious starting points for role-play and impart a certain degree of personality to each character, be they proud paladin or sinister warlock.

By that same token, you can argue classes are more realistic. Most people in the real world tend to specialize in a particular skill set. There’s a limit to how much a single person can learn. Mastering every ability under the sun can strain credibility a little.

The Case for Skill-based

By comparison, skill-based systems are all about freedom. The freedom to be whoever you want, to play however you want, with little or no restrictions.

Classes are good at giving characters identity, but what if you already have an identity in mind, and it doesn’t exactly fit any available classes? What if you want to be an archer who uses a little magic? What if you want to be a paladin with light armor and more agility?

In class-based games, you’d be out of luck. In a skill-based game, it’s just a matter of unlocking the right skills.

There can be a real satisfaction in creating your own build from scratch, too. Giving players unlimited options unquestionably makes for a steeper learning curve, but it also brings with it a certain joy of experimentation, and a true sense of accomplishment when you finally settle on the build that clicks for you.

An argument for realism can also be made in favor of skill-based games, as well. The restrictions placed on most traditional classes are fairly arbitrary, after all. There’s no particularly good reason why a warrior couldn’t learn to pick locks, or a priest couldn’t be trained in archery. It lets your character be a person, not just an archetype.

A character using the Wu deck outfit in the skilled-based MMORPG The Secret World

And if you make a mistake, or if you have a change of heart, you can adapt. One of the most frustrating things that can happen in an RPG is to pick a class you think you’ll like and invest a lot of time into the character, only to find the mechanics don’t quite click for you, or for the developers to redesign it into something you no longer enjoy.

In a traditional class system, you’d have no choice but to suffer through it, or start over with a new character. In a skill-based system, you can just find a new build, and keep the character you’ve already invested in.

When I first started playing The Secret World, I played with a fist weapon/blood magic build. But after the first few zones, I wasn’t feeling it anymore. I was too squishy, and I didn’t have enough AoE damage. In most games, this would have been a real problem. But because TSW didn’t lock you into anything, it took me only about a day of normal play to earn enough ability points to swap from fist weapons to swords. Suddenly I was tougher, able to take on crowds with ease, and having much more fun.

I never looked back.

That’s the kind of freedom no class system will ever equal.

Which Wins Out?

This is one case where there are definite pros and cons to both sides, and I’m not sure either option can truly be said to be objectively superior. There’s a strong element of personal preference.

For my money, though?

Skill-based all the way.

RPGs — MMO or otherwise — about creating a character, playing a role. When you pick a class designed by other people, you’re playing someone else’s role. You’re forced into a narrow box, with little or no opportunity to set yourself apart from the pack.

A shot from the MMORPG Elder Scrolls Online

With a skill-based system, your character is truly yours. You can be whoever, whatever you want to be. You won’t be sharing the game with ten thousand identical clones of your character. You can be an individual.

It does have downsides. Skill-based systems have much steeper learning curves. They can be overwhelming in their complexity. They create balance issues, and they can limit a game’s mass market appeal.

And I do enjoy class systems, as well. I still love my rogues. Sometimes it’s nice to have a clear path to follow, without the need for experimentation or trial and error.

But the sheer freedom offered by skill-based games simply can’t be beat, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.