Balancing a game’s multiplayer has become one of the most challenging things a developer faces today. Fortunately developers found a way to avoid a single approach becoming superior by creating roles and classes within games. Done right, it creates a margin of error that allows classes to be slightly less or more powerful while keeping them all relevant. I’ll use an example from Team Fortress 2. Even if the heavy weapons guy gets his damage tuned up too high it won’t stop a spy from sneaking up and stabbing him in the back, or sniper from picking him off. This in turn gives the heavy’s team reason to field pyros and scouts to screen for spies, and spies of their own to ambush the snipers. The effect cascades to create a niche for all the classes, even when they are not perfectly balanced.
Normally picking a class is a top down choice for the player. Whatever customization options you have are limited by the chosen class. To most that’s just what class design is. It is effective after all, but there are alternatives. We don’t see it as often, but bottom up class creation does exist in some games.
Most recently, Mechwarrior Online (MWO) is making a strong push to bring this method to a level of refinement I haven’t seen before. At first glance there are no classes to this game. Instead you build a walking tank weighing between 20-100 tons and customize every part of it to your geeky heart’s content. You’re handed a small mountain of different weapons that can largely be put on any mech without any change in performance. Each mech chassis you can build from is really only limited by its weight, where it can attach weapons, and whether it can use mech-lifting jet packs.
Yet for this overwhelming freedom the game gives you, it does have classes. You can go onto the forums and refer to things like “skirmisher,” or “brawler,” and most players will know what you’re talking about. How is that possible? Those aren’t even terms that appear anywhere in the current beta.
Just like a good level, it’s a system designed to guide the player in a specific direction. Let’s say you want to make a really fast mech. Naturally you want a big engine. If you use a light mech it can’t afford to carry too much else, and even a mid-size mech is limited since it will need an even larger engine to move its larger weight. To compliment this, the lightest weapons in the game are short range lasers. So if you have a medium or small mech that can use lots of lasers, it’s very natural to build something fast and short ranged. There are interlocking chains of logic like this everywhere in the game. With experience they will quickly teach you what to expect from otherwise endless possibilities.
MWO presents a tremendous array of pieces with very minimal restrictions on their thousands of combinations. All the while it gently guides you towards distinctive roles. Part of the beauty of this bottom up system is that there is still genuine freedom. You can still create whatever you like, and if proven effective, player experimentation could easily carve out a new class. Even within the common ‘classes,’ you can still spend hours fine tuning your mech to fit your own style.
It’s interesting that this is such a novel idea. The Call of Duty series has been using bottom up class/loadout choices in multiplayer for a long time. Why doesn’t this example jump to mind? There’s a lot to love about Call of Duty multiplayer, but they generally fail to create distinct classes. The weapons don’t serve distinct enough purposes to create the kind of class balance I mentioned with Team Fortress 2. Instead players quickly identify the best guns and perks in the game and use nothing else. Want to see this in action? Go search for “black ops mlg” on YouTube and count how many different guns you see.
So the idea has been out there for ages. It dates back – at least – to the Battletech tabletop game on which MWO is based. This foundation no doubt helped the developers immensely to create and balance this system. We’ll see how things shape up as MWO’s beta continues, but I’d love to see it popularize this approach, and prove to developers what it’s capable of.