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Analysis: The Evolution Of The Class System In Games
Analysis: The Evolution Of The Class System In Games
December 23, 2009 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche

December 23, 2009 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche
More: Console/PC

[Writer Andrew Vanden Bossche looks at character class as defined by the original Dungeons and Dragons, and analyzes how class structures enrich games like Team Fortress 2 to this day by encouraging players to collaborate.]

Dungeons and Dragons was the manual video game, with calculations done by hand and images drawn with imagination and graph paper. D&D has been the bible for both game and world design in the RPG and all of its many sub-genres. D&D’s influence is only becoming more widespread, and more games than ever are taking a page from its most defining concepts.

Class, or the ability for players to specialize and customize their characters, has become increasingly popular in genres outside of the RPG. Class is a great tool for allowing players to customize their game experience according to their strengths and expectations, which is big draw in all kinds of games.

One genre that has seen a particularly pronounced increase is the FPS, especially since the release of games like Team Fortress 2. This may be because class was integral to the sort of teamwork encouraged by early Dungeons and Dragons.

Gary Gygax’s vision of D&D was very nearly like a team sport. When he and the many others working at TSR created the first character classes, they made them with the intent that they would be used like a team. Players were supposed to work together and complement each other, and class-based design was meant to encourage this team effort problem solving.

A successful group relies on each other, and compensates for the weaknesses in other members. What’s wonderful about class based design is that it creates a feedback loop in which the classes encourage good teamwork, and teamwork encourages exploration and mastery of the classes.

If Guns are Classes, is Ammo EXP?

Plenty of single player games are getting in on the class action, and there are a lot of advantages to the approach for the individual, from basic convenience to the flow of gameplay. In older games everyone started out the same, and part of the experience was running around until you found your favorite gun. Games like TF2 let you start out with them. This is a small difference, but it means more time with teammates and less time spent equipping yourself.

Different guns are quite comparable to different classes, and in TF2 they are still the most defining features of each individual class. Games like Unreal Tournament have everyone starting out the same, but each gun was wildly different and fairly well balanced so that players could pick weapons equal to the situation or their playstyle. In practice, players would self-select even without more strictly defined classes.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the experiment in monotony called instagib, in which the only weapon is an instant hit instant kill weapon. This led to a game that was more or less a point and click adventure for the hyperactive. While in a sense it levels the playing field by making everyone the same, it means that there is only one way to win: point and click the fastest. When no other skills are important, only those talented or interested in that particular skill will enjoy playing.

Minimize and Maximize

Different weapons and abilities allow room for players with different kinds of skills and interests. Where TF2 really becomes different is in the inherent class advantages, those minor or major adjustments to basic things like speed and health that can make a big difference in how the character is played, along with their weapon. While they may have weaknesses, each class is more or less guaranteed to be very good at a particular aspect of the game.

This sort of personal min/maxing almost feels like cheating, which might be why it’s so appealing. Further increasing personal strength at the expense of weaknesses is what optimizing is all about, and in team games like TF2, you also have friends to cover for your weaknesses. In a way, it’s much more fair, because players (in theory) only have to fulfill the role they find most enjoyable.

This concept of min/maxing was something that grew out of the character design method of D&D. Depending on the character a player wanted, they could throw all of their weakness onto an irrelevant stat and turn themselves into a monster. TF2 characters are premade with this design in mind, so there’s less room for play customization, but less worry about game balance.

Each Class is a Different Game

D&D is famous for being abusive in the respect of min/maxing but there’s actually nothing wrong with the approach taken by the players. The classes in TF2 are designed to take advantage of their strengths. Of course, in order to be well balanced, there needs to be equivalent strengths and weaknesses among the party members. Having no weakness makes for poor play, and this is something that needs work, but there’s nothing wrong with optimization.

For example, the Heavy has both high damage weapons and huge health pool. His chaingun was even specially designed to require less work to aim. He is balanced by being very slow, and because of this is dependent on medics or backup from friends. A player that enjoys slowly advancing on the enemy, playing defensively, or charging in with friends will find it very easy to ignore these weaknesses because the player knows how to compensate for them, and isn’t interested in the kind of playstyle they prevent.

When a class fits a person’s playstyle, their weaknesses feel less pronounced. If the Heavy player values strength over speed, he won’t feel cheated or weak by a slow character. If they player did, they could simply switch to something like a Scout. In the same round of TF2, each player may be playing what amounts to a different game depending on their class. The Spy sneaking behind enemy lines is playing a stealth mission, while the Scout is playing a race against the enemy flag carrier.

Team Effort

The other important part of the class based system is that it originated from a game that was always meant to played as a group. Team Fortress continues this philosophy, forcing coordination through class design just as Dungeons and Dragons did. D&D was never intended as a single player game; Gygax’s minimum was three (two players and one referee). It was a game about teamwork, and it is this philosophy that makes class work so well in a team game.

The classes in D&D aren’t simply meant to be different play styles. Each is meant to provide unique advantages, fulfill certain roles, and compensate for the weaknesses of others. Coordinating this is where the social aspect of the game comes in, which was something Gygax was also concerned with. In the D&D books he wrote at length about how important proper social behavior for players—something that’s more of an issue now than it ever was.

Scouts, for example, are the most mobile class, which makes them fantastic for capturing objectives. However, engineers can set up sentries that are extremely difficult for scouts to get by on their own. In turn, there are classes that can easily get by sentries, but will have a comparatively hard time capturing the actual objective. Of course, the engineer now needs more teammates to deal with the increased threat, and it escalates from there. Because you can change class constantly in TF2, the game encourages players to adapt to the situation, break deadlocks, and shift to help on teammates in trouble.

Gygax took a bit of a curmudgeonly attitude; he felt that players that went against the team spirit of the game should meet a swift death deserving of their selfishness, and that eventually enough appropriate ends would convince them of the error of their ways. It is not a dissimilar method. Class-based gameplay means that the gap of skill can be overcome with appropriate class synergy; in other words, teamwork.

Teamwork is extremely important to any team based game, or team based anything for that matter. What class accomplishes for game design goes beyond just letting players focus on their strengths. It encourages, even forces players to complement each other.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames for the most part, and can be reached at]

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