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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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Ryan Filsinger
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Would have liked to see you explore more of the evolution of the class system seen in games like Battlefield 1943, Tribes, Team Fortress 1, etc.

Glenn Storm
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What a great analysis and comparison between the use of class today to the original structure in D&D. One thing I'm happy to see is the ability to switch class in TF2, as you mention briefly, to encourage higher level problem solving by the player: match your class to the current needs of your team. This is something you couldn't do in D&D without dying and re-rolling. While it may discourage a level of hardship and difficulty (which I assert may not be a bad thing, particularly in adventure games), that dynamic adds an interesting strategy layer to an otherwise twitchy action game. Thanks, Andrew!

Luis Guimaraes
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First time I though deeply into the use of classes in multiplayer video games was when I first saw AVP2, really, if there's something about classes, AVP is it. The other game I enjoyed class playing was BF:Heroes, using the Commando class. I'm not the sniper kinda in any game, but as it's also the stealth one, I enjoyed it a lot.

Some other games I'd recomend for anybody designing a class-based game are Mickey III, Donkey Kong Country (any of them) and Metal Warriors, all for SNES. I can't remember others right now.

I also liked the mention to UT, the real point I most like in the game are how its weapons and different and balanced. Mostly FPSs are just hitscan, with exceptions like Counter Strike.

Jesse Tucker
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Interesting that a game type like instagib was brought up as an example of a team game without classes. I happen to disagree with this point, and this disagreement strengthens the connections between team games and classes. The main difference here is that "classes" are designated by player skill and not a stat sheet.

The style of instagib I've played focuses on the player's skills, but those skills aren't simply limited to rapidly and accurately pointing and clicking. Other skills involve quickly and skillfully navigating from one side of a map to another, as in a CTF game. I happened to play an exhilarating subset of instagib that involved bounding from wall to wall, literally flying across maps. A fair amount of strategy develops as the team gets more organized, and someone needs to be in the game making calls for various plays.

The gametype is so skill-dependent that very few people have the ability to master all of the skills, and they end up designating themselves different roles through their play styles. Runners can move quickly through maps, have a mastery of trick jumps. Sharpshooting Sentries guard the flag or strategic sections of the map and shoot any opponents they see. There is usually some sort of leader organizing the team and making plays, and there are usually all sorts of support roles as well. Much like there are different positions on a basketball team, there are different positions in even the most even-footed team games.

Hayden Dawson
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@ Brian

FFXI tried to provide a measure of class mixing with the second job, but there just weren't enough differences in the combinations to really matter. XI is also the biggest culprit of the whole 'holy trinity' mess that initiated these discussions -- some sort of combat classed mage just was not doable and the tank classes were even more limited.

Stephen Etheridge
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The distinction is between classes imposed by the game on the player and classes created by the player. Your example is the latter. The player is never forced to fit into one of those roles; you, the players are creating those roles to be filled by way of evolving the gameplay beyond the original design.


I agree. I was surprised to see an article with such a broad title as "The Evolution Of The Class System In Games" limited to a single page and concentrating mostly on only one game.

"One genre that has seen a particularly pronounced increase is the FPS, especially since the release of games like Team Fortress 2." - examples? I'm presuming you are referring to a genre that has seen a pronounced increase in 'class-based' gameplay specifically.

I ask because it seems the major focus of the article is not that TF2 uses classes, but more specifically how TF2 locks its weapons to its classes more aggressively than the long list of class-based games and mods in the FPS genre before it. I can't think of many games that have their classes locked to one set of items by default (remember, even now, you don't unlock any further items as a new player of TF2 unless you complete sets of achievements or rely on the random unlock system*).

* "Every 25 minutes of play, a player has a 20% chance of receiving a random weapon. The average time for getting a single item is 1h 40min (including duplicates). Since weapons are granted via a random number generator, experience may vary."

It seems strange that the 'evolution of the class system in games' jumps from D&D to TF2, skipping a whole chunk of games that could be described as having classes. Think about ship-types in games like X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter informally denoting class, because of their speed/shield/space limitations. Then there are many, many multiplayer games and mods in the FPS genre (most before TF2) that use class systems (Tribes, Battlefield, most multiplayer total conversion mods made for Half-Life).

The main difference is that TF2 has a more restrictive inventory for its classes, so perhaps the title of this article should have been more along those lines of how TF2's restrictive approach to classes and roleplaying aids teamplay and player introduction better than looser class systems seen prior to it (greater options suiting longer-term RPG gameplay better), because the points you make to this vein are definitely accurate. The article is good, it's just that the title is misleading.

Matthew Bozarth
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I think the point of class-based systems is not to much the difference in guns, but instead the focus on roles. In D&D it didn't matter if you carried a bow or a wand, a sword or a hammer, what mattered was your role. Are you a tank? Are you a damage dealer? Are you a healer?

One of the major reasons why TF2 works so well with classes I think is because each class has such a clearly defined role. Anyone can hop into TF2 for the first time and quickly realize that Heavies are good tanks, especially when combined with a Medic. Engineers are good for map control and Scouts are Soldiers and Demos are good "siege." It doesn't matter that they are locked to a specific weapon, TF2 is moving away from this by giving classes options, what matters is that they have a clearly defined role. And having a clearly defined role is important, if someone knows what they are supposed to do to help the team, they will. This is why a class-based system is going to be easier to hop into and you are going to get more complex interactions with a lower base skill level.

There are other FPS games that have been made that utilize classes: Tribes, Battlefield, Enemy Territory, Natural Selection. Some of these define role through their classes and some don't. Some just use classes to give you some customization in how you deal damage. They don't encourage high level teamwork. I'm playing Battlefield with a friend and I pick a soldier class and he picks an anti-tank class, how can we interact? Beyond him shooting tanks and me shooting soldiers, there isn't much. Compare this with Natural Selection where my friend is playing a Fade (tall, ranged alien) and I'm playing a Skulk (small, dog like alien that can walk on walls). There are clearly some roles here that open up all sorts of interesting interactions.

Thus I think it really is much more appropriate that this article is about D&D as opposed to the myriad shooters that do "classes."

What is perhaps disappointing is that it feels we have to adopt a "holy trinity" role system in order to get any sort of complex interaction in a shooter.

Stephen Etheridge
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The roles in TF2 are really tied down by the weapons, partly because the weapons are designed to fit the role, partly because the lack of weapon variety further defines that role. Natural Selection is worth looking at because it has two kinds of class system. The Aliens are divided into classes and the Marines are classless (unless you consider the Commander a class; it's more of a different game mode), kind of like how Counter-Strike is classless.

On the one hand, the Aliens' abilities/attacks are exclusive to their class. The Fade (not a ranged class until the very short Aliens endgame btw) is the 'Soldier' - a heavy-hitter with high DPS attacks, health regen and enough HP to withstand medium to high damage. As the basic lifeform, the Skulks are the grunts and also scouts with their 'Parasite' wallhack ability. On the other hand, the Marines' equipment is not exclusive to any class. You can wield a Grenade Launcher while wearing Heavy Armour or a Jetpack, and you can swap it with the guy in front for a Shotgun or Heavy Machine Gun

Natural Selection is an interesting comparison because the Marine team succeeds or fails based on the Commander's ability to dish out roles to the players that cannot be explained by the lack of a class system (and the Marine players' ability to adopt these roles). There's no clearly-defined class loadout that tells you when you have a Grenade Launcher you need to shoot at structures, or when you have a Welder in your hands you need to keep the guys in Heavy armour alive. Yet in TF2 it's understood that because you have a health-gun as your primary weapon, and you only have a low-damage needle gun to fall back on, you need to heal the bug guy so the big guy can cover your back. It's in your interests because the lack of options available to you -due in part to a restricted loadout- mean that someone must make up for your inherent weaknesses because you can't protect yourself. In TF2 if you choose the Medic you choose a role, in NS2 you could pick up a Grenade Launcher entirely by accident.

It gets more interesting when you consider how the Medic's role has become blurred with the new kit he's unlocked. It's not uncommon to see two Medics pairing up together since the introduction of the Blutsauger (that deals sustained vampiric damage) and Ubersaw (charges the 'uber' invulnerability by +25% on each successful melee hit) weapon unlocks. For this, each alternates between assuming the role of the offense class who charges his uber while dealing decent melee damage (the new invented role of the Medic) and the support class who deploys the uber on the former to grant invulnerability (the normal role of the Medic). The Medic's role has thus become more blurred by the relaxing of the weapon restrictions on the class.


In D&D there are roles that need to be adopted by the players for the game to be interesting. The classes have some relevance, but there is much scope when customising your character's stats and loadout to 'do it wrong'. I'm saying that when modern games allow a lot of scope for players to equip their classes with fairly dissonent items, the roles are less clearly defined and players can 'do it wrong' to the point where it isn't fun. TF2 has worked well because it has put much greater restrictions on your class loadouts but has very carefully tailored those restricted items to a very particular role. The player settles on a role and can excel at their strengths with the very best specialised equipment, and it's fun.

Karl Goldshmidt
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Interesting, Matthew is the only one to mention RTCW:Enemy Territory, where that is one of the FPS games that really stand out for me with the addition of roles... It was usually quite difficult to win some maps without at least one person in a certain roll and good teamwork... It was also much more role oriented, than weapon oriented...

This (teamwork importance) also should be something that designers take into consideration. Where in earlier games (like UT), one could just join a game (PUG, or Pick Up Group) and even if the team did poorly together, individually do well. Yet some games seem [to me] next to impossible to play these days without a premade [group] who can work well together... Just another thought brought up after reading this...