Afraid of heroes

That’s what we seem to be when it comes to multiplayer. Particularly MMOs.

Remember WoW two, three years ago? All the hoopla about the Hero classes? “Oh, they’re coming”, they said, “we’re just working on them. Tweaking the details. You’ll see”. Well, here we are, years later, and we still have not seen a thing. Chances are we’ll never see a thing. I quite doubt we’ll ever see Hero classes implemented in WoW, and I doubt a little less that we’ll see something like that in other, future games.

Why is that? Well, first ask yourself “What is a Hero?“. The first thing that comes to mind when we ask that question from the MMO angle, the logical answer is that a Hero character is one that stands out from the rest in terms of abilities. How much higher does it stand, and what those abilities are, we don’t know for sure. It could be anything. But suffice it to say, at the very least, a Hero would be able to do anything a non-Hero, normal, vanilla character can do –only better. Or even some things that plain folk just can’t do.

Maybe they can take more damage, move faster, hit harder, be a spell casting machine that hardly ever runs out of mana. Or maybe they’ll just do things no one else can; maybe they can fly. Maybe they can kill with one shot or one hit. Maybe they can breathe underwater. Maybe they can teleport all over the game world at will. Who knows?

Nobody knows, because those things are left intentionally vague by the designers for a very powerful reason: sure, if you’re designing an MMO it’s almost expected of you to piss off your playerbase every now and then… but not too much. Just imagine the forum noise in your MMO of choice the day Hero classes are patched in, some guys are getting to be Heroes… and others are not.

Because that’s the whole point of a Hero, isn’t it? To be separate from the herd and as unique as possible. A Hero that can jump 100ft in the air is a Hero until everyone can jump 100ft as well. At that point, he becomes a regular Joe again. Like everyone else. You have to keep them unique (and few, even) to make them last and, basically, to be worth a damn. If you’re not going to keep them unique, and relatively few in number –the select few– then it makes no sense to talk about Hero classes this or that; you’re just talking about another progression of abilities, available to everyone else just like every other ability in the game. Fair, but also plain and boring.

So I finally said it. I finally said the F-word. It just rolls off your tongue like that… fairness. We don’t have Heros because it wouldn’t be fair to have them. Or so common wisdom goes. But I’m not one that likes to go with common wisdom too much. For good or ill, I like to question things. So, allow me to question this one.

Why, by Crom, would it be unfair to have Heroes around?
Because everyone pays the same monthly fee, J. Therefore, everyone has the same right to access the same content and to have the same abilities, to be on a level ground with the rest of the players.”
But that’s a bankrupt statement. From the get go. To begin with, as long as your game has more than one class to play, there will be a choice. And with that choice comes the acceptance of difference between characters right from the start. Only the most rabid of idiots would seriously complain that his Rogue can’t turn into a bear at will, or that his Priest cannot wear plate. If we can accept class diferences, in terms of potential, playstyle and abilites, why can’t we accept the Hero difference? After all, that’s all it is in essence: a class diference.

“Well, you know, it may be that people can accept other classes doing something they can’t, but they can’t take it very well when the same class can do things they can’t.”
Maybe so, but that’s also high on the bull-o-meter. Every single moment of every single day, on every single server that hosts every single multiplayer game around, there are players of the same classes that can do some things, and others that can’t. Take two level 60s from WoW, for example. One is attuned to  the Core, the other one isn’t. One can go there, the other one can’t. Yet no one says that isn’t fair. Also, even due to simple itemization, there are players that can do things others can’t within their same class. Players with the Staff of Atiesh can port their group to Karazhan, those without the staff have to hoof it. Where is the outcry?

“But those who are attuned did the work to get attuned. Those with the Staff of Atiesh did the work to get it.
So what. Yeah, let me say it again, just so it’s plain to see how reactionary I am: So what. Since when does work matter in an MMO? Hold the veggies. And hold the veggies, because you didn’t complain when your guildie just killed a rat and found a purple. Because you didn’t complain when a raid mate happened to join in very late, but hey… there was a kill on the last boss, DKP is king and he gets first crack at the purple. You didn’t complain when your guildie logged in one morning and found the crazy auction of the crazy delicious purple at crazy prices. He just logged in and bought it for a stupid amount. Where was your bitching then?

“Look, you’re pissing me off already. Players need to start with an equal footing, and have equal opportunities. That’s it. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise.”
Look yourself. Screw fairness. Allow me to go all ornate and off the deep end for a moment here and get all philosophical on your hiney: If you are in the business of simulating a world, which is naturally all that any MMO is, if you want to do a good job at it you will go and aim to achieve the maximum possible quality of the representation, in terms of a faithful reproduction, while balancing everything against technical limitations and balancing issues. In other words, you want to simulate a world as best you can, making sure the granularity and complexity of the simulation does not get in the way of the game and gameplay itself.

The point is simple: Life isn’t fair. So why should a representation of life be? No one gets so pissed off in real life because they can’t run as fast as Carl Lewis, then they kill themselves. In fact, most people in the world don’t give a damn about Carl Lewis or running as fast as him because their interests lie in other areas. They’re just not competing in the same sphere of influence. In game terms, it really should matter little to Priests what Warlocks can or cannot do, or how well they can do it. In a Venn diagram of this, there is no gray area. People accept life with all its diferences. People accept to be better and worse than other people, and there’s little strife about it. In fact, if there is any strife, it’s the individual strife to become better oneself, to compete in terms that are more equal. “If I can’t take as much damage as a Hero Warrior I’ll cancel my account” has no equivalent in real life, simply because it would be ridiculous: “If I can’t bend it like Beckham, I’ll kill myself”. People don’t quit life because there are better people around, so people wont quit the game for the same reason. Now, they may quit it for a lot of other reasons, but not that one. It’s a stupid reason to quit over.

So, therein lies the rub. There’s the disconnect, and there’s why we won’t see Hero classes anytime soon: Because the devs  still haven’t grasped that. They just aren’t sure that people won’t quit en masse, so they don’t want to risk it. They just won’t do it, because they are afraid of heroes. Not of the heroes themselves –after all if you can create and balance a class in itself, you can create and balance a Hero class in itself. It’s the same darn thing — but they’re afraid of the reaction. God forbid we see some variety every now and then. God forbid there may be characters around that are intrinsically better than others (as if that doesn’t happen already). God forbid we do take the next step in the simulation and representation of life and worlds, which is to hard code unfairness in there. The way it is, and maybe the way it should be.

Devs are afraid of heroes. Are you? I’m listening.


5 Responses to “Afraid of heroes”

  1. 1 Cailin Coilleach February 7, 2007 at 3:10 am

    I don’t have much to contribute to the discussion, save for the fact that I agree with you. Just wanted to say that that was some seriously good writing.

  2. 2 Joe March 2, 2007 at 12:29 am

    The best MMO out there, Asheron’s Call, “Lets your priest wear plate”.

    Also, explain how hero classes would make the game more fun?

    Your avatar isn’t what makes a game fun. Character differentiation isn’t what makes a game fun. *Gameplay* is what makes a game fun.

  3. 3 Julian March 2, 2007 at 8:29 am

    “The best MMO out there, Asheron’s Call, “Lets your priest wear plate”

    – And so does Oblivion, for that matter. And I’m sure there are a few other weird, unknownish games out there that let you mix it up like that.

    “Also, explain how hero classes would make the game more fun?”

    – No, I’m under no illusion here. I don’t think Heroes will be the panacea of gaming, the silver bullet that will save us from boredom. There’s no such thing. There’s no *one* such thing, rather.

    What I do think, however, is that Heroes (if done properly) would be another element that adds to the complexity of the whole thing. It’s a concept that’s tied directly to progression. Call it a new echelon, a new tier of progression, whathaveyou, so it would be instantly recognizable players. Unless you design your game exclusively around the concept and presence of Hero classes, they would be just spice. And that’s just fine. They don’t have to be anything else but yet another thing to spice things up.

    “Your avatar isn’t what makes a game fun. Character differentiation isn’t what makes a game fun. *Gameplay* is what makes a game fun.”

    – While I don’t dispute that gameplay is ultimately where it’s at, I strongly disagree on the rest of your statement.

    This depends on the game itself, of course, but your avatar is the embodiment of the intersection between player and game. It’s an incredibly important thing to have. In MMOs, particularly, the avatar is the first and in many cases the biggest recipient and container for a lot of the player’s mind time. Players pour a lot in it, so it has to be good, ready, available and appropiate to take that mind time and let it grow.

    As far as character differentiation, that’s just as important. It’s tied to the idea of uniqueness, which in turn is tied to the complexity of the game itself. Worlds or gamespaces without character differentiation feel automatically flat. A poor representation of whatever they’re trying to represent, because the player’s mind knows that the real thing, what they’re drawing *from* has indeed lots of differentiation and is unique. When the representation is not, it simply fails. It holds no interest. It’s bland.

    None of these elements, by themselves, are big enough to make or break a game. However, they are big enough to contribute *a lot* to the big picture of a game and can seriously add or detract from it. They are that important.

    If, as you stated, the avatar and character differentiation do not make a game fun, then think if without them a game would be fun. Think of a game with no avatars whatsoever, and all the other characters you see are exactly the same in every respect, down to the graphics. Every monster you fight is the same. Every abilities you use are the same. Every sound you hear is the same.

    Even though the avatar and differentiation are not the sole elements that make a game fun, you can’t just strip them out or pay no attention to it. They are incredibly important.

  4. 4 wittigjr April 2, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    I think your comparison to real life falls down.

    In real life, people don’t care if they can’t run as fast as Carl Lewis because its likely that they have a different profession. However, in MMOs, there is basically only one profession: an adventurer. Sure, you can specialize in raid content or PvP, but in those situations, a Priest very much cares what a Warlock can do since they are both competing at the same thing.

    So why doesn’t the priest switch classes? After all, in the real world if you can’t compete with the people in your industry/workplace/etc, you can always go back to school and learn a new job. However, going back to school in real life is a new experience, unlike in MMOs. If that priest wants to reroll as a warlock, its pretty likely that they are going to have to redo all the content they already did as a warlock which can seem more like work than fun. When players see your game as work rather than fun, you’re in trouble as a developer.

    Finally, while hero classes might be great fun for the people who can earn them, they won’t be fun whenever you have to compete against them. Would you really want to be in a battle ground with a non-hero PUG versus a all hero guild team? How about getting corpse camped by a hero?

  5. 5 Julian April 4, 2007 at 7:16 am

    “In real life, people don’t care if they can’t run as fast as Carl Lewis because its likely that they have a different profession. However, in MMOs, there is basically only one profession: an adventurer. Sure, you can specialize in raid content or PvP, but in those situations, a Priest very much cares what a Warlock can do since they are both competing at the same thing.”

    – I guess that’s one way of seeing things, but I disagree. A better comparison I think would be the military. During wartime, althought they all belong to the general category of ‘soldiers’, a medic doesn’t care much about what the submariners are doing, and the tank pilots don’t care much about what the air force is doing, unless they start raining bombs on their own.

    Although they’re all ‘soldiers’ or ‘military personnel’, and during wartime on the field they all share the common, strategic goal of ‘defeating the enemy’ (vague, I know, but there’s a kernel of truth there), they all mind their own business as per their particular missions and interact with each other (or not) as directed.

    Medics are not gonna get in a tizzy if the air force gets 30 or 40 kills a day, while they get none. It is possible for many different elements to share an overarching common goal, while their contributions to that goal take different shapes.

    You’re essentially saying the medics should keep a close eye on the submariners to make sure they don’t do a better job than them. And if they do, that the medics should take it up to HQ to let them get some kills too to ‘even things out’, if I understand you correctly.

    “Finally, while hero classes might be great fun for the people who can earn them, they won’t be fun whenever you have to compete against them. Would you really want to be in a battle ground with a non-hero PUG versus a all hero guild team? How about getting corpse camped by a hero?”

    – How is this different than 20/40 people banding together to take on a common foe that vastly outclasses each of them individually? How is trying to kill a player with 10X more hitpoints than your average joe, for example, different from trying to kill a mob with 10X more hitpoints than your average joe? There is the obvious distinction that one is a player while the other is not, with all that entails, but conceptually it’s the same.

    Is the problem then just that we’re giving these abilities to other players instead of having mobs with these abilities? If that’s the case, people should be up in arms about the occasional player in greens randomly facing against the veteran decked out in purples. It happens a thousand times a day, and no one really bats an eye. And if they do, is to ask for more balance, or for a way to get around that disparity – not to eliminate it.

    Of course, to design Heroes as essentially invincible would be cockblocking the rest of the players. But I don’t think they should be invincible. There should always be one or many ways to beat them. After all, our common heroic lore and mythology is not unfamiliar with this concept – Achilles had his heel, Superman his kryptonite, etc.

    And corpse camped by a hero is the same as corpse camped period. If you’re getting corpse camped, it means you cannot defeat the opponent and break free of the camping cycle – if you could, the corpse camping would end. Corpse camping is symptomatic of another design problem, and not relative to the strength of the opponent.

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