Prior to 2020, MMOs really didn't appeal to me, and even now I'm realizing that some would probably just bore me. This isn't a slam on other MMOs in general – they are obviously enjoyed by players, and if you get into them and get something from them, go for it. But for me, the idea of playing a single class only isn't… fun. It's too limiting and I want to play multiple things without having to create new characters. In tabletop games, for the record, if they have a class system I almost always multiclass.
However, between COVID and wanting to do something new, I went for FFXIV and found it a lot of fun. For those not familiar, FFXIV lets you put all the classes/jobs in the game on a single character. Right now I have a single PC I play, and she has all the classes, though at varying states of level – only a few are capable of advancing the main story, for example, because that requires a high enough level to take the quests. It's a lot of fun, but has a couple drawbacks (or… perhaps not drawbacks, but things I wish it could do):
- Because each class levels on its own, it's a lot of work keeping up an Alt class/job at a level able to participate in certain content (two jobs I have at Main Story Quest levels were unlocked at level 60).
- Abilities cannot be shared between classes. There was some limited form of this earlier but by now, they've gotten rid of that in lieu of "role abilities." And even then, it was specific core abilities that were shared, which limited how much you could do certain things.
- There are concepts in the game that could be mechanically interesting but aren't represented as a selectable option for players.
Now, I get that putting all the skills out in the open and selectable could cause issues in this game, but it's frustrating, for example, when I want to cross a dangerous area but can't do so without risking drawing aggro, and don't have a stealth skill that would work because a) I'm not currently in Rogue, and b) my Rogue job is too low to work on those creatures. I could get that a tank couldn't stealth because their armor is too heavy and makes too much noise, but why can't my robe-wearing Summoner hide from foes ?
The third point comes from a story beat where a group of cultists has the ability to change form from human to something else (keeping it vague for spoiler reasons). Nothing in the game thus far allows any kind of transformation, and that specific one may be a technical limitation or something else going on (the lore does make it clear this specific change requires specific things to even be possible), but there was no chance for me to try and join them or attempt the effort myself. There are other groups that exist that could teach some special abilities as well, but you never get to join them – your abilities are almost entirely derived from your classes/jobs, and with nothing from outside you affecting your abilities.
That made me wonder: how modular can an MMO get, what are the most "modular" ones, and what are the limits to it? I'm aware of ESO, which allows you to put points into most of the skill trees on any character and having several that are tied to a specific organization you can join. Obviously, there are certain skills that can't be used together – you can't (to my knowledge) use weapon skills for two different categories of weapons in conjunction. Each class also has a small number of skill trees exclusive to that class, including combat abilities.
But what risks are there to fully modular play? One thing that comes to mind immediately is the risk of making "superbuilds" – constructing a singular build that has all the best abilities. This creates a sense of "sameness" and risking the use of the same abilities all over the place. In FFXIV, for instance, I could see certain abilities getting put onto every character if they were THAT open – some won't work together well because they require resource bars exclusive to that job, others would be redundant (such as the various tank stances), and others are dependent upon chains that can be irritating to try to use all at once; however, there are a few that probably would see regular use on everyone (summoning a pet for either extra DOT or healing functions, for example, just seems like a no-brainer – overworld content allows this with the chocobo companion, but I could see it being all over the place in dungeons or trials that don't allow the use of the companion feature, and even with the chocobo you could set the bird to heal and have a DPS pet to increase damage on a target).
You also run into situations where characters don't play to specific roles, or alternatively all play one role and don't cover others. With classes, you have specific roles that must be filled – FFXIV sets party composition requirements for dungeons in many cases. Without classes, how do regulate roles and ensure you have damage takers, damage dealers, and damage healers? Maybe the game is designed not need even roles, which is possible, but what do you need to do make that possible? And if roles are still required, how to also ensure that someone does a given job and that not too many people are doing the same thing (if everyone is a tank and pops the stance to draw aggro, you might as well not have any tanks!). I know classless games exist, and those may provide some solutions, but it's definitely something to consider.
Finally, there then comes the questions of how to make those micro modules work, how to make sure they don't overpower each other, and how to control for FOMO preventing any development. In the example I cited from FFXIV, you first see that transformation about 60% of the way through the first main story, though it isn't fully explained until the first Expansion. That would arguably the point where you could potentially obtain access to a skill tree that leads to the transformation in question. That's a pretty long wait, though. It wouldn't likely work as a class/job of its own, so it would need to be its own thing added on the side somehow – do you allow people to add more than one at a time, or make it a slot that you can have one option active in? If they cost limited resources to obtain, how do you ensure that players have resources available when the option becomes available – do you make sure that they get new resources to spend on it after they become aware of the option, or do you hint that there are more things out there later in the game and they may want to not spend all their points on stuff as they come across it?
This got a bit rambly, I realize, but I am curious – what games out there allow for the development of characters with more modular options that allow you to develop as you want in an MMO? Which do it WELL, and what is good about how they handle it? Which do modularity but poorly and what lessons can be learned? I'm super curious to see what's out there and how this issue is tackled!
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