When the CRPG genre first became popularized they were influenced by Pen and Paper games like Dungeons and Dragons in party creation. Here players would build their own party out of the available classes such as warrior; mage, priest etc then go questing. The integration of PnP mechanics became synonymous with this style of CRPG.
This past decade however we've seen a sharp decline in class based rpgs in lieu of epic storytelling and less personalization. The recent trend of CRPGs is either the Bioware style of customizing one person only with a party of pre-created characters or just having a one person party such as with the Elder Scrolls series or The Witcher.
Interesting enough where the CRPG genre moved away from this style, the JRPG genre moved in. In the past both Final Fantasy and the Dragon Quest series have experimented with class systems with different iterations. In the last few years the class system had a resurgence on the DS thanks to the Etrian Odyssey series. Last year three different rpgs were released on the DS each with their own interpretation of a class system: Dragon Quest 9, Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light and Etrian Odyssey 3.
Personally I love class systems as they offer both customization and personalization. Today I'll be examining the important elements to take into consideration when designing a RPG with class mechanics. For this entry I'm going to reference Dragon Quest 9, Etrian Odyssey 3 and Final Fantasy as they are the most recent examples of class systems.
1. Balance: There are two sides of balance in class based rpgs: Balance between the classes themselves, and balance with the challenge of the game.
One of the problems in my opinion with older RPGs is that even though they offer the customization of different classes, the classes are so rigid in their abilities that you are forced to take certain classes to stand a chance.
In most class base RPGs the player has the choice between popular PnP archetypes: Fighter, Mage, Priest and so on. A fighter for example would never be able to use healing spells and a priest will never learn offensive magic. The problem with designing the classes so rigidly like this is that it forces the player to include certain classes to stand a chance.
Now some gamers can make the argument that you don't need to include a mage or a priest to give the game a challenge. However I would argue that if the player has to handicap themselves to make your game challenging then that is bad design.
Looking back at the three games, each one found a way to avoid this problem. Both DQ9 and FF allow you to swap classes while EO 3 splits weapon type and similar effects across the different classes, such as close range fighters who can inflict elemental damage with certain attacks.
With balance across classes, the designer has to be careful about not creating useless classes. For example let's say we have five different classes, each one does the same type of damage. Now if one of the five does three times the damage compared to the other four and has better abilities, why would you pick any of the other four at all?
The more classes you have, the greater the chance of having copycat classes or inferior ones. In FF while the abilities are unique to each class, many classes have limited use outside of a specific battle or specific purpose. Once you unlock a class that has the best attack stats it doesn't make sense to switch to another if you are just using your weapons.
EO 3 created unique classes that were as far away from traditional archetypes as possible. None of the classes felt like copies of others and the variety of skills meant you weren't forced to take one class to get through the game.
Balance with the game is tricky. In traditional rpgs the designers know what type of party composition the player has at any point in the game and can create bosses and encounters around that knowledge. In a class based rpg however the designer won't know. The player could have a party of nothing but mages, or all warriors. The challenge is that the designers need to create battles that are still challenging but at the same time should not brutally punish the player for not including a specific class.
This is where things get complicated as with a variety of classes it can be hard to design this. For example in EO3, I am replaying it right now with a party that has no dedicated spell caster and a healer who also focuses on damage. At this point I have no clue if I am signing my death warrant with this composition.
I wish I had a simple answer on enemy balance but I don’t. This is one of those cases where I don't think it is possible to please everyone. One element that would help is making all enemies susceptible to debuffs and status ailments, including bosses. If you have a game where the bosses are immune to status aliments (for example most Final Fantasy games) that right there forces the player not to use those classes in their party.
2. Customization: Like balance, when it comes to customization in class based rpgs there are two sides to look at: the initial classes themselves and growing the class in game.
Simply put, you want variety with your classes. If you have a warrior, Viking, gladiator and pirate class and they all do the same kind of damage the same way then you are doing it wrong. One of the many ways I love the EO series is that the designers seem to make it their mission to get away from the traditional RPG classes.
FF offers a decent variety with their classes with each one given a unique buff further differentiating the various classes. In DQ 9 you start off with a few initial classes and through side quests you can unlock further classes.
When it comes to growing classes over time, this is where I've seen RPGs have trouble. First off if every class has the same upgrade path, that can be just as bad as having each class start the same. In FF every class has the same pattern for upgrading and there is no additional choice for the player. This eventually renders the class system moot once you have your preferred classes fully upgraded.
DQ 9 is the worse of the three in my opinion. When you level up in DQ9 you'll receive skill points that can be put into one of the skills of the class. Get enough points in the skill and you'll be able to use abilities related to that with other classes. The problem is that it isn't customization when you can give a character every skill in the game.
Granted most gamers are not going to spend the hours on end to get to that point, but the point of customizing a character is to create something unique, not a clone of every class. Improving your character by deciding which skills to improve first at least offers some choice compared to FF.
EO 3 gets it right in my opinion. Each class has a list of skills unique to it for the player to choose. Putting one point in a skill will give you that skill to use, put additional points to enhance it. This allows the player to improve their character in a variety of ways; most offensive characters have skills dedicated to one of the possible weapons the class can equip.
Later on in the game you'll unlock the ability to give your characters a sub class, which is giving them an additional class's list of skills to use. The reason why this is not a problem in my opinion compared to DQ9 is that the player is still limited, they can only take one sub class per character and you only have so many points available.
In my opinion in terms of worse use of a class system to best I would go: Dragon Quest 9, Final Fantasy and Etrian Odyssey 3. In case you haven't noticed I am a huge fan of the Etrian Odyssey series. I like how there is no "one way" to play the game and how even with the game being on the hard side, it still is fair.
Please correct me if I'm wrong, as mentioned at the start I haven't seen a class based RPG on the PC in sometime. Personally I'm not a fan of PnP mechanics which is why I avoided the Neverwinter Nights series. I’ve started to kick around another game idea for a class based RPG set in a randomized world, still I would love to see someone attempt a modern take on the PC just like what happened on the DS with the Etrian Odyssey series.