[2008/05/16 note: Well, obviously all of this was made completely moot by the Sony/LucasArts decision to rip the professions out of SWG entirely and replace them with nine "iconic" classes. I'm including this essay here anyway as it still has something useful to say about designing a large-scale MMORPG in such a way that players are encouraged to interact with each other.]
An insight I had a while back was that while the original design of SWG established dependencies between the playstyle-based profession groups, these dependencies were all constructed to support combat. I'd like to explore that theory a little more here to see what others think.
DEPENDENCY: THE THEORY
In the Elder Days when SWG launched, it was designed so that each group of professions (see the addendum at the bottom of this post) had a valuable role to play. The goal (I believe) was to construct the skills system so that everybody would have something worthwhile to contribute to other players.
The thing was, only one playstyle really needed anybody else: combat players.
Combat players required crafters to create weapons and armor. Combat players required socializers (healers and entertainers) to heal wounds, cure poisons/diseases, supply buffs, and remove Battle Fatigue. As for explorers, combat players didn't exactly require them, but some of their skills were still useful for a combat player to have.
So being required by combatants wasn't a Bad Thing. It meant that each of these non-combat professions had a useful role to play in SWG. Not only did the combat professions need them, they needed the combat professions in order to fulfill their designed support roles.
The thing was, no other dependencies were created. Combatants needed these non-combat professions, but the non-combat professions didn't need each other. Each non-combat profession came to be thought of as useful (and received new content) only to the degree that it supported combat, rather than how well it supported all playstyles. There were some exceptions -- Politicians (once player cities were introduced) definitely needed Architects. But these were rare exceptions; by far the more common case was that combatants -- and only combatants -- needed non-combat professions.
For some time, this wasn't an issue. As long as combatants needed the non-combat professions, everyone had something useful to do.
But -- surprise, surprise -- combatants didn't like being the only ones who had to depend on everybody else. They didn't like having to pay a lot of credits for high-end gear. They didn't like having to hunt for uber buffs. And they definitely didn't like Battle Fatigue. And thus were spawned the buffbots and AFK macrotainer alts.
This was clearly not a desirable state of affairs. Everyone was complaining. And so it appeared that the solution was to reduce the dependence of combatants on other professions. Over time and many changes, the non-combat skills that supported combat play were circumvented, nerfed, or removed. High-end loot drops and quest rewards were added to replace crafted goods. Buffs were greatly weakened. Battle Fatigue was eliminated completely.
The result? Because virtually the entire design of each non-combat profession had been based on direct support of combat play, reducing the dependency of combatants on these professions reduced the value of playing the non-combat professions. Because these professions were never designed to also need each other, and because they were rarely if ever given new content intended to make them fun to play in and of themselves (as combat has consistently been given), removing their combat support abilities leaves non-combat players asking themselves, "What's left? Why should I keep playing SWG?"
Which is where we are now.
DEPENDENCY: THE QUESTIONS
Having laid out this theory, I'd like to ask some questions.
1. Do you buy it? Is it mostly right? If there are flaws in the facts or reasoning, what do you think those flaws are? If it misses some other crucial point, what point is that? Or do you think the whole thing is completely bogus and all concerns expressed utterly unfounded? Why?
2. Assuming you see some truth in the theory, do you think anything can be done about it at this point? Is SWG too far gone down the road of all-combat, all-the-time for any attention to non-combat playstyles to save it? Or is there still hope?
3. Assuming you think there's still hope, what do you think can/should be done? Is the answer to create new dependencies among all the profession groups? What should these dependencies be? For example, how should entertainers depend on healers or crafters or explorers? How should explorers depend on combatants? How should healers depend on entertainers? How would you explain to players why these new constraints on their preferred playstyle are a Good Thing?
4. Would an alternate approach -- adding significant non-combat support content to each profession group -- be enough? In other words, can each profession be made so much fun on its own that it attracts players regardless of whether it supports other playstyles or not? Would it be OK to take this kind of standalone approach to a "massively multiplayer" game, or would something important be lost in not providing content that fosters interaction among the playstyles?
As an addendum, here's how I group the various professions.
In SWG and other MMOGs, four playstyles seem to be most common: Combat, Commerce, Exploration, and Social.
Some of these styles can be broken down a little further. For example, in SWG I think of the Bounty Hunter and Smuggler professions (and eventually the revamped Ranger profession) as "Rogue" professions, and of the Rogue group as a subtype of the Combat playstyle. The Social and Commercial playstyles break down to subtypes, too, but the Exploration playstyle isn't detailed enough with professions to have any substructure.
All of my observations above are based on this concept of organization for SWG's professions. If you have any comments or questions on this structure, those are welcome, too.
- Standard Combat
- Teras Kasi
- Pilot, Imperial
- Pilot, Privateer
- Pilot, Rebel
- Squad Leader
- Special Combat
- Combat Medic
- Creature Handler
- Bounty Hunter
- Droid Engineer
- Ranger (moving to Rogue)
- Special Services
- Image Designer