Nov 22, 2010

The mage’s dilemma

Mages suck movie posterLet’s face it: in your average fantasy game, mages suck.

Sure, they always seem cool at first, with their crazy robes (who wears those anymore?), arcane tats, throwing balls of energy or fire around, and generally being badasses. The appeal is really no surprise. Think about it: they are essentially the nerds of the times but with power! These guys essentially are the kids that stayed at home all the time reading books and studying. They are the geeks and scientist types made all-powerful with the concept of magic!

As someone who has spent a lot of time playing games, I’ve noticed a sad trend for our prestidigitators. And it isn’t their fault: so much of gameplay theory and practice over the years has left them in this sorry state. Who do we wag fingers at? Developers? Whiny players?

In worlds where kings and princesses still exist, dragons and orcs roam the lands, and people still go on [ridiculous] quests, there exist three basic archetypes.

The Fighter – The Mage – The Rogue

Each type may exist under any number of different monikers each with slight variations on the theme. Sometimes games will make hybrids of two or three of the types. Paladins typically mix some mage-ish stuff in with a basic fighter type, or rangers mix in a little mage and rogue to go with their fighting.

The fighter, as the name suggests, emphasizes the physical aspects in everything. They are always the ones with the most health, endurance, and strength. They focus on big weapons (or multiple weapons) and crazy armor and brute force. They are most often the easiest to play, needing little to no strategy. Walk up to creature and start beating its brains in, move on to next or rest, as needed, when done.

The rogue is usually the most varied between games. It can be as simple as your tried-and-true thief type or it can be more strange like a beast handler. What unifies them, though, is the emphasis on skills. Stealing, sneaking around, traps, or whatever. Their strength comes from their vast array of useful and unique abilities that the other two archetypes lack, though sometimes games cop out and give mage types spell versions. Rogues may or may not be decent in combat, but rarely are they the highest damage dealers, tankers, or whatever. They are almost always somewhere in the middle and make up for that with their collection of skills.

And lastly, the mage. This is any type that uses some kind of magic. It includes priest types (clerics) as they still usually function similarly to the more arcane wizard types. They almost always suffer through life with the lowest health, the flimsiest armor, and the least number of raw skills. They (supposedly) make up for this with crazy-ass-cool spells.

In theory, all three balance each other and bring something unique to the table that the other two do not. Because of this you have a nice trifecta with the best and most versatile teams consisting of some mixture of all three. The classic team from Final Fantasy I was always the fighter, the thief, and a black and white mage.

But the dilemma starts to rear its ugly head soon enough in most games. Since all games eventually come down to mathematics, you’ll soon start to see mage types flounder upon the banks of game reality. It’s not that they don’t work in theory, but that they rarely work in practice the way that they should.

Most games eventually break down into a numbers game of attrition, where you weigh damage versus health and such. Sure, the good games will have more than this, such as good story and interesting side quests to do, but even the ones that have these eventually run out and you are left with the core game mechanics typically focusing on combat. This is particularly true of MMOs since they often rely heavily on the combat and much less on, well, anything else.

Fighters always do the best here in almost every game. Having the highest health and defense and really good physical prowess, they can kill for extended periods requiring only rest to regain health before going back into the fray. This is why they love healer-types so much, though many games in an effort to appeal to solo players offer some other way to avoid pairing or grouping, usually in the form of health potions. In single player games, this is often even more available and viable (MMOs often make them expensive to encourage grouping).

Mages often get interesting ways to kill and damage, too, but the problem is the battery runs out. That’s right: mana. MP. Whatever you call it. Mages often are balanced with the fighters such that they are just as adept at killing with spells as the fighters are at killing with swords and axes. But fighters typically don’t have to expend anything like mana to swing their weapon. This means that every mage can hunt just fine… until they go OOM.

Then there is the health problem. Mages are squishy, so while they can damage effectively (until they run out of mana) they can’t take it. This leads to games developing ways to allow them to hunt despite the fact that they can take only a few hits before dying or needing to run. Pets often fill this role, providing a semi-tank for the mage (though, again, it often comes at a price and/or is less effective than finding a nice fighter friend). Sometimes the game will use distance and let mages kite or kill quickly or just generally stay out of range long enough to reduce the time they take hits. Still, either way, it introduces a constraint and it makes playing mages harder.

While fighters just have to walk up to things and start punishing, mages play this game of retreating, dodging, trying to get a spell casted, or pet controlling, all while watching the mana bar. Maybe this is more fun for you, and if so, that’s cool, but even if the challenge is fun, my argument isn’t against the added challenge but that ultimately you’re weaker as a mage. The low HP is a challenge, maybe, but the mana constraint is not balanced by anything in fighters.

Rogues usually get a pass, since their skills typically have cool-downs or other things that balance things. They may or may not have a Skill Points pool, like mana, to draw from. But still, they have other things to rely on, and the skills often are mostly for non-combat things anyway.

The solution is so easy, though! Fighters should have something like mana to draw from for their combat operations. It’s right there in your face, too: stamina! They get tired swinging heavy things, right? More endurance/constitution or whatever helps this (and their HP), just as mages need Int/Wis for mana and spell effectiveness.

In fact, why even have a separate mana pool? Why not just say casting spells tires mages? Using skills tires rogues? Then everyone is balanced with the same two pools: health and fatigue.

Some games scratch the surface of this. Back when I played EverQuest about ten years ago, they had stamina bars that sort of went down based on the weight of the weapon you had and other factors. But due to complaints and an effort to make the game more accessible, it rarely ever mattered. Enemies never lasted long enough for you to start running out, and when not in combat stamina always came back really fast. So in 99% of cases you probably didn’t even realize that stamina would drain while fighting as a warrior. Coping out like this doesn’t solve the problem! But you know, had they gone through with it, players would have bitched and moaned until they changed it.

So who is at fault? I don’t know. Sometimes it’s players for being whiny bastards. Sometimes it’s the designers for not seeing the problem or for pre-empting the complaints by avoiding implementation in the first place. Difficult to say.

But in the end, I can’t think of many RPG-like games that employ these archetypes that don’t get it wrong. Even really good ones often suffer this. Anyone who has played Diablo II can tell you that even after numerous patches Barbies were still ridiculously easier to play than any of the other classes. I played that game first all the way through as a Sorceror (again, the mages always seem so cool and alluring! Especially when they are hot chicks!) and later as the other classes. I was shocked at how much easier the game was to play through as a Barbarian (though any of the others were somewhat easier, even the Necro due to having a horde of pets).

Who knows, though. Maybe the handicap is part of the challenge. If so, then I wish developers would stop trying to pretend that all of their classes are balanced.

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