Forcing players to work for normalcy by playing through less interesting or less tuned experiences isn't so bad overall when the player eventually gains complete control. Assuming that when the player acquires all of their abilities, the gameplay is highly tuned so that the player has everything they need to succeed and the bumps getting to this point are distant memories. But what if there isn't a point where the player gains control over every possible challenge? What if instead of working up to a complete set of abilities, a game is designed with sub-sets of abilities that players can't combine or customize. Players instead pick which set they want to play with and take it from there. This is the basic idea behind gameplay classes or roles.
The Design of Classes and Roles
Let's look at multiplayer games to better understand how classes and roles affect gameplay and player options. One method that designers use to engender teamwork among players is to require that they pick classes designed around specific functional roles. The idea is that each role can do some but not all of the important or necessary actions to support a successful team. Therefore, players who want to win must play to their role and work together. The basic idea of designing roles is an issue of dividing a design space.
Imagine two kids who want to play a single player game co-op. They might take turns. Or they might try holding half of the controller each. If they choose the latter option, they would literally divide their normal capabilities among themselves. There are co-op levels of Katamary Damacy 2 where both players control a single Katamari ball (see video here). In these levels players can't really do much on their own. If they don't work together, nothing gets done. But when they work together, they practically have the same ability as one would playing solo. Donkey Kong Country Returns features rocket barrel levels where both co-op players share control of the rocket craft (see here). Due to the difficulty of these levels, it's common for players to let only one player control their fate to avoid any mistakes from mis-coordination. In Final Fantasy 6 the 2nd player merely gets control of a few characters out of the four active battling characters. Within a fairly simple RPG combat system, if the players don't work together to focus fire enemies or play to the few team-tactics, the whole team loses. Against competent enemies, there's not a lot of room for individual players to work outside of their roles. When done poorly, dividing a design space so that multiple players have all the abilities of one player so that they must work together to achieve normalcy can be very restrictive, limiting the expression of individual DKART skills and team skills.
Imagine if you only have control over the healers in a co-op RPG instead of the entire team of 4 characters. Instead of making decisions about which enemy to attack, when, and with what character you are only focused on healing. Let's face it, healing is a pretty straightforward task. Simply heal the party member lowest on HP or give priority to the most important party member. If you perform your healing role to these specifications, everyone else can continue playing successfully. If you don't, everyone dies. There's not a lot of choice or freedom here. At best, strict co-op roles reach level 4 of coperative gamplay, i.e. forced cooperation; a gear in the team machine has no options. Remember, a collection of straightforward simple tasks can become complex and engaging when a player is required to do them simultaneously. Play the indie game Multitask for a perfect example of layered simple tasks. If you divide the taks in Multitask between four players, the game clearly loses its challenge.
Compared to the traditional Halo (1-3) multiplayer format where each player has equal combat abilities (shoot, melee, jump, grenade), in Team Fortress 2 the character classes feature unique strengths and weaknesses of the core combat design space in order to create wrinkles and maintain balance. There's only one medic class; one soldier, spy, scout, etc. When you pick a class, you generally have to play to that class's role. If you're not healing your teammates as the medic, then you're probably squandering your potential contribution to your team. If you try to scout with the heavy class, then we'll all have a good laugh at you.
Classes or roles have great potential in game design for the same reason Pokemon types are great. They clearly establish and communicate an interplay system. Grass types beat water types in Pokemon. So for such matchups you already have expectations on how the battle might play out. From the potential advantages and weaknesses, players can make informed decisions and try to out play around each other based on their predictions. Yes, sometimes you'll be at a disadvantage in Pokemon, but it's not the end of game. You still have options to switch Pokemon or us other strategies to equalize or even reverse some of your disadvantages.
The main point I want to explain about how classes and roles affect gameplay is that they allow matchups to emerge. Naturally, there will be good matches and less favorable matchups. And the more wrinkly a design space, the more this will be the case. Roles give players the option to elect into a unique set of abilities and to work at supporting a playstyle or fighting to break free of it. With such games, you never receive a stable impression of the challenges. You're always interpreting challenges based on the view point of your role choice. In other words, the limited abilities you elect into, and the numerous matchups that are possible as you potentially mix and match your choice with various challenges shatters your understanding of a game's design space.
For example, playing Super Smash Brothers Melee exclusively with Kirby limited my experiences and the kinds of skills I developed. Even when I fought against other characters, I was still only experiencing Kirby's matchups. But there are hundreds of other matchups in the game. And it's only by playing other non-Kirby combinations that I got a more full, well-rounded understanding of what Smash Brothers is. And this understanding helped me play Kirby better.
Because we can only play games with classes and roles one matchup at a time, we are forced to understand these games via limited view points. To grasp the bigger picture (the design space), we must collect and assemble ideas from these shattered viewpoints. This means, to just wrap out minds around the rules and idea within these games we must consider many scenarios and look at gameplay from many angles. Such is the nature of choice and emergence. Soon I will explain exactly why this kind of learning and discovery is problematic.
Mold Breaker: Beyond the Role
In a game like Team Fortress, in most servers you can switch your class in your base or after every death. But if you think the way the design space is divided in Team Fortress both defines its classes and greatly restricts individual player freedom, keep in mind that each character isn't completely limited to their class playstyle. Sure, medics are the best at healing, but they still have offensive bonesaw melee attack and a syringe gun. Though these weapons are much less effective offensively than most weapons, they leave the door open for skillful players to fight back, which adds variety even within a healer class's role.
The degree which players can break out of their roles to have access to a wider range of strategy and viable options is completely tied to the components of interesting choices (variables, properties, mechanics, dynamics, and perhaps most importantly, interplay). Without enough of these components, you get gameplay experiences like Resistance 2's co-op mode. With only 3 classes (medic, soldier, spec ops) and a leveling system, each player is severely limited to the basic actions of the role. There isn't much you can do outside of your class role. Each individual role simply doesn't have enough "interesting components." It's a straightforward experience build around mostly level 4 forced cooperation. The developers intentionally designed the game to be limited in this way. They even say so explicitly here.
No matter if you're looking at multiplayer games or single player games, design space roles constrict gameplay by defining playstyles and shaping how players play. As I describe above with Poekmon types, this kind of design is a clear way of establishing the interplay systems in a game and establishing "the squeeze." Yet, in games like Pokemon and fighting games like Super Smash Brothers, the design space roles are flexible. It's important to understand that even at the highest level of competition, players create new and surprising variations of Pokemon movesets that often defy or redefine the roles they seemed to belong to. Or in Smash Bros, there's always the possibility of characters defying their worst matchups by finding ways to counter impossible odds.
In part 3, we'll look at how some games complicate the conveyance of their design spaces by letting player stack up their abilities.