Last Friday, the gaming industry was hit with one of the biggest shocks in recent years. After previous cutback and a slow decline, it was announced that Telltale Games, developers of licensed storytelling adventure games like The Walking Dead or Tales From The Borderlands, would be closing up shop, laying off 95% of its employees, and canceling almost every game currently in development. To say that the gaming world was rocked by this news would be a bit of an understatement:
Just heard about Telltale shutting down. That’s… wow.
— Jim Sterling (@JimSterling) September 21, 2018
I'm so sad about Telltale shutting down. Such great storytelling and gameplay. Really astonished. <3
— Felicia Day (@feliciaday) September 21, 2018
Sad to see Telltale dissolving. Those are some great folks who told some brilliant stories. Best of luck to all the devs with finding new jobs.
— Gav (@miracleofsound) September 22, 2018
The news comes a few months after a scathing article from The Verge which detailed the toxicity of Telltale’s workplace culture. It painted a picture of an indie studio that grew past its means as it added project after project to an overworked and underpaid staff. Telltale relied heavily on the twin evils of the modern games industry: churn and crunch. Not only would they hire a block of devs for each new game, but they’d also keep those workers on the job for up to 20 hours a day and making them work for over 100 hours a week. Then, their value sufficiently wrung out by the company, they were fired to cut costs and make room for the newer, cheaper block of devs.
“The system for creating games is broken, and it will result in the collapse of many other beloved studios in the future.”
The expansion of the company post The Walking Dead to a workforce of over 300 did not come with the requisite changes in management. Telltale had become a mid-level player in the industry with millions of dollars in licensing to handle, but the developers still thought of it as the small and scrappy indie studio it used to be. Communication broke down, personnel moved from project to project seemingly on a whim, and major creative minds in the company like Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman (lead developers on The Walking Dead) began to emigrate en masse. And even as workers began to buckle under the stress of juggling up to nine different games, there was no escape from the crunch.
Even as they struggled with below standard wages and the Bay Area’s cost of living (some even high-level developers were living paycheck to paycheck), there was little respite thanks to Telltale’s culture. Telltale’s unlimited vacation days policy often went unused as workers didn’t want to be scapegoated for more crunch, and managers tried to ply their overworked staff with food and booze. By the end, even the true believers, the core of any tech company and usually the most exploited, were beginning to question things.
Telltale relied on the “it’s a privilege to work here” mentality so people put up with
– lower wages
– toxic leadership
– unreasonable deadlines
Since everyone was passionate about their work, they looked the other way.
Now 200+ devs are unemployed.
— juancow 🇸🇻🇪🇨 (@juancow) September 22, 2018
They continued to hemorrhage talented personnel like LucasArts vets Mike Stemmle (Sam & Max, Back to the Future The Game) and Chuck Jordan (Sam & Max, Strongbad’s Cool Games for Attractive People), as well as almost all of the devs who worked on their biggest successes post-The Walking Dead, Tales From the Borderlands and The Wolf Among Us. But even as their talent pool shrank, one thing didn’t change: Kevin Bruner, programmer, Telltale co-founder and, in 2015, the new CEO.
“So often the developers are blamed for the failings of a game and so much of what goes wrong should be on the company’s head instead.”
Many developers pinned the problems within Telltale on Bruner, who’s ego allegedly led to many of the personnel changes that led to the company’s brain drain. While Bruner disputes the accusations and even sued Telltale after he stepped down from the CEO position in 2017 alleging financial damage, his two-year tenure at the top corresponded with an overall decline in sales as well as market share. In the eyes of some, Telltale was still rehashing The Walking Dead while up and comers like Dontnod and SuperMassive innovated the genre with Life Is Strange and Until Dawn.
The studio’s last hope came last year, when a new CEO Pete Hawley took over, fired 25% of the company and, finally, seemed to have righted the ship again. Set to release a new season of their biggest hit, now with a teenage Clementine in the lead role, as well a sequel to the critical darling The Wolf Among Us and a seemingly tailor-made for Telltale adaptation of Stranger Things, Telltale had a real shot at getting back into the game in a big way.
Then the message went out.
— Telltale Games (@telltalegames) September 21, 2018
There was no warning from the company. Not even the workers knew until that very day. Unlike the earlier cuts, where the laid-off devs got to say goodbye and the whole staff got the day off to send them off at a local bar, it was cold and it was efficient. Nobody would get severance past a week, nobody would get health insurance. Some workers had been there less than a week, some having left lucrative jobs elsewhere to join Telltale. Many had families, and one dev even had relocated cross country for the job. And whereas the previous layoffs came with a job fair and severance through the end of the year, the newly jobless workers were left to face a cutthroat job market barely a week of health insurance and no severance pay whatsoever. Only a skeleton crew of about 25 was left behind to finish up Minecraft: Story Mode for Netflix.
Re: I got laid off at Telltale
None of my sleepless nights or long hours on weekends trying to ship a game on time got me severance today. Don’t work overtime unless you’re paid for it, y’all. Protect your health. Companies don’t care about you.
— Brandon Cebenka (@Binkysaur) September 21, 2018
Telltale Games was dead and the workers who had produced their games were now staring down the barrel of unemployment. Already underpaid while at Telltale, they now had to deal with paying rents and mortgages on the second most expensive housing market in the country. The stories from the over 250 people laid off came out first as a trickle and then a deluge. A Twitter thread from TWD: The Final Season, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Batman: Enemy Within writer and lead designer Emily Grace Buck went viral as over 6,000 people retweeted it. Fans tried to make sense of thing and now jobless employees were forced the bear the brunt of the fallout as beloved franchises were canceled. It even came out later that they wouldn’t even finish The Walking Dead: The Final Season past episode two despite earlier assurances that it would happen.
“Learn to see the difference between the companies and the workers who make the games…Direct your anger at the executives grinding our medium into the ground for profit.”
The response of the games industry was swift, however, and the #telltalejobs trending within a day. Tech and game companies large and small reached out to the ex-Telltale employees. While some of the offers were a little farfetched (a move to Montreal or Montpellier to work for Ubisoft was probably out of the question for many of them) and often promised “interviews” rather than work, the workers were hopefully positioned to get on their feet in some way. But the problems were not going to go away.
While the salaries at Telltale were below average, the industry standard pay is not much better across the board. And even if a newly employed Telltale veteran found themselves with a raise, there’s a very good chance they’d face the same churn and burn, 80 hour a week crunch that had helped kill their old company. For many people, this was a wake-up call. Luckily, things don’t have to be this way.
My heart absolutely goes out to Telltale employees and their families. But do not forget: years and years of crunch did not save this studio, and it will not save yours. Telltale died as it lived: fucking over its employees in immoral, inexcusable ways for zero upside.
— Elizabeth Sampat (@twoscooters) September 22, 2018
As detailed a couple weeks ago, Game Workers Unite is fighting to help change the toxic culture within the games industry through class solidarity, labor organization, and unionization of the workers. They were quickly inundated with questions in the aftermath and soon put out a statement on the situation. They put the lesson of Telltale in stark relief:
“This problem is not isolated to only Telltale or the executives there – this is a problem that we see time and time again throughout the industry, and we will continue to see as long as management is able to take advantage of workers. Just within the past month, we’ve seen three major studio closures. The system for creating games is broken, and it will result in the collapse of many other beloved studios in the future.”
I again spoke with Emma Kinema from GWU amidst the still ongoing shockwaves of Telltale’s closure. The loss of Telltale was a professional shock for many at GWU, but also a personal one. The games industry is still a relatively tightly knit group and many had friends among those let go on Friday.
Dan Arndt: Do you think this sort of event might happen more frequently in the coming years?
Emma Kinema: It already is happening frequently. This month alone has seen the shuttering of three well-respected studios.
DA: Is this sort of thing inevitable?
EK: Not necessarily. Unions shouldn’t be seen as a cure-all for things like studio closures and failed launches. But being unionized can help curb the excesses of malicious management. Being unionized can ensure severance for employees, healthcare that lasts beyond one job, and so many more material benefits.
DA: Is there anything a consumer, especially a fan of Telltale, could do that might help prevent this from happening again
EK: The number one thing players can do is to learn the difference between the companies and the workers who make the games they love. So often the developers are blamed for the failings of a game and so much of what goes wrong should be on the company’s head instead. We love our games dearly and we also hate seeing executives run them into the ground. The other thing that can be a great help is in the future, when we have public-facing unionization campaigns, strikes, or boycotts, players can stand with us in solidarity. We have a lot in common with our players. We both deeply care about our games, and our medium and our industry will improve drastically if we can establish standards for better working conditions through unionization.
The fate of Telltale is not inevitable, but change will be needed to keep it from being so. Don’t tweet at the ex-employees about the fate of your favorite games, and don’t ask how they would have ended. Don’t pester them for advice, don’t tell them what they should have done or should do. Support the work at GWU by joining your local chapter and support worker-owned studios like Pixel Pushers 512 or Motion Twin. Be a smart consumer and read up on the conditions your next favorite game was produced under. Stand with your fellow workers in solidarity to create a stronger and more equitable industry, or stand alone and watch it crumble before your eyes.
Thanks to Emma Kinema for her statements on the situation and the former employees of Telltale for their honesty. All images via Telltale Games.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey And The Double-Edged Sword of Industry Trends
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has been out for—depending on what version your purchased—either just over two weeks or a little over one. As someone who had spare Amazon Points, and a biting curiosity for what this game could actually be in practice, I picked up the Gold edition and started playing on the 1st. Much the pre-release information released touted player choice and romanceable characters, which as a long-time fan of both Assassin’s Creed and Bioware RPGs made my head spin a little bit.
In this topsy-turvy period of gaming we exist in, where Bungie has abandoned narrative storytelling and gregorian chanting, Bioware is basically dropping dialog trees and companions for their make-or-break Destiny-like title Anthem, and Bethesda’s Fallout 76 is being comically overshadowed by no less than four independent industry-quality mod projects for the previous two iterations of said franchise, it was inevitable that this confusing reversal of company trends would actually swing the “other” way for something as profoundly huge as Ubisoft.
Industry trends have been shifting around a lot as of late, the most notable of which are that nearly every recent triple-A release needs to have some level of open-world and RPG elements (God of War, Prey, Destiny, The Division, Spider-Man, Far Cry 5, Final Fantasy XV, Monster Hunter: World, Shadow of Mordor/War, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Bloodborne, Breath of the Wild, Batman: Arkham Knight, etc) if they didn’t already have one or both elements already (Fallout 4, both Deus Ex prequels, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Dark Souls, etc). And sometimes, there’s a game that epitomizes nearly every industry trend so almost-perfectly that it becomes a weird sort of standard. In this case, it’s The Witcher 3.
The Witcher 3 is a modern masterpiece of pure ambition, technical prowess, beautiful art design, and legitimately mature, morally complex narrative storytelling. It is basically impossible to replicate. Here’s the thing about industry trends, though: developers and publishers always lean hard into them. And when I say hard, I mean to the absurd. It’s something we’ve happen again and again with Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode, the Arkham-style Freeflow combat, and of course PUBG’s popularization of the Battle Royale.
For an even stranger example, the rogue-like sub-genre has somehow managed to work its way up from indie games (Rogue Legacy, FTL, Into the Breach, Darkest Dungeon, etc) to, of all things, the most recent and genuinely excellent Hitman.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a game that really, really tries to go for broke into these trends, except not in way that the vast majority of gamers would assume. Ubisoft is basically known as “those guys that make the open worlds with the towers” at this point, so if they’ve already gotten that part down (mostly, anyway), then…that would mean that they’d need to go for the other half of where the industry is headed: the RPG. And oh boy, did they ever go for it. Like, really went for it.
The RPG, especially the branching narrative, dialog-heavy, romancing variety has been a niche thing for a long, long time. Think the original Fallouts and New Vegas, Planescape: Torment, Deus Ex, both KOTOR games (but especially the second one) and…pretty much every game where Chris Avellone was a writer…? Weird.
The biggest reason for that, for a very long time, was because the amount of time, bandwidth and talent it took to actually do one of those right wasn’t worth dumping triple-A budgets into because it just wasn’t profitable. But now, it apparently is. Hilariously, I think it’s because we’ve reached a point where creating a complex branching narrative is easier and less costly than building a super-massive open world.
I’m about 75 hours into Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on PC, running at an almost locked 60fps at 4k, and at this point, while not knowing really how far I am from completing the main story (because exploring is too fun), I can confidently say that it’s a very bold attempt at branching narrative storytelling…specifically for a franchise who has literally never done that before. And that’s a great thing. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey does not reinvent the wheel, and nor does it attempt to do that. It doesn’t introduce new gameplay elements that I haven’t seen before, but that was probably for the best. It’s also one of the smoothest PC ports I’ve played in a long time. I’ve experienced literally one crash, and the game’s autosave system is so forgiving that I lost maybe two minutes of progress. Load times are fast, and the visuals are just phenomenal.
For contrast, the last Assassin’s Creed game I played was the hilariously broken and inconsequential Unity, which was baffling to me at the time. How could you possibly fail at making an interesting Assassin’s Creed game set during the French Revolution? After that, I stopped buying them, despite the fact that I’d been hooked ever since Assassin’s Creed II.
The element that actually sold me back on Assassin’s Creed wasn’t just the dialog options, or the romance, or even the inherent promise of some really, really, really queer stuff within the ancient Greek world (in which the negativity towards sapphic women has basically been nuked from orbit within the world of the game because why the hell not?) but rather the option to choose the gender of my protagonist. I’ve always leaned towards picking the female option in RPGs, since for whatever reason that makes it easier for me to get immersed in the narrative.
The in-universe reason for why the Animus (the thing that lets you explore different parts of history via 3D projections of genetic memories blah blah blah) can even let you choose from two different options and still have the same basic narrative is…not explained. At least, not yet. But the game’s meta-narrative does a lot to basically say “that’s not how this or games work anymore; isn’t this more fun?”. And yes, it is.
What Assassin’s Creed Odyssey does best is streamlining. If you’re at all familiar with the Nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor and its mess of a sequel, then that’s basically what they integrated into Odyssey with their Bounty Hunters. They’re basically periodic mini-bosses that help keep gameplay varied and interesting. Except it’s not as complex (there aren’t like 40 different weaknesses and immunities to memorize at all times) and the camera doesn’t freeze and zoom in every time one shows up to fight you. Which is better, since, much like in Shadow of Mordor, Odyssey will have moments where three to five bounty hunters will show up one after the other to take you down.
The dialog options in the game aren’t what anyone would call complex, and that’s not really an issue with me. Interestingly enough, it operates a lot more like Mass Effect 3’s much maligned reduced dialog than anything else. You get a choice here or there, but a lot of the dialog is automatic. There are also icons to denote the outcomes and tone of each choice: a scale typically means lying, while a red hand with a jabbing index finger means a threat. It’s simple, but effective.
On the other hand, the romance dialog is pretty hit or miss, and I honestly kind of love that it is. Mass Effect: Andromeda typically chose to portray your character as an awkward romantic whenever you chose the “flirt” option in dialog, which was purposeful. In Odyssey, your protagonist’s flirting skills range from extremely creepy to genuinely sweet with very little in between. In one particular quest, I was asked by Spartan woman’s mother to show her daughter the importance of training…which somehow translated to the game almost railroading me into banging the daughter. You can always opt out, of course, but there was just something really endearing from an outside perspective of how the dialog prompts popped up and both of them were labeled as “flirt”.
This is the kind of thing that would only show up in a game where the development teams are really working outside of their wheelhouse, but doing their absolute best to deliver an experience that is as close to The Witcher 3 without actually being The Witcher 3. And I mean, if you’re going to emulate anything, holy crap it’s hard to find a better thing to riff off of. Seriously, for a decent chunk of the game you’re trying to find a woman all across the Greek world, and you keep running into people who knew her in the past…which is then instantly followed up by a flashback with that interaction. Unlike those Ciri sequences in The Witcher 3, you don’t play as the person you’re trying to find, but the intent is still clear.
As for combat, it’s a blast. It feels a lot like a slightly cheesier version of April’s God of War mashed up with the at times overly-complex peak of Arkham Knight’s FreeFlow system. Snipe, evade, counter, hit, hit, evade, counter, special move, hit, evade, headshot, etc. There’s even a mechanic where if you perform a “Perfect Dodge”, you slow time for a couple seconds. You know, just like Bayonetta 2. Which I loved.
In other words: speccing right makes you feel invincible until you make one mistake, and then you die. The stealth system is a lot more forgiving than previous Assassin’s Creed titles, and by extension much more fun to mess around in. It gives you a ton of tools to play with inside of that sandbox, and unlike the problem that every Metal Gear Solid game had except for arguably Phantom Pain, you aren’t “punished” for using any of them.
As for the characters you meet, Assassin’s Creed has always had so much fun in introducing the protagonists to important historical figures. It doesn’t always work (see: most of Assassin’s Creed III), but rarely has any game measured up quite as well as Ezio Auditore’s deep friendship with Leonardo Da Vinci. In Odyssey, you meet (I’m gonna use the game’s spelling here, so…) Hippokrates, Demosthenes, Alkibades, Sokrates, Pythagoras, Perikles, Euripides (the inner theater nerd in me couldn’t stop laughing), and history’s most famous liar: Herodotus. You meet a bunch of other people too, but those are just the ones at the top of my head that I can recall actually being real. Are they accurate representations? I give it a decent chance that they are, especially Euripides and Sokrates. They are also extremely fun to interact with, and you’re introduced to them in a manner that is surprisingly organic, and rather reminiscent of how historical figures popped up during Ezio’s adventures.
Above all, the biggest accomplishment that Odyssey has in the character front is their protagonist. At least, Kassandra, the female option. Melissanthi Mahut’s performance is evocative, engaging, and genuinely charming throughout. That’s really not an easy thing to pull off when dialog options are involved, and the last time I saw it happen this consistently was, surprise, The Witcher 3. The gameplay I’ve seen of Alexios, the male option, seems…far less personable. Michael Antonakos’s performance never seems to veer away from “gruff dude grunting”, which I guess has its following but seems kind of weird when put up next to his counterpart. On the other hand, that stark dichotomy does enhance a different aspect of the game that I’m not going to spoil. It’s something that you probably expected, but not in how well it was executed.
Speaking of voice actors, there are a lot in this game, and I only recognized one. Elias Toufexis, the unmistakable voice of Adam Jensen from Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, plays both King Leonidas in flashbacks, as well as, confusingly, the protagonist’s father Nikolaos…who, unlike the protagonist, doesn’t have any direct lineage to Leonidas. I just thought it was funny that the one voice I actually recognized was one of the most recognizable voices in gaming.
Odyssey is about eighty different systems layered on top of each other in a manner that is clearly imperfect, but not to the point where the cracks in the plaster are distracting or harmful to the overall experience. It’s a great game, and if the industry continues to follow these trends, as they almost certainly will, then we’re in for quite the widespread rebirth and adoption of both the Immersive Sim and morally complex branching narrative RPGs. Which, considering the presentation we’ve seen of Red Dead Redemption 2’s first-person perspective…well, that future might be about two weeks out.
Image courtesy of Ubisoft
Warriors, Mages and Rogues – Do we need them?
Warriors, rogues and mages. Most people who have played any role-playing games, particularly of the video variety, are familiar with those words. We take them for granted as basic building blocks for traditional fantasy games. And yet, are they? Or rather, should they be? Are they really useful to us? I don’t think they are, and I’ll try to elaborate. If it sounds incredibly specific to you… that is what I am for, I suppose.
Now, here at the outset I should mention that what I’m talking about applies more to video games than tabletop games. The latter have largely moved away from this model, except for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), which holds on to it despite having many more classes. But every so often, I see people claim that it’s worthwhile, and I don’t really think it is. And there are still some systems that do use it, whether because they imitate D&D or for some other reason.
Let’s start by asking a question – why do we even use classes in games? There are many answers to this question, and once again they depend on what kind of game we’re even talking about. I’ll simply answer them as I see them.
The purpose, in my view, is mainly ease of use. This is particularly important in video games, where it’s much easier for players to tick a box than try to figure out who they want to play and juggle dozens of options.
The other one is a bit trickier. I’m not sure how much I believe it, really. But having classes lets us introduce stronger themes and more definition to our characters. Having a “paladin” class that swears oaths and derives power from them is different than just picking some fighting skills, some support and healing magic, and calling ourselves a paladin. I’m not going to say you need classes for this, but they do help and it’s a reason why people like them.
This one really shouldn’t be much of a question. Everyone knows what a warrior is, right? What would fantasy, especially fantasy gaming, be without people who go and hit things with weapons? And, well, that’s just the thing. To call someone a “warrior” in a fantasy game is to say practically nothing.
After all, don’t most fantasy protagonist fight, especially in games? Many of them will use weapons, too, unless they rely on magic entirely. So what defines a warrior? Most would say it’s a focus on combat as a way of life and their main approach to challenges or problems.
Seems sensible, but it brings us to a fairly common problem, namely, the image of a warrior who’s a big, dumb door-opener incapable of tying their shoelaces. Now obviously it’s not a hard archetype to find in fiction, but pushing players into playing them is still questionable.
In some contexts, particularly video games, the “warrior” class has a tendency to revolve around heavy armor, heavy weapons, and being a brick wall between your allies and your enemies. Or just a brick wall, if you don’t happen to have allies. This cuts out a great deal of possible space that might belong to the “warrior” class. It’s usually shuffled off to the rogue class, which doesn’t help, as I’ll outline below.
The warrior class thus ends up both too broad and too narrow, if you can believe that. It’s so conceptually broad as to not mean much; in practice it can only cover so much, because of brutal necessities of resource management.
If it does try to cover everything, as the D&D fighter class has been moving towards, well, why do we have classes to begin with? If we get a blank slate “martial” character that we customize by picking different abilities, seems to me like we’re playing a point-buy game with extra steps. But the warrior’s non-combat skills still often suffer for it. As, again, we see in D&D time and again. It seems the second edition of Pathfinder might finally break the curse. But it also proudly displays the other problem—the class has no identity and merely serves as a toolbox.
The elusive rogue class. Elusive in more ways than one, really. We could say the rogue class began its life as the old-timey D&D thief, but I’m always wary of making such statements about the old games. It’s not like I’m very familiar with them. Either way, it’s grown since then. Or has it?
I don’t think it has, really, which is the whole problem. Now, the archetype of a thief, burglar, and generally someone who can get to places without ever being seen exists for a reason. The problem is that while the rogue might have started this way, it’s no longer just that. This baggage hangs over it nonetheless.
Consider what I said about warriors above. They trend towards two things: focusing on combat skills and heavy armament. Therefore, rogues should focus on non-combat skills and light armor. Sounds nice in theory, but practice doesn’t quite follow suit.
You see, while I accused the warrior archetype of not really meaning anything, the rogue has it far worse. In too many cases, it has to cover every concept more subtle than a man in full plate smashing everything with a heavy sword as big as he is. After all, that’s how two-handed weapons work. Everything more subtle in combat or out of it has to be a rogue.
Which, well, it really can’t be without becoming even more of a “point-buy with extra steps” class than the warrior. There’s just too many concepts that aren’t actually that close to one another. To say nothing of the line being blurry. And yet, often-times I don’t really see the rogue class even try. It skips over all this grey area and hangs onto the thief-shaped baggage. They use stealth and the melee weapons they wield tend to be daggers.
Thus, much like with warriors, we have two sort of opposite problems. The rogue class, too, is broad in concept but very narrow in practice. If someone isn’t combat-focused or heavy-weight enough, they’re clearly a rogue. And yet, they can’t be a rogue either unless they use stealth and stab people.
This creates a large swath of character concepts that the warrior/rogue/mage model doesn’t cover. Take Geralt of Rivia, for instance. Is he a warrior? Probably, but he uses light armor and knows a lot about alchemy, not to mention Signs. He thus hangs awkwardly between those two concepts. Even D&D has a better place for him as a ranger, or it would if so many of its editions didn’t insist that rangers must either shoot a bow or dual-wield. But D&D classes are a topic for another day.
Or take Conan, the ultimate barbarian hero and one of the first fantasy protagonist there ever were. Is he a warrior? Surely, since he performs great feats of martial prowess. But he’s also an accomplished thief and burglar, able to move as quietly as a prowling cat. So I suppose he’s a warrior with some thief skills. And if a warrior can learn stealth to such a degree, what does that make the rogue? It only counts if you leap out of stealth to sink a dagger in someone’s back?
In a similar vein, rogues eclipse characters who specialize in non-combat and non-magical skills but aren’t stealthy. Sages, explorers, diplomats…they all have to bear the baggage if they want to be rogues. Of course, here we also run head-first into how absolutely arbitrary the combat/non-combat distinction is. But here we must also remember that in video games, it’s inevitable as they will likely focus on combat much more.
Let’s be clear that there’s nothing wrong with the archetype of a thief or assassin who relies on stealth to either steer clear of danger or deal lethal strikes. But that’s not the only alternative to what the warrior has become. And yet, it very often is, because the middle ground I described doesn’t seem to exist.
Mages occupy a different spot than the other two “classics.” They use magic, which sets them apart. And magic does work differently in different games. Thus it’s somewhat trickier to discuss. But is their use of magic distinct enough?
The answer, as it so often happens, is “it depends.” While the abilities of characters who fall into the warrior and rogue molds are somewhat predictable, mages can be many things. Once again, we must consider whether we’re talking about video or tabletop games. In the former, mages often fall into an “Area of Effect (AoE) damage and healing” routine. In tabletop games, their abilities can be broader, running into the balance issues that come with it.
Magic is distinct enough from mundane skill that separating mages looks more natural. In some games, like the Dragon Age series, being a mage is a distinct status. You either have magic or you do not. And yet, in that very same series, all the possible potential of magic boils down to “stand in the back and wave a stick to make magic happen.”
Mages are also often arbitrarily barred from more mundane forms of skill, but here we walk the fine line of balance between them and the others. Letting mages do too much bears the risk of making them superior to the other characters, something that can happen regardless.
Of course, as always we have to consider resources and time. It would be nice to have different ways to portray different forms of magic, but there’s only so much game designers can create, balance, and test.
We spent some time talking about how warriors and rogues mix, but what about mages? Here, once again, there’s no one answer. Mixing magic with mundane skill is often reserved for very specific archetypes, like “spellsword.” “nightblade,” or other similar types. Not always, of course. But it’s hard to argue that there’s a tendency to fence off magic skills somewhat. Games that let us learn magic freely often don’t use classes at all. Though the warrior/rogue/mage model sadly exists even in games that offer free character development.
Bringing it together
Having outlined all those problems, what do I think it adds up to? The warrior/rogue/mage model is, in short, both too many and too few classes. If they’re strongly defined, it gets us stuck in the “warrior tanks, rogue stabs or shoots, mage does AoE and healing” rut or something similar. If they’re not, they end up not meaning much. Getting diverse character concepts out of just these three requires multiclassing, subclasses, poaching features, or other means that make you wonder about the purpose of it all. Why not just dispense with it and build our characters from scratch?
Moreover, I cannot help but see these three categories as artificial as time goes by. They don’t really portray anything but themselves. It’s a feedback loop at this point, with warrior/rogue/mage trio being accepted as the way of things even as they constrain our imagination.
What else would I do? That’s a big question. Ideas are, of course, cheap. But even if you look at a game like League of Legends, I think it manages to have broad categories of characters without falling into those traps. Bearing in mind, of course, that it’s a MOBA and thus its lessons mostly apply to similar games. Nonetheless, if we want classes rather than a more freeform type of advancement, more of them but with some actual weight seem like a better solution. D&D has moved in that direction… and done so poorly, but still.
If we do want very few, broad classes rather than specific ones or no classes at all, why stick to this warrior/rogue/mage model? Why not try something like strong hero, quick hero, and smart hero? Those are actual fictional archetypes that we see again and again.
I know the three are classic and they’re not going anywhere. And I know people like them. But I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t try to poke holes in tried and true archetypes like that. I hope I gave you some food for thought.