Tuesday 22 February 2011

The soul system concept is the future of MMOs, or it should be.

RIFT’s soul system is something I strongly believe all MMO developers should be looking at and considering the implications of. While balance may prove an issue (when does it not), this appears to me to be counter-balanced by the incredible flexibility it provides, both in making a character play how you want and in being able to take what on traditional MMO paper would be unworkable groups.

A quick (LOL) explanation for those unfamiliar with the system…

There are 4 classes, the instantly recognisable quartet of Warrior, Rogue, Mage and Cleric. Each of these classes has 8 souls they can choose from, not including the pvp soul and more to come in the future. A soul is kind of like a talent or mastery tree from other games, but with the addition of the more points you spend in it, the more base line abilities of that soul become active, that’s in addition to the abilities you choose to spec from the talent tree. It’s a bit like a tree with roots that get bigger as you grow the branches above.

A character gains access to all of those souls, but can only have 3 active at any one point in time and as per normal you have a limited number of points to spend. How you combine the souls is completely up to you and whilst the game gives some example recommendations of souls that combine well, we’ve discovered in testing that there are far more perfectly viable combinations. In fact with a bit of thought you can essentially design the character to play however you want.

For example let’s briefly look at Cleric souls.

Cabalist - A ranged DPS with lots of channelled abilities and powerful AoE, death magic style.
Druid – A pet class. The Druid himself is primarily melee based but has some heals and some ranged abilities. Pets can heal and DPS.
Inquisitor - Another ranged death magic DPS but more focussed on single target damage, crowd control and has some decent life drain type abilities.
Justicar - Melee Healer and with certain specs and buffs active it’s also a tank.
Purifier - Healer, magic based and built around lots of absorb shields and cleansing flames.
Sentinel - The classic single target and group magic heal class. Holy light, all that jazz.
Shaman - Pure melee DPS, self heals and lots of lightning. It’s all about the crits…
Warden – A heal over time style healer, themed around water. Lots of instant spells, rather like a resto druid in WoW.

Note that all of the healer souls do also have nukes, it’s just not focussed around them. Also all the melee souls bring with them a passive buff that makes your magical ranged abilities also count towards your melee… which means you can mix these all up however you like and make all sorts of interesting combinations.

Want a melee DPS backed up by a pet and some basic healing?

How about a melee based healer that has the option to backline heal when needed?

A ranged DPS that in emergencies can pull out a big hammer to smack things in the face?

A tank that can heal.

Ok you tosser, a melee class, with instant nukes, that can cleanse, heal and shield itself? Oh, and rez.

I spent a lot of time this weekend playing as a healer using a Warden/Sentinel/Druid combination. It worked really well, the heals were excellent and I had little problem keeping my group up and when I felt like it I could either nuke things or hit them in the face with my monstrous hammer. And I had a fairie pet called Gok fluttering around looking camp. So I was using three souls that technically don’t go together and still worked wonderfully. Did some duelling with it too, didn’t lose once :P

Now combine all of this with what RIFT calls “roles”. Roles are preset soul combinations that you can switch between when your character is out of combat. Eventually (they cost gold to buy) you can have up to four different roles and you can of course respect those too. So for example as a Cleric you could have roles set up for tank, main healer, MDPS and RDPS. You can then switch to what’s required.

By making the most of this flexibility we were doing dungeons with a group that consisted of 1 warrior, 1 mage and 3 Rogues. We just switched our souls around to be focussed this:

Warrior - Paladin (tank)
Mage - Chloromancer (healer)
Rogue - Bard (healer)
Rogue - Assassin (DPS)
Rogue - Assassin (DPS)

Both the healers were sort of off healers or hybrid DPS, but combined it worked perfectly and we had no problems with the instances we did (well apart from the one we went in 3 or 4 levels early…). Also at one point we needed an off tank, so I just switched the Rogue I was using to my Riftstalker role and I was a tank.

The absolute key point that all of this adds up to I think is an important one for developers to take on board. It meant that we, as a group of friends that want to play together, have a viable group set up regardless of what class we pick on launch day. The holy trinity of tank/healer/DPS (or dirty quartet with support added) is still there, but it is now less of a ball ache when your guild tanks aren’t online.

We can do a sodding dungeon with 5 rogues! Uhm like woah? It might even be possible with 5 Mages with lots of Chloromancers and a Necromancer’s pet tank… I think the only one that isn’t possible is 5 warriors, but hey, can’t have everything. :P

More games should do this.


  1. Well..I'm not convinced of the soul system. It's quiet nice, but I'm missing some iconic character to the..characters.

    Might be just a problem I have with Rift and it's art and not with the soul system itself. Might be that I never found a healer combination I liked..

    Might be that I just need more coffee. who knows ;)

  2. I believe the Rift soul system solves little but would be a balancing nightmare. I think I read a statement from Trion saying they will not attempt to make everyone viable as WoW does although I'm not sure whether they're talking about souls (for example: you need a Bard, Justicar or Chloromancer with 51 points in the tree for a dungeon) or their combination (for example: Bard+Riftstalker+Bladedancer is not viable in PvE). Note I just made up the combo, I have no idea whether it's viable or not. I hope that we would be able to choose the primary soul freely at least - there is 32 combinations which is just 2 more than in WoW.

    I believe the problem with WoW is not the rigid class system, it's the rigid role system (a.k.a. the holy trinity) - there is a DPS role, a healer role and a tank role (actually, WoW's tanks are tank/DPS hybrids but it is still a single role because there are no pure tanks). CC/debuffer and buffer roles have been reduced to fire&forget. Save for tanks, there is a single hybrid (AA/A disc priest).

    WoW's LFD tool enforces the rigid structure by grouping a tank, healer and 3 DPS. Even if a 5-man party decides to go for a different role balance, they need to sign as tank, healer and 3 DPS.

    I think the problem in WoW is not that the players can't play role X. It's that they don't want to play role X, why would there be so much DPS paladins/druids/DKs/warriors (or even shamans/priests)? They can respec and start tanking - it takes some time to get the gear but the time is saved in a couple of weeks of not having to wait for 30+ minutes for a DPS spot. With flexible roles, that is not an issue, simply take a non-tank (or non-healer) instead.

    The question is, where to draw the line? Balancing e. g. 5-man encounters so they're doable with 5 DPSers as well as 3 healers, 1 buffer and 1 CCer as well as any other combination would be a nightmare. On the other hand, not being rigid is the point...

  3. The soul system may be a feature of future MMOs, but only the PvE ones.

    The fact is that Rift will be a nightmare to balance in PvP. Allowing people to fulfill any role just by equipping proper souls is allright in PvE, but when you get characters who can do basically anything in PvP it gets frustrating. Maybe in the beta people haven't figured out the optimal speces yet, but I've already seen classes completely dominate due to the correct usage of different souls they have at their disposal (uncatchable ranged rogues, warriors stun locking people).

    There's two ways to balance Rift, either predominantly PvE, something like WoW is doing, with keep a few souls reserved for PvP. Which basically makes the soul system redundant, might aswell consolidate trees and keep the dual spec option. Or by keeping everything as it is, keeping every soul viable in both PvE and PvP, but dedicating a motherlode of development resources and time into it until it's perfected. I sadly can't see the second option happening

  4. I do actually think you guys are right about this, PvP balance is going to be very, very tricky and is the primary concern for me regarding RIFT's long term future for a PvP guild like mine. For now we're happy to enjoy the change of scenery and see how it goes ofc.

    But it's the over-all concept that I'm keen on seeing built on in the future of MMO gaming. Either breaking the holy trinity or at least providing flexibility in how you reach it, to potentially allow any group of friends to be able to do worthwhile stuff in-game regardless of their initial character choice.

  5. We'll see what life at Endgame is like, but at least for the first 30 levels of Rift, I've found the PvP to be fairly balanced.


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