This weekend I will be starting a new MMO, Wildstar. It's a vaguely sci-fi themed that looks entertaining, even if it isn't exactly groundbreaking. One thing that I did notice was that despite having eight distinct races to choose from, there was no indication that there were any actual differences between them beyond some class limits. A little investigation turned up that this was the case, races were basically entirely cosmetic. I can see the point of doing this, but I think it takes a bit away from the milieu. If I'm playing an 8ft tall living statue or a sentient robot killing machine, I expect to be a bit tougher than a normal human, or a psychotic intelligent squirrel for that matter. But in this game the only difference is in how your character looks.
This isn't really new, it's just the latest expression of a trend that has been developing for years. It's the idea of "Balanced" characters, and I think it is taking a lot of fun out of gaming. It started out as kind of a "different but equal mentality", and it isn't a horrible idea. Whether you are playing an online MMO or an old school pen and paper RPG, it generally isn't much fun in certain characters are significantly more powerful than others. Seeing that certain classes or races can advance more quickly can take some of the fun out of games. In the earlier days of RPGs, this was a bit more common. I remember the first game that I ran, Stormbringer from Chaosium. It was simple, brutal, and completely unbalanced. Certain races were simply superior to others, and certain character paths would result in characters with far more power than their brethren. Like the original Dungeons and Dragons, there was a fair degree of randomness in generating your character. This could also create great disparity between characters as the luck of the dice rolls could make one character the pinnacle of
In tabletop games with a human gamemaster running the show, this can be somewhat mitigated. Even if certain characters are more powerful than others, good storytelling and roleplaying can keep everyone engaged and maybe even turn a character's weaknesses into interesting plot points. And there can be a lot of differentiation, meaning that while one character may be far better at physical combat, another one might be far more talented at stealth, or magic, or a host of other abilities that will be important at different times. Once again, it is up to the gamemaster to make sure that adventures include opportunities to bring these different skillsets into play, so each character is important to the success of the group and gets some time in the spotlight.
In computer games, this becomes a lot harder to accomplish. There is no human mind behind the action able to adapt the adventure on the fly. It really all comes down to numbers and algorithms. All different race/class combinations are engineered to be able to perform pretty much the same in most situations. The amount of damage a character can dish out and take are calculated and normalized. So much as with the races in Wildstar, character differences become mostly cosmetic. A warrior may swing a sword at his enemies and use his armor to reduce the damage inflicted on him while a wizard tossed fireballs about and deflects incoming attacks with a magical force field, but the end result is the same. Both characters will on the average, do the same amount of damage over time, and be able to last the same amount of time before they are overcome.
It isn't quite as simple as that. Many games still have enough differences that there is some differentiation between characters. A lot of them also have some customizations you can do to change the balance a bit. Maybe you want your warrior to be able to do more damage at the cost of not being quite as tough. Maybe you have a wizard that focuses more on protective magic and can shield himself and his allies from harm at the cost of nuking enemies from across the battleground. But even there, most MMOs, and even a lot of pen and paper games still focus on characters filling a limited number of roles within a group. And as MMOs have become more popular, I think a lot more of this kind of design philosophy has bled over into the pen and paper world.
I don't really know what the answer is. It usually isn't much fun to be in a game where your character is markedly weaker or less effective than many of those around you. But by the same token, if someone is playing a hulking brute, say like an orc, from a culture of savage warriors, you'd think they would have a significant advantage in strength and toughness over something like a gnome. It doesn't feel right to have there be no difference between such markedly different entities. I think games lose a lot when the differences between characters become so minor it really doesn't matter much what you choose to play. Unfortunately, so many gamers have become so focused on the numbers that they really lose sight of the lore behind a setting. If Wildstar did make the Granok (giant living statues) and the Mechari (sentient killer robots) way tougher than the other races, then people would complain that the game wasn't balanced and that people playing those races would have unfair advantages. Of course, they could balance things by having other race/class combinations be more powerful in other ways. Maybe Granok warriors would be the undisputed masters of up close and personal combat, but that doesn't mean that a Chua (think intelligent, psychotic squirrels) spellslinger couldn't run circles around them, shooting the hell out of them with their magic pistols and generally being to fast and agile for the Granok to easily hit.
I'm sure it is really hard to work out that kind of balance, probably easier to make things work pretty much the same behind the scenes and create the illusion that the capabilities are different between characters. Still, I'd really like to see a game where the concept of balance was thrown out. Undoubtedly certain races or classes would be easier to play and more powerful than others. Some characters would be at a real disadvantage and would have to work harder to advance in the game. Some classes and races might only be played by those looking for a challenge, or those more interested in the story than the numbers. It would not be fair. What it might just be though, is interesting.