It's a bit unusual for us to talk to much about MMOs here at Co-Optimus. But the massively multiplayer online game genre is one full of great cooperative experiences. My own first experience with an MMO was way back in 1999: Everquest. A quirky set of circumstances led me to choose a bard as my character class. This was a fortuitous event, for the bard of Everquest is easily the greatest class in any game as far as co-op is concerned.
Everquest's launch was a glorious mess. On March 16, 1999, thousands of eager gamers attempted to log in and enjoy one of the most highly anticipated releases of the year, if not the decade. Servers were up and down, towns were packed full of characters, and monsters were being slain as soon as they spawned in order to gain precious experiencel. I initially tried playing a human wizard, but the lack of armor and weak initial spells led to a littering of my corpses outside the gates of Qeynos. Thinking a melee class might be preferable, I created a shadowknight, a sort of anti-paladin, and had some small success.
Unfortunately, the zone just past Qeynos featured wandering NPCs that would slay any evil characters on sight. It got to the point where I was spending more time looking for my corpse than I was fighting monsters. A friend of mine, half in jest, told me to try playing a bard, as one of their early skills allowed them to home in on their corpse with ease. I rolled up a third character, a half elf named Pistov (because I was, indeed, angry), and absolutely fell in love with the class.
Most character classes in Everquest had one area of emphasis that they specialized in. Clerics were the best healers, rogues the best melee damage dealers, and shamans were the best at casting "buffs", spells with a long duration that boosted a character's stats in some way. Bards had no real specialization; instead, they had access to a wide range of skills through their songs, which had an effect on each other group member. A dexterous bard could "twist" three songs together at the same time, for increased effectiveness. Healing, increasing attack speed, regenerating mana for spells, even charming a monster to fight on your side were just a few of the things bards could do. Because of this enormous flexibility, a bard could fill many different roles in a group.
The ideal composition for a Everquest group was a tank, a healer, a crowd controller, a buffer, and a damage dealer or two. This "perfect group" wasn't exactly easy to get together, depending on which of your friends were available at that time. A party with no healer or crowd control, in particular, was dangerously inefficient. The bard was the perfect class to fill in for any missing roles. No healing class available? A bard could put away his weapons and strum a healing song to help keep everyone alive. No enchanter to mesmerize extra monsters? Let the bard sing a lullaby to put them to sleep. While not the best at any role, a bard could fill in in a pinch and perform adequately. They were Everquest's version of "plug and play".
If flexibility in grouping were all a bard brought to the table, it would be a fantastic character class. But adding to the bard's group-friendliness was the fact that bard songs worked in perfect harmony (if you'll excuse the pun) with all other casters' spells. Typically, similar spells would not "stack" for cumulative effectiveness; a druid's hit point buff would be overridden by a cleric's, for instance. But bard songs were effective on top of any other buffs the party might have. To reach the maximum level of attack speed, armor, or damage dealing capability, you needed a bard in your group. This made bards highly desirable in a raid situation, where dozens of people all had to work together to take down a particular boss monster. Bards kept the main tank highly armored, the clerics full of mana, and the melee attackers stabbing and slashing as fast as possible. A good raid leader wanted a bard in each group in the raid, in order to maximize chances for success.
I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that the bard was the ultimate grouping class in Everquest. They nicely filled in any holes in pick-up groups, and were not redundant even in a well-balanced party. There is much more that could be said about the capabilities of a bard: adept at solo play, able to pull monsters with ease, and my personal favorite, the fastest running speed buff in the game. I had always been a fan of cooperative gameplay, but my years spent in Everquest only strengthened my preference for working together with others to achieve a common goal. No other character class in any game I've played even comes close to the co-op friendliness of Everquest's bard.