In the old game concept, I hadn't given players any control over how the game's player characters (PCs) developed. They each followed a linear path, with all of their skills hard-wired into their characters, slowly gaining abilities as they gained experience. It's the old-school style, really, but even this is more restrictive than the first Final Fantasy game. (In that game, you had to choose which spells you purchased for your mage; while the choices were very limited, the element of choice was present, and the player's choices had real consequences, i.e. the inability to use a spell from a particular level when the mage's "spellbook" was full).
In RPG game design, and particularly in the storytelling aspect, character design is of central importance. As a designer, I've developed PCs with specific characteristics and leanings...warrior, mage, what have you. Not only does the graphic design of each character depend on these characteristics, but so do the sorts of actions they perform and the dialogue they say within the story. From the design standpoint, I therefore have a vested interest in having PCs develop along these lines - to gain skills that are consistent with their design.
However, that leaves the player with little real choice in how PCs develop in the course of the game. Without designing an absolutely huge set of skills from which to choose within each character archetype (for example, having different skillsets within a warrior class that the character could choose from), a designer, if he wants to give the player choice, is forced to allow the player to develop PCs in a way that is inconsistent with their original design.
Systems like this aren't unprecedented. In the later games of the Final Fantasy series, players have generally been given the freedom to develop characters in any way they want to. Players are given nearly unlimited choice in which path to develop each PC, no matter if its consistent with their designs. Finaly Fantasy X, though, offered a nice compromise between hard-wired development and complete player freedom.
"Guided character development" is a term I use to describe such a system. While players have a significant amount of freedom in how to develop characters, including having them completely cross-over into "unintended" classes, the character development system design strongly suggests to the player that perhaps the best way to develop a particular PC is also the easiest. This "optimal" path is designed to be consistent with the character's intended design. In such a system, players are still given wide latitude in how to develop characters, but the paths that lead to the fastest development (and the strongest characters) are the ones that are consistent with the characters' overall designs.
Such a design is nearly critical for an RPG in this day and age. I've started to design a unique implementation of this concept for Fountaindale. While not revolutionary, I would call it evolutionary. This system, combined with what will hopefully be fairly innovative battle gameplay, will help to make Fountaindale stand out from the background noise. Once I solidify the concept more in the coming weeks, I should be able to showcase something here.