Sunday, February 6, 2011

Skill-Based Games

Two weeks ago Eldergame published an arcticle headlined Classes vs. Open Skill Systems. It quickly got a lot of attention in the blogosphere. I commented that I agree with his conclusion that typical skill-based systems are generally inferior to class-based systems.

Elder game listed these reasons:
- Lack of diversity: there is usually one or two perceived “ideal” setups and most people choose them. This makes it quite difficult to create grouping scenarios with divergent roles.

- Inability to predict power levels: creating fun content is already quite difficult. Adding in the notion that people of the same “level” might be wildly different in their ability levels makes it even harder.

- Difficulty adding new verbs: it is tricky to add new open-ended skills to a system without sending everybody into a tizzy.

- Difficulty balancing: the lack of granularity makes it very hard to fix overpowered skill combinations. The already-hard problem of balancing becomes much harder.

- Poor expectation management: it is quite hard to teach players what they will end up doing later in the game.

I'd like to add two:

- People like improving in one flash more than getting better continuously. It may seem unimmersive, but it is more fun. That is why in several table top RPGs and skill-based games you need to rest before the gained experiences improve your character.

- Sometimes people want to get better at X, but they don't want to do X. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it is no rare thing to encounter.

Imagine you want to become a master weaponsmith, but the only way is making weapons. Now, while that is quite credible, it also considerably limits the player. It encourages him to optimize the fun out of the game, by training. And half a day later he quits your game, because it wasn't fun. Or he uses a macro to reach his goal and you need to ban him. You, the desperate developer, might want to tell him to go explore for a change or do some trade or build a house, but the player will insist that he wanted to make a master weaponsmith and becoming a master weaponsmith wasn't fun.

You can complain that the player is irrational, but it doesn't help. The problem is that players don't enter your game untainted. They have played other games before (not necessarily Ultima Online). They have read fantasy novels before. They watched movies before. Most of them want to build a specific character. And if the process of building that character is repetitive, boring and grindy, it turns out to be a major problem.

This is especially so, if your maximum number of skill points is limited. In that case the player might not want to do anything else, because it increases other skills. And that means that you either have to delete these skill points (what a waste), never gain them in the first place or 'lock' the skill points. Either way, this is a mess. And it is at least as non-immersive as classes. Moreover, you cannot actively encourage your players to not experience your game without 'insolvency' written all over your forehead.

Not limiting the number of skill points doesn't work, either. One way out is to separate different classes of skills. So you can gain a maximum of skill points in skill-class-1 as well as in skill-class-2. A popular example is to separate crafting skills from combat skills. But the more you separate the skills, the more the original idea loses it's appeal. If everybody can put the same amount of points into several classes of skills, the characters become very similar to each other. It is certainly possible to hit a golden middle ground, but more often than not you end up with a number of classes that are hidden in the 'separate skill classes'-system.

Add this to the problems listed and explained by Elder Game. And add the ever-same experience from all games that tried skill-based systems in the past. You always end up with one revelation: Skill based systems fail, unless they end up being a hidden class system (e.g. Eve Online).

The most funny thing about the people who want to design skill-based systems, regardless of all those points, is that they despise WoW-clones. They argue (rightfully) that developers do multi-million-dollar games without understanding the features they clone. So, yeah, sure, a skill-based system arguably worked in Ultima Online. But do you know why?

I am honestly interested in an example of a skill-based game that didn't turn out to have less than 30 favourite 'speccs'. Thirty, because that is the number the class-based system of WoW offers.


  1. "People like improving in one flash more than getting better continuously"

    I think what people like is to feel the difference when they've improved. So improvements in big steps, or extra abilities are fun because they're very noticeable. A hat with +1 strength on it, not so much.

  2. "Sometimes people want to get better at X, but they don't want to do X. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it is no rare thing to encounter."
    I'd be planning to write about this. Let's say I want to be an archer, but at skill one ranged attacks alone won't kill an enemy, so next thing they're close up and I'm killing them with melee and probably leveling up my armor skill in the process. Now I have maybe two attacks with ranged, two with melee, and an attack or two against my armor skill; my potential skill for ranged-based leveling is now diluted by a third. Or on the other hand, maybe I prefer melee, but it still makes sense to start with some ranged damage to soften up the target, but again, my skill gets diluted by some other action.

  3. Exactly, Klepsacovic. The insight at the core of this is that players don't just want to play the game and turn out to be some guy with a big sword.

    (As if that were even possible in skill-based systems. If you play a skill-based game like this you usually turn out to be some completely ridiculous and ineffective character.)

    Players want to build their character from the beginning. If they didn't want to do that we wouldn't have to include any kind of character progression in the first place. (Such a game could still be fun, but that's off-topic)

  4. I know skill based MMORPG are still possible. Just because there is a controversy, people talking about it with passion on "both sides" demonstrates that class design isn't the only (nor the best) way to go.

    Yes, there are problems inherent to it, but then the same can be said about class systems.

    My biggest problem I see in the discussion of this topic is that there is this unspoken "if all things are equal, then" hanging above it, which is in my opinion a gigantic excrement hill to start out from. Game design is a sum of its parts. Class and/or skill is one of those parts in a RPG.

    So while classes make sense in, oh let's say WoW, that doesn't mean it's the same for let's say, Ultima Online. You have swords and magic, you play online and stuff get's saved there. Your similarities end just about there.

    Clone WoW and put skills in it, is about the worst possible thing I can imagine at this point. And I got hell of an imagination. But if a new game comes along, carefully crafted with everything (World, Crafting, Trade, Items, etc) in mind towards skill based play, yes it still will be difficult to balance (something even Blizzard hasn't licked in WoW I'd like to point out). But then you can't balance perfectly at all times anyways. The question is, can you strike a balance good enough so the game is still fun and challenging? That applies to either system.

    People are actually looking for different games than what they are seeing now, which is WoW, WoW clones and yeah, that’s most of the market. There is such a passionate debate about it, because the same thing over and over get's boring with time. And hopefully new games are actually setting themselves apart through other things than new graphics and more classes in the future. That's something I would like to see.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Christian. I absolutely agree that the circumstances matter. There might be circumstances that make a skill based-ansatz better than a classed-based one.

    In some way Eve Online is such an example. You have a pretty standard skill based game, but depending on which of your starships you enter, only a fraction of them is useful. This happens very naturally in this theme.

    You can translate this into a 2D-fantasy game by using a ghost-inhabits-body theme, if you want. But you could also argue that ships in Eve are your classes and instead of playing a twink you switch to another ship.

    Still, Eve Online appeals to the people who like skills. So perhaps the mission is accomplished ?

    What I want to warn every future game designer about is using a skill-based system without thinking about it very carefully. Most of these systems, I know, were created with the player=>game relationship in mind, only. The game=>player relationship was ignored.

    For example, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was a very bad example. The only reason it could work was that it was single player and players could restrict themselves from optimizing the fun out of it.
    I have to admit that this made it relatively hard for me to enjoy the game. But as soon as I managed to do it, I had a blast. That wouldn't have been possible in a multiplayer environment.

  6. For an example of the work that skill-based games require, have a look at Dawntide, more specifically this thread.

    The guys from WAI started out with a simply skill-based system and iterated on it more often that I could count during the last year. And still you get the "optimize the fun out of it"-problem. Very beautiful example this thread is ;)

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