Editorials & Opinion / PC Gaming

“It’s very difficult to make a skill based game …”

My cats are standing in for a lack of image in this post.

I have heard this exact same sentiment expressed time and time again about new MMOs.  Often, it is the biggest developers making the biggest name games that say it too.  Recently, I heard it yet again in a direct quote from the developers of The Elder Scrolls Online in a PC Gamer article.  The quote goes as follows:

“Since we have a PVP component to our game it’s very difficult to make a skill based game like in Skyrim, so we went back to a more traditional character based system like in the older Elder Scrolls games just to make it easier to balance to make sure the PVP system worked.”

Skill-based, of course, being a core mechanic of MMOs without formal class systems.  For example, Ultima Online, where you could theoretically be a Detective-Poisoner-Fencer-Magician-Anatomist-Blacksmith, all on one character.  It is opposition to the core mechanic of having classes, like most modern MMOs such as World of Warcraft, which feature closed sets of abilities and mechanics that range in limited customization.

Now, this could be another “I hate you Bethesda for allowing the Elder Scrolls Online to exist as it currently existing”, but I am tired of beating that horse – especially when it already gets a beating from pretty much  everyone else (I am hoping it soon retires from being a horse and turns into a dragon, which naturally is impervious to nerds beating on it [unless they have their character epiced out, of course {which is another digression in a series of digressions that hopefully deflate some of the ranty-hatey-my opinion is future perfect/god tone so common on the internet today}]).

Instead, I want to discuss why this sentiment is false.

  1. The Fear of an ‘Open’ System:

    The first great fear of a skill-based system is how its openness completely kills any possibility of balance.  This is utterly false.  No well-designed, videogame specific skill system is ever that open.  Instead of being a system based on what is possible, such as a class system where very few things are possible, skill-based systems are based on what is impossible, or their limitations.

    For example, in World of Warcraft, any class I pick, I pick only because of what it is possible for it to do and what roles it can perform.  For instance, if I pick a Warrior, it is because I want to be physical, damage resistant, and in someone’s face all the time.

    In Ultima Online, I may pair a certain set of skills in my build because of limitations and synergies.  I would never pair the Parry skill with the Magic skill if I expected to be able to cast with a shield in my hand (you can’t).  Nor would I pair Meditation (which regenerates mana) with a heavy armor wearing character because I expect to regenerate mana while being well-armored (you can only meditate in cloth armor).  I would definitely pair the Lumberjacking skill (it allowed you to chop down trees) with Swordmanship (which governed axe weapons)  if I were a primary axe user, because Lumberjacking gave a damage bonus.

    Building in limitations, however large (such as having an overall cap on skill) or small (such as a skill which provides a bonus to non-magical healing also providing a bonus to physical damage), shrink a skill-based system down to a manageable size.  Without enough of them, you end up with a muddled mess like Champions Online (which may have changed since I played the beta) where every player picked a core set of abilities and then, once they ran out of those, grabbed the same set of far too powerful cooldown abilities from other trees outside of their core.

  2. The Fear of Designing Skills Rather than Classes:

    Another element that must come into the designer’s mind when weighing the value of a skill-based system is the usage of his time.  Surely, it must be easier to take archetypes found throughout fantasy literature and plug them into your game world and game’s mechanics.But it isn’t.

    The only true difference is that in one you decide the precise limitations of a kit and the other, those limitations are forced upon you by an outside force. Skill-based games should and do allow for players to create those same famous archetypes, often with better finesse given the creative license of these archetypes.

    After all, is a Paladin a holy warrior with a sword set on fire, a knight who protects the weak with his sword, or a paragon of his kingdom who has mastered his great hammer?All three, of course: the Paladin archetype encompasses many of these elements.  Often he is a knight sword to his kingdom, usually serving in the church in some capacity, and while the weapon choices do vary, a Paladin is always a holy warrior who protects the weak.

    But class systems – by creating highly specific, highly specialized closed kits – rarely allow for many, if any, of the variables.  This is partly because a class system is designed to designate a heroic participant specific to its own world, but also because it is the best way to balance and prevent homogenization and overlap. Honestly though, who cares if the Warrior and the Paladin both tank equally well and in a similar manner with both two-handed weapons and with shields when they both arrive at that from different contexts, different perspectives, and with different additional abilities and features?

    In a class-based system, such an overlap would be a sign of bad design, and a primary reason for changes to be made.  Those changes, of course, being made strictly on the gameplay and not on the scope and feel of what they were originally trying to capture from the class’s archetype in the first place.  But in skill-based system, it would be a welcome sign that says, “Yes, some archetypes do the same things in the same ways as others, and there is nothing wrong with that.”

  3. It Ruins the Story I am Trying to Tell:

    Well then maybe you need to stop forcing stories upon the players of your game, and instead allow them to organically create their own stories in how they relate to the world through the choices they make in their character’s complete design.

    I am not attempting to shoehorn in an argument for sandbox MMOs over theme park MMOs here. I believe that choosing the Dark Side and mastering a Lightsaber skill does not, in any way, oppose creating a Sith Warrior class when it comes to story.  The issue here is that the story is so often told through the game, rather than through the world.

    By this I mean that a game like Morrowind makes the existence of a joinable guild of Mages make sense within the context of the world by forcing you first learn of them, then find them, then join them.  From there, the story could be as specific as it wanted to be, but it still forced you to play your way toward it.

    Versus a game like The Old Republic, where playing the game begins and ends with cutscenes which reinforce how separate (in both your character’s uniqueness and rarity) you are from everything else in the world.In one, you must make some concession to go to the story, which pulls you further into the game.  In the other, the story comes to via the game, and does little else to involve you in anything beyond it.

I know this is a long post, and I thank you so much if you make it all the way through.  Please leave me a comment telling me your thoughts because this really is a subject near and dear to me.  Both for my love of Ultima Online, but also due to just how much of a pet peeve it is for me to hear a game designer give up so easily on what could potentially capture the Elder Scrolls far better.

Time to rest.

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5 thoughts on ““It’s very difficult to make a skill based game …”

  1. That was an enjoyable post, It did made me consider how you would implement such a system. I am asking a genuine question here, as I have very limited experience of such a system. Does it not soon boil down to a similar problem with a class based system, in that there is a ‘best way’ to build something. I mean for all the various skill trees and trait systems class based games come out with to customise characters, you can pretty much boil it down into two ways of skinning your cat: You are specialised, or hybrid. The danger of the former is that you are a one trick pony, the latter a jack of all trades, and master of none. I can’t see how being skill based would make a massive difference, sure individual players could grab the odd skill here or there, but surely there is a basic sensible build, and not following that would probably give you some great solo possibilities, but in terms of designing group and raid content, would limit your usefullness to groups, or make either very very hard to design content for, or very difficult for players to create cross synergies to complete the content.

    I think if done relatively freely this system would allow more variety in a characters build, but then some of the better class based games, that have good customisable skill trees and such, and I’m thinking of my personal experience retraiting on some classes in LOTRO, allow for an very different build, some to vary from healer, to crowd control, to dps, and all shades in between.

    Nice site, found you thanks to the Gaming Blog Nexus, so look forward to reading more!

    • Thanks for the kind words. I hope you find some reason to keep reading. Hopefully I will start playing a current game again to have something a little more steady to chat about.

      Ultimately, the answer to your question is yes. Flavor of the month classes become flavor of the month builds, and you do still run into issues of specialization versus diversification.

      The major difference being that a skill-based system sees both as being perfectly fine, and should, within reason, encourage it. Balance is always something you pursue and never something you acquire. Classes make that balance more necessary because each individual kit has to have the exact same value as the other, and I believe this heightens the player’s perception of these imbalances.

      Additionally, classes create a system where individuals belong to a class more than they belong to a role. For instance, how many times have you seen the argument, “Develop X plays Class A, that’s why they always get buffs”? Rarely, if ever, do you see anyone in a class-based game complaining that all of the tanks get all of the love (at least in my experience), which should be the case because even with classes, a good MMO is about performing roles.

      This may sound absurd, but I like to think of a good skill-based system as simply an open class system. In this framing, classes do exist as the best possible builds for a given role, but the system is design in such a way as to allow you to make a distinct choice to be less than efficient. By being less efficient, you may gain a gameplay benefit that you find more fun, you may be more specialized (I want to build the very best tank who has trouble soloing) or you may be less specialized (I want to be the jack of all trades).

  2. I think the points you bring up are true only in theory, where the reality doesn’t work out that way. And that’s the problem.

    I played a skills-based game from the same era as UO – Asheron’s Call. It had significant balance problems, out of 30+ skills, only a dozen were actually worth it, so despite being “classless”, it naturally divided into a handful of accepted builds. You could argue the problem was the skills themselves – they weren’t balanced so each was equally effective – well yeah. But the reality is it is hard creating dozens of skills so that each is effective independently, and any combination is relatively balanced versus any other combination.

    Later I played a huge amount of Guild Wars, which straddles the line. There were professions (classes), but you could basically mix-n-match skills from every professions and have a few restrictions from your primary professions. Nevertheless, despite an arguably narrower design (on the other hand, hundreds of skills per professions) there was continual balancing and rebalancing of skills and core mechanics, due to unexpected interactions of skills and other synergies. Thousands of players trying a huge number of build variations will find problems faster than a dev team can balance, where “problem” is defined as build X > build Y for players of equal skill.

    EVE is skill based, but CCP doesn’t even try to balance. The mechanics are slightly different as your player skills are implemented via your ship and its fittings, but fights are rarely balanced. See Gevlon’s recent post. That is part of the appeal and part of the turn off.

    I’m dabbling in Fallen Earth, also skills-based, but I’m not far enough along to tell anything about balance. I’ll note the general advice involves maxing out specific skills along accepted templates. That points to a skills-based balancing fail.

    I can’t see a true free-form skill system, a la Elder Scrolls, to work out for an MMO. What if I crank/max my alchemy and sneak, and play as a potion-enhanced invisibility assassin? Or a maxed-out archer? After other players get one-shotted either by head shot by long range arrow or stealth, there will be complaints. They would need to gimp the skills themselves (and draw complaints from folks who want ES skills) or allow possibly severely unbalanced builds (and draw complaints from player victims), etc. Basically I haven’t seen free form skills-based AND PvP working out in a game.

    • I don’t disagree with you.

      I think the first major issue is that a lot has been learned in videogame design since the age of Ultima and Asheron’s Call. Perhaps not necessarily about design skill-based games, but in refining roles, gameplay, and how the player actually plays a MMO. By citing Ultima Online, I wasn’t citing a system that I think would work today. I was citing a system which indicated then that skill-based could definitely work and indicates to me now that an evolution of such a system could work just the same. (For example, Ultima Online didn’t even have weapon abilities, and I don’t see any MMO trying to go the ‘autoattack’ only route anymore).

      Skyrim would not work as a MMO. I maybe did not make that clear enough. At its core, games like Skyrim (and other previous Elder Scrolls titles) were designed to not necessarily be balanced. Those games also don’t have roles. There is a difference between being tanky (i.e. heavy armor mixed with a shield and a few buffs from alchemy) and tanking. True free-form skill systems are to me, as you said of my post, just a pipe dream.

      As I said in a different comment, the skill-based system I would advocate would be much more akin to an open class system. There would be an abundance of limitations. For examples:

      Not all skills should be equal. You need major skills (things that determine what your player does) and minor skills (things which give bonuses to specific roles, skills, and provide synergies).

      There would be a definite limitation to the amount of skills you can have and the amount of skill points you could utilize (something more than just pick two classes).

      The game doesn’t need 30+ skills. As far as I am concerned, I’d do four weapon-based skills, four casting-based skills, and four tradeskills, as my majors, and whatever seems necessary as my minors.

      World of Warcraft’s talent system was a splendid creation, and I don’t see how that can’t be utilized here either. In addition to skills, you have a very limited amount of talent points which help specialize a particular skill. The Slashing skill might have a tree for one-handed, two-handed, and utility, for example.

      One thing Skyrim does particularly well, at least early in your character’s career, is use very specific and limited stats to do determine what your character is capable of doing. For instancing, physical combat requires stamina, but you have less stamina if you invest only in your Magicka bar.

      Finally, the whole super build issue is a problem in everything, even class-based games. I don’t think there is anything innate to a skill-based game that makes those possible, and it more or less reflects either a) bad design, or b) design not intended for multiplayer. The key is to make it so that significant benefits (such as doing enough damage to one-shot someone with a bow) would require extraordinary sacrifices to do and then preventing from that much of a sacrifice to exist.

      For example, say the bow was effected by the Strength stat, and I poured ALL of my time and energy into that strength stat. I would hit incredibly hard, but I wouldn’t have the Stamina to do it twice nor would I have the Health to survive the return volley,

      I hope that clarifies at least where my arguments are coming from. At the end of the day, I have to agree with you that something like this is only good in theory because not a significant enough time has been put into making a World of Warcraft-esque game that uses a skill-system. EVE and Fallen Earth are both radically different approaches to what a MMO should be, after all. I am also not a learn’d designer – just a dude, with some time on his hands, who has played far too many games.

  3. Pingback: Finally, Something Nice to Say About Elder Scrolls Online « Game Delver

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