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Kingdom Under Fire: CoD Continued

January 14th, 2008 2 comments

Been playing KuF: CoD with my bro still. On release day a Level 60 joined our party -and- get this, she leveled up. Apparently, there is not really a huge disparity between Veteran and Newbies in this game. Our party had level 10s for goodness sake. The RPG system is still very basic stuff. You level up and get points. However, its more of a skill-point system then a Traditional Level/Class system. Apparently, your avatar does not automatically grow stronger at level up but rather- the game let’s you allocate your skill points directly. I vastly prefer this type of system for coop RPGs because if my friend plays the game without me- I can still join up when I get time and still be an asset to the party.

They appear to softly ‘gate’ items. A lowbie can pickup a powerful weapon however, they just appear to use up a lot more SP (stamina) then they have. I like this- they appear to be discouraging newbies from using veteran weapons rather then outright disallowing them. There is no “Level based numbers” attached to items but rather they specify the minimum value of each attribute you must have in order to wield it.

They appear to have Class restrictions that restricts experimenting with different equipment. Typical stuff that we see in almost every single rpg, the warrior cannot pickup a bow, blah blah. One interesting thing, apparently spells are shared amongst the Classes. There does not appear to be a dedicated healer type. So, basically everyone appears to pursue learning Heal spells. I kinda like that element it makes characters a bit more diverse.

Character Custimization blows. I’m not sure what they were thinking I’ve seen much better custimization in single player RPGs. My bro and I look the exact same and apparently always will be (yes even with armor on). They let you put on little details to distinguish yourselves though so I put on a hat.

More musing on Skill-Based Roleplaying Games

December 31st, 2007 No comments

I’ve been sifting through all of Raph’s works on his site. Just got done reading his work on Do Levels Suck?

Anyway this post by Raph really caught my eye:

At this point, I prefer not having a skill cap. Instead, I’d prefer that you can master everything, but kind of like Guild Wars, can only take a given “load-out” with you when you go adventuring, probably curtailed based on limited equipment and inventory.

I just wrote about this topic a few days ago how a player can learn an infinite number of abilities but what makes combat simple for them is binding their abilities by a ‘constraint’. In EVE Online this is a ship. In FPS games the constraints may be your guns and current loadout. The player could literally have knowledge of thousands of skills such as dagger wielding, Tank driving, flying stealth bombers, etc but his current set of abilities are bound by the current constraints

 The advantage of this system is that we accomplish:

  • Interdependency. Players can possibly specialize in a specific loadout and become relied on for their current specialization
  • We achieve a bit of Tactical Transparency in both PVE/PVP. At the sametime, we can still have a bit of “Hidden Potential”
  • We achieve the benefits of “Classes” however we avoid the negatives (like being permenantly pigeon holed)
  • One character knows all- like we see in FPS games

Guild Wars sort of does all of this but the skills are permenantly unlocked per account for PVP characters

Tactical Transparency, Plethora of Skills, and RPGs

December 21st, 2007 No comments

Saw an interesting post last night whereas a poster asked his peers what do they think would happen if each player had access to hundreds of skills? Basically, what he proposed was a game that featured linear progression (no levels but something more skill-based).

This is what my belief what would happen in such a system. Give players an overwhelming number of abilities (say 1,000) then what would happen is that they will pick their favorite abilities and create a ‘build’. So, in the end, we will ultimately end up with a “Class” that is dynamically generated by players. Such a title would be a player-skill based title whereas their playstyle defines players rather then their “Class”.

I am not sure how well a system would work I must confess because I’ve never seen a game in any genre be it MMO, FPS, or pen and paper that has thrown so many options at players. Perhaps the only genre that comes close is RTS or maybe EVE Online whereas players has access to a large subset of skills.

So then, something that is very manageable and accessible to players of all walks of life is using the EVE Online / FPS approach whereas skills simply dictate how ‘knowledgable an avatar is’ in a certain area. Our abilities are unlocked by our skills and constrained by the tools within the game. For instance, the constraint within EVE Online is our ship. A player might have thousands of skills however he can only use a small subset to pilot a ship. So what we see is that skills merely make our avatars more diverse in such a system.

FPS titles such as Battlefield 2142 also apply this same concept. A player can unlock multiple Classes such as Engineer, Recon, etc but the constraint within this system is the Class we can pilot at this time. So, in such a system even though infinite progression exists- we still have a bit of Tactical Transparency.

So then, as you can see, we have Classes and Skills working together in harmony in such a system forming a cohesive relationship that is very fun for players. This concept has been successfully implemented in many popular games. It’s very common amongst FPS titles- because such a system presents infinite progression yet there are still constraints that lend favorably to PVP/PVE.

Most importantly, I would like to point out we can achieve Tactical Transparency completely without forcing players into a rigid, linear treadmill. I see many blogs whereas they have taken Damion’s concept of Tactical Transparency and sort of pervert it. In real life, sure Tactical Transparency exists but it is not as simple as Warrior, Mage, and Priest. Another thing that’s not covered in detail is that Tactical Transparency can be achieved in a skill-based game many other simple ways like using ingame LFG tools to classify players. However, having abilities being depicted by “what you wear” would also help us achieve outright visual identification if it were required.

Repetition and Skill-Based RPG Systems

December 21st, 2007 No comments

Just discovered a fun blog today, Rampant Coyote, whereas he describes how he increased his Alchemy skill in Elder Scrolls Oblivion by picking flowers to create new potions and such. It’s a fun read. But I would like to point out- skill-based RPGs do not necessarily have to be this rigid. Once again I point to Crackdown xbox360 whereas in order to increase your jump skills you gain skill points in Agility for exploring cities and claiming Agility Orbs. You increase driving skills by completing races. The activity isn’t repetitive because you can only complete a particular stunt once or grab an Agility orb once (no respawns).

I noticed some people comment in his skill-based article a firm dislike for skill-based progression due to its brutal repetition. But what we must realize is that it boils down to developer implementation. In Crackdown, you gained a skill point once for completing a challenge. It was like earning XP in such a system really but only difference is this XP is awareded directly to the skill independantly of the avatar.

Next, I want to reflect back on Damion’s point that the advantage of a Class based system (or any skill-point system) is that you gain experience doing whatever you find fun. That is what it all boils down to I suppose. Skill-based system awards skill points for an activity a player is really experienced at performing. So- if a player wants to play a Healer/Support type role they will not be ‘skilled’ at buffing other players unless they really actively apply those skills in group play. I think this might be interesting- because if a player is not skilled at a certain activity according to the measure of the game of that avatar- then everyone will know “this guy never uses support abilities” right off the bat. Imagine the implications here- what if in this hypothetical skill-based RPG “support based powers” only worked if you regularly group with other players?

So then the question we should ask ourself do we only want to reward a skill point based on use or do we want to simply reward a skill point based on “any” activity? Skill-point systems are great for games that are Quest driven because they are mathematically cohesive with that system. You can reward a player for any activity they find fun to engage in. The downside is- the player might not really be experienced in using that skill. What it all boils down to is this-

Skill-Based systems are driven by “player skill”. If a player is not knowledgable or experienced with using an ability- then their avatar will reflect this. Additionally, if atrophy is present- then we will see an even more accurate reflection of this avatar’s ability. Skill-Based games turn RPGs into more of a game focused on “player skill” (Action RPG). Elder Scrolls Oblivion and Crackdown fit within this definition

Skill-Point systems award skill points based on experience (XP). Whatever task the player deems worthy of their attention will reward them with a skill point that they can use to assign to an attribute. Mass Effect and Final Fantasy series fit within this definition to a certain extent.

A Hybrid system will borrow bits from both and intermix perhaps in an effort to have qualities from both worlds. The common implementation I’ve seen is to go with skill-point assignment that the player earns via Quests, killing mobs, etc and then use a skill-based system to improve skills. This system is often employed for Quest driven single player games for the nice mathematical cohesion achieved.

No Progression (Part 1): Bartle’s Four

November 23rd, 2007 No comments

This is the first part of a series on “no progression” for Character Advancement in Role Playing Games (RPG). Often times what we see in RPGs is a vertical progression scheme whereas we see our characters transition from a base state to an advanced one.

 Preferred Reading:

Richard Bartle categorizes players into four distinct types (achiever, explorer, killer, socializer). Note- all four types can be intermingled to compose a player. Read Damion’s writeup for more clarification too.

If RPGs embraced “more” lateral development then we would see stronger emphasis on Bartle’s Four:

Socialization (no barriers between friends), killing (enrich PVP no more being a helpless victim to a veteran), exploration (no longer herded from point A to point B), and achievement (there will always have goals to achieve like acquiring a new costume or trophies).

Breakdown:

Socializers – will find that they can interact with other players better due to barriers enforced by “Level” division has been knocked down. So now a newbie can converse with a veteran easier and they both can benefit from each other’s company

Achievers – should still ideally always have goals such as acquiring trophies to show off in their homes to other players or perhaps they can still have rare armor/weapons to shoot for. The difference being the rare stuff is no different from the casual items. Guild Wars does this and you still see many players striving for the rare loot for the visual quality. They could also even earn XP (experience points) and Levels even though these don’t mean anything beyond how much time they’ve invested into the game.

Killers – enjoys more competition due to Level barriers being knocked down. Casuals can defend themselves well. Hardcore killers will enjoy very satisfying fights. If they enjoy praying on ‘lambs’ well there will still be plenty of vicitims because the casual gamers will have less “player skill” then a skilled veteran. If this is a “virtual world” they can still fight to own Land. We could still have money here and item decay.

Explorers – can freely explore any area of the world and can still experiment freely with various game mechanics without restriction.

I think most of us can imagine the challenges for such an implementation. Pretty much any implementation I envision would still involve acquiring money for Land and such. Off hand what I would probably end up with is something close to Starport whereas you don’t have to grind for skills but you still face the challenge of accumulating wealth to build a massive empire.

Tobold wrote a blog on this subject here. This concept is pretty hardcore what he proposes is no vertical progression whatsoever in the game but rather you play to build houses, etc. This leads to very perplexing thoughts what I think about when I read this article is about FPS games like Unreal Tournament 3 and such whereas I play for pure FUN. I think publishers consider including treadmills whereas it takes 300+ hours to hit level cap more of a sure thing. At least that way they can guarantee subscription for 6+ months (well estimate X many gamers will stick around for that until the next expansion is ready). However, I really like Tobold’s comment on this type of system:

“In my game all items would be created by the developers, just as they are in World of Warcraft. Thus you can’t design yourself a dragon head to hang on your wall without slaying the dragon. The head becomes more than a decoration, it becomes a trophy, a status symbol, telling the story of your successes in the game.”

I’m not sure how I feel about no progression whatsoever since every game I play has some sort of progression. In real life, we all strive to accomplish goals, etc and we transition from a base state to a goal state. Anyway, I’d still be interested in seeing games play around with this concept. Every once in a while I have seen people recommend this type of system. One designer in particular that comes to memory, proposed creating a system whereas players simply experiment with different templates. So perhaps that could also improve the exploration mechanics and if you mix this with Tobold’s ideas for acquiring trophies to give the Achiever types something to strive for that might be interesting.

Recommended Reading:

http://www.mmorpg.com/blogs/JB47394/112007/676_The-Trouble-With-Levels 

Are Skill Point Based systems simplier then Classes?

November 18th, 2007 No comments

Damion made an interesting comment in my blog on Skill Point based systems:

“Very Newbie friendly”

No way. Skill-based systems give the players a ton of choices they have to parse, often with little or no information, and when those choices are combinatorial, the player becomes paralyzed with fear that he’s made a bad choice. When there are few class choices, players feel more confident that the choice they are making is a valid one.

Damion’s comment is really only applicable to a very complex skill based system but not really applicable to every skill point based system implemented. For instance, in Crackdown (skill based coop RPG), the player never has to make a conscience decision what skills he wishes to pick. Every player starts out with a ‘base’ version of each skill and you improve each skill with use. Every skill in Crackdown will improve your performance. This is ideally how a Skill Point Based System should work.

It’s that simple in Crackdown. The player never has to make a conscience decision about what skill will work best or will they ruin their build. Behind the scenes, the game observes what activites the player enjoys engaging in and tweaks the player’s avatar accordingly. It’s really very seamless feels much more natural then a Class based system.

If you haven’t played Crackdown for the xbox 360 then just go ahead and download the demo from Xbox Live and check it out. They did a very great job with it.

Well we’re on this topic I guess I’ll elaborate on his other points….

“Items will always be useful”

This is usually false. In a game without gates (such as levels), a noob crafter has a real hard time finding a market for his goods, since all players can equip all items. In SWG, for example, my master Armorsmith simply ran everyone else out of business, because they could not compete with the efficiency I was able to master.

Perversely, in a level-based game with a constant flow of new players or alts, there is a much larger market for newbie crafters.

Vajuras: I think EVE Online solved this one. Veterans might still have use of items created by newbies. The advantage of a skill point based system is that a newbie can specialize in one specific area and become very competitive very fast. Newbies can generate Ammo and various devices useful to veterans. Plus, since EVE Online features localized markets sometimes there is a severe shortage of certain materials out there in 0.0 (player run space) so vets are desperate to purchase items they need.

Balance and Viability

November 15th, 2007 No comments

This morning I thought about what City of Heroes did in regards to their powersets trying to justify their logic when I think about how my EM/ELA Brute (Tanker type) got picked over for EM/Stone Brutes for missions at end game. Unlike my /ELA Brute, /Stone Brutes were capable of maintaining their uber stone form 24/7. They are the ultimate tanks. How do you compete with that? We’re talking straight up, powerful resistances to everything at all times.

I still cannot understand why the developers did this. I know they have stated on their forums that players are expected to create an avatar for concept- not for min/max. But isn’t this naive? Players will always min/max for both PVE/PVP. Players optimize for PVE because they want to earn XP faster, be more viable for groups, and be more attractive to Guilds.

How do we get around this problem? Well, there might be a few ways. In Guild Wars you can switch out your secondary Class however, you can’t switch out your primary. But I hear Final Fantasy XI took it a step further and allows players to switch primary/secondary Class. At least this way you can keep playing the same character.

A more realistic and natural solution is to revise how we approach character development altogether. Instead of having Stone, Electric, and Invulnerability types we instead allow players to earn skillpoints that they could manipulate that would determine their specialization (see AVPMUD.com point based system). Players could create their own concept and not be bound by Artificial Developer restriction. I think it is simple common sense that only the gamer knows what they want to really be- not the Game Developer. Sure, its okay to put in checks so that they can’t be uber in both Fire and Energy manipulation but this can be done implicitly.

I contend that City of Heroes fatal flaw was embracing the Traditional Class based system (players are forced to build their hero using hardcoded choices). This is a sharp contrast to their costume designer. They allowed us absolute freedom to create our costumes but screwed us when it came to Character Development over the long haul.

There existed superhero pen and paper systems many years ago such as HERO and GURPS. Why does this fountain of knowledge get ignored? City of Heroes really had the opportunity to explore new angles with their unique IP yet they still stuck to long established Developer tradition and put in hardcoded powersets restricting our creative freedom.

Before launch, Cryptic had a unique freeform character creation system that allowed players to create their own unique superhero. However, they decided to toss it away in fear of newbies gimping themselves. Now we are stuck with their bad game design decision. Still to this day, you see a discrimination of sorts. At one point, you HAD to bring a /rad Corrupter to the end game mission in order to debuff the heroes regen rate. Their solution? They had to nerf the ArchVillian’s regen rate to make the encounter easier. If advancement were more freeform, we could have grabbed the awesome debuff powers we needed to win this encounter.

Sure, the developer eventually fixed this but it took about 5-6 months for them to patch this issue? Do you have any idea how players had to fix this problem all those months? Every supergroup demanded we create /rad corrupters so we could get through it. People were trying to hastily powerlevel /rad corrupters to end game. This is just sad, hours and hours wasted just so the very best enhancements could be farmed. If we would have had a more freeform development system, players could have fixed this issue ourselves by grabbing the debuff powers needed

Now revisit City of Heroes Debuffer/Tanker problem. Allowing players access to the background mathematics would allow them to tweak their characters and min/max for their desired activity. Yet, you will still see many unique characters due to our costumes and unique builds just like we see in Guild Wars.

Categories: Game Design, MMO, RPG Advancement Tags:

Treatise on Character Advancement Systems

November 12th, 2007 3 comments

 I have seen a lot of Character Advancement Systems (CAS) in my day.  I can see the benefits to all of them. Naturally, I do have a preference but first I want to go over the standard CAS we have seen in games.

Damion Schubbert open up a can of worms in the blogsphere awhile back whereas he wrote a short blog whereas he compares Skill-based Systems to Class Based Systems (class systems vs. skill systems). I have also seen a lot misinformation and misunderstanding on various mmorpg sites about the various advancement systems (level/class versus skill-based) so I thought I should write a blog concerning this issue.

 Level Based System

I have always enjoyed this system in single player RPGs but never in a multiplayer setting due to the huge disparity between me and my fellow man. Level based systems are implemented in games like World Of Warcraft, Final Fantasy series, Everquest, LOTRO, and City of Heroes.

The techinical definition- Players earn experience points (XP) and gain a “Level”. When you earn a new level, you are rewarded with more ‘hit points’, better accuracy, and so forth. Basically, all of your primary stats increase at each level gain. Game Designers often hard code a table. The earlier levels come fast and quick and get slower and slower as you get closer to level cap. This is their “hook”. Newbies will get instant gratification in the early levels and as they progress through the game the progression slows (but by this time the hope is that you have social obligations to guilds, etc). There is always a level cap, end game, or dead end in this model. This “dead end” or rather “goal state” is the carrot for gamers to attain. Also, it allows friends to play together finally on equal standing assuming they both leveled at their own pace.

They do have their advantages of course. Let’s discuss the bonuses and why its been such a huge win for Massive Multiplayer Games although I obviously feel their might be much better systems.

1. Allows Game Designers to Custom Tailor experiences for players.

This is the big one. Game Designers can custom tailor content for players and escourt players through the game. Any place they do not want you to go, they can place an uber mob that will one shot you discouraging from adventuring into this area. Thus exploration takes a big dive. However, this gives many newbies a place to look forward to adventuring into.

This allows Game Developers to put on the back of their box, “We have 50 hours of gameplay! We have 300 hours+ of gameplay!”

Yep, game industry has been using this one for years. My friend was telling me he got to the end of his favorite RPG a bit too soon and had no chance to beat the final boss. He went and killled a few mobs and then went back to challenge the final boss and won! Yay for tight Developer control.

2. Huge ‘change’ or growth of the character

This is another big one. When you gain a “level” or what some refer to as “DING!” you get so much more powerful!! Instantly you might have just transistioned from a newbie to a powerful rogue that can now “Sneak” around. This is the ‘carrot’. Each level rewards a player for their time dedication. Plus, now you have access to more powerful equipment. The downside is that now you might not have use for that Level 1 sword anymore that you used to cherish. But dont worry- your new sword will look much better anyway because rest assure a good Art Director will ensure that old sword looked like a rusty little dagger.

3. Prevents newbies from using the best equipment

Another boon is that if they attach a level to equipment then we can stop newbies from buying a sword from a veteran and using it. Problem is now our economy is really stale for low level items. So low level crafters get the middle finger here unless we have a steady influx of low level characters. This is why Level Based systems tend to embrace “alts” (many alternate characters). Skill Based games normally limit the number of characters you can create to a small number (sometimes even 1) versus Level Based games sometimes allow up to 9 alts per server.

4. Nutures the player’s desire to hit goal state.

I remember when I first made my newbie in City of Heroes. From Level 1 to 20 on my Brute I had a hard time maintaining my Endurance bar. In City of Heroes, every swing, etc will consume endurance. Stamina- this was a power for some reason we could not get until we hit Level 20. Stamina, it seemed like a god given blessing. It allows for your character to maintain his endurance use much better. So hitting Level 20 is a huge landmark in that title. Early in that game’s life you also couldn’t use a Travel power until you hit Level 14. Travel powers is one of the coolest things about City of heroes and they made sure they dangled that carrot in front of your face until you hit that Level to get a Travel power.

For PVPers, traditionally the ultimate carrot is max level (in City of Heroes this is Level 50). Can you imagine a fight between a Level 30 and a Level 5? It’s pretty much not even a fight in pretty much every MMO out there due to the extreme ‘vertical’ progression we have in MMOs.

5. Can adjust diffculty of mobs (NPCs) according to the Levels of the players.

This is an automatic really but anyway its very simple calculation to examine all of the players in a group and generate content for them. City Of Heroes made good use of this feature I thought. Yeah Instances (dungeons) have their pluses and minuses but if you going to use them- well then what CoH does was fairly interesting. Players can set the difficulty settings of their missions. So the players that want a challenge can turn up the diffculty and watch the XP swim in

6. Rewards Teaming

This is another big bonus. The more players you have in the team and the fast they kill the mobs, the faster the XP will come down. Notice many players complain they felt Level Based games were better for teaming? Well this is what they mean.

 7. Strongly Quest Driven

The good thing about these games they are strongly Quest driven. So if players are relatively close together in level quest XP will reward them for their efforts in addition to mob XP. Quests also provides firm direction (See point #1). Next, Quests work very well with Level Based systems since all of the rewards in this game is mathematically driven by Experience Points (XP). So we can reward players for their problem solving, exploration, and any other basic tasks we deem necessary to give them. Also, the majority of Mainstream (Assumption) might come into MMORPG games expecting a cooperative adventure gone Massive Multiplayer. Thus, Quests is very familiar to these players. Lastly, Quests have the potential to feel epic and they allow players to access other parts of their brain other then just combat.

8. Roles of the Players are Clearly Defined (Traditional Class Based System)

In a Level/Class Based title you don’t really have to communicate with your teammates about your capabilities. They can make reasonable assumptions about your specialization, etc. This is both a boon and a curse. This really leads to stale, cookie cutter type encounters at some point. Sure, early in a new characters life it is always fun and interesting grouping and seeing what skills other players can do.

But at some point, this will get stale due to the mundane routine of it all. Switching from one MMO to another is where it really starts to falldown normally. At some point many veterans will feel like they have seen it all. If we had more combinations then that would make grouping a lot more interesting and dynamic. Of course on the other hand, we might be more prone to suffer from player run effects (gimped team members).

The Bad Points for Level Based systems

1. Huge divide between friends.

Yeah this is the big one I hate about employing them in Multiplayer RPGs. In a Level based game you have to make sure you and your friends pretty much do everything together. Levels are so bad it makes you not want to team with a higher level buddy period because they cause the XP to decrease significantly. I remember how horrified I was at the thought of my best buddy helping me complete a quest in World Of Warcraft.

2. Must play catchup

Well you dont have to play catch up but this makes you want to rush to level cap so you can play with the friend you purchased the game to play with. City Of Heroes employed a ‘sidekicking’ mechanism in which allows a high level to bring a lowbie up to within a few levels of them. Yeah, great idea, good implementation but unfortunately this is the rub with Level based systems- recall a lowbie is missing many abilities. So even if you make the powers they have they will still possibly be missing key powers. So, sidekicking was used sparingly in City Of Heroes for the most part only when we couldn’t find a high level to fill the slots. It’s better then nothing so I’d like to see more games employ this feature if you go level based. Another +1 to City Of Heroes.

3. Horrible for PVP

I hate to make an absolute statement like this but it is true. It is absolutely horrible for a Level 14 to fight a Level 50 in a ‘pure’ level based game whereas the veteran will hit way harder and have way more hit points. The newbie will get destroyed. They will not only miss, they will pretty much get one shot. So what developers do is plan for PVP at “End game”. But now I have to grind to level cap to PVP to compete and when I get there we have an even bigger issue…. Gear….

4. Relies on Heavy Vertical Progression

In a skill based game we can present infinite character progression to players. In EVE Online fans have computed it would take years and years to grab all the skills. EVE is flexible like this due to the qualities of the skill based system- skills are leveled independantly of each other.

In a Level based game we level the entire character (primary stats, etc). Thus what happens is developers must set max level to give players an attainable goal. Well problem is once they achieve this goal they naturally have nothing to do. So Developers give them “raids” and other opportunites to earn gear. In reality, what we are seeing is that developers are still trying to bait gamers with the “carrot” and once they hit the top- the Developer can release an expansion and knock them back down.

Skill Based systems are a lot more flexible in the long run as we have seen with EVE Online and Saga Of Ryzom. Sure, the developer of a skill based title might decide to dangle a carrot as well- but it is not required in this model. The Developer could instead continue to introduce new skills to the game.

5. Dead End in Character Development

It never ceases to amaze how hard people will work to hit end game. Sure, not all will. But many will strive to hit it as soon as possible. You would think there is a prize for $1,000,000 for first person to hit end game. The problem we are seeing is that the “End game” is a lot different from the journey to the end. It really is over unless you want to “level” your avatar through gear which will mean raids and bickering over who gets their next baubble. There are other systems out there where there is no end yet- you can still have a ‘goal state’ to achieve.

6. Huge Division between players based on a number

The main flaw with Level Based systems is that players are seperated based on a number, literally. High level players are discouraged from visiting low level areas. Warhammer Online will go so far as to disallow a veteran from entering a lowbie area infact. Lowbies outright cannot visit a high level area without escourt.

The flaw here is apparent- Level based games need a steady influx of new players to survive! Imagine playing a Level Based MMORPG like Vanguard or City of Heroes on a low population server. Well let’s say I am Level 30 and I need help with a Quest or I need to hit a dungeon. Well, due to the segregation of our players obviously veterans and newbies do not benefit from each other’s company. A higher level character will cause the mob XP to shoot down. Additionally, the XP from the Quest you are doing may not benefit them. Even if they have not completed the Quest yet the XP rewards are just way too low. It is literally a waste of their time to help you.

The less popular MMORPGs tend to fail due to this problem. You will see players on low populated servers complain, “I don’t have anyone to team with.” MMORPGs really need to try to remove this high vertical division between newbie and veteran better. Skill Based games can deal with this issue a lot better due to the ability of players to level up each skill independantly.

7. Bad for long term growth to MMORPG genre

In order for Level based games to succeed they practically must always cater to newbies. In City of Heroes we saw for years and years Cryptic (game developer) add tons of low level content, ignoring their high level fanbase practically. Level based MMORPGs must cater to newbies and gain a huge influx of new blood that way all Levels at all times will see activity. Like I have pointed out before, players at higher levels will feel lonely (cannot find teammates) if we do not have other players around this level. Mid Level players might really feel this brunt the worse. The Crafters will get it worse of all- perhaps not seeing their wares sell if we do not have others around their level.

Catering to newbies also has another awful side effect- we are literally seeing MMORPGs get somewhat dumbed down at each ‘generation’ sort to speak. They are reducing their complexity to appeal to newbies. This is bad for veterans from other genres that will feel way too confined by the heavily restricted character development by ‘Classes’ (cookie cutter roles). How many times have we seen Mage, Warrior, and Healer dominate these type of cookie cutter MMOs? Pretty every single one of them.

Newbies being newbies really do not know anything about the MMORPG genre. Like I’ve pointed out above the holy trinity (Warrior, Mage, Priest) will most likely be a new thing to them. What makes it worse, they will demand this feature for their next MMORPG. Right now Warhammer Alliance is pretty much #1 on the hype meter is this no suprise? It looks very familar to gamers from this generation.

 8. Heavily restricted by Quests

Quests, in essence, are really good and it cannot hurt to have these. However, when a game gets to the point where Quests are surely the fastest way to progress we see a problem. Hate it or Love it- the good thing about a pure skill based system you get rewarded directly for actions you do in the world. Interacting with NPCs in Elder Scrolls Oblivion will reward you with “Speechcraft” skills helping you to coerce them into helping you or sell items to you lower. There is also a “Mercantile” skill that rewards you for commerce.

What we are seeing in most Level Based games is that players are more encouraged to solo due to not having the same quests. In some games they have even gone so far as to make the mob XP pretty worthless I suppose in an effort to discourage botting and grinding. But what if I really like the area I am in? Well the anwser is to add many more quests for that environment of course

Quests are not bad however, they dampen self directed activites when employed with a heavy hand. They should be optional to character progression- not required. Pure Skill Based games do not require Quests but rather they simply add texture and direction.

Rewarding PVP directly without requiring them to PVE is pretty much a myth here in a Quest based game. If this was true, then I should be able to level within a Duel. Am I not practicing how to use my skills in a friendly Arena match or Duel?

If I can’t level within a DUEL, then I am not advancing my character directly through PVP. Skill Based systems are clearly superior in this regard because you advance with skills through use.

What we will see in regards to PVP advancement is ‘scenarios’ more akin to battlegrounds where the developer will ensure you properly are spending the amount of time that anticipate you will to complete objectives. Mobs- they are a direct extension of Developers. They will surely be present to ensure objective occupy X amount of time before they reward you with Y amount of XP.

So really in both PVE/PVP you will be ‘Questing’ for XP. Not so much earning significant XP per kill is my take on this matter from what I am seeing for upcming titles that claim to be PVP focused yet they still have “Levels”

9. Players are getting discriminated based on their “Class” (traditional Class Based game)

How many games have we seen a certain Class get discriminated against in a Class/Level MMORPG? Rogues at one point in World Of Warcraft were getting outright refused to even join a raiding guild period. Mesmers in Guild Wars were a stepchild in Prophecies Campaign. Rangers fared a little better.

Players need the freedom to select skills that groups can utilize. Class based games restrict our freedom and we are literally getting punished and discriminated against by our peers due to our popular gaming choices.

In a Skill Based System players are free to select popular choices. They can min/max sort to speak. Developers should embrace this activity. Let’s face it, powers will get broken and others fixed all the time. If we give players more freedom to self regulate, they can fix these problems.

 10. Limits player interaction

Players can reward each other in a skill based title directly. In EVE, players can create quests for each other. This is the benefit of a skill based system. Self directed and player run activities thrive here.

I have seen posts around the internet where players wish for player created quests. Heh, this simply cannot happen in a Level Based Game but it can happen in a skill based game and you will be rewarded the *same* as a Developer created Quest. Skill-Based RPG games promote more player interaction and we can be rewarded for creating events for each other. Recall, your skills improve with use in a skill based system. So whether you’re punching a friend or involved in a player created quest your skills will still improve.

 Skill-Based Systems

No system is perfect but this one is darn close for Multiplayer RPGs / MMORPGs. In skill-based systems you “level” each skill independantly with use. You dynamically develop your own “Class” per se through using your favorite skills. Games like Ultima Online, Saga of Ryzom, Crackdown, Elder Scroll Oblivion, and EVE employ skill based systems.

Crackdown, this is one of my favorite console cooperative action games. This is pretty much one of the few titles whereas you can play the game in single player mode and then at anytime- allow a friend to come in. Full blown sandbox and there is no huge disparity between veteran and newbie. Newbies can make meaningful contributions and help you complete missions. Compare this to a Level Based RPG like Neverwinter Nights whereas my lowbie friend really needs to be looked out for and his contribution diminishes with the disparity between our levels.

Crackdown

 Crackdown employs a very fun Skill-Based RPG System!

Strong points for Skill-based development:

1. You can acquire any skill in the game with enough time

Players can, with enough time, acquire any skill in the game. You do not have to “reroll” to play with effective combinations. Newbies can specialize like we see in EVE and grab a related family of skills to create a tight, highly optimized build allowing them to contribute to huge Fleet battles and help takedown veterans. This is something a Level 14 could *never* dream of in World Of Warcraft.

In EVE it would take 40+ years to grab all the skills I have read. This means players are grabbing skills and building their own “classes”. Now let’s flip to worse case scenarios here. Let’s say the Game Designer is a real newbie. He made many powers suck due to being absolutely horrible with math. We have all seen this and had to live with it in Class/Level based games because they designed our Classes. But if we have freedom to learn anything we want we can skip the stupid powers and grab the skills we really want.

2. You can skill up doing what you want

Crafting will *always* be superior in Skill Based Games without a doubt. You can actually be a pure crafter if you desire never needing to go out and fight mobs unless you want to. Perhaps you invest your funds wisely and purchase all the goods you need to produce wonderful pieces you can sell on the market.

PVPers can skillup *during* PVP or a simple Duel. In Ultima Online people were skilling up by practicing on a training dummy for example. In Crackdown players improve Leaping by jumping from building to building seeking “Agility Orbs”. You got stronger by lifting cars and throwing them. You got better driving skills by racing cars or chasing down the bad guys.

Quests aren’t required for this sort of system as you can see. They help add texture and direction but are not required. I am still not sure what Elder Scrolls Oblivion gives to me when I complete a quest beyond items and money. This is how EVE handles quests to.

3. Items will always be useful

Ideally, items will always serve a purpose in a skill based system always. This means Crafters will always find that their items are useful. Traditional Level Based MMORPG really screw over crafters bad and it is always hilarious to read one try to argue against this principle. Usually when population drops on servers we see the overall pop age. This means the high levels will not need your low level junk items. So you are making those items for nothing unless their is always an influx of newbies (through alts or new subscribers). Notice low population Level based MMORPGs really take a hit here versus a game like EVE whereas frigates (newbie sticks) are always valuable for their high speed and agility (hard to hit).

4. Self Regulating System

Let’s face it, traditionally Game designers are just bad with balance and math. If this was not so we would not see so many nerfs. We saw a huge set of nerfs in City Of Heroes and still to this day the game is still very imbalanced. Some powersets are way more powerful then others. This is bad, now I have to reroll due to developer incompetance. In Class Based games we are stuck with the poor decisions the developers make and are *powerless* to change it. In a skill based system you are not pigeon holed into a cookie cutter role thus you can really fix their bad mistakes. You can skip the horrible skills and grab the best skills.

5. Easier to fill a role on teams

If you have been around the block a few times surely you have seen the scenario whereas teams have to sit around for 1-2 hours looking for a Healer or another specialized role in a Level/Class based game. Pure Skill Based Games resolve this one due to the freeform nature of the beast. Talents overlap allowing players to take on multiple roles as required. So if we have a party of 5 people it might be possible that all 5 can heal in a pinch, etc.

So now in PVE, any role that needs to be filled you can recruit any experienced player. So instead of us sitting around for 1+ hour “Looking for Healer please whisper!!!!!!” we can say “We just need 1 more”. It is much easier to fill slots in a skill based game bar none.

I see many of these newer MMORPGs try to go hybrid builds now to solve this problem. What they are finding out is that when you have “Battleground” type systems whereas you just toss 40 people together that the Class imbalances are killer. This can be easily solved by a Skill Based system. It is really sad to see MMORPGs claiming to be PVP based yet my behavior is still being tightly controlled by the geame Desigers rather then my actions defining my avatar.

6. What if Uber Template emerges?

So what this is a boon, not a loss. If everyone can learn every skill then this is indeed a self balancing system period. Bad powers will be skipped causing the game devs to get off their butts and make them worth learning. Next, true player skill can now come out. Like in an FPS game, we would be on equal footing and at this point we will have to *dynamically* use our wits to figure each others weaknesses. This is much more fun too me rather then the traditional Cookie Cutter PVP we see whereas this occurs:

MAge sees Warrior

Warrior tries to close distance

Mage roots Warrior

Mage burns Warrior down

Warriors are pretty awful in huge battles traditionally. They unrealistically dash out into the open and get spiked in most cases. In Guild Wars we saw Warriors have the freedom to mix in a subclass and that made a huge difference. Was it no doubt they would choose War/Ele (Warrior / Mage)? This allowed them some range capability.

Ultima Online was infamous for Tank_Mage builds

7. I can create a character I really want to play (stronger role play)

The time I invest into my character I am learning all the skills I really think will help my character. I am building my own class. This is much stronger roleplay and attachment. Is it no suprise in most skill based games no alts are even used? Compare this to a game like City of Heroes whereas players have a huge stable of alternate Classes which is simply just sad they are tossing away hundreds of hours they have invested in their characters. In a skill based game I am free of developer restriction to pursue the role I really want to be.

8. Easier for Developers to introduce new powers

Many Class Based developers have claimed its easy to roll out a Class based system and balance them all. But adding new skills? If you buff one guy the others will want that buff. What about mobs? Yeah we have to consider that too. Even though Classes are not supposed to be equal if you gimp one too much then players won’t tryout that Class.

It is much easier to introduce new skills in the long run in a skill based system. In a Level based system surely additional skills will warrant more quests, levels, and new enviroments. In a skill based game we can simply drop in some new powers and everyone will immediately be able to start training it.

9. Suffers from Flavor Of The Month

This is another boon. Developers break powers all the time. Give players the freedom to fix your mistakes they will day #1 that patch rolls out. However I would say Class based games like City of Heroes suffer from FOTM just as bad as any other game out there. Because if you harpoon an entire Class now players will naturally gravitate towards the next big thing. In World Of Warcraft last time I checked this was Night Elf Hunters. I think they ended up having to nerf NE Hunters finally.

10. Hidden Potential (no Cons)

MMORPGs really make it easy for us. They even display what “Level” each mob and other players are. If they’re too tough for you we see a big “X” or something. I consider it a boon somewhat to force players to dynamically assess a mob. There are many ways to handle this. You can still estimate a players chances for taking down a mob. But most skill based games don’t. Elder scrolls Oblivion always knows the level of the player even though its pure skill based and ensures players dont face a mob beyond their strength.

For PVP this is great not knowing what the other guy is capable of. In a cookie cutter MMO when a Mage sees a Warrior they usually know its a quick win for them and especially if the victim is lower level. Levels are just so bad for PVP its not funny. Skill based games forces us to dynamically evaluate our fellow man and determine our chances of success. EVE does give visual cues though via the “ship type”.

11. Crafting is ideal for this system

I know I mentioned this before but I’ll say it again Crafters- you are meant to be using this system. Most games actually try to give crafters a skill based system (think even WoW does this) however they are still playing a Level based game. So many skills might be forbidden until they hit Level 40, etc. And guess what how do you get to Level 40? Kill mobs. Lets say they give you quests just for crafting. Still, the items you make are tagged with “Levels” and become uselss at some point. In EVE, recall a veteran might just have need of a light, fast, cheap newbie frigate in certain situations. Not to mention ammo, etc. There are no levels attached to anything you produce.

I will add this fact too- if you want a rich player run economy then we need for items to degrade. high turnover. In EVE we can insure our ships so if we lose them we just possibly lose a little insurance money. The key is we still need to buy a new ship. In a game like Everquest my items never degrade permenantly. This is not realistic. In Ultima Online there was full looting + item durability penalties. Yet, many crafters were still happy. Why? Well, they can just sit in a town and make equipment. Use that cash to buy more raw materials. There abilities were always in high demand. Think about real life. Your country goes to war what happens to the economy? It usually booms due to the high turnover of war equipment. So we need more equipment due to losing them out in the field.

12. More realistic system

What is more realistic using a fireball spell, gain a little XP, and then gain a level and see all your attributes improve at once or gain better fire manipulation abilities with use. In Crackdown I improved my jumping ability by jumping around collecting agility orbs. I do not need some glowing NPC to assign me a quest in this sytem. I am not saying to go and never implement quests. But I am saying skill based systems emulate real life more cloesly. Of course a game does not have to be more realistic to be fun- but sometimes this is an advantage for certain titles attempting to create a believable world.

13. Strong Sandbox Element

Skill-based systems go hand-in-hand with Sandbox games. I wouldn’t ever put Classes/Levels in a true Sandbox title. But in a Linear game of course Levels/Classes works best for that perhaps. Although I have ideas how a skill based system could be employed succcessfully on a Linear title it is not hard to figure out (look at older systems like GURPS etc)

Still Skill-based systems are much better for sandbox titles due to the player run element in which we can pursue any career we wish. I am sad City Of heroes dropped their skill based system for a pretty restricted Class Based one before launch. They were afraid of “gimped builds” yet they still have that! Would have been more neat to see them do something more akin to GURPS (pen and paper system) for their title.

Elder Scrolls Oblivion is a brilliant Sandbox RPG

14. Very Newbie friendly

I think Skill based systems are actually more newbie friendly then Class based games at least at character creation. I am not forced to make a *huge* decision about the game without even playing it! In a Class based game you know the routine. We all usually tryout all the different Classes for a little while. Then finally we pick a main toon. That is hours and hours down the drain. City Of Heroes was so awful you’d see a newbie pick a bad power and then reroll only to just pick the right powers (respecs were hard to come by). We avoid all this horrible, rigid cookie cutter design decisions in a skill based title. We can freely develop our own character that we really want to play with use. The more you use powers, the more powerful they become.

15. More resistant to Nerfs and Developer Mistakes

Game Developers do weird things. Sometimes us gamers wonder if they play their “own” game. Play mmorpgs long enough and you’ll see that axe fall. Good powers get nerfed to nothing and weak powers might get buffed. Skill Based systems are a lot more resistant to time and developer errors. You can fix your character by learning better skills to still keep your avatar competitive. In World Of Warcraft, Warriors started out less stellar in PVP, saw Fury get buffed, then saw it get nerfed again. Paladins saw their uber toons get nerfed down. In a skill based game you don’t have to start all over. In a Class based game you are stuck with the Developer’s decision to alter your character “for the common good!”

Skill based systems are a lot more easier to balance in the long run because it is a self balancing system.

16. Better for Long Term Growth

With each expansion we see World Of Warcraft adds more and more levels. Rule of thumb- when you add additional levels to a game you also need new enviroments and quests. This can get really expensive.

In a skill based system, developers can easily add new powers to the game and every player has an equal opportunity to learn it. Balancing over the long haul is much easier with skill based games.

Okay below I will cover some bad points of a Skill Based System:

1. Teaming takes a hit

Okay it is much easier to make teams because any player can fill any role. However, the bad is that killing mobs faster doesn’t help us earn skill points faster. Level based systems encourage teaming so well checkout City Of Heroes if you don’t believe me. In a skill based game teaming isn’t really as obvious for the benefits. We could possibly encourage them to earn money, etc faster or just outright require it to takedown certain bosses. But due to the heavy freeform nature- I think teaming obviously will take a dive. But of course if we think of new PVE encounters then it doesnt have to be weaker. Elder scrolls Oblivion has strong PVE and I had a lot of fun in Crackdown.

I will say this though. This point might be a boon because in a skill based system we can progress doing anything fun we deem of enjoying. Players are a “lot” more self directed under a skill based system. This problem is pretty much fixable though various ways.

2. Powerful solo friendly builds

Yeah players are likely to grab any skill they might feel they need. First thing I would grab is a little melee, lots of long range, fastest movement abilities, and rez / heals. Rezzing is critical in PVP/
PVE to get your teammates backup ASAP. Heals are needed to keep friends alive in a pinch. Hell yeah I’d backup heal if it meant living and winning. I’d demand all my teammates grab all backup support powers and buffs.

3. Gimped builds will emerge

Give players a little freedom you might see some really odd combos heh. In City Of Heroes as restrictive as it is players can still choose the powers they want from the Class combinations they have choosen. I am no stranger to seeing Healing primary grab all attacks because they think they can buff themselves + pwn. Maybe some combinations would work for that like Rad/Psi Defenders but most dont work this way. These players are always the object of ridicule.

So no matter what you will see players do dumb things. I saw some really horrible builds in City of Heroes. But there are some solutions. In Elder Scrolls Oblivion the game computes what “level” you are. It is a skill based game but it still associates a level with players. So if you want to generate mobs in an Instance for them you can. In EVE players do Agent Missions and can rank up that way. So even a gimped build should be fine.

You can also help players choose a template for themselves to give them some guidance. Maybe even give them some base powers so at the very least players can expect them to do that much

4. Hard to communicate what my character “is”!

Games need LFG (looking for group) tools anyway. So in an LFG tool allow the players to write a short description of what they can do. You can also classify them by their “primary” branch like Ultima Online. Personally I see nothing wrong with forcing players to communicate to “interview” a potential team member.

The mind blowing thing about EVE there are literally hundreds of skills. With two months time I believe my newbie learned 70 skills already. This is a pretty tough thing to explain to another player I admit.

5. Progression is “too silent”

Yeah sometimes in Elder scrolls Oblivion it was hard to tell how much my skillup has helped me. EVE solved this one by compressing the progression for a skill within a small range (like Levels 1 -> 5). So, Level 1 Drones might do 20% more damage. Level 2 does 20%+ more (so 40%+) and so on. Yeah was a huge difference training up a skill and all of a sudden watching the mobs blow up fast. Skill based systems do not have to “feel” silent. Crackdown even gives ya a “DING!” sort of animation everytime a skill “levels up”. Always made me so happy to see how much higher I could jump. Allowed me to leap behind my friend and not die to falling to the pavement.

6. Harder to Balance upfront

If you’re trying to stop Tank_Mage uber bulds then a pure skill based system is not really what you’re looking for out-of-the-box. However, there are many interesting systems out there that help balance them naturally. The most obvious thing to do is make players choose between conflicting primary stats like Intelligence and Strength. Others recommend forcing players to use percentage values. Most just simply allow the Tank_Mage as long as you contributed the time to become uber. EVE sort of forces specialization via piloting the ships.

However once you have worked out your balance then the issues pretty much cease. From that point on it is self regulating system once it hits the hands of the player. They will min/max and figure out the best templates. Some game developers seem to just embrace that positive side effect while others simply don’t hence they just introduce yet another heavily restricted Class based system to make their problems go away. Their assuption is that players will just shoot themselves in the foot which is not the case at all. Of course most of them are just pure Everquest fans here in the western hemisphere and have not really looked into GURPS or other freeform systems.

Skill-Based Systems Vs Class Based (summary)

I’m not going to say much here because I think Skill Based systems produce “Classes” in the end in most cases. However, I pretty much covered my thoughts on this debate above. I feel that Skill based systems are really great for Sandbox games. If you’re going for a linear based game then Levels is the probably the most simple solution. However, even in Level based titles can integrate a system akin to GURPS or AVPMUD in which both allow freeform character development.

Why don’t we see more Skill-Based Games?

Well I gave my thoughts above. Level based systems I think perhaps gained a lot more popularity in Pen and Paper but in D&D 3.5 I know I can subclass. Much more freeform then what we are seeing now. Anyway Levels have always dominated single player RPGs because Levels allow game designers to custom tailor experiences for players. However on the single player/coop RPG front we are seeing a push for innovation. Elder Scrolls Oblivion and Crackdown we are seeing innovation. The new Final Fantasy 13 is also using a freeform CAS akin to skill based system. In MMORPG space the new upcoming “The Agency” game by SOE will let only your equipment dictate your abilities. In Fury, we are seeing a freeform system. There are also many hybrids out there. Even World Of Warcraft used skill based systems for leveling up weapon skills and crafting however we do not see the full benefits of such a freeform system in that title due to the use of “Levels” to restrict growth and commerce.

What is stronger for roleplay (Classes versus Skill-Based System)?

 Easy, skill based systems hands down. Below I posted links to recommended reading. Perhaps at some point I might write a blog with ideas. In particular, I think NerfBat’s article gives a good picture of why Skill Based systems are hands down stronger for roleplay servers due to its realistic nature

Why Are Classes Here?

November 12th, 2007 1 comment

Game Developers, we sit around a lot, play games on the clock and sometimes get ourselves so rilled up we mutter under our breath we’re gonna quit or go start something new on the down low. My friend actually pulled it off though and created a pretty popular MUD game called AVPMUD. AVPMUD has a very freeform character advancement system, no one is confined to a “Class” (you know like Warrior, MAge, and Priest).

So we are talking about the good ole pen and paper days and talking bout playing this new board game he purchased. Everything looks so great and strategic with this new Halo board game he has.

Anyway I get pissed when I think about all these unimaginative MMOs we are stuck with now (there are rare exceptions like EVE Online/UO/Starport of course) whereas we are bound by Developer created ‘Classes’. They are restricting the most entertaining part of character advancement too me- forcing me to choose their messed up roles. Then at anytime in any expansion / patch, they can just give me the middle finger and nerf my Class. Screw that. In EVE Online sure skills get nerfed but I can just go learn another and no matter what its impossible to make me a  ‘gimp’ causing me to suck worse then my peers.

I ask, “Why do you think Levels/Classes are here? I love creating my own Class and using my imagination like good board games and ideas pushed forward in MUDs”

Well we brainstorm. Maybe it was him that had the quick anwser. In old pen & paper days think about GURPS and/or HERO system is what I injected into the discussion. You practically needed programs to design your characters that you wanted to role play! Well take a PnP game like D&D– it was much easier to communicate around the room, “I’ll be the WArrior! You be the MAge!” I never was into D&D I always thought it was for nerds. My friends and I created our own PnP games with some lose ideas from here and there.

And there you have it. Classes are much easier to communicate to our fellow man verbally versus a complex game like EVE Online whereas I have difficulty communicating my roles because I’m so diverse and have hundreds of skills!

I think the solution is simple though. There are a few ways the game can analyze the player’s build and categorize them to give players a generic idea about what we can do.

In Elder Scrolls Oblivion players explain the avatars they are currently role playing in forums and they break it down by explaining the Major Skills they own which I thought was interesting. There was a thread the other day were players were describing the ‘Classes’ they created. Was such a beautiful thing to see.

Categories: Game Design, MMO, RPG Advancement Tags: