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Treatise on Character Advancement Systems

November 12th, 2007 Leave a comment Go to 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 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

  1. November 12th, 2007 at 10:57 | #1

    “You can skill up doing what you want”

    Possibly, but you’re assuming that the optimal skill-up method for a particular skill is interesting or fun. As an example, in most games, levelling up crafting skills is godawful, because the most optimal way to advance your skill is to gather millions of resources and just craft items over and over again.

    Note that, from an implementation standpoint, it’s also a huge pain in the ass to code a different advancement path for every possible skill in the game, since each will have different triggering events, and each will need to advance at a different pace.

    “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.

    “Self Regulating System”

    It is infinitely more difficult to balance skill-based systems, because you have to think combinatorially – you have to balance every possible build vs. every other possible build. This usually results in the skills being less powerful and distinct from each other. By contrast, if you know that Rogues are the only ones who can have stealth, you know exactly what powers they can combine this with.

    “Easier to fill a role on teams”

    This has little to do with the class paradigm, and much more to do with the gameplay paradigm – does the game have a tank-healer-mage AI paradigm, and does the game have in-game mutability (i.e. the ability to ‘respec’ on the fly)? Most players build their skills to excel at one role (DPS, heal, tank, etc), and so it’s not guarunteed that someone will ‘have enough healing on the side’.

    As a side note, if you design your games so that someone who has picked up a ‘little healing on the side’ can handle the healing, you are probably making content that is boring and uninteresting for someone who has built a dedicated healer.

    “What if Uber Template emerges?” and “Suffers from Flavor Of The Month”

    I like how you say ‘no big deal’. Unfortunately, this usually ends up being the end of fun. Players like having choices inside of a character advancement system. When Uber Templates emerge, the supposed choice that players have evaporates, and players feel railroaded into a couple of valid options in order to compete.

    As an example, look how Wizards of the Coast freaks out any time one card creates an ‘Uber Deck’ in that environment. It’s not healthy for the game environment when one deck dominates, even if everyone in theory has access to that deck. Games with 8 balanced classes are far healthier to games with millions of possible combinations with only 2 viable Uber Templates.

    That being said, class-based RPS design sucks and should be avoided.

    “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.”

    Nope, it’s still easier. We always have the opportunity to add new content, in the form of adding new items, buffing an underplayed class, or simply waiting until expansion packs in order to add something new to all classes. This is much, much, much easier than adding a new skill and hoping it plays nicely with millions of possible combinations.

    “Hidden Potential (no Cons)”

    Again, not good from a game designer. When you face off against a Warrior, you have an idea of his capabilities and can begin to adjust your tactics accordingly. Which is to say, knowledge creates the possibility of strategy. If no player gives any clue of his capabilities, you are best rushing in and using whatever is generically the best path – it closes down tactical options.

    Also, Oblivion adjusts whatever you’re fighting to be the ‘right’ level for you, which often feels artificial and stilted.

    “More realistic system”

    The problem is that it tends to create extremely unrealistic behavior, such as the story of the player hopping through the fields picking flowers in order to increase his Assassin skills in Oblivion, or throwing himself off of cliffs repeatedly to increase his Safe Falling in EQ. One of my pet peeve with skill-based systems is the behavior it creates, while proponents touts realism.

    “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.

    “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.”

    When you’re making a content-based game (as WoW most certainly is), what players want IS more content.

    I’m not saying that there aren’t valid aspects to free-form skill systems. But I think you need to be more objective about the true benefits and drawbacks of them vs. a level-based system.

  2. admin
    November 12th, 2007 at 21:20 | #2

    Thanks for stopping by Damion you made some good points here I’ll just comment on some right quick I differ on (really excellent points though on crafting and other stuff).

    In regards to PVP: I still feel it would be a lot more fun to dynamically probe another player for a weakness and we can still have ‘tactical transparency’ if we desired through gear, races, etc.

    Here is an example. If a player is casting spells then if I can close range and hit him that might stun him. So, using a long casting spell might be a weakness

    In regards to skill based systems being more Newbie friendly I still think we can accomplish this possibly if we limit the choices for newbies intially. For instance in eVE online newbies start out with a low number of skills to choose from. Or- we can force a Newbie into a Class initially and let him learn those skills -fast- then we can gradually toss on more complexity. Good points from angle you are right, but I think from my angle it could be resolved.

    “more realistic system”

    My assassin in elder scrolls I’ve being developing it the way a roleplayer should by joining the Assassin’s Guild (dont want to spoil anything here so being vague) and sneaking around taking on hits. So I’m unsure how flowers comes into play unless you mean if I want to develop my talent for putting together poisons. But I think thats something different

    Back to tactical transparency. I feel that in real life if I fight another guy I might not have any idea what type of martial arts he might know. During combat, I ahve to pay attention- watch for vulnerability windows and weaknesses. So for a game that emphasis player skill, I would like to see this.

    Uber Templates I believe can still be stopped if we step back and look at GURPS system whereas you cannot be uber at all things. You can play around with the attributes and give your avatar strengths and weaknesses. This will naturally balance a character and provide a bit of tactical transparency to your enemy. And its a lot more dynamic then: Mage sees Warrior, root+sheep+pyroblast+pwn.

    “Self regulating system”

    yeah I think GURPs covers this one. Use attributes and force players to pick their strength. Want to be strong in melee? Sure! But you will be weaker at casting.

    I apologize my ultimate system is one that generates player generated Classes. We can anticipate players’ favorite templates due to the base attributes we allow them to manipulate.

    “Items will always be useful”

    ouch, good point. all of your points are good really

    “You can skillup doing what you want”

    yeah good point there Damion. I really felt it was fun in games but I suppose many others might feel grinding. I will think on that one more.

    good post

  3. vajuras
    December 2nd, 2007 at 21:20 | #3

    Posts copied over from my old blog on another site:

    User Comments
    A_N_T_I- Sun Sep 23 2007 7:08AM
    Nice blog. :) A really good read on the issue.
    Zweihander- Sun Sep 23 2007 11:27AM
    I have an interesting story on the “Tank_Mage” approach some players have with skill-based games.

    I used to play Ultima Online, the first and best MMORPG I ever had the opportunity to play til the “Age of Shadows” expansion truly enforced player Tank_Magedom.

    However, during the UO Renaissance – Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge expansion period, I had dabbled with magery, like most Warriors (who were either Axe-based with Lumberjacking or Parry-Based with shields, or some odd mix of the two, and usually took Healing since it crossed over with the damage-bonuses of Anatomy that came with combat skills). This was because Mages did not have to take as many skills in Ultima Online to be MORE effective than their Warrior counterparts. In Ultima Online, Warriors served the role of both close-ranged Fighter and Healer, hense the use of “Cross-Healing”, but I digress. At any rate, Warriors had roughly 1 “GM Slot”, or 100 skill points, left after taking a basic build. As Recall spells (for warping) were immensely useful for fast travel, most elected to take atleast some points in magery.

    However, I was an odd mix of PvM and PvP. Mages dominated the PvP market at this point, due to the game’s exploited Macroing system (EXPLOSION, PARALYZE, EXPLOSION, repeat). Thanks to my comrades, I learned that certain items had certain results. For example, if you cast Magic Trap (spell level 2 or 3 if I recall) on a container in your inventory, when you opened the container it would deal 1 damage to your character. This would negate any paralyze spell cast on your character. Suffice to say I always carried atleast 25 trapped pouches with me at all times. Other items included typical drops like limited-charges of invisibility on cloaks I would find, and magic-reflection earrings (which I never did seem to get to work). You could get weapons “deadly poisoned”, which could kill anyone struck with it within minutes without treatment. With potions for stat-bonuses and instant heals (bandages used in the healing skill did massive healing but on a delayed activation), there were quite a few tricks a person could do with items to emulate certain magical abilities.

    Now, in UO, alot of Warriors would either go for Dex-Builds (armor that wouldn’t give dex penalties thus hit harder and faster) or AR-Builds (Full Platemail!). I opted for the AR-Build myself (largely for appearance). Despite this choice, and without any behind-the-scenes programs using auto-potions or similar skills, I steadfast became a force to reckon with against most mages I came across near the end of my UO career. This “Pure Warrior” build turned out to be fantastic. I ended up moving my last 100 skill points around alot but eventually took Hiding for survivability. In PvE, I could kill even Balrons in single combat, thus the only thing more powerful than I was the Ancient Wyrm (till the raid bosses arrived in later publishes). While not an unstoppable force, I proved that Warriors could be exceptional players. Requiring much, much more effort than the “lethargic” mage counterparts, but that was not the point.

    My best PvP memory in UO was heading into the PvP realm of Fellucia to harvest dragon scales with a low-tier archer friend of mine one day. We got ambushed by a Necromancer and a Mage, both high-level. They must have thought my archer buddy was the greater threat because they blasted him into oblivion pretty fast. Big mistake. While the one-hour battle did not result in a victory for me, it wasn’t a defeat either. The fighting went back-and-forth. I would kill one of the mages, but be too weak to kill the other and thus call for a tactical retreat to heal while the mage resurrected his friend. I was in a similar boat. I would resurrect my friend but he would get nailed shortly thereafter. Eventually the stalemate ended with an abrupt retreat (after killing one of them yet again to keep them busy momentarily). My friend proved inneffective in the battle, as he wasn’t a savvy PvPer to begin with. However, that I could stand toe-to-toe with two mages for so long and not perish was a blessing unto itself. I carry alot of pride on that incident as proving that True Warriors could still compete with their magic-flinging counterparts.

    Ultima Online has changed for the worst in recent times. Mages now dominate the PvM arena more than ever, because the Developers meant it to be that way. Few, if any, warriors can handle the new raid bosses in the dungeon “Doom”, though I had been able to contribute some part during my last days in the game to these events with some success. The use of Paladin spells that they introduced and later the Samurai abilities were all focused on the intelligence stat as they relied on mana. I suppose this doesn’t come as a shock, as their weapon skill system also used mana. The reliance on mana for warrior abilities in Ultima Online is what brought me crashing down more than anything, coupled with the fact that most of the original members of my guild had already departed for new pastures. Regardless, this goes to show that players who invest themselves to a specific archetype in a skill-based game can still compete as much, if not more, competantly than any hybrid or FotM counterpart.
    steuss- Sun Sep 23 2007 12:09PM
    This is an excellent description. Thank you for putting the time into words what i’ve felt about MMORPG’s. i also lean to the Skill based camp. You’ve done a great job here. I hope this gets tons of reads, and devs, look at this and step up to the plate and build a skill system.

    skafiend3022- Sun Sep 23 2007 12:45PM
    This is a wonderful blog. I only hope that more games switch to the skill based system. I will never forget how cheated i felt when SWG switched systems on me, then all of the sudden everyone and their mom was a “jedi knight” very disappointing.

    vajuras- Mon Sep 24 2007 4:09AM
    Thanks for the comments guys. Hey thats a great story there Zweihander :)

    82994- Sat Sep 29 2007 8:39PM
    nice job, i like systems like runescapes to be honest it lets you build a character however you want with just about no restrictions at all

  1. November 14th, 2007 at 17:34 | #1
  2. November 18th, 2007 at 21:35 | #2
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