For right or wrong, a number of players criticised Diablo III for its seeming lack of skill trees. They argued that the streamlining of the skill system represented a dumbing down of the game, marking it as aimed towards the casual and console market. I personally thought the skill system worked a treat but I’m not here to argue whether Blizzard’s approach was right or wrong. I’m here wondering where the sweet spot for skills actually lays – or if there is even one at all.
Over the last month or two or so I’ve found myself fairly firmly stuck into The Secret World, the first truly narrative based MMO I can think of. Unlike pretty much any other MMO, TSW also features one of the few truly open skill systems. For those unfamiliar with the TSW skill system, it is broken into a wheel with an inner and outer rim. The inner rim contains the basic abilities for a given weapon, the outer ring contains the advanced and specialised skills for the weapon. Each character can equip two weapons and synergise their abilities together. The skill wheel gives players the ability to make numerous specs for any role in the game.
It’s clever and seemingly open, but now that I’ve reached end game I’ve realised that there really isn’t as much openness to the skill system as there appears to be. It gives players the ability to fill multiples roles but not really the ability to fill roles in multiple top tier ways. There is, like most other MMOs, a right and a wrong way to spec up for each of the roles. There are a number of variations, of course, but those mostly amount to a few secondary skills for support or adding a skill to deal with AoE packs.
To get these optimal specs, however, requires the purchase of numerous unused skills that you may experiment with briefly but probably won’t use. The bloat serves to offer the player all-but-unlimited freedom but all it really seems to do is make the skill trees larger.
This past weekend I took part in a stress test for the upcoming online, semi-MMO ARPG, Path of Exile. Although a very obvious Diablo clone, Path of Exile has gone in an entirely opposite direction to Diablo III in terms of skills.
Just look at that skill tree. It’s enormous, terrifying and packed with redundancies. The game hasn’t left beta yet so there may still be some tweaking to be done, but things are unlikely to change to dramatically. The massive web of skills contains branching paths, with each node on the path representing a variation on the one ability and these abilities are all passive – active combat and utility skills are found as pick-ups to be slotted into weapons and armour. As such the skill web looks impressive but there isn’t much feeling of reward when you level and get a skill point. You don’t work your way down a path for the eventual reward of getting a new ability, but rather continue down a skill path to get another 6% health, then another 6%, then another.
I’m not sure whether these two expansive skill systems are a response to the streamlining that has been happening in MMOs and RPGs over recent years, or whether the systems were originally envisaged to be so expansive, but as far as I’m concerned, using bloat to convey the illusion of choice is just as problematic as any “dumbing down”. I throw the question over to you – where is the sweet spot for skills?