D20: Too Much of a Good Thing

Diablo II Skill Tree

By on July 30, 2012 at 2:48 pm

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?

11 comments (Leave your own)

I don’t really agree here, Dan.

There are many flavour of the month builds in The Secret World, but many alternatives a few people use successfully.

For example, I know of people tanking all nightmare dungeons with a shotgun/rifle combo.

The trick with this build is all the dash back skills shotgun rifle have. So tactical retreat, heavy recoil, and kickback. With the blade passive Double Dash, all these have a 25% reduced cooldown.

So this build spends its time constantly kiting out of boss attacks, rather than the sheer tanking approach of chaos/hammer.

The main issue that gets in the way of this is either lack of creativity, or elitism. People get worried that they won’t be invite to groups unless they have a FOTM build, and so the creative builds are left to the truly courageous or those who have guilds to support their whacky ideas.


One thing the Diablo 3 skill system did right was that it didn’t restrict you from experimenting with skills. In fact, I think it encouraged people to try out new skills with the way things unlocked. Of course, a flexible respec system could have removed experimentation restrictions too.

After playing through all 3 classes up to level 30 thus far, I like D3′s system more than D2′s simply because I’m not a hardcore gamer. I like the ease of finding gear that suits me through the AH, I like the fact that I don’t have to think about how to allocate stat and skill points and still enjoy being uber powerful, and I like that I can share items between my characters (though, Torchlight did this first).

Now, if only the always online DRM thing wasn’t there.


Path of Exile looks daunting from it’s skill tree, but in fact, those skills aren’t even usable. They are passive skills…Usable skills are achieved through skill gems, which level up as you use them, and are employed through weapons and armor, not the character. The are also removable so that they can be placed in other items for future use and a large level of interchangeability. The passive skills available are actually straight forward if you take a good look at it. If you want to have increased abilities in a particular area, you simply follow that skill tree-line. Also, the passive skill tree shows the skills available for ALL classes…while you “can” use the passive skills that are geared towards another class, you can’t do so without taking different avenues to get there, all while wasting skill points that could buff your character in a more preferable way. In other words, “just because you can does not mean you should…”


I’ll expand on my comment. What you’re seeing in The Secret World, Daniel, is not just individual elitism – it’s community-wide elitism. The developers themselves are not to blame.

So I mentioned my ninja dash tank build. I’ll explain how community elitism makes it not a flavour of the month.

This is a basic example: http://www.drakkashi.com/secretworld/wheel.php?65=1&48=0&69=0&52=4&51=1&67=1&52=6&48=1&74=1&74=3&37=1&72=3&54=2&3=4

This is a very non-traditional build. Rather than straight up tanking, it relies on simply avoiding the attacks, and self-healing the blows it does take.

Compared to a traditional chaos/blade or choas/hammer build, it has the following strengths:

1. It takes much less damage overall. When you spend half your time out of range of a boss attack, that’s half damage taken.

2. Has greater range to pull mobs away from team members.

3. Has better add control.

4. Has higher damage, since a good proportion of the fights are not kind to a melee tank, but this has a 20 meter rifle shot as the basic attack.

5. Can be its own offhealer, so is less work for the healer.

But… it has one big weakness:

1. Lacks the 30% increased group damage escalation buff that chaos tanks usually provide.

Now, the issue this causes is that groups will usually be based on having a chaos tank. In other words, no one will bother to bring the chaos debuff themselves. In addition, because chaos tanks take higher damage than this build, the most viable healer for the chaos tank is a fist healer, because that has the highest healing per

But if this tank build is used in a guild group, where you can say “OK I need a DPS to go chaos, and I want the healer to go rifle because I want them to off-DPS instead of straight healing me”, then this build becomes just as viable as any other.

But in PUGS, you probably want the flavour of the month tanks, because they’re pugs, and pugs don’t like to be flexible, as a rule. That’s where the skill bloat issue comes from. PUGS only like to stick to what they know, they’re not prepared to wipe a few times to try alternative stats, and it’s hard to convince people you just met 5 minutes ago to change their builds to properly synergise with yours.


The path of exile skill tree really reminds me of Masters of Orion, which is cool.

But that’s about it. It sounds a bit boring, unless they’re gonna let me conquer that whole skilltree with a mighty fleet of spaceships.


I think the skill tree from Titan Quest was a great idea. Being able to cross over class types or concentrate on mastering one. I really didn’t like, in Diablo III, that there were no passive skills to specialize in a particular weapon or fighting style, i.e. favoring Axes, or Swords or Staffs etc. like there was in Diablo II.


Diablo 3′s still system is great when levelling up you get to try new things but tehre should of been an alternate advancement system when you got to max level. This would of given people something to do plus let them specialise. By then they hav emost likely decided what skills they like and don’t like.

Path of Exile I like I certain get more a kick levelling up then I did in Diablo you could say yes it’s just another passive, but in Diablo it was just another rune on a skill I didn’t use.


The Path of Exile skill tree is an almost direct rip of Final Fantasy X’s Sphere grid, with the primary difference being that FFX’s has the primary skills in the grid. The other issue is that FFX’s method was infinitely better as you could tailor your character as desired but at the limitation that you were bound to the area you moved in until you got some special location change spheres. This also meant you could have all your characters build the same or differently as desired (and even counter to their predicted skill tree). The bad thing was if someone put in enough effort they could actually get all skills for all players and max out the grid, you’d be very bored of the game by that point though :D

There are other ways to do skills but it’s too late at night to contemplate skill tree design!!


I think the reason why people found Diablo’s skills lacklustre is because Blizzard did f*^& all to balance every skill out and make them equal in versatility, more so for Demon Hunters (it was the first class I played, levelled to 60 and attempted Inferno, and the only one I can be arsed doing). I applaud their ideas to include runes to expand skills to have different effects, but some mechanics were just awful: some skills had redundant runes that really didn’t make great leaps in terms of uniqueness, and effects that really just did not assist the player (utility) in any way other than provide a different mechanic to damage delivery.

And it’s also probably why people feel dissatisfied with the game; and the pathetic nerfs that followed. A lot of the class skills show potential in early game but going up in difficulty you start to feel constrained in your choice. But that still leads to the end game of the item hunt (which atm is just terrible).

Despite the claim that there are trillions of viable builds, most of those are poop and pretty much dead ends.


OK I’m a casual lol – I generally HATE too many options in skill trees. I guess I like that they are there, but I don’t like spending an hour just reading the different skills. So to me the sweet spot for skills is less, and more guided – give me an idea of what I might become if I go down path X. That said, I think there should be both options. I’d love to see a developer have a ‘simplified skill tree’ option in the menu that changes the skill trees from very detailed to a more streamlined version. Have both in the one game is the answer :)


Daniel Wilks:
The game hasn’t left beta yet so there may still be some tweaking to be done, but things are unlikely to change too dramatically.


I have always been a fan of the Witcher 2‘s skill tree (and to a lesser degree, the original Witcher)…

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