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On Talent Trees and Skill Points May 24, 2012

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in Diablo II, Diablo III, entertainment, MMO Design, polls, Rift, World of Warcraft.
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When I was writing yesterday’s post comparing aspects of Diablo III and Torchlight II, I was somewhat dreading the possible comments, and all the more so when Massively linked to the post. (Thanks, by the way.)

My fear was that there would be a parade of Hulk-like “Me smash always online DRM single player game!” comments.  That seemed to be the primary focus of Diablo III hate at launch, at least when the servers were down.

But I actually did not get any of that.  The joys of a small readership.  Or maybe I successfully deflected them all to Straw Fellow.  Evil plan achieved.

I was, however, a bit surprised to find, both here and over at Massively, that the presence of talent trees and skill points was being pushed as a big pro-Torchlight II differentiating factor.  It was sometimes hidden under “character customization,” but it was there and oft mentioned.

And I found this a bit odd because I do not like talent trees.  I see them as having proven their flawed nature over the last 15 years to such an extent that I wonder how anybody can promote them as a positive feature with a straight face.

We have talent trees, and we are sure we have succeeded where literally everybody else has failed in the past!

In theory, talent trees are great and represent a way to create a unique and special snowflake of a character.  I get that.  Lots of things seem great in theory.

In practice, there is usually one “right” build for whatever role you are seeking to fill and every other alternative is sub-optimal.

So talent trees become less about character customization and more about finding the “correct” answer.  In the end, I think that most of want our characters to be good at their chosen roles, right?  I know there will always be somebody who will view playing with a sub-optimal spec as a challenge, but I have to believe that is the exception and not the rule.

And because the talent tree allows us to make bad choices, the band-aid of the talent respec came into being.  At first it was grudging… Diablo II got patched to give you ONE respec… or expensive… recall the mounting respec bills in WoW way back when.  But eventually the devs threw their hands in the air in more recent games and gave us respecs that were cheap and plentiful while they went off to try and find that elusive “many good choices” talent tree formula.

Even EVE Online gives you a stat respec up front for free, and another one yearly.  And that is for five stats that really only impact the rate at which your character can learn skills.

But respecs are, in my view, an admission of failure.  They seem to be saying that the devs have copped to the fact that they cannot create a talent tree system with many good choices, so when you realize you have made a mistake, here is your out.

And even cheap and easy respecs were not enough in some cases.  Rift, whose big feature was the soul system, which could be viewed either as the best character customization ever or the talent tree from hell depending on your point of view, caved in and as much as admitted that the whole thing was too vast for the average player and gave us some templates to help curb the rash of bad builds.

Just show me the right answer so I can go play!

This is, of course, my view of the world.  It is based on history, but also on the fact that I don’t really want to play the talent point game.  And that is clearly an opinion.  Even as I was preparing to publish this, I saw that Syp over a Bio Break has a post up asking why we don’t have MORE talents and stats and such to tinker with in games.  To me it is like asking that we ignore the last 15 years or so of MMO development.  But we all play these games for different reasons.

Anyway, from my point of view, the choice made by Blizzard in Diablo III seems like a clear win, and improvement over the past.

Instead of constraining character development by making me spent points in a tree system… and running to a vendor to get a respec when I make the inevitable errors… Diablo III just opens up new skills as you level up and constrains your character development by making you choose which of those skills you want to use.  With elective mode [boobies] in the options, you can build up a set of six abilities from your choices as you see fit and never have to spend a talent point or get a respec.

Of course, the system is not perfect.  As Keen points out, some of the Diablo III skills are sub-optimal.  Hey, you can still make bad choices.  But it still seems like a step forward to me.

As I said, the idea that this is a step forward is clearly not held by some.  So today I will let you validate your opinion with a poll.  Numbers always add value to opinions!

And, of course, you can post your anti/pro talent tree manifesto in the comments.

Comments»

1. mbp - May 24, 2012

I vote for the Talent Tree but with free respecs. Guild Wars spoiled me in that respect and I really cannot see the reason for not allowing it.

I vote yes to talent trees because playing with different builds is a fun part of the game but I think free respecs are an essential adjunct.

The idea that your your decisions should have lasting consequences is all very well in theory but in practice you don’t really appreciate what those consequences are until long after you make the choice. Far better, and more fun, to let you try out that wand wielding barbarian and change you mind later when you find it isn’t working out too well.

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2. Wilhelm Arcturus - May 24, 2012

@mbp – But if you want free and easy respecs and to play with lots of options, why have the tree and point spending in there at all? Why not just “at your level, here are all the skills you have access to, mix and match at your pleasure within given constraints” instead?

The answer could be that you just like to put little points in little boxes. I would accept that. But talent trees for the sake of talent trees seems odd to me.

And yes, we have clearly said as players that we do not want any decision to ever have lasting effect with the path respecs have taken over the years.

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3. bhagpuss - May 24, 2012

I’ve never liked talent trees. I hope they’re going out of fashion. I prefer a good old-fashioned class system, where the only decision you have to make happens at character creation. I also like AA/skill systems whereby if you play long enough you get everything and the only choice is what order you take them.

Having to choose between things, as you do in a talent tree, I find both tedious and mildly stressful, which is a horrible combination of emotions for an entertainment to provoke.

In the end, the Rift solution is quite a reasonable one: let the people who love this stuff wallow in it while the rest of us can press a single button and get a decent build.

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4. spinks - May 24, 2012

I hate talent trees. Represent!

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5. Wilhelm Arcturus - May 24, 2012

@Spinks – I was clearly trolling for another Spinks comment with this post. I tend to think about who will comment when I write a post. You were clearly on the list for this one.

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6. HarbingerZero - May 24, 2012

If the reason people hate talent trees is because there is only one “right” or “optimal” way to do things, then I recommend they write “min/max-er” onto their gaming profiles with a permanent marker and stop playing RPG’s. It will save us all a lot of grief.

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7. jaggins - May 24, 2012

Firmly on the hate side, though I do like being able to play in different roles depending on group needs with ergonomic swapping.

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8. Drakenya - May 24, 2012

I think a major different you may be glossing over is that in D3 you can change your build quickly and easily. For talents, it’s usually been you are set with the choice you made or, if we let you ever change, you have to pay a lot or go out of your way. In D3, I don’t care about making a bad choice, it’s quick to correct it; if I want to see what a skill is like, I can. If I want to experiment, I can. If it just looks neat or I have this odd idea a crazy build may just work, I can test. In talents, usually I have to go back to a city, or can only pick two options, or have to do dailies for a while to try something new. That’s just not fun.

Though, I much love D3’s idea that each choice seems to be fairly meaningful. You’re either getting a new skill or some fairly major change or addition to existing functionality. I don’t really care for all the runes, but most of them really change how the skill will work. In most talents (even in Blizzard’s revamped Cata model) you still have far too much fluff: add x% crit and y% damage or flat z% move speed. It’s just too much straight up buffing without any new mechanics or considerations. That’s where I think D3’s skill system really makes things enjoyable. I can pick a skill and make it single target, cleave, AoE, a snare, a heal. And I can change it anytime I want if I find it isn’t working, isn’t what I expected, or the fight I’m going into needs a different set of skills.

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9. Wilhelm Arcturus - May 24, 2012

@HZ – I do not think you have to be a min/max person to want your character to be good at their role. And in even if you are not obsessing about the absolute best path, there are clearly many bad choices you can make.

For example I would not call myself a min/max person at all. But every time I level up I am given this point that I have to assign to a tree and I really want it to help along what I am trying to do… tank, heal for our group, do decent dps… otherwise there really is no point. But I have yet to see a talent tree where that what was really helpful was made clear. Is a 2% boost to my wisdom good? Does reducing my casting time for a given spell help? Is increasing the possible chance of a crit going to make a difference? And in some games, I cannot even ignore the unspent point. Rift won’t let me use the LFG tool unless I have not only spent all my points, but also holds us back until we all have points spent in the right roles.

So I find your view too simplistic to take seriously given what I have seen in talent trees in the past.

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10. Squidling - May 24, 2012

I find it incredibly ironic that you post this min-maxing argument so soon after a post in which you described your choice of a rogue, not a healer, as your sidekick because it was more FUN.

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11. Wilhelm Arcturus - May 24, 2012

@Squidling – I am afraid I am not seeing the irony here.

I like to play the game and have fun. The rogue choice is more fun as a companion. Not having talent trees is more fun for character development. Irony not detected.

Unless you mean that I should choose the healer based on group dynamics. In which case, I choose skills appropriate for group dynamics. For my monk I chose the group heal as soon as I got it because it seemed like the best thing for group play.

But your companion goes away if you group up in Diablo III. So, still missing the big irony play here. Maybe if I was dying to lack of heals due to companion choice… that would be ironic. But not really having that issue.

I am, however, impressed by your reading skills, and I do not make that statement with any irony. You actually retained the statement about companion choice out of that whole wall of text. That makes me feel good.

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12. Genda - May 24, 2012

As a fellow old guy, I also hate talent trees.

It’s always felt like some “secret club handshake” to me. Make it accessible and let me enjoy the game and I’m going to generally be happier.

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13. Chris K. - May 24, 2012

I love talent trees, even if I make all the wrong choices. Especially because there is a chance to do a wrong choice. I find that when I’m being handed skills without my input, I get bored asap.

Even with elective mode in Diablo 3, I get frustrated early in the game because everything is completely on rails. I also hate the new talent system for WoW with a passion and I find it’s an elegant way to cover up a very lazy design.

Maybe it’s the remnants of all those years I spent playing deck building games (mainly Magic and the like) and pen and paper RPGs. I just like to build something from scratch and then see how it performs. If it doesn’t click, back to the drawing board. It’s THE most fun element in a RPG for me.

You know, it’s the same thing when you load up Pyfa and trying to squeeze out a new fit for ship X that you just bought, while juggling CPU and Grid due to crappy fitting skills. Right?

Re: Torchlight 2

As it is now in the beta, sub-level10 you have free respecs. Since the first major defining point of your character is level 7, where you get access to the 2nd tier of skills, this opens you up to experiment all you want. It’s still hotly debated in the forums, but the idea is that the respecs aren’t going away post-lvl10 but get increasingly expensive.

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14. potshot - May 24, 2012

Hate talent trees. Mrs. P and I were just noting this last night. A progression mechanism is good. Having a few interesting choices to make is good. Having the ability to gain mastery of a system by adapting to changing circumstances is good.

By that measure, D3 seems to have chosen well. I get new abilities every so often. I get optional enhancements (runes) to them every so often. I am limited in what I can load out for any given encounter so I am given the choice of making limited tactical choices and then having to execute based on those choices. Win.

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15. Ardent Defender - May 24, 2012

I was gonna vote indifferent but decided to vote Other.

After 10 years of gaming I want something else more unique, varied and useful to my character than just plain Talent Trees and how they often constrain your character in game play choices. After years of MMO’s i can say I’m really sick of the same crap and lack of innovative thinking in how characters are forged and talented to do things in MMO’s.

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16. Matt - May 24, 2012

“In practice, there is usually one “right” build for whatever role you are seeking to fill and every other alternative is sub-optimal.”

If this is a problem, then it is a problem that is never going away. Blizzard’s solution for MoP is to make talents largely irrelevant for the most optimized role, dps. If you play the game with no talents at all it won’t matter that much. That’s one way to do it, but why not go further? Pushing buttons can be done in the wrong order, so why not make all skills deal the same amount of damage so it makes no difference?

I suspect the real problem isn’t that there is a right and wrong way, because when it comes to doing anything of consequence there is always a right and wrong way. If your goal is to go to work, there is a right way–get in the car and go towards work–and a myriad of wrong ways, like getting in the car and going in the wrong direction. There are even suboptimal ways, such as taking the bus if your goal is speed or driving if your goal is to save gas money. But no matter the goal, there is always a right and wrong way. It’s just that when it comes to getting to work, you know if the way is good or not. You can time it, you can notice if you don’t arrive at work, and so on. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Feedback!

WoW gives you no useful feedback mechanism at all. Quest mobs are trivial and can be defeated with just about any setup. Instances aren’t trivial, but are grouped, and there is no innate damage meter, meaning you don’t have any idea whether you or someone else is playing badly and causing the failure. Even if you install a damage meter, you only know how good you are compared to the others…they might be doing things even more wrongly than you. A game like Diablo 2 had a separate problem, which is that a setup that was good at level 20 is useless at level 60. That’s not very good design, and largely fixed with synergies in one of the later patches.

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17. Wilhelm Arcturus - May 24, 2012

@Matt – Feedback is an excellent point. As a group we hit a point running instances where we were just stuck. One of the big problems was that our specs were poorly chosen, but there was no way to tell really except that we were failing. We didn’t want to min/max, we just wanted to kill the damn normal mode boss.

Eventually I posted our damage meter output here and readers pointed and laughed, something that caused some issues in the group. I don’t mind being an idiot in public, others are less eager to do. So we went to elitist jerks, as suggested in a comment, found better specs, and rolled on without much issue afterwards. Actually, things got pretty easy from that point forward, but that is another issue.

That said, I still think that the talent tree bears its share of the blame. The assign points, try, pay gold, respec, try again, pay gold, respec, is a painful way to conduct trial and error. Not something I would ever have the patience for.

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18. mbp - May 24, 2012

@Wilhelm said: “Why not just mix max (skills) at your pleasure”

well for one reason it is a good way to enforce sensible constraints. If you choose the warrior path for this battle for example you cannot also be a healer.

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19. Wilhelm Arcturus - May 24, 2012

@mbp – Didn’t I say “mix and match?” And I am going to guess that some people who played UO are going to totally disagree with you… or totally agree with you… based on some of the skill mixing you could do there.

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20. Syp - May 24, 2012

I’m not huge on talent trees either. What I want are clear, meaningful choices for my character — and lots of them.

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21. Wilhelm Arcturus - May 24, 2012

@Syp – Too late, I’ve declared you the champion of talent trees. We do battle in a “no-holds-barred Thunderdome deathmatch” tomorrow night.

By the way, who wrote that description of my D3/T2 comparo post?

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22. whorhay - May 24, 2012

I’m a fan of skill/talent trees simply because they allow me to make meaningful choices in how my character performs in any given role. There is no doubt that some games have managed to bungle skills and talents in all kinds of new and inventive ways. And after some pondering and reading other comments I’ve realized that D3 actually does still have Skill trees, they are just very cleverly disguised.

In D3 the respecs are always free and the only limiting factor is a brief cool down and I think you have to be out of combat. Your ability and rune selections make for a rudimentary skill tree. This in my opinion is a little to easy as it eliminates the importance of making cost benefit based decisions. And if there are no interesting decisions to be made it’s not much of an RPG in my mind.

I think a good skill/talent tree needs to have both abilities/skills that are exclusive to the tree and bonuses to existing abilities/skills. Those bonuses could be direct performance improvements and or augmentations similar to the rune system.

I stopped playing WoW towards the end of BC so I can’t comment on what came later but I did like the talent system in WoW although it was obvious that they weren’t thinking of expansions when they first designed them. While the respec cost seemed steep early on it became a non-factor pretty quickly unless you were an obsessive respec type player. I only ever heavily min/maxed a couple of my characters because it wasn’t necessary for most of the game.

There has of course always been the problem of people making their characters into square pegs which they then tried to fit through round holes. I’ve never really seen that as a serious problem though so long as the game provided a way to reshape your character or find the square hole to progress through. Besides what game has ever promised that every couch potato who buys the game will be able to face roll through to the finish?

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23. Aufero - May 24, 2012

Fiddling with character options and game mechanics is my idea of fun. When I’m done doing that with any particular character class, I move on to the next. When I run out of character classes to do that with, I’m pretty much done with an RPG, MMO or otherwise. (I suspect I only lasted as long as I did with WoW because the live team kept redoing the talents and trees over and over.)

So no, I don’t hate talent trees. Anything that adds to character complexity is fine with me, even if some of the possible decisions suck. There’s a real, enjoyable challenge to playing a purposely sub-optimal character.

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24. bernardparsnip - May 25, 2012

I might write a blog post about this – although I worried I’m turning into the Defender of Unpopular Causes (solo play in MMOs, SWTOR etc)…

What I like about talent trees is they offer a simple decision-making mini-game to accompany the leveling game. Suboptimal choices are always there but they doesn’t really impact you until you reach ‘endgame’.
They bring the same joy as research trees in Civilization or skill training in EvE. I make an interesting choice today which will pay off later when I can do XYZ.

I’m very interested to see what alternatives developers can come up with but the Diablo 3 model feels a little lacking in customization at present.

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25. Wilhelm Arcturus - May 25, 2012

@Bernard – Well, clearly there is support in your corner.

But I would have to say that, in my experience, suboptimal choices can impact you long before end game. Bad choices were holding our regular group back in WotLK normal mode dungeons. So I don’t buy the “it doesn’t really matter” sentiment. And if it is a happy little mini-game, why do respecs have to be cheap and easy?

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26. Aufero - May 25, 2012

@Wilhelm – respecs are cheap and easy to keep it a HAPPY little mini-game. When they’re difficult or impossible to acquire, it becomes a decidedly stress filled and unhappy little mini-game.

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27. Wilhelm Arcturus - May 25, 2012

@Aufero – But Bernard’s comment was that this mini-game doesn’t matter until end game. If it doesn’t matter, then why easy respecs? Who would be unhappy if it doesn’t matter?

As I said, it does matter in my experience, so you have to make respecs cheap and easy. But as a mechanism for distributing new skills and upgrades in an environment where, as Matt pointed out above, there is no real feedback mechanism to measure the effectiveness still strikes as a broken system. And this is exactly what keeps it from being a happy little mini game by any stretch in my opinion.

And Chris K. mentioned way up the thread that skill trees are just like fitting ships in things like EFT or pyfa, which is actually incorrect, as both of those tools tell you exactly what the impact of your choices are.

So I might be softer on my anti-skill tree point of view if I had run into one in some game somewhere that really showed the impact of the point spending/respec mini game.

And, to go way back to my start in the original post, I don’t see “has skill trees” as a big selling point for TL2. It has a lot going for it, but skill trees? Meh.

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28. Chris K. - May 25, 2012

So, doesn’t that mean that the problem with the system is the feedback you get from your choices, instead of the actual skill trees?

EFT and Pyfa are out of game tools and it’s true that they don’t actually represent the “skill trees” of EvE, but is was mostly pointing out that the mentality of experimentation and tinkering with builds is still there.

And besides, the only real way to get feedback from a fit in EvE (without external tools) is take the ship for a spin and see how fast it blows up. Talk about a harsh “respec” cost. ;)

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29. bernardparsnip - May 25, 2012

@Wilhem

Part of the fun for me is to theorycraft the benefit – would I rather have faster movement or more DPS? The latter might be optimal but the former might help me level faster if I spent most of my time running to and from town.

Going for Pottery or Monasticism in Civilization always leads to me having both within a few turns, but I enjoy considering my options and making a choice nevertheless.

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30. spinks - May 25, 2012

Matt: The problem isn’t whether there is a right way or a wrong way,it’s that you are asked to make choices without enough information about what those choices will mean in practice (ie. will my character be able to get groups?) or any good ways of getting feedback about how your choices affected your gameplay and if you’d then want to change them.

Nice for the theorycrafters perhaps, but I’d argue that gameplay is more fun if you make a choice, play with it, see if it works, and if not then try something else. Immediate feedback is better gameplay than squinting at damage meters in 50 levels time.

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31. spinks - May 25, 2012

BP: By the time I reach endgame, there’s a good chance that I am personally attached to my character and its play style based on talents I chose. If I then find out it was suboptimal enough that I really need to change it, then there’s a good chance I leave the game (feeling bitter towards the devs for locking my fun talent choices out of endgame!) rather than relearn the class.

I’m not talking about minmaxing so much as playing in an endgame where difficulty is such that you are expected to use fairly optimal specs in groups.

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32. mbp - May 25, 2012

Navigating skill trees is a minigame in iself. Clearly some folk like it while others don’t. I agree that the difficuly of knowing what each choice means is problematic but some of us enjoy finding out by trial and error. Perhaps the best solution would be to allow choices but have clearly marked paths for those who don’t enjoy the talent tree minigame.

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33. Killed in a Smiling Accident. » Blog Archive » Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal - May 25, 2012

[...] 2 to Mass Effect 3. Spoiler: the answer is “yes”. Particularly as, in the comments on Wilhelm’s piece on talent trees, Syp clarifies: “I’m not huge on talent trees either. What I want are clear, meaningful [...]

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34. Knug - May 25, 2012

All the reasons that I love how this is handled by EVE. In EVE, the ships you fly defines (some ships more than others) what your current role in game will be. But you can change your ship according to the new skills you add.

Want to be a healer (logistics) no worries, add those skills and it becomes open to you. Want to fly a battleship and kill folks at range, add skills and you can do that. Want to fly logistics again? No worries, you don’t loose anything, you only ever gain.

By separating role to play from player skills, you have in effect, skill trees defined by ships, and your ability to leap from tree to tree by the skills learned by the character. Once you have become a maxed out logistics pilot, you won’t ever loose that, and yet you can still fly covert ops ships, capital ships, or assault frigates if you wish.

In D&D terms, you wear your armor when you want to brawl, you want to heal you wear a shawl. Without the class limitations, which may make players unhappy with choices, or feel they’ve made bad ones, you have the simple fact that once you can use certain tools (armor, wants, guns, lazers, or ships) you can always use them – with certain limitations on combinations, of course.

Yes, the order that you train skills effects the order that ships become available to you. But there is only time that stops you from having them all.

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35. Toldain - May 25, 2012

I can’t think about talent trees and customization without noting that in current MMO’s, DPS always wins.

Going back to my days in Everquest, there was a wide variety of fighting styles, though many of them were solo or duo. Kiting, Fear kiting, aggro kiting, root-and-rot, Mez-nuke-mez, Charm fighting, and so on.

Now it’s just tank-and-spank. I could see talent trees as unlocking new tactical possibilities.

There’s a basic issue here in all combat games that are based on hit points. Skills can mostly be divided into offense-dealing damage to enemies-and defense-reducing, mitigating, or healing incoming damage.

However, they aren’t symmetric. More offense is always useful, but more than enough defense is wasted.

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36. Gorbag - May 26, 2012

I think talent trees offer false choice and confusion. Once you know the best spec you never think about it again, and if you don’t know the best spec you risk being broken. You don’t have to be a min-maxer (how did that come to be pejorative?) to worry about your build working for 3/4 of a game and then failing miserably. The D3 system allows far more exploration, feedback, and variety than any talent tree system could. I’ve played WoW for years, and I can count on one hand the meaningful spec decisions I’ve made. All that being said, if somebody comes up with a talent tree that solves the problems and is fun to use, I’d be all for it. Put me in the indifferent column :)

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whorhay - May 26, 2012

But Gorbag, “best spec” would always depend on your play style and what you want to accomplish. Besides which Diablo 3 has a skill/talent tree it’s just not displayed as such and has free and fast respecs.

In WoW I played a Fury Warrior prior to BC and loved it. I never actually completely optimized my build for raiding DPS. But I still managed to top the meters consistently and was definitely not slowing us down. I offered to respec for tanking many times and kept a completely separate set of gear for that role, but was always turned down because they wanted my DPS more.

I don’t want skill trees to be a trap for dumb players or anything. But I don’t want games like Diablo to be built so completely to the lowest denominator that no one needs to put any thought into what works best for the role they are filling.

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37. wizardling - May 26, 2012

I like the three following skill systems (not to suggest they were the first or the only games to use such systems – they just happen to be three I play):

EverQuest 1 – new spells unlocked every level (many specific to a single class, others shared between two or more classes – often unlocked at different levels for the different classes), with all available to a class able to be learned (most for sale from vendors, though some are not easily sourced – requiring a quest, rare drop, tradeskilling, hard to reach location, etc).
But only a small subset (eight for standard EQ) are able to be made ready to cast. Changing this subset requires a few seconds, interruptible by combat (thus encouraging choices with consequences).

Diablo I – almost every spell available to every class via vendor and drops, with the magic (determines mana amount and spellpower) stat limiting which classes can learn which spells, and mana (ammunition for spells) amount determining whether they’re then even usable or effective. e.g. The Rogue might gain enough magic to learn spell xyz, but not have enough mana to actually cast it.

Diablo II – unique spells for each class, via a skill tree requiring character levels that give one skill point per level, and often investment of at least one point in earlier skills to unlock later ones.
Originally no respecs, now one free respec per difficulty level, with additional respecs gained via extremely rare drops.

Which system do I prefer? I’m fine with all three, though I like Diablo 1’s the least, as it is the least flexible, adaptable, and differentiated. But one aspect common to all skill systems I enjoy is the player’s choices have consequences that cannot easily be avoided in battle.

I hate the idea of respecs on the fly in combat, or everything always being available to be cast, and for me the more choices and tradeoffs made (within reason), the more fun I have. I play to overcome challenge, and if I can simply bring out the best possible spec at a moment’s notice during combat for every change in the tide of battle, respeccing becomes the dreaded ‘I Win’ button. Instead respeccing should be a way of adapting _before_ each fight, not on a second-by-second basis. Or if respeccing is available during combat, there need to be serious risks and downsides to attempting it in that situation.

Thus, so long as choices with consequences are preserved, I’m happy. Devs can come up with whatever systems they like to differentiate and allow use of classes and their skills, provided the above stays true.

One final note, on skill trees: I like them, though no more than I like an EQ1 style system, but my feeling is what frequently lets them down is not the system itself, but the _lack of decent truly useful skills in each tree_. Of course I’ll be unhappy if I have to invest in utterly useless skills, just to gain or build up a useful skill. Likewise if there’s only a couple really good skills in a tree, naturally most times I’ll avoid everything else.
This isn’t the fault of the skill tree system. It is mainly the fault of devs who run out of ideas and/or fail to balance skills, leading to boring poorly differentiated skills that have wildly varying power. To a lesser extent it’s the fault of players who obsessively min-max specs, when less powerful specs can also be fun and effective. I enjoy _both_ my Blizzard sorc (safely annihilates nearly everything in seconds), but can be too easy at times – hough sometimes you need to just blast the hell out of everything :-D ), and pure summons/ranger druid (he uses a crossbow to help his summons) who takes a while, but is a fun challenge.

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38. Gorbag - May 27, 2012

Whorhay, it’s true that different roles have best specs, but once you know them you just plug them in. I have an addon that does it for me (2 specs aren’t enough). I tank, dps and pvp on my DK, each with a different spec – but I don’t make choices about my spec [i]ever[/i]. My tank spec hasn’t changed since cata’s release. And while you may have topped meters in a sub-par spec, there’s no question you would have done more damage in an optimal one.

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39. See the Forest for the Trees [Game Theory] | Diminishing Returns - May 28, 2012

[...] despite the widespread adoption of the model, there is a vocal part of the gaming community that dislikes [...]

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40. Imakulata - May 29, 2012

Choices are fine – however, I am rather selective on whether a certain option is a choice or not and talent trees do not offer more choices than the simpler skill choice mechanics such as MoP’s talents. Whether I drive to my workplace in the morning or take a bus, those are choices – cutting my legs of and crawling there Maresyev style, is not.

As for respecs, I want the games to inform me what choice I’m committing to if it’s permanent before I do. Unfortunately, it seems developers love nothing more than letting players make permanent choices without giving them information first. (An example: majority of MMORPGs asks players to choose their class at character creation.)

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41. HarbingerZero - May 29, 2012

So I find your view too simplistic to take seriously given what I have seen in talent trees in the past.

My view is not simplistic, its based on direct experience. I have never once picked a talent point by anything other than what I thought would be fun. And yet I was able to successfully tank and heal in Rift, heal in WoW, heal in SWTOR, DPS and heal in EQ2….the list goes on. All by picking nothing other than what I wanted. Simplistic would be to look at a talent tree with nothing more than the question of: how can I make my character beat this game easier? Which is essentially what you are insisting is the only way to utilize talent trees. As long as they give some fun options for people, they add to the game rather than subtracting from it. Period.

In any case, I believe we’ve been down this road before and agreed to disagree, so I’ve leave my comments at that.

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42. Wilhelm Arcturus - May 29, 2012

@HZ – And yet you seem to be espousing a very simplistic view… that if I don’t see it your way, I am a min/maxing moron and should stay out of your game. I Also find it extremely hard to believe that you have never spent a talent point based on how it would improve your character’s ability to play the game, but merely as fun options. You must be a super player if your talent tree choices have no impact on your play.

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43. Skill Points and Talent Trees: A Rebuttal « Harbinger Zero - May 29, 2012

[...] up, as this post is focused in on a recent post at The Ancient Gaming Noob, let me say a few things about Wilhelm and his site.   TAGN was one of the first gaming blogs I [...]

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44. Solf - May 31, 2012

Ahh… late to the party, because I’m seriously behind reading through my Google Reader feed… but I already wanted to comment on your D3 vs T2 post — and here you specifically ask for the comments on the subject… So here goes.

I think that both talent (e.g. D2) and limited selection (e.g. D3) skill system have benefits and drawbacks. The possibly biggest problem of both of them is that they are usually poorly implemented.

With that said, for all the problems with it, I still vastly prefer a decent talent system over what is available in D3.

It is likely that I don’t represent majority of players — but I do like digging into guts of the available choices and finding the perfect fit (for me). I also enjoy quite a lot watching my character ‘grow’ according to some plan I have in mind — e.g. at this level I improve my fireball to hit harder and on the next I’ll take that utility power because I feel its benefits outweigh the benefits of fireball hitting still harder.

I also reject the notion that one must follow “best build” from the internet — one certainly doesn’t — at least not in any of the games I’ve played (including WoW). My builds in WoW were always tailored to my preferences while always being more than viable in the end game.

Now this strength of the traditional talent system is also its weakness — because apparently oh-so-many people cannot be bothered to dig into skills/talent trees guts — and thus they either make poor choices (e.g. skills that work at cross-purposes etc.) or look up something on the Internet. That doesn’t mean that these people are M&S or anything — they are simply not interested in this kind of gameplay — and this is, I guess, fine. For them the game ought to do what Rift and DDO did (preset/recommended builds).

But by far the biggest problem with traditional talent system is that you need to commit to some path from the early on — when you’re likely have no idea how these skills will work at the ‘end game’ — or how they’ll work at all. Some games did better in this regard though — I think it was in Champions Online where you could play with the powers before committing to a choice.

I also detest the idea of free / cheap / easy respecs. It has to do with my preference to play *specific character/build* and my strong preference to play *hybrid* specs. The game that makes respecs easy practically insists on everyone playing several very focused specs — and I hate the very idea of it. Think WoW, dual spec (never played Rift, but I imagine it’s even worse in that regard).

On the other hand some kind of respec is usually necessary — if for no other reason that at low level you cannot have reasonable idea of how skills / builds will play out at high levels. So usually it needs to be in, but at the same time it should be, in my preference, expensive — in terms that you cannot let yourself respec every day or even every week. You should have option to ‘play’ with other options though — so you could decide whether you want to try to respec — again some ‘experimentation area’ in-game might help in this regard.

To make an example of what decent talent system makes possible — in Path of Exile (yet another action-rpg coming out this year) beta weekend I’ve made myself bow wielding ‘barbarian’ who used health to power his magics and had enough health regen to offset the costs. Finding and implementing that idea (and finding it very viable for the level I was able to reach) was an awesome feeling (for me). Not that PoE talent tree doesn’t need major usability improvements :)

And for comparison here are my thoughts on the failures of D3’s implementation of ‘limited choices’ skill system (some of them are D3-specific and some of them are general) and somewhat related gameplay:

– Leveling is mindless process. There’s no need to make any choice when you level up nor there is any satisfaction of reaching next stage of your character plan (since there’s none to start with). Hell, leveling followers is better in that regard as there are some choices to be made.

– Some of the very useful skills (skill+rune combination) you gain early in the game — and then they are never ever going to become any better (e.g. you can’t ‘add another skill point’ to them or anything). Which, in my opinion, sucks completely.

– Quite a few skills appear completely useless / appear to be completely overshadowed by other skills. I might be wrong here — I might not have figured how to use them properly — but I rarely had any hard choices (i.e. almost always it was quite clear to me that X is better than Y for me).

– 6 allowed skills is too few for the kind of gameplay / skills provided. For an example — my monk has this: primary single target / small aoe attack (by far most powerful attack vs. small number of tightly packed enemies); circular attach with debuffs (essential both for AOE when surrounded and for debuffing everyone around to survive); buff (aura); aoe blind (kind of stun); heal; invulnerability — last three are essential to my survival in 4-player game in early Hell). There’s literally nothing I can see giving up in that list — and that list includes exactly ZERO spirit-using attacks. Which is ridiculous really.

-TWO of the precious 6 skill slots are hardcoded to use ONLY LMB & RMB. This is already ridiculous, but LMB skill is ALSO forever tied to attack / move / activate combination. This is… insane for the kind of gameplay Blizzard chose to provide (get out of fire gameplay specifically — which I strongly dislike in this kind of ARPG). To add insult to an injury, ‘move without attacking’ button is not even mapped to anything by default. I can’t imagine what kind of possible justification there is for these decisions. If I only get to use 6 skill slots, let me map them to whatever buttons I want and definitely DO NOT tie them to combination buttons (move / attack / activate).

– Everyone can use any equipment (except for some that are class restricted). So both wizard and barbarian get to wear the same notional full platemail with the same stats. The mind boggles :) I imagine this is the reason that prompted them to add hidden 30% damage reduction bonus to melee classes.

– In early hell my monk played in 4-player game is already level 50-something. If I understand correctly, 60 is level cap — and it looks like it’ll be reached soon enough — earlier than we clear inferno (if we ever do). I don’t like it.

– This is somewhat tangential — but what the heck is with the class balance? Why melee (barbarian & monk) are so much more usable in 4-player game at least through the early hell and levels 50+? For comparison — DH and Wizard seem to get almost one-shotted if they make even slight mistake around champions and bosses.

Well, if you’ve read this far — thanks! :) This looks to be a far too long wall of text — guess I needed to get it off my chest after playing D3 and reading your D3 vs. T2 post — while you said you liked both of them, the post itself felt like a list of all the stuff that (in your opinion) T2 got wrong and D3 exactly right.

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45. TheBlackDruid - May 31, 2012

So this is a bit of a funny story, but I just found this blog randomly via a Google search while trying to bolster my ego and reassure myself i’m not the only person in the world not griping about the “loss” of the talent tree skill system in D3. Apologies if this turns into a massive post, I ramble sometimes.

It’s not that I don’t like talent trees per se, or that I think D3’s system is perfect (I think it could do with more variety and more choice, and less “no brainer” choices, personally. I also like to choose things myself rather than “unlocking” them automatically as I level, but that’s purely just a personal preference). But.. the standard talent tree system in games like Torchlight (1/2) just don’t do it for me. Don’t get me wrong, I have D3 and I have Torchlight 2 on preorder (so i’m firmly in the “both” camp), but I think there’s some middle ground to be had somewhere.

The problem I have with talent trees, or rather i’ll talk about Torchlight 2’s specifically, is that you have many choices (good), but that the choices are, in my opinion, relatively dull. I don’t want to put points in a skill that has 15 levels to it and only gives a tiny bonus (like a small bonus to attack or damage, or even worse, a tiny +% bonus to a meaningless chance of something you don’t care about) each time you do so. It might eventually add up to something worthwhile, but I don’t find it interesting.

More variety in skills and less meaningless bonuses (and therefore less levels to a skill) would interest me more. Throw a special bonus at me sometimes that isn’t a +X to Y, like a bonus that makes things explode when you punch them, or a chance to spawn a penguin with a top hat (that’s where I like D3’s runes, they change an aspect of an ability in a meaningful way). At the very least make the bonuses noticeable even with a single point (Borderlands comes to mind for that, man I love that game!).

In fact, it’s not the skill system I hate, just the usual ARPG setup of more levels per skill, less bonuses that actually seem to mean anything.

There’s also the usual problem to solve of particular skills that are just plain better (although that’s not a problem unique to talent trees, I started with a Wizard in D3 and actively refused to use Diamond Skin or Storm Shield/Armour/Whatever even before they got nerfed, though that was partly because I didn’t like them anyway – playstyle conflict), which cuts down on your choice unless you’re ok with having to purposely underpower yourself (which doesn’t bother me personally; i’m in it to have fun, not be super powerful – not that people can’t find fun in being super powerful). Ah the balance problem.. the bane of every game and tabletop developer’s existence.

Now if there is something I do hate (and I don’t know how popular an opinion this would be!), it’s the fake choice of the stat point system. It basically waves the choice of putting points in stats at you, but as is typical for ARPGs, you often only need two of them (one being your main class stat and the other usually being the health stat). That coupled with there rarely being many stats, and the annoying chasing of item stat requirements. This could be my D&D bias talking, but I prefer a decent sized stat system where I may still require a specific stat, but I have a good choice of builds using the rest which are involved in a meaningful way (and not just for one or two bonuses to random things, like agility to dodge chance). I have good memories of using stats in D&D on characters that would normally get min-maxed out of existence in a powerbuild (fighter or barbarian with massive CHA ftw).

This is where I hug the D3 system for not waving that “choice” in front of me and just sticking my Wizard’s stats in intelligence and vitality where it would’ve gone anyway.

/end ramble

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46. rowan - June 7, 2012

Wow great comments from everyone. I know I am way late to this, but I’ve been busy. :) I tipped the poll slightly in favor of talent trees (here I include skill trees, as well) because I like the idea that I am a unique snowflake. @36Gorbag: “Min-maxer” has been pejorative from the early days of D&D, along with “Roll-Player” (vice ROLE-Player) as someone there to “win” instead of having fun with the scenario.

I personally think the issue is not that there is an optimal talent specialization for a given class and role, but that all too often other players—or worse, the game itself—require that an individual be operating at the optimal spec, with the optimal rotation. That’s fine if you’re playing some kind of nightmare mode, where the slightest misstep is fatal. Most of the time, having a game that finely tuned is unnecessary and will make the game unfun to the vast majority of players. (The hardcore among us will say that’s the only way to play.)

Now I suppose there might be a point, in group play, where your sub-optimal spec is an actually detriment; say, fully specced for DPS when your role is healer, or vice versa. But then I also have written at length that the holy trinity of modern MMORPGs is far too restrictive and favors only those heavily specced—and geared—for each role.

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47. Aurum - August 6, 2012

Really comes down to how well done the talent tree system is done.

If it’s well polished and thought it then they add a new dimension of customization to the game and requires a little thought.

On the other hand, they can also be overwhelming or too similar and it just becomes an exercise, and we gamers hate exercise =P

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