Daily Archives: May 24, 2012

On Talent Trees and Skill Points

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.