Monday, October 12, 2009
Skill-point systems vs. class / level systems
Theodorus the mage approached the clearing from the south. There he was, standing right in the middle of the clearing, the big grey wolf which had caused Farmer Brown so much trouble with his sheep. Theodorus was just at the limit of the range of his fireball spell, perfect. He mumbled the arcane incantations, the fireball zipped from his fingertips towards the wolf, and then …
Then what exactly?
At this point in any fantasy role-playing game, be that pen & paper, single-player video game, or MMORPG, a set of calculations starts. Does the fireball hit the wolf or miss it? If it hits, how much damage does it deal? And while in a shooter game hits and damage might be based on aiming, in a RPG they are solely or at least predominantly determined by the stats of our mage Theo and the stats of the wolf. From the stats, probabilities and damage numbers are calculated.
In a class and level-based game like World of Warcraft, the relative level of Theo and the wolf will already tell you a lot about the probably outcome. If Theo is much lower in level than the wolf, then the fireball will miss or just singe the wolf, and then the wolf will eat Theo. If Theo is much higher in level than the wolf, the fireball will one-shot the beast. In the most common case, with the mage and the wolf being of similar level, the wolf will lose a part of his hit points to the fireball, start sprinting towards the mage, and Theo will keep spamming fireballs on him until the wolf is dead, taking some damage himself in the process. How many fireballs Theo will need will depend on secondary things influencing stats: Gear, buffs, talents. But it is definitely the class and level of Theo which have the most influence on the fight.
Now some people dislike this sort of level- and class-based gaming, and prefer an approach based on skill-points. In a skill-point based game, Theo would not be "a mage", at least not written on his character sheet. But he would have a number of skill-points available to distribute between various game skills, and in this case would have put a number of points into either a general "magic" skill, or a specific "fireball" skill. It is obvious that ultimately the result is exactly the same as in a level-based game: Just instead of level and talents being used to calculate the probability to hit and the damage, we now calculate the same numbers using skill points as input.
The difference for the players is what options he gets in combining various skills. Our mage Theo, in most class/level-based games, would be able to throw fireballs, but he wouldn't be able to heal, and he wouldn't be able to wear plate mail armor. His class basically determines the "template" of his skills. In a game based on skill-points, he can choose that template himself. And some players like that choice.
Unfortunately having a higher degree of choice also has its disadvantages. Because as we said, in the end any template results in probabilities and numbers calculated. That is a mathematical problem, which can be solved for any given set of parameters. So after every patch changing the calculations, theorycrafters come and solve the mathematical problem, and calculate the optimal templates for every given role. That then becomes the "flavor of the month" template, until some developer realizes that something is overpowered, nerfs some ability, and changes the parameters in the next patch, resulting in new calculations finding new optimal templates. "Choice" for the player is an illusion, the best informed players will all "choose" the same optimum template. And the less well informed players who actually make choices themselves are referred to as "gimps", because they "gimped themselves" by making suboptimal choices. The well-informed meanwhile have chosen the optimum "tank-mage" template in which they are practically invulnerable while dealing maximum damage, or they specialized into one role for group play, either pure damage dealing, pure healing, or pure tanking.
Furthermore skill-point based games frequently have problems with how exactly you earn your skill-points. The basic idea is usually that you gain skill-points in the activity that you do. But often games have difficulty to determine whether what a player does makes sense or not. So Theo might be able to raise his fireball skill by launching fireballs at trees and rocks. Or a player might increase his running skill by putting a weight on the "W" key of his keyboard, have his character "run" against a wall, while he is afk to watch a movie.
Games with classes and levels basically provide players with fixed templates for skill-point distribution, and link the increase of those skills to a simple unified number, the character level, increased by experience points. Choice is limited to talent systems or to systems where you can specialize your class into some sub-class. On the surface it looks as if a player had more choice in a skill-point based game than in a class-based game. But in reality curiously the class-based games end up with having more variety. For example World of Warcraft has 30 different basic choices, plus variations thereof, in the form of 10 character classes with 3 talent trees each. Skill-point based games usually have a lot less, because there is just one optimum template for damage dealing, one for healing, and one for tanking. Extreme specialization usually is an optimum for any skill-point based system, which is why for example in Ultima Online everybody distributed his 700 skill-points into the maximum of 100 points into 7 different skills at "grandmaster" level. Putting 50 points here, and 50 points there was sub-optimal, so while mathematically there was a lot of choice, practically there wasn't all that much. Games with classes can offer choices like a healer still able to deal enough damage for soloing when he isn't in a group, which would be sub-optimal and thus not chosen if the players distributed the skill-points themselves. And they can make classes that are lets say sub-optimal for damage dealing attractive by adding other advantages and unique class skills.
So in summary I'd say that having some degree of choice is nice, and I certainly do like most sorts of specialization and talent systems. But I have yet to see a totally free skill-distribution system which didn't lead to flavor-of-the-month templates and ultimately less choice. Skill-point systems just disfavor the casual players who just want to play without first engaging in long theorycrafting and research of optimum templates.