Tobold's Blog
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Rift soul system impressions

I spent several hours in the third Rift beta event, playing two characters of the two different factions. While the guys from Trion are most proud of the "rift" system they named the game after, most MMORPG veterans remarked that rifts work pretty much exactly like public quests in WAR. Thus I'm going to talk about another innovation of Rift, the soul system.

Rift has 4 basic classes, warrior, rogue, priest, and mage. But each of this classes has 8 sub-classes, called souls, and players can freely choose 3 of them. Each soul has a talent tree, and in addition to the talents you get spells and abilities based on how many points you put into each soul. The overall effect is similar to being able to choose 3 talent trees out of 8 for your class, instead of your class choice determining which 3 talent trees you get. Furthermore you can buy souls and respecs, so while your basic class will remain the same, you can switch between the 8 possible souls and redistribute your points.

This gives you a lot of interesting strategic choices. You can choose souls where the talents of one contribute to the performance of the other, or you can choose souls that do very different things, like adding a necromancer's skeleton pet to your pyromancer fireball-hurling mage.

Rift has 50 levels, and you get 1 soul point per level, plus another point every third level, for an overall 66 points. You can only put as many points into a soul as you have level, so there are always some points to put into your second or third soul. Nevertheless, like every talent tree in every game, the best talents are at the very top, and I expect to see many 50/16/0 builds or variations thereof among minmaxing players. So while the different souls contribute a lot to the early game, where just choosing a soul gives you additional spells, in the long run the best tactical choice is to make your main soul dominant. Maybe Trion should give out slightly more soul points, e.g. 75 at level 50, to combat this.

The harder task for Trion is how to balance that all. The nearly forgotten term "tank mage" from the UO days springs to mind, describing people finding a template that is able to do everything, without having any weaknesses. Of course the beta was too early to say how balanced the classes and builds are. But fundamentally any system that allows meaningful choice also allows players to gimp themselves, or find the "flavor of the month" "best" template, until some nerf in the next patch changes everything.
I wonder about the sub-classes system though. What I dislike about MMORPG mentality is that the players will try to get the "best" (most efficient) setup of the freedom that was given to the players. So you get to choose 3 sub-classes to use, and yes, it opens up A LOT of strategic choices. But everyone knows it that sooner or later, there will be the best 3 sub-classes (and skill points distribution) that somewhat "forced" the players to be 99% speced the same way. If you happen to be the 1%, they'd call you names.

Do you (Tobold or anyone else) think that it'll happen with Rift as well? Do you think there will ever be an MMORPG and community of the players that would be willing to let the players be free and not peer-pressured to follow the flock?
Of course people will min/max. The alternative is to just make everything equal/the same, which means you wouldn't have sub-classes...just the four base types, which is boring :P

The key here is to take another page from Bliz's playbook and offer talents/skills that don't necessarily increase one's damage/healing, but provide utility and hybridization (yes, it's a word :P).

Cata is a good example of getting things done right...technically speaking, you have 10 base classes, and each of those classes can turn into 1 of 3 sub-classes based on talent specialization. Althought this means you have 30 individual ways to play, a lot of the buffs and debuffs are shared amongst 3-5 classes, deployed and utilized in different ways.

If Rift can get 'that' down, great! You'll still have min/maxers, but it won't be anywhere near as bad if you just give certain classes super-phenomenal buffs/debuffs instead of spreading the love.
That's the problem with skill based systems. In theory it allows for much more character diversity; however, in practice it leads to very cookie cutter characters.

Some genius figures out which skill combination is best and everyone mimics it.

Also, the tank mage of UO wasn't powerful because he could do EVERYTHING. He was powerful because he had an attack combo that allowed him to essentially one-shot anyone in the game who wasn't wearing plate.

Even after the patch that removed tank mages as a viable class in UO, the remaining classes were pretty much the same. The warriors classes all had 6 of their 7 skills the same. The only skill that differed was skill in a particular weapon. Mages had 5 of 7 skills the same, the only difference between them was a few skills that offered various pvp perks.
Ethic quotes Scott Hartsman on this issue over at KTR

I am 100% in favor of systems that allow for both Godlike and Gimped builds and all points inbetween. I play what I want to play regardless of efficiency and I appreciate being treated as sufficiently adult to do so.
Gamers will always find the most efficient way to do anything, the path of least resistance. Gamers always want to be the “best” therefore if Spec A offers 3% more damage, healing, mitigation or what have you over Spec B then the gamer will choose spec A. You will occasionally get a person who tries something off the wall, but those are typically alternative characters and not that person’s main.

Blizz has made some good steps in talent builds. The buffs that use to be very class and spec specific are now shared among approximately 5 other classes. This goes along with the ideology of Blizzard, bring the player not the class. Right now WoW has more feasible talent builds than ever before, because nearly every talent tree on every character is good.

Rift seems to be using the system Blizzard used during The Burning Crusade. It permitted any sort of Hodge podge hybrid class, but everyone just min/maxed. Can a game successfully make any spec viable? Not if you want to retain any sort of individuality. Any game that offers a large variety of choices will fall victim to some of those choices being wrong. They simply have to many variables to successfully balance them all without homogenizing everything.
People will choose non cookie cutter specs if they are different enough. I love being a tank that can heal myself so if I can create that character I will, even if it isn't the best tank option. The problem would be not being able to get groups or spots on raids but Rift may have solved that problem with the rifts. In the beginning of Warhammer when public quests where popular you didn't need a group to do epic content or get great rewards. As long as Rift can keep people rifting you will be free to choose any soul combo that is fun. If raiding is the best way to get gear, and is extremely difficult, then you will see everybody with the best cookie cutter spec so they can beat the content.
While I agree that gamers will always look for the most efficient ways of doing things, they will also always look for the least efficient ways of doing things. I'm close to finished with a Starcraft 2 playthrough without building any of the units allowable in the multi-player game. Why am I doing this? With success as defined for me by the game being relatively easy to achieve, I am inventing my own ways of succeeding for my personal enjoyment.

If Rifts wants to encourage diversity they can do so, but they will have to do so at the expense of extremely challenging game-defined success conditions. If the game-defined success conditions are extremely challenging then they will not leave room for people to approach them with wacky soul combinations.

If different soul combinations really allow for wacky things to happen, then people will do those wacky things and have fun doing them. But if the game is focused around challenging end-game content then you'll have to look well off the beaten path of websites to find the people doing it.
While leveling up, yes a tank that heals… a paladin anyone, will be the best bet. However once you reach “max” level and start grouping with friends, why would you want or need to heal yourself. Two classes that specialize will almost always be more powerful than two classes who are hybrids. It’s a MMO so you need to assume that you will be playing with other people.

Just because you choose to be different, doesn't mean everyone does. That is my point. I'm going to assume that you didn't choose this path on your first play through, thus confirming my belief. I played through SC2 on normal the first time and then the hardest difficulty to get all the achievements the second time, why? Because I had already beaten the game so now I could try a more unorthodox route.

Just because someone does something different, or a few people do, doesn't mean you can make a game and hope everyone will. You have to treat a game's player base like one entity that is very simple minded. You have to construct the content and reward system to push them in the direction you want them to go. You cannot give them free reign and hope they make the "fun" choice and not the most efficient choice... because history has shown us that they will choose efficiency.

I’m not anti-Rift here. I haven’t even played the game. I just get the feeling that you guys are being a little to idealistic.
I understand what you are saying and it was one of the things I was trying to explain. I don't want to be a self healing tank because it would be the best tank, I want to be a melee fighter that wears heavy armor and has the ability to heal themselves to some extent. That is just what I like to play, however I also like to tank in groups and want to see end game content. If I can't do that by picking the skills stated above then I won't pick those skills, I will pick the skills that make me the best tank.

But if I can run up to a rift and fight with a large group of people and get a great reward for it, without filling a standard role, then I will be free to play whatever I want. In this way having a deep class skill customization would benefit the game. If all the best loot is end game raiding then the customization is a waste of time as I have to pick a specific set of skills to be useful as a tank.
Ultimately, the fact that there is min/maxing has more to do with the developers than the players. i.e. it's the content that determines what the min/max is.

If developers were constantly adding in varied content, the PvE side could allow for many different types of builds.

Of course, that much content would require a lot of developer time...which is why you don't see it. Imagine a game where the PvE side has so much varied content that min/maxing for a few abilities and stats actually hurts you overall. Or, where a boss fight/encounter doesn't have some threshold of raw data to complete, such as DPS/Enrage timer that developers currently use.

Tobold has mentioned this before, but if any boss can change up their abilities on any particular fight, not only would it be challenging, but it would also reward groups that aren't all cookie-cutter. Since one fight might contains adds that require kiting and cc; or heavy raid damage which might require additional healing by more-hybrid type of classes. If every boss encounter can have a few random phases mixed in with the "unique" boss abilities, your raid group (assuming Rift is a raid-based game) wants to be more fluid than cookie-cutter rigid.

How is the PvP Tobold? While I've always preferred PvP over PvE in any game I play, I also like to hear your PvP criticism, since it is usually on the mark in describing the problems and inconsistencies in it.
Ultimately, the fact that there is min/maxing has more to do with the developers than the players. i.e. it's the content that determines what the min/max is.

I'll partially agree with this. The thing is, the players have the freedom to min/max or not, and it's the players who decided themselves that they want to min/max. The players' goal is no longer to beat the boss, but to beat the boss the easiest way.

Tobold has mentioned this before, but if any boss can change up their abilities on any particular fight, not only would it be challenging, but it would also reward groups that aren't all cookie-cutter.

I also thought about more randomization in MMORPG myself. It's why Nyzul Isle is my fave dungeon in FFXI because the floor layout is random, the objective is random, the restriction is random. You can't just blindly beat it by memorizing things, but you have to be prepared AND (this is the big thing) be willing to accept that you might fail because of (lack of) luck.

So while I agree that developers are blamed for the min/max mentality, it's also the players who are to be blamed too. The developers are scared to create a content that can be "too difficult" while the players are scared to "lose". What happens is that content is created to be able to be completed very easily if players are min/max-ing.

And the scary thing is, that is exactly what the players and developers want the game to be like.
Souls are multi-speccing by another name. As long as boss fights are scripted, there will always be a "right" way to min-max a spec. If rifts are random and require heads up utility-type play, then there is hope for character flexibility on soul-builds.
The manner in which rewards are allocated at Rifts will matter too. People are going to try and exploit the system.
True, in Warhammer you wouldn't get as much renown for all three roles so you get an imbalance of roles.

What I am hoping happens is that rifts will be rewarding, and powerful enough, that people will run to do them. That would mean non standard allocations of classes and the tactics will have to change based on the classes that show up.
Something everyone should be aware of is that the current design in beta allows each character to maintain 4 completely independent "roles" simultaneously. Each role can have any combination of up to 3 of whichever souls you have acquired. Switching between them takes only a few seconds, can be done anywhere, and can even be hotkeyed. I don't think it's allowed in combat mode, however. It appears that you will be able to acquire all 8 souls available to your chosen calling (class). The first three from leveling, the other five via presumably somewhat elaborate quests, but ones that are available quite early.

That means you can maintain up to 4 totally independent soul combinations at all times. I would expect this will result in most players evolving to have a solo role, a group/raid role, perhaps a PvP role, and then one more "spare" role which could be the off-the-wall experimental build. While the first 3 may indeed become very cookie-cutter and min/maxed via theorycrafting, there is still room for trying out something new and different.

You will clearly want several different sets of gear for optimizing each role's performance, and it may be impractical to carry more than one set of extra gear around due to inventory space. So in practice you may only have a couple of role active, the others requiring a bank trip.

I'm not sure if this will be deemed too flexible and cut back before release, however.

I agree that they will need to give out even more skill points. It was already raised between Beta 2 & 3, but it's still not enough to even effectively dual-soul, never mind dipping into all three branches significantly.
While the first 3 may indeed become very cookie-cutter and min/maxed via theorycrafting, there is still room for trying out something new and different.

The big question is, what's the use of the fourth? For solo, use cookie-cutter #1. For raid/group, use cookie-cutter #2. For PvP, use cookie-cutter #3. Of course it's not 100% that it'd happen like that. I guess the big picture is not about having a fool-around set just for fooling around, but a system where players have options where the choices are all excellent at certain situation without being rubbish at other situation. Thus, players aren't forced to pick one skill and ignore the other.

A generic-RPG example is to give a choice whether to learn/improve fire or water elemental spell? If some monsters would take more damage from fire spells, some from water spells, there's no real cookie-cutter "best" answer for that and thus, players are free to choose what they want. But of course usually players are allowed to learn both spells anyway, so my example above is simply in concept.
I'd just like to point out that it's actually more complicated than that (the min/maxing thing) in Rift.

The top branch (or spec) ability in a tree can be had for 31 points. The top root (or baseline) ability can be had for 51 points. So you'll see some builds that go for 51/15/0 or some variation thereof, but you'll also see builds that do 31/31/4 (or whatever). This is the result of the recent change to 66 points, and I think min/maxing is going to come in so many flavors it'll just be considered spending points wisely :P

I vastly prefer this system over the current generation WoW talent trees, where to save us from making "unfun" choices, they've all but removed the ability to make choices at all, beyond which spec to be your primary.
Additionally, since Rift allows you to have multiple builds and easily switch between them, it doesn't really matter if there is a "best" build for certain classes in certain situations. You can have that cookie cutter min/max build for when you raid to make your raid leader happy, yet still have multiple other builds to spec however you want for when you're questing or doing rifts or pvp or whatever.

To those who think the current WoW talent trees are a step in the right direction I can only express my bafflement. They're so confining and linear as to be almost pointless. They might as well just make 3 specs per class and let you pick one, then not bother with all the invididual talent choices.

Yes, it's very balanced, yes min/maxing is very difficult, but they acheived that by largely taking the player out of the equation. I like making meaningful choices in my character's development, and Blizzard has removed that.

There will be specs in Rift that are gimp. So what? If the player has fun with his gimp spec, great. If he doesn't have fun with it, he can easily change it.

In order for player decisions to matter they have to have the opportunity to make the wrong choice. If you remove the ability to make a wrong choice, then player input becomes meaningless.
The idea that diversity will always lead to cookie cutter builds is one I no longer buy now that I've played League of Legends. Because the developers are very aware of the mathematics behind all of the stats your character can have, they have balanced the pros and cons of each character tot he point that instead of having a handful of champions that actually get played in ranked games, at least half of the champions remain competitive at higher levels. Even within each champion the min/maxers simply cannot agree on a best build for most of the champions out there because so many builds are viable.

When I read the tool tips for rift's spells I can see a lot of evidence that they have considered how much overall utility each talent provides and have attempted to keep those rates equal between classes and between souls. This will not remove cookie cutter builds. But, like league of legends, players might be able to choose from 20+ viable builds per class, which would bring less diversity than the 84759374- or whatever combinations that are possible, but certainly enough diversity that players can enjoy themselves.
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