Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 26, 2011
Skill systems and character resets

To get the ball rolling on that Darkfall 2.0 character reset perfect harmony joint post between me and Syncaine, I thought I'd write up some thoughts on skill systems and character resets.

What I am talking about here is MMORPG systems in which you don't "level up" to increase your abilities, but where there is a more direct system in which you improve skills by using them. These sort of systems appeal to many due to them being more "immersive". There is a sort of easy-to-understand logic behind you getting better at wielding a sword by wielding a sword. After all, that is how you would do it in real life, right?

Unfortunately once you observe what people end up actually doing in MMORPGs with systems like these, it turns out that there are some obvious flaws. The game is often unable to distinguish between you exercising a skill for a normal game activity, and you exercising a skill for something silly to "grind" it. Thus if a game has a running skill, and an auto-run function, a player might place his avatar into a corner, and auto-run into that corner for hours, steadily increasing his running skill. Or if there is a skill to throw fireballs, the player might cast this spell against trees in complete safety to skill up. It's another fine example of players' tendency to optimize the fun out of games.

Now game developers are by definition idealists, otherwise they wouldn't work under the conditions prevalent in that industry. So games get released with skill systems that aren't robust against being manipulated by the players. And if you change the conditions later, as in you only gain fireball skill if your fireball actually deals damage to a mob that can hurt you, you end up with the problem of what to do with the people who already maxed out their skills in ways you hadn't anticipated.

Thus when Aventurine discussed a complete revamp of their skill system in Darkfall 2.0, the subject of character resets has turned up in the discussion. Probably not a "wipe", completely erasing all existing characters, but some sort of "skill reset". The problem being that in a game without levels, a skill reset is equivalent of resetting everybody to level 1, even if they keep their gear and other belongings.

Now people tend to care about their relative and absolute character status in a game a lot. MMORPGs are mostly static, that is not much in the virtual world changes through the actions of the players. The only thing that changes in every game is the virtual character itself, which makes his status a record of the personal history of that character which isn't recorded elsewhere in the world. Arthas might still sit on his frozen throne in Icecrown citadel, but you got the achievement, title, and possibly loot proving that you slew him. Reset the character, and there is nothing left of your virtual achievements. Your personal history is much more important to you than the game lore history, which only advances in patches and expansions, and then often has serious inconsistencies when playing through older content.

It is pretty obvious that if Blizzard tomorrow would announce that they will reset every character in World of Warcraft to level 1, they would lose millions of players immediately. So would a game like EVE, if they would reset everybody's skills to zero. If you play for the advancement of your character, and that advancement is taken away from you, that can be a good reason to quit playing. People clearly invest themselves less in betas where they know there will be a character reset (which is one of the reasons why developers get surprised by behavior of players after launch which is completely different to what they did in the beta).

On the other side of the medal are the obvious advantages of a reset: If players consider that others have gained "unfair" advantages through an exploit in the skill system, they might prefer a skill reset combined with a new skill system which is less easy to manipulate. And if the worst exploiters quit because of it, then so be it!

So what will happen if Darkfall 2.0 resets all skills is hard to predict. Being a niche game, Darkfall might benefit from having more dedicated players than a mainstream game. But that dedication might make these players even more angry about having lost their time "investment" in the game. And players hate major changes to games, so this could end up being the "NGE" of Darkfall, even if the new skill system is better and fairer than the old one. It sure will be interesting to watch what happens.
How about giving players the same amount of progress in the new system?
Your real life examples stink. :p

In order to skill up in RL there more than enough silly grind activities involved. Just think of what people actually do to increase their fitness in general or their skill in a sport.

E.g.: The time professional football players play actual games is tiny compared the time they spend training.
I think a version of Blizzards stealth gear reset would work here:

"We are not resetting anybody's skill points. Everyone gets to keep what they have. We are however increasing the level cap on all skills from 100 to 200 and we have introduced a x10 multiplier on skill up rate for the first 100 points"
Post on my site coming, but while WoW players could easily jump to Rift/LotRO/RoM/etc if Blizzard reset everyone and find basically the same game, DF players have.... DF. Games like MO, Xyzon (sp?) and the upcoming Dawntide have done a great job of showing just how hard it is to make a decent FFA PvP game.
So Darkfall keeps players by taking them hostage with nowhere else to go? Doesn't speak for the quality of the game. And hey, I hear Mortal Online said they'd become profitable with 500 more players, so that must be a good game.
I guess you guys newfound friendship was too good to last
"The game is often unable to distinguish between you exercising a skill for a normal game activity, and you exercising a skill for something silly to 'grind' it."

The crazy thing is, these "player-optimizations" have been around since forever. I remember in UO (circa 1997) you could grind your strength attribute up ridiculously fast by simply opening up your "Carpentry" dialog over and over and over again.

I'm a programmer by trade and while I don't know the details of the engines in question, I can say that if existing functionality at any given time is any indication, fixing these sorts of exploitations would NOT be tremendously difficult.

Here's a simple psuedo algorithm for avoiding a "run in a corner" exploitation:

1. Piggyback a time check on a map position update contingent upon the character running.

2. Periodically check time-at-position against some threshold for substantial movement (say, 20 steps in the x and/or y direction).

3. If player hasn't moved above threshold in X amount of time, stop running skill gain.

Obviously there are other considerations here. You'll want to change the threshold from time to time in order to prevent players from figuring it out and automating it, you'll want to make it efficient, etc.

The fact that easily noticeable and easily fixable exploits are left in and fixed months later speaks to me of misaligned priorities on the part of the studio and the latecomers/honest players are the ones who get screwed.
No, Darkfall is just so amazingly awesome that no one else has even been able to come close to it, while WoW is so horrible that everyone and their mother can make a game almost as good.

(IE: We agree, again)

Also, 500 more players for MO is like 5m more for WoW. Neither is going to happen.
The trouble with raising skills by grinding them is that it's the complete opposite of what you'd ideally want to happen.

In the ideal case, when you actively show a preference for a skill, the game offers you more interesting encounters that use it. I think the new NCSoft game is going along these lines, with lots of role-based content. I dunno if it's that great an idea, but it does the same basic thing: see what skills and playstyle the player uses, and offer them more of the same.
I feel like it demeans people a little bit to insist that they don't like having their characters reset in a game.

People in real life hate it, too. Just ask anyone who had to relearn how to walk or talk.

Human beings hate to master something and move on, only to have something arbitrary happen that forces them to redo everything they did before just to get back to where they were. Every time some huge, fundamental thing changes -- in life, in games, in your word processor -- people get angry.

Imagine if you were a Photoshop professional who was expected to learn the entire piece of software over again because a new development team decided to rearrange all the menu options and change all the shortcuts. You'd probably be hopping mad and revert to the previous version of the software. Nobody wants to spend a couple months relearning how to do something so basic.

In MMOs, we're forced to go along with whatever ridiculous changes the developers want to make. We can't keep playing an older patch revision because we liked it more. If they decide to go overboard and make an entire class or dungeon difficult and unrewarding to play, then all the time you invested in learning it is gone. MMOs don't seem to realize they only get a limited number of times to do that before people walk away. They think they can tweak the spreadsheets once a month without consequence.

Look at Paladins in WoW, for pete's sake. I've had to relearn how to play my class at least half a dozen times because they just won't stop giving it complete makeovers. They will eventually convince me to stop playing.

Relearning to play and resetting stats are completely different. When you reset stats the game remains the same, your character just has to start out leveling all over again.
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