Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A deep look into RPG mechanics and how they build long-lasting gameplay. Abilities and talents.

I wanted to try to approach my post on abilities and talents in a different way to some of my previous articles. Abilities and talents are a core part of any RPG, and drilling down into individual games to see how they implement these would be far too long (and probably boring) to write about. I want to instead look at some key concepts I've seen in various games and illustrate how they were either good or bad.

Let's start with abilities. In most RPGs, abilities are what define each class.  Typically, an RPG will have a standard set of classes - warrior, mage, rogue, priest, perhaps an archer or a paladin. These classes tend to build on standards in terms of their abilities. For instance, mage will typically have a ranged magic damage spell such as fireball, rogue will have some sort of stealth, warrior will have a multi-target sword attack and priest will, of course, have a heal. Designers will then add other abilities around the flavour of those classes - some which are base abilities and others that can be obtained via talents.

Getting new abilities, either as you gain levels or as you obtain the talent points needed, is a strong carrot for players and can represent definite milestones in a game. Increases in power to abilities you already have represent a smaller milestone, depending on the change. For instance, if your heal just gets a little better or your fireball does a little more damage, it's not all that exciting, especially if the changes are largely absorbed into the scaling of your health, enemy health and so on. However, if you have an ability that allows you to run faster by a percentage and that percentage number increases, it will make a noticeable difference to your quality of life, and therefore be something to look forward to. Changes like lowered cooldowns or additional effects on existing abilities will also represent more important milestones to look forward to. Often, though, these are obtained via talents.

It is probably better to scale abilities rather than grant new ranks every few levels. Although it might initially seem exciting to buy that new rank of Fireball, after 60 levels of buying new ranks, it just becomes another trip to the trainer and more gold spent. These sort of artificial gold sinks are more of an irritation than anything else. World of Warcraft initially implemented ability scaling via purchasing ranks, but moved over to scaling already acquired abilities as you level in a later expansion.

When designing abilities, it goes without saying that the following apply:
- avoid having the same ability on multiple classes
- avoid creating abilities that are too niche in their application
- avoid creating abilities that are strictly worse versions of other abilities
- if you plan on having multiple classes in a party, consider synergies
- do create fun "quality of life" abilities

Examples of fun quality of life abilities in WoW include:
- Path of Frost (Death Knight): allows all members of the party to walk on water
- Aspect of the Pack (Hunter): increases movement speed of party members by 30%
- Teleport (Mage): opens a portal to a location that all party members can use

Creating abilities for one class that can synergize with other classes is something a designer should consider. For a single player game where you control a party of characters, adding such abilities can encourage players to diversify. These synergetic abilities can either be core class abilities or obtained through talents. A simple example might be a debuff that can be placed on an enemy (perhaps as a side effect of some other ability) that increases magic damage taken. If that ability is given to a magic user, it benefits not only that character, but also any other character that uses magic damage. WoW has many of these, and this encourages diversity in raid composition. If in your game a player can only choose, say, three out of a possible six classes for their party, they will have to examine how abilities of different classes and specs synergize with other classes when creating a party composition. These choices should not be so clear cut, though, so as to engage the player in some research.

Methods for elongating the accumulation of abilities past the "level cap" might include adding items to the game that can be used to further improve abilities past their cap. This was seen, for instance, in World of Warcraft vanilla when books were added for each class to teach new ranks of certain abilities.  However, imagine a book that, when used on a spell, would increase it's power, but you could use multiple books on the same ability. To prevent abuse, you could implement a chance for that book to fail (but still be used up) and increase the chance to fail, the more times it has been applied. Make such books costly and difficult to obtain and you have created a nice mechanism for players who like to min-max.

Another method could be to add books that teach completely new skills. Any class would be able to use these books. The books would have to be rare or difficult to craft, but would be quite powerful in that they'd add brand new abilities outside of those that can be obtained via talents or class abilities. Perhaps these could be carefully implemented as one-time quest rewards. If you make it so that players can never have all the additional abilities (say, they have to choose a subset of them), this opens up a choice in playstyle.

One method that Diablo 3 seems to be employing for ability modification and enhancement is Runestones. Each ability can have a runestone attached to it. The runestones come in 5 different colors and a multitude of different qualities.  When attached to a skill, the runestone modifies that ability in some way. This is a nice system, since it not only allows a player to experiment a lot, but to modify their character's playstyle to their choosing. The differing levels of quality allow players at low level to experiment with these modifications, while in the later game will encourage the player to find the most powerful versions so as to continue maxing their character.

Inotia 2 employed an interesting idea for elongating the aquisition of abilities. Each class had one locked talent at the bottom of their talent trees.  It was up to the player to do specific high-level quests to obtain a book that would unlock this skill. Also, there were book drops that improved certain talents past their normal cap, and these could be applied multiple times.  However, in Inotia 2, all abilities come from the talent trees (there are no default active abilities given to a class).

A system in which abilities could be combined is an interesting one that could also elongate the aquisition of new abilities (and allow for playstyle customization). For instance, combining a spell that shoots directional lightning with a spell that throws a fireball could create, for instance, either a trail of fire on the ground that does damage over time to enemies standing on top of it for a short period after the lightning had passed over it or an explosion, doing splash damage at the end of the lightning when the spell contacts an enemy. It would be up to a player to design spells that they find fun to use.  This is somewhat similar to how the Diablo 3 runestone example already works, but the implementation would be somewhat different.

Finally, one idea that I've heard about but never seen properly implemented is the idea of hero abilities. Once a player has hit the level cap, they can open up a path to modify their class in some way. By, for instance, completing a lengthy and difficult questline, the character will gain a new ability. After many such questlines and gaining of abilities, the character will then be opened up with a final, even more difficult questline, that allows them to transform into a hero class.

Let's move onto talents. The way that every game implements talents is different, but the key idea is the same. After gaining a level, or number of levels, players accumulate points that can be spent on improving their existing abilities or gaining new ones. Normally the player will have to choose carefully where to spend their points, since they will have less points to spend than there are talents available.  Therefore, the player customizes their character in a way that seems most fun or appropriate to their playstyle.

Having seen a great deal of different talent systems, I can't really say there's a "correct" way of doing this. I have, however, seen things that plain don't work well in addition to some fresh and innovative ideas. From seeing things that don't work, I can give the following advice:
- avoid boring talents
- avoid mandatory talents
- avoid almost useless or niche talents
- avoid talents that are strictly worse than others
- consider synergies
- figure out what players would choose to min-max, adjust the design, repeat

Generally speaking, talent trees are set up so that you must spend a certain number of points in one tier to be able to then spend points in the next tier. Normally each tier will have a choice of things a player can spend their points on. Boring or useless talents in these early tiers are something a player must invest in, in order to reach the deeper tiers. Don't be tempted to put boring or useless talents in these tiers - it's bad design, and players will feel frustrated.

Also, boring or useless talents do not provide anything to look forward to while levelling. Imagine how fun it would be going from level 10 to 11 and knowing I can either get 1% increase to wand damage or a 2% decreased chance to be stunned or feared? My wand does 11 damage instead of 10, or 1 time out of 50, I won't stand there stunned for 4 seconds. Whoopdeedoo.

Mandatory talents are those things that don't add any fun to the game, but are necessary for a certain spec or playstyle. for instance, a talent that, after spending 5 points, gives 10% increased armor is not fun. But it is completely mandatory for being a tank. Even if you tack a secondary effect onto this talent, it's still a mandatory talent. A better way to implement something like this might be:
- some specialization clause in the game that says "if you have 15 points in this tree, you get 10% more armor"
- a separate tree for boring percent increases that you can fill in parallel
- a system like in WoW Cataclysm which locks you to a path of specialization, but gives the mandatory talents as part of that

Talking of specializations, and this is touching on a point I made in the list earlier, make sure to identify those in your design. Players will tend to min-max out the most damage, healing or survivability and those will become standard builds. In these cases, talents that add fun quality of life abilities will be skipped. In fact it might be better to put those in a different, parallel tree also.

Specialization is a whole topic in and of itself, really. Having played a lot of WoW, and played as all three roles, I can attest to how it feels to be pegged into a role where a majority of your talents go into such a niche part of the game as to make other parts of the game much more difficult. In WoW, specialization extends past the roles of tank, healer and damage dealer into separation of PVE and PVP specs (and gear). Even with a dual-spec system (one in which you can switch between two specs on the spot), you are still often without an easy option to play all aspects of the game if you play certain classes.

In my opinion, talent specs should allow the playstyle of that character to be modified to a player's liking without necessarily moving that character into a niche role. WoW doesn't have this luxury, it seems, based on the fact that it must not only balance PVP, but also balance damage meters. At least amongst the pure damage dealing classes, there is a nice choice of playstyles, but with the tendency to min-max, players of those classes gravitate towards which ever spec deals the most damage at that given moment.

One thing that I've often noticed happening in talent tree designs is a separation between talents that buff healing, survivability and damage. This is what often causes specializations to happen. My opinion is that it would be better to create talents with mixed effects (that are perhaps even mutually exclusive).

Some interesting innovations I've seen recently have come from a few games. One is Battleheart. In Battleheart, you gain a talent point every 5 levels.  Basically, this opens up, in most cases, a choice between two abilities or passives that you can freely switch in between matches. Thus you can create your desired spec based on five choices (of which three are active abilities). The last spot is opened up at level 30.

Rift is another game that looks fairly innovative. I'm not sure on the details, but at certain levels, you gain the ability to choose a second and then third tree to add to your character from a larger pool of talent trees. These are known as souls. Therefore, you can tailor your class quite a bit more than in a game with three fixed trees, such as World of Warcraft.

The WoW concept of glyphs - a small set of swappable mini-talents that can be added to characters, while an innovation, tends to also lean a little towards min-maxing. The minor glyphs are so insignificant that there's really nothing to get excited about (I don't remember even equipping them all on my characters). The major glyphs were pretty much no-brainer depending on your primary spec.

Torchlight's talent trees are still something that I feel is a great example to RPG designers. There are three classes in Torchlight, but each class has three trees that alter the playstyle of that class profoundly. The Vanquisher can play as a ranged physical damage class (Marksman), a melee dps class (Rogue) or as a caster (Arbiter). The Destroyer can play as a single-target melee dps (Berserker), AOE melee dps/tank (Titan) and a dot/pet class (Spectral). Finally, the Alchemist can play as a ranged magic dps (Arcane), magic dps/pet class (Lore) or a melee dps/caster (Battle). On top of this, talents can be picked from any tier of any tree as you have spent the prerequisite number in the previous tier (of any tree). For instance, if you spend 5 points in tier 1 of the marksman tree, you can spend your next 5 in tier 2 of the arbiter tree, if you wish.

As you can tell already, I'm a big fan of flexibility when it comes to talents, abilities and builds for characters. The more flexibility there is in the system, the more room there is for experimentation and creativity. This is highly engaging for players, and anything engaging will keep them playing longer. When designing abilities and talents, make sure everything is fun, not boring or mandatory. Make sure you can add neat synergies of combos at many different levels. Offer as much choice as possible in the way of play styles. Multiple layers of parallel talent systems are never bad - they allow way more customization options on top of adding more milestones for a player to reach. Adding ways to change the behaviour of abilities is a great concept. In the end, well designed abilities and talents are all about giving players the ability to explore, create and experiment.

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