Monday, April 29, 2013

If a Skill Tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?: A glance at Talent Trees and Dead Gear.

Thanks, wikipedia.

 Consider the Skill tree. (Or Talent tree, or Tech tree, whatever you'd like to call it.)

It is a character development systems mechanic that tends to be seen in RPGs, that allows the player to progress their avatars in a widely customizable way, giving the player the option to develop their own playing styles. Although the origins of this type of progression mechanic obviously lie in Dungeons and Dragons and tabletop gaming (purchasing feats, abilities), over the past decade or so they have become a staple in even more mainstream, action games that want to add more complexity or depth to their gameplay.

But what makes them tick? What is it about Talent Trees that players enjoy? Let's pry a little into the history of the Skill Tree.

Now, let the fight over whose dice is whose commence
In the beginning, D&D players would lovingly create their own characters. Customization was an essential, core part of the tabletop RPG experience. Even then, D&D rule books would painstakingly craft large charts of feats, traits and abilities different races and classes would be able to take, complete with extensive criteria for each. With D&D, it tended to follow a logical approach to these feats and traits. You couldn't master how to wear heavy armor before mastering how to wear medium armor, for instance. You could only gain these sweet holy divination powers if you worshiped X deity. That makes sense!

As videogames began to encroach on tabletop gaming, these customizable feats and traits began to take a more abstract and simplified form to better match a medium confined not to a stack of giant, masterfully written tomes, but instead a low-resolution pixel screen. Even so, these early adaptations had much more in common with D&D than our current manifestations did, often filled with complex formula multipliers and redundancies. They allowed players to, although through limited means comparatively, customize their skillset and statistics by using a visual chart, with the skills and traits illustrated clearly on the screen.

FreeCiv's tech tree
At around the same time, RTS (Real Time Strategy) games were becoming a popular pastime for strategy fans.Many of these games made use of Technology trees, large charts clearly marking the relationships, prerequisites and criteria between each level of skills. For instance, you could not build a boat until you have a lumbermill. And you cannot build a lumbermill unless you have the knowledge of creating one! And don't forget about having to chop down the wood needed to build that lumbermill, etc etc. Whereas in RPGs, the skill tree was more about picking and choosing which traits you wanted to have, with only a meager allowance of points of which to spend; early RTS games often allowed you to master everything, with only time and your own ability to survive against your foes being the limiting factor.

Kingdoms of Amalur gave perks of jacks-of-all-trades

Mastery! What a word. RPG players have usually always shown a preference to mastering a specific skillset or role when given the choice of specializing in a role or becoming a jack of all trades; often chiding the inefficiency of trying to be everything at once. This attitude goes back to dual-classing in D&D (and perhaps common sense); some combinations were simply redundant, not very optimal or useful to use. Eventually, it may have given rise to the idea that a player should only be able to master ONE thing, or settle for being only okay at a bunch of things. Basically, Specialization vs. Versatility.

Many MMOs and RPGs have talent builds that vary wildly.
Skill trees helped visualize this spectrum. Should a player invest all of their effort into a single area, or could there possibly be pros to combining different areas?

This sort of meta-gaming was fueled by the great breadth of customization allowed by talent trees and skill allotment systems, especially in large MMOs. The craving for experimentation with different builds has became so great that it is now uncommon for a developer to NOT include a 'respec' (re-specialization) option for players to choose all of their talents/traits over again.  It wasn't long before even more action-oriented       games began to employ different forms of trait/skill allotment similar to skill trees.

ME3 eventually returned some of the breadth and complexity, but not all.
Although visually and technically not a skill tree, Mass Effect's skill allotment resembles one, mechanically. The player allocates points in a variety of skills and traits, unlocking more advanced skills and traits as he goes. Many agree that Mass Effect 2's streamlining of skill customization may have gone too far, severely limiting the depth of player customization, and by extension, alienating the original playerbase.

Other examples of forays into trait customization includes Final Fantasy 10's sphere grid system, which made the player level up all of their party members by traversing an enormous circular grid in a sort of puzzle-like manner. While it was certainly large and intimidating, it was actually much more linear than it seemed, only offering a single path for each character to go through, for the majority of the game. A later rendition of the game changed this, revising the entire grid and allowing the player to essentially pick, with lots of freedom, which class and which abilities each character should be.

Notably, the new Diablo-eque Path of Exile features a progression system very obviously inspired from FFX's sphere grid.

Where does this come into play with Dead Gear?

As you may recall in much earlier postings, my original vision for Dead Gear was a much more arcadey metroidvania venture, with new elemental attacks coming from found items and relics, which doubled as tools to progress the player through the game.

I liked the old system, but it bothered me that there was no real discernible character progression in the game.  Whereas the Metroid games could survive on finding new tools and weapons alone, I wanted to steer Dead Gear into more of a RPG-Metroidvania direction, with leveling up, stats and picking up items. And so, I eventually came up with the Gem Ring, which is a node-based system inspired from FFX's sphere grid, and to an extent, the weapon upgrading in Dead Space.
 An early version of the Gem Ring, shown above, shows that there will be 8 separate trees within Dead Gear, each with their own progression.

The Moonstone and Diamond trees
As the player levels up, they will be able to guide energy from the bottom into unpowered nodes, giving the player different stat boosts, active and passive abilities. Each tree offers its own element, weapon-type mastery and play style. For example, a player in one play-through may decide to master the Sword abilities, allowing them to parry attacks and do air combos, and even use a massive charged attack move. Another time, perhaps they will focus mainly on summoned familiars.

To balance this, I added an 'Attunement system,' giving the player the choice of two trees to become attuned to at a single time. Becoming attuned to a specific tree means that you are granted all of the stat bonuses, passive bonuses and active abilities granted to you in that tree.

The top 1/2~ of every tree is locked off until a player decides to 'master' that particular tree. I plan to allow players to unlock the full potential of perhaps 2-3 different trees in the first play-through.

One half of a fusion node is energized from the left side.

In addition, as all 8 trees are next to each other, but technically separate, I decided to add a bonus to players who decide to master or level up complimentary trees, called 'Fusion Nodes.' They are special active and passive abilities that can be unlocked only if they are unlocked on both sides. As an added boon, the fusion nodes will be accessible from either tree, if you are attuned to one of them!

Voila! Now the fusion node is unlocked and is usable by EITHER tree.

Anyway, that's my little spiel on player progression and skill trees for now.


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