According to the much-quoted Civilization developer Sid Meier, a good game presents the player with interesting choices.
Skill Trees, the customisation model which offers players a series of skill or attribute selections on branching paths, is one of the most widely used methods for providing such choices. Giant provides a list of recent games that make use of this mechanic.
The primary benefits of the skill tree model in RPGs is that it presents choices in a straightforward way, enabling characters to be distinct from one another, whilst offering yet another reward for continuing to play and gain levels. Moving ‘up’ the tree is satisfying and provides the dopamine hit akin to a promotion.
It may surprise you to know that despite the widespread adoption of the model, there is a vocal part of the gaming community that dislikes it.
The key criticism is that whilst trees claim to provide customization options, in reality an optimal selection exists which is quickly uncovered by the community and then replicated as a ‘cookie cutter build’. Many games soften the blow of making a suboptimal choice by offering respecs, so that players can easily switch between builds.
The result is that these interesting choices are in fact all made by someone else using a spreadsheet and the thought and entertainment derived from the mechanic is gone.
Fortunately for those that dislike skill trees, the future is looking bright – Guild Wars 2 foregoes trees in favor of horizontal progression, whilst Blizzard has removed them from WoW and Diablo 3 following several years of struggling to make the choices fun and to remove mandatory talents. It is safe to assume that Titan will also omit this mechanic.
Whilst wearing my mantle as Defender of Unpopular Causes, I wanted to share a few thoughts on why I like talent trees and hope to see them survive as a mechanic:
1) Talent trees support planning
Displaying talent choices in trees forces leveling players to consider the relationship between talents and to forward plan. There is an element of delayed gratification when investing talent points in early trees to enable access to more powerful ones later. Furthermore the usually choices of +damage/+survivability/+control are actually not clear-cut for leveling players. The endgame raiding/PvP build may actually be suboptimal pre-endgame.
2) Talent trees tell a story
The skill tree shown above (taken from Wikipedia) shows a thematic relationship between skill areas, conveying the character’s journey of mastering marksmanship. The free form ‘pool of skills’ model does not convey this. My D3 Witch Doctor seems to pick up new skills at random each level.
In the days of Diablo 2, players would reroll alts for different gameplay experiences and to experiment with different builds. Whether or not you thought this was tedious, removing it has decreased the value of the game to those players. Sometimes providing restrictions can make games more interesting.
All of these contribute to my view that talent trees are a great leveling game mechanic, but lose their purpose at endgame. With that in mind, I wonder how fun it will be to play WoW 5.0 and receive an interesting decision every 15 levels.
I have sympathy for players who have lived under the Talent Tree system for years and are ready to move on from it. However I feel that there are benefits to trees and I’m sure that certain titles will continue to use them. I do not believe the alternatives to talent trees solve the challenges of free choice customization or reduced cookie cutter builds yet.