See the Forest for the Trees [Game Theory]

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.

3)      Re-playability

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.

About bernardparsnip

Gamer, Blogger, Poet
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2 Responses to See the Forest for the Trees [Game Theory]

  1. Well, my blog is an MMO blog, “talent trees” are more specific to that style of game, and the post was flagged as “MMO Design,” so bringing in all other genres that use tree selections seems to be outside of the scope of at least what I was writing about. Are you trying to imply that I am against choice in any shape or form. If so, I object.

    Still, if you look at the list at Giant Bomb, you will see a lot of games that provide excellent feedback to you skill tree choices. Civilization is on the list and it is always offers very clear choices as to what a given technology will unlock and lead to.

    The discussion thread on my post (thanks for the link) arrived at the idea of feedback and how badly that is handled specifically in MMOs like WoW and Rift. You have to make a choice every level on skills for which you are not given the tools to assess and which will greatly impact your play down the road, and not merely at end-game, as you asserted in that thread.

    And, as much as I loved the game, Diablo 2 fell into that category as well. I have deleted characters in frustration because a build I worked out proved completely unable to defeat one boss or another and I had already used my one respec. And Torchlight II, which was the kick off for my post, has exactly that sort of bad feedback talent tree.

    Basically, I don’t want to play a talent tree guessing game. I am already potentially going to invest hundreds of hours of play time actually playing my character, which is the part of the game I enjoy. If you are going to force an MMO talent tree on me, at least do what Rift does and give me some viable sample builds. After all, even Civilization has an advisers that will suggest your next technology with the rationale behind it.

    • Hi Wilhelm,

      Thanks for the feedback. My intention was not to force a particular stance on you or the other commenters, but to explore why people might dislike talent trees and whether there are reasons why talent trees might still be considered viable game design in future.

      The Blizzard school suggests that we should be replacing talent trees in all of our games because the model is too complicated and impossible to balance or ‘make interesting’.

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