Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Specialization Trap

A trap that many ARPG designs fall into is overspecialization in the face of relatively permanent character advancement decisions. Path of Exile is a great illustration of the pitfalls of optimal play revolving around specializing your character using permanent decisions over a long span of play time.

PoE has an extremely large and intricate skill tree which allows significant specialization: down to the weapon type level--swords, axes, etc and element (fire, lightning, etc) level. You'll need to look for specific weapons and items that suit your specialization choices.

This is damaging to the ARPG model. ARPGs are a combination of various treadmills that complement one another: loot, character level, ability levels, and perhaps a few more (Din's Curse had "reputation" which would grant you a relatively viable rare weapon upon leveling up). An emphasis on specialization limits the character construction decisions (once you've picked the specialization, you jump pump points into that indefinitely) and loot decisions, cutting off significant branches of the decision tree. The more equipment-related specialization, the fewer pieces of loot a character will find that can possibly be upgrades. A character can easily go from having a 20% chance of finding a relevant piece of loot because he specializes in one-handed weapons, to a less than 5% chance because he has been forced to specialize further, perhaps into one-handed swords, in order to continue getting damage and/or accuracy bonuses from new passive skills.

ARPG players are familiar and fond of systems that involve an extreme amount of character choice permanence. Diablo II's attribute and skill points were non-refundable, and the pattern of severely punishing the uninformed by making character decisions irreversible does not enter the consideration of the majority of ARPG-players who grew up playing Diablo and Diablo II. Titan Quest and Din's Curse made a step forward in this regard by allowing point-by-point respecs at escalating prices. Torchlight, the most casual-friendly ARPG I have played, doesn't have respecs built into the game at all--the only way to respec is to use a console command to spawn a respec potion.

Overspecialization leads to minute-by-minute play being less interesting. If you need to invest a high percentage of your points into a very small number of abilities to make them effective, then you're naturally going to be filtering your ability choices by which abilities you have spent points on. Abilities available are further filtered by what loot you have available to you. In the majority of ARPGs you end up in a situation where you have at most two or three useful abilities--sometimes you'll only have one. When you have no more than two or three tools to work with, it's harder for combat to remain engaging.

Spamming a single ability and watching everything die can only remain fun for a little while unless you are specifically looking for a relaxing experience. Unfortunately, the theorycrafting involved in making an adequate character often is beyond the interests of a relaxed player, so they wouldn't get to the point where they could effectively do one ability spam. The mechanical systems thus lead to patterns of play which are not appealing to the kinds of players that have the capacity to use that style of play.

Permanent point-investment schemes also lead to perverse incentives for building characters. You really shouldn't spend points on skills beyond what you specifically need to get to that highest level skill that you want to specialize in. When optimal play is to not participate in the character advancement and be underpowered for tens of hours so that you can be somewhat above average later, the game clearly suffers.

The reasoning and evidence above would indicate that specialization-focused design is poor design.

So why do players seem to like it so much? A game like Diablo II is a complexly layered system of rewards that vary in intensity and frequency in such a way as to draw us in and addict us. Players have trouble separating the fun and not fun mechanics of a game when they are layered as they are in Diablo II. The rewards systems are strong and interleaved into all other mechanics of the game, so it's hard to separate skill tree manipulation and loot sifting from the enjoyable feeling of character progress. Those activities do contribute to character progress, but their design isn't trivial to separate from that positive feeling.

Good ARPG design is much more than simply causing the player to have the positive feeling of character progress, it's optimizing that feeling to happen in as intense and frequent a way as possible without it being diluted by overexposure. It's a difficult balancing and timing act, and different players have higher engagement at different points along the spectrum between constant rewards and rare rewards, large rewards and small rewards.

In games that feature overspecialization, you'll notice that combat tends to reduce to the repeated use of a couple of skills at most. This trivializes combat and turns it into a chore. When combat is a chore, in order to enjoy the game you must enjoy the minmaxing of character construction, which in ARPGs is done via loot sifting and planning/spending skill and attribute points. So the games' fanbases naturally require their members to enjoy that minmaxing and not mind somewhat boring combat.

ARPGs can have exciting combat and enjoyable character advancement. Diablo III is proof. I hope to discuss Diablo III's success in a future article.


Anonymous said...

While you raise some interesting points, and certainly I agree with a few of them, I will have to disagree with the post overall.

I am no professional videogame designer, but I do have a concept in the works. It involves vast character specialization, but not in a limiting way. There are no skill points, and the "skill trees" are not set up so that you must choose one and not progress in the others. As for equipment, anything you find in the game can be an upgrade, as the player will create the gear using items to modify the weapons and armor. A player will not only be able to modify what their skills do (beyond skill trees, using said items) but also morph how the armor and weapons look on their character, allowing visual profession similar to wows transmog.

Diablo III was not a success in my book. I think that is has the potential, but the loot is crap and has certainly become a grind / farm. The fact that I can swap out skills at any point in time makes them boring. I loved D2, where I could make a fire sorceress. I liked creating a character that was unique from others.

Anonymous said...

*one small point* Overspecialization itself is not really possible. Bad things that happen are like when the skills become imbalanced or the enemies become imbalanced. For example, in Diablo III inferno, the game suffers from severe imbalance because Blizzard tried to kill players in one-hit so they needed better gear to advance(since all skills and levels were available). This bottlenecks a lot of the 'survival' skills into the viable builds mainly tanking and high dps ones and while they claimed there were millions of skill setups, only really a handful can be of much use as you progress without each feeling a whole lot different. Imo when every character is playing a semi-tank dps regardless of class, that's pretty poor design.
You can say that the exact same thing happens in DII where everyone uses the same build, but that's got not a lot to do with the amount of heavy investments in the skills themselves. The difference between Diablo II and Diablo III in this respect is that in III, usually everyone more or less ends up as a sustained dps to continue fighting in inferno while in contrast Diablo II has a more diverse number of builds like summoner, tank, auradin, dps that also have a more unique feel within parties because a certain mixture of spells were stronger than others, some even game-breaking.
When people say that there is no real diversity in Diablo II, only look online and follow a guide. It's these very people that are afraid to create their own builds, to experiment. It's these very people that create the 'cookie cutter' builds because they rely on others to find the best build for them. And with Diablo III, though the instant respecs seems to encourage more playing around with the skills to find the ones you like, ultimately you end up using the few tanking/dps ones because of the game's balance. If it were set up differently, for example, less high damage, high hp enemies, the builds you see would be very different to what it is now and there would still be as deep specialization as in DII but just in a different way.
So I think there's a common complaint that permanent specialization choices are too punishing because you can never know what's gonna be the best specs down the road. Instant respec from D III can sort of 'cure' the problem of these road-blocks that you inevitably hit, but all that's really happening is that you reroll your character in 2 seconds as opposed to 10 hours. To me if you have to keep rerolling every half hour, then that's an indication that the game is poorly balanced, even if you can progress through the game by doing so. So at that point rather than slim down the options of the skill trees, it would be a better idea to focus on keeping skills in check so that there are enough times where they can still pull you through the level but also are less powerful at other times. Yea permanent specs can be pretty punishing , but all the trouble and hassle you go through to create that supreme build seems to make it worthwhile. For me Diablo III feels more like a console action game with shooting type 'loadouts' rather than a pc arpg with 'skills' and 'spells' which is why it fails.