Friday, August 1, 2008

Horizontal Skills or Vertical Levels

Cameron and Tobold both wrote some very insightful thoughts comparing Magic: The Gathering and MMOs that was inspired in part by my earlier entry on horizontal expansions. The basic idea being that M:TG only expands horizontally as players acquire new cards or spells; they don’t invalidate the old cards, simply provided new ones. In most MMOs like Warcraft, the traditional approach is to expand vertically by progressing in levels and gear that makes the old gear and levels obsolete.

I’ll take the comparison one step further and make the leap that you CAN do a similar type of M:TG expansion in an MMO. It struck me while reading a recent discussion on Common Sense Gamer that Skill Points offer a nice tidy little way for MMOs to offer more horizontal advancement over vertical achievements.

Part of the problem with having this discussion is that many people already have a mental picture of what a “skill-based” game means to them. The most popular skill-based game is likely Eve and that’s ONE way to handle it, but not really the only one. So for the sake of clarity, I want to briefly talk about my definition of skills and how they are applied in an MMO.

Skills are effectively mini-levels for a specific character trait. In a way, they are simply another attribute of the character like Agility or Stamina. However, the difference is that they can be trained up in some fashion, either by investing time playing (like WoW) or time training (like Eve). This is in contrast to a character Level, which influences multiple character traits. The mechanic between Levels and Skills is similar in that they both advance vertically with progression, but skills are very specific while Levels are broad and affect a large number of things. Skills and Levels are not Abilities (or spells or actions), but they do influence whether you can perform the action and how successful you will be at attempting it.

Warcraft has skills in the form of weapon proficiency, defensive ability, and professions. They are relatively limited and capped by your character Level, so the importance is largely on vertical advancement of levels and then gear at end-game. A game like Eve by contrast, is almost entirely focused on skills and “who” your character is and “what” they are able to do is largely defined by the skills they have learned. It is therefore a necessity that they offer a large number of horizontal skills to provide broader character development. Some games restrict certain skills to specific classes, while others are more free-form and allow any character to develop any skill. A “skill-based” game places a bigger emphasis on the depth of available skills and less emphasis on Levels that advance a large number of traits.

Circling back to Cameron’s M:TG observation, new traits (or cards) can be added to your MMO character in the form of new skills that are available for training. In contrast to just adding Levels which make existing content obsolete, your ability to train new skills adds to the depth of your existing character without invalidating the older skills that have already been trained. Now consider that these new skills could influence the creation of several new Abilities or actions that you were able to perform. Perhaps instead of 10 new levels, we receive 20 new trainable skills that opens up the possibility for 40 new abilities. From purely a character progression standpoint, this would offer me a lot more than what I receive from new Levels.

The other big advantage of this methodology is scalability. While you can never run out of Levels, at some point it just becomes ludicrous to keep climbing the ladder. Particularly for a new person who has to climb all the way up from the beginning. Blizzard is taking the tactic of reducing the leveling curve, but that just further invalidates the older content. In a skill-based system however, new players would have the option of specializing in a particular niche and older players would gain the benefit of seeing new horizontal content and abilities. (see discussion at Hardcore Casual)

Another way to view acquiring new skills is similar to the way that the old pen & paper Dungeons and Dragons handled the notion of the Dual Class. In the D&D rules, a player could choose to stop his advancement in the current class and learn an entirely new one if they met the requirements of the necessary prime attributes for the new class. A Warrior could become a Mage if they had a 17 Intelligence. While the Warrior wouldn’t forget how to wield a 2-Handed sword or wear plate, they wouldn’t be able to use them because of the restrictions based on the new class. If the situation warranted it, they could always put on plate but that would encumber them and prevent them from casting most spells.

Applied to my vision of a skill-based games, a similar mechanic could be used to prevent older players from being overpowered by virtue of simply having more skills than the newer player. As in M:TG, older players would have more options available to them, but they would need to make choices that limit them in a way that puts them on a more even playing field with newer players.

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