Monday, April 5, 2010

Darkfall: Stats in a Skill-Based game?!

I’ve been playing Darkfall for a little over a month and while I like the game, it’s becoming painfully obvious that it has a major flaw. It’s not the full body looting. It’s not the lack of moderation in chat channels. It’s not the scamming or other abuse that happens. It’s not even the unattended macroing (i.e. botting) that players use for skilling up.

Hmm. Well, I take that last one back. The macroing is a symptom of the greater problem, but not the cause. In any event, the flaw is not the macroing itself but the reason players feel compelled to macro.

Stats versus Skills
In Darkfall, everything you do levels up on use. Resting, Crafting, Archery, Spell Casting, Running, even Crouch-Walking – all level up based on usage. If you don’t Parry, you’ll never skill it up. Now there might be some benefit in wanting to macro up a particularly boring skill (like a magic buff) but for the most part, this is not a bad system at all.

Actually, it’s quite fun. How your character develops is really a function of how you play. If there are things you want or feel you need to develop, you need to work on them. In combat situations, this also has the added benefit of providing practice experience using the skill. For example, a special Power Attack is more difficult to land than a normal attack. Using it in combat not only ranks up the power of the skill, but also has the double benefit of improving YOUR ability to know how to use it through practice and repetition.

No. The issue is that this game isn’t just about Skills. It’s also about Stats. You see, every skill has associated Stats. Archery, for example, contributes to your Dexterity. The higher your Dexterity, the more damage you will deal through Archery. Now obviously, using a Bow will improve both the Archery Skill and the Dexterity Stat, but the Bow isn’t the only way to improve Dexterity. Sprint (a faster run) will also level up Dexterity.

Stats actually level up much more slower than Skills. How slow? Well, in a recent thread I was reading on the Darkfall Forums, the highest Dexterity anyone has ever heard of is in the 80s (out of a possible 100).

Admittedly, that’s one of the more difficult Stats to increase, but even players who put a hundred hours a week into the game don’t have these stats leveled to 100.

Stats are important
The amount of health a character has is determined by your Stats.  Players typically start out with a bit more than 200 health. All other skills being equal, a player with 300 health can take 1/3 more damage than a player with 200 health.

Of course, all skills won’t be equal, so the player with more health likely has other skills that will further reduce the amount of damage taken. Additionally, they’ll have better damage dealing skills which will deal significantly more damage.

Or in other words, not only is there a pretty high delta caused simply by the Stat difference, this difference is dramatically amplified by the Skill gain difference. For example, let’s say that our 300 health player also deals 1/3 more damage and takes 1/3 less damage.

It’s likely more than that, but let’s just pretend.

So if 200hp player deals 30 damage with an attack, then the effective damage dealt to 300hp player (after a 1/3 reduction) is 20. By contrast, the 300hp player deals (after a 1/3 increase) 40 damage.

The net effect in this scenario is that the 300hp players deals twice as much damage as the 200hp player. So, in addition to the 100 extra health, they also hit twice as hard.

It takes 15 successful hits for the 200hp player to win. But it only takes 5 hits for the 300hp.

Now let’s remove the extra 100hp from the scenario (so no Stat gain). It still only takes 5 hits for the more advanced player to win. But it now takes the other player only 10 successful hits.

Even in this reduced Stat scenario, the less advanced player is still not likely to win the engagement.

So why do they need the extra 100hp? My point here is that making something three times more challenging instead of twice as challenging is simply excessive.

And that’s just a very simple example. The reality is even more dramatic.

Suggestion: Get rid of Stats
Honestly, I’m 100% OK with the skill gain difference. A more developed character should be more powerful. My issue here is the amplified effect that Stats have on that Skill difference.

Simply put, the gains through Skills should be enough.

The only purpose that Stats have is to amplify the effect of Skills. This is totally and 100% unnecessary because you already have a factor that increase Skills: the Skill level.

If you want Skills to have a bigger impact, then add additional skills which modify the impact. But do so in such a way that players sacrifice something else. Want to increase Magic damage? Sorry – you lose access to that Skill which boosts Hit Points as well.

How much Mana, HP or Stamina does a player have? Make it Skill, not Stat based. Melee Skills determine HP, Magic Skills determine Mana, General Skills (Jump/Run/Sprint) determine Stamina.

If you insist on having Stats, then do it the way that EVE does it. Stats change the rate at which you learn Skills. They don’t amplify the effect of how you use the Skill.

Other Symptoms of the Problem
As I wrote above, the biggest issue I have is the amplification effect these Stats have on the outcome of a fight. I think the advantage gained from Skills is more than fair for having a more advanced character. Adding an amplified effect to it by modifying the damage with Stats like Strength, Intelligence and Dexterity is simply excessive.

Point being, I’m not against competitive advantage. I’m against excessive advantage.

And as anyone who has every played an MMO knows, if you make something rewarding enough (like Stats) then it influences how players approach your game. I think perhaps the best example of this problem are the AFK Swimmers. People AFK Swim or Run or Non-reagent Cast (like Heal Self) because it also increases Stats. If there were no Stats, then you might see some macroing to increase skills, but you wouldn’t see it to increase Stats.

But more importantly, it would also shift the focus to activities that generate the Skills that you want to USE. Players wouldn’t take the easiest route to increase the Stat, they would do the things that more often matched the style of play they want to develop the character into doing.

The point here is not to get rid of macroing, but to more narrowly focus on actually benefiting from PLAYING the game the way you WANT to play the game.

The whole Stat system also creates some other oddities. For example, in most games, the converted price of something is typically worth more than the non-converted price. The reason is simple. If it takes time to get thing A turned into thing B, then there is a value to players to not have to convert it.

However, in Darkfall, the stat gain benefit from converting it from A to B outweighs the time investment. Therefore, you end up with the oddity that unrefined Ore or Lumber go for more than the refined Ingots or Wood.  And the additional oddity that people actually WANT to waste 3-4 hours crafting useless crap like low-level cloth armor.

The long and the short of it is that I just don’t see the purpose in having Stats in a game like Darkfall. You already have Skills, so why do we need Stats?


RyanT said...

Although a relatively simple argument, you've hit upon something central to the "df sux" arguments on the official forums. Basically, the power gap between new and old characters is too big. I'm not sure if removing the stats is the best way to deal with it, but something should be done.

There's also the flip side of this argument, which I also hate. Everytime someone dies in PvP, the tendency is to blame it on the other person's stats/skills. This is often NOT the case -- ie the killer just got the jump, played better, etc.

sid67 said...

Exactly. The perception is that DF is a grindy game. Why? Stats.

I don't think people hate grinding up skills that they USE as much as they hate grinding up STATS they need to be competitive.

The wonderful thing about skill-based games is that you can always make the game more interesting (or advanced, or difficult) by simply adding more SKILLS.

Particularly semi-reversible ones that force specialization.

Carson 63000 said...

Apologies in advance, I'm going to skip over the Darkfall content to reply to something near the end..

"For example, in most games, the converted price of something is typically worth more than the non-converted price"

I don't think that's true at all. I think it's actually a perennial problem in a great many MMORPGs, any game where you need to refine and craft items to improve your skills, unless there is a genuine effort required, the finished product will be worth less than the raw materials.

I'll use WoW as an example, but I've seen the exact same scenario play out in many other games. People grind out masses of low level crafted items - which nobody wants - in order to raise their skills. These get dumped on the auction house at a loss.

Basically, most games reverse the real-world effect of finished goods costing the price of the raw materials plus an amount to pay for the labour. Crafting "labour" in most MMORPGs is no labour at all - it's just pressing a button - and then its value goes from being zero to actually being negative because people want to do it, for the skillups. So the price of the finished goods = the price of the raw materials minus the amount the crafter is willing to spend to level up his crafting skill!

A game which avoided this problem is EVE. Since it has a purely time-based skilling system, you don't need to manufacture anything to get better at manufacturing. Hence, everything that gets manufactured, it's because there is a real or perceived demand for that item. If an item sells for less than the price of the raw materials (e.g. due to the supply from looting rats exceeding the demand on the market), nobody will ever have reason to manufacture any of that item.

sid67 said...

Agreed. If there is a benefit to leveling a skill, the value of the conversion decreases and can even cost you. That idea is at the core of the oddity I described.

However, in most games like WoW, that problem only exists for as long as it takes to fully level the skill past the point you get the gains.

Near the skill cap, the converted price is absolutely more valuable than the non-converted price.

But in Darkfall, even when the Smelting skill is fully skilled to 100, you still gain Stats for Smelting. The result is that it's ALWAYS more useful to do all your own Smelting.

Anonymous said...

While it won't happen, it's an interesting change. What would need to happen is an increase in maxing out any area (2h melee, archery, or magic), because currently maxing out archery skills is rather short, but since you still gain dex, it's not 'pointless' to use it.

tim said...

I've been reading your blog for awhile now and I truly enjoy it!

What I've noticed over the past couple of months is that you're constantly looking for a different kind of MMO.

I commented on an earlier post suggesting Guild Wars (I think it was about Item Shops vs In-Game Stores) and after reading this entry in your blog, I can't help but suggest it again.

In GW, level 1-19 are basically tutorial. Different campaigns have varying lengths in that tutorial, but that's irrelevant. The point is that once you're level 20 and "ascended", you have all the same stats as everybody else. You all have 200 attribute points to allocate into your build, you all have the opportunity to access the same skills (depending on profession and which games you own) and all your health is the same. You can further benefit yourself with armor modifications, but those are purchasable through a trader.

GW is not gear-based and it is not stat-based. It is a skill (as in the player's actual skill) based game with a rich storyline. They know how to take out all the "boring stuff" too.

Right now the GW Trilogy is 39.99. If you want to just sit back and enjoy the story with a steady set of introduction into the game, try out Prophecies. If you wanna jump into the mess all at once, do Factions or Nightfall. But at least try it. What's the worst that could happen? You'd become more well rounded in experience with various business methods of MMOs and at a one-time cost.

Seriously. Try it.