Friday, August 26, 2011

Skill systems and character resets

To get the ball rolling on that Darkfall 2.0 character reset perfect harmony joint post between me and Syncaine, I thought I'd write up some thoughts on skill systems and character resets.

What I am talking about here is MMORPG systems in which you don't "level up" to increase your abilities, but where there is a more direct system in which you improve skills by using them. These sort of systems appeal to many due to them being more "immersive". There is a sort of easy-to-understand logic behind you getting better at wielding a sword by wielding a sword. After all, that is how you would do it in real life, right?

Unfortunately once you observe what people end up actually doing in MMORPGs with systems like these, it turns out that there are some obvious flaws. The game is often unable to distinguish between you exercising a skill for a normal game activity, and you exercising a skill for something silly to "grind" it. Thus if a game has a running skill, and an auto-run function, a player might place his avatar into a corner, and auto-run into that corner for hours, steadily increasing his running skill. Or if there is a skill to throw fireballs, the player might cast this spell against trees in complete safety to skill up. It's another fine example of players' tendency to optimize the fun out of games.

Now game developers are by definition idealists, otherwise they wouldn't work under the conditions prevalent in that industry. So games get released with skill systems that aren't robust against being manipulated by the players. And if you change the conditions later, as in you only gain fireball skill if your fireball actually deals damage to a mob that can hurt you, you end up with the problem of what to do with the people who already maxed out their skills in ways you hadn't anticipated.

Thus when Aventurine discussed a complete revamp of their skill system in Darkfall 2.0, the subject of character resets has turned up in the discussion. Probably not a "wipe", completely erasing all existing characters, but some sort of "skill reset". The problem being that in a game without levels, a skill reset is equivalent of resetting everybody to level 1, even if they keep their gear and other belongings.

Now people tend to care about their relative and absolute character status in a game a lot. MMORPGs are mostly static, that is not much in the virtual world changes through the actions of the players. The only thing that changes in every game is the virtual character itself, which makes his status a record of the personal history of that character which isn't recorded elsewhere in the world. Arthas might still sit on his frozen throne in Icecrown citadel, but you got the achievement, title, and possibly loot proving that you slew him. Reset the character, and there is nothing left of your virtual achievements. Your personal history is much more important to you than the game lore history, which only advances in patches and expansions, and then often has serious inconsistencies when playing through older content.

It is pretty obvious that if Blizzard tomorrow would announce that they will reset every character in World of Warcraft to level 1, they would lose millions of players immediately. So would a game like EVE, if they would reset everybody's skills to zero. If you play for the advancement of your character, and that advancement is taken away from you, that can be a good reason to quit playing. People clearly invest themselves less in betas where they know there will be a character reset (which is one of the reasons why developers get surprised by behavior of players after launch which is completely different to what they did in the beta).

On the other side of the medal are the obvious advantages of a reset: If players consider that others have gained "unfair" advantages through an exploit in the skill system, they might prefer a skill reset combined with a new skill system which is less easy to manipulate. And if the worst exploiters quit because of it, then so be it!

So what will happen if Darkfall 2.0 resets all skills is hard to predict. Being a niche game, Darkfall might benefit from having more dedicated players than a mainstream game. But that dedication might make these players even more angry about having lost their time "investment" in the game. And players hate major changes to games, so this could end up being the "NGE" of Darkfall, even if the new skill system is better and fairer than the old one. It sure will be interesting to watch what happens.

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