Skill Points and Talent Trees: A Rebuttal

First up, as this post is focused in on a recent post at The Ancient Gaming Noob, let me say a few things about Wilhelm and his site.   TAGN was one of the first gaming blogs I read, and has been a huge source of encouragement to me in my blogging over the years.  I have a great deal of respect for him as a blogger and gamer, and I don’t want this to come off as a personal attack of some sort.  This is just one of those areas where he and I disagree. 

Secondly, I have a house rule for myself, sometimes I refer to it as the “Last Word Rule” or the “Four Comment” rule.   That is, on any blog post where a disagreement breaks out, I comment my disagreement, and if I get a response, I get one rebuttal/clarification, and then the blog owner gets the last word (that makes four posts for those out there keeping track).  And since I reached that limit and had more I wanted to say, I go to my own space, rather than continue to sidetrack or argue all over someone else’s blog, which is not only rude to the owner, but rude also to all the other readers, many of whom may agree, or just don’t want to witness the carnage. 

In any case, TAGN argues a number of things about talent trees that provoke responses in me ranging from incredulity over to straight up anger.  I’m going to take them one at a time to try to address them in a cohesive manner:

I see [talent trees] as having proven their flawed nature over the last 15 years to such an extent that I wonder how anybody can promote them as a positive feature with a straight face….We have talent trees, and we are sure we have succeeded where literally everybody else has failed in the past! ” [Bolding mine]


First up, a history lesson – talent trees are simply the most common form of what is known as Alternative Advancement – customization and evolution of the character beyond the basic confines of their class. (From here out, I will use AA/talent trees/etc interchangeably based on my mad writing whims.) AA joins the MMORPG scene at the end of 2001 with Shadows of Luclin, and to a lesser extent in the mechanics of Dark Age of Camelot. They really took the page from Diablo II’s success, who in turn had lifted the idea from pen and paper RPG’s. The point in every case was to allow players greater customization options. Something that they have been doing successfully for nearly 11 uninterrupted years. To say that talent trees are flawed or failed is to claim that they in some way did not afford players greater customization, and that would be pure fallacy. Their very existence gives lie to the statement.



In practice, there is usually one “right” build for whatever role you are seeking to fill and every other alternative is sub-optimal. So talent trees become less about character customization and more about finding the “correct” answer.  In the end, I think that most of want our characters to be good at their chosen roles, right?  I know there will always be somebody who will view playing with a sub-optimal spec as a challenge, but I have to believe that is the exception and not the rule.”


The very fact that you have options to fulfill in terms of your role is proof that AA’s have succeeded. The problem here lies in the assumption that finding the correct answer is where the locus of choice rests. But it does not rest here. The locus of choice rests in deciding what role you wish to fulfill. You could argue that you want talent trees to offer more in terms of role choices, but that’s another discussion. And even then, I would argue differently. Do your talent points stop at the top of a given tree in your game of choice or do you have extras? Then even your role choices are flexible and different from character to character.


I suspect the mistake here lies in the assumption that everyone in an MMORPG is playing the content the same, and that’s simply not true. Some people play for endgame raiding, some for PvP, some for solo play, some for storyline/roleplaying, some for PvE progression. To have success in your chosen role or playstyle is a fuction not only of your AA, but also your choices in how you play the game. TAGN’s weekly instance group of five is a wonderful example of this. Even if we all act out of intelligent self-interest with respect to the game mechanics (and I would argue that we do not do this anyway), the choices that are “correct” for that play style are in fact different than the choices that would be “correct” for my group of three playing through the non-instanced content. Please bear in mind – this dichotomy would not be possible without AA to begin with!


Lastly, I do not view a sub-optimal spec as a challenge, because I do not know what is sub-optimal. I do not use 3rd party mods, damage parsers, or anything else to determine my talent layouts. I would argue that this is true of most players, by simple fact that most players don’t need them to enjoy the game. Even if I did know what was sub-optimal, I wouldn’t care. I choose to place my points in ways that I think are fun or cool, not based on what is “best” (as if I had a way to define that!).



And because the talent tree allows us to make bad choices, the band-aid of the talent respec came into being…But respecs are, in my view, an admission of failure.  They seem to be saying that the devs have copped to the fact that they cannot create a talent tree system with many good choices, so when you realize you have made a mistake, here is your out.”


Except that that’s not why repec’s came into being. They came into being because players desire change. EVE allows respecs over its attributes not because the player made a mistake – but because the player now wants to explore a new play style. I respecced my Paladin in WoW not because I was doing a bad job keeping my group patched up, but because I was tired of healing and wanted to play my character a little differently. So I broke out a two-handed sword and spread my points evenly between helping me heal and helping me hurt. I didn’t make a mistake – thought if I had, why would fixing it be a bad thing?


I’ve also respecced a few times in SWTOR, based again not on mistakes, but because I realized I was having more fun with my knives than my gun, and I wanted to put some points into the tree to get more stabby and less shooty. Did the developers give us respecs because they thought I might find a flaw in their talent trees or because they thought I might, in the course of 50 levels and 200 hours of gameplay, change my mind once or twice?



This is, of course, my view of the world.  It is based on history, but also on the fact that I don’t really want to play the talent point game.”


History does not support the idea that AA’s or talent tree’s or whatever have failed. It has shown us that developers are more likely to listen to players who do utilize 3rd party add-ons and who are serious about crunching the numbers – in other words, the hard core raiders and the hard core PvP people. And the reason for that appears to be the believe that those people are the ones who will make the game profitable by paying more money and sticking around longer. And guess what – those people are always going to find the optimal build. And guess what – that in no way invalidates what AA is trying accomplish, because that build may still not be right for you based on how you play the game.


Now, my suspicion is that TAGN (and many others) would like a system where there is more than one correct build. And at that point I don’t know what to offer up other than maybe to insist on adding “for a particular role and play style” to the end of that comment. And I would remind everyone that at some point, numbers and plans and chaos collide, and the results are always less than ideal. Otherwise, I too could DPS like the greatest raiding Rogue ever to land on Azeroth. My suspicion is that the idea that there is only one correct build is a myth perpetuated by the sociological phenomenon known as official forums. And if that suspicion is incorrect, it could only be because the developers are playing the game with that subset of the gaming population in mind – intentionally tweaking particular builds to be “best” and then moving them from update to update to force iterations, advancement, and additional subscription time from players who derive joy from searching for and implementing those schemes. Again, I cannot logically accept that those people represent all gamers or even a majority of them.


I’m happy with talent trees or whatever other forms of AA developers want to add (In fact, like Syp, I would prefer more). For me, and I suspect for the many players who are not like those I described above, the end result is simply more choices, more possibilities, and more fun. And I am hard pressed to understand how that is a failure.


Now – your turn at the microphone. Fire away.

5 thoughts on “Skill Points and Talent Trees: A Rebuttal

  1. That talent trees give us different roles… a paladin in WoW can be a tank, a healer, or DPS depending on the tree one chooses… is a good thing. And I am not even really that big on finding that true optimum build for a given role. The problem lies in the tree giving players so many bad build possibilities due to a complete lack of feedback in the game as to how those choices impact the player.

    1. I guess that lies on our axis of contention then. I don’t know what “bad choices” are. If your goal is to be a better “x” – there is a tree to follow (the strength of trees over freeform AA), if you are just looking for abilities and boosts that are fun (I like big hits…where’s a talent that will boost my crit chance?) there are no bad choices.

  2. I posted somewhat in support of you over on TAGN. I agree that the goal of AA is customization, not optimization. Optimization is a side effect of the AA process and the goal of only a segment (perhaps sizable) of the player population. However, I fall on the other side when it comes to differing play “venues.” By which I mean having to re-gear/spec for PvP vs. PvE-leveling vs. Raiding. I very much dislike the idea that I must gear out for PvP stats in a way that is different from PvE. Any differentiation is purely by design and often creates issues where PvE is affected by efforts to “balance” PvP.

    Woops, sorry about the tangent.

    1. I’m with you Rowan. When Bioware came right out in a developer interview and admitted they had three streams of gear (pve leveling, raiding, pvp) that they did not want to cross, it was a virtual kick in the nuts to players like us. It was development ideals like what you talk about here that led me on my sandbox quest to find a game without PvP (that is currently on long pause lol).

      I think the simplest and most complete answer is the one nobody has the courage to implement: permanently deny the players the use of macros and third party overlays. That solves the optimization issue and blurs the line enough on the rest that it would be hard to argue a particular gear package.

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