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.

A Merry Gaming Christmas

I was impressed this year with the number of games that gave tangible, and fun, benefits to its players.  There was, I think, an overall sense of generosity.  I think every year I have seen things like XP boosts or XP potions, or the fun “throwaway” items that are common to the season.  But a few games stepped up and offered more.  I have a feeling some people may feel differently than me, because these items, while not directly “pay to win” were certainly at least “subscribe to win” or even in some cases “login to win.”

World of Tanks, of course, gave us a tank.  Well, will give us a tank when they finally get update .7.1 up and running here in North America.  Even cooler is that its a tank that I had wanted to buy anyway:  the British Mark VII Tetrarch!

 

Coming Soon (TM) to a Battlefield Near You

 

Eve Online, perhaps reflecting the nature of commercial Christmas here in America (ie, EARLY) , was giving presents to active accounts or resubs, so long as you claimed your gift by the 21st of December.  You know, before anyone could buy you a Time Code or something.  The gifts were so good, I almost took them up on the 60-day resub option just to stock my hanger.  Choices included actual real, functional, in game ships (unlike years past), cleverly named groupings of high quality ammunition/fuel/items, or even Aurum, their version of in game money.   All in all, a huge step up for them from previous gifts.

 

BY THE 21st! OR IT WILL SPOIL!

 

But perhaps the most generous one that I encountered was from Iron Grip: Marauders.  In true seasonal fashion, unlike CCP, IG:M gave out Advent gifts every day of Advent.  Technically you had to have Gems, their real world currency buy in, to open the gift packs, but since they also give you a couple of gems at each level up, I was actually able to open most of them without actually having spent money on the game.  And the gifts in the packs were very generous and in every case worth far more than what you paid to open them.  I have now four licensed premium units that I would otherwise not have access to, as well as heaping mounds of gold and iron (their in game currency).   Then they also dropped a New Years gift pack.  And on top of that, they were giving a 20% discount on their Gem buying options.  They said this would end on January 2nd, but as of this morning, the deal still exists, and I suspect it will continue through Epiphany (Jan. 6th) given how they have celebrated the season thus far.

 

Do not shake. Live ordinance is present.

 

Also, in an unintentional effort to make this blog more sexy, I have to point out that IG:M also gifted its players with Christmas Elves of a more adult fashion.  I’ll post the most appropriately attired here, which should serve as an indicator of how the rest of the elves were clothed (or not clothed).

 

Twelve Days of Cleavage

 

Astute readers will not this indicates a change in stance from previous posts…and I don’t mean regarding sexiness – get your head out of the gutter.

 

So, all in all, I was impressed with what I saw out there.  My real question for next year is if we will see companies step up their generosity again, giving similar tangible gifts next year, or if this was a one time deal, a rare year where everyone was feeling generous…or perhaps just feeling some market pressure.  Either way, we, the players, came out the winners.

State of My Game: July ’11

What I’m Playing

Rift.  I’m currently trucking through my 29th level as a Cleric, and for once, alt-itis has not really struck.  Kudos for the billionth time to Trion for making a character creation system that has loads of flexibility.  I currently have a casual questing role (Justical/Sentinal/Inquisitor), a raiding healer role (Sentinal/Warden/Purifier), and a third role that I swap out for fun when I get bored.  Right now its kind of a farming role – a Cabalist/Purifier mix with the third soul (with 0 points of course) being rotated as needed to keep things fresh.   The world events and “programming” unleashed by Trion are excellent.  I think some of us questioned if this new variation on Public Questing was going to be problematic, but its so dynamic and fun, it seems hard now in retrospect to even try to compare them.  I have some minor quibbles, but nothing worth writing about at this time.  And I have to say thank you again to Trion for spoiling us bloggers by bringing us along on the ride from the very early phases.

World of Tanks.  Not only did I get sucked in, when 9 months ago I would have told you there was no way I was playing this game, but so did my brother and dad.  The end result has been mayhem.  A full three man platoon to roll with any night I want to.  I wanted a full on gaming group as one of my goals this year, I just didn’t realize it would take this form in this game!  Speficially, since launch I have dedicated myself to US Heavy tanks.  Initially I wanted the T29, as I admired it in Beta, and specifically the way a skilled player could capitalize on its strengths and minimize its weaknesses (incidentally, from my win % in her, I’m going to admit I’m not a skilled player lol).  But when the full tree changes were announced and I realized that if I just dug a little deeper, I could grab a tier 8 premium in the T34 – and specifically, have a nice premium tank that looked and played just like the T29, I had my goal set.  Currently, I have enough XP to grab it, but since the patch is still 2+ months away, I’m sitting on the free XP I’ve converted and started working my way up the Russian and US medium lines.  And here I confess that I am a medium tank player at heart.  My win % and XP earned stats on medium tanks is consistently higher than with the US heavies.   The patches continue to improve the game, and I think concerned about matchmaking are over rated.  WoT still needs to do more to address the “invisible tank” problem, but other than that, they are in good shape.

What I’m Testing

Nothing.  I’m actually not currently in any Beta’s or testing programs at the moment.  I was never able to get Gods and Heroes working, so…I can’t really tell you if it was good or not.  Perpetuum still intrigues me, but since I have no itch to play EVE at the moment (even less with Incarna out – I don’t get the whole desire or issue myself), I’ve put it on hold as well.

So, if you need someone to play and test (or write about) your game or your Beta, give me a yell.

What I’m Not Going to Talk About…okay, yes I am.

The Old Republic.  Seven months ago, I went ahead and joined a TOR guild, thinking it would help keep a check on my impatience for the game to come out, and help me settle into some good relationships for a game that, by all accounts seems to be just as fanatically multi-player as it is fanatically single-player (how these two worlds will mesh in reality is still a good question I think).   I recall thinking that I wasn’t sure I could wait another 4-6 months for the game to come out.  I was concerned that my brother would not be back from Russia in time (he spend the first 6 months of this year living over there) to be in the game at launch with me.   But mostly I was worried because there was every indication that the game was not actually 4-6 months away.  For those who don’t believe me, I have a draft of a post I wrote but never published (happens more often than you think) from last October, arguing those points.  And I was right.   And it dawned on me yesterday that there is still no indication that the game is no closer to launching than it was last Fall.  In other words, I have patiently made it through the time I wasn’t sure I would make it through, only to find that I have made no progress whatsoever.  This is another definition of hell is it not?  Add to this the multiple confirmations that the game will have no Open Beta (riddle me that one Batman…) and this means that launch will be launch, with no teaser a month before to scratch the itch.

To put this in perspective for you: would you be surprised if there was an announcement that the target date was moved to next Spring (2012)?  Me either.

I’m not sure what else to do here other than keeping marking time.  And my stance is well documented – the longer this takes, the more they push it back (and don’t let them kid you, it has been pushed back, whether they published an official date or not), the worse things are.  You can argue that if you like, but MMO history is clear, and the burden of proof otherwise rests squarely on the backs of EA Bioware.  And the other half of my stance is well documented also: worried though I may be, rooting for them I am.

..Or Not.

Apparently addictions are hard to break.  Especially in this case, when I had no control over it!  Long story short, I’m not as unsubbed as I thought I was:

In Soviet Russia, EVE Online subscribes to you.

Acer Tinkari,

You recently purchased 60 days of game time for 19.95, and your goal was more than likely to be in game for the Incursion expansion and the incredible new features it brings to EVE Online. As you may know, the release date was changed, moving arrival of the character creator and the epic Sansha invasions to later this month.

We are happy to inform that we have extended your paid period to January 31st, insuring that your account will be active for this amazing third installment of our 14th expansion, Incursion.

Happy New Year and Best Wishes,
– EVE Online Dev Team

Skill Point Expenditure

Its been awhile since I last gave you all a peak at my skill queue, so here it is:

Now I pretty much have narrowed things down to Transport Ships.  Basically I just thought about the list and asked myself one question:

What among these things do I really want, but don’t really want to waste two weeks of training on.  And that answer was Transport Ships.  I mean, they are very useful, especially since we operate out of a hi-sec island, its all but a necessity to move things in and out in any sort of quantity.  But I really do not want to waste 17 days training it. 

This way I can scratch that out and proceed down the more fun and incrementally rewarding path of T2 Projectiles.

On the down side, I’m scraping together funds mightily.  I have enough for the ship itself, now I just have to put together enough for the dang skill book.  I still haven’t blitzed enough missions to open up any suitable level 3’s or 4’s.  And I haven’t been a consistant enough player to really partner up with my old buddy to run level 4’s enough to earn a steady source of income.  I may have to bite the bullet and move back into our old Minmatar stomping grounds and gather up some cash.  Alternately I suppose I could drop into the low sec pocket and do some ratting.

That’s always been an option available but one I’ve never really looked into.  What kind of ship does one use for lo-sec ratting?  With T2 small projectiles only 2 days away, can I get away with using a T2 fitted Rifter or my Malediction?  Or do I need something bigger?

Yes, I could use the Pilgrim, but…the old adage is “don’t fly anything you can’t afford to lose” – and I can’t afford to lose her right now, not with my cash strapped situation.  Same with the Damnation.  I am hanger rich and wallet poor.  Your suggestions, as always, are welcome!

This Changes Everything…

EVE Online’s learning skills are going bye bye.

This has been an often requested change, but I’m really shocked to see it being put into place.  It certainly does make likfe a little easier for new players, shaving a little edge off that learning cliff that we talk so much about. 

The really exciting part is getting to directly apply those skill points from the learning catagory.  For me this amounts to about 850,000 skill points to redistribute as I see fit.   What does that mean for me?

A) Skipping the 19 day wait to train Amarr Industrial V for Transport Ships.

B) Skipping the 14 day wait to train Heavy Assault Missiles V.

C) Jumping Mining Barge to V so that I can move into a Hulk and leave that old Retriever behind.

And then there is the unorthodox options:

D) Cut the learning time for Amarr Battleship V in half…I don’t need to tell you where this could lead, do I?

E)  Cut the learning time to almost nothing for any other Cruiser skill to V…

F)  Setting myself up in T2 Small/Medium Projectiles or Hybrids.  I can’t tell you how temping Projectiles is.  T2 artillery on the Pilgrim FTW.

Anyway you slice it, this is an exciting change for both new players and veterans of the game.  Two thumbs up here.

EVE Screenshot Issues

Ever since they upgraded the interface, I haven’t been able to get good sreenshots.  I do the whole Alt+Tab thing and “close all windows” but I still end up with this:

Can anyone set me straight on how to go back to taking screenshots that looks like this:

Thanks in advance.  In other news, T2 Heavy Assault Missiles: 14 days and counting.

State of My Game: November

I’ve been thin on content lately my friends – I had a large family wedding this weekend and this week a dear friend passed away, so I have been neck deep in friends and memorial arrangements.  Here’s where I’m at:

EVE Online 

I should be back in the fold as of tonight.  I have plans and alot of future posts planned about those plans, so stay tuned.  Mostly I’m excited to strap into that badass Command Cruiser and put it to good use in the coming PVE events in Incursions (when it finally drops I suppose).  Also on the docket – T2 missiles and projectile weapons.  Its time to diversify into the world of Minmatar.  Kudos to EVE Online’s re-sub discount, its one of the reasons I’m back.

Fallen Earth

I am back in here as well, working my way through some content to catch up with my brother.  Mostly I have my eyeballs on crafting though, as usual.  I have a severe case of motorcycle envy, and and even worse case of submachinegun/shotgun envy.  I’m trying hard not to blow all my points on Pistol to have one  *now*.  Kudos to Fallen Earth for their re-sub discounts.  Its one of the main reasons I’m back.  Seeing a  trend here?

Star Trek Online

I am around 700 skill points shy of my Nebula and Akira.  After that, I have no idea what, if anything, I will be doing in the game.  I continue to be intrigued by Diplomacy though.   Part of my slow progress in the game has been spending time (without spending Credits, because I know I will need them for the non-free Tier 3 ship) stringing together enough Diplo XP to open up more missions.  I’d really love to see them spend more time in that category.  I enjoy the space battles and land battles, but I need the exploration and conversational stuff thrown in to break up the monotony that can come from having an MMO where your skill bar has less than ten buttons on it instead of the normal thirty or so.  One other request Cryptic – and a small thing I never thought I would miss – color code the quests by level.  As it currently stands you have no way of seeing, until the quest is in your log, its difficulty relative to you.  Gimme that old “grey to red” colorscale to help me sort them all out, m’kay?

Rifts: Planes of Telara

There may or may not be an Alpha.  It may or may not have an NDA.  I may or may not be in it.

Everquest II

I haven’t been playing but I’m excited.  My wife and I’s ten year anniversary is upcoming.  She asked me last week what I wanted.  And I jokingly said “play some games with me.”  She pursed her lips and replied “one night?”  I said, “one for each year of marriage.”  She frowned.  “Okay,” I admitted, “I’m open to some negotiation here.”  If it happens, and it looks like it might, this would probably be where we would play.  No extra money, its pretty vanilla in terms of system, not alot of grieving going on, etc.

Pirates of the Burning Sea

Goes F2P this month, and it will be on like Donkey Kong.

The Reincarnation

I continue to urge you to this free warhorse of a game.  Its been going on for over a decade now, and is fantastic.  We are currently neck deep in a two front war, and about to open a third.  Its my third or fourth set leading our guild, and we have truly grown into a veteran war guild.  Despite the two front war, we have lost only one mage to each of those opponents, while slaying multiple foes on each front in response.  And another two will probably be dead before the day is out.  If you like strategic PvP, this is the place for you.  I imagined that would apply to alot of you EVE pilots out there…

So that’s it.  Add in my long reading list and my neglected novel for NaNoWriMo, and you’ve peeked inside my world this month.  Was it good for you?