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Equipped Skills: The Growing Trend in RPG Game Development
by Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez on 08/11/13 05:11:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


What do Magic: The Gathering and Diablo 3 have in common? A year ago I predicted about RPG game development moving away from traditional level-up systems. Now it looks like the plot grows thicker.. Here I discuss the growing trend of "equipped skills".

I told you people. I told you! Now it's happening.

Developers marketing people are touting their game's innovative class system! Players are up in arms about removing the traditional trinity (i.e. tank/DPS/support)! Classless systems! Ogre wizards wearing plate and shooting bows!

"Woah there, sperglord", you say. "What are you yammering about?"

I'll tell you what. I'll be straight to the point: Developers are shifting away from the traditional skill system and putting in a flexible one that I call, for a lack of better term, "equipped skills".

Let me explain further. When I say traditional system, it's when players are given skill points upon leveling-up to let them purchase which new skills he wants for his character.

(When I say skills, this is a pretty broad term, but if you play RPGs, you'll know what I mean. Some systems call them perks (i.e. Fallout) , feats (i.e. D&D), abilities, et al. They're basically some sort of intangible item that unlocks some attack you can now use, or modifies the rules of the game for your character.)

Like I said before, the problem with such a system is that purchasing skills are a life-altering event for the character, that usually can't be reverted. So players need proper deliberation before choosing what skills to purchase.

And how would players know beforehand which skills are worth purchasing? Generally, they can't. They need to devote time, doing trial-and-error, experimenting with every character build they think is worth pursuing.

(Either that, or they have to do some researching and asking around. Not necessarily a fun process, if you just really want to play the damn game already.)

When they figure out what they want, only then, finally, they can proceed to play the game in earnest.

And they need lots of time. Generally, it's not very easy to quickly start again with a blank slate for your character, ready for another round of experimentation.

And some people say, the labor you do with experimenting is part of the fun. For some people, they see it as a problem.

This is why respec became a hot issue one time. Devs wanted to introduce respec to help lessen the time needed to do character build experiments.

But that was only the band-aid solution to an old system. What developers next considered, is creating a new system that addresses the (what they consider to be a) problem from the start.

Basically, they want a way to streamline that experimentation process. To make it easier for players to rapidly create character builds.

And this new trend of a more flexible skill system, which I refer to as "equipped skills" is one solution that people came up with. And it seems it's the one that resounded a lot in the developer community (whether intentionally or not). And why is that? So many new games are doing it now.

But let me explain first how this other system works.

Here are the quick points:

  1. Out of a wide selection of available skills, you can "equip" only a few at a time (e.g. say, having 8 skill slots). Those equipped are the only ones that are in effect, and usable in combat.
  2. The game then, is centered around choosing a combination of skills that complement each other well, given the restrictions and the circumstances.
  3. This is akin to playing a tradeable card game: out of all the available cards of that game, you choose the ones you want for your deck.

Contrast this with games that have more traditional skill systems, like Dragon Age.

In games like that, skills that you purchase are always available and usable. Equipping skills in a hotbar then, in those games, is only for convenience, not a requirement.

The holy grail that devs want here is how Magic: The Gathering does it. That game has so much possibilities and permutations, that players occasionally find combo cards, even when such cards were not originally meant to complement each other.

As with any fairly workable idea, the idea itself won't necessarily spell doom or success for the game, but how the devs do their specific implementation of it.

And, indeed, each game has their own implementation on the idea.

Now here come the examples:

Call of Duty BLOPS 2: pick-10 system, create-a-class system
The Create A Class system has been drastically improved from the original Call of Duty Series. This time, each Perk, Weapon, Weapon Attachment, piece of Equipment, and more will cost one point in the new Pick 10 System. In this way, every player will create a class in their own way, as long as their points don't add up over ten when going into a match. ... This allows players to switch up their play style and make each and every game unique.

So the choices you need to make become about how to tailor your preferences within these ten slots. You may decide not to equip a grenade at all, in favour of an additional attachment for your primary weapon. Or, alternatively, you might not even want a primary weapon. The choice is yours.

The Secret World: skill system


One of The Secret World's most unique selling points has been its lack of a traditional class system. Unlike most RPGs, which assign players to damage, tank, and healer roles, FunCom’s MMO has opened up its bank of skills to allow complete player customization.

Each character in The Secret World is given access to 14 ability slots – seven active and seven passive – that shape your role and determine your strengths. This is called your “deck,” and you can build it any way you like. Of course, with over 500 abilities to choose from, making those decisions can get a little overwhelming. That’s where the deck template system comes in.

Each deck template employs 14 abilities or "cards" to create a unique type of character, granting the player exclusive power and a deck-specific outfit.

Character growth in The Secret World has been pitched as 'Horizontal, not Vertical'.... After a point, character growth stops being about becoming more powerful, and instead becomes about having more choices. And the best part is that that point is wherever you want it to be. If you're not having fun with a given weapon anymore, you can change it. Anytime you want. You might need to duck back to some easier content for a little while, but that isn't a big deal anyway.

Characters can use up to six skills at once, and may cycle between them with only minimal cooldowns.

Characters can have up to 3 passive skills active...
Diablo 3 had skill trees during most of the game's development, but the entire skill interface was reworked numerous times during development, and ultimately the skill trees were removed and replaced with a sort of skill menu.

Jay Wilson: ...We've decided to remove the tree-type architecture and we are moving into a purely skill-based system. This new system is still in the development stages and if it does not work, we still have plenty of options to fall back on. Right now, we're just trying different things and getting a feel for the few ideas in regards to the skill system that we have going on right now. It differs from the World of Warcraft/Diablo II type hierarchical styles and is more of a skill pool/path than a tree per se.

Additionally, see David Sirlin's article which also describes the system.

Guild Wars 2: Skill System

Like a collectible card game, we provide the player with a wide variety of choices and allow them to pick and choose skills to create a build that best suits their particular play style.
Now you might think this is all new, but look at this:

Final Fantasy Tactics: Job System

In FFT, each character equips certain skills, categorized as Command Abilities (actions that the character can perform: e.g. attack, steal, perform magic), Reaction Abilities (performed automatically when you are attacked), Support Abilities (passive bonus), and Movement Abilities (skills that modify movement e.g. jump higher, move farther, etc.). the player changes between the jobs, skills will be able to be transported over to the next... This addition of mixing skills (along with the jobs themselves) and the statistics gained from them, further developed the Job System...
Jason: so those can all be mixed and matched
Jason: once a character learns an ability, he can equip it at any time
Jason: so once Kirklton has jp boost, he can put that in no matter what class he is
You could say FFT does it differently, but the basic idea is the same. Perhaps you could say FFT was ahead of its time, eh?

So the idea isn't really new, but that it's becoming a trend, I think is new.

EverQuest Next
We know little from what was recently presented by the developers. And so many speculations are brewing, but I can easily see this is another take on the "equipped skills" idea.
Character abilities come in four types: movement, offensive, defensive and utility. Multi-classing comes into play with the character abilities--they’re the ones you can switch out to change up your build for the specific class. You might, for instance, make a warrior who can also do magical damage and has great defense against casters.
Unlocking a new class unlocks new skills to choose from within those 4 character skill slots. This is where your skill customization comes into play. A warrior might unlock a shadow knight class and then be able to choose shadow knight class abilities to replace his warrior class abilities.

The perfect example used on the class panel was building a Warrior into a Caster Killer. He swapped leap for a type of teleport. He swapped out his offensive move for a Mana Burn. His Defensive skill was swapped to a Spell Reflect and his utility spell swapped for something equally powerful vs. casters.

And so on.. I'm sure you can cite a few more examples.

Note how they describe it. Mixing and matching. Swapping out. Using slots. Easy customization. Even the developers go so far as to describe it as a collectible card system, a deck.

I don't find it surprising. That's really what's at the core of an "equipped skills" system.

As you can tell, each game has their own take on the idea. Some games add more layers of complexity (e.g. skills that are dependent on weapon equipped, Diablo 3's rune system, etc.) to make things more interesting.

Custom classes

They also like to describe it as something that easily suits the player's play style. Basically, you can think of respec being a built-in feature in this type of system. And being able to easily accomodate different play styles quickly, is one of its strong points.

This can undermine the whole point of having classes.

On one end we have BLOPS 2, which uses it for their Create-A-Class system. Or Secret World, where there are, indeed, no classes to speak of.

Instead the player creates his own custom class. The idea is the player cherry-picks which skills he want to use from the ones provided by each skill group. Classes, when looked at this regard, are simply categories to group related skills together (e.g. fighter skills, thief skills, sorcerer skills, etc.). Think of them as the colors in Magic The Gathering.

The player then, can choose to specialize in one group only (e.g. choose only fighter skills for his build), be a jack of all trades but master of none, or sit somewhere between the two extremes (e.g. do the equivalent of a dual-class).

On the other hand, some implementations decide to keep things tight and still have classes (i.e. Diablo 3).

So an "equipped skills" system doesn't necessarily need to turn the game into a classless system, (as some people call it) but you can also design it that way.

We still like to buy stuff though

If you go through some of them, you'll notice in some games, the skills are unlocked automatically for you at some point (leveling-up in Diablo 3). But some games still require you to purchase the skill before it's available for equipping.

I guess devs can't help but still add that. The idea of earning for your skills, slowly growing your collection, like some sort of hobby collector, is a good motivator for players, understandably.

We should note though, that there's no need to disallow the player from collecting every skill in the whole game, since we already have the restriction of being able to equip/use only a few at a time. I.e. Go ahead, unlock everything! You can equip only 8 at a time anyway.

So it's common that these systems allow players to eventually unlock/purchase every skill. That's in contrast to a traditional level-up system, where you're not allowed to unlock every skill.

Another take on it can be that you also purchase upgrades on each skill, so it's not like we need to remove the idea of purchasing altogether.

Easing up new players to the system

So, it's understandable that developers would be worried that some players may find this system too complicated. How would they know which skills to pick for their "deck"?

Each game has something up their sleeve for this.

BLOPS 2, with it being a multiplayer affair, addressed this by providing pre-made classes. They are essentially preset builds whose selection of skills are chosen for you. This is so that you can start playing immediately and get a feel for each skill's usefulness and how they work well with each other. Think of them as preset decks in Magic: The Gathering.

The Secret World does something similar with their decks, although I do believe you still need to unlock those skills dictated by the deck templates. Essentially, they are more of a guide, than a preset.

Diablo 3 had to do it with a lot of hand-holding, in what combinations the player could do (e.g. Wizard can have only one signature spell). As they explained, this was done to prevent players from mistakenly making poor character builds that would frustrate them.

Understandably, the hardcore players who love to experiment found this limiting. The not so hardcore audience did not have any problems with it. So it was wise to allow the player to turn those restrictions on or off (i.e. Elective Mode). The only problem it seemed, was that it was not apparent that you could turn it off in the first place.

Most others, you had to purchase/unlock skills first before they can be equipped, as mentioned above. Pragmatically speaking, this is done so that you won't be overwhelmed with too many options at the start; you're forced to have only a few skills at the beginning and slowly unlock new ones.

This gives you time to slowly learn and get comfortable with each new unlocked skill, before you move on to the next. At the end, once you've tested all of them, you could then decide to stick with the ones you're happy with.

EQ Next, from what I can understand, took some cues from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance: it seems which weapon you equip determines your first four skills (weapon skills), and the last four (character skills) are gained by purchasing.

This means presumably you don't have to worry about what combination of weapon skills to get; you can't mix and match weapon skills since they come as a preset in the weapon. But you'll still have some wiggle room for experimentation with the character skills, and which weapon to get.

Each developer has a different variation to address this issue. Certainly there's room for creativity here.

Banned cards

But wait!, you say. Isn't Magic: The Gathering infamous for having cards so powerful, they had to ban them?

What causes banned cards anyway? What happens is developers initially had no idea that the cards they made, when used with certain others, were too powerful (in that the cards bordered on cheating).

That is indeed a danger with a mix-and-match system. You obviously want many cards in your game. But you can't possibly anticipate every card combination that might break the game. At least, probably not enough for your game's deadline.

(Here's a good article showing one point of view of what makes a card too powerful.)

But look at it this way. For all its faults, Magic still manages to have a player base in this day and age. Whatever Wizards of the Coast is doing, they're doing it well enough.

It's certainly not a perfect system, but it can still work and arguably be successful for a product.

Ultimately, just because you choose to employ an "equipped skills" system for your game, that doesn't automatically make it better over a traditional skill system.

You'd have to tweak and fine-tune it, as you should, regardless of what style of system you use.

Resistance to change is expected of course. Understandably, a lot of players are averse to the general idea of equipped skills (instant respecs take the fun away!, there's no excitement in leveling-up anymore! etc.), but its not like the idea of a traditional skill system is perfect either.

On the other hand, it's not necessarily bad to be wary of it.

In the end, (good) devs love to experiment, creating new systems all the time, that's what makes them developers.

My guess: It'll take a few iterations of games employing this system to finally come up with a "best practice" document on designing such a thing.

Side note: I'm using the same idea for my game. Hopefully it'll work out!

So, how do you think this trend will pan out?

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E Zachary Knight
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I love the idea of equipable abilities. It is something that can really benefit a game. Final Fantasy has been doing this in one way or another since 5 I think. In that one, you had crystals that earned your character a job class. Upon mastering it, the abilities for that class are opened up to be equipped by other classes.

Then Final Fantasy 6 introduced the Esper system in which the easpers not only taught your characters magic, but also other abilities.

Final Fantasy 7 had the materia system.

Final Fantasy 8 had the card system.

Final Fantasy 9 had a feature that let each character learn abilities from the weapons and armor they equip. This one is probably the weakest of the systems as many of the abilities were limited to specific classes of characters.

Final Fantasy 10 had the sphere grid.

Looking outside Square, we have Breath of Fire by Capcom. In Breath of Fire 3, a mentor system was introduced that allowed you to enter your characters as a pupil of a mentor and learn abilities from them. You also had the ability to watch enemies and learn their abilities. All these were interchangeable.

These are just the ones off the top of my head. I am sure other games have implemented such a system in various numbers of ways.

Josh Neff
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Its an interesting topic, though I must confess, I didnít read the whole thing... it was a bit long for me. I did note that at least four of the games you identified as using the equipable skills system, also use a level system. Honestly, while I do like the equipable skills concept, I donít see the traditional level system dieing out any time soon. People tend to like ways to see quantitative character advances, which is certainly doable through alternative methods, but the standard level system is easy. People like easy... generaly speaking, the easier the better. Still, I like the equipable skills concept quite a bit and look forward to seeing how it gets implemented in future games!

Frederik Laporte-Morais
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Interesting article. Although I'd have to say that as a player I have a problem with this kind of skill system. The part where you say "purchasing skills are a life-altering event for the character, that usually can't be reverted" is exactly why I love RPGs. Because I feel that every choice I make is life-altering and DEFINES my character. When I can just swap whatever I want whenever I want I feel like my character has no personnality and is (or can be) an exact copy of any other.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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Yes that's entirely the point. I agree that in the context of playing an RPG, the idea of growing your character is a compelling trope in game design that I doubt would ever be dropped.

But we can think ways where this equipped skills system can be more aptly applied: mecha-like robots perhaps, games that center on vehicular combat, a game where you bio-engineer mutants, etc.

I'm not necessarily leaning more on this new trend. It's just that as game developers, we should choose the right tool for the right job. So the more varied our toolset is, the more we can make better game systems. This article is just my musings on such an alternative tool that seems to be getting popular.

Brandon Binkley
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This system is what I term a modular system where a player can swap development aspects of a character with other "parts" (skills, equipment, powers, etc.). Games like FF7 use this kind of mechanic. While it can be strong in covering for player mistakes (or covering up for unbalanced game design that makes abilities unwanted), it can also dilute other game systems.
The flaws of system become more pronounced when dealing with an ensemble cast where a player cannot field the entire party (i.e. traditional RPGs and to a lesser extent strategy RPGs). In these cases, it becomes too easy to homogenize characters such that mechanically they are all identical, and only the cosmetics (models/textures) vary (see FF7 and FF8). Sure, this allows the player to pick characters that they find look the best, but it undermines the narrative of the story when over half of the cast is tossed on the sidelines because they bring nothing to the table (call it a collision of game elements - narrative vs. character development system in this case).
For developers looking at how to best utilize a modular system, make sure that the other game systems (core gameplay, narrative, character design, etc.) align with the modular system goals. In the case of traditional RPGs, for instance, cutting the playable cast to the number of battle participants (or allowing for swapping in the reserves mid combat so long as there are enough supported modular builds to support the reserves) adequately aligns design goals.
Modular systems are very effective systems for other genres, however, such as PvP oriented systems and card games (as highlighted in the article). They also work well with mecha and robot subgenres allowing the player more control over how they build their tools.
Designer have a lot of powerful tools for character development systems, the key is selecting the right combination of them to best fit the goals of the project with a holistic approach.

Bart Stewart
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A very nicely detailed analysis.

One minor historical note: SOE was working on The Agency, a MMOFPS, as far back as 2007. One of the key features of The Agency is that your character's skills depended on what outfit they wore.

I have zero insider knowledge here, but it seems plausible to me that although The Agency was canceled (in 2011), this core feature found its way into EQN's design.

Mike Engle
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It's certainly a growing trend, though as others have mentioned I don't think we'll see classic leveling systems disappear anytime soon, and one of the concerns with equippable skills is a game has less weighty, meaningful decisions (which is partly the point, but also a problem.)

I'm largely positive on the trend, as it allows players to play around with different builds very quickly. (Which is also another downside for developers, since players interested in trying many strategies can burn through experimentation far faster with this sort of system.)

Another minor element is the sense of player ownership which can come from finding a unique viable build. It's sort of like progression is a giant map and the player has chosen to build their home in some unique untraveled locale. But in a game where skills can be changed at the drop of a hat (possibly literally), "travel" is instant. The moment players sense Playstyle B is the new hotness, everyone is immediately there. ("And they're all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same.")

Arnold Hendrick
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The usefulness of this design feature depends a great deal on the kind of game you want and how far down the rabbit hole you travel. At times MMORPG designers have piled on to this bandwagon unwisely.

The Secret World design made a complete mess of the concept by making all options available to all characters (assuming you invested the time to unlock them all). This made team play in dungeons extraordinarily difficult because there was little "class shorthand" to determine who would perform what function. In solo play it made character advancement goals self-directed and vague. Players frequently accumulated unspent advancement because they weren't willing to do the intensive "theory-crafting" to research skill interactions to achieve better skill synergies. In a competitive PvP game, like Magic: The Gathering, the "meta game" is all about theory crafting. In an MMORPG that is primarily PvE advancement / storylines oriented, expecting every player to theory-craft is a Bridge Too Far.

On the other hand, Guild Wars 2 did it much better. There the options and combinations are limited by character class, and further limited by weaponry options (combat actions are attached to weapons, and each class has its own distinctive set of weapons options). This keeps the complexity and variety down to a "dull roar" while allowing players to learn a visual shorthand about player capabilities. "Oh, she's a mace and shield guardian - max defense, aggro and self-healing - must want to be a team tank." This and various other aspects of the game made it much friendlier to players interested in PvE advancement and storylines, as well as making PvP more understandable because opponent weapons (and their associated graphics) are a critical clue for "handling" them.

Both TSW and GW2 had generous budgets, great graphics served up by superior visual engines, fine storytelling, solid engineering and adequate marketing. But one had dramatically superior game systems (GW2) that integrated "equipped skills" better for a wider range of players. GW2 has done very well financially, while TSW was less successful than Conan, contributing to massive layoffs and reorganizations at Funcom.