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Player Skill, Character Skill, and Skill Progression Systems
by Ozzie Smith on 02/05/13 07:02:00 am   Featured Blogs

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


Player Skill, Character Skill, and Skill Progression Systems

Today I want to talk about the differences between player skill and character skill in videogames, and how they relate to skill progression systems. I think it’s a simple topic that most people understand at a glance, but often-times in videogames I see design decisions that seem to take these differences for granted and the game suffers as a result.

First let’s define these terms. Player skill is the skill that the player has at whatever game is at hand: how accurate they can shoot in Counter-Strike, how well they can lay blocks in Tetris, how well they can shoot the ball in basketball, etc.

Games can be considered “deep” if they offer a lot of room in their mechanics for players to develop their skills: a beat-em-up game is considered deep if it has a lot of combos to master (and also requires the player to learn and use them) compared to a beat-em-up that only has a few combos to master.

Character skill exists exclusively in games with story: I would define it as the skill or power of the player-controlled character through narrative and/or gameplay mechanics. This is most apparent in classic RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons where character skill is portrayed through a level that goes up as more experience points are gained.

In terms of player-involvement, these two terms are at the opposite ends of the spectrum: player skill is completely determined by what the player does and how well they do it, while character skill is completely unaffected by what the player does. What I mean by that last statement is that when for example an RPG character increases a level and they now do more damage per attack, this is unaffected by how “well” the player performs the attack.

In modern gaming, many traditionally action, player-skill-based genres are now incorporating character-skill-based RPG elements into their designs, to varying degrees of success. In fact I was amazed at how it seemed like almost every game I played last year had some sort of skill-tree or unlock-system implemented.

This is really just a natural progression of a design-concept that has persisted in videogames for decades: to slowly give the player more mechanics to use throughout the course of a game (for example in the original Metroid game players were given more powers one at a time throughout the game). I will call this concept the “skill progression system”.

I think the skill progression system offers two main benefits that encourage so many designers today to use them: it allows the player to more easily learn the mechanics of the game (by trickling in new mechanics over time for the player to master), and it generally offers interesting narrative opportunities.

When used well, it can incredibly benefit the design of the entire experience: players will constantly be given new mechanics to explore every time they start to feel bored with the previous mechanics.

The ideal use would be in a game that has mechanics that are too complex for a player to understand fully at first, and so it is piecemealed to them over time by revealing new mechanics (introducing new abilities/obstacles) or deepening existing mechanics (adding more complex behaviors to abilities/obstacles). However the poor use of this system can actively impair the player’s enjoyment of the game.

A great example of a skill progression system in my opinion would be the Angry Birds series (although admittedly, the skill-ceiling in Angry Birds is quite low for the most part). After every so many levels the game gives players a new bird to work with that has its own set of behaviors that the player needs to master. No bird is necessarily “better” than any other bird and only offers new skills for the player to master instead of making previous mechanics obsolete or shallower.

A poor example of a skill progression system in my opinion would be the booster system in the Uncharted series’ multiplayer. Players equip different boosters that are each a simple tweak of a certain variable: less recoil, faster reload speed, etc. Instead of offering new avenues for player skill to grow, each booster shrinks existing avenues by making each skill easier to master (for example I would consider it a skill to time reloads in the game, but this becomes less of a notable skill when that time is shrunk).

This is an example I think of failing to realize what sort of skill progression system should be associated with a game. Uncharted’s multiplayer is pretty deep in the player skill pool: players learn how to use the mechanics (aiming/moving, memorizing map layout/weapon placements, etc) and their success in the game is based on that mastery of these skills.

The skill progression system in the game however, takes a page out of many character skill based games and makes the player’s character more powerful. Instead of offering a skill progression system that offers new skills for the player to gain and master (and thus complementing the main gameplay draw of the game), the skill progression system in Uncharted only makes certain player skills less valuable by focusing on character skill instead.

Many of my favorite games have flawed skill systems. The God of War series for example is a pretty player-skill-based game: players must learn all of the combat mechanics to be able to progress through it. Like many beat-em-up games, the series gives players a basic skill-set in the beginning (and if I may rant a little, the GoW series always give the player too few basic moves in the start :( ) and allow the player to level up their weapons over the course of the game.

Every time the player levels up their weapon, they are given a few new moves that increase their skill set and give them a new tool to use in combat, which is all great. However the designers have decided to also increase the basic attack damage for each upgrade as well, meaning that by the end of the game a basic attack is much more powerful than it was before without the player’s skill being involved at all.

I would say this is a counter-intuitive to the design of the game because the fun from God of War comes from the challenge involved in the combat. It’s fun in the game to learn the different combos, memorize enemy attack patterns, learn when to strike and when to block, etc.

By tweaking a few numbers that involve player health and attack damage, an encounter that was once fun can suddenly become a bore when players no longer feel challenged because their character has become so much more powerful than they were before. Players are robbed of their own skill in favor of character skill.

Many games suffer from this problem and players either end up feeling ridiculously overpowered and unchallenged by the end of the game or designers end up arbitrarily increasing the stats of the obstacles in the game to match the skill of the player’s character, essentially nullifying the entire process.

I think it’s important for designers to decide what sort of gameplay they have before implementing a skill progression system into their game. If the fun in your gameplay comes from player skill activities, it would be wise to use a skill progression system to complement this element by perhaps adding in more skills or deepening existing skills.

If your game is more about character skill (such as a JRPG) it would be probably be wise to have a skill progression system that focuses on character skill (such as increasing effects of attacks) rather than for example adding in an entire new gameplay mechanic.

Of course I feel like it should be the goal for designers today when creating player-skill-focused games to create a gameplay system that is so deep yet so approachable that arbitrary skill progression systems shouldn’t be needed. A few games have done this incredibly well (I would like to give a shout-out to StarCraft and Counter-Strike here, although maybe both are a little too complex for many to approach at first), and I strive to do the same with my own games.

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Lewis Wakeford
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Great Read.

I especially agree with this bit:

"Of course I feel like it should be the goal for designers today when creating player-skill-focused games to create a gameplay system that is so deep yet so approachable that arbitrary skill progression systems shouldn't be needed."

Far too many games these days rely on the progression treadmill to keep players invested instead of actual compelling gameplay. Some gamers love unlocking stuff and won't play a game once they have all the shiny stuff, but I'd argue those people should not be catered to. In my mind, the game should be designed around the "end game" where all players have everything unlocked, the progression systems, if they are needed at all, should only serve to limit new players options so they aren't overwhelmed. It's important that the new mechanics actually matter and are unlocked at a reasonable rate, it shouldn't take more than a dozen or so hours of play to max out.

That's from the point of view of "I want to make a good game" though. Not "I want to make money". Most F2P games need some form of progression system to frustrate players into coughing up some cash. That's perfectly fine, but it does make the game less good for everyone.

Jeremy Reaban
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"Every time the player levels up their weapon, they are given a few new moves that increase their skill set and give them a new tool to use in combat, which is all great. However the designers have decided to also increase the basic attack damage for each upgrade as well, meaning that by the end of the game a basic attack is much more powerful than it was before without the player’s skill being involved at all."

That's actually a good thing. What many gamers seem to overlook is not everyone who plays games has a great degree of skill (or is even simply physically that capable, especially considering the aging population of gamers). Or are willing to invest a huge amount of time to master a game's systems. Games need to strike a balance between being accessible and a challenge. Which is quite difficult.

Ozzie Smith
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I'm not saying all games should be hard. A lot of games want to be simple, easy-to-pick-up casual games and that's fine. But if your gameplay is about the challenge of the gameplay (like most action games), then it just doesn't make sense to me to reward players for mastering a mechanic by making that same mechanic easier to perform and thus nullifying any skill the player acquired with the mechanic.

For instance Crysis 2 has a small skill-tree in the game where points earned by killing enemies can be cashed in to earn new powers/upgrades for your character. One of the final upgrades the player can get makes the nano-suit recharge energy much faster than normal, meaning that players basically have near-infinite suit power. This basically means that the skill of power management is no longer part of the game at all.

Sure you could argue that it's there for players that don't want to gain that skill and want an easier game, but then why would you make that the most expensive unlock in the game? Why not just make it an option to start with from the beginning? What I'm trying to say is that using a skill progression system to offer such a gameplay device is a pretty poor decision. The use of such a system in a skill-dependent action game like Crysis 2 should ideally be to make sure the player is always in the "sweet spot" of challenge and mastery of the mechanics. But when you just make the game simpler and simpler as the game goes on, I don't think you're going to please a casual crowd or a hardcore crowd.

I think there's definitely a place for character-skill-based games (in genres like RPGs, casual games, etc) but I just want to point out that having such aspects in certain genres actually detracts from the foundations of the gameplay. A designer should look at their gameplay and ask "what is fun about it?" and make sure that other features in the game don't interfere with that (and instead should enhance it when possible). Having a lot of character skill upgrades in an action-RPG for example makes perfect sense because the crux of what makes those games fun is about evolving a character with lots of loot and defeating lots of enemies, and not necessarily about a deep and engaging combat system with lots of combos and animations to memorize.

But what if Gears of War had a skill tree and one skill gave the player extra health so that cover was no longer necessary? Or what if another skill gave the player a perfect active reload every time? The casual player who may want those will never play long enough to unlock said abilities, and the "core" gamer who can unlock will likely find themselves bored with a shallower experience.

Hopefully that all will make sense haha.

Mark Ludlow
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"Character skill exists exclusively in games with story"

I don't think this is correct. MOBA (as much as I hate the term) games and games like Warcraft III multiplayer have characters that level up as the match progresses but have no story, it's just a mechanic to reflect both how well the player is playing and a way to increase the stakes as the game goes on as you gain more ways to achieve victory.

MMOs while having a loose narrative are rarely played because it's a story and more because as you advance in level, you are able to access new areas and new challenges you can overcome as either a group or individually. Things like the Battlegrounds in WOW as well have no defined story and as with the RPG and MOBA example, use levels to both match you up with people and allow you to become better at the fight, easing you into a more player skill based situation (when you reach level cap, it comes down to skill and gear) rather than just relying on your level as compared to others.

Ozzie Smith
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1) I would say that most MOBA games DO have a story, even if it's as basic as "these 2 sides are at war!" or whatever. It's more story than Tetris :P

2) I think character skills work well in MOBA games becuase part of the gameplay itself is trying to level up faster than the other team (almost sort of like trying to get a larger economy than your opponent in a RTS game). I don't play MOBAs often so correct me if I am wrong.

3) I would say that the fun from MMOs for most players comes from the sense of community or the fantasy of creating and evolving a character (like in pen and paper RPGs). But I guess you're mostly saying about MMOs that in the end game, it's about player skill and not character skill, despite the game having so many character skills, correct? To that statement I would have a few responses:

- Late game PvP in WoW for example seems to still be based a lot on gear (as you said) which is just another form of character skill.

- PvP challenge is always based on the skill of your opponent (regardless of the genre), and so it makes sense that especially in the end game where everyone is the same level that it comes down to player skill.

- It seems to me that most of the player skill in end-game dungeons comes from the team-work required to to defeat them, correct? I don't play many MMOs so maybe I am wrong though.

- MMOs seem to me to be a great example of "arbitrary stat enhancing": the game is a constant arms race between players' characters leveling up and then enemies in the world also leveling up (more numerous and more powerful) to create a steady line of challenge, making all numbers sort of pointless except for conveying the story idea that "stuff is a lot more powerful than before."

- I don't think MMO players play for the built-in narrative of the game so much as they do for the emergent, player-created narratives that MMOs allow. I'm not talking about strict Role-playing servers but just how players can get into the world with their friends and go off and do memorable stuff.

Vinicius Couto
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I liked the article, but there one part that I don't really agree with:

"a beat-em-up game is considered deep if it has a lot of combos to master (and also requires the player to learn and use them) compared to a beat-em-up that only has a few combos to master."

Now, I'm no professional designer, and I'm just trying to learn and find my mistakes, but I'm not sure that in beat-em-up depth = number of moves or something like that. A deep beat-em-up can have few moves, but requires the player to know which of those moves are right for each kind of situation.

Take God of War, for example. Though the game offer many different moves, you can pretty much ignore most of them and not have much more trouble.

[EDIT] Just came up with a random thought here. Beat-em-ups may, in fact, have increased depth the less moves they have available, since that may add more constraints for the player to work through...

Ozzie Smith
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Yea I should have clarified that a bit more. I think depth in a beat-em-up also depends on how much the game demands from the player to learn and use all of the mechanics. Like you said in God of War you mostly don't need to use most of the moves unless you are playing on the highest difficulties. But it still has a lot more depth than say Warhammer 40k Space Marine, where there is basically only 1 combo to use per weapon and a very limited skill and enemy set.

Stephen McCollins
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Very nice read, reminded me a lot of that other Gamasutra article: "The Abstraction Of Skill In Game Design".

Although your designation of Player skills vs. Chara skills is a lot more palpable than the one used in the other article. Still, its -100 to 100 scale is pretty straightforward and self-explanatory.


Bisse Mayrakoira
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Good post. It's surprising how often games which are clearly player skill focused make the mistake of watering themselves down with character skill upgrades which lower the player skill cap.

A close relative of that, I think, is how the skill upgrade systems of many multiplayer games like Battlefield 3 unbalance the game. They withhold strong equipment and weapons from newer players who are weaker to begin with, while giving that stuff to veteran players who are stronger to begin with. If there must be a handicap in the game, it should be the opposite way.

Finn Haverkamp
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Mark of the Ninja has a fun skill progression system. None of the upgrades are essential, but they do allow players to diversify or focus their play-styles. For example, one upgrade allows players to stealth kill from a hiding spot. More combat focus skills include new attacks, like a dash-slide trip. Some skills, though, are simply fun, like hanging dead guards by perch spots.

Ozzie Smith
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I agree, Mark of the Ninja has a good skill system. Some of the new skills were really interesting and offered real play-style choices to the player that were unique and thoughtful (different items. ability to hang guards, etc). Although I felt like most of the take-down skills were somewhat counter-productive. In reality when you allow the player to take out a guard while in a hiding spot or from a vent etc, you are really just saying "OK now you don't have to wait for the guard to move a little out of the way before quickly getting out of cover and taking them out and then going back into cover" (instead that is all just automated with 1 button press now).

Technically a lot of those skills made certain actions slightly simpler mechanically, but that fact is pretty negligible since the game isn't very hard mechanically to begin with (the fun in the game comes from strategic thinking instead of mechanical execution in my opinion). At best the take-down skills added new options to the player for certain situations and at worst they made the game ever-so-slightly simpler mechanically. I don't think it's perfect but I think it works pretty well because none of the skills ever really replace or nullify certain player skills (except for some actions that were already really easy to perform anyway), but instead allow the player to pick more options for gameplay.