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The Abstraction Of Skill In Game Design

October 20, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

[These days, many games feature a blend of action and RPG elements -- is there any way to determine whether a blend is effective? Is there any way to think about the specific target you're aiming for? Game design analyst Josh Bycer takes a stab at it.]

One of the key areas of evolution in game design has to be the merging of genres. Games like the Uncharted series combine shooting, puzzle, and adventure elements together.

Besides expanding the gameplay, this serves another purpose; it opens up the game to more people.

Two genres that have been working the hardest to do this would be action games and RPGs. The determining factor is the abstraction of skill and how each game handles it differently. This has lead to the term "skill abstraction." It's defined as:

The degree of which player skill (or input) has an effect on the gameplay.

In their infancy, both genres existed on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Slowly, over the years, games designed for both genres have been moving inward. Action games have been adding more RPG elements; RPGs have become more action oriented.

On one hand, this has opened up the respective genres to more gamers. However, to quote Abraham Lincoln, "...you can't please all the people, all the time."

Before we examine this, here is a chart showing this abstraction:

-100 percent refers to games with zero abstraction of skill. These are games where player skill is the only determining factor in beating the game. For instance, early shooters didn't deal with the concept of in-game accuracy; if your cursor was on the enemy, you were going to hit them. Gun games, popularized in the arcade scene, are another great example. How well the player can aim the gun and prioritize threats were the only factors that separated victory from defeat.

-75 percent brings us to modern day shooters, where factors like the characters accuracy and movement now play a role. You can't expect your character to fire well while running and jumping, this also gave rise to the importance of cover. Skill is still important, but now the player must balance their skill with the additional factors of the character.

-50 percent is where all guns are not created equal. Games like Stalker, Call of Duty, and even Team Fortress 2 feature a variety of weapons. In Stalker, there are multiple pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles, but they are not only differentiated by type. Guns vary in terms of how much damage they do, their accuracy, and so on. Even though the player may be a crack shot, if their gun has poor accuracy, they may not be able to hit enemies or do enough damage to kill them.

Team Fortress 2 has embraced this concept, with all kinds of equipment available. Different guns for the classes have different effects, and give the player more options on their classes' load-out.

-25 percent has been recently popularized thanks to Borderlands. Billed as a "role playing shooter," the game features the same kind of weapon diversity seen in games at the -50 percent mark. Combat is still twitch-based, and getting a hit on the weak spot of an enemy will cause more damage. The key difference is that now the player has their own experience level to contend with.

The leveling system works like this: if both the player and enemy are the same level, then there are no modifiers done to damage on either side. If the player is a higher level, they will receive a damage bonus based on the difference in levels, and the enemy will receive a damage penalty when attacking the player. The effects are reversed if the player is a lower level compared to the enemy.


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Comments


Ronildson Palermo
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Sweet article, excellent job in breaking down the notion of 'self' in gameplay. Also, that's a nice graph there, does a great job of representing whether the game lets the player be like the character on screen, taking up its abilities - which usually take up the shape of probability calculations and automated functionalities - or himself controlling a mere avatar representation of him in the game world, requiring direct input on what's to be done, in numbers.



Though I'm curious as to what the author thinks of the percentage of abstraction used in minor timing-based challenges within entire game loops, generally and most commonly featured in combat these days, for games like the aforementioned 'The Witcher 2' or even Batman: Arkham Asylum/City. Though I'm probably stating the obvious, I personally feel that even within those loops there are new layers of abstraction in which the player must either choose weak/strong attacks or between two different moves entirely and etc.

Josh Bycer
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That is a good point and I think the overall mechanics will be the determining factor. For instance, in The Witcher 2, every attack damage is abstracted by the computer, so 2 heavy attacks could do 2 different amounts of damage.



While in Batman, from what I could see, his attack damage remains constant. A special move will always KO a regular thug. It's been awhile since I played it, but if I remember right, timing combo presses won't increase damage but your combo counter.

Rowan Kaiser
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This is fantastic analysis. A few years ago I decided I wanted to re-examine genre and came up with a grid whose two axes were "Visual Complexity" and "Level of Abstraction". I found, as you did, that games in the center of the grid were the ones that received the most critical acclaim and attention (although they weren't always the most popular in terms of sales).

Simon Ludgate
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Perhaps, instead of thinking about games on a single scale of abstraction, what about thinking about the same sort of games in a two-dimensional grid that contrasts the effects of physical input and mental input? For example, your 100 abstraction category of CRPGs and turn-based strategy games could be thought of as having a high mental input and low physical input; as the decisions a player makes greatly impacts the overall outcome of the game, but physical means through which they make those inputs has a very low effect. In contrast, a game like Pong has a very high physical input and a very low mental input. Something like Borderlands might have very high in both, and something like Cow Clicker might be very low in both.



Ultimately, though, I think both ways of looking at the spectra of possible game implementations show that the notion of "the universal game" is flawed, as you point out. The loss of abstraction in Dragon Age greatly reduced my ability to enjoy the game. I wanted to play it like a turn-based tactical game: execute one move, carefully observe the effects of that one move, then pick out my next move. The lack of sequential execution and the extremely small windows of opportunity to execute commands before units would be out of position or the AI would take over left me in a frustrating position of not being able to play the game the way I wanted. What I wanted was a far more abstract game.



What I think the current design push DOES show, however, is that there is a market for games that lie between the extreme levels of abstraction. Whereas some people may have claimed that the only good place for games to be were at the extreme ends of the spectrum (Twitch gamers will never tolerate RPG mechanics! RPG gamers will never tolerate twitch inputs!), games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, as much as I disliked them, were liked by many. I just hope that designers continue to recognize that the ends of the abstraction spectrum are still valid places for games.

Nicholas Muise
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"Perhaps, instead of thinking about games on a single scale of abstraction, what about thinking about the same sort of games in a two-dimensional grid that contrasts the effects of physical input and mental input? For example, your 100 abstraction category of CRPGs and turn-based strategy games could be thought of as having a high mental input and low physical input; as the decisions a player makes greatly impacts the overall outcome of the game, but physical means through which they make those inputs has a very low effect. In contrast, a game like Pong has a very high physical input and a very low mental input. Something like Borderlands might have very high in both, and something like Cow Clicker might be very low in both."



Another great way of stating it.

Simon Ludgate
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Actually, now that I think about it, the mental/physical input isn't actually the same thing as a level of abstraction. Abstraction, as Josh talks about it, is more a case of "the computer determining the outcome" vs "you determining the outcome." Chess is very high on the mental input and low on the physical input, but it's also a -100 abstraction game, because the outcome of each move is entirely dependent on the player's choice and not based on random numbers or calculations done by the computer.



Perhaps what we really need is a three dimensional system for analysis:



-How much impact the player's mental actions have on the outcome of the game.

-How much impact the player's physical actions have on the outcome of the game.

-How much impact the computer's calculations have on the outcome of the game.



Perhaps the "ultimate game" is trying to get just enough, but not too much, of all three?

Taekwan Kim
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This (@ the original comment). I always thought the "player skill" (versus "character skill") label used in certain circles was a misnomer as well: mental agility, knowledge, or decision making are also player skills, are they not? The player's skills should always be involved in gameplay, it's just a question of which skill set has primacy.



But I think this mental/physical model also has limitations as well. Games that seem purely physical, at the highest levels of skill, mostly succeed based on muscle memory and so become instead almost purely mental--at least, in the experience of the player (ex. Tetris at impossible speeds). Likewise, a game that purports to concentrate on mental demand can require rapid response as part of that mental taxation (that is, where the mental skill being challenged is mass information processing), and thus becomes very physical (for instance, Starcraft [though it can be argued that this is an artificial result of UI limitations]).



At any rate, Mr. Bycer, this was a very nice distillation of the player skill vs character skill debate. Enjoyed reading it.

Simon Ludgate
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@Taekwan: "Games that seem purely physical, at the highest levels of skill, mostly succeed based on muscle memory and so become instead almost purely mental--at least, in the experience of the player (ex. Tetris at impossible speeds)."



My gut instinct tells me "no." To me, it seems that mental input has less to do with memory or processing and more to do with decision-making. To me, muscle memory and memorization in games makes me think of music, rhythm, and dancing games; I remember only being able to complete AM-3P on Maniac after memorizing the steps and practicing them until I didn't even have to think about what I was doing, I just did it. To me, that is not mental input.



Granted, Tetris is still based on some level of mental input. You have 3 mental objects to analyze: The current play field, the current piece being dropped, and the next piece that will be dropped. Being able to process those three objects at increasingly faster speeds is necessary to succeed at high levels of Tetris. But I don't like the term "muscle memory" in this context.



I think that's why I prefer to think of mental and physical inputs as two different and non-exclusive things. Like good/evil and law/chaos in D&D alignment. That a game has a high mental input requirement has no bearing on whether or not it has a high or low physical input. Star Craft, for example, could conceivably be slowed down to a turn-based game, resulting in the elimination of physical input demands, or the UI could be tweaked such that the game runs more slowly and only allows one input per period of time, producing a low, but still existing, physical input demand. Meanwhile the mental input requirement would remain roughly the same across each physical input variant.

Taekwan Kim
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Hmm, I guess what I meant by muscle memory, and I believe this is the meaning as it is commonly used, though I may be mistaken, is that one no longer has to cogitate or visualize the specific movements one needs to take before enacting a specific pattern, thus eliminating the time lag between cognition and actualization--the physical steps required towards a specific physical end no longer need to be recalled mentally (because it is instead stored in "muscle memory").



Mostly, I was thinking of this video when I wrote the above: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwC544Z37qo.



The part that is most relevant to this begins at 5:10, when the player plays invisible tetris. It demonstrates the strategy used throughout the video: that he is looking at the pieces that will fall next without much having to look at where he is putting the piece he has now. He wants a piece at a certain location, the rest of it happens automatically. And all this is possible because he remembers where the pieces that have fallen are (again, without having to really look at them).



Obviously, the activity is still highly physical. It is simply that that is no longer the player's primary concern or limitation.



Similarly, when we ride a bike or pull a bow string, we're not really thinking about how to maintain balance or having good posture much past a certain novice level: it's mostly mental or psychological beyond that--at least, to the extent that our physical expertise allows.



The part about Starcraft, yes absolutely. If it was turn based, there would be no physicality about it, and was a weak example on my part. However, one could also argue that if it were slowed down, then the mental demand _also_ does indeed decrease proportionately because the amount of information the player needs to process at once decreases as much. Speed chess, for instance, is a much more mentally demanding game than regular chess.



But honestly, I'm not particularly sure there even _is_ a real mental-becoming-physical counterpart to the physical-becoming-mental example linked above, so that idea just might be a weak one anyway. Not sure.

Luis Guimaraes
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"I always thought the "player skill" (versus "character skill") label used in certain circles was a misnomer as well: mental agility, knowledge, or decision making are also player skills, are they not?"



They are player skills, but still, a low level character in a turn-based RPG can't beat a foe of a very higher level, no matter how good is the player mental skill. It's still up to the character stats to make the difference.

Taekwan Kim
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Oh yes, I suppose there is that. Although the counterpart to that perspective would be: a high level character can still lose to a low level boss if the player has poor skill. Also, even in a player skill spectrum game, the player can still be outgunned, for instance--not have enough agency for a certain obstacle even with high skill level because of the obstacle design (though some would call that poor design). Which is to say, really, all game mechanics are abstractions _anyway_. But that's rather beside the point; I think Mr. Bycer's categorizations here are quite ludic and solid regardless.

Luis Guimaraes
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I'd still put Chess on the -100 position of that Josh's scale. A game about 100% player skill. When you attack the opponent pieces, you take it out of the game, there's no such thing as level of the piece or dice rolling to determine the outcome.

Johnathon Swift
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Slightly ridiculous, the complaints sound more like "people don't like new things!" and "It's hard to make the UI" rather than saying these games are bad. The Witcher 2 has sold well, been reviewed well, and I enjoyed it myself. I don't think trying to figure out how the UI will work is a problem that will, or should, stop Action/RPG Hybrids from being made.

Josh Bycer
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Thanks for the comments everyone.



Re: Gun abstraction, it's less about the different types of guns IE: difference between the shotgun and the SMG, but more within the same type. Such as the difference between a 9 MM and a .45 magnum. Or in Borderlands case, how there are three layers of differentiation within the weapons:



1. Different type

2. Different guns of the same type

3. Different versions based on the fictional gun manufacturer.

Tony Ventrice
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Very well done. Although I do agree that the essence of what we're really talking about (at least from the player's perspective) is physical skill versus tactical skill. The aspect of RPGs that is appealing to non-RPG gamers is the tactical choices implied by features like advancement trees and party composition (not the grinding or turn-based pacing). The aspect of twitch games that is appealing to non-twitch players is the flow of physical mastery (not a brutal undending difficulty curve). Successful middle ground games like Bioshock or Arkham Asylum deliver both engaging physical and tactical experiences.

Joshua King
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There is a discontinuity at zero percent... and then I get to the end of the article. :) Nice read.

Keith Burgun
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Something wasn't sitting right with me with this -100 to 100 system of yours, and I have identified it.



In *any* game, the skill of the player should determine his success or failure. On the far right of your spectrum, those games in which only tactical or strategic orders are issued, there is just as much skill involved on the far left. "Skill" is not just real-time twitch actions, but also the skill of making wise tactical decisions.



The problem with RPGs is that they tend to take EITHER kind of skill out of the equation, and thereby guarantee that the player is going to win regardless of his level of skill. Indeed, this is the only logical outcome of marrying story and games, which since day one has been a bad idea. Either the story must be crushed to nothing, or the game will.

Eric Schwarz
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This is true. However I think what Josh was getting at is skill in terms of reflexes and accuracy, versus skills with reasoning, strategising and decision-making. When we talk about "player skill" here we're referring to that first category.



Also, if you think RPGs require no skill on either end of the spectrum: sorry, you're just plain wrong. Go play Temple of Elemental Evil and come back when you've learned your lesson.

Keith Burgun
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I love ToEE. I was not saying that RPGs require no skill. I was saying almost all RPGs (except for, of course, Diablo) require some form of skill.

Jacob Pederson
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Also, by categorizing this way, we are ignoring a genre of games that require both mental (tatics, strategy) and physical skill (speed, accuracy), such as Starcraft 2, Devil May Cry, or Tekken.

Ken Williamson
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This system also assumes the design goal is to appeal to as many people as possible. That approach doesn't necessarily make the best game experience - many of us would argue it's a recipe for mediocrity and ultimately blandness. Do we want every game to be the same? I sure don't. I want a deep, immersive, challenging experience. Others want light dip-play and rainbows and flowers. Both are valid, but diametrically opposed. Design something because it's fun in the context of the experience. Let everyone draw up charts and analyze why it worked once it's done.



I would argue the industry has grown to the extent that it now supports - in fact requires - more focused game design for niche markets. The unspoken axiom that good design appeals to as many people as possible is just not true anymore (and never was IMO).

Eric Schwarz
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The problem is mostly a matter of investment versus return. RPGs, unless corners end up being cut as far as presentation go, are significantly more expensive to produce due to the expected size, scope and breadth of gameplay and the game world, not to mention that fans expect non-linear storylines with lots of choices and consequences. Making an action game is playing it safe not just because it's a more popular type of game overall, but also because the relative costs are significantly lower - you can polish the hell out of Call of Duty, but it's still going to be a 5 hour rail shooter.

Mark Venturelli
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I'm sorry, I just don't find the article useful in any meaningful way. The article's definition of "skill", in the first place, is non-existant - or very shallow at best. Built upon that are "apples and oranges" game examples and a completely irrelevant conclusion. Looks like the author could benefit more from focusing his approach either on proper discussion and analysis of the idea of "skill abstraction", or in discussing the trends and differences in RPG audiences and such, or even the "universal appeal" discussion. The current article feels just too unfocused and with not enough meat.

Eric Schwarz
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To be honest, while Josh defines an operational model only to rely on "common sense" ideas to make it work, I think that's the sort of thing that would fit better in a follow-up or companion piece. I think he did a decent enough job of defining things without going into so much detail as to drag things off topic.

Andrei Costin
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How about the relation between character and the game world? We can't disregard game mechanics such as controls, perspective, interactivity, camera degrees of freedom, focusing just on the character abilities. Also can't actually separate motor skills and perception skills from decision making and thinking when actually they are blending seamlessly as part of the same process. To take chess for example skill in chess goes far beyond the rational ability to calculate abstract things. It relates to positional judgement, intuition and the ability to get the opponent psychology.



Skill is not just aiming a gun; moving when appropriate it's also a skill, timing an attack no matter if abstracted or not is also skill, is goes beyond rational decision making. Skills build on past experience, involve motor and perception ability and automation residing in the long term memory. Skill is partly procedural like in driving a car without thinking most of the time. Motor skills are just one set of skills out of many..



I look at abstraction differently as shaping engagement and perception from two angles:



1. The degree in which the richness of visual cues and the apparent freedom offered by the game world is matched by opportunities to act on that game world including but not limited to combat. Thus you have situations in which the part of the world is a static prop and you are very limited in your interaction with the environment although it looks very pretty (Rage for example). Have you ever encountered games in which you feel like you should be able to jump or do something with the scenery but alas you are not able?

2. The degree in which the direct perception of action is mediated and simplified by the game systems. In FPS you can aim and shoot down the barrel from eyes or shoulder perspective, while in an RPG you might just point and click from isometric view, with many variations in between. Different degree of skills apply to both but the overall perception is different.





So perceived opportunity to act on the world + degree of perceived mediation combine to produce abstraction but not in a linear way and they change inside the same game (Remember carefully crafted rail action sequences from action & shooter games). Abstraction is one powerful tool to craft the engagement of the player with the scope of the game by managing his focus throughout the game world.



Arkham City and SKyrim look like interesting case studies. We haven't even touched MMOs where abstraction is shaped by technological constraints but also by the need to provide similar experiences under similar conditions for all players.

Eric Schwarz
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I appreciate this article and your breakdown. It's not flawless, especially not from a pure theoretical perspective, but as a model for understanding the levels of abstraction in games and for drawing the conclusions you have, I think it works fine, though I would probably attempt to further refine it if you want to form a more encompassing picture as others have suggested.



I don't really have many comments or complaints to make other than what have already been stated. I wholeheartedly agree with you about not being able to please everybody. Unfortunately, that's also a rather self-evident truth, and unless the market conditions of the games industry change significantly, I don't think we'll be able to see developers moving in that direction - though with alternative markets available and indie developers all over the place, the biggest obstacle to finding a good game that suits your precise needs comes down to marketing limitations more than anything else. Just like niche genres of music, I predict that niche game genres are going to spawn thriving underground scenes - although chances are that paying the bills will still be just as much a challenge as it is now.

Josh Bycer
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Regarding the Chess analogy, I agree with Luis that I also see chess at -100 abstraction. You know that every piece moves the same way every time no matter what and there is nothing to be calculated when you take away one of your opponent's pieces.



With fighting games, I see them around -75, when you press the light punch button your character will respond the same way, doing the same amount of damage every time. It isn't like your character becomes winded in round 3 and finds their attacks do less damage (with the caveat about some fighting games have matches built around unique modifiers.)



However there is still a level of abstraction between the characters, Chun Li in Street Fighter is different from Ryu. One of the hallmarks of competitive level play is understanding how each character controls their space differently. Some characters' high kick, can interrupt air attacks, while others can't, requiring the player to understand the constraints and abilities of their character.



There is a point about competitive or high level play and the difference in skill. When I watched tournament level play of StarCraft 2 , one skill that becomes more important is being able to perform actions at a faster level with hotkeys requiring more player input compared to lower level play. When I watch those games, I can understand both what is going on and comprehend any mistakes in play. However, I cannot play it at that level because I've always been horrible with remembering hot keys.

Josh Bycer
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I was hanging out with Simon yesterday playing Sins of the Solar Empire and we starting talking about strategy titles and the difference in abstraction between them, and I had a thought about it.



In a game like Starcraft 2 there is a level of abstraction between the different sides, building a protoss base is completely different from a zerg base. However when it comes to combat and unit values, there is very little abstraction. Blizzard really just balances all the values down to the decimal point and competitive players know the damage value for each unit. One of the examples I remember when watching a Day 9 cast, was the big deal between a protoss zealot without upgrades, and one with just one damage upgrade dealing with zerglings.



There is more abstraction I think when it comes to war games even though that abstraction is technically real world values. In a war game, concepts like unit morale, fatigue, weather and flanking are factored into the game play, requiring more mental computations and computer computations to determine the victor.



Then we have games like Age of Empires Online that combine more RPG abstractions into the mix, with armor and weapon values. Now, two identical units by type, may not be identical in stats based on what equipment they wear.

John Mawhorter
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I actually think games that have both deep RPG mechanics and very twitchy action mechanics are great, but they are few and far between. Most RPGifying is done really simplistically to the point where character builds aren't complex enough to have unique strategy. Most Actionifying similarly is adding bland shooter or hack and slash gameplay on top of the RPG system. Games that get it right (Deus Ex) were envisioned from the start as combining genres roughly equally.

Craig Jensen
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My problem with the more so-called mental games is that the only skill tends to be in character creation/building. This is contrasted to the more physical games where manual dexterity plays a role throughout.



The more mental games need to work more on developing actual skill beyond character building exercises where you map out the best way to spend your experience points to create an overpowered character. They should work on creating actual mental skill throughout the gameplay. Currently, it tends to be just the skill to stay awake as you click a lot.

Michael Kolb
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Take a look at how Dead Space integrated the UI in the game just like the Stalker example. I think Crackdown is a very underrated series and pitty the sequel was mediocre at best. Borderlands was a lot of fun with action gameplay you'd find from CoD but RPG stats you'd find in Diablo.


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