Thursday, November 29, 2012

Are talent trees really fundamentally flawed?

Blizzard's Ghostcrawler posted about the new talent trees in the Mists of Pandaria expansion for World of Warcraft (Wow) and the reasoning behind the change. In summary: talent trees are "fundamentally flawed and unfixable." But I don't believe it's so simple. While I'm certain he's correct in the context of WoW, there's more to gaming than WoW. WoW's problem is accessibility and profitability. Having tapped all the hardcore players it ever will, in order to grow it needs more casuals and non-gamers. Talent trees require a special skill set and smart players. A game that requires skill will scare away casuals. I've been complaining about how WoW limits the advantage a skilled player has over an unskilled one by making power correlate with time spent ever since the original release. With every expansion pack, it has only become more true.

What way to talent trees fail?
  • "Bad" builds - Not everyone is going to pick a passable combination of skills. Some games, like Diablo II before a recent patch, make this a deal breaker by not allowing you to reset the tree.
  • Complex interactions make more work for the game developer. - If talent trees aren't an integral part of the game then slapping them on can make a game worse and steal developer attention.
  • Paper Scissors Rock builds - Build A beats Build B which beats Build C which beats Build A. This makes the game less about designing good builds than about selecting the right cookie cutter build.
  • Unbeatable Builds - Some times a build is so good that it's game breaking and leads to homogeneous play. 
  • Builds with a critical weakness - Things are going great until you reach an unbeatable part of the game.
These issues don't mean talent trees are broken it's just that you have to keep in mind that talent trees are a game in its self. People may not realize this but Magic: The Gathering is just one big talent tree; Deck building  is equivalent of talent selection. With a game that's been around as long as MTG, there's plenty to learn from their design. How does MTG do talent trees right?
  • So many "overpowered" builds, it's balanced -  An overpowered deck is still balanced because there's always another deck that beats it so it's better to play a balanced deck.
  • Ever growing complexity/power levels - MTG has a new set every three months and old decks become obsolete.
  • There's always a new deck to be designed. - Just because you may never create the latest block monster you can work on the ultimate deck for some situation. D2's D-Clone killer builds are good examples of this: a character that can kill the Diablo Clone faster than any other build, but isn't much good at anything else.
Another thing to consider are that talent trees don't have to be talent trees. Talent trees are typically tied to leveling but leveling isn't necessary. New talents and abilities can be awarded by tools and equipment (Zelda Style). Imagine a game where you "level up" by unlocking complexity and the game gets harder with more challenging AI.

Ultimately the biggest reason why talent trees are important, is sometimes it's the only interesting part of a marginal game. Ever notice how Diablo III and WoW are kind of boring now? It's because there's no skill.  No bad builds means there's also no good builds. Everything is uniform and boring. At least Blizzard has left Starcraft alone.