RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.

Posted on Oct 27th 2014 at 10:11:47 AM by (Fleach)
Posted under Critique, RPG, FPS, Upgrade System, Mechanics

Watch Dog's Skill Tree. Source: God is a Geek

I recently started playing Far Cry 3 to see what all the hype surrounding the game was about. The game took some getting used to, since the first-person shooter genre is still very new to me, but there's one mechanic in this game that I'm very familiar with, the skill tree. However, I this mechanic wasn't the right choice for this particular game.

Many modern games incorporate some RPG elements to offer players with more customization to manipulate and shape character attributes as they see fit. It's become quite common in games to allow players to create any type of character they want. Usually, it's done through the distribution of experience and skill points. The skill tree you see in the pause menu is an example of the uninspired effort used by developers to bring over elements of the RPG into other types of games. This mechanic enables players to grow their characters. Normally, combining components of various gaming genres isn't a bad thing, if done well, it can enhance the game significantly. However, it seems that whenever RPG mechanics are transposed into other genres, they just don't fit right.

This fusion of genre mechanics is a shallow attempt to improve player investment in a story and its characters. It's weak because the action genre is inherently and greatly different from RPGs. Action games of all types are based on concrete ideas (like gaining access into an enemy camp), whereas RPGs deal more with the abstract; numbers and probabilities dominate these kinds of games. An action game tests a player's ability to cope with and overcome challenges using their skills and in-game resources. On the other hand, RPGs are slower paced and concern themselves more with the prospect of achieving a certain outcome. Experience points are used to balance the odds or tip the scale in the player's favor during an enemy encounter. These upgrades are a part of a number's game that are the keys to progress. On the other hand, a shooter puts the emphasis on trial and error, skill, and reaction time for successfully advancement.

Source: WhatCulture

In any other game, upgrade systems are incentivized and pad out gameplay time. They are ultimately unnecessary to the player or the game, but merely their presence makes you feel as though you need them. These upgrades are totally arbitrary, but something about them is very appealing to players. The presence of these upgrades validate the desire to unlock them even if they are meaningless or do little to improve the character. It's quite possible to play a game without even paying attention to a skill tree, but eventually, players typically spend experience on character upgrades, these proverbial carrots dangled in front of them.

The tattoos of Far Cry 3 are a perfect example of creating an incentive to upgrade the player character. While it is possible to complete the game without using the skill tree, the tattoos just look so darn cool and you kind of want to complete that sleeve of tribal designs.  Aside from being completely superficial and arbitrary, these upgrades work counter-intuitively. Conventional game design is structured around difficulty progression; earlier parts of the game are meant to be easier than the final moments. However, with total exploitation of a skill tree, the difficulty curve is completely flattened and the end-game enemies are typically no match for a fully buffed character.

He'll squish you like an ant. Source: Meme Center

Upgrade systems have become ubiquitous and many, if not most, of today's games use them. This is likely going to become the norm with future games, and I can accept it, but don't quite like it. If a game must have an upgrade system, it should avoid the clunky flow chart approach and opt for contextual or plot-based character progression. This system wouldn't feel out of place or cumbersome like the current utilization of skill trees. Players could still shape their characters to their liking, but it could be achieved more appropriately by rewarding continued use of certain weapons or techniques. This method is more similar to real life adaptation. As someone is exposed to something, they naturally adapt and become more proficient with an item or a skill. Similarly, a character who uses specific weapons will level up with those pieces of equipment. If it's plot-based characters will grow as they gain access to new resources. Alas, the current trend in gaming is to hold player agency as paramount; people want games to reflect their interpretations of characters and situations. Not to mention that "linear" has become a bad word these days.

Defiant little #$@*! Source: The Nocturnal Rambler

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I think the problem with upgrade systems in games anymore is that there's almost never a wrong answer. What I mean by this is that in a lot of modern action games you could make a wrong decision, but then go back and fix it later when you have more experience, and the decision never adversely effects you too badly. You'll eventually just unlock everything, so there's no long term planning involved, just get what sounds good or looks cool and you can get the actual useful skills later. You also just get experience from shooting people in the face, or the toe, whatever you're aiming at, and when the supply is infinite after enough play time, so too are your options. You end up as God.

I think you'll like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex as shooters that have good upgrade systems. You will not get enough upgrades to unlock everything, so you need to plan a build. Do you want to be godly with pistols, machine guns, rocket launchers, and/or lasers? Or do you want to sneak around, hack, and pick locks with a few points in pistols just for some personal defense? Maybe you want to be a demolitions expert? They also have limited inventory management, its not just a weapon wheel where you can carry 12 guns for any possible scenario. You could carry 12 pistols, but you still need spots for their ammo types and some Snickers bars for health replenishment.

Giving 12 options, but only giving enough resources to pick 6 creates a deeper experience and encourages better game design and player input. Even in the newest Deus Ex they went for a streamlined upgrade experience and it muddied the character building experience. This is why tabletop RPGs like D&D and Shadowrun work. There are tons of options for character skills but only enough character points for proficiency in a half dozen at most. In Shadowrun you can load your character up with cybernetic limbs and all kinds of toys from that, but they'll lose their humanity as a result until they're little more than a huge string of binary.
Just to add fuel to the fire, NCAA Football 14 had RPG elements in its Career mode. SPORTS GAMES HAVE RPG ELEMENTS NOW.
@Shadow Kisuragi: There you go. Another example of how the mechanic is arbitrary and meaningless.

@SirPsycho: Limiting the way upgrades can be used or earned doesn't really solve any problems. It definitely makes players contemplate their experience point spending but it still results in a character that is overpowered in some way. The way I see it, RPG elements are possibly a result of complaints of games being too hard. If something is too hard, just negate that challenge by grinding experience until it's easier. That's also why I believe it's impossible to suck at RPGs.

But we're still at the question of how should upgrade systems be used. They can break the game if the possibilities are too endless resulting in Godly strength; just like total avoidance hinders the game by essentially putting a handicap on the player.

I know this is a stylistic and design thing, but these upgrade mechanics aren't necessary in games. Imagine Zelda with a skill tree. You'd lose all the essence of what Zelda games are.
Zelda does have a skill tree, though it's hidden. The player "upgrades" like bombs and more powerful swords can be skipped and provide a more difficult battle.
I have a lot of customers ask for RPGs in the store and after speaking with them its almost never for games I'd classify as RPGs. The elements are becoming so commonly integrated that before too long I think nearly every release is going to have some strong RPG-type system in it. Maybe in the future we'll have "RPG"s take over the top genre spot from FPS games, but it likely wont be the style of RPG some of us old guys were hoping for.

On a side note it doesn't sound like you enjoyed Farcry 3 too much. Is that correct or you just didn't enjoy some of the systems it had in place?
I think the problem with systems is that there are too many systems in place.  Then you need more systems to support those systems.  People kept telling me I was just too old school and hardcore to like Far Cry 2 better than the sequel.  What a load.  You're only friend in FC2 that is your Buddy and a steady hand.  You'll not get far in that game without some common sense and a plan, and you sure can't tattoo that on someone's arm.  Now that is a system I can get behind.

Well done, Fleach.  What you said about not being able to suck at RPG games really hits a point.  One of the primary features of a good RPG (especially a JPRG) is the way the story is meted out.  The player expects to be entertained by the story, so the developer has to find a way keep the player from experiencing the content without getting through it too quick.  I believe this is where grinding comes from, and why some of the earliest RPG games totally stink.  So now we have systems, which keep the player entertained while grinding.  Another trick (popularized with the Fallout, Baldur's Gate, and the Elder Scrolls games) is to bombard the player with a ton of content then let them sift through it at their own pace.  Games like Far Cry 3 fail here by choosing to place the player in a massive world, but fail to fill out the world with anything but fluff.  Once you've hunted a few animals and gathered a few artifacts there is nothing really different ahead of you.  To put this in a different light imagine if FFVII's 40 hour quest was about 15 hours of story with 25 hours of materia customization.  Now that kind of thing would seem appealing to many, but not to this cat.

Okay.  Time to stop.  About to lose the thread, I fear.
I have to disagree with a few of your points.

1. Your portrayal of RPGs vs. Action games. Many RPGs require sharp skills to win, such as Dark Souls. The leveling system is an important part that helps even the score, but without the right skills you will lose.

2. The leveling system you describe in the last paragraph is essentially the system of the original Final Fantasy II, which is almost universally panned. While it seems logical to gain proficiency in skills through use, in reality it is tedious and dull.

I enjoyed Far Cry 3's leveling system, and it is very true that as you went on you became severely overpowered. I didn't find it made the game less fun though. Instead I felt like the star of some amazing action movie, taking down hordes of bad guys in stylistic fashion.

We'll see this more an more because it gives games more depth, and it can be really fun if done well. An example of what to me was a terrible system was Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Odd skill trees that didn't add much to the fun, and didn't make me look forward to progressing.
@Duke.Togo - They use that leveling system very effectively in Tony Hawk Underground. I think its a lot different with a slower turn based game vs something more real time.
@Duke.Togo: That's totally fine that you disagree. I actually like that. I don't think that leveling systems should be abandoned, but perhaps better integration would improve the whole mechanic. Dark Souls is also a very unique game in many ways. It's very old school right down to the tough as nails gameplay and character creation systems. I just think that these upgrade systems work best in RPGs and don't really need to be in different genres.

I think what I'm trying to say, and Bomba was going in this direction too, is that it's better for a game to make the player him or herself "upgrade" instead of their in-game avatar.

Great discussion so far guys!

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