In 2003 Blizzard Entertainment released World of Warcraft, the most successful MMORPG of all time and one of the most successful videogames of all time. Its impact can still be seen today in many of the mechanics of contemporary games. Although entire essays could be written and have been written on how much this game really changed the industry, I want to spend a few words to consider one of the trends it started in the most neutral way I possibly can, although in all honesty I almost completely despise the way this trend has been implemented in current works.
Of course, as per the title, I’m talking about talent trees.
If you’ve been playing even just one of the triple A releases coming out since 2012, you surely had to deal with one of these. But on the slim chance you haven’t here’s the short of it, using the recently released Marvel’s Spider-man for the PS4 as a quick example.
Spider-man is an almost by the book Action-Adventure open world game, and the player is tasked with swinging through the streets and skies of manhattan while beating up bad guys. The twist comes in the form of its rpg mechanics: Each time you beat somebody up or complete a challenge, you receive experience points and currency tokens, which can be used to unlock abilities, moves, gadgets and costumes. This is a pretty big problem from a game design standpoint, mostly in regards to designing challenging and fun missions/encounters.
Since the player can decide where, when and most importantly at what pace to unlock elements of Spider-man’s toolkit and fighting expertise, each and every hour is designed to be compatible with any of Spider-man’s moves.
This makes it so that even a level one Spider-man with zero unlocks can complete every encounter successfully at any difficulty, albeit with slightly longer clear times. But most importantly, this makes every choice the player makes during the progression much less meaningful, each gadget and ability just making the fights straight up easier, since they work the same way on six of the seven enemy types, leaving one of them which is immune to certain attacks before its armor is removed.
The Unskilled Spider-Man!
As such, the complexity of each fight is only dictated by which type is involved in the fight, all defeatable with the basic toolkit, and not by how the player’s Spider-man is built. A better way to handle character progression for a game like this would be to roll out the gadgets and abilities during the course of the playthrough. This would allow the designers to integrate the main character’s capabilities creatively in the fights, and for more enemy and strategy variety.
With that in mind, the game could, for instance, suddenly spawn some enemies which can only be defeated through the use of a just acquired gadget, ability or set of abilities, making the first fight an effective tutorial for the new tool/enemy combination and also a nice change of pace.
Classic games like The Legend of Zelda and even the old Spider-Man games did this all the time. All things considered design choices like these just undermine its complexity and replayability. These problems are of course present on many Action-Adventure games featuring similar skill-tree systems or RPG mechanics such as God of War(2018) and Assassin’s Creed Origins.
Deus Ex and Prey
Immersive-sims like Deus Ex and Prey(2017) handle this much better by having relevant abilities acquirable in the skill tree, which let the player play the game in ways they otherwise couldn’t. Talent trees, when implemented like in Marvel’s Spider-Man, just make for very quick and plain game design, where otherwise they could be used to better the player’s experience.