Skill Tree Theory and Design: Size, Leveled Skills, Balance, etc.

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Arithmetician

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Skill / talent trees are a way of granting the player choice in developing their character, particularly within the confines of a fixed class.  Yet balancing them is rather difficult.  


How many skills does a good skill tree have?  Should skills be purchased with skill points from level ups and/or quests, making each point precious, or should players be able to grind for skill points in battle?  How many branches does a good skill tree have?  Should skills be leveled, growing incrementally stronger with each small investment  (e.g. Ignis I, Ignis II, Ignis III, Ignis IV, Ignis V, etc.) and with iteration replacing the last?  Or should there be fewer and more costly skills, with more dramatic power jumps between them?  Do you gate certain skills by level to keep players from rushing them  (e.g. as in Etrian Odyssey IV)?  How deep should the skill tree be in terms of prerequisite skills.  Should the player be able to plan out their skill tree far ahead, or should one value the experience of discovering the skill tree, perhaps over multiple playthroughs?


These are all ideas that I am pondering as I work on my first game, inspired by dungeon crawlers such as Etrian Odyssey.  The theoretical concerns are broad enough that I thought I would start a discussion on skill trees in general here.  Have any of you used a skill tree in your games before?  What worked for you?


To provide an example of a skill tree and help spur along the discussion, here is one that I've been drafting lately.

Skill Tree Theory.png


Obviously, this isn't a game screenshot, just a chart showing the structure of a hypothetical skill tree.  The orange skills are stat-boosting passives.  Blue skills are MP abilities, green skills are TP abilities, and purple skills are trait-bestowing passive skills.  Each skill has a maximum level which it may be upgraded to (at left), and perquisites  (noted by arrows and the smaller text in the boxes).  The yellow circles show what level a skill needs to be to unlock the next.


One flaw with this particular example is that all of the incremental skill levels creates a lot of skills!   Sure, most of these can be copied and pasted with small modifications, and the database limit is pretty large.  Hence my question about having fewer but costlier to acquire skills.  It simplifies things immensely for the developer - but there's more of a risk of players pouring lots of skill points into a skill that they may not like later.
 
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Niten Ichi Ryu

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I prefer fewer skills with each bringing a new ability or passive.


for the below example, consider I would use a row/formation plugin


for example, fireball (1foe) branching to firewall (1row) and fireline (1 line) both opening to a branch with fire mastery (passive extra damage) or fire control (passive, mp cost or cool down reduction) and both opening to scorched earth ( massive fire attack on the whole field with high mp cost or cool down to prevent spam).


In terms of prerequisite, not sure yet if I prefer a level gate or forcing player to acquire all previous part of a branch to open it.
 

Arithmetician

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I agree that it's good to give each skill distinct functionality rather than simply "more damage at more cost".


It may be harder to tell in my own example, given my use of Latin for the skill names, but something like "Ignis" is a single-target fire spell, "Ignis Magna  (whoops, typo in the spell name up there)" adds a status ailment, and "Ignis Omnes" is an all-target fire spell.  Likewise, "Arcana Ignis" is the passive that boosts fire damage.  But I suppose that's a rather bland example, save  for the spell names.


Whether it's gated by level or by skill progression, the player's choice is limited.  But while I'd prefer a lot of freedom, it's not good for balance if people can get to the best skills too soon.  The first way, people have to either spread around their skills or will just hoard points until they reach the desired level.  And if it's gated by skill progression, that means you have to have them invest a lot more into a given skill to keep them from reaching better ones too early.  Another way of accomplishing this could be escalating skill point costs as one moves further along the tree.
 

Dr. Delibird

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I quite like Borderlands 2's way of doing skill trees. I like to have a good amount of "passive" skills from a skill tree that just make my character better/different simply by being there. I like passives because they really feel like I am customising the character rather than haveing access to a new weapon (which is generally how I view skills, whether offesnive or deffesnsive).
 

kecleon2

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Whenever I think of beautifully designed skill trees, as Dr. Delibird said, Borderlands 2 springs to mind. Skills like Anarchy and Bloodsplosion define playstyles, and even simpler ones like Axton's shield bubble produced a sense of power and progression with a single point.


Another one I think of is Torchlight 2. Each character had 3 skill trees a la Borderlands, but rather than forcing the character to get X amount of points in the tree before advancing to the next tier skills in that tree, TL2's system was locked only by level, meaning that one could jump between trees as they wished to create fun and unique characters like my Venom Vortex Outlander. Hoarding skill points was never really an issue, since without spending them your character had only autoattacks and quickly died. The only problem was that, in the vanilla game, you could only respec the last three skill points you had allocated, meaning that mistakes in your build were stuck there.


For a turn-based RPG, where leveling is typically slower than that of an ARPG or FPS, I feel like it would be best to either force the player to spend their points as soon as they are earned, or allow 100% unlimited respecs for some price, to prevent point hoarding scenarios. Creating a branching, twisting hierarchy of skills, and allowing skills between two branches (e.g. Fire and Ice attack, or mixed combat styles for physical fighters) is a good way to ensure an interesting character progression, but if not done properly, can punish players for experimenting with builds.
 

TheRiotInside

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There are so many different ways to design skill trees and so many things to consider depending on what kind of RPG you're making. Everything from how many passives you include, if there are branching paths, if the skills have prerequisites (level, stats, other skills not directly connected in the tree, etc.), how much of the total tree can you have unlocked at any given time, are there any skills outside of the tree, how many skills overall do you include, is there any crossover between characters (skill types, elements, states, etc.), how do you allow respec of the trees, and on and on and on.


I really enjoy a good skill tree (Borderlands comes to my mind as well) and am using simple ones for my game, but there are so many different kinds and factors that go into it that it's really hard to recommend them to someone without knowing about their entire game, really. They take a lot of balancing and testing for different builds and combinations, but I feel like it's worth it in the end.
 

bird

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I agree with most that has been said in this thread, but I'd also like to add that having the option of resetting your skill tree is really nice, especially if choosing one skill prevents you from getting another. Even if there is some sort of penalty, having the assurance that you can just redo it usually, in my experience, makes it more fun to play around with different skills and reduce the anxiety and indecisiveness of having to permanently choose a skill.
 

Dr. Delibird

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I will also say that I am in 100% support of being able to reset skill trees/points and to have that fact known by the player early (to prevent anxiety attacks induced via the skill tree menu). In my game I have the reset set to a percentile of the players current currency (still messing around with both the percent amount and the currency name but currently it is 17% and Credits respectively).
 

Arithmetician

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Sorry for not noticing all the activity on my thread until now... I had been busy finishing up one of my graduate classes... but now I have about two weeks off before it's back to my job as a substitute teacher!


So I see that many of you are suggesting Borderlands 2's skill tree.  I'll have to check that out.  I've never actually played Borderlands before, though I've seen a bit of the gameplay.  


At present I am using Yanfly's Skill Learn plugin and the Job Points plugin to manage my skill tree.   It would probably be possible to allow re-specing through Plugin commands and a common event, along with commands to forget all of the character's skills.
 

Dr. Delibird

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@Arithmetician, for respecing an easy way of doing it is if your job points (or whatever you want to clall them for your game) are given at a small rate and only on level up (such as one per level). This way you can calculate how many points the player would have based on that level and store that in a variable and then remove all skills that are earned through the skill tree system (you have to remove all even though the player would most likely not have all) and then give the playe job points equal to the variable you stored at the beginning. This fundementally works the same for higher point amounts but won't work if the player can gain job points by doing things that are not trackable (via eventing, of course a plugin could circumvent this) such as whenever they attack or defend or whatever. 
 

Arithmetician

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@Dr. Delibird Yeah, that's what I thought.  It seems simple enough to code.


Anyways, I looked up the Borderlands skill tree example, and I found a simplified template based on it which I used to construct a streamlined skill tree.  Conveniently, it had 5 levels each for the core skills, which is exactly what I want.  While it still takes a while to decide where exactly to place the skill for the best balance, it's easier to conceptualize the tree.

Dilara Skill Tree Simplified.png


Some of these may still have dependencies on specific skills in the tree, but I can decide those later.
 

wolfpak692

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what program are you using to to create the template for the skill tree?
 

Arithmetician

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@wolfpak692  I didn't create that template.  I found it via Google Images on a Minecraft forum that was discussing skills trees and someone had made that template based on the trees in Borderlands 2.  Likewise, that's not actual gameplay footage from my game - it's simply a slide in a PowerPoint presentation that I'm using to keep my ideas for the skill trees organized / communicate them to others.
 

Tai_MT

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Personally, I like large skill trees with lots of options.  I'm the kind of guy that absolutely loved the Sphere Grid from FFX and whose only complaint about it was that it was ABSOLUTELY LINEAR instead of more FREEFORM.  I believe I saw a game some time back that had an absolutely massive skill tree with like 1000s of nodes or something.  Just huge.  It made me drool.  I don't even know what was on it, or even what was useful.  But, I wanted to look at it, I wanted to explore it and all the possibilities of my characters.


Personally, I also prefer a skill simply get more powerful instead of learning a new skill with more power.  I'd rather a Fire 1 spell turn into Fire 2 instead of having both Fire 1 and Fire 2 be options.  Why?  Two reasons.  1.  Cuts down on the clutter of your menus and options.  2.  Once you get the more powerful spell, you actually don't use the lower tiered version if it much at all, unless you're trying to conserve MP... which you rarely ever do in an RPG since you trip over treasure and medical items every 10 feet in those games...  Or the monsters drop them frequently enough that MP isn't really an issue.  So, unless you're going to deliberately design your game so that treasure and medical items are much more rare... there's no reason to hold onto the older and less powerful spells.


I also don't like having my skills gated off by level.  What, BTW, is the point of having a skill tree at all, if you're going to gate off sections of it until I've played enough of your game, or grinded out enough levels?  You know what the gate should be to getting that skill?  The skillpoints it takes to get there.  There is ALREADY a natural gate in a skilltree... You don't need a level requirement as well.  You can do that easily by yourself.  If you don't want a player to get something until level 20, put that thing 20 skillpoints deep (assuming you award one point a level) so that level 20 is the MINIMUM point they have to be to obtain it.  There you go, easy level requirement without a silly gate.


As for pre-requisite skills...  That's up to the designer.  I like each node being something new, while each node also has multiple points you can drop into it.  I'm not a fan of "drop 3 points into Pickpocket before you can learn Mug".  I'm a fan of "You learned Pickpocket, 50% chance to steal common item" while unlocking the next node of "Mug:  10% chance to steal rare item while doing 50% attack damage".  If I unlock a node, I like being able to make the choice of leveling up the node I'm on, or moving further into the tree to get to something else I want instead.  If I don't want to steal common items, I don't want to be forced to drop 3 points into Pickpocket just to get at the skill I do want, which is Mug, which steals Rare items, even if it's at a lower rate, but that rate can be improved with more points.  Essentially, these are gates, again, which are artificial locks... which basically force a player to probably waste valuable skillpoints you gave them, just to be able to get to the nodes they DO want.  You're essentially forcing a player to play a specific way at that point... And if that's the goal... why does the skilltree exist?


That's just my two cents.
 

RogdagoR

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Yeah i liked Sphere Grid too!


I'm actually planning a tree for each skill of my character, because i want the player to develop the skill the way he like more...i explain:


- Each character has 4-5 skills


- Each skill can be leveled up to level 5(still undecided if 5 or more) with points get with levelling


- At level 1-3-5(or different if i go with more tier) you get to unlock 1-2-3 Tier of options for develop your skill


- In each Tier of skill develop you can choose only 1 options on those given, but it will be fully free respeccable(like mastery on league of legends or wow)


With those Tier you will be able to transform a skill from single target to aoe, or add passive states, or add elemental damage, and so on!


Since exploring and investigating on further fights will be the key for win them easily, with this system, you can adapt the way the skills works to better fit the fights that will lies ahead.
 

Feliaria

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Personally, I like large skill trees with lots of options.  I'm the kind of guy that absolutely loved the Sphere Grid from FFX and whose only complaint about it was that it was ABSOLUTELY LINEAR instead of more FREEFORM.  I believe I saw a game some time back that had an absolutely massive skill tree with like 1000s of nodes or something.  Just huge.  It made me drool.  I don't even know what was on it, or even what was useful.  But, I wanted to look at it, I wanted to explore it and all the possibilities of my characters



I think you may be referring to Path of Exile? That games does have a 1000-1500+ talent web open to all characters (despite the fact that you only get like 120 talents by level cap).
 

kovak

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But PoE has classes and at least there you can justify the linearity. 
 

Arithmetician

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@Tai_MT  Thank you for the detailed and thoughtful post.


In older iterations of the skill tree, I was gating things with more perquisites to ensure that skills couldn't be rushed as easily, (and this is the model used in Etrian games... though you may have to sink more points then you'd like into perquisite skills there), but the tree was hard for people to visually understand it (and actually coding a tree that doesn't simply appear as a skill list would undoubtedly be far more difficult, so I wanted its structure to be simple).


I agree with the idea of investing points to "Level" a skill rather than having separate versions.  
 

kovak

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The best example of rewarding skill tree i know are from 2 skyrim mods.

Ordinator by Enai 
Perkus Maximus by T3nd0

It's interesting to see how both modders managed to make every perk point spent be significant on the gameplay.
 
 

Feliaria

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Oh yes. I used SkyRe before and switched to PerMa when it was released. I can definitely vouch for the capabilities of those trees.
 
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