38 Studios Discusses Level vs. Skill

Updated Thu, Jul 09, 2009 by Cody Bye

Last week, Ten Ton Hammer’s Cody “Micajah” Bye brought together a panel of developers that explored the two main advancement systems in current MMOs: leveling and skill-based progression paths. Due to the discussion that these questions brought to the forefront, we’re going to supplement the article with a few more answers from the developers at 38 Studios, specifically Lead Game Designer Travis McGeathy. Although he couldn’t talk in depth about the two systems because his game is still in development, McGeathy did weigh in on two of the questions that the Ten Ton Hammer staffers presented to the panel.


Ten Ton Hammer: Do you feel that the future holds more hope to see skill-based games? More level-based games? Or are we going to see a gradual escape from the standard skill vs. level dichotomy?

McGeathy: I expect that we'll start to see more games using skill-based progression schemes as developers look for ways to differentiate themselves from existing titles, but I don't think you'll see many pure skill-based games come out.  The bevy of customization options they offer may be enticing on the surface, but they come with significant downsides and marginal gains over a hybrid system.  

Full customization adds significant complexity to the game, potentially limiting the game's audience, and in practice most players are going to pick skills that lend themselves to particular archetypes of play any way to avoid ending up with a character that can't function well in normal game play.  I think most of the skill-based systems we'll see will likely be hybrids, blending in the accessibility of more traditional systems while offering varying levels of skill-based customization.

I wouldn't expect a wholesale departure from traditional progression systems, though.  The level of accessibility they offer can't be matched by a skill-based system so they will always have their place in the market.

Ten Ton Hammer: What are your thoughts on advancement systems that are more hybridized? A number of more recent games have used systems that calculate your total number of skill points to set you at a certain "level" or "tier" to judge your overall power. Is that a development strategy that is - perhaps - a bit easier for gamers to understand? And what about the opposite sort of scenario, one where you get skill points to distribute once you level?

McGeathy: Skill-based systems offer a lot more customization for characters than purely class and level-based ones, but the additional options come at a cost.  They not only make the overall game more complex and less accessible, but they can also introduce difficulties in communication between players; a cardinal sin for a community-driven game.  Finding other people to play with becomes its own puzzle when looking-for-group messages read like a spreadsheet: "LFG: +300 in hitting things with a stick, +210 in not visibly bruising, and +357 in upsetting monsters".

A hybrid system, where skill-based progression is linked to more traditional concepts like level and class, goes a long way toward alleviating these problems by applying easy-to-understand labels to characters while still allowing the player the flexibility to choose their skills.  There's a wide range of options between purely skill-based and purely level-based.  Whether the game is granting skills as the character gains levels or assigning a level based on the character reaching a skill threshold is mostly a matter of where they want to fall in the customization vs. accessibility equation.  The only wrong answer is pairing a system built for customization and complexity with an audience that needs maximum accessibility.

Ten Ton Hammer: Thanks for your time, Travis, and we hope to soon discover what sort of advancement system Copernicus will feature!

(To read the full Level vs. Skill article, please click here!)
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