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  1. Game Development
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Gamedevelopment

Let’s Spec Into Talent Trees: A Primer for Game Designers

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Think of the talent tree as the greatest mini game ever conceived. They're fun little puzzles that empower the player to personalize the game into something they enjoy.  Though simple and isolated from play, the impact talents have on your game can be very meaningful.

Often tied to the raw power of a player, be it talents that help you critical strike from 50 paces, or talents that keep you alive long enough so that you may do so, talent trees are potent balancing points designers can use to throttle advancement in a game, while giving that extended play time more meaning.

Beating this little talent tree mini game, or creating a viable "build", can be as vital to the completion of a game as completing levels or bosses. They are meaningful systems and they can be as fun to play with as they are to design. Talent trees have have exploded for a reason!


Contents



How Talent Trees Took Root

The game that started the craze
The game that started the craze...

Diablo 2 released over a decade ago, bringing with it several innovations to the Action RPG (ARPG) genre. Arguably its greatest addition was deep and meaningful talent trees, likely influenced by tech trees of the popular RTS genre. These tech trees gave a linear unlock progression to buildings and upgrades.

Talent trees have further branched into the medium as games sporting talent trees like World of Warcraft and League of Legends went on to become some of the most played and lucrative games in history. Today we see all manner of titles springing up with talent trees, many foreign to the RPG genre. Even first person shooters like Borderlands have found great success with the added depth that talent trees can bring to a game.



Before and After Talent Trees

Without talents, a single playthrough of a game or class would give the majority of the entire experience in one go. Players were detached from their advancement, experiencing gameplay on rails. Talent trees are the branching storyline of gameplay, allowing multiple playthroughs with different scenarios that develop depending on the player's specialization.

Today, games have longer standing appeal. Multiple playthroughs allow the player to experience gameplay in completely new ways. A relatively simple game with the right talent tree can be played indefinitely. If you died in a game that lacks progression aspects it was simply Game Over, but now at least you get a little bit of progress towards that next cool talent that can help you overcome the obstacle that killed you. Rubber-banding difficulty for the win!



Why Add a Talent Tree?

Talent trees have become the go-to component that can add depth, fulfillment, and replayability to most any game. Today's gamer yawns at the prospect of linear power advancement that comes with linearly increased stats. They are also great for easing in new gameplay dynamics by starting players with scaled-down versions that can be fully unlocked over time, or by putting delaying their acquisition so players are not overwhelmed at the start.

There's no better way to educate your player in what they can (eventually) do in your game than by having a talent tree that they'll be looking over time and time again thinking about where they want to advance their character. This personalization also feeds a common need for self expression in play that games often lack, and having a potent and varied talent system allows you to turn your single game's worth of content into an endless sandbox of gameplay discovery.

There are many ways for a game to add customization, detailed explanations of how things work, and replayability, but the talent tree does all three in one UI panel. It represents both familiarity and the unknown, power and progression, while pestering you as a designer to come up with new ways of making your game fun. Few systems are so simple, powerful, and beneficial to both the end user and developer.



Anatomy of a Talent Tree

Tree

Talent trees don't all follow a universal set of rules - games, by their nature, are always evolving - but let's dissect the core aspects of what makes a talent tree a talent tree. Talent trees are so organic that not only are they named after a carbon based life form, but "tree" perfectly describes their functionality. They are an array of skills that start small, but that grow and branch out into a more robust organism.

Talent trees are populated by "nodes", which are tied to various components of the game: max health, regen, bonuses to income, movement speed, and so on. Anything and everything the player is or does can be tied to nodes in talent trees. These nodes can then be unlocked by the player, bestowing an initial bonus, and often several more incremental bonuses until the node is "maxed". The base values of these nodes and their tiered bonuses are key balancing points.

Talent trees will often have unlocking mechanics that gate the player from picking whatever they want, whenever they want. A certain number of low tier talents may be required to reach higher tiers, or perhaps a certain player level will be required; it is up to the designer to decide which gating mechanism best serves their game. If a player is able to choose any talent at any time, the progression dynamics and the "flavor" of play each tree brings is lost - it wouldn't be a tree, after all.

Tooltips are important for communicating to the player what a node does. Some games will give you not only a rundown of what the current node does, but also a preview of the next tier to give the player an idea of how it will scale - very handy!



Field Experience: Examples of Talent Trees in Games

There's no better way to get a feel for talent trees than to actually experience them first hand. Here are some of the most influential, innovative, accessible, and modern skill trees around, as well as a little something just for fun! They come in all shapes and sizes; some brilliantly simple, others awe-inspiring in their scope.

While we look over these trees, think about the design goals the creators had and the target audience they were trying to reach, be it casual players who will likely enjoy the game in a single sitting, or hardcore RPG enthusiasts who may fiddle with the tree for years. These are the core concerns we as designers must bear in mind when determining the skill tree that will work best for our needs...

Diablo 2

Diablo 2

The skill trees that started it all. (Synergy bonuses came some years after release.) They're no longer the most balanced or compelling trees around, but if you want to know your gaming history, this is where it's at. When Diablo 2 came out they were a revelation.

At the time, "cookie cutter builds", "overpowered specs", "nerf stick", were not part of a gamer's dialect. The game has held up remarkably well over the years. Usability and aesthetics have improved through time, but talent trees largely keep the same spirit of this classic. As the saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".

Path of Exile

POE

Path of Exile is considered by some to be the true successor in the ARPG genre, with several innovations to the classic ARPG formulae, one of those being its talent tree. Unique in its massive scale, eastern RPG Radial influences, and its beauty, Path of Exile not only expanded the depth of their game with this tree, but created a functional piece of art!

An interesting aspect of the talent tree is that all character classes share this same tree, but start in different locations. Various classes locations in relation to each other defines classes and sub-classes. Unconventional, but it works! These guys were able to create a single, well crafted talent tree and use it for every character in the game: brilliant.

Torchlight 2

Torchlight 2 is the latest ARPG from some of the core talent of the original Diablo games, this alone makes it one of the most relevant talent trees in the modern age. It represents a distillation of the passive and active talents seen in Diablo 2 and the original Torchlight.

Its genius lies not only in its three-tiered talent innovation, but also in its artful down scaling of the core elements of active abilities and passive bonuses. It strikes this chord between abilities and passives without leaving too much room for the player to destroy their play experience with a weak build. It's something the most die hard RPG enthusiast can spend ages tuning, while a casual player can dive in and start pouring talents into right away.

I want to take a moment to further reflect on Torchlight 2, because there are some truly groundbreaking things the guys at Runic did with the title that are easily overlooked by what appears to be a simple talent tree. First and foremost, red talents are broken up into four tiers of power as denoted by the I, II, III bar. Every time a skill receives five talent points, the skill gains a bonus that transcends mere variable increases. These can give skills more utility, adding such things as fear components, and lifetaps, or fun raw power like shorter cooldowns and big damage modifiers.

Bonuses are offset by dialing down the raw power of leveling talents themselves seen in most games. This gives the player more build options as a talent does not need heavy investment to be useful for its core purpose, and each tier gives it its own flavor of play. The idea that core abilities must all be at max level is greatly lessened due to these tweaks in the formula, giving not only more builds options, but builds that are more forgiving.

Torchlight 2 infused lackluster skills and passives into the tiered bonuses of the meaty active abilities. Where you may have had one skill that allowed you to charge and another than would give you lifetap, Torchlight gives you both in one package. One skill, one talent node, one hotkey, but the functionality of several skills that are so much more fun and organic when combined.

Though Torchlight 2 lacked the long term appeal and playerbase of an ARPG's with secure and legitimate online play, it has one of the most simple, robust, and thoughtful talent tree ever conceived. If you're looking for a fun romp through innovative RPG mechanics, Torchlight 2 is one of the best there is and a great study into sound RPG mechanics.

Diablo 3

D3

Just kidding! Diablo 3 opted not to have a talent tree in their game. Not all games need a skill tree, and there are alternative avenues we can explore that can add depth through alternative means. Though many look at the omission of skill trees in the franchise that defined them with tears of nostalgia running down their face, Diablo 3 is poised to release on consoles, bringing the heavy hitter of the ARPG genre to a new demographic of players who may have been alienated by secondary skill systems. It remains to be seen whether the omission of skill trees will pay off, however.

Cursed Treasure 2

Cursed Treasure 2

Cursed Treasure 2 is a prime example of how you don't need an RPG to have excellent game progression tied directly to talent trees. Without its talent tree, the game would be a rather mundane tower defense, but with them it gains purpose and depth.

The player must piece together the puzzle of using potent towers, revenue mechanics, and increasingly accessible and powerful magic abilities all augmented by the talent tree! Take particular note of how well the game is throttled by these talents to create a difficulty curve just hard enough to keep the game challenging, but gives enough power through the tree to allow the player to progress if they "grind" enough talent points after defeat. Also note how well the complexity of play scales, starting with just building a few simple towers, and ending with all kinds of crazy upgrades, spell mechanics, and resource management the player must tend to all deeply rooted in the progression of this tree.

Upgrade Complete 2

We heard you like upgrades

We heard you like upgrades...

It's pretty safe to say that no game has taken progression dynamics to such absurd heights as the Upgrade Complete series. Game loading too slowly? You can spec into load timers to reduce the wait. Upgrade buttons ugly? You can invest into the aesthetic aspects of the game as well. Would you rather be playing an indie title? Upgrade it!

Despite being a farce attacking the the ridiculous level of customization and unlocks seen in many modern games, Upgrade Complete goes on to be a legitimate study in how satisfying it is for  the users to upgrade anything and everything within a game. There is no aspect off limits to talents, upgrades, and progression.


Now that we've looked at several varieties, let's further dissect the delicate balance of piecing together engaging, fun talent trees....



What Do We Want?

When creating a talent tree, understanding what gives the player a feeling of power is key to laying out a tree that is compelling.

Know the gating components of your game, be it economy, health, damage, etc. If your game is a side scrolling platformer, talents that increase run speed, jump height, and add abilities like double jump and glide are the sort of things you're going to want talent nodes for. Analyze what gameplay systems make your game unique, and think of ways you can accentuate those with talents, bolstering further the unique strengths of your game.

Ultimately the player wants fun playing your game; it's up to you as the designer to know what that is, and how to promote fun play through your talent tree. If Skill X is more fun than Skill Y, no one is going to moan too much if it gets a bit more love through talents.



When Do We Want It?

Pacing the progression of a talent tree is vital to making it a positive aspect of your game. Lower tier talents should be simple but potent, hooking the player immediately. Conversely, it's best to add more complex aspects of the tree at higher tiers, to ensure the player is ready for these more complex dynamics.

It's important to define a tree in its low level nodes (if you have multiple trees). Low level talents should be indicative of what to expect later so players are able to make correct assumptions in what to expect with their investments. Often the most powerful skills are found at the end of a tree, to ensure hard gating dynamics. A common design choice is to balance the game so that only players with the highest level talents are able to complete the hardest challenges within a game.

But don't be too predictable - throw a wrench in the gears! Part of the magic of gaming is the unexpected. Pepper in awesome, potentially "overpowered" talents here and there. Do this for all your trees and the player will have a blast speccing into them as they melt the faces of the everyone around them (or shatter their nether regions with ice, depending on build).

Talent trees can make your player feel empowered and surprise them. They can also be the carrot on the stick that keeps them playing so they can get that one talent that defines their build and items.



Do More Than Just Give Power

Some games do nothing but add linear power progression by making players hit harder, run faster, or make more money, which is a perfectly acceptable design decision for many games. Early iterations of talent trees can also benefit from a scaled down version such as this, to get the thing moving forward and get a ballpark balance for various trees and builds.

The best talent trees transcend the mere notion of power, and transform how the game as a whole is played by augmenting the core functionality of the game as defined by player build. But before you can take your talent tree to this level, you need a fundamental understanding of how it's fun to play your game in various ways.

Think of these differing play styles as different types of music. Different types of music sound better with differing levels of treble and bass. Much like a music player will allow you to tweak the levels on these two knobs to make the music sound better, your talent tree should have knobs you can adjust in regards to your core systems that make these different play styles play better.

You're going to need an empathetic mindset to do this. Think not only about how you would like to play the game, but about how people with differing skill levels and taste in gameplay would, too. The skill tree is the options menu for the user to create the game they want to play. Some players will need to spec into talents to make the game easier for them, give them more life, more lives, more defense, things of this nature. Others will want to seek out fun bonuses to speed and damage to race through your game at a dangerous pace. Some players may want to min-max using several abilities all at once to optimize play, and other players may want a single ability they can spam. Try to make both paths viable.

It is sometimes the balance between survival nodes and nodes that allow a player to progress quickly that becomes the core "difficulty setting" of a game. Be careful when balancing defensive talents, as often the best defense is a good offense, depending on your game. Defensive nodes, if not properly tuned, can actually make the game harder for new players if they are specced instead pure offensive talents.



Make the Most of Your Work

Scaling power is great for making advancement in a game fun, but if the talent tree is too top-heavy, you risk squandering all the content you created at the lower levels of the tree. The best games are greater than the sum of their parts and the growing pool of player power and abilities coalesce to create an experience that can become increasingly complex.

If you want the most out of your game, you're going to want to think of the tree(s) as a blueprint for a coherent gameplay strategy, rather than a series of isolated powers that scale individually in potency. Talents should be cohesive in their function, Skill X may do more damage, but Skill Y (properly talented) may allow Skill X to do even more while having a niche role in its own right.

If you find certain aspects of your game becoming irrelevant, talent trees give you more control to make them relevant again without making them too powerful early on. Is Ice Bolt just taking up space in the end game? Add a high level talent that lets it tap mana back, or bounce off walls, or deal bonus critical damage when the target is frozen or burning - whatever adds the most fun to the game while being reasonable to develop. You can even come up with additional mechanics never seen before if you're feeling adventurous!



Controversy in Talent Tree Design

Being so core to playability and balance, talent trees are among the most heated topics of discussion in gaming communities and many discussions about them still rage on today. Should players be able to "respec" their talent trees (start over with a fresh slate)?

  • No: If players are unable to respec, the game has far more replayability. Players can play through several times experiencing the gamut of play from many angles across the entire level spectrum.
  • Yes: Few things can be as soul crushing as choosing the wrong talent spec. Players will often quit a game for good if they cannot easily change the direction of their characters.

Most modern games find their own compromise between the two. Path of Exile requires rare "orbs of regret" drops to allow a single point of respec. Torchlight 2 allows for respecs up to a certain level at which point you become locked in. The modern game respects both trains of thought, and finds their own way of giving permanence and meaning to builds, without absolutely locking a player in at all times.



Striking the Right Balance

There is no longer journey than the pursuit of game balance. It's a lofty goal rewarded by the cries of gamers everywhere as they clickity clack, "I've been nerfed!" on their keyboard in a fit of rage. Ensuring that talent trees are balanced is an important goal, but not the first one! Great game components are not created through predetermined mathematical formulae or spreadsheets. They begin with the simple thought: "Hey wouldn't it be cool if...?"

  • Wouldn't it be cool if ice blast bounced off frozen enemies?
  • Wouldn't it be cool if after constructing a Tier 2 or higher train station you got free advertising?
  • Wouldn't it be cool if cooking a burger before scrambled eggs gave a flavor bonus?

Only after there is a sufficient ammount of "cool stuff" going on should you move on to whittling things down and making the gears turn at the right speeds. We looked at talent trees as if they were a mini game, but there should be no perfect end game scenario. The player should always be second guessing their decisions, "Boy, I sure love doing X damage with Y talent, but Z is so appealing, I can't decide!" If you find yourself as the designer thinking the same thing when deciding what to buff and nerf, you know you're in the right ballpark of acceptable balance.

And play various wacky build setups! How many times have you been pleasantly surprised by the potency of an ability or skill? The mechanics of gameplay aren't always as rigid and predictable as we think they are; damage formulas may be off, a variable might be slightly off somewhere that no one will ever get to. This is a good thing.

Again, balance isn't perfected on spreadsheets; it's done through ad hoc play, as it should be! Find what works, expand on it, polish it, and don't knock it till you try it.



Taking a Step Back

Now that we've covered talent trees from top to bottom, it's a good idea to look over some of the sample talent trees listed in Field Experience again. These are some of the best talent trees to ever grace gaming and there's much to be gained by looking at them from multiple angles.

Try to create some builds with different play styles in mind, "roleplay" someone else who might play the game completely differently, and note how they are accommodated. Ignore numbers and think about how certain talents just make the game more fun, and how the trees have a well spread "wouldn't it be cool if..." factor to them. Notice that users don't have to go too far to get something interesting like increased run speed or a new skill entirely.

What were the designers thinking when they created the tree? What sort of build does this node promote, how many other builds would it work well with? How does this tree envision what this class of character should do? How much freedom do they give you to try interesting things, without allowing you to do everything?

Finally, marvel at how torn you are to go with any specific build. The greatest skill trees will drive you mad, constantly begging you to return to tweak your spec just a little bit to maximize your damage, your income, or your survivability - or to start over and try something completely different!

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