Just A Little R-E-S-P-E-C

Over at City of Heroes, the developers have recently added the ability to “respec” a character, meaning, to take the character’s accumulated experience and choose a different set of powers and abilities, to rescind previous choices. In City of Heroes, respeccing is difficult to do, and the number of times you can do it limited to three.

MMOG developers historically have implemented the capability to respec with great evident reluctance and caution. Some players also strongly oppose respec features. The major question I have is, “Why”?

In any massively-multiplayer online game (MMOG) where players have substantial branching choices in character development after their initial choices, it only takes a matter of a week or two after the game launches for players to ask for the ability to respec. Sometimes this is because a power or ability the player has chosen gets changed in subsequent patches, but it’s also because experimental choices can turn out to be costly if the player chooses something which is poorly implemented in the current game or not implemented at all. Players fear “gimping” themselves by failing to choose the powers most needed later in the game, or even merely by choosing them in the wrong order or sequence. A gimped character might improve some day, of course. My main character in City of Heroes is a “scrapper”, a martial artist with “special reflexes”. I think it would be fair to say that until mid-September, this was a choice that most avid players regarded as being mildly perverse. Now that’s changed, and I’ve gone from being the recipient of pity to the target of envy. Still, I’ve made a couple of useless choices over time, and I’d love to undo them.

The City of Heroes developers haven’t made that easy, however—respeccing requires doing a very long and difficult mission in a single setting with at least three other players (though the difficulty was eased somewhat with a recent hotfix). This is typical of most MMOG development teams. No one goes live with a respec feature (with the exception of Ultima Online and Star Wars: Galaxies, which allow players to relinquish skills and gain new ones, but these are not true respecs, as you have to gain the necessary experience all over again. It’s roughly the same as partially erasing the character and starting over). You can only respec three times total in City of Heroes, and after that, you’re done for good. You have to choose the same fundamental character type again when reallocating your skill choices, so my character will always be a martial artist with special reflexes.

With developers, one reason for approaching adding respec very cautiously is that a respec feature can make the work of balancing a game enormously more difficult. If players are able to instantly and casually redesign their characters to match flavor-of-the-month templates that are believed to have disproportionate advantages or even favorable bugs or exploits associated with them, developers have to lurch frantically from nerf to nerf of a player monoculture, rather than more methodically and gradually tweaking a richly diverse ecosystem of characters.

The players (and following the logic of their arguments, some developers) who oppose it, in my experience, tend to be drawn from opposite ideological ends of the MMOG world: they’re either extreme powergamers or extreme roleplayers. This points to the more interesting problem with respecs. Both powergamers and roleplayers make crucial investments in the linear temporality and persistence of MMOGs.

Powergamers derive their hierarchical status from strongly linear temporality—they can play longer and more efficiently than other players. They can explore all the branches of a character development system, chart the entire “possibility space” of a game, and then select the optimal pathway. Essentially they subsume the respec function into their own philosophy of gameplay. If there is a nerf (or a empowerment) of a particular template, they simply start over and hit its optimal point quickly. A respec destabilizes their source of distinction.

For roleplayers, the linearity of a gameworld’s time is the linearity of narrative and of life. To undo in an instant what time has done to a character is to violate immersion in the gameworld. (Though City of Heroes has tried to integrate its respec into the mythography of comic books and superheroes—your character gets exposed to strange energies and so his powers change, which is in fact a pretty established trope in superhero stories).

In a way, the debate reminds me of a very old and nearly theological discussion with single-player videogames: whether it is a sin to allow players to save a game at any point. There were and probably still are a few people who felt it was aesthetically wrong to break the temporality of a game with overly permissive saving—and for roughly the same binary reason as with MMOGs. Some think that makes a game too easy; some think it makes a game less immersive.

Now in my case, I have found that having to replay a particular sequence many, many times in order to progress forward in a single-player game is roughly as much fun as a root canal. More to the point, it unfavorably introduces the time of the world into the time of the game—it reminds me of the amount of time I am wasting on an exercise in futility. The same is roughly true for me in a MMOG. Having to junk an established character, of whom I may have become quite fond, simply because at high levels he’s almost completely useless or because I optimistically chose a power or skill which the developer neglected to implement, also reminds me the fruitlessly unproductive and ungenerative labor-time lost to a game. With single-player games, my desires, which map games into my own life primarily as entertainment or leisure rather than sociality, have long since ruled the roost as they are shared by a large fraction of the game-playing audience—a current game which comes out with limited save-points now gets brutally attacked by gamers.

With MMOGs, the respec is still something of an exotic and constrained feature. Should it remain so? Is this the place where MMOGs differ from anything else by virtue of their persistence and the nature of their gameworld temporality? Do developers have good practical reasons for constraining and fearing easy or quick respeccing?


Comments on Just A Little R-E-S-P-E-C:

Edward Castronova says:

I have this odd theory in my mind that says that if everyone could instantly respec, games would balance themselves automatically. Suppose all classes are initially balanced. Then a patch comes that makes warriors better and wizards worse. Instantly, lots of people respec from wizard to warrior. There are fewer wizards and more warriors. Now, assuming diverse-team play - warriors and wizards do better teaming rather than making all-warrior or all-wizard groups or going alone - any group now has more difficulty getting wizards, while warriors are a dime a dozen. This means that its easier for wizards to play, they get groups more often, they can leverage influence for more loot, make a group wait for them or help them on a quest, etc. Meanwhile, warriors have problems. As long as life as a warrior is better than life as a wizard, people will keep switching from wizard to warrior, making warriors worse off and wizards better off. And that means that the switching continues until, all things considered, warrior and wizard lifestyles are equally valuable again. In other words, in long run steady states, all of these diverse-team games are actually auto-balancing. Devs never let the process go on long enough though. But if there were instant free respecs, the auto-balancing would kick in immediately.

Posted Oct 5, 2004 3:11:03 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Now *that's* an economist talking--that sounds like a chapter out of The Wealth of Virtual Nations. But I'm inclined to agree, in many ways and for many reasons. At the very least, it would be an interesting experiment to offer--to essentially make labor-time freely exchangeable for "productive capacity". In many ways, it's *only* the temporal dimension of an individual's history that prevents real life from meeting that free-market ideal. Imagine if tomorrow I could instantly retool 40 years of personal experience into being a programmer or a brick-layer. In real life, the problem is that no one would settle for a suboptimal return on their labor time in such a case, and so wages for undesirable jobs would have to rise, and then we'd have some other problems where our economy relies on the suppression of wages to keep costs low. etc. But in a virtual world, are there any "suboptimal" jobs that must be done no matter what? I think not. I think it's very possible that you'd see people adjust their characters to fit both the productive requirements of the virtual society and their own personal imaginative desires very nicely. I mean, people already chose to develop characters that seem to others to be suboptimal (witness my MA/SR scrapper, started at a time when no one thought that was a good idea).

Posted Oct 5, 2004 3:46:29 PM | link

dmyers says:

In principle, I believe free and total respec leads to a more balanced game as well, though I don't quite see it working through the process Dr. Castronova describes. And this principle assumes that the game IS balanceable -- not just in supply/demand terms but in game achievement terms. But I'm gonna let all that stand.

Here's the real issue connected to respec for me: Why do devs keep information from players? The probability space huzzah above simply means that powergamers have more info than casual players and, therefore, can make more informed and effective decisions than casual players. Why do devs allows this to be so?

Why not provide equal info for all players?

Why keep info from players?

Perhaps devs do this out of some out-dated, out-of-place, vestigial narrative impulse (to not "give away" the story). Or perhaps there are solid practical/economic reasons for keeping detailed aspects of game mechanics from players. And, of course, some players actually do like to puzzle these things out for themselves.

However, I see many many current instances in CoH where devs allow newbies to put many many hours into a character which those devs know (and have acknowledged) will inevitably and without-any-recourse-but-respec suck. These characters (mind controller in CoH springs to mind) should come with warning labels as large as any on a pack of cigarettes.

Why do devs allow this to happen? Does belatedly including respec excuse such behavior?

Posted Oct 5, 2004 4:23:44 PM | link

Lisa Galarneau says:

I think that the ability to respec can go a long way towards helping a game feel fresh... (I just haven't bothered to spend the 3-4 hours in CoH to win the privelege...)


City of Heroes is interesting to me in that the physicality of various superpowers significantly changes the experience of gameplay for me. So when you start out walking, running becomes a new experience... then running ever faster as you augment the power becomes a new experience yet again. As a newbie, you gawk at people flying, superjumping and superrunning... the ability to achieve those powers was one of the things that kept me motivated... I want to know what it 'feels' like to superjump, fly, teleport, etc. Respec'ing might keep me interested, as it allows the player to connect viscerally with different aspects of the physicality of the virtual world by trying out different travel powers. I think this is really interesting, though it's possible that this is more appealing to the female 'tactile' audience.

A similar experience I had was playing the PS2 game Ico... I connected emotionally with the game in a significantly enhanced way because of the feedback in the control. When I felt the girl tug at my hand, or feedback jumping or scaling, it changed the feel of the game for me, introducing a great deal of novelty.


Different powersets also change the way people interact with me, the strategies I use in combat, and the way I can contribute to a team. All of these experiences are interesting and worth exploring, though perhaps not worth the effort of building and leveling characters from scratch (I certainly don't have the time for that, anyway!).


So, I say, let people respec as much as they want, as it will ultimately contribute to the replayability of the game. But sure, make sure there's enough of a barrier to doing it that people won't do it willy-nilly. I love changing my outfit, but when the trade-off is augmenting my powers, I usually forego the exercise in creativity in favour of something productive...


And I do think games would re-balance automatically... the great thing is that the definition of a sub-optimal job relies entirely on your perspective... healing, for instance, can be boring as hell in terms of gameplay (and healers get yelled at a lot when things go bad), but I personally get a thrill out of being altruistic... so I'll keep on, even though it's probably pretty sub-optimal to someone who is extremely focussed on ass-kicking. The pay-off in terms of the game might be low, but it's high in terms of my enjoyment of the game...

Posted Oct 5, 2004 4:42:41 PM | link

Jim Purbrick says:

Imagine if tomorrow I could instantly retool 40 years of personal experience into being a programmer or a brick-layer

Go for the brick-layer, they're more difficult to offshore ;-)

I'm not sure where I stand on this issue. The casual player in me would rather play the game and explore character progression options, rather than having to do hours of research to make sure that I make good choices. The roleplayer in me shies away from being able to change, both for the immersion breaking reason given above and because it dilutes the sense of character identity. I want to value the particular skills of others and have them know and value my skills.

I've been reconciling these issues recently by creating characters on a whim and then not playing long enough to feel I've been short changed for not spending hours doing research.

Posted Oct 5, 2004 5:26:33 PM | link

Chris Brown says:

There is in fact a MMOG which allows unlimited respec, PlanetSide.

As a character advances he gets points, which he can spend on abilities such as tank driver, combat engineer, or anti-air weapons. Achievement of points ends long before he is able to add every ability, however. Every 24 hours the player is able to drop a single ability and regain the points spent on it.

This design lets players build the exact character they want at the time and also to mix it up every 24 hours so the game doesn't get stale. A character can go from a fully outfitted infantry trooper to a pilot and tank captain in the space of a week.

Posted Oct 5, 2004 10:12:55 PM | link

Mike Darga says:

Grr. I just accidentally hit the Back button on my mouse before submitting and my post was lost into the ether.

I was trying to post about Planetside as well, but Chris beat me to it. The important thing to me is that Planetside makes (or at least made) the player wait 24 hours between the loss of the ability and the regaining of the points. This, and the fact that only one skill can be unlearned at once keeps players flexible, but players are prevented from instantly rebuilding and are encouraged to consider changes before making them.

I agree with the idea that players will find equilibrium in a game that rewards cooperation (and if the game doesn't, it's got bigger problems), but the Planetside-like system seems to reduce exploitatability as well. Another compromise that seems fair is only returning, say, 80% of the skill points. This might be something to consider if another method is still being exploited.

I like that CoH has integrated respeccing into the world in a way that seems minimally contrived, and that they force players to work hard for a chance to do it. I would personally prefer respeccing on a smaller scale and more often, since I think in most cases you just want to unlearn one mistake/broken feature, and not rebuild your whole character.

I do like that they at least keep the base character class the same, so players can't go from professors to bricklayers as it were. I could see roleplayers still getting angry, since superheroes are almost solely defined by their abilities, but the concept of working the change into the storyline helps a lot with that. Rather than just redoing something and pretending things have always been that way, the change becomes part of the character's history. Having the change happen three times and having every player have three such changes in their history certainly pushes the bounds of believability, but then again so does having a world where every player is a superhero.

I'm not sure yet if it was implemented for retail, but in the Saga of Ryzom beta some of us were asking for a similar respeccing system to be implemented. Ryzom allows players to gain skill points in any of four areas (fighting/magic/crafting/harvesting), so as long as the points were only refunded into the area in which they were originally earned it seems roleplaying would not be hampered. Players might trade one spell for another, but not suddenly dump all the points they earned through healing other players into melee skills. I would think this would keep roleplayers fairly happy, but then again I tend to view roleplaying as something that has to overlook the intricacies of game mechanics.

Posted Oct 5, 2004 11:12:15 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Why do we need specs to re?

Character power can be defined in other ways, for example through their equipment. Indeed, specs could be equipment if you wanted to get all free market about it.

Richard

Posted Oct 6, 2004 1:51:46 AM | link

-Vis says:

Look to TV to help explain Virtual Game phenomena.

It looks like two virtual world genres are beginning to influence one another: the top-down storyline-centered world and the bottom-up laissez-faire world. There are demonstrated advantages to both styles. Just as reality TV programs co-exist with scripted TV programs, bottom-up and top-down virtual world structures each exist because thay have attained the right prouction-cost/quality-of-experience ratio. Laissez faire VW's are, in large part, able to rely on their users for content and storyline generation, as well as object-infra-structure creation. This means that the interest of the users is drawn by other users and social events that they organize. Such self-organizing social structures can help to increase the experience-quality of a VW while not costing the developer a penny. Therefore, expect to see many new services, and veteran services, begin to blend the two genres. There are compelling reasons to incorporate both models into your personal 3DVW master plan.

The line between top-down and bottom-up VW models is about to get very blurry indeed. And there are striking similarities to the current television programming landscape. Word up.

Posted Oct 6, 2004 2:38:46 AM | link

Stefan Kubicki says:

Why do we need specs to re? Character power can be defined in other ways, for example through their equipment. Indeed, specs could be equipment if you wanted to get all free market about it.

Thank you, Richard, for I was just scrolling down reading the comments and shaking my head at the--I don't know how else to put this--lack of imagination here.

Perhaps this makes sense if we're talking strictly about MMORPGs, but when you use the term MMOG you immediately include a host of other games that do not involve skills or levels or other such nonsense. Broaden your horizons, baby.

I feel silly plugging myself but I'm covering this issue as part of a series of articles on design basics at Elysium Plains

Posted Oct 6, 2004 8:33:00 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

As far as needing specs to re, that takes me back to my much more fundamental critique of making the character the main unit of persistence. As long as it is, respec strikes me as a sensible, needed feature. But ideally, persistence should be vested elsewhere: the intrinsic capacities and abilities of characters themselves should be relatively constant and relatively generalized. The current model often feels more like being a social insect in a giant hive: there are worker bees and drone bees and soldier bees; tanks and healers and nukers. As long as it's going to be that way, I'd really like the ability to change my mind and add wings and take away the extra mandible on my worker bee.

Posted Oct 6, 2004 8:52:11 AM | link

Peter Harkins says:

Hey, congrats for rediscovering remorts. They've been in muds for a rather long time, so most all this discussion is just a repeat.

Posted Oct 6, 2004 10:02:48 AM | link

Daniel Laughlin says:

I prefer the term 'time-constrained gamer' over the conventional 'casual gamer' because it does not imply not caring about the game. Fundamentally, time-constrained gamers tend to desire functionality that narrows the gap between what they can accomplish and what power gamers can achieve. Like freeform saving in single player games, respecing does just that. The history of MMOGs shows that casual gamers will keep subscribing to them even without respecing, but I have heard the argument more than once, that the power gamers will bail on a game that does not cater their desire to distinguish themselves.

Posted Oct 6, 2004 10:36:00 AM | link

Nelson says:

One thing that's fun about City of Heroes is that the characters are fairly well balanced. You can pick a bunch of random powers that are not "the best" and still have a fun and viable character. There's something of a culture of playing for fun rather than uberpower. I like it.

There's been some discussion on the CoH message forums about whether respec is going to change all that. Folks are claiming that after respec everyone is choosing the "power gamer" powers, removing some of the fun random other stuff. Hard to know for sure unless you're a developer with access to the game data.

Posted Oct 6, 2004 10:48:47 AM | link

Cory Ondrejka says:

Peter> Hey, congrats for rediscovering remorts. They've been in muds for a rather long time, so most all this discussion is just a repeat.

Sheesh, Richard's losing his touch . . .

But, seriously, this has a very close parallel in Magic the Gathering, where the ebbs and flows of the "meta game" -- blaster decks dominating until nerfed in favor of multi creatures &c -- are more or less controlled by Wizards of the Coast. Interestingly, the power gamer in MtG will tend to accumulate enough cards that they are actually more able to adapt quickly than the person who just eBay-ed their way to a single, good deck.

Posted Oct 6, 2004 10:50:57 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

It's an interesting fact in its own right (of which I am quite aware) that MMOG design debates are almost entirely recyclings of old MUD design debates. About the only ones that aren't are those that deal exclusively or strongly with visuality. There are a lot of things you can make of that repetition, but that it exists is beyond a doubt.

Posted Oct 6, 2004 11:11:08 AM | link

Jason says:

Just to add to the list: Asheron's Call instituted re-allocation of stats and skills a while ago (Jan 2002, I think). The quest to do so was not terribly difficult or time consuming, although there was a timer (one week, I believe), so someone could not immediately change from "mage" to "archer." But for some casual players (er... "time-constrained-gamers"), myself included, it was a boon - the gimpy archer that I had played since '99 became, within a few weeks, a viable toon again.

Details on the quest:
http://www.thejackcat.com/AC/Hobbies/Quests/Attribute.htm


Posted Oct 6, 2004 1:57:37 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

------------
Timothy Burke wrote:
It's an interesting fact in its own right (of which I am quite aware) that MMOG design debates are almost entirely recyclings of old MUD design debates. About the only ones that aren't are those that deal exclusively or strongly with visuality. There are a lot of things you can make of that repetition, but that it exists is beyond a doubt.
------------------
Kind of makes you wonder why people are still having them then....

-----------------
Dmyers wrote:
Here's the real issue connected to respec for me: Why do devs keep information from players? The probability space huzzah above simply means that powergamers have more info than casual players and, therefore, can make more informed and effective decisions than casual players. Why do devs allows this to be so?

Why not provide equal info for all players?

Why keep info from players?
-----------------

I can only speak for myself, but here's an example of why. One of our classes in one of our games, Achaea, is called the Occultists. That class is attached to a single guild, also called the Occultists (guilds exercise immense control over who is permitted to use a particular class. When there's only one guild for a particular class, that guild has near-complete control.) The Occultists are big on ritual, research, and knowledge. They've invented their own shorthand language that elder members use to talk to each other, spend a lot of time researching potential rituals to perform and are -very- secretive about what their actual powers are. I mean, obviously some info leaks out but we're not going to slap them in the face by just posting their treasured secrets on a website somewhere.

--matt, reminding you that some MMORPGs actually take the RP part somewhat seriously.


Posted Oct 6, 2004 2:52:15 PM | link

Hellinar says:

My unease with easy respec comes from playing my characters more for their stories than their levels. I don't have much of a problem with SWG type respec though, where you drop a skill and learn a new one at the normal rate. That feels quite "natural".

Respecs seem like an easy way to distinguish the kind of server I would like to play on, from one that I wouldn't. Allow easy respecs on "normal" servers, and difficult respeccing on "roleplay" servers. Toss in some limits on the rate of leveling, and I think you would attract a crowd I would want to play with.

Doesn't seem like a heck of a lot of coding to implement such a plan, much less that EQ put into its abortive "Roleplay" server. But I won't hold my breath..

Posted Oct 6, 2004 3:02:01 PM | link

Mike Darga says:

Stefan:
Thank you, Richard, for I was just scrolling down reading the comments and shaking my head at the--I don't know how else to put this--lack of imagination here.

Perhaps this makes sense if we're talking strictly about MMORPGs, but when you use the term MMOG you immediately include a host of other games that do not involve skills or levels or other such nonsense. Broaden your horizons, baby.

I'd just like to point out that mmorpgs are what we're talking about. I don't know that constraining a discussion constitutes a lack of imagination.

Of course all this ground has been trampled many times before by muds, but I do think it's useful to be versed in design decisions in terms of current games. Since I may never get to play CoH *(or game x), it's nice to find out details of its design through discussions like this.

Posted Oct 6, 2004 4:05:20 PM | link

Will Leverett says:

These games are true entertainment services with subscriber bases. Not only do you have to provide great graphics, an intuitive interface, an immersive environment, and interesting quests to keep people in your game, but there's a real need to provide service-oriented options like respec in the game (that is, if you want to keep players in your game).

Now respec in games is nothing new, but it is a valuable feature if you want to hold onto a long-term subscriber who has spent 18 months building his character but is thinking about changing. Granting that option could make the difference in him subscribing another three, six, or twelve months. Not having that could mean that he cancels his subscription. The cancellation might not be about the graphics, sound, or anything involving the actual game at all... it's just a lack of player-friendly features which would have made his paying for the service worth it.

As more new online games become available on the market, and as older online games mature, companies will have to start fighting to acquire new players and retain their current ones. I fully expect the next couple of years to bring an abundance of features and options like respec into games for no other reason than to make someone's game experience more satisfying (hence, to keep them as a subscriber). Those games that do not run the risk of their players leaving for something else that does offer the features and options that they seek.

Posted Oct 6, 2004 10:48:12 PM | link

Stefan Kubicki says:

I'd just like to point out that mmorpgs are what we're talking about. I don't know that constraining a discussion constitutes a lack of imagination.

I know, it was more of a reaction to Richard's comment and the general assumption that MMOG = MMORPG here on TN.

Posted Oct 7, 2004 12:15:39 AM | link

Mike Darga says:

I know, it was more of a reaction to Richard's comment and the general assumption that MMOG = MMORPG here on TN.

Yes, definitely. I'm sorry if that came off as indignant. I also really like [and need]to be reminded of the possibilities outside rpgs, even if Richard does think he sounds like "a grouchy old man."

It's hard to stop thinking within an ideology, even once you realize that you're doing it. Even my "bluesky" ideas end up amounting to really open-ended and expansive constrained worlds, which can be frustrating.

Have there been specific threads here on non-rpg mmos? To be totally honest I have trouble naming one besides Second Life, unless you cound The Palace and it's ilk as mmogs.

Posted Oct 7, 2004 1:04:03 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Peter Harkins>Hey, congrats for rediscovering remorts

Remorting normally allows characters to retain their skills and get new ones, not swap what they have for others.

Besides, there's still the question: why have morts to re?

Cory Ondrejka>Sheesh, Richard's losing his touch . . .

I do know about remorting (page 356 of my book), so it's not a new idea to me. I didn't mention it here because I didn't think it applied in this situation for the reason given above..

Richard

Posted Oct 7, 2004 2:07:38 AM | link

Jay Delaney says:

What about a system like the one that exists(existed?) in Dark Age of Camelot? I am not totally sure on the specifics, but I believe that it was an effort to balance the server populations. They offered to let people who already had a high(max?) level character start another character at a mid-to-high level on another server, thus bypassing a lot of the lower level grind.

Why not instead of a respec, something like this? Why not on the same server as the one you currently play on? What if in CoH, the first (level 24 - 36) 'respec' mission gave you a free level 14 character? They could scale from there. You would still be limited to only three, and each would only give you one character. Each character would start as the minimum level to complete the previous 'respec' mission.

Just a thought.

Posted Oct 7, 2004 8:18:46 AM | link

Hellinar says:

Will>Now respec in games is nothing new, but it is a valuable feature if you want to hold onto a long-term subscriber who has spent 18 months building his character but is thinking about changing. Granting that option could make the difference in him subscribing another three, six, or twelve months. Not having that could mean that he cancels his subscription.<

A counter point to this is that every time you relax a constraint on a game, you turn it into a different game. Which may also lose you some subscribers. This seems like a good opportunity to widen your subscriber base by providing both options on different servers. I'm very aware of the dangers of divergent code bases for servers. But respec on or off, level limits on or off, single character on or off, seem to me much more binary in their effects than say PvP on or off. A cnoice of servers with different features on or off I'd think in the long run provides better customer service than simply imposing a new feature because the majority want it. The difficult trick is chosing optional features that don't require a cascade of changes through the codebase. I'd say PvP has proved to require the latter. But ease of respec at first glance seems to be one of the former. It changes the community a server attracts, without any other changes in the codebase.

Posted Oct 7, 2004 10:08:10 AM | link

Damion Schubert says:

Respec was the first significant feature we added to Shadowbane after ship. We did it without hesitation, too. There was no concern about destroying roleplaying or reducing replayability, because neither of those are the crucible of the Shadowbane existence. PvP is, and its very frustrating to have to rebuild a character because you misspent some points for the PvP arena.

In our case, we wanted people to Respec bad decisions, but we didn't want them to be able to Respec a fire mage to a lightning mage overnight. It just wasn't right for the PvP vision we had. As such, you're limited to how many skill points you can unlearn in a day via geometrically increasing gold prices. Still, you can easily unlearn and relearn a couple of powers in a week.

Respec makes it MUCH easier to balance the game, not harder. Edward's description of it in an economic sense is right on - the good balance decisions float to the top, and the bad ones are easy to identify. Respec also gives us the (crucial) freedom to nerf. If we find one class is severely overbalanced due to one power (a significant concern in a primarily PvP game such as ours), we can reduce that power's effectiveness, and players can then choose if they want to spend those skill points elsewhere. This doesn't stop them from grumbling, but it does stop them from quitting. It also gives us the freedom to balance classes upwards as well.

As an aside, I don't know of anyone in the game who quit over Respec. Most really appreciate it, and anyone complaining about it from an RP point of view just needs a more creative writer on the team. Respec is, as the original author noted, a simple way to give players what MMOs have always lacked: a way to undo mistakes, the way that Save/Reload offers that in SP games. Respec reduces player fear of making mistakes, and reduces the odds a player would quit once he realizes he's spent 200 hours building something that isn't optimal.

As a parting shots, most people are too limiting on their respecs. In Shadowbane, our respecs are probably a little expensive, but they allow you to experiment with a power and see if you like it. In a system like CoH's where there's a finite number of respecs, players aren't going to take that chance.

Posted Oct 7, 2004 10:50:35 AM | link

AFFA says:

Edward Castronova wrote:
"In other words, in long run steady states, all of these diverse-team games are actually auto-balancing. Devs never let the process go on long enough though. But if there were instant free respecs, the auto-balancing would kick in immediately."

I think there's some truth to this, but in order for it to work, all classes must be equally desirable in groups, which is itself a balance issue.

The one graphical on-line game I worked on (which was sadly cancelled) was going to attempt a unique solution to this. We had a system that automatically buffed/nerfed the most popular skills behind the scenes. If 500 players chose fire magic and only 100 players chose air magic, then fire magic would get slightly nerfed and air magic slightly buffed. The nerfs/buffs would continue to increase in magnitude until the number of players with high skill levels in each one was more equal.

There were some problems with this approach as well, but since the changes are very small increments, almost continuous, dependant upon player choices, and not a God-like command from the developers, I wonder if players would have found it more acceptable.

Posted Oct 7, 2004 12:02:00 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

What about connections to RL? That tends to make things immersive. So: how hard is it to respec in RL? It's actually not hard to pick up a new skill if it relies on the same attributes as your other skills. But on the other hand, you can't retrain yourself willy-nilly. And another thing: many skills are never really forgotten, they sort of go dormant if you don't use them.

So that would imply a skill system where your base attributes determine what skills are even possible to raise (if your INT is 5 you can't raise Evocation very much, ever). But given your attributes, you can fairly easily raise any related skill at any time, if you learn about it and practice it. Moreover unused skills go into a decay mode, but the re-learn rate is a lot lower than the first-learn rate.

Example: Mabyn is a rogue with high Agility and Intelligence. She raises Crossbow to 50, then decide she'd rather do Longbow. There's no hard cap on how many skill points she can have, so she just goes ahead and raises Longbow to 50. But meanwhile she's not using/training her crossbow much, so it decays to 25. But it's not like she loses Crossbow, really, she's only rusty at it. If she gets an enchanted crossbow and takes up the skill again, she can get it back to 50 in 1/10 the time it took to get it from 25 to 50 in the first place. Maybe the first few skill points 25-30 are just as slow as usual, but skill points 40-50 are a breeze.

As Mabyn plays longer and longer, she ends up with a really big toolbox of skills, lots and lots of skills at the 25-30 range, ready to be raised if necessary. The things she's specializing in now (Longbow, Running, Stealth, Reading, Lore [her Int skills]) are all at 50. The thing is, none of those toolbox skills include things like Hammer and Armorcraft (STR), or Divination (WIS), because her attributes are forever low in those areas.

Posted Oct 7, 2004 1:29:48 PM | link

Keith says:

Timothy Burke> "Imagine if tomorrow I could instantly retool 40 years of personal experience into being a programmer or a brick-layer."

The respec in City of Heroes doesn't allow for that dramatic a change. You'd still be a programmer, but you'd have the option to switch, for example, from a server programmer to a client programmer. :]

I just did my first CoH respec a couple of days ago with a couple of friends of mine who also respecced. At level 33, I had four powers that revealed themselves to not be my cup of tea only after I selected them. I educated myself over the levels on "better" powers for my playstyle, and I was happy to replace the ones I used less than a handful of times (and therefore didn't want) for ones I would enjoy using more, and more often. I find my character is a bit more efficient in the aftermath of the respec, and he's certainly more enjoyable.

One of those friends nearly busted open with joy as he dumped a power he accidently chose early in his character's development.

My other friend has been seeing that he "gimped" his original "main" character over time--with "bad" power and enhancment slot choices--compelling him to leave that character gathering dust for the past few weeks. The respeccing has breathed new life into that character, allowing him to return to favored character status. With respeccing, my friend won't eventually be faced with the choice of starting over from scratch or not playing a character that became completely un-fun for him.

Posted Oct 7, 2004 1:38:39 PM | link

Keith says:

Mike Darga> "I would personally prefer respeccing on a smaller scale and more often, since I think in most cases you just want to unlearn one mistake/broken feature, and not rebuild your whole character."

I would love to see a "try before you buy" feature in MMOGs. (Imagine picking up a new ability that is active long enough for you to test it, to see if you like it and want to keep it. Don't like it? Turn it in and try another ability on for size.)

Posted Oct 7, 2004 1:51:01 PM | link

Dee Lacey says:

Keith > I would love to see a "try before you buy" feature in MMOGs. (Imagine picking up a new ability that is active long enough for you to test it, to see if you like it and want to keep it.

City of Heroes players do something like this. They copy their character to the Test server after it has attained a new level but before it chooses a power. Get a power there, try it out.

Posted Oct 7, 2004 2:32:42 PM | link

3b says:

Edward Castronova>"So that would imply a skill system where your base attributes determine what skills are even possible to raise (if your INT is 5 you can't raise Evocation very much, ever). But given your attributes, you can fairly easily raise any related skill at any time, if you learn about it and practice it. Moreover unused skills go into a decay mode, but the re-learn rate is a lot lower than the first-learn rate."


That sounds pretty much like the basis of the skill system I've been thinking about on the off chance I ever find myself designing a MMOG :)

The main details I would change are that skills should only be harder to learn for low attributes, not capped, and attributes should be at least slightly mutable.

Relatedness of skills would be factored into having a multi layered attribute/rough skill/detailed skill setup, where for example longbow and crossbow would both require a ballistics skill of some sort determining accuracy, which would then depend on attributes like perception and maybe intelligence. So the skilled longbow user would already have a reasonable chance of hitting a target with a crossbow after a few shots to judge range and projectile weight, and would just need to learn to load it, adjust to the different stance, etc.

Possibly at character creation throw in a few 'aptitude' type bonuses to some of the middle tier skills like ballistics in the above example (with the obvious corresponding set of disadvantages to pick from), to allow for the character that is 'a natural' at whatever.


Posted Oct 7, 2004 9:01:41 PM | link

Mike Darga says:

I just did my first CoH respec a couple of days ago with a couple of friends of mine who also respecced.

It didn't occur to me until your post how good for roleplaying/supergroups going through the CoH respec with friends could be. A group of players that didn't start playing the game together but found each other over time can fight through the respec mission together and specifically refashion themselves as a group, planning out which skills to get and how they might complement each other. This could be a nice way to develop a themed supergroup or reinvent a backstory for those groups that didn't have the benefit of creating their characters with that goal in mind but developed it later.

I'm not sure how many games there are that are so dependant on complementary skills within groups that players base their groupings on skills instead of personality. (Maybe no games at all? I don't really have any experience with combat grouping.) Allowing respeccing in such a case would allow achiever players to choose their regular groupmates/party simply because they like them, and not because their skills are well matched.

That was a bad example for me to make as someone that tends to wander around solo for the most part. That lends an example of its own though actually. When I built a character through a period of tending to solo, I just learned whatever I felt like or seemed most useful to me as an individual, which resulted in me deliberately not learning things like:

-spells to heal other people's mp and hp
-prospecting skills to find a resource deposit for both myself and a friend
-harvesting support skills that would stabalize a source while another player is extracting resources from a dangerous deposit
-crafting plans for armor classes and ammo types besides those that I myself used (Harvesters preferred light armor, but almost nobody else did- these are examples from Ryzom beta)

If I were to find a group of players I liked enough to guild up with or group with regularly, the selfish nature of my character choices could preclude me from being an appealing player to group with. I think it's safe to make the blanket statement that it's always good when players group, and very bad when they want to but can't.

Being allowed to try new things with a character is certainly an incentive to stay subscribed longer in and of itself. When that new thing is teamwork and socialization, their subscription length could be increasing by an order of magnitude.

Posted Oct 8, 2004 1:16:05 AM | link

Damion Schubert says:

Mike Darga Wrote: I'm not sure how many games there are that are so dependant on complementary skills within groups that players base their groupings on skills instead of personality. (Maybe no games at all? I don't really have any experience with combat grouping.) Allowing respeccing in such a case would allow achiever players to choose their regular groupmates/party simply because they like them, and not because their skills are well matched.
This is precisely what made it so valuable in Shadowbane, although it was less about warm and happy feelings, and more about 'how can you be the max contributor to a city siege'? You frequently can play any class you want, but the guild master will be disappointed if you're playing a gimped toon.

Posted Oct 8, 2004 1:38:21 AM | link

Count Nerfedalot says:

Affa said: "The one graphical on-line game I worked on (which was sadly cancelled) was going to attempt a unique solution to this. We had a system that automatically buffed/nerfed the most popular skills behind the scenes. If 500 players chose fire magic and only 100 players chose air magic, then fire magic would get slightly nerfed and air magic slightly buffed. The nerfs/buffs would continue to increase in magnitude until the number of players with high skill levels in each one was more equal."

It's been awhile, so please correct any inaccuracies in my memories, but as I recall Asheron's Call started with a magic system which had a different mechanism to produce a similar result: their spells had a significant variability in power based on how many times they were cast. The more a given spell got used, the less effective it became.

This "spell economy" was a very interesting idea with all sorts of cool potential secondary effects like encouraging mages to keep spell formulae secret (never mind that each character had a pseudo-random variable in each formula, and that, even before web sites published the base formulae and the equation determining the variable was cracked, it was merely a matter of trial and error with a limited set of components to figure it out) and maybe some potential for pvp mischief. Not to mention possibly discouraging similar characters from working together or even in the same area as each other, and other less than optimal unintended side-effects.

Unfortunately, what was actually implemented was too few different equivalent spells to choose from by too many players all the same level and all pretty much forced to use those same few spells in the same limited level-appropriate areas. Meanwhile the whole concept of reclusive mages jealously guarding their seekrit rituals didn't survive the first week of contact with the internet-enabled largely cooperative player hive-mind. So ANY spell even remotely usable pretty much tanked in efficiency everywhere it was useful within a couple hours of each server reset, and there was NO real dynamic ebb and flow in the spell economy. Just a rapid ebb after each reset to a worst-case steady state.

Basically there was NO fun in it at all for any players, no strategy, no benefit to be gained from playing smart or anything. It was just a nuisance that, if noticed at all, was resented for its basically unavoidable negative impact on a character's ability. I don't recall for sure but I think eventually Turbine turned the whole feature off completely.

Rereading this, I guess the situation is not quite the same as attempting a see-saw dynamic balance between two hopefully equivalent choices. But hopefully someday someone will finally learn the lesson taught by such cautionary tales of unintended consequences and will then resist adding a cool-seeming subtle complexity to a game that will promptly break under the strain of a thousand plus simultaneous players or the group-mind gestalt of many thousands of players seeking optimal solutions to the problem it poses.

Now, regarding the actual thread topic, respec. As far as I'm concerned, if a developer is going to reserve the right to change the rules of the game on me, then he damn well OUGHT to give me the ability to adjust my character accordingly! And for every roleplayer who whines about respec breaking immersion and all, I ask: what part of nerfing a character and changing the basic rules of the universe is any less immersion-breaking?

Gee, my started-at-release DAoC archer was a GREAT solo AND group player until one day the gods said "Behold, thou shalt not kill anything for experience before it kills you, for this is annoying to the righteous peeveepee-ers." And from that day forth, my once-proud ranger was not only shunned from groups because he could no longer hit ANYTHING worth hunting in a group (ie anything higher level than himself), but he also found himself loosing roughly half of his one-on-one contests soloing against the weakest, barely-good-for-experience monsters he could find. I imagine his gravestone has long-since crumbled into dust out in that forgotten dell in which he bled out his last, alone, ravaged by the teeth and claws of a wimpy beast several levels below him. Not that any amount of respec would have helped in that particular instance, mind you. Ranged combat is the bane of PvP (it's just no fun to die to something before you even see it much less get to fight it) and he was just another victim of the ruin-PvE-for-the-sake-of-balancing-PvP quickfix most developers end up taking sooner or later because balancing both in the same game is, like, hard. Or something.

Hopefully the point, the need to give players the ability to adapt their existing characters to the changing rules of the universe, isn't lost in the hyperbole.

Posted Oct 8, 2004 9:01:20 PM | link