AURO: Not Taking Skill Trees For Granted

I thought I’d fill people in a bit on where we are with the AURO Disciplines today.  We’ve been in a limited closed Alpha phase that we hope to get out of soon, but while we’re here we have a few really helpful testers who have provided some awesome insight into the abilities as they are.

Some of one of our most active testers inspired me to want to talk about the skill trees in AURO, and how, just as with every other element in AURO’s design, we’re not taking it for granted.  Many developers would probably just take the normal “skill tree” approach and not really even question it, but just fill it up with their own skills.  I’ve recognized though, that the skill tree model itself has a lot more to it than a lot of developers might realize, and I should be considering every element of it, not just filling it up with skills.

We’ve talked a lot about the vertical trees:  the Fire tree, the Ice tree, and so on (if you’d like to learn more about specific spells, we have an old and slightly outdated, but still gives you the right gist article here).  It’s always been of extreme importance that each of these trees has a strong sense of identity to them, to give different playthroughs a very different feel and different kinds of challenges.  However, there’s also the horizontal element to the trees, which we haven’t talked about.  I call them “tiers”.

So, in order to get a Tier 2 ability of a tree, you have to have Tier 1, etc — normal “skill tree” behavior.  But what’s interesting here is that we’re really trying to make not just the schools have identity (which at this point is getting very solid).  The tiers themselves should have some identity.  Currently, here’s what’s going on with that:

Tier 1:  Tactically useful, not usually directly useful in and of themselves.  They’re only useful when you use them intelligently.  Flexibility is most crucial with these spells, and also these should be the most deep spells to use, since they are the ones that will get used the most.  It should be obvious (although apparently to many RPG developers, it is not obvious) that Tier 1 abilities should remain useful for the entire game.

Tier 1 represents the first step into a tree.  Many players will not focus on one tree, but rather get 2 or 3 Tier 1 abilities, and so it’s important that these Tier 1 spells do a great job of expressing that tree, even if they’re all alone.  That way, when you mix the two (say, Elude and Ice), it develops into its own strong flavor.  If Tier 1 is weak or lacks identity, players will have to invest more skill points to reach these strong flavors.

Tier 2:  Sort of a multiplied Tier 1 ability – similar, but more powerful and often having an effect on “multiple” creatures or tiles.  Tier 2 represents a level of commitment to a tree.

Tier 3:  This is meant to be the sort of “calmed down”, often passive spell, that’s certainly good, but also meant as a bit of an investment-point to getting Tier 4 spells.  Interestingly, we can justify making Tier 3 spells less powerful than Tier 2 spells because of the “investment point towards Tier 4” thing, as long as Tier 4 is strong enough.

Tier 4:  These should be super-spells that really give you a very powerful option.  Although they still need to be interesting, they have to be very strong, clearly more strong than getting the first two tiers in another tree combined.  They should also be the ultimate representation of the Discipline.


Currently, I think we’re doing alright on this.  Guard is by far the least-developed tree, and we’re not going to implement it for awhile, until basically after all the other four are totally done and balanced (just as a matter of work-flow).  Other than that, I think we have a little improvement to do, but it’s really coming along.

I think the important lesson here is to not take any mechanisms for granted.  With AURO, we’re trying to make sure the entire game is “from-the-ground-up”.  I hope other developers will follow our lead!


keithburgun • 04/29/2012

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  1. Kdansky 04/29/2012 - 5:47 pm Reply

    I disagree. I believe that the first ability in a tree should always be one of the strongest, and the last ability should be weak, and only good for someone who wants to use a tree at its fullest. My reasoning is as follows: As a developer, I want the player to have a hard choice between splitting up his points between two trees or go deep into one. But if you put the really strong abilities at the top, it’s always the better choice to max out a tree.
    That way, your game looks like it has a bazillion builds, but in reality only has five (or as many as you have trees). A good example are most iterations of WoW: You are absolutely forced to commit to a tree if you want to be competitive. That means you end up with three specs per class. In 4.0, the devs realized that these choices are fake, and enforced them. Now you *must* always max out a tree before you can spend any points into your secondary.
    Let me make a boring example for a “good” top tree talent: “+10% fire damage”. That’s weak, but would you rather have a (relatively) redundant frostbolt (Ice1) on top of your fireball (Fire1), or +10% on all your fire abilities, which means you get +10% on nearly everything? That’s a hard choice. But “Pick INFERNO OF DOOM vs kick” is not a choice.

    With that in mind, my Tier descriptions:
    Tier 1: The bread&butter spell. Synergizes well with other trees, and is usually flexible. Crowd Control, Counterspell, Fireball, Teleport, Heal. Everyone wants all of these for flexibility, but they can’t take them all, because then they will lack power. Sacrifices in options will have to be made, which diversifies characters.
    Tier 2: Maximum Power, with a drawback. Something like setting the board on fire (good, but impractical), or a Pact with the Devil (+50% dmg, -50% life). You don’t use this every turn, but when you use it well, it’s awesome.
    Tier 3: Whatever is left and needs in. We all need a joker slot. ;)
    Tier 4: Self-synergy. This skill has little to no synergy with other trees, but amplifies the current tree. You can skip it. You don’t want to, because it’s

    Riddle me this: In your current design, is 1/1/1/1/1 any good? Is 2/2 ever worth considering compared to 4/0? I doubt it, because I want that Tier 4 ability.

    • keithburgun 04/29/2012 - 5:57 pm Reply

      If the first-tier abilities are strongest, then it is the correct answer always to get the first tier abilities of all the trees.

      I think you make a good point about it being “always the better choice to max out a tree”. However, here is the solution: each tree, having only that tree, has a distinct WEAKNESS. So, while it might be *generally* more powerful to have maxed out a tree, you also have a glaring weakness. For instance, Fire tree hurts you a lot, and is also incapable of dealing high damage to a single target.

      Also, none of our abilities are redundant. I think your comparisons to something like WoW don’t work for this reason. The abilities are all simply tactically different. When I say “more powerful”, it’s actually a kind of power that’s hard to quantify. For instance, the fourth skill in Fire is to summon an infernal monster who fights for you. He’s tough, and deals good damage, so he’s quite good, but it’s not easy to say how he is “more powerful” than Blast Wall.

      To your riddle: All builds will be equally good in Auro. That has been the design goal from day 1. So yes, 2/2 is worth considering.

      I may have over-stated the “powerfulness” of Tier 4. All abilities are powerful – this isn’t WoW or some other such RPG.

  2. Nicolai 04/30/2012 - 4:18 am Reply

    It must be great having a core of dedicated testers that goes beyond merely reporting bugs and provides actual indepth feedback on the mechanics and gameplay!

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