Other than competition, I can think of few things that drive engagement in a game the same way ownership does. Ownership refers to the player’s perception that their activity within the game is somehow unique or otherwise special. This goes back to the pretty pretty butterfly phenomena: we’ve all received enough gold stars in our life that we need feel some form of mastery over the game environment to truly engage in it.
And so we have skill schemes.
Once upon a time, gamers were afforded very little choice in the customization of their characters. Players would receive defined skills at certain points throughout the game and those skills would generally be put to work in short order to resolve the next set of puzzles. While there were a number of prior entries (MUDs, AD&D, etc.), the concept of highly customizable skills truly evolved with the entrance of massively multiplayer online games.
More than anything, MMOs are an opportunity for people to inhabit the skin of an idealized version of ourselves, unfettered by the expectations and requirements of the real world. Flexible skill mechanics became a critical component to providing depth to the player’s experience. Creating opportunities for customization allowed the player to believe in the unique nature of their avatar. The choices a player makes with respect to their character help build their identity within the game, which is the foundation for immersion.
Yea, skills are that important. There are two basic systems worth discussing.
Free Form Skill Schemes
I love these systems because they permit outrageous outcomes. The developer basically comes along, creates 50 different skills and lets you mix and match to your heart’s content. If you decide to go off and creating a sheepherding thief that dabbles in necromancy, that’s you’re own damn affair. If you end up looking like a jackass, then that’s on you.
Ultima Online and Eve Online are two excellent examples of Free Form Skill Schemes. UO offered was over 50 skills and 700 skillpoints to spend however you saw fit. This permitted a tremendous amount of customization and fostered a strong sense ownership in my characters. I believed in their uniqueness, even when confronted with another map making spooky speaker. This was powerful sustenance for my teenage soul.
I did some truly…innovative builds in UO. I had a master cartographer that could talk to ghosts. No, it wasn’t viable. No, I don’t care. You know what? I don’t have to explain myself to you people. Here I am POURING MY HEART ONTO THE PAGE and you roll in here and say I can’t make maps and chill with Casper.
Shame on you.
Eve Online was the game of my lawyering days. Again, numerous skills with the ability to pick and choose as you saw fit. What made Eve magical was that you acquired skills passively after you selected them, whether you were logged in or not. This meant I could crank through a 12 hour billable day and come home to find my character working just as hard as I did. I made a miner. He died often.
These systems thrive on the strange proclivities of the user. You end up with a much more diverse set of characters (though there is certainly some clumping around optimal builds) which makes the interactions far more varied. This leads to immersion, which leads to the DARK SIDE, or engagement. One of the two.
Simply: Unique character ==> Unique Interactions ==> Immersion ==> Engagement.
But Free Form Skill Schemes suffer from a major drawback. The highly customizable characters are intended to create their own stories, but they’re not particularly well suited for accomplishing complicated developer-driven stories. For example, my stylus weilding cartographer is unlikely to unseat the Lich King from World of Warcraft. So here comes the compromise: the Skill Tree.
A Skill Tree offers flexibility within a confined system. Typically, a player belongs a particular class and receives a limited selection of skills to choose from that are related to this class. This system has the advantage of permitting customization while ensuring that a greater percentage of the playerbase will fit into the types of roles required to advance developer-driven story objectives. Which means we get raid content, which massively extends the life expectancy of a user. Most importantly, the user feels like they are a unique contributor to the success in that objective.
Skill Trees increase the likelihood the user will experience success within the game, which engenders good will and engagement. Some people get bitter when they invest resources and time into a completely useless character. Clearly there is something wrong with these people.
Social & Mobile Games
Skills are largely absent from social & mobile games, despite their potential. Take Farmville — if the goal is to make a truly social environment, having individuals specialize in skills (Ex: Sally is a Level 10 Builder, Greg is a Level 15 Harvester) would create a strong engagement loop. By specializing, players feel unique and needed by other players, which strengthens social bonds, which enhances engagement, which encourages further specialization. The strength of WoW is in its guilds.
Whether a Free Form Scheme or a Skill Tree is appropriate is largely contingent on the type of world the developer is seeking to create. In most instances, a Skill Tree will be appropriate (since most social and mobile games can’t support large sandbox environments), but in almost all cases, there is a benefit to permitting specialization. Any time a player is placed in contact with another player, it becomes critical to differentiate to build that sense of ownership. Skills are a simple way to accomplish that objective.
JM: I for one welcome the arrival of Skill Trees in social/mobile. There’s some examples of it already, among the more hardcore social titles, like Lucky Space. In fact, that’s my biggest compulsion in the game to get my Crystium equipment up to full bore. Quests are mere XP generators, but I love actually getting better at things. I’m looking forward to more social games that adopt the mechanics that drive us in the proven game world. Rares, anyone?