Monday, January 30, 2012

Skills to Pay the Bills

If you look at any modern FPS game, you will see that they all feature some sort of progression system. Most will offer XP for completing objectives and getting kills in games. This in turn helps you rank up, which in turn unlocks more items for you to use in games. A good example of this is in more recent offerings of either the Battlefield series or the Call of Duty series. But how will this system of progression work for a truly persistent game such as DUST 514?

Looking at CCP’s previous work, EVE Online is a unique game among most MMOs for many reasons. Among those many reasons, one of them is its skill system. For those unfamiliar, instead of grinding away at the same action over and over until you have completed it an arbitrarily defined number of times, you instead train a single skill at a time, in real time. This training goes on regardless of what you’re doing or whether you’re even playing.

However, this leads many to believe that newer players will never be as skilled as older players. And they’re right. It’s impossible for a newer player to get more Skill points than an older player. To help balance this though, all the really advanced high tier skills have longer training times than the lower ones, with some taking over two months of real time! Each of the skills is also split into five levels, with each level taking several times longer than the previous to complete. Usually what this means is that newer players are specialists, able to do one particular thing quite well and older players are generalists, able to do many things quite well. But there is also a second part to these skills.

Most skills in EVE Online in addition to allowing you to use certain modules, also improve your performance at something. For example, Engineering will increase the available powergird on your ships by 5% per level, giving you more fitting options. Basically, this means that all other things equal, the player with the most useful skill points (i.e. skill points invested in skills that are relevant to the situation – no point in being able to fly carriers if you’re flying a frigate) would win.

So what about DUST 514, an FPS game at heart? So far CCP has hinted that this skill training system will make its return. Does this mean that newer players are going to be stuck doing one task until they gain enough skill points to branch out? I don’t think so.

Basic skills (such as the ability to use a sniper rifle) will be lower tier skills, being very quick to learn and serving as a launching point for more advanced skills. This means that anyone can quickly pick up the ability to use a sniper rifle. However, for the truly dedicated sniper, getting the sniper skill maximised (by say, training it for 9 days) will unlock several new skills, allowing them to do things such as increase rounds carried or unlock the ability to use more advanced attachments such as IR scopes. This would give the dedicated sniper an advantage with his chosen weapon, but not make it impossible for anyone to pick one up and use it quickly.

But what about the buffs that you receive through skills you ask? Let’s say for instance that there is a skill that improves the shield capacity on tanks. You would think that this would give someone an  advantage going into a fight. And you would be right. However, just how much of an advantage all depends on the amount of bonuses these skills give. If it has maximum 25% bonus, I can see some problems.  But if it’s only a 10% bonus, I can still see someone with reasonable player skill being able to still take them on and win without it.

Remember, there is a skill training time trade-off to take into consideration as well. While you can decide to maximise every skill you have, it's not always efficient. Each level gives exactly the same amount of bonus, and the majority of the time in a skill is in it's last level. Using the tank example, you can train it to level four in 2 days, but the fifth level takes another 14 to complete. So you have to chose whether that last 2% is more of an advantage over getting several levels in something else. So using our previous example, someone could spend the two days and bring the difference down to 2%, which can easily be covered with player skill.

In the end, it's a trade-off between specialisation and generalisation.

However, there's also another factor at work here. Each type of item also has a number of quality varieties. While many games have different weapons available to the player, they are usually balanced by having certain strengths and weaknesses. For example, a particular Assault Rifle may have better accuracy and less damage drop off  over range, making it suitable for long ranges. Another one might have a faster firing rate but lower accuracy, making it more suitable for close ranges. But how do you factor in having the same weapon profile, but with some or all of it's attributes improved?

In balanced FPS games, who wins depends more on who has more actual skill rather than who has the best gun/armour/other item/stats. Certain items lend themselves to certain strategies (snipers at long range, explosives against vehicles) but over all, it’s all about how you use them. So will having a 5% or 10% bonus to damage help? Sure. Will it break the game? I don't think so.

But what about when we combine it with skills? Our experienced player has a prototype gun (+10%) and two skills that increases his damage with his chosen weapon by a further 5% and 10% respectively. This means that they are getting a whopping 25% bonus  over someone without the skills or a prototype weapon.

But what do you actually need to do to get to this stage? To use a prototype weapon, you might need to train some higher level skills to their maximum level. That could be weeks of training time easily for the last level alone, never mind the prerequisite skills. Not to mention that the gun itself is very likely to be expensive. Using an example of a similar situation in EVE Online, officer type items are the best in the game. However, they rarely see combat against players on all but the largest and most expensive of ships due to their rarity and cost. Often these modules can for billions of ISK each, more than a pile of fleet fitted battleships.  

But if EVE Online has taught CCP anything it's that you should never factor in something being "too expensive" when balancing. Veteran players are more likely to be sitting on large piles of ISK provided by either long mercenary careers or from EVE Alliances that are bank rolling their operations. While some of the most powerful gear may only be available initially with AUR, the open market will ensure that there is a steady supply of these items available for ISK.

So what can the new player do to even the odds? EVE Online partly solves this by having the different ship classes less effectively able to engage classes below them. This means that Frigates are still capable of attacking Battleships and not being instantly vaporised. It's still a tough fight for new players and more often than not they will lose, but this is usually because of their inexperience in combat

So can we use this type of system to solve this problem in DUST 514? We already have in a sense. By having certain weapons built for certain purposes (such as a sniper for long range combat) with implied drawbacks (reduced ability to fight at close range), we can make sure that even the newest players can quickly learn to use the basic tools to over come any situation with sufficient player skill.
In addition, CCP should make sure that the total advantage that a veteran player can derive from the skills and equipment he uses does not give him an advantage that another player using standard equipment of the same type and with no skills can not over come with sufficient player skill. This is important. Equipment should have reasonable but not game breaking bonuses. And with regards to skills, care needs to be taken that they do not stack to heavily. It would not have been such a problem in our previous example if the skills had been 2.5% and 5% along with a 5% gun.

If that's all too long for you, let me put it simply. For DUST 514 to work, player skill with the right tools needs to be the most important asset. No amount of shiny guns or awesome in-game skills should be able to save a terrible player from being dominated.  But on the other hand, assuming all other things equal, equipment and in-game skills should go a reasonable way towards stacking the odds.

Update: After an interview with CCP on CAST 514, it seems that DUST 514 will be getting the same skill system as EVE Online, but with a twist. While passive skilling over time will still be present, you can accelerate this process by actively fighting battles. For more details, listen to Episode 1 of CAST 514


  1. Do you think that there will be books in game that you can purchase that will either half the time of a skill or give it to you completely? Do you think that everything like advance or prototype weapons, vehicles and drops suits will require blueprints?

    1. Not sure if you are EVE player, so;

      EVE used to have learning skills which permanently boosted your characters attributes so that you could train faster. The problem was that training became a long and tedious time sink for new players so they were removed and all characters had their attributes raised to compensate (everyone trained at 'full' speed afterwards).

      What EVE does still have is Attribute Implants. These are installed in your clone to boost your attributes up, but can be lost if your 'capsule' is destroyed when you lose your ship (think escape pod). Dust514 might have something equivalent, maybe in the form of a booster drug to temporarily accelerate training?

      I suspect that Dust characters will start with basic skills to use most equipment but will then buy skill books for more advanced gear. I also think that blueprints will be needed to produce at least some equipment through Planetary Interaction (EVE's planet based industry) as CCP have said that Dust players will want to take planets for their own use.

    2. If CCP goes for the same skill training plan, I don't think they will in they way you mentioned. Ugleb has answered what I think they would do instead well. However, I have the feeling that all gear (bar the most basic you start the game with) will be player manufactured. But that's content for the next blog.

  2. Great post Grideris, I think it explains the situation perfectly, and I also wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion. Thanks!

    1. Glad you liked it.

    2. totally agree. player skill should be the most important factor and not the skills/gear u use automatically determining the outcome of a fight.

    3. I totally agree this was an excellent post, and will undoubtedly spark lots of debates between now and game release. i look forward to diving into dust with enthusiasm and finding out. i have several clan members already prepping for dust by reading and watching everything we can get hold of. Heres to seeing every one on the field either with us or in my sights lol CHEERS!

  3. Nice Grid. I was thinking on writing something like that on my FR Blog.
    Sort of a "what can eve teach us about Dust ?" series.

    But.... i dont know EVE so, gotta find some french Capsuleers to interview lol.

    keep up the GW

  4. I kinda thought of this way to, how Skilsla re goign to work in Dust. If you played eve, its kinda obvious that thsi is going to be like that.

  5. 7 year eve player here. While Dust skill will certainly mostly be based on the Eve model, it is probably worthwhile to think about what aspects of it will be brought over directly from Eve and what differences we might see.

    Cost (time and money): Eve is subscription based. Dust will not be. Each paid Eve account can only train skill on one character at a time, so Eve skills not only take real time to train they also take real money. I agree that Dust players will not be grinding skills, and they will be time based, but I am pretty sure that there will be skillbooks in Dust and they will cost real money (i.e. aurum.) Serious players will make sure they keep their characters training, but a casual player might decide not to shell out for skillbooks to save money (their loss.) If you want to train multple characters, I don't see anything to stop you but you will have to buy those books (and once you train a book you can't give or sell it to your buddy.)

    Attributes: Originally Eve had attributes that were fixed for the life of the character (and the process for choosing them was somewhat arbitrary.) Eve has really moved away from that model. They have removed the learning skills that boosted attributes. The have made the attribute selection process more transparent. They have introduced attribute remaps to allow you to change your attributes and each new player starts with three remaps, everyone can remap once a year, and they've been giving out bonus remaps the last two years at Christmas. Frankly, it would not surprise me if attributes are not brought over to Dust.

    Skill Levels: In Eve, each skillbook has five levels. The first three levels usually take only a few hours to train. After that each additional level takes 4.66 longer to train than the time you have already put into the skill. Each skill has training time multiplier that ranges from 1 to 16. So the big skills take 16 times longer to train than the starter skills. Skills also have prerequisites before you can start training them. I see no reason for them to change all this when they bring it over from Eve, although they might add experience points to unlock certain skills.

    Skill Queue: It used to be in Eve that you had to log in when your skill finished training to start your new skill. This resulted in people setting their alarm clocks for odd hours of the night to log on. They have since implemented a skill queue that you can fill for at least 24 hours. Personally I don't like this implementation. I would have preferred a two skill queue that simply said start this skill after the current one is done even if it is more than 24 hours away. I hope they rethink it, but I'm sure there will be a skill queue of some kind.

    New Players: The old character creation process used to give you certain starting skills that were based on your race and career. Now Eve gives you an accelerated training bonus for new characters to allow you to pick your own training plan but still get you up to speed reasonably quickly. I can't imagine console players wanting to spend that much time thinking about skills before they jump into the game so I expect that everyone will get a certain set of base skills that they start with. They can then choose which ones they want to skill up first, but at some point they will have the shell out for more advanced skillbooks (and gain the experience points) to use the really fun toys.

    1. I forgot implants. I frankly don't expect to see attribute implants in Dust514. Of course this is all speculation

  6. Claire Voyant, I'm not so sure Dust won't be subscription based. Or something similar anyway.

    See that part in the last interview at develop-online :
    "With Dust you have a very unique hybrid free-to-play model, in that you have to purchase the game but thereafter will have to either pay for a subscription or earn one by being successful in the game. Is that still the plan?

    P├ętursson: Yes the initial cover charge is almost like early access. The people that will buy it when it launches will be there to shape the whole experience. We think this is our best way to find a committed audience, and later – who knows – we may open the door to everyone."

    When i read this, i think "just like Eve".

    And then, there's a tweet from him answering to a player asking for precisions about that "subscripion":
    @Mike_deVoid #dust514 I am referring to potential optional way of subscribing to a certain amount of currency per month.

    So, it is hard to know exactly how the model will work.

    To get back on the skill training. i hope it will be as close to Eve's as possible. Plain and simple ^^.

    And i agree with you Claire when you say that attributes such as intelligence, charisma etc... may not be present in Dust. And therefore, implants would have no reason to exist.

    not knowing is killing me.

    1. I had seen that comment before, but I think I completely misread it.
      It seems to be saying that they expect to change their revenue model for Dust sometime after launch.
      The initial model will be like every other similar game. You will buy the game and get unlimited free-to-play access.
      At some point they hope to switch to a pay-to-play model, probably at some expansion down the road.
      So a lot of what we've been expecting for the Dust economy may not be present at launch. I understand their concern about messing up the sandbox, but I have to say I'm a little disappointed that they might be taking it so slowly.

    2. On second thought, I think they are just reiterating what was said in the earlier article on the same website. The initial purchase price of the game will be given back as in-game currency to encourage a more dedicated playerbase, but after the game matures it will may be made free to download to suck in the newbies.

      Remember Himlar didn't say "subscription" in the answer to the question and his tweet says "potential optional" which implies that it is potential and optional.

      I think the skillbook idea fits this nicely. Skillbooks are optional. You don't have to train up to drive a tank.

      Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me if the microtransaction side of the dust economy was purely from skillbooks, BPCs, and vanity items. You could buy a BPC and then build it with stuff either sold to you by eve players doing PI or salvaged from previous battlefields (or both.)

    3. I just reread Hilmar's tweet and I can't help but feel that he missed a word in there somewhere:

      "I am referring to potential optional way of subscribing [compared] to a certain amount of currency per month."

      If so, he is only confirming the original microtransaction model. It would be unfortunate if his clarification only confused matters more.

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