some skillset design feelings

a shoulder injury has been keeping me off the computer these past few weeks, drastically slowing down my work. during my time offline i’ve been looking ahead at prospective future projects and decided to write these notes down on my phone while i was thinking about one. they’re mostly unedited, partly because i’m still trying to limit computer time, but also because i don’t want to. editing is always a whole project and i’ve got enough of those as it is. so it’s rough writing for rough times...

something i'm not satisfied with in my existing games is the tightness of character skillsets. in ocean oi each character had a very specific role that each of their skills was essential in performing, their skillsets were no more or less than what was necessary. something about this really bugs me. i keep designing characters around one or two "key skills"... i think it paints an overly static picture of characters. having one dedicated role and one skill that constitutes the core of that role means you're using the same skill most of the time, and which skill that is never changes. ocean oi made sure i was using it thoughtfully by making choice of target really important, which kept it from being mindless, but contributed to a puzzley "right answer"-ness in the game, which was not really intended and which has never sat quite right with me.

lately i think it's more interesting for a character to have lots of skills they can use in different circumstances, even if they have a dedicated role, and even if those skills only get used rarely. i understand that shorter games like ocean oi don't necessarily give you the time to experiment with large skillsets to find their best use or to experience obscure use cases. these are both fair - small was probably the way to go for ocean oi. but in a long game i think it's important for the way you use characters to change, even if it just means going from fire 1 to fire 2 (i think vanilla upgrades can be just fine, it can feel really good to gradually be able to afford to regularly use the more expensive spell). in mystic ark the "best" spell for a character changes regularly as you pick up new ones and also as enemy resistances shift - this experience is far from perfect but still means that the different attacks in my repertoire are in conversation with each other in a way that demands my consciousness. it also opens the door to the same character fulfilling different roles, or the same role differently, when favored options are blocked (perhaps by rampant elemental resistance, as in paladin’s quest), providing some variety from turn to turn or battle to battle. having secondary niches, whether they're commonly or rarely invoked, makes characters feel less instrumental and more rounded, which i think helps combat that sense of rigid puzzliness or solvability and creates more room for expressiveness (which is more important than strategy), especially if those skills are felt to be potentially useful and not dismissed as noise. even having noise to filter out can be interesting and expressive! trying to find a use for something is an interesting process even if it ends with the decision that it's useless. multiple niches per character also support an environment where versatility can be a strength, marking hyperspecialization as a sort of high risk/high reward paradigm under which a very powerful but narrow character may struggle to contribute if their singular purpose is obstructed. (the chief value of such an environment is that i find it very interesting - it's always cool to find new dimensions in which to define characters!)

(neither approach is superior, they have different properties and support different ends, and i've found both tight and noisy skillsets attractive at different times.)

related, i'm finding myself frustrated with character progression systems that let you choose which skills to learn and in what order. my gut feeling, mostly responding to my own play tendencies, is that given the chance, players will pick the most essential skills first and delay or decline learning peripheral ones. although they won't always be able to reliably predict that, i think it's really unappealing to progress from the most powerful or foundational skills to the least. that seems like a good way to promote a static image of how a character functions and to reduce the chance of players changing the way they use that character over time. marginal skills going unlearned leaves less room for me to be surprised at how my skillset can serve me in unexpected ways, and costs associated with learning skills discourage the experimentation that would reveal new things about how skills work and work together

for these reasons i’m drawn to systems like traditional level-based skill acquisition that would let me (as designer) curate skillsets and control the pacing to ensure each move has an opportunity to receive player attention. big varied premade skillsets provide me (as player) with as much grounds for expression as building smaller ones myself from a skill tree, and denying me and my power-seeking whims control over the direction of a character’s growth lets their skillset be a stronger statement about that character’s own aptitudes and inclinations. with meaningful combat options at my disposal, the decisions i make in battle are just as important a site of expression as the decisions i make outside. between the two, i'm more interested in exploring in-battle expression right now, and in terms of out of battle expression, i'm more attracted to party selection than individual character customization