Interlude: Skill Trainers

Out of all the things mentioned in yesterday’s Wildstar beta post, the one thing that caught the most attention was that of Skill Trainers. Wildstar has them. And Wildstar having them is, to me, emblematic of a fault-line beneath it’s foundation that will undermine the game’s long-term viability. Hyperbolic much? Maybe. But it’s not about the Skill Trainers themselves, it’s about what they represent.

First though, me and Skill Trainers go way back. Here is a post from SWTOR’s beta back in 2011, which included this picture:

For serious.

For serious.

In fact, I’m just going to quote myself:

This is not to say there were no pressing issues afoot. Light/Dark side issues aside, some of the game mechanics feel they came out of a time capsule buried when Gary Gygax was still alive. Talent trees? How quaint. But seriously, there was another matter which was important enough to submit proper beta feedback about: [above photo]

I am not sure who was the first game designer who thought it would be fun to present players with the dilemma of stopping mid-quest/dungeon to trek all the way back to their trainer to get Rank 3 of Explosive Shell for it’s increased damage, or simply Troopering (*rimshot*) on without it, but they deserve a Rank VII Punch to the face. If there was some kind of RP scene showing you how to get a little more juice out of your grenade shots or whatever, I could understand and appreciate that. But if I can level up in the field and magically grow stronger and tougher to kill from one moment to the next, I should be able to get that +10-20 damage in those same moments. Even Gygax let our Fireballs deal 8d6 damage when we went from 7th to 8th level!

Skill Trainers are an anachronism, a piece of game design debris that was introduced once long ago, and thoughtlessly picked up by subsequent games out of some kind of misguided notion of tradition. Skill Trainers in MMOs are almost always Skill venders, granting access to abilities you have already unlocked by leveling in exchange for (a symbolic) thirty pieces of silver. That is the extent of their function in most games. There is no gameplay attached to them, no lore, no advice given to the proper use of the skills you instantly learned Matrix-style, no training montage, nothing. There are no interesting decisions when it comes to learning the skills – you are simply that much weaker and incomplete until you make the proper offering to archaic game design.

I could see someone making a case for Skill Vendors if they were hidden somewhere in the world (promotes exploration). Or if you had to use the skill several times against training dummies or whatever (demonstrates its use). Or if they had any gameplay use whatsoever. As it stands, the extent of the Pro-Vendor side seems to be it being confusing when abilities just pop into your bar/spellbook. Er… okay. You could just, you know, continue not using the skills until you you feel comfortable opening the spellbook and reading what they do (which is exactly what you’d do even with Skill Vendors). Hell, just roleplay the experience by not reading anything until you double-click on a random NPC in town somewhere.

As I said at the start, my main problem with Skill Vendors is not necessarily with them per se (although they are terrible), my problem is what they represent. If a development studio thinks they are a good idea – or worse, didn’t even bother analyzing their inclusion – what other nonsense is going to be brought back? Attunements? 40-man raids? Oh wait…

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Posted on March 18, 2014, in Wildstar and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. On the flip side, the core arguments of the anti-trainer side are inconvenience and the relatively boring nature of the trip back to town. Should automaticity be the default starting point and should every mundane effort on the part of the player have to justify itself by presenting an interesting strategic or tactical choice?

    One could reduce either side to the absurd. The inventory comparison: we all know you’re going to sell your junk when full. Your acquisitive power and income curve simply suffer until you do; there is no stimulating decision involved. Should you not just always be accompanied by a vendor? The ‘rest xp’ area which is usually an inn or town: logging out there is obviously superior. All that’s left is the inconvenience of returning from the wild, so why not grant bonus offline xp everywhere?

    I’m not rabidly pro-trainer, but I value the immersion argument a little higher. Sure, the act of training skills is not interesting, but they’re part of the bounty of your adventures just like loot, crafting materials, and so on. There’s a feeling of returning to some outpost of civilisation, whatever that might be, and redeeming in various ways what you’ve done ‘out there’.

    • [...] should every mundane effort on the part of the player have to justify itself by presenting an interesting strategic or tactical choice?

      I would say yes, of course it should. One of the fundamental pricipals of good writing is Chekhov’s Gun: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Likewise, if some element in a game contributes nothing to the gameplay, then why does it exist?

      It’s funny that you mention inventory management, because that sort of proves my point. There is gameplay and strategy involved with organizing your bag space, deciding whether to loot all the things, or forgoing a few copper pieces from vendor trash in order to save space for more important items. You can seek out larger bags to make it less of an issue. There is gameplay there.

      Where is the gameplay with a skill vendor? The decision to leave the questing area to purchase skills you already unlocked by leveling up? Why do stats go up automatically, but not the skills? Perhaps we should visit a gear vendor to unlock the ability to equip items that we get from mobs and quests too. Even if you consider selling items to be analogous, it’s undeniable that skill vendors are much more scarce than regular vendors you can unload your mob debris onto.

  2. To answer the question you asked me in yesterday’s thread, yes I was serious. There are two really simple reasons I like skill trainers as opposed to instant skills:

    1. I like natural breaks in gameplay.

    2. I like buying things from vendors.

    The suggestions you make in the penultimate paragraph are all good ones in their way but they assume that I, as a player, am not getting actual perceived value from the game withholding things from me until I take an action. This is a personality issue that involves more psychology than game design.

    My enjoyment in stopping what I am doing and going back to town to visit a vendor to buy a new spell has little to do with roleplaying or fear that I won’t understand how to use the new ability. It’s much more like when you go to see a play and there’s an intermission between the Acts, or when you go to see a band and there’s a half-hour break between the support group and the main act.

    I like it when the game gives me opportunities to stop, take a rest, change gear. Yes, of course I could decide to do that at any time but having mechanisms that occur in the game which present as good times for a break are something I value and which give me pleasure. This also ties in with what I was saying on a comment thread at Tobold’s blog yesterday, namely that efficiency doesn’t come very high on my hierarchy of needs.

    You’re absolutely right that having to go visit a vendor to get a new spell isn’t efficient, but I’m saying that, for me, it is entertaining and I value entertainment over efficiency every time. How is it entertaining? Well that’s item 2 up there – I like shopping. Opening that vendor and looking at his list is fun.

    It’s especially fun if the spell or ability comes in as an item that I buy then have to find in my pack and do something with like scribe it into a book. All these are tactile actions that I value and the texture they create is a big part of what I like about MMORPGs. I like the fiddly stuff for its own sake. That, of course, is the part that’s almost impossible to explain to people (that’d be most people I’d guess) who don’t get that same little frisson of pleasure just from moving imaginary objects from place to place.

    So, when the game designer chooses efficiency over texture and puts the spell straight in my book so I can use it immediately and not stop fighting, rather than giving me something it feels like he’s taken something away.

    Of course all this could be solved in the same way most MMO gameplay issues could be solved – we could be given the choice. There could be a toggle in the UI that says “Grant Abilities Automatically On Level-Up” and you could toggle it on and I could toggle it off and then we’d both be happy.

    • @bhagpuss

      “Of course all this could be solved in the same way most MMO gameplay issues could be solved – we could be given the choice. There could be a toggle in the UI that says “Grant Abilities Automatically On Level-Up” and you could toggle it on and I could toggle it off and then we’d both be happy.”

      I don’t know about options like this in a MMO since this means we are no longer playing the same game and we are not having the same game experience. I know this is very small thing but where do you stop? The whole point of playing a MMO over single player game is that we are all have the same shared experiences and letting people change rule like this sort of take away from that concept.

  3. There is also the EQ2 solution to this… when you get new level you are automatically given the “apprentice” version of the skill but you need to go to trainer or auction house to get better versions of the said spell.

  4. I used to think the same way as you, but the D3 and the changes to Wow have caused me to change my mind.

    Principle: New abilities should be gained when the player is not busy or distracted. Ideally when the player is in a safe place. This gives the player time to digest those abilities and rework her ability bars.

    The thing is that levelling up usually occurs when you are busy in the middle of killing something or doing quests, etc. Especially in D3, when you’re often in the middle of an elite pack and all you can think is “AMG, random stuff appearing on my screen, what are the mobs doing!”

    If you follow that principle, then learning abilities at a trainer makes good sense, because the player acquires the new ability in a safe place, and can digest it at leisure.

    Abilities gained through talents are slightly different, because you get the talent point, but you don’t assign it right away. Instead you assign it during downtime, though the downtime can be out in the field.

    I suppose you could do something where you can get the abilities on leveling, but you have to unlock them by clicking on them. That way you can unlock them in the field during quick downtime. So they are closer to talent points than trainers.

    To sum up, I think it’s better for the game when players (especially new players) get new abilities during downtime, rather than in the middle of combat. Skill trainers are one way of ensuring that.

    • Unless you’re in some sort of gauntlet event, a “safe place” is typically 5 second after you finish killing whatever you were fighting. And I’m not sure why you’d need to be somewhere safer than the nearest quest hub in any case.

      I dunno. When I play these games, getting new abilities is the entire point of leveling; absolutely nothing that gets unlocked comes as a surprise to me, because I’ve likely been anticipating ability X for the last six levels. Who cares about +20 HP or +3 Int? New buttons are usually the only things that augment your gameplay.

      I’d be fine with your “click the ability to learn it” compromise. I just see no point in unlocking an ability through leveling, but not getting it for several levels later because the skill vendor is halfway around the world. That’s a textbook timesink.

  5. I do feel compelled to mention that, way back when WoW launched on my first character or two, I regularly couldn’t afford to buy all my skill ups when I got access to them. So I actually did have to decide what to prioritize between skillups, professions, bags. etc. Admittedly once you got a character to max level you could raise enough that your alts could probably just buy everything (and then inflation made it a bit of a joke).

    But yes, in 1.01, skill trainers did actually represent an interesting decision. Remember that one of the reasons that druids get travel forms was because it cost so much for them to train all their skills.

    • Yes, and I remember how it wasn’t just whole skills you were buying, but dozens of ranks of individual skills. But what kind of balance paradigm is that? The devs thought level 6 was a good time for Rank 2 Fireball, but you can’t actually afford it until level 8 (or whatever). A roundabout veteran player bonus? A low-level gold-sink?

      Honestly, I feel like this is a scenario in which we’re inventing explanations for things that the devs themselves had no concrete reason for.

  6. The best system of skill acquisition I’ve ever seen was actually in Guild Wars (the first one, not the second). Specific mobs in the world would have a particular ‘elite’ skill they possessed. To learn this skill, you needed to seek out these mobs and kill them. This is much more interesting to me than either visiting a trainer or auto-learning a skill Matrix-style. It combined exploration along with a bit of RP. “Hey, that mob just used a whirl-wind attack on me, guess I better get out of the way when he does that”. After he’s dead, you’ve seen how it works and how to defeat him, and now that skill is part of your arsenal. I never understood why that mechanic didn’t make it into more games, especially GW2.

  7. Limited inventory serves, for me, as a method of breaking up gameplay. I know that in WoW I can only go mine so many ores or gather so many herbs before I must visit a town or bank. And then while you’re there, you can log off in the rested XP zone, since it is handily close by.

    I don’t know about the argument from overload. To me, skills are never processed until I use them for a while anyway, so it doesn’t matter how they are acquired. I can sympathize with the “I leveled up in combat and my bar was full so the skill got dumped in my book who knows where”, but the solution to this is a better spellbook, not skill trainers.

    Even in the case where there is an RPish aspect to skill training, like if the monk area in WoW were expanded and applied to all classes, you still have the opportunity cost aspect of it. What area of the game are you willing to trade off on quality because they made training skills more robust?