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Trait Issues and Possible Solution

traits customization specialization major traits skill stats

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#1 RetrogamesX

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Posted 14 June 2012 - 10:44 PM

Reading through various discussions here and on other forums lead me to spend a little time over the last week pondering the state of the Trait system in Guild Wars 2. This thinking eventually congealed into a list of bullet points, which eventually expanded to the write-up below. I'm posting / having this posted at various GW2 sites around the net because it received an overwhelmingly positive response from the forum I originally posted it at.

Yes. It is long. Please be respectful and keep the "Wall of Text" and "TL;DR" comments to yourself if you feel there is just too much to take in here.


Review:
Guild Wars 2’s trait system has players spending 70 points across 5 different trait lines, with each line having a maximum capacity of 30 points. At 5, 15 and 25 point, players unlock predetermined Minor Traits, while at 10, 20 and 30 points, they unlock one Major Trait slot. There are currently 12 Major Traits per line, but we are told there will be 15 per line at launch. This, however, is only half the story.

BWE2 introduces the concept of Trait Tiers. At 10 points into a line, instead of having all 12 Major traits to choose from, only 6 are available. These are known as ‘tier 1’ traits. At 20 points, 4 more traits are added. These are ‘tier 2’. Finally, at 30 points, 2 more traits are unlocked, and as you might expect are ‘tier 3’ traits. This new approach is far less open-ended than the old, and in my opinion is a step in the wrong direction for this particular game.


Reactions:
Many will state that an open-ended system will lead to players making poor trait choices and producing bad builds. The argument goes that other players will make these bad build decisions, impacting the players around them and their ability to achieve their goals (be it capturing objectives in PVP or defeating a dungeon in PVE). Thus, trait tiers are a boon in their eyes, as it produces a system that is foolproof.

My opinion on this matter is simple; create a system any fool can use and only a fool will want to use it. We don’t object to or suggest rule changes to other games simply because they are too difficult to understand. We do not, for example, need to change Poker to create an easier set of rules for players to play by. We simply expect players who don’t understand why a Four-of-a-Kind beats a Straight to go back to games like Go Fish or, if they’re really simple, War. We do not simplify Chess, we expect people to go play Checkers if they can’t grasp the movement of the pieces.

MMO players will be familiar with what happens when developers listen too closely to player feedback and make changes based on the lowest common denominator. World of Warcraft is replacing their entire talent ‘tree’ approach with a mere three choices every 15 levels. A system that previously had 90 possible points is now reduced to 18 choices. And I need not go into much detail on why Star Wars Galaxies suffered after the notorious New Game Enhancement went into effect and the involved process of becoming a Jedi became a single click process.

Another typical response is that creating limitations yields greater creativity. The example passed on by ArenaNet in a recent Q&A session is that instead of giving players 100 flavors of ice cream with only a handful of good flavors, they are instead focusing on making only 10 flavors, but all of them excellent. The premise is that the ice cream shop has spent all of their time making 100 flavors that they can’t take the time to make them all excellent, with their three flavors only existing out of sheer chance.

The logic in this example is somewhat faulty. The trait system still has 60 major traits (at launch, this will increase to 75), thus the metaphorical ice cream shop still has 100 flavors. The only thing that has changed is that in order to taste “Chocolate”, you now must eat “Vanilla” and “Strawberry” first. You’re not allowed to enjoy the flavors you want when you want them. Instead, you have to sample a bunch of junk you may not like before you’re allowed to have the good stuff.


Flaws:
There are several flaws in the approach ArenaNet is taking and I cannot possibly cover them all here, but I will focus on those that are most obvious to me and with which I find to have the most impact.

In my opinion, the largest issue with Trait Tiers is that they create artificial barriers for character specialization. For example, a player who wishes to create a “Burn” build may find that the best traits for his concept are scattered across multiple lines and buried behind multiple tiers. The traits are there, but the build is impossible because of the limits placed by the developer. This is either a result of the developer wishing to stop the Burn build from being produced (because it is too powerful, for example) or the developer simply not seeing the potential for such a build and therefore spreading the relevant traits around in their ignorance.

This is not intended as an insult towards ArenaNet. It is not a willful ignorance, mind you, simply the reality of an open-ended system; not all ends can be predicted.

Additionally, creating trait tiers only buries the problem rather than solving the underlying cause. The ‘best’ trait will always be selected, whether the system is open or not. Putting a trait behind a barrier only serves to put more focus on it; it is now no longer a ‘really good trait’ but it is actually now ‘elite’ (ArenaNet’s term, not mine), an ‘upper tier’ trait. The problem with this approach is that it puts both the developers and players into the mindset that the entire trait line must function and support the function of these elite traits. For example, a tier 3 trait that is focused on Burn Damage must have all of the burn-related traits in that line, which now becomes the “Burn” line. If they’re spread between two lines, the Burn Build will be written off as inefficient and players who were looking to create a playstyle build around Burn Damage are getting the shaft.

This, of course, runs the danger of having one line with all of the right traits built within, one where there is no need to delve into a second line. Since it is a more efficient method of spending points, this will inevitably become one of the de facto ‘best’ builds. Because ArenaNet cannot possibly predict all build possibilities (at least, not without destroying the entire system, as World of Warcraft has done), there is always the potential that a powerful build will slip through the cracks. Thus, ArenaNet can never balance the trait system (as it exists) with or without Traits. Traits simply makes it easier to sweep those imbalances under the rug.

Finally, one philosophical flaw is that to unlock all of their traits, players must race to max level. This is completely contradictory to ArenaNet’s stated goal of making the entire game the ‘end game’.

Issues:
So now that we’ve taken a (very brief and by no means complete) look at the potential flaws in the system, we have to ask why ArenaNet decided to implement trait tiers. We can’t know the exact reasoning for their decision, but my opinion is that it seems to stem from the perceived difficulty in balancing 60 simultaneous choices against one another.

A large part of this has to do with the way in which traits are built. Currently, the traits as they exist now are very number centric; x% chance to ______, increases damage by y, +z to _____. These are all typical of the genre and so far as MMORPGs are concerned, and there’s nothing wrong with them if that’s what the players want.

When customization is heavily number-oriented, inevitably a few trait builds appear where the math running the game gives those setups a greater advantage.The theorycrafters (a nebulous splinter of the playerbase that delights in setting up spreadsheets and arguing on the internet about the mathematically superior way to play) get their calculators in and suddenly there’s a ‘best’ build that players must adopt, or be soundly defeated. Not because they lack skill at the game, but because the mechanics running the game are not in their favor.

Thus in most MMOs, these methods of character customization need to be restricted somehow. This is likely why we’re seeing trait tiers, to keep the more powerful traits buried behind arbitrary barriers so that players cannot possess too many powerful traits at once. Under the previous system, players could cherry pick the ‘best’ traits from each line with a minimal investment (10 points). Now, to reach the best skills, they must invest a full 30 points.

The core gameplay of all role playing games (and thus MMORPGs) is built around numbers, so the players who best understand and manipulate those numbers are inevitably the best players. However, ArenaNet is taking great efforts to make Guild Wars 2 different from the typical MMO. One area in which they are shaking things up is putting more emphasis on player skill, on each individual’s ability to physically interact with the game. While this includes the ‘twitch’ factor of being able to control the game better (better hand/eye coordination, response times), it also includes the player’s ability to read and react to situations quickly. Players must watch enemies closely to predict when they will attack, and then dodge out of the way. They must react to changes in the environment, and recognize what their fellow players are doing to produce special cross-profession attacks. Movement and positioning are vital skills. To hear the developers speak of Guild Wars 2, the best players will be those who are best at playing computer games, not those who spend the most time researching it, learning to tweak the invisible, under-the-hood mechanics. So if this is the case, why are the traits built so heavily around statistics and random chance, and is there any way to change the system and remove the need for tiers?


A Potential Solution
I feel that a shift in ideology, away from a number-heavy approach and towards more skill-oriented traits would not only be in line with ArenaNet’s goals, but also create a richer experience without the need for trait tiers. I will attempt to explain my reasoning for this view shortly. First, I would like to state that although I am not a professional game designer (outside of a few shareware titles in the late 90s), I have made a habit and a hobby of following the trade and am always tinkering with some concepts of my own. To call me an armchair game designer is a fitting, if somewhat pejorative label, but I feel it is important you know where I am coming from before I explain my concept.

One approach which game designers use is to break down each action the player can execute. In design parlance these are called ‘verbs’. As an example, Mario’s main verb is ‘Jump’. Jump allows you to cross hazards such as pits, reach new areas by moving between platforms of different heights, gain items by jumping into specially-marked bricks and even defeat enemies by landing on them.

Applied to Guild Wars 2, my suggestion is to break every profession down to a list of verbs. Not all verbs will be equal, so not every profession will have the same number of verbs, obviously. I would expect the list to be quite lengthy due to the weapon-based skill system, and would include things like Run, Dodge, Attack, Cast, Heal, etc.

Once a firm list of ‘verbs’ is in place, establish the rules around each term. This runs the gamut from basic functionality (“Block negates all incoming damage”) to their arrangement on the action bar. For example, the Guardian has two weapon skills that place them directly next to their target; Flashing Blade (Sword skill #2) and Leap of Faith (Greatsword skill #4). Despite having similar functions, they are on different keys because weapon skills are arranged by recharge time. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have your ‘charge’ abilities on the same key, to grant Guardians a degree of familiarity between weapon sets?

Once the rules are established, traits should be built that break them. Yes, make the rules, and then purposely break them. Traits are ways for players to specialize outside of the average, run-of-the-mill version of their profession, and what better way to do that than to change up the way each player interprets the profession?

As an example of a good, rule-breaking trait, there is the warrior’s Missile Deflection, which reflects an missiles back at the attacker whenever the warrior is blocking. This takes a verb (“Block”) that is common to the profession (4 weapons can use it) and breaks the rule. Block is no longer a defensive option, but can turn a ranged attacker’s strength into a weakness. All of this is done without any obvious numerical value and the resulting damage is hard to calculate because use is dependant on player skill. Block has a very short window (Shield Stance is a mere 3 seconds), so being able to spot and react to an enemy charging a powerful ranged attack (such as Kill Shot, the Warrior’s rifle burst skill which was quite lethal in BWE2) is entirely on the player. You would have a hard time putting that on a spreadsheet and balancing it against other traits, and yet in the right hands it has the potential to be extremely powerful.

All traits should follow this example, each should take a pre-existing rule and break them in a way that relies on player skill rather than statistics or random chance to determine the outcome. Without raw statistical data to base these on (because they rely on the player to know when to use them), all options are essentially equal because the player, not the numbers, is the determining factor here.


Good Traits
Traits that cause certain attacks to apply conditions to targets.
Conditions can cause damage, but only in very specific ways and only if the target doesn’t remove it. It is worth mentioning that conditions may not always cause damage either (for example, Vulnerability or Crippled). They obviously can lead to higher damage, but that’s on the player to follow through. It’s not an obvious source of damage.

x occurs when health reaches y%.
These traits act as a sort of automatic emergency button that can give a losing player a slight advantage. Enemies don’t expect you to suddenly cast a spell and grow stronger when you’re nearly finished, so this breaks a nice rule.

Range / Area of Effect increased.
The rules are simple; an AOE spell is a set radius that never changes. A warrior’s rifle always has a range of 1200. Breaking these rules means enemies may not get out of danger as easily as they think. Being able to launch an attack from further away means damage output is higher, but with so much movement in combat (especially PVP) the difference is negligible and much harder to calculate.

As an aside, traits that increase the duration of area of effect spells, while potentially increasing damage, are interesting in that they allow players to lock down parts of the environment for longer periods.

Traits that modify how or who skills affect.
There really aren’t any of these, but there should be. As an example, imagine a trait that caused all of the Warrior’s charge abilities (Savage Leap and Rush) to damage multiple foes nearby when they land (similar to the Hammer’s burst skill, Earthshaker). The potential for interesting rule breakers here is quite deep; imagine if the Mesmer’s Imaginary Leap could be changed so that the player leaps at the target rather than an illusion, and Swap now becomes an evasive maneuver rather than an aggressive one?

Traits that change skills entirely.
This, of course, is a potentially huge oversight on behalf of ArenaNet. With the weapon-based skill system, every Hammer-wielding Guardian is effectively the same; they all have the same five attack options. Why are there no traits that change a specific skill or group of skills? Why couldn’t a Guardian trait so that instead of “Ring of Warding” as their fifth skill, they get something entirely new?

While this is problematic in that it can really only affect one weapon type per trait, there is precedent for such traits already; Guardians, for example, have a trait (Zealous Blade) that causes their greatsword attacks (and only their greatsword attacks) to heal.

And of course, because reading the battlefield and knowing what players can potentially do is a huge part of Guild Wars 2’s combat, these kind of things would be kept to a bare minimum.


Not-so-good Traits
Increases damage by x%.
Boring statistical gains, and obvious damage increases feel mandatory. If you don’t want players to make glass cannon builds that sacrifice all for raw damage output, don’t make traits that do nothing more than increase raw damage output.

Skills recharge x% faster.
This essentially allows powerful attacks to be used more often. Because cooldowns are so essential to the Guild Wars 2 gameplay (there is no resource management unless you’re a Thief), anything that shortens a cooldown is really saying “Allows you to cause damage sooner.”

x% chance to cause y.
Randomness is not fun and leads to unpredictable damage spikes. The only thing worse than getting pummeled by a min/maxer is being pummeled by a lucky min/maxer.


Summary:
The ideal goal is that you want all of the traits to be good, equal choices. Realistically though, they can’t all be good choices. The odds are against it, and perfect balance is a pipe dream. This seems to be why ArenaNet has adapted the idea of trait tiers; they allow them to lock certain traits away from one another to prevent the potential for overly powerful builds. Without tiers, players can just cherry pick the best damage-increasing traits and run amok.

After all, why would you take something like Missile Deflection which takes skill to use versus a trait that just pumps up your stats and requires no input or action by the player? Why would you want a cool new tool that has a learning curve and situational use when the bigger hammer is right there and guaranteed to make you hit harder every time?

By reducing or outright removing the type of bad traits I listed above and replacing them with the good types, traits become more about changing the way players form strategies, how they react to situations, and how they use their skills. Rather than traits affecting the way the character is built, traits would come to reflect the way the character is played. It’s less passive and cerebral, to some degree, but it changes the way the gameplay ‘feels’ and rewards players who know their play style rather than their spreadsheets.


Addendum:
Because traits would have all of their statistical elements removed in favor of mechanic-based solutions, it no longer makes sense for each trait line to boost specific attributes, as the traits contained within may not always fit with the play style the player is building. This is happening regardless of trait tiers, but it is now a much larger issue because of the increased restriction. I would remove attributes from the trait system entirely and build the game around the ideal that all statistical gains come from equipment and as a natural result of leveling. Traits should be more than enough to differentiate characters from each other.

#2 Velve

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Posted 15 June 2012 - 07:51 AM

Make this guy a GW2 dev, at least he has a *ing clue

#3 Gilles VI

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Posted 15 June 2012 - 11:18 AM

View PostVelve, on 15 June 2012 - 07:51 AM, said:

Make this guy a GW2 dev, at least he has a *ing clue

Yeah I mean the current devs must all be monkeys that have no cue what they're doing.. /sarcasm

@OP brilliant résumé, shows a great deal of insight in MMO mechanics and general gaming behaviour :)

Edited by Gilles VI, 15 June 2012 - 11:18 AM.


#4 gobberpooper

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Posted 15 June 2012 - 06:57 PM

I really like this. Traits need to be more useful and actually make a difference. The whole point of traits is to make fights much more unpredictable and unique. I like traits like the engineer's Juggernaut traits, which makes them slower but increases toughness by up to 160 when using a flamethrower, or the trait that makes them drop a bomb when evading which I found to be incredibly useful and transofmring a defense/position play into an offense. A lot of the grandmaster traits need to be MUCH more potent. Before the BWEs, there were some traits that were really good and powerful and need to be brought back. My favorite one was a Necromancer Death magic trait that increased the number of minions you summon by 1 for every minion skill. Traits also need better organization, especially for professions that are completely new like the Guardian and Engineer.

I like the trait system and the mechanics of it, but many of the traits themselves are lackluster. There's some adept traits that should be grandmaster, there's some that should be removed, there's some that they removed but should really be brought back, and some that just need to be tweaked or changed to provide a more potent effect.

#5 Zebes

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Posted 15 June 2012 - 10:56 PM

I'm sure someone has tried this, but I want to combine the bombs heal trait with bomb CD and radius improving traits, and the drop bomb on dodge trait to see how much healing a bombing Engy can put out. That's the sort of change of playstyle that people want from traits.

#6 TheGreatKeen

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Posted 16 June 2012 - 11:24 AM

I whole heatedly agree with you. Traits must be reworked; they are boring, tediously daunting in number, and quite often lackluster in ability; leading to a devalue of reward after taking the time to earn these abilities. I have been pacing in my head every since my experience with the latest BWE, filled with a certain anxious animosity that this game with all of its refined points could possibly falter because it lacks a players ability to choose, understand, and have total fun playing THEIR play-style.

Professions in Guild Wars 2 supposedly fill main archetypes that are commonly found in the fantasy genera. And it is that of which should govern the many possible play-styles that could branch from each profession.

Assuming that Guild wars 2 has successfully dissolved the holy trinity this leaves room for a new holy number based on how those possible play-styles come into being; via skill choices, placement of attributes, etc.  And based on how the current trait system works it seems that there are 4 main distinctions that determine all builds/play-styles within every single profession. These distinctions are, Raw Damage output, Critical Damage output, Condition Damage, and Character Support. A Holy Quadrinity based on how a character deals, prevents, or heals damage.

With this Quadrinity there is currently very little incentive to deviate from those 4 specializations; Minor and Major traits supposedly should fill that role of convincing people to hybridize via the Minor and Major traits bolstering the abilities of a character to accommodate desired play-style.  However they simply don't, and by tiering the traits it further narrows the path of creating unique and desired play-styles.

With that in mind, it is possible to have attributes the way they are, they are very easy to translate into this Quadrinity, and they serve an easy means of balancing every profession because they all share 9 of the same attribute and the last one applies to that professions special ability. Tiering traits is also possible, but like you said there are too many junk flavors to endure before you get one that applies to your play-style. and quite often those flavors are watered down.

-reduce the number of traits for each Trait line, more can be added with expansions later.
-Cater trait abilities to be obtainable for every obvious play-style within a profession's archetype.
-and make traits add or change the ability of skills. not just one skill at a time or a weapon set, but skills that pertain towards a certain type or play-style.

#7 OdinWalhalla

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Posted 10 July 2012 - 11:29 PM

Well done OP, chapeau.

My idea to fix this, would be very simple:

Use the character creator and let the player decide, which trait system they want:

- tiered
- open

that way both sides win, easy solution but thats not to say, I really love yours it is well thought out and especially the part make and then break the rules is great.

#8 RAD

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Posted 10 July 2012 - 11:52 PM

I seem to recall that long ago before we knew really anything about traits, Anet had said that they will drastically change your skills and the way you play. The "deacrease recharge by x%" and the "chance to cause x with y" traits as you mentioned do not do that.

I thought it was going to be like what you said about breaking the rules and changing the way skills work,  a sword attack turns from a melee swipe to a ranged throw kind of thing but keeps the same general basis of the skill you know?  For example your slashing sword skill deals damage and applies bleeding, with the trait that makes it a ranged sword skill it still deals damage and applies bleeding but by different means. that drastically changes playstyle while keep the game familiar but fresh.

Thats what I though traits would originally would be and I hope they become that but to be honest, Ive been waiting for this game since the day they announced it and at this point I really would be happy with what they have now.

Also keep in mind, in defense of trait tiers, that the tiers only apply to PvE as in having to burn through the 1st 2 to get to the 3rd. It gives those out there who need it, an extra sense of progression and seems to be pretty cool to me too. In structured pvp though, which no doubt some people will jump straight to and never look back, the tiers arent as big of a deal since you unlocking everything.

Edited by RAD, 10 July 2012 - 11:54 PM.

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#9 Volcanis

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Posted 11 July 2012 - 01:01 AM

I really like this idea. However, I would like some clarification: using your solution, would there still be 5 trait lines with minor and major traits? I think the trait lines are good since they tell the player what kind of traits to expect from the line. For example, a strength trait line will be about damage whereas a defense will be about... well... defense. The minor and major traits are a nice nuisance since players already debate whether 5 (more) points in a trait line is worth it or not. Even without the "imaginary" barriers, there is still some level of character progression by unlocking new minor and major trait tiers.

We should come up with some suggestions on more "good" traits to get this wonderful idea rolling. One, off the top of my head, is to make the Elementalist Mist Form not have a visible mist following it around so it can be used as a stealth. Using your terminology, the rule for Mist Form is invulnerable, but if traited, it will be invulnerable + stealth. I can see this trait very useful for PvE (resetting agro for monsters) and PvP (obvious).

#10 gobberpooper

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Posted 12 July 2012 - 01:26 AM

View PostZebes, on 15 June 2012 - 10:56 PM, said:

I'm sure someone has tried this, but I want to combine the bombs heal trait with bomb CD and radius improving traits, and the drop bomb on dodge trait to see how much healing a bombing Engy can put out. That's the sort of change of playstyle that people want from traits.
Those are all examples of good traits. Traits should be like a "second build", which you can use in combination not only with your skills but with each other to produce magnificent results like that.





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