My first experience with a talent system was back in 2001 when SOE introduced the Alternative Advancement concept with the Shadows of Luclin expansion for Everquest. I never got a chance to experience AAs until later in my EQ career as it was only accessible to high level characters (I was too busy starting feline alts and mooing over the new graphics engine to reach the level cap at the time) but I always got the impression that it was designed more as a way to extend player progression rather than anything else. Over time the AA system evolved, became more intricate, and soon found it’s way into other MMOs in one form or another.
Today talents (alternative advancement , feats, traits, specialisations etc) are as synonymous with fantasy based MMORPGs as pornography is with the Internet and it’s hard to imagine any game without them. Although they’ve obviously been around for a while, I think it was really Blizzard who rocketed them into success when they implemented their talent trees in World of Warcraft. They introduced a friendly, easy to understand system accessible to every play from a low level and they kicked started a tree trend in every MMO to come.
Talents are undeniably a great thing. They allow for an additional form of customization (which is always nice) and give us that little point to spend every level or so, appeasing the hungry OCD monkeys in our brains. More than that though, it’s the flexibility they give us and the illusion of control the micromanagement of them brings that draws us in.
I’ve often debated in my head whether or not taking, or not taking, certain talent points (in any game, not just WoW) honestly has any real affect other than allowing me to see an increased crit chance or defense value on my screen. Will choosing one talent over another make me a better tank or healer than someone else? Unlikely but still, one has to commend those that strife for perfection in such regards. It keeps them playing and paying and the cogs behind the machine turning.
Flexibility, on the other hand, is certainly good thing and it’s no illusion. Being able to decide whether or not I will play turn my character into a tank or DPS is very liberating and, not only does this ability to choose make me happy, but the flexibility to fit into more than one gaming role makes me more useful and my gaming experience less frustrating.
It’s with this in mind that I think the revamp to the talent system coming with Cataclysm in WoW is a good thing. Yes, reducing the number of talents and locking players into certain trees from the very beginning does destroy our ability to micromanage somewhat (but that’s just an illusion anyway remember) but I think the gains from it and the affect on gameplay as a result will be very positive and dramatic.
Aside from the advantages locking down the trees and reducing the number of talents has on design (i.e. it makes it easier to control what players do), I don’t think players need to care so much about what they pick on an individual level. In fact, almost everyone, in every MMO I’ve ever played follows a largely cookie-cutter mold right from the beginning anyway. What actually matters are the big decisions and the big differences, such as what tree we pick, rather than the small, intricate things.
Blizzard are trying to bring the talent system back to it’s basics and really look at the point of it’s existence. Talents (AAs) may have been introduced in Everquest nine years ago as another way of giving players something to grind but now they exist as a mechanic to provide flexibility and choice. We don’t need to micromanage every little point, rather we just need to be able to pick a direction of development for our character and know that we can turn them around and change them back at a moments notice giving us ultimate flexibility.