I have always felt it’s important that people get to make their characters their own, and that they should feel that their characters are becoming more powerful as time goes by. I used to play Warcraft a lot, but I was always dissatisfied by the end-game – not just because it was so shallow (get better equipment so you can get better equipment still), but because it never felt like My Guy was getting any better as time went by. All he was getting was shinier equipment – strip him naked, and he was no more impressive than any other freshly minted character at the level-cap. All his competence essentially extended from external support, and beyond the relatively short leveling game, personal power was unaffected by his great accomplishments.
Similarly, I never felt there was much differentiation between end-game characters within a class. Sure, there were talent points up for use, but the talent trees were largely uninteresting because of how much you needed to invest to get the top tier talents and how badly other trees synergised with the one you had gone down. I am told that has improved somewhat in recent years, but from what I have seen on my casual glances at the updates, it’s because they have stripped out a lot of the depth that used to be present. Perhaps the complexity of the early game was beyond the ability of anyone to reasonably balance, but in losing that complexity they have also reduced the opportunities people have for demonstrating mastery.
It’s a design goal then of mine to ensure that the characters people construct on Epitaph have the potential to be genuinely different from others, and yet still viable in the game. Since we don’t have a class system in place, that’s pretty tricky. We can’t limit certain commands to certain classes, because we don’t have them – everyone has to, theoretically, be able to do everything. People have to improve as time goes by, or they’ll stop playing – how then do you stop the case where, in the end, everyone can do everything and there is no differentiation between end-game characters?
We’re resolving that in several ways here. I previously wrote about the idea of Spheres, which came to me in some kind of fevered fugue state. I’ve since decided that was horrible and abandoned it entirely in favour of a far simpler system whereby you acquire a budget of points to spend on commands and knacks. You get these by completing quests, obtaining achievements, and advancing levels in skills. You can then spend these on whatever commands you have the skills for, and whatever knacks you like. Everyone gets a reasonably generous blend of basic skills, but everything else you need to purchase and those points are finite and increasingly difficult to gain as time goes on. You can generalise and choose a range of things suitable for being a jack of all trades, or you can choose to specialise in related commands. You can’t master everything, because you won’t have the points needed to do so. If you find you’re bored of the commands or knacks that you have currently, you can buy refunds for both.
The nature of our skill system is such that differentiation between individuals is almost guaranteed unless they follow exactly the same route through the game down to enemies attacked and weapons used. You gain skills on Epitaph by either buying them from factions (and that is dependent on faction reputation) or by getting free skill levels through use (as a result of lucky dice rolls). Your bonus in your skills (the number that tells you how good you are at the thing) is a function of the stats you have (which you can rearrange in any way you like), your levels, and any applicable knacks. Ability to perform tasks then is something that will mould itself to your playstyle, for the most part.
That gives a reasonable set of options for character customisation – you get to choose your stats, your commands and your knacks. The fact you have a limited pool of each means that your choices are meaningful – in order to get one thing, you’ll need to give up the opportunity to have something else. You can’t be a post-apocalyptic badass kicking ass and taking names while also being a skilled crafter capable of producing the finest items. That doesn’t get forced on you from above, it emerges naturally as a result of you having to make decisions about on what to spend your limited resources.
I recently rejigged our alignment system too to provide an additional layer of character customisation – previously alignments were there, but I never really paid them much mind because it’s always been a tricky system to build (I will talk about why in a later blog post). After much contemplation though I decided to remove the complexity required to manage an alignment and just provide them as a final slot on your character customisation routine. Adhering to an alignment (or moral code, in the terminology of the game) gives you a set of ‘favoured skills’ which increase at twice the rate of other skills. They also each come with a ‘group buff’ – a bonus you’ll give to everyone in the party if they bring you along. You can recant and adopt different moral codes as you go, but there’s a delay – drop an alignment and it’s a day before you can adopt a new one.
All of these are integral to who you are as a character – they are not external pieces of equipment, they are things that are true about Your Guy. As such, when you gain potency in the game you’re not relying on physical crutches like ‘great armour’, it is a reflection of the increased ability, understanding and experience of your avatar. Equipment still matters, of course, but it’s not all the matters. Your effectiveness in the game is a function of your character’s personal abilities and the equipment they have acquired. I think that’s far more satisfying than it just being one or the other.
 That was actually the only bit of WoW I really enjoyed. I levelled five characters to the level cap before I stopped playing, and never raided beyond the introductory few raids with any.