One thing I think is missing from a lot of games in the MUD/MMO area is an appreciation for player skill. This is especially true in games (like Epitaph) when what your character can do is governed by the skills they have attained. The distinction is one of character skill versus player skill – character skill is that which is controlled by the game engine. Player skill – well, that’s all you baby.

In my view, a good game permits these to be blended – character skill is important because it allows for people to be rewarded as a result of their investment of time, and it serves as a way to incrementally unlock content. By requiring a certain amount of character skill, we can ensure a sensible and smooth progression of challenges right the way from newbie to oldbie. We can gate off particular challenges entirely, or we can provide subtle hints that players would be better suited trying their lock somewhere else (hey, you’ve failed this skill check eight times in a row – maybe you might want to try locks that aren’t a bit out of your league).

The danger though is that player skill becomes completely side-lined until it has no relevance. Everything you do in such a game is abstracted away from you. Type this command, have the game roll some dice, and then you get candy (or not). There’s a role for systems like that, but in my view there is a much more entertaining role to be found by looking for ways to allow players to demonstrate their own skill.

In FPS and real time games, remaining calm under pressure and mastering your co-ordination is a mark of player skill. In turn based games, your higher level strategising is a mark of player skill. It’s only rarely the case that you get to offload your responsibility for excelling onto the computer (the VATS system from Fallout is a notable deviation from this). In a text based game, it’s harder to find ways to incorporate player skill – it’s real time but not *real* time and spatial awareness is of limited or no importance. Where then do you incorporate player skill?

It’s my view that at best, character skill acts as a way to unlock content, and player skill lets you master it. As an example, we have a hacking system (or rather, two systems) – character skill determines which systems you can actually hack (by virtue of skill checks), but it is player skill that opens up the computer’s secrets to you, either via a password guessing game (reminiscent of the hacking in Fallout 3, but a different mechanic) or via a MUD based bejeweled clone. All your skill does is let you access the game on successively more secure systems. The difficulty of the system also impacts on player skill – the complexity of the password or the score you must attain in the hacking minigame are calculated using the difficulty as a factor – thus, as the challenge increases for your character, it increases for you as an individual.

In combat, we incorporate player skill through the use of state based maneuvers and limiting options – your character skills determine if you hit or not, and how much damage you do, but combat on Epitaph is a resource management game. You have a limited pool of commands, and most of these come with a cooldown. Some of these commands force your opponent to transition into a state, and others require you to be in certain states before you can pull them off. Others still require your opponent to be in certain states before you are permitted to use them.

You can shoot an opponent in the kneecap to force them prone, then get in close and deliver a killing shot to the face (this requires a prone opponent). Unfortunately, in doing so you potentially open yourself up to a sound kick in the nadgers (which can only be done by a prone foe) that will knock you prone in turn. Player skill then becomes working out when it’s best to transition between states, when it’s best to force you or your opponent into particular states and when it’s best to use your limited pool of commands.

A similar design philosophy is followed in most of our game systems – theft in Epitaph is not handled via a command or a skill check. Or rather, it is but not entirely. Instead, your skills let you access a certain ‘calibre’ of theft, and the rest is up to you. Stealing from a shop becomes a combination of sneaking, lockpicking, safe-cracking, and distraction of the shopkeeper. It’s up to you to decide how to approach the task, and player skill is a factor in getting in, getting the loot, and getting out again.

A problem with character-skill based games is that, after a while, the game becomes trivial. If you’ve got the skills to master every challenge, beat every foe, and bypass every lock, then all you are doing from that point is going to a room and typing a command. You don’t need to be engaged in the game – in fact, you could play the game entirely from a robot script. That doesn’t strike me as a game that’s fun to play, and yet it is predominantly the norm in many MUDs and MMOs – look at the bots that blight the WoW landscape for an example of game systems that are fundamentally broken. Sure, a lot of those bots are run by goldfarmers, but there are more than a few that are run by people who simply don’t want to play the game. Character-skill based games enable this kind of behaviour.

On the other hand, a game that is all player skill is also going to frustrate some people. Not everyone is playing a game like Epitaph for the joy of participation. Some people are more inspired by numbers getting higher, and that’s not a style of play I want to discourage or belittle (not the least reason for that is that I too like to see my numbers getting bigger). That’s why I’m aiming for a balance on Epitaph – character skill married happily to player skill. There are even commands that let you bypass the need for the latter if you so desire – they’re harder, more costly, and riskier to pull off (for example, prising a lock requires higher skills than picking it, and also carries with it the danger of permanently breaking it), but they’re there for those who would rather have *play* than *game*. These commands let you ‘get by’, but actual mastery of the game is, and should be, the domain of those with the skill to express it.

Given two characters of equal skill levels, it should be the player who has the most skill who triumphs. Player skill should determine who gets the highest levels, the best commands, and the shiniest trophies. It’s difficult to balance these two competing traits, but it’s very much what we’re trying to do here at the end of the world.