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The fundamental flaws with skill spheres and passives

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As a result of a recent conversation held with iamisom, I will be doing a multi-part analysis on the biggest issues DD2 currently has that significantly detracts from the player experience. Today's part focuses on skill spheres and passives.

Part 1: Hero Combat
Part 2: Hero Deck
Part 3: End game gear
Part 4: Difficulty and nightmare
Part 5: This one
Part 6: Accessories

Build passives invalidate prior functionality.

And the worst part is that both versions of these defenses can easily co-exist and be balanced. Take for instance the frostbite tower - it is a defense that slows and has the potential to freeze. This mechanic alone is a perfectly viable defense. Now add the frosty power passive, which buffs defenses near the beam's point of contact. This mechanic alone is also perfectly viable, even without the freezing/slowing part. So my question is: why are these considered the same defense?

Every "build" passive introduces mechanics that can easily co-exist as two separate defenses:

  • Ballista/Splody Harpoon - One defense pierces, another separate defenses deals damage by triggering a explosion in a piercing line.
  • Frostbite/Frosty Power - One defense slows and freezes, another separate defense boosts nearby defenses at its point of contact
  • Blaze Balloon/Phoenix - One defense deals AoE damage, another separate defense deals lower AoE damage followed by a large burst of damage.
  • Serenity Aura/Purge Evil - This one can be separated into three separate defenses. One defense heals heroes and helps reduce damage, another separate defense slows in an area, another separate defense makes enemies explode when killed.

Other passives that improve traits (such as hearty blockade or speedy harpoon) are different than passives that add additional mechanics. The next section goes over the passives not included above.

As we progress, we have a certain number of tools. A large part of this toolset is the defenses we use. Once we get our first frosty passive, Trendy takes one of our tools and hands us a fancier one. While that's great for the first 5 minutes, the longevity of the game revolves around how many tools we have in our aresenal. Taking a tower that slows/freezes and invalidating it by giving us a tower that buffs as well does not add to the game - it's a sidestep. Considering how much work goes into these sidesteps, I don't see that as a business model that can scale.

Build passives make defenses impossible to balance

With the hearty blockade passive, this stacks hero health along with defense health onto the HP of spike blockades. Not only is this counter-intuitive (hero stats improving defenses), but how is the spike blockade ever going to be balanced around other barricades in the long run? How is the arcane barrier ever going to be viable when the spike blockade gets HP from two stats? Are we going to balance defenses based on their passives?

Spike blockades are a defense that started viable, but with its passives, makes it a required defense. Let's take it from the opposite angle - a defense that is completely worthless, but with passives is at least somewhat viable. This description matches the ballista perfectly. That 5-second attack rate and 50DU makes it the least valuable defense in the game until you get the speedy harpoons passive on enough gear. Once the attack rate is up it's valid, but until then, it's worthless. Also, how is it possible to balance a ballista that shoots every two seconds vs. a ballista that shoots every 5 seconds? We're talking about gear with the exact same ipwr, but one ballista deals 2-3x more damage.

In short:

  • Content that is balanced around passives makes them required.
  • Content that is not balanced around passives trivializes content.

There's no middle ground here, unless we're working with gambits. 

"Bring your creative builds to NM4" is not possible.

When Dan says on dev streams to bring our builds to NM4, what this effectively translates to is "bring the current meta build". Given the ridiculous amount of health and damage NM4 enemies have, there's no room for any other build other than the most effective defenses + passives. The stronger the enemies in NM4 are, the less build options we're going to have. Balance updates and new passives will merely change the single-most powerful meta build, not create new ones. 

Should it be a passive or skill sphere? Let's flip a coin!

Half of the following bullets is a skill sphere and the other half is a build passive.

  • Increases the range of frostbite towers by 25%.
  • Increases the range of serenity auras by 20%.
  • Ballistas have a 5% chance to deal 30% extra damage.
  • Explosive traps have a 40% chance to deal 40% extra damage.
  • Explosive traps deal 10% more damage.
  • Flamebursts have a 40% chance to deal 40% extra damage.

There is zero organization as to what is a build passive and what is a skill sphere. No rhyme, no reason - all arbitrary rules. How would a new player feel about this? Why are these game mechanics not organized in such a way that intuitively makes sense?

Uber skill spheres act as a fifth tower without any give/take.

Take for instance the elemental chaos trap - once purchased, it allows players to build mines in both physical and magical resist lanes without any downsides. Purchasing the lightning strikes aura allows the monk to have a single target and AoE defense without any downsides. It is in essence a fifth defense, and is the only type of sphere that persists after un-equipping it. I do not like the concept of ubers, and would much rather them separate defenses entirely. 

Players want to modify defense traits, not defense mechanics.

By defense traits, I mean stuff like damage, attack rate, and range. By defense mechanics, I mean how the defense fundamentally operates, like flameburst vs. flamethrower.

There are already passives in the game that are introducing traits like attack speed for the ballista, or range on the serenity aura. These are great, but I don't want one-trick ponies. In addition to these passives being impossible to balance, you're encouraging players to spec in a single defense. I don't want the entire existence of my squire to be towards one defense, but the current skill sphere and passive system is heading exactly in that direction.

My personal suggestions

Make the mechanic-altering passives and ubers new defenses. You guys modeled, textured, rigged, and animated a new NPC that provided no additional value to the game. I would love to see that incredible artistic effort go towards making new heroes and defenses instead. New defense mechanics are already in the game with every new build being put out - just stick it on a separate mesh and the community would be super ecstatic about that. You guys even have hero assets left over from the MOBA, some of which have already debuted in DD2.

It would also make the game much more intuitive - a flameburst tower shoots a fireball and that's it. A frostbite tower slows/freezes, and that's it. A new defense shoots a boosty beam and that's it. No need to combine defense mechanics when they can both be viable separately. The more tools we have, the more enjoyable the experience is.

Remove all trait-altering passives and replace them with gambits. This will make the game much easier to balance in the long run. It will resolve the fact that Ballistas are not viable unless they have speedy harpoons, and will also resolve the fact that spike blockades is undeniably the best wall in the game. Once base defenses are considered relatively balanced throughout all stages of the game (early and late game), introduce passive gambits that alter traits without throwing off balance. My recommendation would be to start with the following:

  • +/- damage while +/- attack speed
  • +/- damage while +/- range
  • +/- attack speed while +/- range

And no, +/- damage  while +/- health is not really a gambit - that's basically a straight upgrade since enemies that attack towers spells certain doom for said towers, and enemies that attack walls aren't designed to be a primary source of damage.

The higher the ipwr and loot tier, the more you'd be able to exaggerate your defense traits. Imagine an earthshatter tower that had a +damage/-range gambit - it would completely change your strategy in using the defense, but the mechanics behind the tower remain unchanged.

If you have an hour or two to spare, you can read up on the post that explains a new stat system and how it would interact with each defense. The gist of the thread is that gambits pertaining to damage, attack speed, and range would all contribute to multipliers that would allow you to experiment with extreme traits. Traps that could cover multiple lanes, cannons that fire ultra-fast, and tiny auras that deal much more damage would all be possible.

Organize things so skill spheres and passives have no overlap. Do you really expect new players to magically pick up on the convoluted system that is skill spheres and passives? Assign one mechanic to each, and don't let them bleed into each other. My recommendation:

  • Move all passives on gear to skill spheres, with the exception of functionality-changing weapons. I'm referring to Betsy weapons (bow that drops grenades) or survival reward weapons (polearm where you kill a kobold and get a rocket secondary attack charge). This means armor and relics no longer have any text under them.
  • All passives that change hero attributes (finglonger, regen, taser suit) become skill spheres. They determine what your unique advantages are in combat as a hero.
  • All passives that give a static effectiveness increase (envenom, pyromania, full hearts) can be removed altogether. As mentioned above, these traits are either required to clear content (when balanced around their presence), or trivialize content (when not balanced around their presence). They do a really good job at ruining gear though - who would ever use a defense power bow without tripwire? Or an ability bow without flameaggedon?

Stop with the percent chance to do X. If players want to incorporate a mechanic into their strategy, they have to understand walking into it that it is going to work 100% of the time. Earthshatter is never used 1) because it has terrible damage; and 2) the knockup mechanic is super unreliable. Contrast that with the geyser trap, which guarantees knockup.

What are your thoughts behind skill sphere and passive organization right now? Would you rather have new heroes, or new ubers/passives on existing heroes? How would you improve balance of the game with our current passives?

Edited by gigazelle
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Here's my opinion on the skills spheres, and as an opinion I know it wont be shared by everyone. I don't feel connected to my heroes, I don't get excited when I level up. You gain the spheres so far apart from each other and the lack of variety doesn't make me feel like they are a big deal. Almost all builders are gonna pick the same spheres, DPS has a few more choices but probably gonna pick the same spheres. 100% no joke I have never read the level up screen. I just hit ok to get it off my screen because I don't care about it because I am not choosing anything. For me to feel connected to my heroes I need to "have more choices" while they level up so I feel like I am making the hero better. I'm not saying that I want to level up my stats every level. To be honest I would drop every point into DP and click ok, but that would make me "feel" like I was getting powerful. I think for this sphere system to work There needs to be more spots so you can open a new slot every other level and I'm not talking about going from defense range I to defense range II. Maybe all these passives need to be skill spheres and the loot needs to just augment those spheres? I just think there needs to be way more spheres.

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I agree so much with your post (as always). You have thought a lot about it.

It goes a bit in the direction I thought, to remove all that weird system of spheres and passives and put a more adaptative system with or spheres or skill tree kinda system (not original but at least effective). The current system is very messy and leads to extreme unbalanced situations.

Plus removing all passives from gears would allow an apprentice to loot stuff for other class and the other way around. I think only legendaries should have special effect at maximum, such as special weapons (betsy's for example) or maybe armor/relic sets with the current build stuff, but only as legendary and in a way that you can more logicaly gather it and not scarced accross all the tremendous amount of passives (making gathering the perfect combination of stats totally impossible btw).

As for the ubers I think the idea was great but leads to weird situations too, one solution would be to lock the spheres for the whole time of the map. But I would rather buy new towers with tokens and then having a set of defenses for each character and pick 4 among the set, like having 8 defenses (the current ubers would be a 5th one if tweaked a bit not too be stronger than the rest and to modify skin more). Allowing real personnalization.

But again we need to see the 4 upcoming builds devs will give to us to start to really appreciate the builds system I think.

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I always felt the main parts of the new build system should have instead been ubers (sploody harpoon ect.) while the minor parts of builds be large spheres (speedy harpoon). For modifying each of the build parts they could add 2 new passives, one that modifies the major build spheres and one that modifies the minor build spheres. Doing this would allow us to once again hand down gear to our other builders as we get upgrades and make it easier for people to get actual upgrades instead of being stuck on a piece of gear just because it has a good roll on the passives or has the build passives at all.

But the biggest issue with builds being passives is how borderline impossible it is to get the passives you want or even get the build passives at all. I said this when the first build was released and will continue to say this now and again and again until it is changed, they can't keep builds in their current form (as passives) while making the game enjoyable in the long term or even the short term. 

Spheres should be for things that change how your build works, passives should be for things that modify the power/effectiveness of your build and minor hero focused mechanics like faster building/repair or movement speed or ability cost and mana regen and all should be on pieces of gear that are appropriate for those passives like movement speed on boots and build speed/repair on gloves.

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@gigazelle quote:Take for instance the elemental chaos trap - once purchased, it allows players to build mines in both physical and magical resist lanes without any downsides. Purchasing the lightning strikes aura allows the monk to have a single target and AoE defense without any downsides. It is in essence a fifth defense, and is the only type of sphere that persists after un-equipping it. I do not like the concept of ubers, and would much rather them separate defenses entirely. 

I have always thought that the Ubers should unlock another Tower.  It could easily be added as number 9 on the keyboard.  Much like they added the Pet power (which I rarely use :/) on the left side and gave it X to activate.  Just put the Uber slot on the right side and make it 9 to activate.

I agree that adding the Uber sphere, laying down an LSA, then removing the Uber, should have an affect on the tower (basically revert it to an LA).  But, it then makes it pointless to get the Ubers from the Adventurer, which then makes Betsy coins pointless.  

Which is why, much like you suggested, they should just make it so that Ubers that change towers become a separate tower with a new activation button. 

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On the topic of ubers I always liked the idea of a tower deck instead, where you would choose which 4 towers on your character you wanted to bring to the match instead how it is now with the original 4 + any ubers. 

A example if this was implemented now would be most apprentices would choose flame burst, flame thrower, earth shaker, & frost bite for their load out leaving arcane barrier out because they are not getting tower hp thus it's useless to them.

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gigazelle such a great post and your suggestions makes the game sound interesting once again. But if Trendy wants you to write this why don't they listen? They keep pushing out new weird passives and disconnection the player from an immersive experience that makes sense.

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Normally I wouldn't comment on any threads as I don't really feel like there's a point or voices being heard, but after enough reading I've decided that I have to comment.  All of these complaint threads have one thing in common for me: Every one of them was brought up in DD1 right around the time of nightmare mode's release or before.  No, they aren't all identical, but I see so many similarities it makes me sad.  The game has some new and interesting things that are different and improved, but fundamentally the balance issues that plagued DD1 up to NM release and right after are recurring in this game, like nothing has been learned.  Anyone who was there around that time would know me from the IRC, I was in there with the hardcores, when the Defense Council was first established as a result of all the balance complaints to try and tame it and then that advice from those players was ignored as well.  It makes me sad that this game still has the problems that made me quit the first one right after that time (hacking was the other big issue).  I enjoy the game, but knowing that it is though nothing has been learned and advice still not taken and heeded, makes me wary of the long term future for it.

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@gigazelle quote: (...)
What are your thoughts behind skill sphere and passive organization right now? ¹
Would you rather have new heroes, or new ubers/passives on existing heroes? ²
How would you improve balance of the game with our current passives? ³

¹ Spheres and Passives are a mess. Sometimes they overlap, others they conflict. Both systems are heavily gated - one by Gold, the other by RNGee. Both are heavily tipped towards "endgame". Both add barriers (be it for the player or the designers) instead of "freedom of choice".

² I would rather have new towers or tower versions - similarly to how Ubers currently "add an extra tower option". The perfect course of action would be to, in my opinion, give us the means to pick, use and tweak one additional version for each (or at least more than the current one, so 2+) tower on each hero, effectively doubling the number of defenses per hero; Customization would come from choosing between these sidegrade choices for each tower, then playing specific maps to drop loot (passive stuff, gear, weapons) targeted towards enhancing said sidegrades, then putting the tower mix to good use in endgame challenges and difficult team content.
together with that, fixing passives: they shouldn't be the "go to" system to change tower functionality anymore, instead being a not-so-rng-reliant way to tweak tower effectiveness (be it power, HP, speed, lesser extra effects, yadda). It really shouldn't come glued to the equipment system - it should be more maleable than that. Paying gold to reroll (more RNG) is an idea that I personally dislike. Enchants or socketables come as the first viable solution in my head.

The stuff I wrote on point 2 would move passives from "mechanics" to "trait" territory, while not weighting too much on the deck system - as the deck is what messes with adding new heroes; moving new mechanics and functionalities to new heroes would make it almost impossible to keep the current deck model, and discarding the deck while at the same time introducing new tower mechanics from new heroes would make multiplayer chaotic (as in "who has got what" on a random match; it would be messy even with group picking). Maybe the introduction of a "role" system on the decks? One slot for DPS, another for waller, 3 slots for whatever... but then we get again stuck on the "one tower per hero" design. What a mess.

... resuming: balance the game around the 4 heroes for now, move new/altering mechanics from passives to the sphere system, move performance/trait stuff from spheres to passives, remove passives from gear RNG (new system or item type; expansion of the sphere system), balance the hero deck around the current 4 heroes... leave new heroes and their respective new towers / mechanics to the far future.

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I don't like spheres system at all. I think it would be nice to have some skills tree system, which will help to create chars with different gameplay styles. For example Hunter DPS tree, Hunter builder tree etc.

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Great thread! Lots to say here, but I'll try to stay focused!

First we don't need more towers, we need balancing between classes/towers. We currently have 16 defenses to choose from if we level all 4 classes (which is quite common). Unfortunately, we may utilize half of them on a regular basis, suggesting that many of these defenses are less useful than others. Each tower needs to bring something unique to the field, they need to interact with combo effects much more often, and all the defenses of a specific hero need to be able to increase their effectiveness by boosting the same stat (Defense Power/Defense Health). The way things are currently, we use defenses for their power, not their function. Why use a cannonball tower instead of an explosive trap when you've stacked DP on your huntress, but DH for your squire to boost the blockade? 

Aside from tower stats being balanced (range, speed, power, DU cost, etc.) towers need to be slightly overhauled (some more than others) in my opinion before we can even address the whole passives/spheres issue. How might we do that? So glad you asked! Iwroteasongaboutit.Liketohearit?Hereitgoes...

Flameburst tower - Moderate, single-target fire damage w/ light splash damage - air/ground

Earthshatter tower - Heavy, single-target damage - ground onlyFrost tower - AoE slow - air/ground

Arcane barrier - sucks, get rid of it - replace with: Arcane tower - Moderate, multi-target arcane damage - up to 3 targets marked by Apprentice (replace Arcane Volley with new ability)

Cannonball tower - Moderate, single-target physical damage - air/ground

Spiked blockade - barricade that deals light damage

Ballista - Heavy, physical damage - piercing in a line, doing reduced damage to each consecutive target - air/ground

Target Dummy - sucks, get rid of it - replace with: Barbed net launcher - Light, single-target damage, slow, air->ground - air only

Explosive trap - Moderate, AoE physical damage - ground only

Geyser trap - Light-moderate, single-target water damage w/ knockup and splash status effect (drench, soaked, waterlogged, whatever) - ground (drenched can ground air units if they are in range)

Poison dart tower - light, multi-target poison damage w/ light-moderate DoT which stacks (high rate-of-fire would be nice) - air/ground

Blaze balloon trap - Light-moderate, AoE fire damage w/ DoT and status effect (ignited - target runs in random direction for 2 secs, igniting any enemies it comes in contact with) - ground only

Lightning strike aura - light, continuous AoE electrical damage - air/ground

Serenity aura - Light, AoE heal for heroes - AoE status effect on enemies (pacifism - reduces damage/attack speed)

Boost Aura - AoE boost of defenses (all stats - health, range, power, speed, defense, etc.)

Anti-air tower - Heavy, single-target magical damage - air only

With this setup, and the proper balancing of range/attack speed, each defense has a specific function done uniquely from all the others that, when used optimally, can compete with any other defense for effectiveness, while still enabling any hero to functionally tackle any threat alone. This isn't even mentioning the combos I'd like to see with defense combinations, but I'll save that for another post. Feedback, please! 

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  • 3 weeks later...

There is this one game that has only 6 different types of heroes that each have their own unique attack move. The map is like only an 8 by 8 grid and the game only has one simple objective. Despite its simplicity it is arguable one of the most strategically complex games ever invented/played and has been hugely popular for many years.

The more TRENDY(lets put the responsibility where it lies) complicates/defines how the heros/towers work the less flexibility in strategy we as players will have.

Whoever is in charge needs to get the team under control and step it back to a simpler design that is more integral rather than one that is flashy yet trashy.

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