The Daily Grind: What’s the best MMORPG skill system that avoids the ‘illusion of choice’?


Over the weekend, my husband and I were chatting about playing on a Star Wars Galaxies emulator again, probably the Legends one that people keep recommending to me. And yes, it’s an NGE server. I was basically weighing all the content that was ultimately added during the six years of the NGE against the skill-on-use-based classic game. I loved the ol’ skill tree system to bits, so don’t get me wrong, but I was able to do most of the same things, eventually, in the NGE using classes and specs and secondary trees like beastmaster, and I floated the idea – horrors, I know – that maybe the skill system wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Fighting words, right? So that led us to discussing whether the original skill tree offered merely the illusion of choice. We were thinking about MMOs like Ultima Online and Guild Wars 1; only a very small percentage of skill builds in those games are actually viable, after all. The same is true even of level-based games with talent trees. Most builds are terrible, a waste of time, a way to present the feeling of lots of choices, but in the end only a few combinations are worth pursuing – so why did anyone bother designing and implementing them? And interestingly, we both came to the conclusion that classic Star Wars Galaxies somehow escaped that trap. Even weird builds were viable because the rest of the game made space for them rather than tried to trick you into bad choices.

What’s your favorite MMORPG with a skill-based progression system, and if it avoids the “illusion of choice” in character development, how does it do so?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!
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Robert Mann

Illusion of choice is… what tends to happen with most MMOs. You either run the FOTM spec and gearing stuff, or you don’t tend to do that well (unless you play fairly darn casual.)

I’ve yet to see anyone actually make a lot of interesting variety that balances out well. Period. It’s exceedingly rare.

The thing is, that it is not a flaw of skill systems. It is a flaw overall. It’s part of every themepark game around, every sandbox, etc.


I’m surprised nobody mentioned Path of Exile yet because imho that’s one of the biggest problems of this title.

They have a massive “passive skilltree” which all classes share, so basically everyone uses the same skilltree. This gives you the illusion, that you can freely combine everything and build say, a HP based warrior that can summon zombies like a necromancer or other combinations like that.

In practice, you better follow a guide online or you’ll have a baaaaaad time (interestingly, the first few levels are easy so you only realize your character is worthless beyong level 20. Resetting the skilltree is time consuming and expensive).

In the end, you basically have 3-5 “viable” choices per class, which are more or less the same than in any other title in the genre.

inb4 flaming me, I’m not saying it’s a bad game. I just say they create the illusion of freedom of choice when in reality you only have a handful of options. Also, this reflects the game as it was two years ago, I’m not sure if the recent bigger updates have changed something.


Part of the problem here is, I think, the game is built for (and almost exclusively for; look what happened with the bestiary league) speed runners. If you can’t kill things faster than the speed of light, you are not doing it correctly.

Bryan Gregory

I absolutely believe that the illusion of choice is one of the main reasons that skill based MMOs are so unpopular. UO and SWG sound great on paper, but then you get in there and start making your dream character only to later realize your dream character sucks. It’s especially a problem in a PVP environment. Not to mention the complete lack of balance when you throw in something like UO’s Magery compared to… every other skill in the game (too bad UO didn’t have magic divided up into Elder Scrolls type categories like it should’ve). And so then you better hope you’re the kind of person who prefers to play what’s “best” over doing what you want and having fun or you’re probably gonna have a bad time.


I think the key here “…only a very small percentage of skill builds in those games are actually viable, after all….” is the word ‘viable’.

What does that mean? Top 10% of dps? Is that necessary to be successful? Is the top quintile that far from the bottom quintile? Are the goals in-game (like most mmos, tbh) so narrowly defined that everything is a dps race so that’s the only yardstick?

ANY system with any variety more complex than checkers is going to have some styles that end up better than others. Where do you draw the ‘viable’ line?

Want a game where lots of builds are attractive to play? Make a game where the goals are different – can you sneak into X? Can you heal Y before he’s killed? Can you do jump puzzle Z or cook item ABC better than another toon? – and then you broaden what’s ‘viable’.

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Viability is: Can you handle the content you wish to play? Does my build add enough value to the group I’m playing with to handle the content I wish to play?

Let’s look at GW2.

Open World: Pick whatever has the coolest effects. Collect loot.

Fractals and Raids? The content is tuned assuming certain buffs, DPS, and healing output. If your build doesn’t meet the minimums then you’re dragging the team down, wastes time, and causes run failures. Bosses don’t die, no loot to be had.

WvW and PvP? Unless you get off on losing you’re going into modes where people are always looking for an edge.

Living World story episodes? Make sure you’ve got some raid quality DPS with PvP level survivability.


Agree with everything you describe, but I’d point out that those all follow my assertion that if dps is the goal, there’s always going to be a ‘best’ configuration. If (as usual) pve is about dps and pvp is about surviving that alpha, it’s going to be a compromise of dps and hp.

For GW2, for example, I’d submit that if doing world puzzles is your gig, there are ostensibly ‘viable’ builds that are all about movement that would be outright terrible for every other purpose.

As I explained: ‘viability’ is in the eye of the beholder (or dev, since they’re largely setting the goal metrics in the game).

Ben Stone

It usually is an illusion of choice and you’ll be stuck with a “meta build” if you want to do any serious content without a group of friends carrying you.

Also the meta builds tend to be a mess thematically, so I generally prefer set classes with theme based customisation.


The best system I’ve found in an MMO was the old skill wheel in TSW. I loved the myrid of builds that were possible with it. (the new isn’t bad, I just feel more limited by it) ESO’s skill system seems to be pretty decent as well, although it’s not as well balanced IMHO.

The lack of viable builds in open build systems like UO, GW1, etc is more a fault of the developers not properly balancing things than the inherent system it’s self. A properly done system should have so many well balanced points that’s it’s a sophie’s choice kind of situation. If you are playing a game where there is an open skill tree based system, and there’s only 2-3 viable builds, then the developers failed you. Not the system it’s self.

Dug From The Earth

The problem here is that mmorpgs are essentially 2 games.

The default game
And the meta game that the players create

Most mmorpgs have plenty of skill and build choice for the default game.

However, the meta game in nearly all mmorpgs, has a very very very very limited choice in what skills and builds you can use and still be considered “good” or “successful”


This is a pretty wide open question. I will say this however. There will always be debate about best skills and combinations of skills when you have choices.

The part that is important to me is your choices evolving over time with the same character.

Master Ranger/Master Fencer in SWG becoming Master Fencer/Master Doctor and always evolving.

I don’t think I have ever had a character in any game who mastered so many skills over time and tried new things.

The only game which has come close is ESO where the skill system is complex enough that my character is still evolving and changing skills after several years of play.

As a player who rarely plays alts, constant reinvention of any single character keeps me engaged.


I was one of those people that didn’t run the best builds. Was a combination of Pistoleer and Smuggler (for the Dirty Fighting.) What made it work though was the RNG of the crafting system. I ended up having two of the best pistols on the server and when all the buffs lined up could pretty much nuke anyone playing one of the melee builds rather quickly.

Axetwin .

I’m going to disagree with you on how many choices there were in GW1. The choices in builds came down to what you were specifically doing. This what I feel many people miss when they talk about build viability in GW1. When it comes to skill choices, I put GW1 up there near the top when it comes to a game devoid of the illusion of choice.