Passive Skill Systems have been an integral part of many of our favorite video games over the years; it provides a method for you to customize your character as they grow in the game world. Currently in the ARPG space we have passive systems such as: Diablo 3’s Pick 4, Path of Exile’s Massive Passive Web and Grim Dawn’s Constellations. Each of these play to different strengths in their respective games, but we felt they all had some room for improvement. I’m going to walk you through the process that we went through to make our passive skill system and go into some details on how it works.
Creating our Passive Grid was a very long process and it is still going through minor evolutions to this day. We had many long discussions about every aspect of it and I’m very happy with the result. Since we already have many skill trees to play around with in the game, we wanted to avoid the classic WoW style talent trees. We needed something that would work well with our class evolution system where a Mage needs to be able to take points in a Passive Grid that will turn into either a Spellblade or Sorcerer Passive Grid and still make sense. We also needed something that will keep us out of ‘tree hell’ and still have interesting decisions to be made when building your character. We were looking for the easy to learn difficult to master style passive system.
Early on in development we had players placing attribute points into their character sheet, much like in Diablo 2. This worked well at first but we began to feel like it was too straightforward of a system and would end up creating a golden path. Without any interesting decisions to be made, we scrapped the system. Players will have to get attribute points elsewhere. Now, putting attribute points in the passive nodes seemed to make each node either boring or too busy. We still weren’t set on even having a passive system at this point.
Let’s talk about what makes a really good passive system for a moment. I’ve mentioned the biggest thing already, interesting decisions. We also wanted our system to be intuitive, deep, and fit on one screen without having to zoom way out. Interesting decisions come from restrictions. If you are making a lightning mage and you can put points into all the things that say you do more damage with lightning abilities, that’s not an interesting decision. If you must choose between dealing more damage and hitting more enemies with your chain lightning ability, that’s a more interesting decision. By restricting players from taking everything that’s good for their character, we can create interesting decision points.
To make this system interesting and deep we have created a set of axes (plural of axis) that cross a grid of nodes. You begin by investing in any axes of your choosing using axis points, building outward from the center. As you do the outward points on these axes connect to form a polygon shape in the background. All nodes which are touched by this shape are available to be selected when you have node points available.
Making a system that is intuitive and deep isn’t an easy task. During testing with our system, we have found that it was hard to understand the system with only one axis point, because the first point makes a less noticeable impact. But when the first few points are given as a lump sum, it was much easier to understand. When players have a chance to see the area of available nodes take shape and are given a choice of multiple nodes to pick up right from the start it works quite well.
To keep the passive system on a single screen without a massive zoom we have created a unique Passive Grid for each class. This allows us to craft unique and exciting nodes for each class and reinforce class identity. Class identity is one of our guiding design principles and you will hear about it again. You might find similar abilities on multiple grids but no two nodes will ever be the same.
The two extremes end of the spectrum of how people use a passive system are: “What’s the best thing for my character that’s available to me right now?” and “Let me plan my entire build out to get the absolute most out of this possible.” I believe that we have succeeded in making a system that both types of players, and everyone in between, can interact happily with. Players who are just taking what looks good right now will end up making characters that can interact with almost all the content of the game and have fun doing it. Players who really put time into planning out their passive grid perfectly will have a difficult puzzle to solve on their hands and I expect that it will take them a long time to get their build just the way they want it.
We are still developing the systems to make the nodes that we want to have implemented in the grids, so the nodes that are available in the current build are mostly placeholder nodes. With the current design, you will receive a node point on every 5th level and an axis point on each other level. Most players will probably experience end game content around level 75-85. This means that most players will have around 16-17 node points to work with. Quest rewards might increase this number. With so few points to use, we need to make sure that each one is impactful and build shaping. We will be avoiding nodes that just say +10% damage. Instead, you will get to pick from nodes that look something like these:
Versatile Cryomancer: 25% increased cold damage if you have cast a lightning skill recently.
Ward Caster: Gain ward equal to your intelligence when you cast a spell.
Long Winter: +3% cold resistance for each minion within 15ft.
Berserk: +15% move speed and +5% damage taken.
Each axis point provides specific stats that will help shape your character. For example, the Mage axes will give you things like: Ward Retention, Health, Increased Cast Speed or Increased Critical Hit Chance. While Primalist players bonuses such as: Increased Damage, Increased Minion Damage, Health Gained on Kill and Health Gained on Potion Use.
Each axis forms a quadrant with another axis. This quadrant will be generally themed to reflect the intersection of these two axes characteristics. So, the quadrant which is enclosed by +Strength and +Minion Damage will have nodes which are generally themed around those playstyles. This does not mean that all good damage dealing nodes will be in that quadrant at all. It just means that you’ll find several nodes that might play off damage increases from one or the other. There will always be nodes you want to go get but just can’t quite reach.
Please note that all values and specific numbers referenced in this document are prototype values and will change before the final build of the game. The screenshots from the game also represent grids that will be populated much more before the game is released.
I’d love to hear what you guys think of this system. It’s a huge one and I’m really excited to see what people think once they really can sink their teeth into it.