Report article RSS Feed Character Stats vs. Player Skill

The goal of almost all game designers is to make games that are fun. A common method for giving the player a "fun experience" is to let him start out in a world as an inexperienced noob and then let his character blossom into one of the greatest and most powerful beings in all the land. This sounds like a solid idea, but what mechanics can be used to convey this transition to the player?

Posted by jeffr on Sep 16th, 2009

The goal of almost all game designers is to make games that are fun. A common method for giving the player a "fun experience" is to let him start out in a world as an inexperienced noob and then let his character blossom into one of the greatest and most powerful beings in all the land. This sounds like a solid idea, but what mechanics can be used to convey this transition to the player? There are two choices: schedule rewards that will upgrade the player's character stats or give the player analog control over part of the game and encourage him to actually develop some gameplay skills.

Character stat improvement schedules

Growing up I poured at least 100 hours into Diablo and its stat boosting reward schedule. All I had to do was click on enemies to kill them and at regular intervals my character's stats would go up. Throughout my whole experience this mechanic never changed. The only brain stimulation I got was determining what character attributes I should pump up first and trying to figure out if a new fancy sword that had popped out of an enemy was actually better than my old fancy sword.

Fostering organic player skill

Unreal Tournament also grabbed at least 100 hours of my childhood. Just like Diablo, UT required me to click on enemies to kill them. However, instead of making my strikes easy and automatic, UT gave me direct analog control over my aim and movement. The game actually made me line up the attacks myself. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but as I played more, I could feel myself actually getting better at the arbitrary art of killing enemies.

Learning skills is more fun for players...right?

While ridding the world of hell spawn and becoming the grand champion of the tournament were both fun, UT gave me a chance to get good at something while Diablo only asked me to shoot fish in a barrel 100,000 times in a row. If I were to reinstall both games today, I would still have some of my UT combat skills while the data that stored my Diablo XP is long gone. It seems character stats are devices that create the illusion of accomplishment and are thus an inferior form of fun. Game design dilemma resolved...

The infamous Lugaru level with the three wolves.

But wait... there's a catch

Remember David's post about designing the solution space? David warned that if your solution space is lumpy and convoluted, players may get stuck at locally optimal points without reaching the absolutely optimal point.

If you design a skill level challenge expecting the player to be in the valley of leet when they are actually stuck in a pot hole of noob, fun will quickly turn into frustration. While I have heard people proclaim how awesome it is that they can actually feel themselves getting better at Lugaru's fighting system, there are also occasional cries of agony over the skills required to beat the infamous "level with the three wolves".

With a stat improvement schedule, the game designer has direct control over how skillful the player's character will be at any given moment and can adjust the challenges facing the player accordingly. Additionally, the player always knows what he can do to improve his stats if a particular obstacle in the game is temporarily too hard.

There's another catch

Benevolent game designers want to create the most fun for the most gamers. However, skill-based games may not actually scale to distribute fun effectively to all their players in the multiplayer case.

Many multiplayer scenarios involve competition among players. Unfortunately, because of the Lake Wobegon Effect most players will go into battle thinking that they are above average. Sadly competition will result in players being disappointed by the fact that their rank is not as high as they hoped it would be. With a stat system you don't have to exclude any players from reaching a maximum "skill" level.


I can't say with authority that skill based games are more fun than stat driven games. However, it does feel as though skill-based gameplay results in higher quality fun as long as extra care is taken to smooth out major potholes in the solution space. As was done with Lugaru, we are planning on allowing the player freedom to organically develop combat skills and strategies in Overgrowth.

What do you think is more fun, accumulating stats or developing actual (albeit arbitrary) skills? Can you think of any games that successfully combine the two? (permalink)

Track us on ModDB (visit our page)

Please join us here too:
Facebook icon ModDB icon Steam icon Twitter icon YouTube icon

Post comment Comments
Piuneer Sep 17 2009, 2:45am says:

Very cool article. I'm currently into an mmo that not only relies on your character's level or armor, but also the skill you play the game with. The armor is only asthetic and the skills you use must be carefully and tactically set up in sequence and unleashed at the most opportune time of battle. I love Spellborn :D I'm so close to pre-ordering this game!

+1 vote     reply to comment
Dra6o0n Sep 17 2009, 6:55am says:

Action rpgs have many variants but nowadays, these generations calls for new ideas and better action games than those in the past (diablo now seems like a semi-action game)...

+1 vote     reply to comment
nidawa Sep 17 2009, 7:38am says:

for your last question i must say mass effect

+1 vote     reply to comment
Dremth Sep 17 2009, 9:25am replied:

Mass effect does not really incorporate skill but rather the illusion of it. While you do have to keep your crosshair in a certain range to hit your enemies, whether you actually hit them or not all depends on your character's stats with that weapon. The only exception to this might be the sniper rifle.
Regardless, it's still an awesome game.

+2 votes     reply to comment
DuckSauce Sep 17 2009, 9:20am says:

Mount&Blade combines the two well in my opion.
You level up a character, but no matter how good your character gets, you still have to move the mouse and "line up" those shots yourself, you can be an uber archer, but only if you yourself are capable of hitting moving targets using a mouse and keyboard by lining up the shots.

It also makes effective use of large enemy parties to tell the player that he's not god almighty and he will need his own troops, so a player wouldn't get the Lake Wobegon effect until they manage to put together a succesfull army and develop succesfull tactics to use them to the best of their abilities in battle.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Aimforthehead Sep 17 2009, 10:03am says:

Metal Gear Online has a nice mix of the two.
Unless a game is turn based I can't stand stat based games so I'd suggest making it skill based but still involve stats in some areas.

+1 vote     reply to comment
archkyrie Sep 17 2009, 10:28am says:

i agree that stats are nice for keeping things even... but natural skill is my preference.
what seems reasonable is if you could somehow combine the two. because the one thing that annoys me about stats is that no matter how good you are, you still level at the same rate as everyone else, if a game could be stat based with points granted either on achieving skill related challenges, or that just gives bonus xp for skill... but how that would be achieved i don't know.

+1 vote     reply to comment
DynamicEcho Sep 17 2009, 11:25am says:

The Marksmanship skill in Oblivion is an example of a working combination of the two - you can have a daedric bow, daedric arrows and have a max marksmanship skill, but it is you who has to account for arrow drop over range and target movement. Of course, it could be more difficult (wind, weather effects etc), but it does require some skill.

+1 vote     reply to comment
AlCool Sep 17 2009, 11:51am says:

Dark Messiah did this well in both MP and SP. You could keep gaining strength and abilities, but when not performed with a certain amount of skill, would be rendered useless to you. The game started with a bit of a difficulty curve but did gradually get harder, making the player utilize both his new abilities and newly gained knowledge and skill to outwit and outfight whatever stood infront of him.

I prefer skill over stats. Stats often make the actual "Skill" of the game based on the hours played. Skill/h; pretending the player is learning at a steady rate. Mixing the two is difficult really, but letting the player become better without spoon feeding it to him encourages real development in the person playing, and not just the illusion thereof.

+1 vote     reply to comment
OverturnStick Sep 17 2009, 4:10pm says:

Battlefield: Heroes successfully combines the two. While getting levels is important, the abilities you get while leveling up are still secondary, skill is primary.

0 votes     reply to comment
vp21ct Sep 17 2009, 5:06pm says:

Look at Mount and Blade. In it, there is a distinctive skill based system. If you suck at the game you will always fail, no matter what. But there is also a stat system that can make it a bit more forgiving. Put a crapload of points into archery and horse archery and horse riding, and suddenly its merely point and click and arrow kills bady. But you still have to have the pointer on the bady.

I think that the stats should be there, but they should be there to complement skill or make the skill things easier.

Example: If there is a dodge stat, and I'm a dodge god, I don't have to put anything in it and instead put it into something like jump or stealth. But if I'm not a dodge god, I put points into that stat, that maybe softens the blow if its not a direct one, and suddenly the game is a bit frendlier.

+1 vote     reply to comment
mothmann Sep 17 2009, 5:32pm says:

STATS > skills. You mentioned diablo and i have the say that although diablo is mainly stat based it still takes skill to play and not continually die over and over (diablo 2 more than the original). Why u say? the exact same reason ut requires skill. Analog aiming. Diablo requires it. Maybe not to the extent of ut. But other than that diablo requires skills as to how to approach a situation. Which enemies to attack first. Should u run and live or fight and possibly die? But then it boils down to those not being skill and actually being knowledge learned from previous experiences.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Kissaki Sep 17 2009, 6:13pm says:



+1 vote     reply to comment
Nemesisurvivorleon Sep 17 2009, 6:23pm says:

Some will say stats are better for their STRATEGIC value but that is in fact not about increasing stats, it is about strategic skill which is another type of skill.

We need Ingenious strategy and intense twitch skill maxed out in games of course. Stats increasing is really just counting up in the numbers, it has nothing to do with strategy as that is a separate design element combined with the progression.

Progression itself is very nonstrategic and unskillful. Combine Skill, Strategy, and Progression to perfection!

+1 vote     reply to comment
draken1991 Sep 17 2009, 8:28pm says:

Two words: Deus Ex.
Deus Ex is, as far as I see it, a pefect mix of FPS and RPG. You evolve your "stats" and equipment, but you still need the skill to sneak properly, aim properly, move properly, manage your inventory properly and even talk properly to NPCs. Also, given the number of options on how to tackle your objective, you can always use your own preferred skills. If you have a good aim, go run&gunning. If you're good at learning the movement pattern of the enemy, go stealth. Or mix your play style.

Of course, going the Deus Ex way is quite hard, so, skill or stats, I say skill. But if it's singleplayer only (or only for the singleplayer), i think a light mix of both (depending on the type of game you're making) the closes to the perfect way. But multiplayer, skill only, please.

+1 vote     reply to comment
oWn4g3 Sep 18 2009, 5:01pm replied:

Deus Ex is also my first thought when talking about skill and stats. That, along with the great story and atmosphere make it one of the best game of its kind (maybe even the only one).

Nevertheless when it comes to multiplayer I prefer skill, maybe added up with some alternative equipment or styles to earn (like TF2 does).

+1 vote     reply to comment
rexflinter Sep 18 2009, 7:31am says:

These Overgrowth news updates are always a good read. Thanks for always updating this page.

At it's best, I believe that 'stat based' games reward the player for playing their prefered way. The Elder Scrolls series isn't a bad example of this; there's alot to do in these games, and you can create different characters. If you choose archery over close-quarters combat, and continue to develop that skill, the game rewards you for that consistancy.

But remember, in it's original incarnation, stat based gameplay was pen and paper role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, of course. D&D is really a teamplay based game, with different characters bringing their specified stats to the table. A good D&D adventure gives every character a chance to shine.

Basicly, a good stats based game gives players some choice how they play, and rewards them for those choices. This isn't actually impossible in a skill based game, but it seems that, so far, is 'sniper rifles or full automatic?'

And also, kudos to Mount&Blade. It's a great example of skill and stat merged gameplay.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Noremakk Sep 18 2009, 10:06am says:

Fallout 3 had a great balance of organic and digital skill. On one hand, your character was controlled by you, like in an FPS. On the other hand, stat points and bonuses are awarded every time you level up, affecting every accuracy and damage roll calculated for every attack.

0 votes     reply to comment
Bfox Sep 18 2009, 12:38pm says:

What makes me want to play Diablo more than Unreal tournament is the atmosphere.
Looking at the different elements which make a game, story, gameplay, I really must say it is the atmosphere which really keeps me grabbed in.
The perfect mix of visual and audio effects with a suitable tone done in a tasteful and new manner are just my catnip and the Diablo series is really a game which succeeded in this department for me.
Looking at my other favourite games this is usually the case, the original Command&Conquer, Halflife, Mass effect, Fallout 1&2, Stalker series, Sonic games for the megadrive, "Space hulk - Vengeance of the blood angels" and even Doom.

+1 vote     reply to comment
HANDofKANE Sep 19 2009, 3:12pm says:

Stick to developing skills. I agree, that level in Lugaru 1 with the wolves and the one in the snow with the 5 buns and the one with a combat stick. Took a while to finish, but when I did, I felt so good.

And besides, imagine Overgrowth with a accumulating system, it'll be like, you suck with a wood sword against a wolf, and then after a few level ups, you own whaleman with a wood-sword. nah... developing is better

+1 vote     reply to comment
Eagle0600 Sep 21 2009, 9:18pm says:

Rakion mixed skill and stat pretty well. Rakion is a multiplayer death match game mainly involving melee combat, with a system of blocking and dodging. The control system is pretty good, too. On the other hand, you do get XP during fights, and gold, which you can use to buy armour. There's also a game style that ignores level, so only the skill (and armour, weapons, etc) come into it. The armour and weapons also give a somewhat subtle bonus, so the difference between two people with different item-sets isn't too exaggerated.

+1 vote     reply to comment
akblabla Sep 24 2009, 4:58am says:

I think accumulating skills gets really boring after a while but the idea of sometimes you get the possibility to do something new is good. Maybe if you can make a system that can see how good you are at blocking and evading, hitting and counter-attack, you could make a system that fx when you maybe have 10 XP when your average fighting skill of the last 20 seconds maybe become 30 because you counter-attacked his counter-attack and took nearly no damage defeating him(it should depend on the enemy's own skill level) then your XP begins increasing slowly towards 30(It would be good if the XP level got 1% closer your current fighting skill every second your fighting skill is more than the XP). When you have collected enough XP you can take a skill(not increased hp but something like if you time a attack perfect that punch maybe give more damage or somthing like that) and with this skill you can "crawl" up the XP ladder if you are a good player.

Just my suggestion

+1 vote     reply to comment
Post a Comment
click to sign in

You are not logged in, your comment will be anonymous unless you join the community today (totally free - or sign in with your social account on the right) which we encourage all contributors to do.

2000 characters limit; HTML formatting and smileys are not supported - text only

Report Abuse
Report article
Related Games
Overgrowth Indie Single & Multiplayer Adventure
Related Engines
Custom Built
Custom Built Commercial Released Sep 1, 2007
Related Groups
Wolfire Games
Wolfire Games Developer & Publisher with 3 members