How to play large video games well? Build your own a skill tree
These days, it feels like you can’t release
a big blockbuster action game without one
of these things: a skill tree.
You’ve definitely seen them before, in games
like Tomb Raider and Watch Dogs.
They often have three distinct branches, with
cute names like innovator or hunter.
In these games, you accrue experience points
by playing through missions, and whenever
you hit some sort of arbitrary threshold you
get a skill point.
A skill point, which you can spend to unlock
a new ability.
This might be something funky like a brand
new move, or something a little less exciting
like a few extra health points.
Skill trees like this were first found in
number crunching RPGs like Diablo 2, but have
since become ubiquitous in big budget action
games – in everything from Spider-Man to DOOM,
to the point where it’s now just an expected
part of a modern console game, like climbable
towers, and microtransactions.
But while I find a lot of these tropes to
be pretty cliched and tiresome, I can totally
see why skill trees work, and how they can
benefit certain games.
For one, they can be used to trickle out complexity
over the course of the game.
If you started God of War with all of Kratos’s
powers, it might be completely overwhelming
and some players might stick to the simple
stuff and never delve into the finer details
of the combat system.
But when you earn new powers from a skill
tree, your mechanical move set opens up incrementally
over the course of the game.
And because you spent some kind of currency
on that move, you’ll probably feel compelled
to actually use it.
Skill trees are also a nice way to make players
feel like they’ve grown in power over the
course of the game.
At the start of the adventure you’re weak
and have only a few special powers – but by
the end you’re a walking tank with armfuls
This also can be used to keep players engaged.
They can scan the skill tree to get a preview
of abilities they’ll be wielding later in
the game, and then stick with it until they
get to to that point, excited about the prospect
of playing with all those new powers.
Skill trees also add meta level decision making
into a game.
They can create a different experience each
time you play.
And they give the UI team something to do.
Someone’s go to draw all those icons.
But for all their benefits, most games squander
their skill trees by making really poor choices
about what to put on those branches.
And so in this video we’re going to talk
about some popular mistakes that skill trees
make – and how we might be able to fix them.
For starters, a lot of games that feature
skill trees will allow the player to unlock
most of the upgrades, if not all of them,
by the end of the game.
Just through a normal amount of play.
And this really misses an opportunity to make
players think hard about their choices.
They’re only thinking about what order they
unlock the skills – when they could be thinking
about which upgrades they’re actually be
able to get.
I personally enjoyed the skill tree in Assassin’s
Creed Origins, because I definitely wasn’t
able to afford all of the skills by the end
of the game.
Instead, I had to specialise – I focused on
the hunter and seer branches, which were all
about improving my abilities in stealth, and
increasing my options in taking out camps
through tricking the AI and causing chaos.
This created some cool outcomes: like how
the Bayek in my game felt personal to me and
his skills fit the way I chose to play the
But there were also interesting repercussions
for my choices: by neglecting the warrior
branch, i was pretty lacklustre at one-on-one
I often had to run away from direct encounters
and find new ways to approach situations.
Immersive sims are also good at showing the
repercussions of picking certain skills.
In the Deus Ex games, certain paths and options
will be locked out based on the upgrades you’ve
chosen, forcing you to find alternate routes
that better suit your character.
And in Prey, the more skills you unlock, the
more alien you become – right up to the point
where friendly turrets now consider you a
threat and try to kill you.
Another way skill trees screw up is simply
by making the skills just really boring.
Making your attacks do a few percentage points
more damage, or giving yourself a couple extra
health points… is just not very exciting.
So brand new powers in Dishonored and exciting
new attacks in God of War are far more desirable
than a few extra numbers on the game’s underlying
And don’t forget the rules laid down in
Metroid: one ability can serve multiple purposes,
like the ice beam, which is both a weapon
and a way to navigate the world.
Ultimately, a good skill will make you excited
to finally unlock it, and then eager to go
into the world and use it.
Back to Origins for a second, I find myself
caught in a really engaging loop where I’d
unlock new abilities – excitedly test them
out on a few camps and missions.
which gave me enough experience points for
another ability… and so on.
That being said, skill trees should generally
avoid mechanics that the player should already
have by default.
When i played Horizon Zero Dawn, I was peeved
that I couldn’t grab enemies from ledges
like every other game of its ilk – until I
found out it was an unlock-able skill.
Same goes for Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, which
locked Faith’s leg tuck move behind an upgrade
menu, despite it being accessible from the
start in the first game.
Oh, and don’t feel the need to add in crappy
skills just to boost the numbers.
Some skill tree designers obviously believe
that bigger is better – check out these monster
skill forests for Path of Exile and Salt and
Sanctuary – but if you ask me, a tightly pruned
bush with a handful of truly interesting upgrades
is often the best solution.
Another issue plaguing skill trees is the
actual process of earning these skill points.
Most games give you the points simply for
playing the game normally, which feels like
a missed opportunity.
Let’s go back to Prey, which has these Neuromod
tools (the game’s version of skill points)
as physical objects in the world.
This means you have to go out there and find
them – maybe by exploring the different nooks
and crannies of Talos 1, or by doing side
Choosing how to dole out these skill points
allows the designer to encourage a certain
play style, or to make players check out optional
Like in Zelda Breath of the Wild, where Spirit
Orbs, which can be cashed in for health and
stamina upgrades, are given for completing
That essentially turns the entire world of
Hyrule into one giant skill tree.
This also makes players actively work towards
improving their character, rather than randomly
getting stat boosts as they play.
This reminds me of Far Cry 3’s crafting
in that game, I knew I wanted a better gun
holster – and the menu told me that I needed
to get a few pelts from a certain animal.
So I paused the main quest, found the animal’s
breeding ground on my map, and went hunting
for pelts until I had enough to afford the
I wanted an upgrade and had to figure out
how to get it, and had to actually work towards
Getting the, uh, sprint slide, though?
Well, I just played the game a bit more until
I got given some skill points.
Look: you don’t really need to encourage
the player to simply play through the main
missions – that’s why they bought the game
in the first place.
So use the promise of skill points to encourage
other ways to play.
To play skilfully, or play on harder difficulties,
or explore more, and so on.
But be careful about exactly the sort of gameplay
Skyrim’s system, where players get skill
points for performing certain actions, can
persuade players to just craft dozens of daggers,
simply to boost their crafting skill.
You don’t want to encourage grinding, or
gameplay that doesn’t fit the core experience.
One final issue is that these skill menus
are pretty boring to navigate.
They take you out of the game world, and into
a menu screen that looks like you’re buying
travel insurance or something.
This is not a huge deal in an expansive adventure
like The Witcher, but it can massively slow
the pace of a lighting quick game like Doom.
So just make them quicker.
Like in Downwell, where it flashes up three
upgrade choices between levels.
You pick one, and away you go.
Or just make them automatic.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has skill trees for
both Arthur and his horse, and these upgrades
– for things like boosted stamina and sweet
horse tricks – just unlock as you play.
Though, whether Doom even needed skill trees
in the first place, is another question entirely.
The thing about skill trees is: there’s
loads of fun stuff you can do with them.
How about skills that offer both advantages
and disadvantages to the player?
Or skills that can interlink in various ways?
Or skills where you can only equip a handful
at a time?
Skill trees feel like one of those systems
that’s in every game nowadays – simply because
they’re in every game nowadays.
But that doesn’t make them bad – it’s
just very easy to get a bit lazy with them,
and do what everyone else is doing, regardless
of whether it suits the game, the experience,
the pace, and so on.
So get creative with them!
A skill tree isn’t about making the player
wait half the game to get all the mechanics
they should have at the start.
Or going into a boring menu to get a boring
They’re about customising your experience.
About rewarding different ways of playing.
And about forcing difficult choices.
Lemme know about your favourite skill trees
in the comments below, and I eagerly await
a million comments about this crazy Sphere
Grid nonsense from Final Fantasy X. I have
no idea what this thing is…