Building Better Skill Trees | Game Maker's Toolkit


Skill trees, upgrade systems, ability trees – call them what you want, they have become an integral part of modern day game design. So let’s look at how these things work, where they fall down, and what we can do to build better skill trees.

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Games shown in this episode (in order of appearance)

Assassin’s Creed: Origins (Ubisoft Quebec, 2018)
Shadow of the Tomb Raider (Eidos Montreal, 2018)
Watch Dogs 2 (Ubisoft Montreal, 2016)
Marvel’s Spider-Man (Insomniac Games, 2018)
DOOM (id Software, 2016)
Yakuza 0 (Sega, 2015)
Far Cry 5 (Ubisoft Montreal, 2018)
Batman: Arkham Knight (Rocksteady Studios, 2015)
God of War (Santa Monica Studio, 2018)
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (Retro Studios, 2004)
Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios, 2016)
Rise of the Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics, 2015)
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands (Ubisoft Paris, 2017)
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Monolith Productions, 2014)
Assassin’s Creed: Origins (Ubisoft Montreal, 2017)
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal, 2011)
Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017)
Guacamelee 2 (Drinkbox Studios, 2018)
Mad Max (Avalanche Studios, 2015)
Super Metroid (Nintendo, 1994)
Far Cry 3 (Ubisoft Montreal, 2012)
Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games, 2017)
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (Naughty Dog, 2016)
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst (EA DICE, 2016)
Mirror’s Edge (EA DICE, 2008)
Ori and the Blind Forest (Moon Studios, 2015)
Path of Exile (Grinding Gear Games, 2013)
Salt and Sanctuary (Ska Studios, 2016)
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017)
The Evil Within (Tango Gameworks, 2014)
Devil May Cry 4 (Capcom, 2008)
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011)
Nioh (Team Ninja, 2017)
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt, 2015)
Downwell (Moppin, 2015)
Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Studios, 2018)
Ryse: Son of Rome (Crytek, 2013)
Final Fantasy X (Square, 2001)

Music used in this episode

Special Spotlight, Kevin Macleod
Runaway, animeistrash
k. Part 2 – 06 untitled 5.5, animeistrash
Runaway, animeistrash
Special Spotlight, Kevin Macleod

Kevin Macleod –


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32 thoughts on “Building Better Skill Trees | Game Maker's Toolkit

  1. Path of Exile's tree gains a lot the more you play the game; It's just another huge customization for your character and increases the ways you can build your character. It's pretty great.

  2. i think that my favorite skill tree is the one in Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep, but the one for leveling uo your keyblades, i remember that you can unlock diferent moves and finishing moves depending on the way that you usually play the game, if you wanted to unlock all them all, you needed to play differently and permorm some actions to get them

  3. My number one issue with skill trees is when the choices are poorly balanced without it being clear to the player. I hate when im forced to choose 1 of 2 skills, then i pick one, and it turns out to be utter crap or nearly useless, and some online research proves the other option is the better choice 99% of the time.

    Now i have to restart the entire game to unfuck my waste of points, and for most games im just going to drop it rather than replay it all. I run into this very frequently. Usually the only games that let you remedy this without restarting are RPGs, but often times the cost of resetting is too great to make it worth doing (or sometimes it costs real world money, like in many MMOs).

    I don't want to have to research every little choice in a skill tree online first to make sure im not wasting points on a useless or broken ability.

  4. I def. liked Skyrims skill system like someone mentioned already. Though Kingdoms of Amalur had a great system imo. You could put points towards three sets of trees to create a combo class or you could focus them all on one. Each set had a combat side to it Warrior, Rogue and Mage. While Rogue had like stealth gadgets and stealth… "magic" and the Warrior was focused on weapons, combat and some warrior… "magic". The combat system is fast and quite challenging. And its quite rewarding using all the weapon combos and gadgets and magic options.


  5. Boring skills are actually acceptable if they lead to a bigger and better upgrade. Like, first is more health, then some more, and more, an then you get a ability that helps you instantly to full health, something along these lines. I don’t have a real example, but I hope that you understand.

  6. Skill trees where you unlock many skills but can only equip a few at a time are my least favourite. It usually makes most of the skills obsolete, because balancing all the skills perfectly is near impossible.

  7. I like the whole do X and get better at X idea tho. True it encourages repetition of some basic crafting like u mentioned with the daggers in Skyrim. But for RPGs and survival games I think it fits really well. Because it plays into the whole fantasy that at first you're a not much to cheer for but over time you grow. I guess the best solution would be some kind of diminishing returns when repeating the same thing in one way or another to stop mass production of cheap items just for leveling purposes.

  8. Oi the skill tree in Salt and Sanctuary is great, yes it’s massive but you’ll be leveling up like 100 levels, so it’s big enough for you to completely level out one of the four branches or to level up a chunk of multiple branches.

  9. I don't think skills by normal progression is necessarely bad, but there could be certain skills you could only get through quests that would certainly be interesting.

  10. Europa Universalis 4 is a grand strategy excel spreadsheet. Idea groups are…Boosts to your numbers. You already do have those numbers. But oh boy, does picking the right set of numbers change everything. It doesn't sound exciting at all, right? Well, 2000 hours says it's exciting. Sometimes it does add abilities, or a huge boost to those numbers to the point of making near infinite money, or having indestructible troops, which does get fixed eventually, but I don't understand how one can even begin to test this game in it's entirety. So this is my favourite thing. On paper 10% more tariffs from colonies don't sound like much, but because it's combined with all the other stuff on your arsenal, a superior geopolitical location and national idea set, it's absolutely worth it. Then you shape the rest of these numbers in a way to make massive numbers.

    So anyway, once I set myself a goal of making these number increasers increase numbers more, via modding, while giving some sort of negative impact of unlocking each idea in the group. Becoming more focused on economics could make you politically fragile, because it's the reneissance and that's not kool. Or doing trading ideas should impact your spy defense or limit your nobility, or your own ruler's legitimacy, which would in the long term make the country either more unstable or be a little behind in military technology. but it was a lot of work, and there's like 12 of these groups, and like a thousand unique national idea sets, that would probably have to be changed manually one line at a time. But i might try redoing it.

    I still like to play diablo 2 just for the…unoptimal and fun ways you can build your character. Or maybe it's the sound design. Dunno. Fun.

  11. Destiny 1 had skill trees built into each weapon itself, which was interesting because you had to grind a lot of experience just to unlock all of the functionality of 1 gun. You also had to do a lot of grinding to unlock the full subclass for each character, which took a long time. I find it interesting that in Destiny 2, each gun still has a simple “skill tree,” but it comes completely unlocked, as well as each subclass, which also comes completely unlocked. The UI for the destiny 2 subclasses is by far my favorite UI when it comes to skill trees.

  12. I actually like Skyrim's skills system a lot. For one, it feels somewhat realistic, as you become proficient in something via practice. The grind aspect mentioned here is tedious and becomes even more tedious the more you level up. So if someone decides to master a skill by grinding a bazillion of lvl 0 tasks, they'll spend lots of time and resources to get there. They still have to work to get there.
    Also, I like the unrealistic element of resetting a skill to zero, and reinvesting skill points to try out a completely new skill-set. If someone doesn't have the time to replay a game like Skyrim to properly build a character with a different skill set, this "career switch" is a great way to explore all the gameplay variety Skyrim has to offer.

  13. just cause 3's skill tree was really good. if you wanted to improve something, say your grappler, you needed to do side missions relating to the grappler in order to get the skill points required. you need to put in work to obtain the skill point type required to unlock the next advancement in the skill tree.

  14. I like path of exile skill tree, it gives access to a lot of choices and is fitting for a hack and slash game

  15. I really like perk-based progression systems like in the new Wolfenstein games for this reason. They force you to do a thing and learn an aspect of the game, and then reward you by making that specific aspect easier/different.

  16. Sometimes I wonder, why there's no own word for "Doppelgänger" in English, and why it's pronounced exactly the same as in German…

  17. While Prey's skill tree has many good theoretical ideas, it breaks down in practice. You can craft skill points in Prey, and it makes skill management trivial. There's also too many resources in the game the game to make it an interesting decision. Deciding between crafting ammunition and a skill is a great idea in theory, but what's this? I have a big wad of ammo anyway? This is, however, purely an issue of balance, not of design.

    Great video, as always.

  18. I spent dozens of hours making potions so I can increase their effectiveness. Health potion was the most common potion I made. Yes Skyrim does have good skills though that are fun to use. In defence of Skyrim, well it's Elder Scrolls, you know what to expect.

  19. I personally love skill trees if they are done right. Exactly for all the reasons you listed at the start: it allows for adding complexity over time without overwhelming the player, you actually feel like you are getting powerful and allow for customizing your gameplay experience to the way you like to play. I very much prefer this to other progression systems like gear. Gear always just feels throwaway and at least to me it doesn't feel like my character is getting more powerful if it's just because I looted +5 strength socks or something… It's not a part of my character, it's something external.

  20. One of the moe interesting design chioces were the ones in The Outer Worlds. When, let's say, you died a lot to plasma damage, oyu got a pop-up essentially giving you a chioce to acquire a perk which gave you extra plasma resistance, but (I'm just saying something here, I don't exactly remember) with the added malus of shaky aim. Or the Atronarch Stone in Skyrim, which made you so that you generate mana when shot at by enemies with spells, but your mana actively depleted instead of regenerating. Or, apart from skills, you could make a game, which, for example, prevents you from climbing in heavier gear, so that if you rock platemail and a battleaxe, you – similar to Deus Ex – get somewhat restricted in turn for greater defense and offense.

  21. One of my favorite skill trees from any game is actually not a mainstream game but an old flash game called Sonny 2. The game is structured as a turn based rpg and has 3 classes for the player with a unique skill tree for each class. With the exception of some passive abilities, every ability can be equipped on a skill wheel, with some abilities being equippable multiple times. In between battles, the player had the option to switch out abilities and try out different combinations for a battle. A lot of the abilities had both advantages and disadvantages, making them very situational. For example, one ability might stun the enemy for a few turns, but cause them to take no damage or reduced damage during that time. Another might damage the opponent, but cause them to regenerate their health back over time. There's even an ability that increases your damage output considerably, but at the cost of losing health at the end of every turn, and eventually dying. Some abilities were broken, of course, but it was still fun to find different branches and strategies that can get through the game. You could only unlock a small subset of the abilities in one playthrough, so you really had to think about what to get next on each level up. These design choices really forced the player to make smart decisions about what skills to get, and I've yet to find a game that handles skills in a way even remotely close to this level of creativity.

  22. In the mobile game Shadow Fight 2, every time you level up, you choose between 2 different skillboosts. I think thats nice

  23. Imagine instead choosing the skills you unlock, the skill tree is invisible and you only unlock skills that correlate with the way you play you the game. Examples being: Players that survive entire encounters without dying unlock a health boosting/survivability skill. Players that charge in aggressively unlock skills that increase their damage/make frontal assaults easier. Like a game that builds itself around tracking you and the way you play without you ever seeing it until skills are unlocked.

  24. I really like the thought catalog in Disco Elysium since, instead of using skill points to buy the thoughts, you spend time (a different finite resource) with a penalty to ultimately get some sort of bonus (more powerful bonuses tend to also come with permanent penalties), and you use skill points to either get rid of thoughts if one of the penalties is too crippling for how you play or to get more slots.

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