Titan Quest Designer Diary #5 - Understanding the Skill System

Lead gameplay designer Arthur Bruno explains why Titan Quest's rich skill system will keep you playing this action role-playing game for hours and hours.


Titan Quest bears quite a bit of resemblance to the classic action role-playing game Diablo, only imagine Diablo in beautiful 3D, and set in ancient Greece. This fast-paced hack-and-slash adventure game will have you running around a world filled with many of the mythological creatures from legends, such as gorgons, cyclops, mummies, and more. Yet there's much more to Titan Quest than just swordplay. The game features a rich skill system that's so deep that you could create dozens of characters and each of them could be distinct and unique from one another. We'll let Arthur Bruno, the lead gameplay designer, explain. Titan Quest is scheduled to ship this year.

Our Skills Go to 11

By Arthur Bruno
Lead Gameplay Designer, Iron Lore

The flashpowder skill momentarily stuns enemies, making them easy pickings.
The flashpowder skill momentarily stuns enemies, making them easy pickings.

When we first began developing the Titan Quest skill system, we first tried to look at systems that had been successful in other games before asking ourselves, "What can we do better?" Role-playing represents one of the oldest genres in gaming, and a lot of good skill systems have evolved over the years. After exploring many options, we chose a skill structure that seemed most suitable for our game, and came up with a couple of innovations that we felt would set it apart and, more importantly, improve the fun. We also wanted to give you a lot of choices so you'd feel like you are creating a well-defined character class, not a generic character with a little of everything. Finally, the skill system needed to deliver a lot of replayability.

The result is a system that offers eight differently themed skills sets, called "masteries." You can blend any two of these to create one of 28 combination-class possibilities. (Note that each of these 28 combos has a special name.) Each mastery contains 20 skills, and follows a theme that focuses on a certain type of gameplay. Not only does each mastery provide a different gameplay experience, but within each mastery, different skill selections will result in very different character builds. For example, if I choose the storm mastery, I could focus my skill points on ranged damage skills like ice shard, lightning bolt, and spell breaker to create a pure spell caster. Or, if I wanted to create a more melee-oriented character using the same mastery, I could invest in thunderball to stun enemies, storm nimbus to enchant my weapons with cold and electrical damage, and squall to disable enemy archers.

I think the most innovative aspect of the system is the way that you unlock higher-level skills. Instead of having to reach a certain character level to unlock the next tier of skills, you have some control over the pace at which you unlock your masteries. At each character level, you earn three skill points, which you can either place in a mastery to advance it and unlock additional skills, or increase the power of the skills that you've already unlocked. This adds another level of strategic thinking to character development, because there is an ideal balance somewhere between dumping all your points into Tier 1 skills or, conversely, dumping all your points in a mastery to unlock the Tier 6 skills as soon as possible. This balance is achieved because the effectiveness of later skills is built upon the power of your early skills. This aspect of the skill system hits upon one of the major things we've done in an attempt to improve upon older role-playing skill systems. We've made a great effort to ensure that even your Tier 1 skills are useful throughout the game. There are three ways in which we have done this: We've designed skills that are part of a family in which later skills are modifiers of the first; skills whose properties never become obsolete because they're universally effective; and skills that are indirectly boosted by other skills.

Ice shard is an example of a "family" skill that is enhanced by its own higher-level modifiers. Adding points to the initial skill increases the amount of damage it causes. After this caps out, the power of ice shard can be further enhanced by adding points to the second modifier skill in the family, velocity. Velocity speeds up your ice shard, making it easier to hit moving enemies. It may potentially pierce through your target and hit any enemies standing behind it, and it also increases the base damage of ice shard by a percentage. The final skill in the family increases the number of ice shards you shoot. So, in this case, racing to get the highest level skill in the family isn't worthwhile until you've put enough points into your ice shard to give it some respectable damage. Casting three ice shards that do 15 damage points each is not as good as casting one that does 75 damage points, but neither is as good as casting three ice shards that do 75 damage points each.

All of the damage skills in the storm mastery are further enhanced in Tier 6, when you unlock the storm-wisp pet's modifier skill, "Eye of the Storm." This is an aura that boosts the cold and lightning damage of allies. Although this is one of the highest-level skills in the storm mastery, it is only really effective after your base damages are at a respectable level. Getting a 300-percent increase on five points of cold damage isn't exactly going to win the game for you. On the other hand, after your base skills are maxed out, a 300-percent increase on 101 points of cold damage is a recipe for destruction.

The circle-of-power skill summons a pretty formidable spirit to aid you.
The circle-of-power skill summons a pretty formidable spirit to aid you.

You won't have to wait until you unlock higher skill levels to start rolling. The design team has put in some early skills that just never lose their luster. The spirit mastery contains a skill called enslave spirit that lets you bend an enemy's mind to your will. Putting points into the skill increases the length of time that you can control an enemy monster, but the skill can be used only on monsters equal to or lower than your own character level. So the power of this skill naturally increases throughout the game as you gain character levels, because you can enslave higher-level monsters.

Finally, the Titan Quest skill system will offer an incredible amount of replayability, not only because you have access to 28 different class combinations and different skill builds within those combinations, but also because skills do not become obsolete. In a system in which early skills are phased out and you're encouraged to save all your points for the highest-level skills, half the possible skill choices are effectively eliminated. Even for people like myself, who often replay the same class over and over to perfect it, there is the added challenge of trying to figure out the most optimal advancement balance between leveling your mastery and leveling your skills.

I always imagined that by this point in the project I'd be worn out thinking about Titan Quest, and the fun of playing it would have to be reserved only for our audience and not myself. However, I'm happy to say that as we near our ship date, I'm still excited to play the game, and I hope you will be, too!

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