An article on Joystiq surveys a number of recent RPGs and notes that the once universal system of player-customized character stats is fading away. The characters in recent titles like Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 had no attributes at all, and as we know, while Diablo III retains attributes, they are auto-assigned with level ups and can only be boosted with equipment.
How are games compensating for the removal or minimizing of what was once an indispensible core element of character improvement? By increasing the importance of skills, at least in the case of Diablo III.
As skills became more and more important, attributes decline, at least in Diablo 2. Each level up grants you five attribute points, yes, but go to virtually any FAQ and it’ll tell you that once you reach the bare minimum for wearing your gear, you should dump all your points into one stat, usually Vitality for health. It offers the illusion of choice and customizability, but primarily offers the ability to mess up more than to successfully build a different kind of character. This is also a problem with skills in Diablo 2, but most skill-based games are less punishing. Diablo 3 seems to be built on a model of giving the player fewer choices, but making those choices more interesting and relevant than the cookie-cutter builds of Diablo 2.
This is part of the appeal, and why I don’t think we’re going to move away from games with robust skill systems. Unlike core attributes, skill systems allow for consistent player adaptation and character growth. The player can take an active role in how their character grows stronger, instead of simply watching. Attributes are still used and important in games like Dragon Age, Fallout, and Legend Of Grimrock, but skills are as or more important. That is the way of modern role-playing games: skills are the focus of character growth, and attributes are flavor, if they exist at all.
The skill system is probably the biggest change from D2 to D3, and pretty much everyone seems to love the idea of runestones granting so many different versions of every skill. On the other hand, with full respecs and auto-stats, every “naked” level 60 Wizard is 100% identical, or can be made that way in several seconds of skill clicking. (This system differs hugely from Diablo 2, where naked chars of the same level were generally no more than 98% identical.)
Will Diablo 3 allow us the same sense of ownership and customization of our characters that classic RPGs and past titles in the series did? Time will tell.