Last post, I discussed the realization that, even though I like the concept of open character systems with lots of free-form power and skill choices, the reality of those systems often left me cold. I used Champions Online as my main example because it has one of the most wide open systems in the market.
In CO, powers are divided into power frameworks (fire, ice, gadgets, darkness, etc.). However, powers from all powersets are available to you at any time, regardless of what framework you start with. Higher tier powers require you to either have x powers from a certain framework, or x+y total powers (from any framework). This means that specialists will get access to (sometimes) better powers more quickly, but eventually generalists will get access to those powers as well.
On paper, this is a fine system... and it does work OK in practice. However, in my experience, I find the most of my characters, and indeed most characters in the game, have lots of similar powers and a similar playstyle.
Is this sameness endemic to all open models? In a system where players choose their powers and skills, are you always going to see hordes of FOTM tankmages roaming around? Are systems that tie characters to tightly defined roles always going to provide a more interesting play experience than open systems? I don't know. Ultimately, I realize that I want to love CO's character system, but I don't. I want to get into the freedom of leveling up my skills in a game like Darkfall, but know that to be competitive, I should read a guide and level and skip the same skills as everyone else.
Enough questions -- let's take a look at ways an open system might avoid these pitfalls and provide more varied characters.
Meaningful (and non-obvious) Choices
If you are going to give your system choices, take pains to make them meaningful. If you have a dozen blasts (fire blast, ice blast, etc.) and all of them are identical except for their special effects, there is no meaningful choice there. Give each blast different combat stats and secondary effects -- and make sure those effects are big enough so that we can see the difference.
Of course, this brings up a ton of balance issues. If your fire blast has a secondary DoT, your ice blast slows opponents, and your lightning blast does more up-front damage and also has a chance to stun, you had better make sure that each of those powers is desirable in some way. If there is a clear winner, expect players to figure that out and choose it over the others... and then post a guide... and then you have a host of unused powers -- an obvious choice is as bad as no choice.
The answer here is not to make the powers the same, but to make sure that their stats and effects are such that every power is interesting and useful to some subset of characters at some point in their game. For instance, though our fire blast might not do as much instant damage as our lightning, we can make the DoT good enough that it is the best overall damage. The ice blast might do relatively poor damage in comparison, but its slow effect is good enough that it actually helps mitigate damage and control enemies on the battlefield. Thus, a PvE damage dealer might be inclined to choose the fire blast, whereas a tank might use the ice blast and a PvP blaster might lean toward the lightning.
In Champions Online, the basic formula for a successful character is to take a single-target, hard-hitting attack, an AoE attack, a passive defense, a shield, an emergency click defense, one or more self-heals, and something that will help you generate energy. In general, this is the blueprint for success. Not all characters follow this blueprint, but most do and thus, you see a lot of characters with this standard set of powers.
The fact that there is a standard build isn't necessarily a problem. What causes the problem is that this blueprint is pretty easy to implement and requires absolutely no tradeoffs be made. In CO, you have access to enough power choices and advantage points so that there is no need to skimp on anything. You can take the best blasts, the best defenses, the best self-heals without having to prioritize any of them. So, all of these wonderful power choices you have are mostly meaningless because you can easily choose all of the powers you need with a few extra powers to spare.
Open systems allow you to have access to all of the powers as they create their characters. Because of this, there has to be some kind of scarcity to force you to make hard choices. If you have the best single-target attack in the game, then something else has to give. One way to force these tradeoffs would be to draw both power picks and the effectiveness of those powers from the same pool of character build points.
Let's take our CO success blueprint, but assume that over the course of his career, every character got 100 build points. A base level power costs 10 points. Ranking up a power cost 5 more points per level, until a top-of-class power cost a total of 25 points.
I could get each of my "blueprint" powers now for a total of 70 points, which leaves me 30 points to rank up a few of my powers. I have every standard power I need to succeed, but I am mediocore in most of them. However, if I want a top-of-the-line single target attack, passive defense and a shield, that will cost me 75 points, meaning I have room for only two more powers and I am going to have to skip something.
In tabletop RPGs and single player CRPGs, one way that tradeoffs are created is to include a significant non-combat component in the game. You can choose to be a superb combatant, but to do so, you have to skimp on your stealth or diplomacy skills. Ignoring these non-combat skills will close off possible quest solutions, or even close off some content. Conversely, you might choose to be a great confidence man, but then you are going to have a harder time in combat scenarios.
Of course, this works because most tabletop games and many single player RPGs allow for multiple ways to succeed at the game. If you are a great fighter, you can fight your way through a quest. However, if the enemies are too difficult for you, you may have to use stealth and avoid combat, or talk your way out of dangerous situations.
Having multiple paths to success is critical in allowing the player choices when he is building his character. If you are playing a single player CRPG and you are picking the stealth and diplomacy skills for your character, aren't you are going to be a little annoyed to find that there are no stealthy or diplomatic solutions to the game's quests? Or worse, that all of the stealthy and diplomatic gameplay options just lead to combat anyways?
Of course, if you are designing an MMO, your options are more limited. Most MMOs are combat games and very few of them have many viable options to advance other than fighting. When we balance an MMO, we are balancing the combat system and when we say we need "multiple paths to success", that means there need to be multiple ways to succeed at combat.
Still, there are options. If we break down powers roughly into offense and defense, we still have tons of effects.
Offensive Effects: Direct damage, dots, damage auras, damage reflection, pets, delayed (or conditional) damage (a power that damages an enemy when he moves or blocks), buffs, debuffs, confusion (where mobs attack each other), knockback (falling damage), traps, area of effect damage
Defensive Effects: Avoidance, resistance, pets, knockback, buffs, debuffs, stuns, roots, snares, confusion, direct heals, heals over time, reactive heals, damage shields, active blocks
If you allow all of these different types of effects to be powerful, then you can see how a character specializing in pets and traps, would play differently than a character who focused on direct damage and avoidance... and how both of those characters would be different than one that had a little bit of each of those effects.
If you omit or marginalize most of these effects, then you end up with too few ways to succeed and thus no tradeoffs and thus monotonous builds.
There is more to discuss... but I think this post has lingered long enough. Hopefully, it will give you some food for thought and prompt a discussion or two about your favorite game.