DF:UW – The brilliance of the prowess system

The appeal of a “use and improve” system to character progression is easy to understand, in part because it mimics real life. Want to get better at something? Do it (practice). Unfortunately sometimes being ‘realistic’ does not work in the gaming world, and “use and improve” systems very much fall into that category in the MMO genre.

From 1997 and Ultima Online’s skeleton wall, to Darkfall 1 and bloodwalls, players have always found a way to game such systems and get around them to get ahead. The devs in turn make changes to curb the behavior, be it slower skills gains in your house, slower gains off players, ‘power hours’, meditation, etc. The problem has always been that you are applying a Band-Aid to a wound that is ever-increasing (power-gamers will always create smarter macros, find better bugs, or simply brute-force harder).

The easy thing to do is blame the players, but the reality comes back to the fact that making an MMO is hard (right Lord British?), and making a PvP-based MMO might be the hardest design job in the industry. Design too much against the power-gamers, and your title becomes completely unplayable for anyone outside of that small minority. Limit the impact said minority can have, and you drive away the content-providers.

It’s with this history in mind that I bring such high praise to DF:UW’s new prowess progression system.

The basics of the system are this: every action earns you some amount of prowess points. Simple things like mining some iron might be worth 1 prowess per resource, while farming high-end mobs might be worth 20 or more prowess a kill.

On top of gaining pure prowess from your actions, the game also has an achievement system (feats) that reward prowess when completed. Gather 10 piece of iron, and you earn a bonus 7 prowess. Gather another 200, and you get 50. Gather an additional 3000, and you get 400. Feats cover all areas of the game; gathering, crafting, PvE, PvP, exploring, etc.

An example: You are out hunting goblins. Each goblin kill earns you one prowess. Skinning each goblin tombstone also rewards you with one prowess. After 10 goblins you earn the first goblin-slayer feat and open up the second (100 goblin kills). While skinning, you completed the first feat for collecting eyeballs (enchanting material). As you finish up your farming session, you return to town and salvage some of the drops, gaining a bit of prowess for that. Using those mats, you craft a new sword (prowess gain, progress towards crafting feats) to replace the one you just used and broke.

The beauty here is that a character at basically any level of prowess can do the above and make progress. The above can also be repeated for practically all varieties of mobs, as each has its own set of feats, and different mobs skin for different resources which again have their own feats.

So how you gain prowess is pretty brilliant, because you get it from simply playing the game, but not in the ‘play the game’ style of a “use and improve” system. That is only half the system however.

What you do with prowess is equally important. Simply put, you spend prowess on skills or character stats, with the cost increasing as the skill/stat gets higher and higher towards the cap. All skills outside of crafting can be increased in this way (crafting still increases from use, which works as you are resource-limited rather than time-limited with crafting).

The result is you can very easily become ‘viable’ with a bit of focus. Near-maxing one weapon skill, some basic spells, and your key stats can be done in a matter of weeks with normal (20ish hours a week) play. At the same time, ‘maxing out’ a character is incredibly difficult, both due to the increasing cost of skills as they increase and the diminishing returns on prowess gain as your overall total increases. On top of that, the more you play the more feats you will accomplish, so finding new feats to finish for a prowess boost will naturally drive players out of their comfort zone and into trying new things (different mob spawns, more PvP/PvE, crafting, etc).

How to spend prowess also adds some interesting decisions making, without becoming a “you just gimped yourself” choice system (you can always get more prowess). For instance, say you decide to gather for a bit; how much prowess do you spend on the mining skill initially? The more you spend, the faster you mine and the lower your chance of failure. However, spending those prowess points on the mining skill means you can’t spend them on combat-based skills. Each player will initially spend to a different level, in effect customizing their character’s skill to better suit their style of play.

And much like in EVE, maxing multiple weapon skills or role skills does not make you more powerful, it simply gives you more options. And just like docking up and getting a different ship in EVE, it will take some time and gear adjustment to make the switch in DF:UW. It’s good motivation to keep progressing, but it keeps the barrier-of-entry reasonable for players joining at a later date.

The impact this system has on how you play the game is rather dramatic, if sometimes in subtle ways. For instance, it’s no longer beneficial to use a spell as often as possible to skill it up, so players no longer run around cycling transfer spells ‘just because’. It’s not a game-defining change, but it cleans up one aspect that to new players traditionally quickly comes across as a flaw, or just stupid.

It also instantly removes blood walls, mount bashing, or the infamous ‘group-sex’ macroing from DF1. Instead you have the power-gamers identifying the best mob camps to farm, in the best group setup, and in the most efficient rotations. It creates new value in holdings close to such spawns, and rewards organized guilds that prioritize a guild crafter.

In short, the system rewards the kind of player behavior you want to encourage, which is basically going out and playing the game rather than doing boring/exploitive activities just to progress. It keeps the barrier-of-entry reasonable, while still retaining a very long character progression path. And most importantly, it feels fun and rewarding, both on a micro and a macro scale.

Funny that it took 15+ years, and a small indie studio to get us there, but better late than never.

48 Responses to DF:UW – The brilliance of the prowess system

  1. John says:

    that system is awesome..it reminds me a little of lotro deeds (kill 60 goblin, then 120 and then 340 or use this skill 1000 times). Although here is much more different as it seems like an infinite character progression which is awesome. I always thought this type of character progress than gear to be much better (I am not saying that there is not gear progression in DF, I have no idea of it..)

    Its sad that this game will be all about pvp and will have ffa pvp. But from the other hand it does right to target a specific playerbase rather than try to please them all..I just wish the pve focus games will adapt such interesting systems that makes the mid-game equal awesome as the end game as you always have the feeling of progress

  2. motstandet says:

    Aren’t there many RPGs that use a generic Experience Point pool and let players allocate those points to different skills? I was under the impression that The Secret World did this. The system isn’t as wide as Darkfall’s inclusion of gathering skills (and running, jumping, swimming, breathing, turning, etc.) but it’s the same system.

    Or is the ingenious part applying the XP to non-combat skills?

    • SynCaine says:

      Yes and no. Other games have included similar systems, but with certain limitations or just different settings/implementations.

      For instance, AC1 basically had a “spend XP on skills” system, with similar cost curves. The difference however was it also had a level system, so you still had newbie zones and high-end zones. The removal of the character level is only one change, but it’s major in terms of impact.

      In TSW, you progress through zones. In DF:UW, you don’t. Apples to oranges at that point IMO.

      Same difference between DF:UW and UO. UO has a skill cap, DF:UW does not. For long-term retention, its apples and oranges.

      Not every (or any, perhaps) piece of the prowess system is a revolution. How AV put the pieces together is the brilliance.

      • Zubon says:

        In AC 1, levels do (did) not mean anything except skill points, and those were just for unlocking more skills. You can successfully fight things hundreds of levels above you. There is (was) no level adjustment, and the newbie vs. high-end zones are just rough estimates of how tough the monsters are.

        Character level in AC1 is (was) mostly a rough estimate of power rather than what level means in WoW or other games that use level adjustments. The removal of it has minimal impact. You have just described AC1 Darktide. If you don’t recognize that, you need to look up AC1 again (did you ever play?).

        • SynCaine says:

          I played AC-DT extensively, yes. I’d say its the closest system this compares to, minus DF:UW being an open world with holdings to siege and all that.

          While you could fight mobs above you, it was not effective to fight mobs below you. There is a reason the game basically broke once a certain wall exploit was discovered and abused (what happened to the game after that I don’t know, myself and most of those I played with quit shortly after).

          You could seriously gimp yourself in AC1, due to how XP gain worked vs how prowess works in DF:UW. Again, at least when lvl 100 was something special. I remember many guild mates rerolling once they were informed of ‘what worked’.

          Weapon selection at character creation (picking your class) was a major “you gimped yourself” factor, again leading to rerolls.

          AC-DT was not full loot, so grinding for gear was huge, as was grinding for ‘drop insurance’.

        • zubonganai says:

          It was not effective to fight mobs below you, true. With lots of enemies available in the 100+ range, however, running out of xp-generating enemies was not a serious problem.

          It sounds like you are describing the competitive balance at a static point in time, and that time is about a decade ago, but I was playing AC1 when the first people hit the level cap. Lots of people re-rolled to the FotM because one weapon was superior under the latest patch. That generally cycled between mages, meleers, and archers, and as content developed, each was the best for whatever level range was being worked on when they were the best. Gimpage was relative, especially with a soft level cap that would let you eventually cap every single skill in the game if you wanted to.

          I don’t know if they ever fixed the relative importance of starting attributes (beyond allowing respecs), but that was the only steady factor contributing to long-term gimping. There were more people abandoning viable characters for the FotM than who really had gimps, and they certainly never had patience to wait for the next round of rebalancing when that character they abandoned would have been top of the heap if they had not given up leveling it for two months.

        • SynCaine says:

          “It was not effective to fight mobs below you, true. With lots of enemies available in the 100+ range, however, running out of xp-generating enemies was not a serious problem.”

          But already you are skimming over a problem. In AC1 you progressed through the zones, much like in WoW. In DF, the world is the world. You never ‘out-prowess’ a ‘zone’.

          It’s why EVE’s empire space is relevant 10 years later, while Westfall is that neat zone you remember leveling in back at lvl20.

  3. Zensun says:

    Sounds like this allows you to level crafting skills by spending prowess points earned from combat? If so, I’m not sure I like the idea. It seems to encourage grinding feats to get the early bonuses, then moving to another feat to get its early bonuses, etc.

    I think an ideal system would have you using the skills you want to improve, rather than using skills you’re not really interested in to maximize the prowess points you get.

    Personally, I liked SWG’s original progression system, other than the fact that some skills were simply tedious to improve.

    • tithian says:

      You level up crafting by crafting. It makes sense for that to skip the prowess system, since you will have limited materials.

    • John says:

      Currently DF:UW requires you to level crafting skills by using them – although you purchase crafting masteries with prowess points.

      SWG was fun and all, but quite frankly that system easily allowed someone to set up an afk combat or crafting macro and level while at work or something.

  4. [...] often cite smaller games because people are unaware of them or vastly underinformed. So if you like Darkfall’s prowess system, you can go play that right now in Asheron’s Call 1. Seriously, that system existed in 1999, [...]

  5. Devore says:

    The benefit and allure of the simplistic “use and improve” method is that it’s easy for developers, and seems like an obvious solution. But they quickly learn (and re-learn many times) that games are not like the real world, in that they have to concern themselves with things like balance and fairness. So eventually the “improve” portion gets a cap, and/or the benefit of the “improve” becomes marginal to the point of being cosmetic.

    The quick fix is to design the system in a way that you have increasing diminishing returns, but also that progression expands your gaming options, instead of just making you more powerful. A newer character can become nearly as powerful as a veteran in a relatively short period of time. The benefit difference between level 4 and 5 skills in EVE is not that great, at a huge additional time investment. But there is still a desire (carrot) to keep skilling up; even if you are not getting infinitely more powerful, or grinding to reach the cap, your gaming experience becomes richer with every point. Each skill, and level of skill, opens up new options.

  6. So essentially is the “every action rewards progression” of current WoW combined with the purchase of abilities with skill points from Beta WoW and no points limits? (Ignoring all the other games like AC that did it first).

    It is a good solution to problem, but it is false to claiming it as something that is completely new when it is merely a further iteration of previous systems.

  7. endolol says:

    same system as call of duty

  8. endolol says:

    which is good. You play for the fun, and by doing it you earn xp/skills points, instead of farming.
    When you want to improve your XP gain, you begin focusing on other sides you never experienced, which is fun also. Always fun to discover new sides. Even PVE when you are a PVP addict or other way.

  9. endolol says:

    sorry im french :p

    • SynCaine says:

      Apology accepted :)

      • endolol says:

        wow SynCaine replied to me.. Been following your blog for 4 years ;)

        • SynCaine says:

          Haha, thanks for reading!

        • endolol says:

          Thx for the input ! Smart and realistic reviews here. A bit like “I hate mmo” blog.

          This NDA on DFUW is killing me… Will it be the PVP MMO we have been waiting for 5+ years ? Too much gap between noobs and old players in DF1, too much grind etc.

          Have you tried what are IMO the best PVP “MMO” right now : Heroes of Newerth or Dota or Dota 2, and Day Z (not War Z) ?

        • SynCaine says:

          I don’t think grind will be much of an issue in DF:UW. Certainly nothing like DF1.

          I play LoL. I think its the best MOBA out right now.

  10. endolol says:

    I dont want to begin a LoL/Dota war here but from my experience (1 billion games in Dota, only 10 in LoL) : I cant figure the point of LoL. You cant deny your own creeps, and every single items is about +X damage.
    In Dota the lane phase is deeper because you can deny your creeps (- experience for opponents). Also the items are not all about +damage : there are +def, +magic def, an item to blink, an item to invisibility, an item to sheep opponent, etc etc. so the fights are deeper (IMO).

    Enlight me :)

  11. SynCaine says:

    Deny is a broken mechanic IMO. It creates more snowballing in a lane, and it puts more focus on fighting NPCs (creeps) than the other players. DoTA also has the ‘hard-carry’ role, which I also dislike. One player being an all-star and having 4 others tag along is not that much fun.

    LoL has a lot of items beyond +dmg. Maybe you filtered the shop somehow?

    I don’t buy the deeper angle between DoTA/LoL because they are both PvP games. The strategy is as deep as you make it.

    To me LoL is DoTA with a lot of the broken or problematic mechanics removed.

  12. motstandet says:

    It’s hardcore and a paragon of Good Design only when SynCaine likes it. Else it’s stupid and broken ;)

  13. endolol says:

    Ok I understand.. So in LoL there is no “roles” ?
    In Dota heroes can be support or carry or gankers or pusher or initiator or tank and can have two or more roles.
    Do you have the same in LoL ?
    Also in LoL since you dont deny
    your creeps, is there more “PVP action” early during the lane phase ?

    You should look to Day Z : Hardcore Sandbox PVP FPS. Like in zombie movies and tv shows, you have to watch for food, blood level, so you scavenge, etc. When you meet a player you cant know if he will shoot you for your loot after you helped him. No respawn etc.

    • SynCaine says:

      LoL has roles, but they blur a little more. So a carry still has some cc, or a support can still do some damage. In DoTA (mind you, I played back in 2009 or so) Morri is a hard-carry, and when she is fed, it’s game over; she insta-gibs everyone. LoL just has a lot of little changes that make it more enjoyable and balanced than DoTA IMO.

      I looked into Day Z, might get it when they re-release it with the updates.

      • endolol says:

        Okay. Stand alone coming in June. It will be a huge HIT, you’ll see ;) I think no other game has this kind of feelings… A little bit like DF when you are getting ganked while mining etc.

  14. sid6.7 says:

    Did NDA drop and I missed it, LOL! I’ve been holding off writing anything in my own blog…

    I like the game (a lot) and the prowess system but they absolutely 100% need to re-balance some prowess gains and also re-think how fast progression is for some things.

    For example, if you have a crafter who can make Dreadplate in your clan, you can wear it inside of 12 hours game-time playing (possibly less). Not plate or full plate, but run for the hills that guy is in Dreadplate plate. IMO, it’s simply a bad idea to have ANYONE hit that level of gear that quickly.

    The above problem goes hand-in-hand with what I’ll call a prowess-cap of sorts that has me questioning how long the system can hold people’s attention.

    For example, right now, you min/max focus the high prowess rewards and then there is little point in going back and killing X goblins for minimal gain. And once you hit around 40k prowess, there is little point in grinding out more prowess for minimal gains.

    As an aside, you still allied with Vamp?

    • sid6.7 says:

      I’ll also point out here that the situations I’m citing are easily corrected by balancing and may even be intentional (to increase gains during beta).

      The prowess system itself is a tidy solution to a lot of problems. Also, the game itself is enjoyable and worthwhile.

    • D says:

      As far as I know the NDA still isn’t down so I assume he got permission to post something. At least they haven’t said anything in the forums about it going down. So maybe hold off on gushing forth all the feelings.

    • endolol says:

      BTW can you “reroll” your points ? Like you do whith your template in WoW. Because i heard you could change your class. sooooooooooooooooooooooo.. How does it work ?

      • SynCaine says:

        You can’t get back points spent on skills. You can just get more prowess however.

        So say you start as a warrior, and spend a bunch of prowess on warrior-related stuff. Then you want to switch to mage. Either you can do so right away, and use weaker mage skills as you gain more prowess, or you can stay as a warrior for a bit more, store up some prowess, and then make the switch and boost mage skills right away.

        • endolol says:

          Oh ok… Maybe thats better.. It makes it harder and not TOO easy to have more tools. Too easy = less addictive game = less activity

    • SynCaine says:

      NDA is still up. This was a special one-off.

      I think the dreadplate thing is like someone rushing into a battleship in EVE at 10m SP. Sure, you can sit in it, but do you have all of the supporting skills to use it correctly, or are you just an expensive loot pinata for someone? It’s not AS extreme in DF:UW, which I think is good, but it still applies.

      We’ll see how the system holds up long-term. In DF1 a lot of players wanted to be ‘viable’ quickly, and then slowly round out a character when PvP was not happening. I think prowess accomplishes that, but yes, people literally capping-out will be something to watch. (I also think it might be an extremes problem only. I mean, I played this round of beta for a solid chunk of time, and only hit 5-7k prowess. People had 50k in a week. That’s not ‘normal’).

      • motstandet says:

        Did they say concretely what the purchase situation is? Is this a free make over or a new game that people have to buy? I bought DF when it was EU only, quit and never switched my account to NA.

        • SynCaine says:

          You can buy the game now and get access to the beta. Buying gets you a month of game time once it goes live. For returning players its $15, for new players I think its $30. In order to get the returning player discount, you need to know your DF1 account username and password.

      • sid6.7 says:

        This speaks to why the re-balancing prowess gains is important. There is definitely an optimum progression path and you don’t need to be ‘extreme’ to take advantage of it.

        I think a good comparison of the current balancing is reaching level 60 after the first WoW expansion released. Upon reaching 60, you could have started the old raids but you were better off just moving into the Burning Crusade quests/dungeons. The net is that ‘going back’ to do the old raids was pointless.

        I’m not going to get into specifics with the NDA up. It’s a good system but it needs some work.

        Thus far, AV while not exactly communication all-stars has been pretty good at taking feedback to introduce solutions. So I am pretty optimistic they will get it right.

  15. [...] Once that happened a lot of feedback was given and many things changed, not the least of which was the prowess system. In the last few weeks of beta, AV did a lot of patching around combat balance, and the last few [...]

  16. mtcoder says:

    prowless system is only liked cause it allows for nearly topish end player in about 20 hours of gameplay if you follow the prowless power level guides. Reason it’s broken, is there is no tie out to what you spend on. Meaning you just roll warrior quickly grind prowless pick either ranger, mage, warrior, healer as your primary playstyle, then drop your points in it. So even though you never casted a single fireball you are now a top end maxed mage. Since the main gains usually envolve getting to x kills of a mob type, or such, it once again pushes all activities in the game to a guild mentality which is fine, till you realize there are about 6 alliances and if you don’t fit into one of those zerg alliances you start to fail to be able to compete at all in DF, so you join one then you realize all you do is rush prowless for a week, then sit around group ganking over and over. Sure the prowless system fixed DF’s skill grind but so would of just letting up on skill progression amounts. It still doesn’t fix that DF UW requires little skill to play and is purely a number based game. When the highlight of your combat system is making sure your transfer macros are properly setup for your role, which takes 5 minutes, and then making sure your g-15 keeps them on constant cycle, and that you carry enough potions, rest of combat is just smashing left mouse button. Problem with todays MMO is they forgot people want / need a challenge. Why did UO do so well? it was hardcore in most standards, only got 7 skills, so best know what you were doing, could easily change the skills around, but still had to just have 7. There were counters to people, and unique fights. UO’s combat system made the player think about 10 times more than does DF:UW so thinking the prowless system is anything great is really just saying hey I have a crappy car but look at those nice tires, you should so totally buy it from me for 4 times its value, cause hey it has nice tires.

  17. [...] We would like to feature a post by Syncaine, published a couple of weeks ago, about the prowess system character progression featured in Darkfall Unholy Wars. You can read the article here. [...]

  18. Anonymous says:

    wipe this game already

  19. [...] previously described, the prowess system is wonderful. It truly rewards you for just playing the game, and allows you to [...]

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