Respecialization, or respeccing as the youth call it, is a commonplace affair in most RPGs, or RPG analogs. It’s a simple concept: the RPG structure hinges on the gradual expansion of an available pool of skills, often through the application of a point-buy system (in its most direct and straightforward formulations). This system usually revolves around a set of unfolding paths: you navigate that network of paths based on cumulative choices you make, with some choices working to ease the challenge of certain aspects of play, and some choices working to facilitate interesting gameplay developments. But these choices are made in the fog of war, as the systems of the game are still unfolding, and after the dust of progress has settled, after players have become more acquainted with the gameplay systems that they’re navigating, they’ll often regret the decisions they’ve made along the way. Perhaps that skill that increased the rate of fire on submachine guns turned out to harm more than help, or that plus-one to damage with axes doesn’t see a lot of use since your dope ultimate primary weapon is actually a sword. Player tastes can change and shift over time, players can come to better understand poorly articulated gameplay systems, or the needs of a player in a particular situation can change.
There are two ways to address this.
The old school, unforgiving way, as illustrated by its presence in such laudable bastions of tradition as Wasteland 2 and Fallout: New Vegas, is to just tell players to suck a proverbial dick and start up a new play-through if they don’t like how they developed their skills. It’s an especially effective methodology in games that encourage multiple playthroughs, since it permits players to reflect on the experiences they’ve had, and test out new choices as they navigate familiar narrative spaces.
The new way is to allow players to adjust their skills, for a nominal fee.
This mechanic has its roots in World of Warcraft, wherein shifting feat trees with conditionally applications dominated the game, and respecialization to fit a specific role for fellow players, or to adapt to adjustments made by a patch, became necessary. Shadow Spec was a must for a PvP focused priest, but in an early UBRS run or, worse, an undergeared MC run? That built was suicide! You had to respec that shit! WoW featured a sliding scale fee system, wherein players who respecced frequently paid increasingly large sums of in-game currency until their payments capped out. This framework, revolutionary in the shifting magma plains of the early 2000s, is now pretty common. Most MMOs have adopted some version of it, and many non-MMO games have done the same. Dragon Age: Inquisition even features a “respec” item, one that allows you to dramatically restructure your character as you unlock new features and game areas – Dragon Age: Inquisition, the most old-school main-stream hit of the last half decade! And that infiltration is minimal compared to the manner in which specialization and re-specialization have become features in the FPS genre, prominently manifesting themselves in titles like Far Cry 3 and PAYDAY 2.
PAYDAY 2 features a set of especially elaborate and specific skill trees, skill trees that fundamentally recompose the manner in which the game plays. A Mastermind, a Ghost, an Enforcer, and a Technician will all have very, very different experiences heist-to-heist. It’s not just that certain trees can do certain jobs better; certain trees are the only ones capable of doing certain things. Want to crack safes by hand? You’ll need to get up to the penultimate tier of the Ghost tree. Want to blast the hinges off that armored car? You’ll be putting your points into Technician. Puzzle solutions, special abilities, and stat-tweaks alike all emerge from PAYDAY 2’s immersive skill-trees, and players who want to test out certain specializations will often have to respecialize some or all of their skill trees in order to unlock new game-changing abilities. PAYDAY 2 isn’t so unforgiving – it doesn’t charge you to reset your skill points, and it even gives you some of the money you spent back (around 60%), but it does make you pay for each new allocation you make after the fact, adding a de-facto cost to the decision to respec.
This is an odd thing for an FPS to do. While Role Playing Games are normally oriented around occupying a narrative space and generating a character who can inhabit that space in parallel with an unfolding narrative, First Person Shooters are usually more concerned with notions of “play.” As such, the idea of “playing a role” usually takes a back seat to unlocking new toys, especially in a game like PAYDAY 2, where the variety of heists present you with a perpetually shifting set of potential solutions that fit the challenges you’ll be encountering. But this skill system, with all its associated costs, actively discourages that kind of experimentation by encouraging dedicated specializations in most trees; the most useful abilities on the Ghost and Technician trees, the ones I mentioned earlier, are buried so deep that they require abandoning most other skill trees completely, at least until you near the level cap. And making any changes to your skill tree, whether you make them for the sake of experimentation or for the sake of correcting a mistake you made somewhere along the way, represent a considerable commitment of resources. The respec is a nuclear option in PAYDAY 2, the same way it is in most games: it completely eradicates all the work you’ve done in a particular tree, and requires you to spend all the money you’ve earned to reallocate your freshly liberated points. That means one errantly spent skill point, selected early in your career, will haunt you forever unless you’re effectively willing to pay a nominal fee.
It’s a counter-intuitive frame, one that most games have become acclimated to at this point. We’re so used to the idea that respeccing is an expensive and inconvenient process that theoretical skill point arrays have become a feature of many games. Borderlands 2 went so far as to release a first party feat-specialization simulator, to keep players from having to waste their hard earned Borderbucks on respecializing mid-game. But the whole point of these specialization trees, at their best at least, is to open up new avenues of play, to give players new and engaging tools to solve problems with. By gating this behind a fee structure, which, even at its most merciful in games like PAYDAY 2 requires a substantial reinvestment of time, developers discourage experimentation. Players are effectively pulled in two directions at once: they’re being shown all these neat toys they can play with, but they’re being told they’ll need to put in extra time and effort if they want to test out these different ways to play, and that they’ll have to spend time and money to get their current set of hard earned skills back, an especially infuriating experience if they discover that they don’t enjoy the new skill set that they’ve selected.
Removing this fee structure, however, still isn’t ideal: player mistakes should have consequences, and most progression frameworks work best when they reward specialization. That’s what adds weight to these choices; even in the olden days, Blizzard knew that they needed to make priests pay to switch between PvP and PvE specialized branches, lest they bandy about, willy-nilly, shifting their specializations daily, not just for the obtuse sake of balance, but for the sake of adding weight to each player selection. By making it difficult to change paths, those decisions become meaningful. That’s an important part of making choices rewarding: it isn’t enough to give us nice toys, we have to understand that our ability to effectively use those toys is impacted by our ability to make responsible choices, and our ability to act with foresight. Adding consequence and cost to those frameworks insures that players carefully measure each choice they make, lest they waste their precious time and effort.
But even that is an imperfect system. Ideally players would be able to test out play styles before making decisions, but such firmaments can easily promote metagaming. Instead we’re left with a kind of queer, accidental compromise that emerges every once in a great while: the noble “forced respecialization.” While this almost always follows a full-game overhaul of some sort, it carries with it an invitation to explore, to reinvent oneself in-game and try out new approaches that you might not have considered before. Unexpected, sure, and often in service of reinvigorating player interest by allowing easy experimentation with new toys and tools, these events can initiate referendums on approaches to play.
PAYDAY 2 recent had two massive gameplay shifts, within weeks of one another, each of which came with a forced respecialization, a full point refund. I rebuilt my skill tree, brick for brick, each time. I didn’t want to put myself outside my own comfort zone. After all, why bother heisting at all if you can’t blow the hinges off a safe?