In most RPGs upgrading your party’s equipment and learning new spells and skills are separate concepts. Generally, you learn new skills automatically by leveling up, or maybe talking to an old man in the village that can teach you “Eye Poke Level 2”. In Ember we wanted to tie together the concepts of acquiring new loot and learning new skills more directly.
After brainstorming various ideas, we came up with a simple concept: every piece of equipment you find or buy can have a skill associated with it. Equipping an item makes its skill available for use by that character. For example, wizards might equip a robe with a Fire Bolt spell on it, or warriors might equip a sword with a Wild Swings skill on it. As you get new and upgraded equipment your skillset will automatically change. For the hardcore gamers out there we also built in a way to modify skills on equipment for a bit of gold so they can customize their skill loadout. This is very important on harder difficulties.
This system has many advantages. For one, it requires very little management on the player’s part. There are five equipment slots, and thus five skills. There is no need for complicated menus or UI, equipping skills happens automatically as part of equipping party members. Finding new loot means finding new skills, so item discovery is doubly exciting. The system encourages skill experimentation, if a newly found item is a huge statistical upgrade but has an unfamiliar skill on it the player is more likely to try that skill. If they didn’t like that new skill they can use the skill customization items sold by vendors to swap it to any skill they wanted. We were able to make the skill system automatic and fun for the casual player but still allow for the customization and optimization hardcore players desire.
We initially worried that this system would be too simple, but after playing the game a lot over development we realized our worries were unfounded. Between the huge number of skills, constant loot upgrades, and different party configurations the skill and loot systems has plenty of complexity. Most importantly, it is super fun getting an amazing new piece of loot with a cool-sounding skill you’re just dying to try out.