It is better for a game to have skills than classes. It is better to offer more options rather than fewer.
This is not a non-controversial opinion, especially given that our best-selling games are pretty uniformly class-based. They all try to add some of the flexibility that skills give you, but they are class-based systems. Which won: UO, EQ, or AC?
I always liked the skill-based design of Asheron’s Call. You can focus on whatever areas you want to whatever extent you want. Asheron’s Call 2 tried to mimic this in a class-based system, to no great success. When the skill cost goes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 121, 122… we can tell where you want our skills to be at any given level. You might as well just hand out the 5 skill points with each level and get it over with.
AC, though, lets you pick which skills to take, which to specialize, and how much experience to put in each. You can do the same with your base attributes, which affect those skills and some other things. No classes, except that a few starting templates offered you a title.
I am convinced that EVE Online has one of the best skill systems around. We can argue about whether real-time training of skills is a good thing, but the whole set up is great. In this case, every skill has a (relatively low) hard cap, and only so many skills can be brought to bear on any given situation. There is a big difference between how a new character performs versus one with a year of training, but in any given area one year versus two does not matter much. An older character may be able to pilot many more ships and/or research and/or mine and/or build things and/or so on, but he will cap out on ability in any given area after a while. Your expertise with Gallente ships will not keep me from catching up on Caldari ships.
Either system provides diminishing returns that impose soft caps before the hard caps come into play. When an AC skills costs 100,000,000 experience to increase by one point, it might be worth becoming really good at something else. When that next skill level in EVE will take 2 months to train, you might want to try something new. Or maybe that 5% is worth that much to you, but someone else gets those two months of benefit working on something else.
The Grouchy Gnome proposes that one skill’s gain is another’s loss. Didn’t Star Wars Galaxies use something similar? As I recall it (having never played), you had a maximum number of points possible, so that training one thing would involve de-training another. Either way, all characters reach some finite cap where improving anywhere involves become worse somewhere else. That does not really appeal to me; I do not want to throw away progress to get new progress. We will see how that system works for Boundless Adventures, or if there is some way of implementing it that appeals to me.
(Not that everything needs to appeal to me. I’m just saying that I do not play games that do not appeal to me. Actually a lot of games have individual systems or large aspects that appeal to me, such as Shadowbane’s crafting system, but we all still dream of the Perfect Game, the Total Package.)
Horizons was theoretically supposed to work along the lines I am seeking, where you could effectively reset yourself to a newb in a new class without tossing away all that you have. A Tale in the Desert allows you to strike out in any direction you like, your only loss being time you could have spent elsewhere. Your Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates pirate can go in whatever direction you like.
These last couple, along with EVE, effectively encourage you to have just the one character, which SWG enforced. I like that. It solves a lot of other issues if your players each have one character (per account). Everything is tied to the one character, rather than having a separate warrior, healer, rogue, etc.
Personally, I like that. Maybe I should RP more, but I tend to treat my characters as avatars rather than characters. The character is either an extension of myself or a tool I am using, not a separate person I am playing. I would rather have the one Swiss army knife than a toolbox of characters. The toolbox just means I need to keep separate friends lists, guild ties, key bindings, etc. Just give me the one character, allow me to save multiple key maps (power sets, whatever), and let me play that way. (Also, if you can give me the ATitD multiple guild affiliation option, that would be nice, too, but that is a separate post altogether.)
I can see how this would be bad if you RP separate characters. Sorry about that. (See the parenthetical above about “appeals to me.”) I have rarely been able to maintain separate characters that way, so I do not worry about it. Most of my friends are on TS anyway, where we do not talk in-character, which is good given the ratio of female characters to players.
I look at a PnP game like Champions or GURPS and want that. I look at the latest version of D&D, which has come close to a skill system via almost unrestricted multi-classing. Choice, while difficult for some, is a good thing for a game to have.
And frankly, if you give me 50 nigh-useless vanity skills that I can grind endlessly, I will spend a lot of time on that. Why yes, I would like to cap out both Calligraphy and Water Purification, let me get my equipment for that!