Stats: These are the numbers that raise with increasingly better effects as they grow. Generally these are only improved (permanently) by very special items, and experience points. They usually have a very basic or widespread function. (For example: ATK in Disgaea increases physical damage, and that’s about it. STR in D&D improves damage, but also improves chance to hit, reduces encumbrance, makes some skills better, etc.)
Skills: Each of these is usually tuned to making you better at one thing in particular such as “use of melee weapons”, or “bartering with NPCs”. Like stats, you can put points into these to increase their effect in a linear, predictable fashion, but their effects are usually more specific and less all-powerful. For example, dealing more damage is just about always useful in combat, but a skill might only make you better with certain weapons.
Perks: Every one has a different effect, though it is not uncommon to find “different” Perks effectively having a stacking effect, or simply allowing one to be purchased repeatedly.
A couple good examples of games that contains all these three are Dungeons and Dragons and Fallout (1, 2, 3).
Now I’m going to tell you what I think of them, because you care.
I love Perks (or Feats, whatever you like to call ’em) so much! So very, very much. I’m going to start with them because I love them just that much, though I’m worried that leaves the rest of this post to get stuck in the mud. But. These things always have so much more creativity and difference in them. From Fallout’s perks that let you do things like run while sneaking, to D&D’s feats that let you maximize your spells or fire arrows in close quarters, they take what the game gives you and says “Hey, (insert swear word of chosen intensity here) those guys — shit’s about to get real.”
Compared to these things, Stats and Skills pale in comparison. When you buy a Perk (aside from those with requirements which I’ll get into a bit later) you’re buying a single, self-contained ability. You know what you’re getting yourself into, and you know exactly what your point is going towards. You can practically feel the effect it’s going to have without even buying it first.
Wind down to Stats. You dump a point into, I don’t know — Strength. Do you know what this is going to do? It’s going to make you stronger, so you’ll smack people around a bit harder and carry a bit more. However, what kind of effect will that have on the way you play? All it does is make you deal more damage in a pretty linear way, and… that’s what every stat suffers from. “You are now a little better at this” is what increasing a stat says to me — and it’s the same with skills.
Perks, on the other hand, say something more along the lines of “You can do this new thing!” and, while frequently you’ll see stat or skill requirements to use certain items or upgrade yourself in a certain way, Perks are never leaned on in that way. They don’t have to be. The closest thing to that is Perk “prerequisites” such as in D&D, where you might require “Point Blank Shot” before you can purchase “Far Shot”. Wait, what? Yeah, I’m not so big on prerequisites like that. You have to buy one ability just to buy this other, only slightly related ability. They’re both for ranged weapons… but what if you never plan to get into close combat when using a ranged weapon? Still, it’s not as bad as stats and skills being required for certain things; sometimes you pick up an item and it just won’t let you use it because your Strength isn’t X, which you couldn’t have known beforehand… and somehow, X is a magical number that lets you use it perfectly instead of not at all.
Okay, I’d better wrap this up.
Stats/Skills: They have their place in some games, especially those where you don’t want to bog the player down with decisions of the character-building sort. But if character growth is supposed to be actually important, especially in games where you only get one character. In games such as Dwarf Fortress and X-Com where you have a billion little people to handle (not literally), these can be a great way to differentiate between characters on whom you aren’t going to focus every mote of your attention.
Perks: If you have any creativity in you at all, I’d love to see these used more when character growth, and the player’s choice in the matter, is a big factor. And don’t just make them stat/skill replacements. “+10% damage resistance” might sound great to the player, but it doesn’t make a damn difference in terms of fun and choice — if you read my earlier post, an ability like this has no Toy or Fork in it, all it does is dampen the Trial. In a similar way, “+10% damage dealt” has the same sort of issue; yes, enemies will die more quickly, but does that really change much? Does it make anything more fun?
I’d love to point you to my game, Probability 0, as I think (biased as I am) it’s a great example of Perks over Skills and Stats, if you can get far enough. However, I think that most of the people reading this have already played it. But I’ll tell you to click on the “my games” link above anyway, in case you haven’t.
Thanks for your time, and I hope to see more games with perks — unique and clever abilities, whether they be passive or active — in the future.