Why Skills Are In, Attributes Are Out in Modern Role-playing Games

Using The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the Mass Effect franchise and Diablo 3 as the main examples, Rowan Kaiser wonders about the gradual disappearance of attributes from mainstream RPGs and the rising importance of skills in his latest weekly WRPG-focused column for Joystiq. Here's a snippet:
It's easy to see the change just looking at the original Diablo compared to Diablo 2, released in 1996 and 2000, respectively. In the original Diablo, each of the three classes could attack and use the same magic. It was horribly inefficient for a warrior to cast spells, while a Sorcerer was built for magic. If you were playing a warrior, all you did was click-click-click to attack. For a Sorcerer, you could cast one spell, attack, cast another one, then switch back. This imbalance is irrelevant in games where you control a full party, but in single-character games, the increasingly dominant form of western RPGs after 1995, having that one character be boring compared to a differently classed character looked more and more like bad design.

In Diablo 2, all of the classes have roughly equivalent active/passive skills. Sorceresses learn their spells and improve them through different skill trees, yes, but so do Paladins and Barbarians, the rough equivalents to the original's Warrior class. A Paladin can learn the Zeal skill, which costs magic and allows him to make multiple fast melee attacks, like a Sorceress learns Fire Bolt for blasting single enemies.

As skills became more and more important, attributes decline, at least in Diablo 2. Each level up grants you five attribute points, yes, but go to virtually any FAQ and it'll tell you that once you reach the bare minimum for wearing your gear, you should dump all your points into one stat, usually Vitality for health. It offers the illusion of choice and customizability, but primarily offers the ability to mess up more than to successfully build a different kind of character. This is also a problem with skills in Diablo 2, but most skill-based games are less punishing. Diablo 3 seems to be built on a model of giving the player fewer choices, but making those choices more interesting and relevant than the cookie-cutter builds of Diablo 2.