19 Sep 2011

What Is Skill?

There’s an argument kicking round at the moment that MMOs require no skill in order to play them. This statement is both completely correct and utterly wrong. How can a statement contradict itself? Let me try to explain.

If I take a carving knife to an MMO then the prime rump is usually the levelling game. It’s the part that we all go through as we develop and prepare our characters for endgame content, learn how the various abilities work and what our role might be as part of a group.

It’s also incredibly easy for anyone that’s played an MMO before. And that’s deliberate.

Think about it. If you’re a developer publishing a single player game you don’t really care if someone quits halfway through your game. They already have your money – it doesn’t matter to them if you don’t reach the end of the game.

By contrast, if you’re running an MMO then you want to encourage people to keep playing. That means making the difficulty curve gentle so that skills have plenty of time to be learned. If people give up on your MMO then it means that you lose out on subscription fees or item shop sales.

The levelling experience isn’t supposed to be challenging, it’s supposed to be entertaining. That’s why it’s crammed full of quests, lore, NPCs, stories and locations to explore. If you were hoping for something that would be a challenge then you won’t find it in the levelling game without artificially inflating the challenge rating by taking on harder quests or reducing the amount of equipment being used.

The easy remedy for an MMO developer is to place challenges in offshoot areas outside of the levelling game. Typically this might be in areas like levelling dungeons/instances, PvP or endgame content such as dungeons and raids. Even so, endgame content needs to be easy enough for people to get into with a reasonable chance of success, else those subscriber numbers start dropping. It’s why heroic modes appeared – to provide a challenge for those with enough skill to meet it.

So what happens when you have a mass of players with some reasonable skill at MMOs? People who’ve learned how their class works, who’ve experienced the dungeons and have a deep understanding of the tactics required to overcome the majority of content available? People who know how other classes fight and can easily anticipate and counter their abilities?

Then you get burnout.

The game hasn’t become any easier. We’ve just developed our skill beyond that which is matched by the game we’re playing. With other MMOs closely following the skill level of the game we’re playing, for those of us who thrive on challenge our needs aren’t being met. We’re being asked to play the same score of orchestral music at a faster and faster tempo, when all we want is a bit of jazz or classic rock instead.

That’s the thing about skill. You either provide increasingly complex challenges to defeat using it, or you provide alternatives that require new skills to be learned. But in gaming terms that’s like going from Zelda to Demon’s Souls in difficulty, or from MMORPG to MMORTS. Shouting at your current jeux du jour for being unable to meet your skill level just seems wrong.

Then again, not everyone plays games to be challenged. But that’s Bartle for you.

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21 Responses to What Is Skill?

  1. Syl says:

    I understand where you’re going, but I’m not sure how much ‘skill’ players actually acquire over time and how much of it is simply experience? if we get burned out and tired with an MMO, it’s very often due to the novelty factor being gone – that has more to do with the sheer number of experiences we’ve made, rather than what I’d call skill / capabilities.

    I think the big problem about the skill terminology is that skills are hard to define like that and very often situational in MMOs. then, there is the question of how required a skill truly is in a game where most can be learned and achieved by trial&error; you can succeed both as a skilled player (who’s faster) and a less skilled one (who learned the hard way) in a game with no end and few restrictions. most MMOs do not add remarkable bonuses for the fast(-grasper) players and no MMO knows absolute punishment whereby the less skilled player will be excluded for good (not very profitable). all of this blurs the notion of required skill.

    I’d say many activities in popular MMOs “require” no skill besides the ability to grasp basic concepts and learn (encounters by heart). however that doesn’t mean skill is completetly meaningless of course – it still sets players apart which you can see in the top raiding brackets, PvP ladders etc. still, even those “successes” are self-made (self-perceived) by a player base to some extent. there’s always a top and bottom in a ladder and it’s not necessarily the game rewarding nr. 1 more than nr.10 – challenges and fame are often player generated. I’d differ between PVE and PVP too in terms of skill; the latter simply asks more of a player due to the non-scripted nature of the opponent.

    But yeah, skill is a tricky nut to crack. how much can be acquired, how much can’t? is persistence a skill or a virtue? et cetera. =)

    • Gazimoff says:

      It’s a tricky thing, you’re right.

      If we take the definition of a skill as a learned behaviour (different to instinct or reaction), then there’s a lot of stuff in MMOs for a player to learn. The trouble occurs when testing what requires the most learning and what are the best examples of testing that learned behaviour.

      It’s why I have an issue with doing skill comparisons between MMOs, RPGs and FPS games. An FPS naturally has a larger reliance on reaction time and instinctive reflexes rather than learned behaviour. Someone with great skill but poor reflexes will still do poorly in that environment.

      • Syl says:

        I would say “there’s a lot of stuff in MMOs for a player to learn” full stop. that’s the issue I have with using skill in this context though; for me, skill is basically “not having to learn” as much to be successful (although the ability to learn is probably also a skill). it’s more a natural ability than just learned behaviour. that again is pretty unfair, because skilled players are also often players with lots of pre-req knowledge.

        If you wanted to close in on skills, you’d probably have to assume 2 near-identical players in terms of game history, knowledge and exp, then see how they do in a match. here, I’d expect skill to show in areas you cannot necessarily improve by conscious effort; reflexes, a fast mind, intuition, an instinct to understand connections and complexities etc. that’s why FPS are probably mentioned more often for skill, than MMOs, because that definition for skill is being applied and FPS games are more merciless in requiring this. obviously the comparison is flawed though because each genre has its own principles of gameplay.

        Not saying that it’s the correct definition of course, but it’s a popular one. skill can be used synonym to ability (talent even) as much as learned behaviour (after all we can develop certain skills). it really depends on the context, heh.

        • Gazimoff says:

          I pretty much agree with you. It’d be really helpful to put some definitions together to be able to define the various aspects of skill, talent, ability and so on.

        • Theanorak says:

          Personally, I’d always think of a skill as something you learn, rather than something you have or are (which I’d probably call “natural ability” or maybe “you jammy devil” depending on who I was talking to).

          Either way, the point remains — experience/skill/things you’ve learned count for a lot.

  2. Great post – we’re featuring it over at the Melting Pot later.

    It’s interesting you mention Demon’s Souls. At MMO Melting Pot Towers, there’s no more eagerly awaited game than Dark Souls, the Demon’s Souls sequel – when DS arrived last year, we all found it a true breath of fresh air. It was *hard*! It was *unforgiving*!

    And it felt real.

    I’m not sure how much of the burnout happening right now is thanks to over-skilling on the part of players, how much of it is a result of trivialisation (WoW *has* been massively trivialised from its original “world” roots), and how much of it is just a matter of bad design choices. I know I keep reading Rades’ posts on WoW, for example, and reflecting on how much more I’d enjoy the game if he was writing the story rather than the people who are – and that’s not a skill issue at all.

    • Gazimoff says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

      I hear about Demon’s Souls a lot and I often wonder how an MMO designed along the same kind of principles would fare. Could it be economically viable to put together a game with this level of difficulty? Would it be commercially as well as critically successful?

  3. Stubborn says:

    Gaz, great post. I’m going to be piggybacking off it tomorrow, so I don’t want to say to much here, but I think you’re quite right about a lot of it. MMOs have to be kept relatively easy so that new players can become enticed at the same (or greater, they hope) rate as old players getting burned out. Staggering the challenges through leveling, dungeons, PvP, and raids is how they compensate. That said, a lot of the people who are going to play MMOs are by now doing so, so maybe it is time to ratchet things up a notch, as in Demon Souls.

    Great post!

    • Gazimoff says:

      Aye, I’m beginning to feel that the time might be right for an MMO pitched at the veteran. Something that’s jammed full of fun but isn’t aimed at the “My First MMO” end of the market.

      • Theanorak says:

        I’m sure it’s not something that hasn’t been considered. I imagine it’s tricky to implement, particularly if you target veterans of the MMO-mainstream. I’d imagine they’re hard to please, given they’re accustomed to the niceties that games without mainstream-level budgets probably can’t manage. Plus they’re likely to be outspoken and opinionated too!

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  7. Tesh says:

    “Think about it. If you’re a developer publishing a single player game you don’t really care if someone quits halfway through your game. They already have your money – it doesn’t matter to them if you don’t reach the end of the game.”

    That is exactly why I prefer what I call “single sale” for MMOs as well. Devs get their money up front and don’t have to string along players to squeeze out that sweet sub money. It’s that desire to retain players that is the root of a lot of changes to game design that so many veterans fuss about.

    • Gazimoff says:

      I think that the contract between player and developer is ripe for revaluation. I’m just not sure what the best deal for me is yet. As it is, I don’t feel I like either option…

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  9. Jamin says:

    Your right. The game has become easier in terms of introducing newbies. However, the end-game, other than becoming more convenient, has remained the same, or actually increased in difficulty.Though all we’ve had to do over time is adapt our, already present, skill-set slightly or as you say “increase the pace”.

    Same as most games. People move from each Modern Warfare (maybe a ad example) game, and say it’s too easy. However, they haven’t had to learn a whole new set of skills again. Just carrying over and using what they already know, improvising and taking on board the slight changes in gameplay.

    There’s always a challenge out there. Though until you’ve played a game enough to expel the easy stuff (i.e. leveling), then how are you supposed to know? It’s like jumping on Battlefield bad company on easy settings and saying it requires no skill?

    Maybe some examples could be improved. Any-who, good post!

    – Jamin

    – Jamin

  10. Slopper says:

    There is skill but the ceiling is extremely low compared to other games. Time is a far greater factor in results for these types of games, time used to get better gear and such. The reason why MMOs are so popular is because in lieu of skill a time investment pretty much rewards people.

    There is a skill cap for most people in most things, their potential and how much of it they can realize. Some people reach their potential very quickly with little effort, but then their ceiling is low and other people surpass them. Other people spend a lot of time but their skill level very slowly increases and then stops. While others continue improving and possible never get surpassed by the majority of players. Prior to investing the time, nobody knows what their ceiling is. This is true in most professions as well.

    But an MMO is different. It really doesn’t matter what your personal skill ceiling is, because the game’s ceiling is so low that almost everyone will be above it. So it’s a pure time sink. It’s a lot of solace to people that have low potential in everything else, where purely investing time has lower rewards since results are the measuring stick. In an MMO the results will come with time, guaranteed.

    So what happens is generally the lowest skilled players will flock to MMOs. And that just happens to be the majority of people.

    You can see a similar phenomenon in sports. The best athletes will always go to the highest paying sports. Those that can’t compete at the highest levels will drift downwards. There are far more athletes and non-athletes at the lowest levels than those a the highest. The most popular athletic activity is probably non-competitive running, which virtually every athlete will do to keep in shape.