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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