Sunday, November 29, 2009

In favor of gradualism

To play a game like World of Warcraft a wide range of skills are used: tactical skills, skills of executing complicated maneuvers, and skills of knowledge of where to go and what to do. Now lets bundle all these skills up into one hypothetical skill score, and plot how much skill you need to advance vs. level. At level 1 you only have very few abilities, which limits tactical options, makes it easy to press the right button, and you can just follow the newbie zone quest lines and not worry where to go. From there the amount of skill needed goes up slowly. At level 79 you have a lot more possible buttons, spell rotations, and zones you could go to. But compared to the time it took you to get there, the amount of skill needed barely went up. You can still advance very well by soloing, and as long as you do, you can probably beat most encounters with one standard tactic. But as soon as you hit the level cap, the amount of skill needed to advance further goes up exponentially. Soloing only gets you so far, and slowly. To do groups you suddenly need a whole new set of skills. And if you want to raid, you need to know a lot of details on every boss fight.

Note that I could write the previous paragraph without saying anything highly contentious. While saying that something is "too easy" or "too hard" is subjectiv, and relative (too easy compared to what exactly?), the general shape of the skill curve vs. level is hard to dispute. But now I'll move from the objective observation to the highly subjective proposal for improvement by saying:

The shape of the skill vs. level curve is suboptimal. It should go up gradually with level instead of remaining flat for a long time and then shooting up in the end game.

My argument for this subjective proposal is based on the widely shared observation that new players reaching the level cap often lack the skills to properly perform there. Pickup groups, which were a positive feature of previous games, are now considered a bad thing, because of the risk of picking up a player who knows zilch about group play and causes repeated wipes, or lacks the basic social skills of working together with others. An extreme, but totally possible case is that of a warrior reaching level 80 soloing and never ever having used his taunt ability, nor knowing what a defense cap is.

What I think would be needed is that soloing should get relatively harder with level. And I don't mean "longer", having to kill more mobs to get up a level, I mean "harder" as in requiring more tactical skills, more skills of proper execution of maneuvers, more knowledge. If solo combat was a lot harder at the higher levels, two positive things would follow: People would learn how to play their class better, and they would automatically start looking for groups to make their life easier by cooperation. I'm not proposing "forced grouping", like in the original Everquest, but I think that the current state in which looking for a group below the level cap is basically a waste of time is not good game design. If you require cooperation in the endgame, you need to encourage people to cooperate earlier in their careers. That not only increases people's grouping skills, but also creates the social network of people making online friends through shared adventures.

Of course I don't think this sort of change could still be implemented into World of Warcraft. Patch 3.3 will introduce an improved LFG tool, and maybe Blizzard will one day improve the group xp bonus to make grouping while leveling more attractive. But I don't think they could completely rework the game to make soloing harder at higher levels. Nevertheless I do hope game designers do realize the inherent flaw of having a game that is easy to solo up to the level cap, and then suddenly requires a lot of cooperation and group skills. Maybe future games will make soloing require gradually more skill at higher levels, making both soloing more interesting, and grouping more popular.

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