Sunday, October 3, 2010

Character skill vs. Player skill

Zubon from Kill Ten Rats persuaded me to read through an epic discussion thread of WoW-forums like quality on syncaine's blog, in which there are a few hidden pearls from commenters. I especially liked Bhagpuss' comment that:
"Call me a traditionalist, but I thought it was my character that had the skills, not me. I still automatically differentiate what my character can do or know from what I can do or know. In an ideal world I would give my character goals and sit back and watch as he tried to achieve them. My competence or incompetence with a mouse and keyboard shouldn’t impact his “Agility” or “Dexterity”."
Unfortunately the thread was too full of "WoW sucks" and "Even syncaine doesn't play Darkfall any more" comments for anyone to take up that interesting thought. So I'll discuss it here.

I don't know if you ever had the opportunity to hold a real metal sword in your hand, at some renaissance fair or something. I can assure you that even holding it for 5 minutes with a stretched-out arm is way beyond the strength skill of most people, not to mention swinging it while wearing metal armor. And obviously we don't have the magic skill to shoot fireballs from our fingertips either. So Bhagpuss has a point in saying that it is our characters that have the skills necessary to kill a dragon, not us. So if it is our characters strength and magic skills that determine our success in a game, why don't we make Bhagpuss' ideal game that he described above?

Well, that game exists since 2002. It is called Progress Quest. Instead of just making a whiny blog post complaining about the "lack of skill" needed for his favorite MMORPG, Eric Fredricksen created this brilliant parody of a game to show why a game in which the character has all the skills and the player has none won't work: There simply isn't enough for the player to do, it isn't entertaining enough to passively watch our characters act for thousands of hours.

But once we admit that there should be *something* to do for the player in a MMORPG, we need to decide what exactly. What other kind of video game should a MMORPG be like? One school of thought bases that decision on the history of role-playing games, which evolved out of war games: Thus it would make sense if a MMORPG would play somewhat like a strategy game, and success would be based on your strategic or tactical decisions. But that sure isn't the only option: MMORPGs like Puzzle Pirates show that a MMORPG can be based on puzzle mini-games, where it is your puzzle game skill that determines success. You could theoretically design a game in which your success is based on your skill in solving differential equations, but presumably there is no market for that.

Now some people believe that a MMORPG should be an action arcade game, a kind of Super Mario, in which your twitch skills (hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness) should determine your success. And these people often are using a dirty trick in the discussion: They claim that only twitch skills are "skill", while other video game skills like strategy skills or puzzle skills are "not skill". Thus they reduce the whole discussion to a simplistic and wrong black & white separation of games "that need skill" and games "that don't need skill". Note that by their definition chess is a game that doesn't need skill, because there is no twitch involved.

World of Warcraft, by design, is always trying to be the broadest possible game. To some extent very many different video game skills are needed to play World of Warcraft. WoW requires you to memorize a lot of things, it needs strategic and tactical skills, and it needs different degrees of twitch skills in different levels of content. But it also tries to include Bhagpuss' ideal of "my character has all the skills", creating a hybrid model in which increasing your character skills reduces the amount of player skills you need to bring.

And that is where the "WoW needs no skill" argument is coming from. First of all it dismisses all but twitch skills. And then it only looks at how much twitch skill is needed for content if you are already completely maxed out with gear. And yes, if you have a 6k+ gearscore, the larger majority of content of World of Warcraft, including heroics and over half of the raid dungeons, requires very little twitch skill. Even the "final" WotLK encounter, the Lich King, on the easiest available difficulty level, only requires an amount of twitch skill which is well within the reach of veteran video gamers.

But, as Gevlon likes to point out, replacing skill requirements with gear is your personal choice. If you really WANT a game that needs a lot of twitch skill, you could simply form an "undergeared" guild like he did. Or you could play through content in hard modes. It is simply not true that there is no challenge at all available in World of Warcraft. Instead what happens is that players DELIBERATELY are constantly working on LOWERING the skill requirements, through maximizing their "efficiency" of gear / talent builds / everything else, and even through the use of third-party programs (addons) which make encounters much easier. But that is like complaining that "Civilization V is too easy" after playing it through on the easiest (Settler) difficulty level and having used some mods that make the game even easier.

The reason I personally dislike the "WoW needs no skill" crowd is that I always suspect them of elitism. Their main interest isn't in playing through something hard, because they already could do that. Their main interest is in excluding a broader audience from the game, or from certain types of content. I find that counterproductive. If I would play Civ5 on immortal difficulty level, what on earth would be my interest in demanding that the lower difficulty levels of the game would be removed, so less people could play it? I am much better off letting a larger audience play the game, each at his personal prefered difficulty level, because that way the developers earn a lot of money and are more likely to make more games of that type.

Me, I would like if World of Warcraft would require more tactical skills, and less Super Mario twitch skills. Fortunately it appears that Cataclysm will at least grant me the former, if not the latter.

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