Tuesday, February 22, 2011

World of Warcraft skill

Dee from Lost in Azeroth ponders what makes MMORPGs hard, what skills you need to play them. I like her list, but I think that not having actually played Everquest she wrongly judges EQ as not needing any of those skills and just being a grind, comparable to weeding a garden. I think she got that one the wrong way round, so I'll have a look at her list and apply it to World of Warcraft:

#1. They require long-term planning: I would agree that principally you need some long-term planning, e.g. asking yourself whether you want to play a healer, tank, or dps. Unfortunately over the years in World of Warcraft it turns out that this long-term planning is frequently sabotaged by Blizzard's patches. For example if you always want to play the class and spec that gives the highest damage per second, you will be continuously frustrated, because every patch nerfs the strongest class and makes some weaker class stronger. When I rolled my priest, I did so with a long-term plan to be the best healer possible, but over the years other classes were often better as healer. In exchange I suddenly find myself in Cataclysm having one of the strongest DPS classes, an option not even remotely considered when I created that character. A friend of mine plays a warlock, and he paused WoW for 2 years during WotLK because he couldn't stand that his character was suddenly the worst damage dealer around. So, long-term planning and WoW, not a good match.

#2. They require short-term strategy: If I took the list of Dee's example questions here ("What button should I press next? What synergy can I get between skills? What gear should I equip? Is there a spell this mob is particularly weak to?") and posted it on a WoW forum as question, somebody would first insult me as a n00b and then direct me towards Elitist Jerks. In World of Warcraft there are rarely mobs that are particularly weak to specific spells, thus the question which gear to choose and which spell rotation / priority list gives the best result has a single and unique answer. Yes, that is a "short-term strategy", or rather "tactics", but modern World of Warcraft does *not* require you to figure those tactics out. Nor does it require you to figure out boss tactics. You not only *can*, but are actually *expected to* to have looked up the best possible answer on the internet.

#3. They require resource management: Many of the resources Dee mentions are gold. Her question of "should I use my last health potion?" actually should never come up, unless you are woefully unprepared. During most of the game, the leveling part, gold tends to be not a problem at all, and once you reach the raiding part, you should know how to make enough of the stuff to pay for repairs and flasks. Mana management does exist, but only for healers (which is why I play one). If you'd suggest using spirit gear for your mage for better mana regeneration, you'd be laughed at.

#4. They require people skills: This is actually the one point where most people complain about World of Warcraft: WoW *doesn't* require people skills for a huge majority of the game. Not only can you level up to the cap solo, but you can use the automated Dungeon Finder and the Auction House to avoid having to use people skills when interacting with other players. You might need people skills for raiding, but even there I have seen obvious examples of people who raided with no people skills at all. People skills are at best secondary, most raid leaders would rather invite the less nice but better performing player than the other way around. Trade chat invites demand gearscore, not number of friends.

I would say that Everquest had all these skill requirements far more than World of Warcraft. A character that levels up much slower and doesn't have a convenient dual-spec option requires more long-term planning. There being less people analyzing all the options and posting them on the internet ends up with players having to do more of the short-term strategy. Resource management is more important when resources play a bigger role in the game. And if you need other people for most of the content and can't be grouped with them automatically, you need more people skills.

The fundamental problem with World of Warcraft is that you can do nearly everything without having any of these skills. And then there is raiding, where the required skill-set consists mainly of memorizing a dance for each boss and executing that dance perfectly. I totally agree that this is "a skill", but it is a skill which is more akin to completely different video game genres than to pre-WoW MMORPGs or even other computer RPGs.

Thought experiment: Take two people of equal talent who never have played World of Warcraft or any other MMORPG before. Let the one train various action arcade video games. Let the other train various games requiring long-term strategy, short-term tactics, resource management, and people skills. Give both identical information from Elitist Jerks and whatever raid-boss killing site. And then let them both try a raid in World of Warcraft. Which one of them will perform better? I think the guy who trained action arcade game skills will do significantly better than the guy who trained strategy games skills.

Again, I'm not saying that action arcade game skills aren't "skills". But I would claim that there is some bait & switch fraud involved: When you start World of Warcraft you are under the impression that this is a game about long-term strategy, short-term tactics, resource management, and people skills. Only once you reach the level cap you find out that actually it isn't, and that you now need a completely different skill set, which was never trained or demanded from you before in the game. I could imagine two very different MMORPGs, both being better than WoW: The first being a game where you need arcade action game skills from level 1, getting increasingly difficult until you get to something looking very much like WoW raiding. The second being a MMORPG which starts like WoW, and which ends with some sort of gameplay which *still* requires planning and strategy and tactics and resource management, but no twitch skills whatsoever.

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