Friday, September 23, 2011

10,000 hours to mastery

A game ofchess played by World Chess Federation rules gives each player 90 minutes forhis first 40 moves, then 30 minutes for the rest of the game if necessary. Youcan also play Blitz chess with each player only having 5 minutes, or you couldplay chess by mail with each player given near infinite time to think about hismoves. That all works out pretty well, because generally both players have thesame time limit. A typical MMORPG has no time limit at all. And players withmore time aren’t limited to the same number of moves as players with less time;they can simply play more, and thus advance more. Surveyed in the Daedalus Projectby Nick Yee, aquarter of players said they played less than 10 hours per week,while 1.6% of players played over 60 hours. The average player spent 22 hoursper week playing his favorite MMORPG, but the distribution is very wide, withthe most active players playing over 10 times more than the least activeplayers.

Now veryactive players tend to cite examples like tennis, where obviously somebodyplaying 10 times more than somebody else for several months will end up beingbetter at playing tennis. Unfortunately MMORPGs aren’t tennis: In a MMORPG thecontribution of skill to your progress is relatively small. Even a completemoron would easily outlevel and outgear the world’s brightest genius if themoron played 10 times more. Furthermore in a MMORPG progress isn’t linear withtime, but there are certain steps in the curve where having a minimum amountfor this or that activity results in a huge step up in progress. For example ifyou have the time to complete dungeons, or if you have the time required toraid, your endgame progress per hour played will be much higher than that ofsomebody who has only very short play sessions and can’t do more than doingdaily quests.

If youconsider a theoretical MMORPG with an infinite number of levels andfree-for-all PvP, it is pretty obvious that the players spending the most timein the game would crush those spending the least amount of time. Add a monthlysubscription business model, and you end up with a system in which your worstcustomers (costing you the most for equal revenue) drive out your bestcustomers (costing you the least for equal revenue). That simple considerationexplains the majority of developments in MMORPG game design over the lastdecade: Games are now mostly PvE or consensual PvP with safe areas. Games arenow more solo-friendly, so the good customer playing 10 times less isn’tactually in any competition with the guy playing 10 times more. There are xprest bonuses boosting those who play less. Games now have shorter levelingtimes to the cap, preventing the guys playing 10 times more to get furtherahead. And there are now constant “resets”, where content patches andexpansions make all previous progress obsolete, so the players playing theleast are made equal again to those playing the most. In short, MMORPGs havebeen made a lot more casual-friendly since Ultima Online.

Of coursenot everybody likes that. If you actually want to spend 60+hours per week in a MMORPG, many of these developments work to yourdisadvantage. You aren’t allowed to use your superior progress to kick lessadvanced player’s ass. Your progress is constantly hindered by artificialbarriers, and then reset. And for your needs the game becomes too short, andtoo easy. It is said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to mastery. Even Igot over 10,000 hours of MMORPGs played since UO, and my play times are closeto average. 20 hours per week makes about 1,000 hours per year, or 10,000 hoursin a decade. Thus among the veterans there are a lot of players who can be saidto have mastered MMORPGs, but who are confined to games which are designed tobe accessible to new players and people still far from mastery. The few gamesmade specifically for those veterans end up being rather bad due to lack offunding, as making a game that can only be played by people who are alreadyvery good at MMORPGs and spend lots of hours per week playing is obviously abad business plan. There are simply a lot more people out there who haven’teven started playing MMORPGs yet than there are players who already masteredthe genre.

It is allrather bad for the veterans who can’t adapt to a more casual play style. Thuswe get blogs of people like Wolfshead or Syncaine who constantly complain howthe MMORPG genre has been ruined, who constantly tell you how much better thegames of the past (or niche games made like games of the past) were, and who oncloser examination turn out to be online game pundits who don’t play onlinegames anymore, because the genre has moved on and left them behind. There are alot of subjects in life where somebody would profit from having a 10,000-hourmastery of that field. MMORPGs aren’t one of them, there simply isn’t anopportunity to exercise that mastery. Having 10,000 hours of mastery in MMORPGsunfortunately is only worth about as much as having a 10,000-hour mastery inwatching TV: Nothing.

No comments:

Post a Comment