Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Beyond skill

Games generally involve skill. A person playing a game for the first time will need some time to learn the skills involved, provided the game needs different skills than the games the person played before. In some cases it is possible that the acquisition of skill lasts forever, albeit probably with diminishing returns. For example there is no upper limit to the amount of skill you can have in chess. In other games there are upper limits to skill. It is possible to master Tic-Tac-Toe to the point where you can't possible get any more skillful in playing it, because the complexity of the game is limited. In video games, especially online video games, there might also be technical limits to skills: You can't possibly react any faster than your ping, and you can't press buttons faster than the built-in cooldown between button presses.

Raph Koster in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design claims that learning a game and acquiring those skills constitutes the fun of games. Once you completely master the game, it becomes boring.

I would say that the amount of skill you can develop in playing a character in a MMORPG is limited. And because so many games use so very similar game mechanics, many of these skills are transferable. Some details might be different, but if you mastered playing a tank, healer, or dps in game A, you will quickly master playing the same role in game B.

I do believe that most people reached the point where they more or less completely mastered the core skills of their MMORPG character already years ago. Vanilla WoW might still have been about learning how to play your class, but Wrath and Cataclysm certainly weren't. The challenge of raid encounters evolved from "can you get the maximum performance out of your character?" to "can you still get the maximum performance out of your character while being forced to constantly react to scripted events?". You do not learn how to tank, heal, or dps better by jumping out of the fire, you only learn how to jump out of the fire faster. On the one side that game design opens up an eternal "learning process", because the player needs to memorize the scripted events of every encounter, and every encounter can have a new script. On the other side that learning process is less satisfying, as you don't really learn how to play your character better, you only learn to memorize one encounter after another. And you don't even "learn by playing", because in a cooperative multiplayer game anybody less advanced in the learning curve is a burden to everybody else, thus people are expected to already have learned the script through out of game tools like YouTube and Bosskiller sites before even their first attempt.

I observe a growing dissatisfaction of veteran players with the MMORPG genre. And I believe that this is because we are way past the point where we had fun because we learned new skills. And as long as new games don't demand new skills from us, that is not going to change. We will just apply our old skills to the new games, and become bored quicker and quicker with every new game. The whole "cloning successful games" school of game design is a trap, because by cloning successful games you also clone the skills needed to beat those games, and prevent people from having fun by learning new skills.

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