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Community Spotlight: Skill in MMOs

Posted by MikeB Thursday June 24 2010 at 2:18PM
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This week’s Community Spotlight focuses on the thread “Anyone else not going to be satisfied with MMOs until "skill" is added into the gameplay?” by BioNut. In the thread, BioNut laments the lack of “skill” in MMOs:

“I have been playing MMOs for a long time (Aceron's Call was my first) and I have never really been satisfied by the gameplay.  Well, why play them you ask? To be honest, I play them mostly to relax and have have some nice casual multiplayer with friends. I also play them for story and roleplaying purposes. But this said I would really like an MMO to come out that is not for casual gamers but for hardcore gamers.

But wait, wait!!!??!!! WoW has plenty Hardcore gamerzzz doesn't it?

Short answer= No, mmo hardcore people are NOT hardcore gamers. That thought is laughable.

Long answer= Hardcore gamers are people who enjoy games that require skill, not time commitment. (think street fighter, Call of Duty, japanese top down shooters).

This is really the crux of my issue with MMOs. They require absolutely no skill at all. I mean, there isnt a single open world MMO thats PvP or PvE  doesn't boil down to who has better gear, higher levels, better traits, etc.

I want to see a guy tank the biggest boss in the game wearing nothing at all because he is just that FREAKING good. I wanna see an underdog win because he has a flawless fight against a better geared character. I want to get ganked by three other people and end up killing them all because I am just that freaking good. I want skill to matter and gear to be a bonus.

That way players can truely become legendary not for being "first to" but for being epic. For fighting against all odds and winning. Until then MMOs will continue to be casual "side attractions" and stuck in the stone ages they find themselves in now.”

While the OP’s post was a bit abrasive, the resulting discussion on the forums was nothing short of interesting, with many different viewpoints.

Swanea, like many members, define the basic idea of skill in an MMO differently:

“Certain mmos out now do involve skill.  Twitch games may measure reaction times as much as they measure "skill".  Knowing when to use abilities in MMO combined with the ability to change your tactics based on what is going on is very common.

PvPing in some MMOs involve just as much if not more skill then any other type of game.  You would just choose to ignore it since you can't lolheadshot them all the time.

Knowing when to CC, when to stop healing to help dps, when to LoS, when to use your elite skill, when to blow cooldowns.  And again, it's not just "when", it's the ability to adapt when things are not going your way.

Overall, sure, most MMOs might involve less "skill" then a fps.  But if you are looking for fps skill in a normal mmoRPG, you are looking at it from the wrong point of view.”

Mrbloodworth takes the opposite view:

“Huge diffrence between skill, and knowing the mechanics guys. MMORPG are simply about who has the higher number, and who knows the mechanics better, FPS games do all of that, and include skill.”

redOrc asserts that an MMORPG requiring skill already exists, Guild Wars:

“Guild Wars PVP is based on "skill".

You can open max level PVP character on day 1 and play with it. Gear is of almost no importance. Anyways you can "open" all gear options (for PVP) within several days of game play.

Each guild in the game gets "rating", which matchs it's skill to the other guilds. When you enter a Guild-Vs-Guild game, an automated selector will select a guild matching your skill. Winning a match will improve your rating and loosing will decrease it. So very fast you will find yourself playing your rating guilds.

The game is a little low now, since everybody are waitng for GW2. I hope it will be the same in that respect.”

RajCaj invokes the venerable Ultima Online to explain his position on skill:

“I've been waiting since Ultima Online redesigned their itemization in Age of Shadows.

The problem, as many have stated, is that gear progression is a GREAT way for developers to lead players around through the "content" as they see fit.  It's just easier from a development standpoint to be proactive about the content if they know in advance that everyone will be doing "this" to upgrade their gear.

And of course you get all the problems with a gear progression based MMO, like STATS > SKILL, extrinsic reward system gets players doing things they don't neccessarily enjoy doing, etc.

The key to creating a MMO that is primarily skill based is that the item system has to be relatively common or craftable.  There were magic weapons and armor in UO but it typically something used to give you an "edge" and not a rediculous advantage. 

The other key componet is that the combat system has to be relatively simple and/or uniform.  Ultima had only 2 main base classes....Mages & Warriors.  There were slight variations of the two that allowed for some tactical diversity.....but on the whole it was an even playing field with a very unique casting system that made Mage Dueling one of the first E-Sports.

In a day where MMOs are trying to seperate themselves from the rest of the pack by offering MORE stats and MORE classes.....its highly unlikely that any game devloper will be able to fully balance all class types with eachother.  Instead they adopt a Flavor Of The Month system that continueously changes all the classes so that each get their 15 min in the sun of domination over the rest.”

Of course, I have to quote our very own Garrett Fuller here, who asserts (along with several other users) that TERA will indeed require player skill:

“TERA definitely has skill factored into all of its game play.”

There are so many other great responses in the thread (that’s why its in our spotlight, duh!) so be sure to check the full thread out and jump into the discussion.

As for me, as soon as I saw the thread I knew that it would essentially take a detour into a discussion of the definition of “skill”, as its been a long-standing debate for many years with MMO gamers. We are all too hung up on the word. MMORPGs command a different set of skills than an FPS does and there isn’t anything more legitimate about either of them. Skill is skill. I wouldn’t compare a master chess player negatively against an Olympic shooter because the shooter can hit a moving target at a few hundred yards. They both require different sets of skills and they are both valid.

Now if you accept the basic premise that MMORPGs can require skill (not that all do), the larger issue here is that at least for most of us here who have a ton of experience with these games, is that we’ve mostly mastered the RPG format over the years. Things haven’t really changed enough to provide us a challenge. Couple that with the trend for developers to appeal to a broader audience, thus resulting in simpler games, we have a situation where many players are understandably dissatisfied, myself included.

With the exception of casters (who played on a traditional playing field), I felt that Age of Conan offered some pretty decent (though imperfect, to put it lightly) gameplay that rewarded player skill. I’m a huge PvP nut and I won tons of fights (before the gem stacking craze, and before they simplified the game some) by simply being a better player than my opponents in Conan. I’ve won 2-3 on 1 fights numerous times, simply by taking advantage of the fact positioning and timing played an important role in the game. That isn’t to say that traditional skills such as knowing your class and how to play it don’t matter, but in this day and age, and I’m echoing a lot of posters from the originating thread here, simply don’t allow much exploration and variety. If they’ve got a talent tree, the developers have budgeted the tree a certain way so that they can balance it. While builds the developers don’t account for tend to appear and surprise people, they quickly become overused and eventually marginalized in the name of balance. It’s a tricky balance, designing to allow for depth, complexity, and player creativity, and to keep things on a relatively even keel. MMORPGs can reward skill, but not all of them do.