Dark or Light

The Curse of Skill In Multiplayer Games

Niklas Elmqvist Posted:
Editorials 0

Back in 2004 when attending the European Game Developers Conference, I vividly remember an EA executive concluding a session on multiplayer game design with the following truism, paraphrasing here: "I think I speak for every adult in this room when I say that the very last thing I want to do when I finally get to sit down and play on Friday night after a long week of work is to get humiliated by a teenager with no life and too much time on their hands."

Firstly, I disagree with his wording and eventual conclusion, that single-player games are superior to multiplayer games. I often think of that statement whenever confronted with a fundamental, basic, and unalienable fact: people playing anything but the most trivial game will have varying skills. This skill disparity gives rise to conflict when it happens in a multiplayer game.

In New World, this manifests in some people having the time and energy to grind gear score and make the cut for wars against other factions. In World of Warcraft, it’s about having the skill and dedication to be part of raiding guilds able to participate in the highest levels of content. Guild Wars 2 requires players to keep up with the "meta" to be successful in top tier content, most recently for the new End of Dragons expansion which requires players to participate in a large-scale raid to acquire a special mount award. In first-person shooters or MOBAs, it’s about possessing the hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and tactical thinking—as well as the time and opportunity to hone these skills—to compete at the top level. Regardless of the specific manifestation, the result is the same: developing skills in a game leads to a "curse of skill" where casual and elite players cannot easily co-exist due to their varying abilities.

Before I go any further, a quick note about the "casual" vs. "elite" nomenclature. While there clearly is a perceived value in being "elite," I am firmly on the side of the EA executive in defending anyone's privilege to be "just" a casual player using a video game as a relaxing escape from a stressful life. And the so-called elites are only elites because they have had the opportunity, ability, and motivation to immerse themselves in a game and hone their skills to near perfection. Being able to defeat your fellow players in a video game does not make you a better or more valuable person. 

Furthermore, intimating a clear division between the groups is also simplistic; clearly, this is a sliding scale from the most casual to the most elite players. Nevertheless, I will use the two terms here merely for the sake of argument and with no value attributed to each label.

So why is this "curse of skill" so problematic? For a casual player it is bad because they are unable to compete at the same level as the elite players, and thus lose consistently. For the elite players, fighting a casual player presents little challenge (except perhaps in superior numbers), and the number of other elite players that would present a challenge tends to be small.

MOBAs, hero shooters, and competitive first-person shooters often use ranking systems to organize players into tiers and use these to match players of similar skill into matches. However, for MMOs where all players—regardless of skill—inhabit the same open and persistent world, this can be harder to achieve.

Social relations between elite and casual factions can also become strained in MMOs where players cannot easily be separated. Elite players are often toxic and hold their casual counterparts in contempt. Casual players, on the other hand, resent elites and often equate their superior skill to cheating or exploits. In a recent Caledonia PvP leveling event in Dark Age of Camelot, some of the more casual players accused the elite groups of coordinating, abusing event mechanics, and cheating on the official DAoC discord. One radical suggestion from the casual crowd was to forbid the elite players from participating in future such events. While this is not a practical or equitable solution (after all, every player pays the same subscription fee and thus should have equal access to the game), it does point to the same fundamental problem.

One solution is to create different tiers of end-game content, some of which will not be seen by casual players. Wars in New World have 50 players to a side, and on the more populated servers, this basically means that only players with max gear get to participate. The stakes of losing a productive settlement are just too high. Battlegrounds in World of Warcraft and the now-defunct Warhammer Online (still available online on the Return of Reckoning freeshard), while nominally open to everyone, tend to be dominated by experienced players with twinked-out alts. The same is true of top-level raids or competitive arenas in other games. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it locks out a large portion of the player population from some of the game's content.

A more organic solution is for the casual players to group into superior numbers before they take on elite players: in other words, to zerg. Zerging has the added advantage of being more forgiving for suboptimal groups that lack key components, such as heals or tanks. This also means that casual players can more easily fight other casual players as zerg vs. zerg without having to create dedicated groups with specialized skills. However, zerging usually leads to hurt feelings by elite players (when they get steamrolled) or other casual players (when their zerg is smaller and ends up losing).

Player-enforced social measures can also help keep relations between the two factions civil. For example, in Dark Age of Camelot, there is a general agreement that the Ellan Vannin (EV) center zone connecting the three PvP realms is dedicated to set groups fighting other groups, and that zergs should stay away. While trespasses occur and there is no penalty for violating this agreement, it is generally respected by all realms. Do you know of any such player-enforced measures in other MMOs? Please share them in the comments.

In summary, the casual vs. elite divide is a fact of life in multiplayer gaming. Most people play games to relax, not to stress over min-maxing their performance, and be humiliated on the regular. Unfortunately, for those unable or unwilling to get better, the only winning move may sometimes be not to play online at all.


Niklas Elmqvist