Aenroth – Part 1: On Being Skillful

What skills should a video game require from a player?

Most games fall into one of a few categories when it comes to what the player has to be able to do in order to be successful. Your old school platform arcade games, and the games that have descended from them, asked nothing more than fast reaction time and good twitch control over your fingers. You see a group of colored pixels coming at you, you decide where you need to be to not get hit and how soon you need to get there and you twitch your thumb on the direction pad or the A-button. If you’re good at it, and you’ve learned the timing of the game, you survive to face more colored pixels. Fail and lose a life.

Then you have your old school RPG and strategy games. On these, your reaction time was nearly or completely irrelevant. Everything happened in turns, and success in combat was determined by predetermined stats and pseudo-random dice rolls. The skills required here are about the same as you need to enjoy a full season of baseball. You know the stats of your characters, of your items, of your enemies and of the terrain and you form a strategy to maximize your numbers and minimize theirs. Do it correctly, and you take power from the dice rolls and receive a higher probability of success. The better you know the game, and the better you are at juggling stats and how they affect each other, the better you do. Put a left handed batter against a right handed pitcher. Or whatever it is people do in baseball.

Finally, you have the Puzzle Games. These games require little to no Twitch Reflexes and often only rudimentary experience with the game mechanics. They’re Sudoku on a computer, and ask their players to use many of the same skills. Minesweeper is timed, but the same good puzzle solving skills that made you good in Memory as a child will make you good here. And don’t think these are just games like Bejeweled. The hoards of Myst-lovers used the same skills, leisurely moving through a sequence of pretty pictures as they tried to determine which levers needed turned in what order.

Modern games, having faster processors, more memory and infinite storage space, tend to mix these skills up a bit. Most Playstation games are essentially twitch games with more strategic number crunching elements mixed in to make your brain work a little bit. Real Time Strategy games like Command & Conquer take away the comfort (and required strategic acumen) from a turn based game like Civilization and add in a need for fast and accurate clicking. But when you get right down to it

For instance, there are the Simulation games, that require some mix of knowledge of the outside world and understanding of how the game’s model of that real world thing works. These games, if they’re built right, only require twitch reflexes or stat crunching unless it’s part of the real world thing being modeled. Compare, for instance, Flight Simulator to X-Wing. X-Wing requires fast reflexes and good hand-eye coordination. Flight Simulator requires you to know how planes work to some degree. This is also true of Sim City, The Sims and Second Life. While these games ask you to learn game mechanics, the idea is that you’re applying some kind of real-world knowledge to the game in order to succeed. Know something about Zoning, and you’ll have a rich city. Manage relationships well and you’ll have a happy Sim. Hone good color coordination and design skills and get lots of cybersex.

Some genres of games know exactly what skills their players should have. One of the most successful of these genres is the First Person Shooter. While there are a handful of sub genres that have their own, unique mechanics, they all work in the same way. You need to both agile and accurate with gun aiming. You have to know what weapons are good in what situations. You have to be good at learning and maneuvering through complicated 3D maps. A person who picks up a good FPS knows exactly what they’re getting into.

Other genres are more confused. None is more confused than the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. People call them MMORPGs. With great reluctance, I’ll call them the same thing. The MMORPG, frankly, has no idea what skills its players should have. It knows its players should have an active credit card to pay for their account. It knows they should have a lot of free time, without which they will progress too slowly to enjoy the game. It also knows its players should be willing to regularly deal with the crippling setbacks its game play model saddles them with. Once the requirements of Financing, Free Time and Saintly Patience have been met, most MMORPGs slap on an ill-thought out mix of Stat Crunching and intermittent Twitch Mechanics for players to learn. When you get right down to it, an MMORPG doesn’t require any real skills at all. If you read an online hint guide telling you exactly what to do in exactly what order, then put the necessary time in, you’ll be successful. And when you’re not successful? Usually that’s something completely random. Oops, I got stunned before I could cast Heal. Death. Lose XP. Run Back To My Body.

(Before going on, can I point out the irony of a game that demands you both to have a regular job to pay for playing the game, and 40+ hours a week in addition to your job to get your money’s worth out of the game? Of course I can.)

I bring all this up as roundabout way of asking what other skills can we expect players to bring to a game that would still let them be fun? An excellent essay (which I can’t find now, but will link here once I do) on MMORPGs suggested the real reason people play them is persistence. Your character lasts from one play session to the next, and retains all experience, items and changes from session to session. In other words, you get to build up a character. The problem is, game designers seem to assume that the numerical progression of statistics increasing and persisting from session to session is all that’s needed; progression of the player’s skills is severely undervalued. A game like Dance Dance Revolution demands a unique set of skills: rhythm and physical coordination. Basically, as you become a better dancer, you become a better player.

Can we add that to an MMORPG? Can we make item creation, magic, combat and exploration more dependent on the player and less dependent on numbers? And can we find a way to portray the player’s increased skill level in the game in some way? And then, having accomplished that, can we tie in-game progression more to player skill than to character levels and item quality, so that speed of learning trumps raw amount of time spent in game?

I have some thoughts on this, and I’m going to get into them in detail in future parts. For now, let’s take a break. Next stop, Aenroth.

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