Musings on MMO Player Skill

Xeavn’s post Skill in a Multiplayer Game over at Clockwork Gamer got me thinking. In classic fashion, I started a comment and when it got too long, I just thought I’d turn it into a post since I’ve been remiss in posting. This really got me thinking after reading Tobold’s Too Slow for AoE post.

Being an old guy, I can feel Tobold’s pain. Indeed, the entire group that we regularly play with are a bunch of old farts, all with their own individual strengths and weaknesses. None of us are as fast as we used to be, and none of us were ever as fast as most of those twitch gamer kiddies out there. Still when I think about it, I would consider all of us pretty highly skilled. Why is this?

Xeavn alluded to it but I don’t think he gave it enough weight– a key component of player skill IMHO is judgment. Good player judgment is difficult to define, but its a complex mix of knowledge about the game, your own class and others, a certain amount of dexterity but also experience in group play. Anyone who’s suffered through PUGs in WoW knows what I mean.

While certain feats of derring do are only really accessible to those exceptionally dextrous, the design of most MMOs doesn’t really make this the success limiting factor. For example, universal ability cooldowns rate limit the number of actions a player can take in a given amount of time. So what comes to matter most then are the choices a player makes in the heat of battle. Whether a priest decides to drop an instant HoT or endure the long wait to unload a massive heal on the tank is a judgment call based on innumerable factors that are only acquired with experience. Likewise, whether and when to use long cooldown abilities in the context of a fight can often mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Each of our regular group of aged and aging gamers has strengths and weaknesses. Some of us “mouse” exclusively, some keymap almost every ability they have. Some prefer a much tighter close in view, some prefer a big wide angle view. Over time, however, we’ve learned to play to each others strengths and defend against weaknesses.

Often before a difficult fight, we’ll strategize. Sometimes our (usually my) overly complicated strategies turn out not to be workable because we can’t reliably execute, mobs resist or some other whacky factor comes into play. When we regroup, more often than not, we find a strategy that works for our group’s abilities and quite often we learn something about both our own individual classes but the others as well. As long as a player remains coachable and flexible, their skill can grow.

But experience and judgment manifest itself as player skill in other ways. I’ll lump it all in a bucket that I call situational awareness. Learning overtime to know what’s going on in your group and being able to communicate that effectively is probably the greatest indication of player skill that I see in an MMO. How many mobs are left? How much mana does the mage have left? Is the warlock’s pet still alive? Has the tank potted? Did the pally already use lay on hands? etc. Couple this with a general “don’t panic” attitude, good knowledge of each others strengths and weaknesses as well as a healthy dose of trust and you have what passes for MMO skill in my book.

Here’s a classic WoW example: long long ago, if our tank lost aggro and a mob broke for the healer because of any number of factors (including over healing, nuking the wrong mob, etc.), our tank would try to chase the mob to save the healer, blow a taunt or challenging shout and the healer might bubble up, run away, self heal, fade, etc. and general chaos would ensue.

Now, having a wealth of experience (individually and in group play–key) the situation is very different. Its very unlikely a mob gets mistargeted. Overhealing rarely occurs– the tank trusts the healer to manage the healer’s aggro and the tank’s health, and unless the healer asks for it, the tank stays on his primary task. If a mob breaks for the healer, more often than not, the healer lets the mob run all the way to him, and then fades which is usually enough to send him right back to the tank (and by waiting as long as he does, give him and the tank a respite from taking damage, needing additional healing or using long cooldown abilities to regain the mob’s attention).

Likewise, in a bigger fight, when to use certain skills or abilities to maximum advantage (when to mana pot or when the pally should lay on hands) often means the difference between victory and defeat. These are all choices players make independent of physical dexterity. Good choices make for better outcomes. Good choices are difficult and complicated because its much more than following the play book for an encounter or for your class. The skill lies in learning how to make these decisions, not necessarily how to execute them quickly.

The beauty of this kind of skill building is that most players you encounter can learn and get better at making these decisions with a little patience and good communication. Not all players are coachable, but to be fair the downside of extremely solo-friendly games like WoW are that these kinds of group interdependent decisions often don’t get learned early enough or often enough…

I’ve often thought it would be a great idea to for someone or a guild to host novice Group 101 boot camp focused solely on teaching basic group skills (tanking, crowd control, aggro management, etc.) for the benefit of the greater Azerothian good. I suspect that many truly novice solo players would probably jump at the chance to learn how to group in an environment that is not as harsh and frustrating as PUGs…

One thought on “Musings on MMO Player Skill”

  1. I think you touched on something very important here, and that is the “skill” in MMORPGs is deeply connected to how well you work with others. Sure it’s true that in most of today’s MMOs, anyone with the time to invest can reach max level–but that’s just a minute fraction of the fun to be had.

    Even if you’re a solo player, the way you interact with the other players in the world has a large impact on your success. How many times have you mumbled curses at the player who jumps in and starts stealing your kills or grabs a node from under your pick? In group work, each player learns not only their own strengths and weaknesses, but those of their party members–and takes this education with them in future encounters. Sure, even if you don’t “play well with others” you can more likely than not reach level cap, but that’s just one facet of MMOs.

    I also think there’s much more room for growth in MMOs then in twitch-based games. If you’re quick on the draw, you’re quick on the draw and there’s not much more to it once you’ve gotten that down. In an MMO, your skills and how you use them in difference circumstances, are constantly changing. As someone who has a minor case of alt-itus, even when I play through content as say, my healer, there’s the whole new dynamic of “okay, I wonder how I’d face the same obstacles as my rogue or caster?”

    Sure, there’s much more strategy and thought than reflex in MMOs, but that’s why they have a much longer lifespan than your average twitch shooter or action game that you play for a couple weeks or a month then throw the box in a drawer.

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