Thursday, March 08, 2007
Learn2play - or the role of skills in World of Warcraft
An anonymous troll recently left a couple of comments on this blog, spreading his version of an argument which is more commonly quoted as "learn2play": The idea that the problems that casual and semi-casual players have with World of Warcraft and its latest expansion are due to a lack of skill and talent of said players. The troll's insults, haughty attitude, and empty threats caused several of my other readers to respond that WoW doesn't require skill at all, which isn't strictly true either. Time for a balanced view at the subject. Does playing World of Warcraft require skill, and would we all be happy with WoW if we just had more skill and talent?
Playing World of Warcraft reasonably well, especially in a group situation, certainly requires some skill. For example take my priest: I need to watch for the group's health bars, not only how full they are, but also how fast they are going down. Based on that information I need to make decisions on what spell to use to heal them, between instant or quick spells that waste a lot of mana, heals over time, and slower but mana-efficient big heals. I also need to keep an eye out for debuffs, of the disease and magic kind, where I have to decide whether I need to dispel them quickly or whether healing is more important. If there is nothing to heal or dispel, I should add to my small part to the damage output of the group. And for most of these decisions I only have split second to make the right choice and execute it. Clearly that takes some skill to get right, and clearly there are some people who don't have these skills.
But where the troll is wrong is in thinking that only the elite has those skills. Only a minority of players doesn't have them, as they are easy enough to learn for an average computer gamer. In fact in a MMO it is often impossible to tell the difference between an average player and somebody with excellent skills. This is due to the nature of online games, where the information that you pressed a key must travel to the server and back, around which MMO combat is by necessity designed. Having more skill in pressing buttons faster doesn't help you at all, you just can't react faster than your ping. Many players of the semi-casual crowd (to which most of my readers belong) are as skilled as any hardcore raider. My healing in raids is generally appreciated.
If it isn't skill that limits the casual and semi-casual player's success and enjoyment of the game, then what is it? The answer is simply that other factors than skill have a much larger influence on the success of a group than skill itself. For example, who would you choose to tank Ragnaros for your raid: The world's most skilled and talented warrior in tier 0 blue armor and no fire resistance, or some average guild tank in full epics and 350+ FR? Gear beats skill all the time. Another big factor is the opportunity to practice the same encounter with the same people. Raids learn how to kill one boss, but then wipe on the next one, not because the next one is more difficult than the first, but because it takes time to learn the next encounter by heart. If you know that Lucifron casts Impending Doom, and that it is important to dispel that instead of healing, and you even have an addon installed to tell you when the next doom strikes, then getting this right suddenly becomes a whole lot easier. And not all of that sort of knowledge can be acquired by reading up on the encounter, or being told, some you just have to learn by doing, often repeatedly. Now exchange half of the raid group with equally skilled people inexperienced in that encounter, and you wipe again.
So what most often limits the success of average players is time. The time needed to acquire better or more specialized gear (many raiders are currently farming primals for crafted arcane resistance gear for Karazhan). The time needed to practice the same encounter repeatedly until you know exactly what to do when. But most importantly the time to organize the perfect group.
The perfect group is far more than a time problem, it is often mainly a social, you could even say ethical problem. People make friends, and they want to play with those friends. Rarely is a group of friends organized to form just the right mix of classes, talent builds, and level of gear. Nobody wanted to play a priest or druid, so the paladin needs to be main healer; the second paladin tanks, because the warrior wanted to spec fury; and the rogue is running around in outdated green gear because his family life leaves him less time to play. That works well enough as long as the group of friends is doing just outdoor quests together, they can even beat most elite quests. But in the harder dungeons such a group is doomed to fail. And they shouldn't even think of going to a raid dungeon. Soon the difficult ethical question arises whether you should rather group with your friends, or with some people who are a lot less nice, having a huge epeen, but have all the right classes, talents, and gear. The hardcore players regularly choose efficiency over social bonds here. I've seen people get kicked out of raiding guilds for crimes like going on holiday for 3 weeks, or daring to respec to a PvP build.
Successful hardcore raiders certainly have something which casual and semi-casual players don't have. But it isn't "skill" or "talent". The most positive word I can find for it is "dedication". This dedication includes the willingness to spend more time in the game than the average player (to the potential detriment of study, work, and family), and the ruthlessness to select your "friends" based on their class, build, and *their* dedication and usefulness to you.
If by a miracle all players of World of Warcraft suddenly became highly skilled and would "learn2play", it would solve nothing. The too hard dungeons of The Burning Crusade would still draw lots of complaints from average players, because they still don't have the time to grind all the possible gear needed to beat them. They still don't have the time to wipe 12 times on each boss to proceed to the next, and don't enjoy doing so. And they still would prefer to group with their friends instead of with some jerk with a bigger sword, or a "better" class.
The solution, if there is any, is to make the normal dungeons just so hard that they are challenging but beatable by normal players playing with their normal inefficient group of friends. Karazhan should be doable by a pickup raid of semi-casual players. For the people who like to play hardcore, the exactly same dungeon should be available at heroic difficulty, beatable only by the best and with the best gear and practice, in a perfect group, and of course giving much better loot. So everybody gets to see everything, but the heroic stuff is "reserved" for the leet.