Friday, September 23, 2011
10,000 hours to mastery
A game of chess played by World Chess Federation rules gives each player 90 minutes for his first 40 moves, then 30 minutes for the rest of the game if necessary. You can also play Blitz chess with each player only having 5 minutes, or you could play chess by mail with each player given near infinite time to think about his moves. That all works out pretty well, because generally both players have the same time limit. A typical MMORPG has no time limit at all. And players with more time aren’t limited to the same number of moves as players with less time; they can simply play more, and thus advance more. Surveyed in the Daedalus Project by Nick Yee, a quarter of players said they played less than 10 hours per week, while 1.6% of players played over 60 hours. The average player spent 22 hours per week playing his favorite MMORPG, but the distribution is very wide, with the most active players playing over 10 times more than the least active players.
Now very active players tend to cite examples like tennis, where obviously somebody playing 10 times more than somebody else for several months will end up being better at playing tennis. Unfortunately MMORPGs aren’t tennis: In a MMORPG the contribution of skill to your progress is relatively small. Even a complete moron would easily outlevel and outgear the world’s brightest genius if the moron played 10 times more. Furthermore in a MMORPG progress isn’t linear with time, but there are certain steps in the curve where having a minimum amount for this or that activity results in a huge step up in progress. For example if you have the time to complete dungeons, or if you have the time required to raid, your endgame progress per hour played will be much higher than that of somebody who has only very short play sessions and can’t do more than doing daily quests.
If you consider a theoretical MMORPG with an infinite number of levels and free-for-all PvP, it is pretty obvious that the players spending the most time in the game would crush those spending the least amount of time. Add a monthly subscription business model, and you end up with a system in which your worst customers (costing you the most for equal revenue) drive out your best customers (costing you the least for equal revenue). That simple consideration explains the majority of developments in MMORPG game design over the last decade: Games are now mostly PvE or consensual PvP with safe areas. Games are now more solo-friendly, so the good customer playing 10 times less isn’t actually in any competition with the guy playing 10 times more. There are xp rest bonuses boosting those who play less. Games now have shorter leveling times to the cap, preventing the guys playing 10 times more to get further ahead. And there are now constant “resets”, where content patches and expansions make all previous progress obsolete, so the players playing the least are made equal again to those playing the most. In short, MMORPGs have been made a lot more casual-friendly since Ultima Online.
Of course not everybody likes that. If you actually want to spend 60+ hours per week in a MMORPG, many of these developments work to your disadvantage. You aren’t allowed to use your superior progress to kick less advanced player’s ass. Your progress is constantly hindered by artificial barriers, and then reset. And for your needs the game becomes too short, and too easy. It is said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to mastery. Even I got over 10,000 hours of MMORPGs played since UO, and my play times are close to average. 20 hours per week makes about 1,000 hours per year, or 10,000 hours in a decade. Thus among the veterans there are a lot of players who can be said to have mastered MMORPGs, but who are confined to games which are designed to be accessible to new players and people still far from mastery. The few games made specifically for those veterans end up being rather bad due to lack of funding, as making a game that can only be played by people who are already very good at MMORPGs and spend lots of hours per week playing is obviously a bad business plan. There are simply a lot more people out there who haven’t even started playing MMORPGs yet than there are players who already mastered the genre.
It is all rather bad for the veterans who can’t adapt to a more casual play style. Thus we get blogs of people like Wolfshead or Syncaine who constantly complain how the MMORPG genre has been ruined, who constantly tell you how much better the games of the past (or niche games made like games of the past) were, and who on closer examination turn out to be online game pundits who don’t play online games anymore, because the genre has moved on and left them behind. There are a lot of subjects in life where somebody would profit from having a 10,000-hour mastery of that field. MMORPGs aren’t one of them, there simply isn’t an opportunity to exercise that mastery. Having 10,000 hours of mastery in MMORPGs unfortunately is only worth about as much as having a 10,000-hour mastery in watching TV: Nothing.