Tobold's Blog
Thursday, April 12, 2012
Beyond skill

Games generally involve skill. A person playing a game for the first time will need some time to learn the skills involved, provided the game needs different skills than the games the person played before. In some cases it is possible that the acquisition of skill lasts forever, albeit probably with diminishing returns. For example there is no upper limit to the amount of skill you can have in chess. In other games there are upper limits to skill. It is possible to master Tic-Tac-Toe to the point where you can't possible get any more skillful in playing it, because the complexity of the game is limited. In video games, especially online video games, there might also be technical limits to skills: You can't possibly react any faster than your ping, and you can't press buttons faster than the built-in cooldown between button presses.

Raph Koster in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design claims that learning a game and acquiring those skills constitutes the fun of games. Once you completely master the game, it becomes boring.

I would say that the amount of skill you can develop in playing a character in a MMORPG is limited. And because so many games use so very similar game mechanics, many of these skills are transferable. Some details might be different, but if you mastered playing a tank, healer, or dps in game A, you will quickly master playing the same role in game B.

I do believe that most people reached the point where they more or less completely mastered the core skills of their MMORPG character already years ago. Vanilla WoW might still have been about learning how to play your class, but Wrath and Cataclysm certainly weren't. The challenge of raid encounters evolved from "can you get the maximum performance out of your character?" to "can you still get the maximum performance out of your character while being forced to constantly react to scripted events?". You do not learn how to tank, heal, or dps better by jumping out of the fire, you only learn how to jump out of the fire faster. On the one side that game design opens up an eternal "learning process", because the player needs to memorize the scripted events of every encounter, and every encounter can have a new script. On the other side that learning process is less satisfying, as you don't really learn how to play your character better, you only learn to memorize one encounter after another. And you don't even "learn by playing", because in a cooperative multiplayer game anybody less advanced in the learning curve is a burden to everybody else, thus people are expected to already have learned the script through out of game tools like YouTube and Bosskiller sites before even their first attempt.

I observe a growing dissatisfaction of veteran players with the MMORPG genre. And I believe that this is because we are way past the point where we had fun because we learned new skills. And as long as new games don't demand new skills from us, that is not going to change. We will just apply our old skills to the new games, and become bored quicker and quicker with every new game. The whole "cloning successful games" school of game design is a trap, because by cloning successful games you also clone the skills needed to beat those games, and prevent people from having fun by learning new skills.

Out of curiosity, what skills do you suspect MMO developers could start asking of players?

Personally I would like to see more "action oriented" and "skill" (terms meant to describe, not judge) systems like TERA or Guild Wars 2, but I know there are some players that would prefer moving back towards more traditional turn RPG's.
I just don't get the "learning is fun" theory of games.

When learning is good, it's engaging, interesting, providing those periods of time that pass without awareness.

But fun? The part of games that are fun to me is when I'm using a skill unconsciously to success. I spend the time, energy and concentration learning so that I can have fun using that skill to pwn!

Which makes me more likely to have fun at similar games.
From this post, I conclude that we should all be playing chess instead. :) Or we should be reading math books to increase our math skills. How fun!

Actually, I disagree with Koster's theory. I think that's one aspect of fun, out of many aspects.

People are bored with MMO's not because they've max'ed out their skills (maybe the hardcore raiders have, but most people have not), but because there is no more newness to the activity. Doing multiplication worksheets gets boring after you've done them enough.

Ironically, using the example of chess, as you get to higher skill levels, you are forced to study and memorize many openings. And you can't learn them in-game, since there is a timer, and mistakes are fatal. So chess is more like MMO PVE raiding than you think!
I think every new MMO will feature a new world to explore and a different community, so people who enjoy exploration and socialising can still have a lot of fun in them, regardless of how they are as games.
You do not learn how to tank, heal, or dps better by jumping out of the fire, you only learn how to jump out of the fire faster.

Disagree. I think you absolutely do learn how to tank, heal, or dps better by being forced to do it instinctively in order to leave your foreground concentration free to devote to other tasks.

I know that at the times in my WoW-playing that I was actively raid-healing, I was able to run easy content (like a heroic or something) and heal perfectly without paying any significant attention at all, the orders would go straight from my eyes to my fingers without needing any real input from my brain. :-)
@Clockwork - many people feel like you. However, I am the opposite. I would prefer 10 APM game not a 200. If people want a console FPS, it seems to me it will always be real-time advantage for it being on a console.

@Bristal - Bartle has about 30% of the players categorized as "killers" so millions feel like you. I enjoy learning about the game; actually doing it is the rote bits. I am pretty indifferent to whether anybody is "pwnd" This is where I think I differ from Tobold; I see the WoWheads and torheads and blogs as part of "the game" not something distracting me from the game.

I propose that the part that steers the game away from what I enjoy is calling it "skill" not "knowledge". I.e., people who can twitch in FPS and starcraft have skill. Learning specs and rotations and tradeoffs and planning how to get to that point is knowledge. Once I have read up on the tradeoffs and capabilities and optimal methods to get them, the going out and using them is the boring part.

I agree with the "game is a series of interesting decisions." Moving out of fire is not an interesting decisions. i am increasingly less motivated to see whether I can do it in 135 versus 215 milliseconds.

For example, reading up on all the 31 MoP specs and deciding, based upon rotations and utility which one I want to get to 90 first will be fun - what is optimal for me. Learning new spec, new stat weights, new rotation, professions, planning what I need to have ready on launch day will be interesting. Once the game launches, the part of rushing to 90 will hopefully be fun, but probably not as much as the four months of learning leading up to it. One might make the argument that my fun from MoP will decline once the game ships.

Perhaps then the issue is not that traditional MMOs are dead as much as 24 month development cycles are dead. What about a world where you took the Trion development speed to the extreme and you got a smaller version of a WoW release twice a year. Different can distract the customers quite successfully.

My fantasy (I am realistic enough to understand the long odds of it coming out and me playing it and enjoying it) game is now 0x10c. I am so intrigued if I could spend all the time configuring my ship computer and then it went around and executed my strategy, even if I was not logged on.
I'm seriously baffled as to why people care what Koster says about game design. If he nailed down what is fun, I'd assume he would be, you know, making fun games.

Is his argument about "why games are fun" more nuanced than that arbitrary and obviously insular worldview? I've known at least three people personally who would log into WoW, go fishing, and then log out. That constituted their play time. What could they possibly be "learning?" Or is Koster asserting they are not having fun?

It isn't just about the different types of players either, it's about motivations. Mine is some sense of progression: that my character is better off today based on my actions than it was yesterday. Maybe there is some "learning" dimension if its broadly defined, but there is absolutely a therapeutic angle to gaming as well.

I mean, Chess is one thing given it's ever changing PvP nature (which is different from PvE MMOs). But think about why people still play Solitaire. What are they "learning?" Nothing. Koster is wrong.
I agree with Koster on this one to a point. This only applies to a subgroup of players. I would guess that Koster either missed this, or didnt qualify it in the statement. (either is possible with that guy).

Im one of them, and like Hagu, I am more interested in learning the skills, aquiring knowledge etc. The execution is used as a confirmation that the skills have been aquired. And as feedback for what else needs to be learnt.

I dont really give a shit about pwning noobs, or beating x boss in hardmode. These will naturally happen after the aquisition of the right skills/knowledge.
Once there is nothing else to learn Im looking for a new game.

This is probably why I spent so long playing Eve. You can go years in that game and still have things to learn.
(people that say "orbit at 10k and run repper + fire guns" are not at the limit of knowledge for this game).

The obvious example of the reverse would be Rift for me. I had already spent maybe six months or so in WOW.
Playing Rift consisted of working out the slightly different skill system. I lasted about two weeks and cancelled.

There are of course other things in an MMO I enjoy. For example socialising, exploring, pvp etc.
However if the learning process stops, those other things will not keep me very long.

If you think this is a strange way to play just stop for a minute. Ask yourself who you go to for advice in your guild. How do a few people seem to know exactly how to set up a new rotation after a massive adjustment patch? How do some people know exactly what to do to get X equipment without even having done the quests or even having a class that will benefit? Those people play for the learning experience.
A Tale in the Desert is an example of an MMO that requires many skills that most traditional MMO's ignore. Things like influencing people, creating art, creating puzzles, researchin cause-and-effect, and cooperating with others are some examples.

I think that if a new MMO wanted to be groundbreaking and engage traditional MMO veterans it would have to ignore combat and focus on other activities.
Raph's theory of fun has been pretty comprehensively disproved by first WoW and later Farmville. It was, at the time he wrote it, a reasonable description of what the people playing MMOs then found fun. But those early adopters are not like the rest of us.

If you are the type of person who constantly needs challenge then the answer may lie in pvp. Of course it's possible to enjoy challenge without wanting the gloaty one-up-manship of online pvp but few games have reliably provided that. To provide PvE challenge the designers need to put in content that most people can't do. Such as Naxx 40 or Eve's deep null space officer spawns.
Koster is wrong. Look at pvp: learning the skills (getting killed) is not fun. When you are twinked and can rofl-stomp noobs, pvpers enjoy that --- and it takes LESS skill!

Ever play catch? It's fun! Twenty years later, it's still fun! And no learning curve at all.

I think Bartle had a much better idea of how different people found different things fun. Koster is speaking from the point of view of an Achiever in Bartle's terms.
Theoretically, there is an upper limit to your chess knowledge. Naturally, you'd have to do what no super-computer has yet been able to do: solve chess.
I disagree that learning is that important for achiever-type gamers. Instead it's all about rewards. Killing an enemy or completing a quest on the chance that it'll reward you something that you'll find joy in.

And certainly as an explorer-type, I find great enjoyment in simply seeing my %game-completed number go up as I get achievements, do all the quests, get all the collectibles, see all the content. None of which really involves continuous learning.

Learning is fun, clearly. Games like SpaceChem are a solid few hours of ./joygasm, but not all fun is learning. :P

Also, I'd like to see mmo's put more attention on large scale, longer-term systems management, like growing a garden, or building a home. I'd like to see mmo's move _away_ from petty social games and popularity contests as content gates (you must bring X number of friends in order to see this content), and to move away from twitch-based events (get out of the fire) and towards more skill-based content where you actually have to react to what's going on and optimize instead of just spamming your max dps rotation.

I'd say it's not all about rewards - clearly, it's not "all about" just any one thing. :)

IMO it's a combination and like others said, also depends on the type of player. Koster obviously has a point and we can see it in the way MMO boredom is increasing as veterans grow older. there's the novelty factor wearing off and too much of the same.
there's however also 'winning'; some players just want to win all the time, items, pvp battles, achievements. they still get something out of this, long after the concept has become trivial.

I'm not an achiever in the collector sense. once I master things, I get bored of them sooner than later. I'm an explorer, but there's only so much exploration you can do in a limited world.
that will pretty much determine the life-span of every future MMO I am playing: how engaging and novel is the concept and how inviting is the world/setting? there's the social factor too but I'm not of an age anymore where I play the game for others, rather than myself.

I guess in my case Koster's theory comes rather close to the truth.
For myself the gameplay is all about the rewards. However, I get rewarded in a plethora of ways of my choosing in playing WOW. As people previously mentioned someone's playtime can be to log on and go fishing. For me it's learning new profession recipes, crafting to make gold, grinding rep for mounts or achievements, Archeology to kill time in que's, exploration for the heck of it, dungeons for gear, Raids for the challenge and the gear and rolling a new class to 85 to learn how to play everyone of the Heal, Tank and DPS roles.

I can never be bored in WOW. My rewards are only limited by the amount of time I can be on-line playing.
I wonder, what kind of "new skills" could be demanded of players outside of new encounters? I mean, tanking, healing, and dpsing are all rather simple, learned within a week of playing. What could be consistently added within the realm of the player's own skills?

And how is this differentiated from learning new skills within new encounters? Why is learning a new thing each encounter different from learning a new player skill? For me, it isn't different at all. Not to mention, whole gaming genres are made on learning new skills every boss encounter:

Rhythm games
Bullet shooters/Shoot em ups
Most any adventure action game has a new boss gimmick (God of War/Bayonetta/Darksiders are all prominent examples of this)
I read the post earlier today and have been thinking about it for some time. I think you are basically right. But as with everything it is much more complex.

For example in chess I progressed from a class D player through A then expert and finally received my USCF master rating. But I peaked there. The reason was the learning process changed. Early on you learn the game and its fun. Then going up to A/expert/master required memorization of openings, end game and middle game theory. As I was able to dothis I still had fun.

But I peaked because the game changes from memorization and straight logic to spacial and pattern recognition at the IM through GM stages. It became a chore and therefore not fun.

So learning is too simplistic. The learning has to be tied to our strenghts and interests. As others stated learning math may not be fun, but calculus to a physics enthusiats just might be fun to them.

Bottom line is you and Koster might be on the right path but it is much more complex then the simple formula he used.
@Pzychotix re "Why is learning a new thing each encounter different from learning a new player skill?"
For some of us, but not others such as yourself, it is very different. If you buy into learning and progression (acquiring new knowledge and player skills and new levels/skills/gear for the toon), then learning how to make more and bigger fireballs is progressing. Learning how to do a Heigen Dance is essentially irrelevant. Does the level one mage battling Kobolds dream 84 levels later having a pyroblast crit for 100k or knowing ten unique and only used on one boss dances? I am not that into immersion but the dances seem so contrived that I just regard them as irrelevant-to-my-toon time sinks.

If I don't get my toon from 83 to 84 I can never get to 90. But when I eventually level a Panda Monk, it will probably get to 90 doing few if any instances or raids.

No right or wrong- just personal tastes.
Blanket reply:

- There's a whole (researched) book that goes with that statement. It is not as simple as any one sentence summary.

- No, the theory has not been disproven. If anything, it has gotten more widely accepted (and scientifically validated, actually) over time.

- A lot of you seem to think that rote learning is the only form of learning. The book goes into pretty specific detail about the modes of learning that games engage. In particular, it is intuitive learning (fluid intelligence) and pattern recognition. The fun comes from the mastery process in understanding systemic interactions. If you fail to see the pattern, then as Goodmongo describes, it might well stop being fun for you.

- The theory is defining fun specifically, not other sorts of enjoyment that you might get (such as the enjoyment you get from a story, or from visuals). In other researchers' terms, this is called "hard fun" to distinguish it from the sorts that things like fishing evoke (which gets called "easy fun" by Lazzaro... I call it "delight" in the book...)

- The PVP and catch examples are terrible and pretty misapplied. Catch is in fact a game with far MORE statistical variability and therefore pattern variation to master than all of WoW. (And really, people should look into the OCEAN motivations model rather than always going back to Bartle).

Separate blanket reply: For some reason, people always respond with "if he only made something fun, maybe I would believe him." Before writing the book, I made a few games that millions of people found fun and that made a lot of money. I have in fact made a few games that have been enjoyed by a few million people since I wrote the book, too. The fact that they are not games that MMO players tended to play does not mean they didn't, in fact, have a lot of people having fun. So pbbbt. :)
@Hagu: First off, I don't quite believe the any one boss battle's mechanics is completely unique in such a way that anything you learn in during that encounter is unusable anywhere else. The "stay out of the fire" meme is enough to show that lots of bosses share mechanics, just mixed and matched in new ways to produce unique bosses. "Heigan dance" is just another iteration of moving away from the fire, constantly for a minute. This mechanic has been rehashed over and over, with different pixels and graphics, but rehashed none the less.

Secondly, the meat of your post goes on a separate tangent from Tobold's. Different tastes for different people, obviously, but that's sort of why it's up to Tobold to answer back for this. Learning a new level of Pyroblast to hit for 100k instead of 10k is a change in character skill, not a change in player skill.

You might like progression in character skill, but that again is different from player skill. What I'm asking is: what is the difference in increasing basic player skills such as learning dps/tank/heal rotations and other basics, and increasing player skills in learning how to beat an encounter?
Learning is fun. Other things are fun, too. The story behind the MMO. The socialization (be it forced by game design like in EverQuest or required for end game content or whatever). The dynamic nature of PVP. The exploration of the game world.

Unlike Tic Tac Toe, MMOs offer more channels than just raw skill through which to have fun, if you are so inclined.
'Solving chess' (in the sense of being able to analyse every line all the way to the end, and thus never making a losing move and always finding any winning move) would not be the upper limit of chess knowledge. You would still have to learn how to maximally exploit opponents who have not solved chess, by moving into complex tactical or strategic lines, setting traps etc.
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