Tobold's Blog
Thursday, October 17, 2013
Skills and flow in MMORPGs

There has been some interesting discussion of skill in MMORPGs in the blogosphere lately. Bhagpuss quite correctly states that even a supposedly "easy" game like World of Warcraft isn't all that obvious to play for a completely new player, and requires some skills: "you do need to be both literate and able to interpret poor or partial instructions because most MMOs require you not only to read a lot but also to read between the lines. A good sense of direction, a good visual memory and some better-than-basic map-reading skills are important, too.". Jeromai talks about the fact that games are repetitive, that repetition improves our skills, and that "flow" results from our skill level being matched by the challenge level of the game.

If you believe that a game is most fun if it meets your high skill level with a high challenge, then obviously games should be designed that the actions of a player in the game first increase his skill level, and then lead to a higher challenge. And in my opinion that is often exactly where MMORPGs fail: There are countless examples where a MMORPG gives a player a new, better piece of gear for an activity that did not require more than the most basic skills. If today you gather Timeless Coins in World of Warcraft, it is unlikely that the activity increases your skill level, because it is far too trivial for somebody who has already reached the level cap and thus more than proved that he possesses the basic skills. At the same time the activity rewards you with better gear, and better gear *decreases* any future challenge.

In the best case scenario the MMORPG has content which is too difficult for you, and doing the trivial task with the epic reward decreases that challenge towards the point where it fits your need. But as individual skill levels of player vary widely, the designers can't be sure of that. There must be as many cases where a player already has the gear which would make some challenge for him just right, and giving him additional epics for trivial tasks will just make that other challenge too easy for him. As it was often remarked that players have a tendency to "minmax the fun out of a game", you can't rely on players to use the easy-to-get epics only to adjust challenge levels for maximum fun. Quite often players will go for the best gear first, and worry about challenge later, when they have already overshot the target.

Where it gets really tricky is when the skill required isn't individual but requires a group of people to coordinate. So now you get 10 or more people with different individual skills and different gear, thus different individual challenge levels, trying to practice a collaborative challenge. That is obviously fraught with peril of things going wrong and causing guild drama. And the chance of all participants arriving at a common state of flow are slim, even if it *is* great if they get there ( everybody's best guild memories ). So ultimately, while there are moments in MMORPGs which are about skill and reaching flow, in general the genre isn't all that good at getting players there.

I think you already refuted your own argument, in that a player with "too good" of gear isn't necessarily hurting themselves since they're likely going to be using said gear is a group environment where the extra margin makes up for weaker member performance.

The other dimension is that I feel it's unrealistic to expect a MMO to be capable of providing a consistently high level of challenge to everyone. Sometimes you just want to relax, or feel productive in completing routine tasks. Dailies might not be fun on their own, but typically neither are any journey you undertake - the fun usually only manifests at the end, when you come to realize that the destination wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
You're making a pretty huge leap from 'should lead to a higher challenge' to 'should give better rewards for doing more challenging things'. That mostly isn't the way mmo's work.

Power rewards like gear upgrades are acquired mostly with time spent playing the game, not with accomplishments within the game. Anything you do gets you gold or points or something that demonstrates an improved situation from playing. This is one of the essential differences between MMORPG's and other online games, that continued play makes your character better. You don't go into a new play session cold, like in an online shooter, instead there's progression.

Rewards from challenges are typically cosmetic. Whether it's a fancy title, a spiffy looking new mount, sexy looking armor, or gleaming shoulderpads, the reward is typically something the demonstrates you overcame the challenge, not something that directly improves your play.

I'd disagree that gear progression takes away challenge from a game. In the game I play, a challenging activity is to try to solo a champion mob. When you don't have high enough gear, you cannot solo the champ (unless you're really good and better than I am). As your gear improves it becomes possible and worth attempting. You work at it, becoming more skilled, until you succeed and kill that champ. If your gear continues to improve then yes, that one champ will be even easier to kill. But you're also moving even more other champions into the 'possible and worth attempting' status. No matter how much your gear improves you're never going to be able to solo _everything_, so there's an ever widening set of challenging champion fights always at the edge of your gear progression.

Even WoW has challenge mode dungeons, even if they're not very popular. If you're simply annoyed that other players don't seem to be interested in doing challenges and instead just pursue gear progression for the sake of gear progression, well more power to them. Other people can play however they want; it doesn't lessen your own pride in overcoming challenges. Forcing people to do more challenging stuff by hiding the best rewards behind them just forces players to do stuff they'd really rather not be doing, which is generally not a very good idea in a game.
I don't think most MMOs are about challenging the player. Most are "submission" games, or "game as pastime". It's the game you play when you are mentally drained. You don't want to think much. You just want to put some time in and have a sense of progress. The quoted terms come from an interesting paper I read a few years ago called "MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research".


Of course, MMOs have many different types of gameplay. Some of it like Challenge Dungeons in WoW are meant to be a constant challenge, though the vast majority of gameplay activities in WoW fit into the "submission" category.
I think there is a large gap between the level of challenge that players SAY they want, and the level of challenge they almost always choose in practice. To be frank, I think they are lying (perhaps even lying to themselves), and what they really enjoy is not particularly challenging.

I think this relates to why players love "gearing up" (and leveling up) so much. The "challenge" is established as something acknowledged to be difficult. Then the player gathers enough gear until the challenge is now easy. The result is that the player is now able to easily complete something they perceive (or think others perceive) as difficult.
mmorpg's are ironically literate solitare these days.

I do not consider patience a skill, but rather a virtue.

So mmorpg's are games for virtuous loners?
Samus said: "The "challenge" is established as something acknowledged to be difficult. Then the player gathers enough gear until the challenge is now easy."

To be fair, this is a trope of many relatively hard-core genres. In roguelikes, for example, it is recognised that there is some pleasure in meeting those spiders that tormented you at a low level, and finding out that they have become "windshield mobs" [i.e. you hold the move button down and slaughter them in their dozens, it's the real-time experience in a roguelike!]
There are countless examples where a MMORPG gives a player a new, better piece of gear for an activity that did not require more than the most basic skills.

And? I don't see the link between this and what you write above.
The game must provide activities that match the player's skill level, but if the fun is intrinsic then there's no need for a reward and/or the reward is irrelevant. You're falling in the same trap: if the reward is the activity itself, then "easy epic gear" is not the problem: whatever the advancement a player will look for an appropriate challenge. If it's the case then the best is to provide ways to have as many players as possible with the same advancement, so that it's easier to form same-skill groups (or better, same-challenge groups).

BTW guild drama happens in *all* group activities, it's just not called guild drama....
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