Tobold's Blog
Thursday, February 11, 2010
How many hours to competence?

I can already see the snarky remarks from some elitists saying that most players never reach competence level, but I'd be interested in hearing your estimates of how many hours a new player has to spend before being basically competent with his class. The reason I'm asking is that in yesterday's discussion about people buying their way to the top the old myth popped up again, of the player who spent a fortune on buying a character and then didn't know how to use him. I do think this is a caricature, and conveniently forgets to mention some important facts.

If I look at any given character at the very top of any given MMORPG, and consider how he did spend his time in game, I would say there are three distinctive types of time spent: 1) Time actually learning to play your character. 2) Time spent learning a specific environment, like a raid boss encounter. 3) Time spent not learning anything. And I have a strong suspicion that the third category takes up the majority of our time.

Face it, playing a MMORPG is not rocket science. You don't need thousands of hours of training before being able to play a character, or being able to control a ship in a virtual world. Even a commercial airline pilot only needs 1,200 flight hours to be allowed to steer an airplane full of people, it is silly to assume that doing anything in a MMORPG could be more complicated than that. MMORPGs sometimes have issues on how to get your training, like for example the fact that you can't train healing and tanking roles if you aren't in a group. But in general I would say that you can learn to do anything to reasonable competence level in a MMORPG given a few hundred hours of training, and the motivation to do so. Some people are missing that motivation, and aren't even trying, but that isn't a problem of the activity itself being too complex to understand.

As learning is presumably fun, MMORPGs can get around the problem of people getting bored after having fully understood their class by creating specific situations, like raid boss encounters, which require players to learn specific moves to beat that encounter. Thus "raiding is hard", not necessarily because a player can't play his class, but because he has to learn playing his class while hopping on his left leg, jumping between platforms, or out of a fire every two seconds.

But more importantly players are being motivated by rewards, so to get to the next level, or the next shiny piece of gear, they are willing to kill the same monster a hundred times or more, even if that obviously isn't a learning experience at all any more, a.k.a. the grind. Games that don't have quests or xp forcing you to kill all those monsters have other repetitive grind elements for rewards. Because we want our MMORPGs to keep us busy for thousands of hours, but no game is *that* complicated that all of these hours could be spent learning.

So, for whatever game you are currently playing, and not counting time spent grinding while "leveling up", how many hours did it take you to become competent in playing whatever you are?
It's not hours, it's inclination.

Someone with no inclination to become 'competant' can spend thousands of hours logged in and not get any better.
For me, it's not about the number of hours played but the number of times I was challenged. I haven't gotten actually good at playing most of my various alts while I was breezing through the normal content. Sure, I could get basic rotations down, but that's just spamming a few buttons until the mob is dead. It's only challenging content that has made me use all the features of the class and learn to use them at the right time or die.

I think this is why hunters and death knights are the classes most people think of as being "stupid" when played. Hunters are easy to level because you're carrying around your own tank. Death knights are powerful and flexible and have a ton of tricks. With both characters, I was regularly doing 2 person quests and doing quests that were a number of levels higher than my character. These were quests that on a similarly leveled shaman, I simply could not accomplish.

Since these two classes are not challenged, you don't have to get good. You can just let the power of your class carry you though.

As for the specific question of "How many hours to competence?", I don't think it can be answered with a single number. First, you have to define what you're competent for? Leveling? Heroics? Raids?

If you mean simply basic competence with the class abilities, I'd say the 20 hours of played time that you probably need to level should be sufficient. If you mean understanding the tricks and intricacies of your class, then I think some people will get it within that same time and some people will never get it no matter how long they play. The ability and willingness of people to learn is just too varied.
Offhand, I'd guess 50-100 raids at 3-4 hours/raid. So call it 75*3.5, about = 250 hours.

Let me also say I've spent more than that amount of time in battlegrounds + arena + Wintergrasp and still am bad at PvP. I never found a good framework to learn it. So I think inherently PvP is much harder than raiding.
I would say 'not many' for, say, EQ2 and Lotro (two games I play off and on), because really, it's not a difficult skillset.

I would, except ... whenever I take a break and come back after a few months, my character's set of abilities are a dizzying, daunting array of cryptic icons. I've forgotten the little things like 'if you stun of some sort before this move, all 5 hits are guaranteed to land'. I don't remember what I can safely handle. I can still 1-9 through most battles, but it feels like I'm doing it wrong.

Unfortunately my solution is generally to roll up an alt, which I can gradually get into again. So as a wild guess ... 5-10 hours?
But in general I would say that you can learn to do anything to reasonable competence level in a MMORPG given a few hundred hours of training, and the motivation to do so.

And it's far less than that if you've played a similar MMO before. In games like LotRO, Runes of Magic, and Allods, the classes and skills are so similar to WoW's that you really only spend a handful of hours mastering the new skillsets. That's one more reason to get rid of long level grinds. ;)
That depends. As you have written, different players spend different amounts of time on different activities.

If you spend time only on developing your skills, you probably need a few weeks - and that's just your brain that needs the time to automate certain tasks.

To gain a complete theoretical understanding could take a week of very hard studying.

From my experience: From purely playing I need about half a year of serious playing and about two years of less serious playing.

To argue that all players who buy ISK in EVE and fly in big ships are incapable and just finance the others' playing time is wrong.

What's right is that some of them do this and the human mind often generalizes where it shouldn't.
It's not a matter of time, it's more a matter of... I don't know, willingness, or intelligence.

Simple question: How do you explain the full T9 geared people doing <2k dps in heroics then?
I have a hard time answering this because I've never reached the grind you describe; on every encounter, I'm always learning and always striving for improvement. If I manage to do more DPS on a given fight than I did the last instance, then I improved and presumably learned something new about how to better maximize my DPS potential. I'm always iterating on my understanding of my main's class mechanics and how they can be best utilized during particular encounters.

So what then is competence? The question, to me, is not well-defined. Your larger question about time seems to presume that competence is a fixed value that for different players can take different time to achieve. I see player skill as an open interval of possible values with competence lying somewhere between the limits. However, where competence lies along that spectrum is as subjective as the time to achieve it.

Perhaps there exists a well-defined metric of "competence with class A in encounter X." However, I think any proposal along those lines would immediately lead to disagreements, disagreements that support the observation that competence isn't some fixed ideal.
I used to think it was a matter of time.
However as an ex-RL of a social guild, who ran Naxxaramas a million times, I can honestly say that there is a proportion of all players that will never learn to not stand in the fire.

Players will a good grasp of class mechanics (how do they gain/lose threat? what is the optimum DPS/HPS priority list? when to blow CDs?) about 10 hours' play should do it.
How do you explain the full T9 geared people doing <2k dps in heroics then?

I think some of use are better at challenging themselves than others. When I play a dps class, I have Recount running, and check how much dps I do, and think about how I could improve my dps. But I'm sure some people just run through heroics without damage meters, and without caring, for the simple reason that they don't NEED to care. They know they will succeed finishing that heroic and getting their emblems with <2k of dps, so they can't be bothered to try to do more.

First, you have to define what you're competent for? Leveling? Heroics? Raids?

The problem with raids is that it is sometimes hard to separate the general challenge of raiding from the specific challenge of a specific boss encounter. This week I joined a guild raid to ToC, which we cleared in good time. So then we went to kill Instructor Razuvious in Naxxramas for the weekly raid quest, where we wiped several times before succeeding. You'd think that somebody competent enough for ToC would have no problem with Naxx, but none of us had been to Naxx for months, so people had simply forgot the specifics of the how to tank Razuvious with the two mind-controlled tanks, having the aggro always on the one with the shield wall up, and releasing / re-controlling them at the right time.
This is incredibly hard to measure, considering that focused learning sessions rarely happen in MMORPGs. I'd say about 20-30 hours at most, spread over thousands of hours.

One of the problems is that learning is somewhat compartmentalized. Everyone learns the same UI, but after that learning diverges. Tanks don't know how healers work, and DPS doesn't know how tanks work. Knowing how to solo monsters doesn't help much in an instance, nor does 5-man experience completely prepare you for raids. And no amount of raid experience will prepare the player for a situation where old game mechanics are completely thrown out and replaced with vehicle mechanics, for example.

What we need is content designed in a way that new lessons are based on what the player learnt before. Learning the talent trees works fine because the player has mastered the old talents before he gains access to a new one. In addition, there needs to be some cross-pollination between alternate paths. For example, a tank could have a quest where he works together with a healer, being able to see how working together makes both of them more effective.
Its not the pure trainingtime that takes so much time, its getting the right mindset. With thousands of hours of healing experience from my priest it took me about 6-9 hours to become competent with my tree-twink. Basically I just had to read the class up and do about 2-3 instances as training. After that came the gear grinding and later on I had two additional hours of learning with a particulary bad group in Halls of Reflection heroic.
But imho the really hard part about becoming compentent is getting into the mindset of "I damn have to be good with this and no amount of work is too much". Getting into that mindset took the better part of two years raiding. Today I shudder at the thought but back then my T2-gear was not fully enchanted. I knew the enchants, I knew how to get them, but I usually enchanted only some key pieces because I simply considered the other enchants not too terribly important, so I simply skipped them. It wasn't until TBC that I accepted that even if those enchants boosted my stats only marginally they all together provided a considerable boost and that one little missing enchant might someday be the difference between "We barely made it" and "That boss wiped the floor with us".

I once tried to bypass all this time with a new recruit to our raid. We told her what buttons to press in what situation, what to look for, what kind of gear she needed, she got her enchants.. and she did well. In about 2 days she literally went from zero to hero. However, it didn't last. The usual reason why most people start raiding is that they ran out of other enjoyable content and of course epics (this was before they were handed out like candy). It takes a hell of a time until a player realises that epics come and go, but fun and good memories stay. Nearly all of us started raiding while drooling after purples and it isn't until that state is over that I consider someone a good player. That girl we forced to be competent stopped raiding a short time after she had a full epic set. Nevermind that there were stronger epics waiting, nevermind that epics are just a tool, she had what she wanted, nothing more to drool after, so she stopped playing that character altogether and switched to the next. Lesson: Being a good raider takes more than just knowing what buttons to push.
Face it, playing a MMORPG is not rocket science. You don't need thousands of hours of training before being able to play a character

Learning the character is hardly the most important part.

For example:

I also like FPS games, like COD:MW. To be able to learn your character there takes 5 minutes max. WSAD = move, space = jump, ctrl/z duck, mouse is aim, mouse buttons are fire/zoom/grenade. 1-5 is choose weapon.

There, that's all you need to know.

Now, for the playing part, that can easily take weeks of practice before you can even get into the top 3 on a match with average players, assuming you've got a decent bit of intelligence (it's all about tactics) and decent eye-hand coordination.

I used an FPS as example because it's the best way to show that how learning the characters ~= learning the game.

Few important factors:

1. Is there someone who can teach, and is the player willing to learn.
2. What is the players' goal: being the best, or just rewards (challenge vs trophy, or as some like to see it: anti- vs social :)).
3. What's his/her capability limit (some just can't and never will).
4. What is the role. Or better yet: what is "competence". Let's face it, straight up DPS is never as hard as healing, or tanking.

Anyway, if learning anything could be put to fixed hours, there would be no way to explain different levels of schools.
I've been playing Eve for a couple of weeks now, did all tutorials, and I still feel like a complete noob for most parts of the game. I'll be joining the Eve university corp so I can start to learn to play the game better.
For the most part people are oversimplifying the concept of learning in the responses.

There are so many microskills that work together to decide whether you are skilled at playing your class.

Many of these you learn from other games or other scenarios. Many people learned to not stand in dangerous hazards back in Mario games.

How long does it take to be competent at your class? The correct answer is "How many microskills have you yet to learn to reach what you gauge as competent?"
It really comes down to motivation. The player has to want to get better, and I think most people who play WoW don't care about being better; they just want better items.

As for competence I honestly feel it is possible to go from no knowledge of a class to a functional group member in 2 hours. This is assuming experience with the game it's self, and not the class.

I'm a person of average intelligence. In EQ I was given a level 55 Enchanter which I had never played before, I had leveled a Necromancer to 55 solo. I joined a group and figured out how to play the class without wiping us with in an hour. I was by no means an expert, but I was functional.

When I first started playing WoW some friends let me play a 60 Resto shaman. After 2 hours I was dropping totems and healing most of our group in BGs successfully.

The problem is most people don't DESIRE to get better.
That is such a hard an variable question.

To take my experience in WoW, coming straight to it from 5 years of EQ, as a warrior, I think there was less than 8-10 hours of learning how to tank in WoW. A little bit of time was spent learning how WoW's specific abilities worked in the paradigm of tank/healer/DPS. I couldn't tell you how long it was to learn in EQ--it was 10, er 11 years ago that I started that grind.

But not long after launch I got to watch a smart woman take up WoW as her first MMO. The domain of knowledge that I brought to WoW, or even EQ, was huge--right down to integrating basic ideas of movement and looting.

If your starting point is this is a computer game, you're probably looking at 100s of hours to competence.
I don't know if it can be measured in hours, for most MMOs you really need to study outside of the game in order to become competant enough where people don't regret inviting you to their group.

My friend is not so great in WoW, but he kicks my but in FPS and racing and most other games. I think because those other games mainly only require playing in order to be competant, while wow requires study.
I would say it requires a few hours of dedication to get to a point you are somewhat credible.

I have been healing in raids with my shaman for the past 5 years or so, so in the end I cannot really say how many hours it took me.

On the other hand, I also have a secondary Elem spec that I only use when required for raid composition, and I wanted to be somewhat competitive instead of a burden to the raid.

It took me... maybe 1 or 2 hours to get the right PVE template/glyph/concepts from Elitist Jerks and the like, then I asked for advice from good guildmates (1 hour? I'm a bit dumb), then tested against the boss dummy (30 minutes or so), then ran a few heroics as DPS (2 hours in all), then measured myself in easy raid settings.

I do not feel I am fully competitive as DPS as I am in heal spec, but I know where I stand... maybe 5 hours?

Really there is so many things to take into account.

Myself I read a lot. Magazines, online (wowhead,elitist jerks,etc)and build talent trees from ever class. Why? because I want to learnnot only my class but other classes so I know what they are doing during raiding or pvp. Having many Alts also give me an insight of whats going on.
So even though I might spend a less time on a main but I spend a ton of time researching and playing alts. In general it makes me a better player.
I think its really sad when player get into their 70's and still dont know how to spec or gear.
Time is also an issue when it comes to respecing. So you have a warrior thats been speced for arms for 2 years, then he specs prot. He will still understand it, but will take a while to get competent enough to tank raids.
Blizz has also made gear so easy to get that it makes people geared for runs that they dont have the experience for.
I think moonmonster said it best: MMOs seem really simple; at their core, it's easy to be good enough to make progress. In most games I can switch between multiple alts and have them "play the same" just by ensuring that similar abilities are on the same hotkeys from character to character.

But that doesn't necessarily translate into "competence." Personally, I judge my competence with a character based on how well I can use him to solo "group" content or "red/orange" content. And that level of competence requires in-depth knowledge of the strength, weaknesses, and behavior of the enemies, as well as an understanding of the nuances of different skills (learning which ones work as advertised, which ones are broken), and so on.

Hence why, whenever I resusbscribe to EQ2 or return after a break from LotRO, I always start with one of my low-level alts and play that until I remember how the "world" works, then take my higher-level characters through easy content until I remember how each "class" works. And the number of hours involved can vary wildly depending on the game and character.
In Re: "The reason I'm asking is that in yesterday's discussion about people buying their way to the top the old myth popped up again, of the player who spent a fortune on buying a character and then didn't know how to use him."

It's actually not a myth, although it is probably not as common as some would make it out to be. I actually ran into a level 70 when I was playing BC that was asking all sorts of basic functional questions like "How do I check my mail?" I'm not kidding. He wanted to know how to get his mail. Level 70. It does actually happen.

As for competency. Blizzard defined it themselves as "Easy to learn. Hard to Master." At this point you have to ask what competence is.

Competence is defined by the task in question. Killing your first wolf in WoW or sending your first item through the mail requires mere minutes to reach competency. Slaying Arthas, requres substantially more. In the end, competency just means, "can you do the job?"

Mastery, on the other hand is much harder to nail down. Mastery is, "Can you exceeed the requirements of the job?" You don't just kill that wolf, you do it in record time and without taking a scratch.

I think Competency and Mastery are often confused when people talk about these games.
They say the key to any successful game is to make it easy to learn, but difficult to master. I think WoW has that balance. It truly is easy to play wow on a semi-basic level. The point of leveling is to do just that.

It isn't as if, when wow was launched, Blizzard artibitrarily chose 60 levels or, how much XP was needed per level, or how much XP given from mobs/quests. Blizzard had a formula that they decided "this is a pace at which players will learn to play their class decently" not expert, but decently. Skills/abilities unlocking as you progress is an example of this as well.

Players want to feel like their time invested is worth something, whether it be physical, (an object to show for their efforts) emotional, or even social (acceptance among peers). I'm not going to go all Nihilist Gevlon here, but many people want to be respected by their peers.

Compounding the above, players can often find themselves living in bubbles, unaware of other classes, and thus becoming ignorant to the notion their class isn't special after all.

I remember several years ago arguing on the WoW forums for things we have today: starting classes at lvl 55 (DKs), as well as allowing dual specs (I originally proposed a 24 hour cooldown). I wasn't just laughed at, I was threatened to be burnned at the stake. These things have happened, and maybe they have contributed to players not knowing their classes well, but I'd argue the original "balance" of leveling has been destroyed to cater to speed levelers.

Nerfing elites to regular mobs, reducing required XP per level multiple times, Heirlooms, Recruit a friend, etc. All are examples of the leveling balance being removed.
Competency only lasted until I changed build. then I had to learn a new set of rules.

Since wow skills have ranks, rank 1 skills give you reasonable competency of what to do with them fairly early on. Once you have a build, nothing much changes.

whereas in ffxi, skills dont have ranks you get few as you go along. classes tend to have gotten their most important skills by around level 41. Competency in this is a much more gradual learning curve.

It's also the reason why getting back into wow after a year off is easy. getting back in xi is tough because you don't have the opportunity to re-live the learning curve.
Inclination > time, like Callan S. mentioned.
I've been playing on and off since 2005 and I'm still learning things; I like coasting on my self-imposed ignorance (playing a hunter is relaxing, with moments of challenge, i.e. when CC is called for; getting rusty at that), but occasionally challenge myself to break from it, apply myself, and learn something new.

When I want to tweak my neurons, I play Men of War. That's a great save/reload/save/reload experience to "solve the puzzle", and it is a good one.
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