Tobold's Blog
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.

How about the same solution as used in chess: you have X hours/week to play, no more with one character.

While I can play chess all the time, I can't play the same match all the time.
Seems like game companies are passing on a lot of veterans who would like to pay way over $15 a month. I'm sure sombody smart will soon come up with a game that accesses this market better than heroic raids do.
The other problem is mastery requires 10,000 of meaningful practice. Very little of MMO's is meaningful practice. And you or a mentor needs to find challenges to advance your mastery. So people who play the harder or competitive parts of the game can get better.

But people who expect to get carried or just "hang out" don't get much out of it. But then again, its "just a game". Like chess.
Every round of nerfing in wow serves as a reminder to the hard core crowd that they mean nothing. What took 10 hours of coordinating 25 people before now can be pugged in an hour.

So it begs the question, why do people even bother?
@Nils While this contingent exists, I think the 15 dollar price point is one to optimize revenue. Even if you could attract all the super hardcore gamers at triple the price you would still only be getting about 5-8% of the revenue that you could be making. With high operating and development costs the overhead would kill the company. Economies of scale is hugely important with MMOs

@Bill I was thinking about this too, especially after Tobold's last paragraph. If/when videogames take off as a part of the entertainment/sports industry, then the only players to make any real money will be the best of the best. Playing a game for a long time will only make you so good since much of the game is mindless anyway. There is something to be said about natural talent/ingenuity when playing games. But then again, same goes for baseball, or football, or tennis.
This argument really depends on the assumption that MMORPG's arn't/can't be skill based.

So, can you have a persistent world where skill drives reward? Would you want such a world?

Guild Wars was a hybrid working towards that had skill based content like an esport, but players could still get stuck in treadmills and grind before they had all the tools. Also, the focus on combat and instancing killed the "world" aspect of the game.

Also in terms of skill based games League of Legends did well by dividing players by their abilities and not by hours played!!! If you're going to have a skill based mmo you need a way to give players opponents (human or AI enemies) suited to their skill level. In sports there's an obvious reason club teams don't play the pros. But how can you restrict this in a world that advertises freedom? Not to mention, people want to be able to play around sometimes and not have to maintain their level.
Kinda explains why games that have solved the time/power issue, and use those power players to PROGRESS the game rather than harm it, like EVE, are still succeeding years later, while other games eventually die/go-F2P-and-die.

Sadly most devs are not at the level of CCP, and can't do more than poorly clone the now-shrinking WoW (with the clones dying at a rate far above the originals, with budgets far above the average game).

It's not just players who need time to master things, and WoW being a red herring set us back a few years. Thankfully it looks like SW is the last big 'MMO fad' genre game, and once it crashes the casuals can jump on the next boat, and we can go back to being the niche the genre was intended to be.

I understand what you are saying, but still don't buy the assertion of "intent" for MMOs. Most companies that make games are businesses in capitalist societies. These businesses (especially if they are publicly traded) have one main "intent"... maximize profits. Making the game attractive to a larger demographic will boost profits. If it changes the dynamic of the game from hardcore to casual then so be it. A game can start out one way and then morph into something else.

As to WOW, while Blizzard ultimately failed to please all levels of skilled players in one game, they seem to have done a better job at it than any other company developing MMOs.
So basically you equaled playing MMOs to watching TV. - e.g. a completely useless and worthless activity

While I can probably extend that sentence to "playing games in general" lets concentrate on skill aspect:

Playing something like Counter Strike , Starcraft or League of Legends will improve your skill in those games. They are almost purely skill based games.

Those skills are mostly not transferable . How is that different from MMOs? -you invest 10k hours for something that gives you no skill whatsoever , or you invested 10k hours in something which gives no skill in anything but this game

p.s. I can argue that skill based games train your brains, reflexes ,etc. But really a lot of skill is game specific knowledge not applicable elsewhere ( build orders, animation cancels ,abitlies, etc )
@Degrin: Of course money is always the object, but name a company not called Blizzard that would not trade it's MMO for EVE? Would you rather have the 100m+ budget and casual crowd that plays WAR, or the initial investment amount and playerbase of Darkfall?

Point being, casual focus does not automatically equal more money, and the barrier of entry to compete with WoW is a hell of a lot higher than it is to compete with niche products. Aiming at DF and failing won't bury a company like aiming for WoW and creating WAR.
I play MMOs in exactly the time I used to watch TV.

I refute your contention that "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."

It's worth less.

Mastery of TV watching is an extremely valuable social asset. It will gain you significant prestige among quite a wide range of social contacts and will be of frequent and evident benefit in many social situations.

I have seen a very noticeable decline in these benefits in my own non-gaming life as I have fallen further and further out of mastery in TV watching (I no longer even own a TV). I have not, however, accrued any compensating benefit from my mastery of MMO gameplay because I meet no-one outside the games themselves who even knows what MMOs are, far less plays them.

TV Mastery has numerous real-world applications and is well worth acquiring. MMO gameplay mastery, not so much.
It's interesting to think about the wide distribution of playing times, but I don't agree with you about what the high end of the curve is going to want.

1. Level cap. You suggest that the heavy gamer would want unlimited levels, but I don't see why. Before long everything in the game is just going to disintegrate, and that's no fun. Instead, what works better is what games are already doing: make progression slow down as you approach maximum power. It takes ten times as much effort to go from 90% to 99% as it did to go from 0% to 90%.

2. World PVP. World PVP, at least in Warcraft, is just a boring gankfest. It's the MMO version of instagib. I used to play Warcraft on a PVP server, but I've switched now and would not want to go back.

Instead of these things, what I think the heavy players miss out on are as follows:

1. Exploration. MMOs should be excellent at providing a rich world to go poke around and explore, but the ones I've seen are not as good at this as single-player games. This is a case where the casual guys are making it worse for the heavy gamers.

2. Difficulty. There needs to be at least some option to increase the difficulty of what you are facing.
Brilliant post explaining the old debate. Time played Vs Skill (mastery).

It is such a varied debate. However you nailed a lot of points on the head.

I think Blizzard, with WoW in mind, is making steps towards a balance between the two. Can't be easy though right?

I won't turn this comment into a post XD

- Jamin (New Subscriber)
..Also the above commenter Bill:

"The other problem is mastery requires 10,000 of meaningful practice. Very little of MMO's is meaningful practice. And you or a mentor needs to find challenges to advance your mastery. So people who play the harder or competitive parts of the game can get better."

Holds a brilliant mark I would agree with. Which is how I should see it.

- Jamin
[...] but name a company not called Blizzard that would not trade it's MMO for EVE?

The makers of Aion, Lineage, Runescape, Second Life, Final Fantasy XI, Lord of the Rings, Rift, and Dofus... all of which have more subs than EVE. And those are simply the ones being tracked on I haven't been able to find decent revenue numbers, but it is likely that revenue would be a better metric anyway - flashes in the pan could arguably be more profitable than a slow burn of <350k subs for years.
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