Monday, January 4, 2010

Why is World of Warcraft Easy?

World of Warcraft’s vaunted dungeon-finder has left some players surprised at how often they can successfully run pick-up groups through dungeons. Perhaps the average player isn’t as awful at the PvE game as everyone seems to think?

Or maybe themepark MMOs’ PvE don’t have that much skill involved. Maybe a few awful experiences have been entirely blown out of proportion into a general feeling that WoW players are unskilled dolts who can’t tie their own in-game shoes. Now that people are exposed to PUGing much more often, the outliers can’t muscle the thousands of successful runs out of people’s memories as easily.

I wager that the average skill of a WoW player is indeed low, but the required level of skill to run even end-game group content in the game is also quite low. Being a passable player is more about not actively being an idiot—it’s not so much about excelling.

With this dungeon-finder discussion pinging around the MMO blogverse, I see a great opportunity to seriously talk about skill in themepark MMOs, especially WoW: what skill is, how we measure it, and why we should care about it.

What is Skill?

Elements of skill:

  • Motor skills. Your ability to control your character accurately.
  • Planning. Your ability to quickly put together plans of in-game actions that will accomplish some goal.
  • Knowledge. All the known details on which your plans are based. This can also consist of actual memorized plans.

These three do not all increase at the same rate. Generally a great player will be good at all three of them, but you’ll see players at varying stages of each as you play a game. Some people are great at learning about the elements of a game and coming up with effective plans, but lack the motor skill to execute those plans when time is of the essence. Some people are terrible at planning but can pull out of tight situations by being significantly faster to act than their opponent. Yet others know minute details about the game system but haven’t played enough to develop an on-the-fly planning ability nor the motor skills necessary to be a top-tier player.

Measuring Skill

The most intuitive definition of skill in an MMO is the effective difference between the chance of an experienced player accomplishing the same goals as a new player given the same initial conditions. As this difference approaches zero, the game has less skill.

This metric falls apart for games that are meant to be easy; we need to broaden that definition because we understand skill as more than simply being successful—it also can mean being most efficient. Skill’s effect on a game can be determined by finding the difference in rewards between a complete beginner, the average player, and an expert.

Player skill in an MMO can only be measured in the effectiveness of that player’s manipulation of her characters in the game world. To measure effectiveness, we must find some game system that provides a meterstick against which we can judge successful play. Perhaps the approval of the player’s friends could be such a meterstick, but that is very hard to quantify and, like any scenario where you rely on the whims of others, is subject to instant and irrational change. The simplest way to measure character success is to measure rewards received. This works on the assumption that the game will reward the player more for playing well—notice that it says nothing about the amount of rewards for playing poorly, this metric is about the difference between the reward for success in a given scenario and the reward for failure.

Perhaps we’re chasing our tail here, though, because I was trying to define success and now I’m saying that we need to measure reward differences between success and failure. I don’t have to define success here: games provide basic units of success for their players through their goal generation systems. Goal generation systems are how games tell the player what to do. Completing the goals  as given by the game is a basic indication of success. Themepark MMOs generate goals for players by giving them quests (or tasks or achievements) and rewarding the player for quest completion. This does not mean that players cannot generate their own goals—such goal generation would be intrinsic (sourced at the player) whereas here we’re talking about the extrinsic (sourced at the game).  

All mechanics-related rewards in MMOs result in the successful character growing. Quests give characters experience—the most obvious form of growth—but also grant money and items with which to progress the character’s gear. Even unlocking new quests is a reward that leads to more rewards that can cause character growth.

Character power can also be seen as a function of skill. A player’s skill in MMOs dictates the speed of her character’s growth. A player’s skill in MMOs is directly related to her ability to grow a character as quickly as possible. This includes knowledge of what quests are where and the best ways to complete those quests as to maximize growth. Maximizing growth is equivalent, then, to maximizing reward. Skilled players maximize rewards.

Notice that skilled players grow faster; they don’t necessarily reach parts of the game that an average player cannot. Over time, their rewards will be the same, even though the expert knows significantly more about the game and is much better at planning and executing those plans.

In WoW, Success is a Matter of Time

What’s the difference between an average player and a WoW expert, then? It’s a matter of time. Both players can reach max level. Both players can get through dungeons without much trouble, though the expert will probably be a bit more frustrated as she attempts to lead her group of less-skilled players. Even the hardest dungeons can be overcome by an average player. It will simply take them more time because they’ll need to have better equipment which takes them longer to gain than the skilled player.

Because characters in WoW advance from being played at all, not necessarily from being played skillfully, any achievement is only a matter of time. Character advancement is dominated by time-spent—skillful play only marginally decreases that time.

Sufficiency vs. Efficiency

Skill in games has traditionally been a measure of sufficiency. The player is supposed to beat his head against a part of a game until he gains sufficient skill to advance to the next part. Advancing means facing more difficult challenges—maybe these challenges require mastering new abilities, or maybe they simply are less forgiving and require more precision from the player.

You may never see most of the content in game based on skill sufficiency. You may simply lack the physical or mental capacity to advance beyond a certain point in the game.

As gaming has become more mainstream, big-money games have moved away from exclusionary sufficiency-based advancement. Now most players can make it through games easily. The skill challenges have moved to efficiency. How fast can you beat a level? Under what odd constraints can you beat this level? The content has opened up to more players and made more than a modicum of skill unnecessary to get the full experience.

Likewise, skill in WoW is a measure of efficiency, not sufficiency.

This means that more players can have more fun. In a game that relies on large population numbers, you want the sufficiency bar to be very low so that everyone can play together. If sufficiency is rare, then the community stratifies according to skill, which makes it seem much smaller. If everyone can do most of the content and some of that content relies on a grouping, the game is more fun for most players.

WoW is easy for a good reason—players shocked at the success of dungeon-finder PUGs are finally realizing this.


pxib said...

I think the most difficult part of forming groups in World of Warcraft (and other non-instanced games) had been keeping a group patient and interested for the time required to corral five of them. A bad experience after an hour of tedious bargaining sticks in the brain more readily than a bad experience after an instantaneous "pop".

Battlegrounds have apparently experienced much the same transformation.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

A lot of MMO games are simply juvenile power fantasies made manifest. In WoW, I can be heralded as a hero and perseverance is really all that is needed to succeed. It's an intoxicating rush that appeals to the part of us that never advanced beyond the teenage years. It also appeals to people who find their daily life a bit too complicated, so they appreciate having a lot more control in the game.

The other problem is that very few people are really skillful. As the old joke goes, about 50% of the people are below average. Catering to that group with lower ability means getting bigger numbers than others did. (Of course, people don't like to be reminded that they lack ability, so you get people lashing out at statements like this.) People who want games to challenge them have to accept that this is a niche interest.

Mig said...

You should also include social skills. MMO’s used to require large groups of people to achieve end game objectives. By reducing the number of people required to raid and get high end gear from 40 to 25 to 10 WoW has continuously nerfed the need to have any kind of social skill. Now with the new cross server LFG system you can be a complete social retard and still get into group content.