Skills and flow in MMORPGs
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 October 2013, 11:03 am
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.
Tobold's Blog

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