Sunday, March 22, 2009

Time Investment as a Resource

Since becoming a twitter addict I've found myself getting back in touch with a handful of excellent humans I know from the online gaming who I've lost touch with over the last couple of years. My obsession shifted from online games to online poker and with that all the mental energy I used to expend thinking deeply about game design and concepts was spent contemplating poker related topics.

Twincannon was one guy in particular I really enjoyed discussing game design with. I met him during my time as project lead on the Half-Life 2 cyberpunk mod Dystopia. He joined the team as a level designer and quickly proved that he thought quite deeply about gameplay, design and flow. A post over on his blog titled Time Investment as a Resource has just spurred me into a train of thought I felt I could share here.

His thoughts that skill should be the measure of how good you are at a game mirror my own. As he explains, its this reason that MMO's generally don't appeal to me. The underlying 'level up' design means that a battle between to players has less to do with the skill diference and more to do with the level of the characters. Essentially players are rewarded for playing longer (and paying more, which makes it a great business model) rather than playing better.

Now obviously this is a fairly shallow mindset to hold, since increasing your ability in a highly skill based game such as Quake or Starcraft comes about mostly from practice. To anyone except someone who over thinks game design the difference between the two is undefinable.

Twincannon wraps up this section of his post with this:

After thinking about how many hours a lot of top tournament players will spend practicing a day in their chosen game, it seems a bit strange to keep my prejudice against the MMO system of skill gain. At the end of the day, what is the difference between a Starcraft player spending 12 hours a day practicing a match-up, versus an MMO player spending 12 hours a day to advance his character? If your character still requires out-of-game skill and knowledge to be played better in the latter system after he is “capped” (you are no longer able to expend time to advance his in-game skills), how is it any different to the former game?

I can definitely see that MMO character advancement is simply a system which amplifies the time = skill progression process, with a number of major benefits. These include:

  • Acting as a time release function to allow players access to deeper parts of the gameplay as they progress along the skill curve.
  • Being a forced advancement mechanism for players who aren't actively focused on increasing their skill at playing the game.
  • Makes it easy to seperate newbs from highly skilled players

This side steps the issues of casual gamer newbs remaining skillless suckers who's game experience boils down to being cannon fodder for the hardcore. While the hardcore get bored once they feel they've clocked the skill curve.

Still, MMO's are stupid time sinks and I'm glad I got addicted to poker rather than WoW :)