I read this article about ingame intelligence gathering in Eve recently and it made me think once again of the question of skill in games. As games become more complex and more realistic (not just graphically but in the way that they allow complex interactions between different players and environments), so we need to reassess our previously held benchmarks for player skill or game difficulty.
Back in the old days skill was very easy to measure. In a game such as Space Invaders or Pacman whoever had the reflexes, muscle memory and hand-eye co-ordination to rack up the highest score had the most skill. Pretty straightforward stuff. Everyone starts off with the same baseline against a constant opponent, the highest score on the board was the guy who could play the best. Add in more options and a PvP element however and it becomes less clear cut. If you can beat Raiden with Sub Zero every time does that mean you are better at Mortal Kombat then me, does it just mean you’re more proficient with that particular character than I am with mine or does it mean that Sub Zero needs a big fat nerf?
Fast forward a few generations of computer games until we reach the current crop of MMOs. Now you have a complex system where the game takes place on many levels. There’s playing your character in the raw mechanics of casting spells, attacking monsters etc and then there are all the nested metagames on top of that. So now we have many more ways of playing the game and different ways in which we can be considered to have ‘won’. The Mittani in the article linked above may or may not be a twitch gamer, his character skills may or may not suck, he may still be flying an Ibis with civilian modules and it’s possible that he might not be very good at hitting the right buttons in the right order or, then again, maybe he isn’t – but the important thing is that he is good at Eve regardless of his personal skill at actually operating his vessel in the game.
In other areas too there are opportunities for skill to manifest in different ways. If I can persuade 40 friends to raid a dungeon for me and give me the uber loot that comes from there and you cant, then I’ve outskilled you. My social skillz pwn yours. If I bring 20 friends to combat your 5 or 6 consistently then my tactical planning skills are superior to yours regardless of how good I am at playing my character.
At the moment skill based MMOs are the hot topic. I wonder when the twitch gamers will realise that all MMOs already are skill based?