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Time and Skill from Scientific American

When I wrote that opinion piece for gamasutra about World of Warcraft, I listed that "time = skill" was one of the "wrong" lessons of the game (or any rpg, even). I can understand someone debating whether that lesson is really taught or not, but it never even occurred to me that hundreds and hundreds of people on many messege boards would say, "time really is skill, because you need to spend a lot of time on anything to get good at it."

Oh my. I'm telling you otherwise, and so is Scientific American:
The Expert Mind article

It's possible to spend a very long time at something and still not be good at it. It's also possible to spend a short time on something and be extremely good at it. This is especially true in a competitive game (where you can bring the lessons of other competitive games with you into the new one) and it's double-triple true in an MMO, where mastery of pvp has little-to-no connection to the 400 hour grind to level 60. The 400 hours of leveling up doesn't convert your time into skill; it's simply a way to gate your progress so rpg's take a long time. Replacing actual skill with your character's simulated increase in "fake-skill" makes rpg's accessible to anyone (anyone with lots of time, that is).

Philip Ross's Scientific American article also explores the idea that "effortful study" is what really makes you improve at something. That's why people who practice something a few years (such as chess, but I think it's true of many skills) can overtake someone who has been "grinding" away at it for 10 or 20 years.

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.

Measuring actual merit, rather than purely time invested, is a nice thing to do in the real world and in games. The trouble is, developing mastery in something is hard and not for everyone, so simply rewarding time allows a game to offer "easy fun" and be enjoyed a wider audience. I wonder, though, if we could devise some new rpg mechanics that better reflected what learning things is actually like in the real world without restricting our audience to hardcore gamers. Spending time would count for nothing, but actually accomplishing things would. The closest thing I can think of to this is the Zelda series of games. These games are somewhat like RPGs in that they have a story, lots of characters to talk to, etc. And yet you have no XP bar or level, you don't grind monsters, and you only get things when you actually complete a quest or defeat a boss in a dungeon or whatever. A game like Zelda could be adjusted to have a stronger emphasis on story (imagine the rich and varied storyweaving in Oblivion) without resorting to leveling-up mechanics.

Anyone else have any ideas for how to do a story based rpg that is accessible to a wide range of people, does not use grinding or leveling at all, and is still actually fun? Getting rid of the addiction cycle of "kill monster, get +2 sword, kill better monster, get better item" is a tough one, becuase it's such a powerful system. But it would be nice if we had a story based game that *wasn't* based on increasing the "fake-skill" of your character by attacking the same monster 1,000 times. (Again, see the Scientific American article for how people actually increase their skill in things.)

Another sad note for me, apparently the game industry isn't about just putting in time, either. I've been at it a lot longer than a) the combat designers on God of War, b) Jenova Chen, who made the game Flow and now has a 3 game deal with Sony, c) a friend who's now an executive at Capcom, and d) another friend who's now a manager at Xbox Live Arcade. All of those people are doing great things and deserve every bit of their success. It seems that I made a wrong series of decisions or a wrong turn somewhere along the way though, as I still have little to show for all my grinding.


Reader Comments (2)

It kind of disapoints me that you're falling for the idea that the only way to succeed in an is to "Grind."

This isn't true.

The real way to suceed at an RPG isn't to grind, it's to take the skills you have available to you at the moment and use them properly to form a strategy that will enable your victory.

"Leveling up" functionally is no different from any other method of gaining new skills in any other video game.

The fact that there are people who can beat RPGs at insanely low levels, or not gaining any levels at all, is possible proves this point.

Really, all Grinding does is replace "Skill at the game" with "Time spent mashing 'Fight' at some weak enemy"

November 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRussell Francisco

I'm not "falling for an idea." RPGs are about grinding. That is what defines the genre. Lots of genre's have story. Lots of genres let you take on the role of a character. What's special about RPGs, and what people mean when they say another game has "RPG elements" is that it lets you spend time in order to make your character more powerful.

Your example of people who use actual skill to beat RPG bosses at low levels is an edge case. Do you think even 1% of, say, Final Fantasy players do that? I doubt it's that high. Average Joe who plays an RPG spends his time, increases the power of his character, and "accomplishes success."

Anyway, I think the point in my original post still stands. You can spend lots of time and not gains skills. You can also spend very little time and gain lots of skills. That is the nature of learning. It's unfortunate that RPGs have brainwashed Average Joe (not the 1% edge case player you're talking about) into believing that time spent actually translates directly and proportionally to skill.

November 15, 2008 | Registered CommenterSirlin
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