Everyone has a very strong opinion about player skill in MMOs. This is understandable. Furthermore, I’ve met a lot of different people with different opinions about what “skill” actually means. And this can create some interesting dynamics where a given player insists that he’s very skilled at the game and at PvP despite consistently losing in every actual PvP match because his opponents are using “no-skill tactics” or otherwise playing “cheap.”
The thing is, though, that some of that comes down to the fact that there are a lot of different vectors for skill in MMOs. Probably far more than 10, but to get an idea of how broad that category can be, 10 is a good place to start. So let’s take a look at a collection of different important vectors of skill in MMOs, and some of them will probably strike you as being not skills at all… which mostly shows what you consider skillful more than it defines what skill is.
For a lot of games, this is almost the most important skill to have. Reaction isn’t just a matter of reacting to what’s happening on the screen; in many cases, it’s a case of seeing what’s about to happen and acting in advance. If I’m tanking a dungeon in Final Fantasy XIV, I can guess about how long the time interval is between AoEs on large trash groups, and I can make sure I’m ready to stun the nastiest one before it comes out, but then I’m also acting pre-emptively to avoid losing threat when I focus down one target…
Reaction plays a pretty big role in more action-based combat, but it’s always an element in MMOs and in gameplay. It’s the ability to respond to things happening and be ready when something changes, whether a party member does something unexpected or something changes in a PvP environment. It’s keeping a cool head and making decisions quickly and correctly when things happen.
Memory covers a lot in MMOs. Some of it is knowing what drops the sword you want or what level you need to be to take on a given challenge, but it also includes knowing what a boss will do on a reliable basis, knowing how to handle certain mechanics, and even just remembering your overall goals. If you can keep your rotation in your head easily or know where the unlock quest is for something without having to look it up? That’s memorization.
Frequently, this does actually go hand-in-hand with reaction. The boss does something too fast for you to just react to it, but you know it’s coming and you can start reacting to it before it actually happens. Then you can react to the small details as they unfold.
This is one of my favorite skills to talk about because we usually overlook it, but it’s actually really important in the long run. Valuation isn’t the ability to look at two pieces of gear in Star Wars: The Old Republic and instantly know which one is better, but it is the ability to know how to figure it out. It’s the ability to judge which parts of your rotation should be left out in extreme situations. It is, in short, the ability to alter the value of what’s happening based on circumstances and environment.
Valuation also ties in with memory and reaction, of course; it’s knowing at a moment to not use your charge right now because then it’ll be on cooldown when the knockback happens, and knowing that it’s better to use a ranged attack instead of charging back immediately because the next attack will be a point-blank AoE. It’s the ability to read what’s happening ahead of time, evaluating everything around you.
To a certain extent, execution is probably the most debatable item on the list. After all, execution is just the matter of doing what you know you’re already supposed to do. But the point of most games is that it’s actually harder than you think to reliably do the exact same things. You’re fighting a boss in World of Warcraft, you’re dodging all over the place, you have to react to new mechanics, and it’s easy to forget certain mechanics or fall down in your rotation.
Execution is the ability to do that. It is, in some ways, the anti-reaction. Instead of trying to react to something, you’re able to stay the course and remember how to just train your reflexes to reliable degrees. That’s actually a good thing, although depending on the situation it can be a drawback. (Too much reliance on rote execution can get you killed in PvP, for example, if you miss your defensive options in favor of damage.)
A lot of people don’t think that this is a skill, but it totally is. The prior four skills are all about being able to get through the dungeon, but geniality is the skill that makes people want to do the dungeon with you over and over. When people like you, they’re willing to help you, and also willing to overlook some of your other failings.
For that matter, geniality is what allows you to keep a group organized, keep a raid running, keep a guild smoothly operating, keep your friends logging in, and so forth. Being friendly in and of itself won’t get a raid boss down, but it will convince your group to keep trying to get that raid boss down without getting annoyed.
Anyone can read a list of mechanics, but those skilled with entertainment can make that fun to watch. Or keep you laughing even as a run goes to hell. Or create neat art or lore compilations or… you get the idea. Entertainment skill is, again, not something that gets a boss down… but it sure as heck makes the world around that raid boss feel more alive.
This one is hard to nail down, but it’s just as important as anything else. Strategy is the skill of putting those mechanics and everything else together into a unified theory of “what are we supposed to do with this boss.” It’s a combination of knowing what’s going to happen and knowing how to work within that framework, which can be pretty dizzyingly complex at times. And it can also be about knowing how to make a team’s skills (or lack thereof) work together.
Strategy, in short, is all about the skill necessary in making other skills work together, which in and of itself is a skill. It’s about a combination of valuation and forward planning, and it can be pretty dizzyingly useful or important if you’re trying to figure out what to do instead of trying to get good at doing it.
That ability hits the whole party for deadly damage. Can you mitigate it? Are there ways to survive it? Common wisdom says that this skill isn’t useful, but can you make it work? How fast does your DPS have to be in order to skip a phase of this boss? Can you even skip a phase? Will this piece of furniture sell better than other ones even though it’s cheaper?
Experimentation is a fun skill, a mix of intuition, insight, and refusal to accept the common wisdom about how to do things. It doesn’t make you better able to do things, necessarily, but it does help create an environment wherein players know more about what is actually possible. In more narrow terms, strategy is the skill to develop active plans, but experimentation is what provides the data for those plans.
“What, now just showing up is a skill?” Yes. It totally is. The guy who actually logs in for each raid, spends the month of time farming currency for an item, and contributes a fixed amount of money to your guild is skilled. In some way it’s the most fundamental MMO skill because it plays into the persistent nature of the game. It’s not just about being there for moments of excitement, but consistently.
Dedication also leads to more practice, which is another good thing. After all, more practice means more time spent doing important stuff, which means that you’ll be better at the game, which means you’ll have more opportunities to challenge yourself… and so forth.
And yes, this is a skill, because sometimes you wind up noticing important parts of the game and coming up with some novel strategies by being too lazy to do things the way you’re supposed to do them. Stand in things and just endure the damage. Find out if you can get away with just hitting the same ability over and over. Produce stupid endless rows of consumables that make money because the materials are cheaper than the vendor price.
Of course, this is also a skill you would really prefer to not get better at over time. But, hey, what can be done?