Massively Overthinking: What MMORPG content requires the most skill – and why?


Back in January, there was an inflammatory thread on the MMORPG subreddit that argued that anyone using rotation mods in endgame MMO content was nullifying skill and competition from the game, and that merely being able to navigate raid bosses didn’t count as skill. It all dovetails rather nicely with Naoki Yoshida’s comments earlier this week about how he couldn’t understand the point of using heaps of cheat tools to claim a world first, since they render the distinction meaningless.

MOP’s work chat had some fun discussing the concept of real “skill” in MMOs on the heels of the flamebait Reddit thread. “Truly unpopular opinion: the only skill in all ‘difficult’ MMO PvE content is listening and herding cats,” MOP’s Sam argued. “The only actual skillful content is PvP.”

“PvP, the combat and the economic kind!” I added. “Though for real running guilds/events/alliances is the real endgame.”

“Herding cats and dancing the steps is still a skill, just a different kind of skill,” Chris countered. And we concluded that there’s also tremendous skill in assembling unique fashion looks and decorating high-end houses.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, we’re going to open it up to the rest of the team and the commenters: What MMORPG content requires the most skill – and why?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m going to toss in a curveball: unscripted roleplay, especially in MMOs that have open PvP. Yes, raids require you to coordinate with tons of people to learn a combat dance. Yes, PvP requires you to coordinate with others, sometimes whole guilds, to defeat other players who may be using factors that go outside of game design to win. But doing either of those while also trying to weave a story that’s not been scripted by someone? RP PvP is the hardest of hard modes, especially as devs abandon designing them due to the Harry Potters of the gaming world proving that you sadly have to account for trolls while DMing for thousands of players. I’d really love to see a return to in-world, in-character Game Masters in MMOs that RP with the community like in older titles (such as both Asheron’s Call games and Horizons/Istaria) but the challenge vs. monetary rewards sadly isn’t big enough for AAA companies to pursue.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): It’s a tough question. You’d think that a standard rotation of skills would require less “skill” than having to read and react to a situation, but my lack of ability to successfully execute animation cancelling in Elder Scrolls Online proves that there’s at least a fair bit of skill involved, depending on your own strengths as a gamer. Personally, though, I still find PvP to be the most satisfying upon successful execution. You simply do not know what another human being is going to do in the face of competition. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been wrecked by a new player in World of Warships simply because “nobody who understands the game would have made that move!” Does it require more skill, though? I guess that depends on what you consider skill.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’ve never been super impressed with the idea that killing choreographed raid bosses is the pinnacle of skilled MMO content. Likewise, on reflection, I tend to be almost as unimpressed with the idea that basic PvP is at the top of the food chain as well, largely because most PvPers are terribly predictable, as predictable as any other AI (most of them far more). Expert-level PvP is another story and certainly makes the short list, but expert-level PvP is not what you’re going to see in most MMORPG PvP.

So I’m not saying PvE and PvP raids take no skill, but I am on the side that thinks people-herding is the most skillful content in MMORPGs by a landslide. Raid strats and twitch-reflex skills matter also, but no good large-group PvE or PvP happens at all without the soft skills of expert communication and drama-wrangling and people-management. Everything else is pushing the right buttons at the right time, and we can train robots and critters to do that. If I’m honest, the chaos and stress of people-wrangling in MMOs is utterly exhausting and spirit-crushing to me, and nothing I ever encountered in 25 years of MMOs was as challenging as running a big batshit guild and driving it through really any content at all, so I have nothing but respect for the people who are still doing it to great effect. (And to be fair, the best teams have all three skills pushed to their limits.)

But as my appendix here, let me emphasize that MMOs are supposed to be entertainment. Whether a chunk of video game content takes skill or not is – for the vast majority of humans – irrelevant to whether it provides fun. And that’s perfectly fine. It’s great, even. Please have fun first.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I still contend that PvE coordination is absolutely a challenging skill, both in terms of learning a fight and getting trusted folks together, but it is hard to deny the x factor that is other people’s behavior, so I guess PvP gets the nod as the thing with “the most skill.”

I just hate admitting that because that invokes the mental image of gamer chest-thumping.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): The elitist poo-pooing of “this doesn’t require skill” or “MMOs don’t utilize skills” is a burr in my saddle. I assume that when people make such declarations, they are thinking of twitch reflexes during fast-paced combat encounters (usually PvP). But that is not the be-all, end-all of “skills” in MMOs.

In fact, I’d argue that MMORPGs require a rather wide range of skills, and those who master the range are clearly elevated in the game itself. Being able to pull off tight rotations, adapting to different situations, optimizing encounters, deciphering combat status notices, observing environmental details — heck, even utilizing all of your movement abilities to traverse landscape well is a skill. You can be bad at these things. You can also be great. If there were no skill, everyone would be the same in all situations.

As for the most skill, it’s probably any environment where a player has to process a large amount of rapidly changing information and react (or proact) accordingly in a short amount of time. Large raids and crowded PvP arenas both present these challenges, and even if a player doesn’t care for that content, it’s bad form to claim that nobody in that content is skillful.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’m glad to see that I didn’t get totally roasted on this one! I was thinking this might also be titled, “Speedrun upsetting your MMO friends in one sentence.” I suppose it isn’t as unpopular an opinion as it seemed.

Regardless, I do believe PvP content requires the most skill from its players. Being able to best utilize your own abilities while attempting to predict what an opponent will do and respond to it appropriately just can’t be replicated by a programmed NPC.

Tina Lauro Pollock (@purpletinabeans): Speaking as a game designer as well as an MMO player, there’s no PvE system I could design that can stretch and challenge a player quite as much as one that involves other players, so my money is on PvP. My beloved raids rely on repetition and rote more than any manual skill, and even the most intense PvE systems have an element of comfortable predictability to them. No matter how high the challenge barrier is set, once it has been overcome once, it can then be mastered with time.

This has nothing to do with the fact we can lower mechanical skill by using macros, though… it’s about how the challenge is contained by its design, not about how we interact with it afterwards. If designers thought for one minute that the only skill cap in PvE content was mechanical, you can be sure they’d add in some extra layers, such as motion, timing, and randomisation to help re-engage our brains. We do more than clack some keys in PvE and those other actions are skillful too.

There’s absolutely skill in herding cats through PvE groups, but that’s not much of a barrier to entry when we consider how abundant newbie-friendly guilds and other groups are that can successfully take players through their first experiences in endgame PvE. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that the skill needed for PvE is system-limited either, this is what at least indirectly gives our MMOs such a long tail in terms of replayability. Learn, win, master… repeat in different, (hopefully!) increasingly exciting formats and get the satisfaction of mastery and completion. Being the most difficult thing to complete is rarely the reason someone chooses to complete a piece of content – it’s usually about how playing makes us feel by its design.

In PvP, however, player agency adds so much unpredictability to the fray that even the most mechanically skillful player can find themselves bested at points through careful play on the part of others. Someone can take an unexpected route, use distractions to their advantage, or make a play that isn’t the done meta and suddenly the battlefield isn’t as it once seemed. Clutch or plucky plays and lightning decision-making is the real skill here, not mechanical process.

I love the points about non-combat skills too – this is what really makes MMOs sing for me. Community management, fashion wars, event setup, mentoring, housing design… all skills in their own right.

Tyler Edwards (blog): To preface I want to make clear that I firmly believe MMOs are not skill-based games. Skill matters, of course, but it is rarely if ever the sole or even primary factor in determining success. Things like the time to grind, often wacky class balance, your willingness to spend on micro-transactions (in some games), social connections, and many more things outside raw skill are also crucial factors.

So with the giant caveat that no MMO content is a good test of skill, I’d say PvP is the least worst in this regard. Specifically small group arena PvP. Large scale PvP makes it easy to carry the weaker players, duels are often determined by one class countering another, and world PvP is rarely anything but a dumpster fire gankfest. I don’t think high-end PvE is very far behind high end PvP in challenge, but overall the unpredictability of human behaviour probably makes for a greater challenge than countering more predictable AI foes.

But again, I cannot stress enough that this is the wrong genre to be in if you want genuine, fair challenge.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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