Begone, Skills!

I’ve been mulling over this for a while, but was sparked by reading this Elder Game article on the purpose of loot where it’s mooted that items-as-verbs is one way to stop the items arms race where no item is exciting because it’ll only last a few levels and/or because there’s always a better one waiting around the corner. Making items too powerful means you end up adjusting the world to always take them into account, at which point your uber-powerful items aren’t uber-powerful, they’re either average or de rigueur for tackling content, or both. Items-as-verbs, instead, provide only a temporary but more useful benefit that needs to be activated by the player, or is activated only under certain circumstances.

Thinking back on my tabletop days, where I was as excited as the next nerdette when I found a kick-ass magic sword or hat or whatever it was, makes me wonder why I’m so “meh” about items in MMOs. Part of it is what that Elder Game article describes — if items drop frequently (and they have to, it seems, in MMOs, or nobody’s happy; and even if they didn’t, farmers would ensure a steady supply so “rare” is an increasingly rare thing as far as items go) — where was I? — oh yeah: if items drop frequently and if all they really do is give you +1 to CharStat003, it’s hard to get all breathy and keen. I think our tabletop games fell somewhere between Scrooge and Monty Haul: we got a fair bit of silly or use/limited stuff, some pretty decent stuff now and then, and very rarely, we’d find that thing that makes you go Ooo. I well remember the kick-ass sentient!!! sword I found that made my ranger’s life difficult for the rest of her career. Who needs kids when you can have talking swords?

Another thing I didn’t have to deal with in my tabletop days was the plethora of skills my MMO characters have now. I don’t remain all that cool under combat pressure, so I happen to think I have way too many skills, since I almost never remember to use the ones that would be perfect for those rare but often deadly situations. This is very arbitrary, but I’m starting to think that if I need more than one toolbar for my common-use skills (let alone 3!), I have too many of them. When encounters become a question of learning which sequence of buttons to press in what order… well, maybe we’ve gone full circle back to the numbers-geekery of yore where it’s not about what you’re seeing or what’s happening, but about how to do the only right thing at exactly the right moment. While I realise that sort of activity is actually fascinating for many, all it does for me is make me want to do something else.

Now, I’m not saying we should do away with skills entirely. I like skills. I like having a selection of abilities that I can pick from depending on what I’m fighting. For me, however, fighting is usually a means to an end and not the end in itself — it leads to the fun corpse-loot-box, which I’ve always enjoyed opening (even if all I get is a manky bone and a piece of linen), it advances my characters a bit, and it moves me forward through whatever quest(s) I’m doing. And, that being the case, having 38 skills I need to remember (multiplied by my usual ridiculous number of alts) instead of, say, a dozen, means I just plain don’t remember most of them.

Ironically, in most cases it really doesn’t matter at all that I can’t remember most of what my gals can do. Many of the skills overlap, where one will do X amount of damage and the other will do X+1 amount of damage but is on a longer cooldown, and yet another does X amount of fire damage so it’s more useful in some cases than others… and so on. Some are really useful but on such long cooldowns I just don’t remember I have them, or can’t use them when I do remember them. And some are just plain crap. Personally — and I’m sure this won’t be a popular view — I’d rather have a few less skills that are a little more memorable and/or effective. I’d rather forget to use a handful of my abilities at most, rather than probably about half of them.

Sure, we get taught these skills progressively as we level, at least by most games out these days. (I’m not talking about skill-overload at level 5, 15 or even 25; even *I* can manage at those levels.) Even so, we have too many of them. There’s a skills arms race just as there is an items arms race, and it’s not easy to get excited about the 12th ranks of ClassSkill005.

So, aside from maybe a few less skills, I’d also like to see a few more “tailored” skills. I’d call them skills-as-verbs, but I think they’re verbs by definition since we choose when to activate them. I’d like to see skills that kick in only in certain specific situations; that’s already available in games, it’s just not very common. Something that activates for tanks when they’re at a certain low health percentage, or something that activates for healers if their target takes a certain (large) amount of damage. Or, if the Trinity has been banished too, maybe it could be something like an OhCrap! heal that activates for a mostly damage-based character if they take a really big hit — or a “That’s my friend, you bastard!” attack that would activate for mostly assist-type characters — and so on.

On the other hand, providing those might mean we end up with even MORE skills I won’t remember to use. We could make them auto-use (not exactly a new concept in MMOs, every pet class has that, not to mention that’s exactly what auto-attack is), but would that then lead to us spending more time watching the action rather than watching — and mashing — our hotbars? Actually watching those really neat animations and effects those artists slave over for our enjoyment? Perish the thought.

No, of course I’m not saying everything we have and can do should be automated; I’d be the last to say that, since I’m so rabid about being at the keyboard to actually get a playing experience. But a little more specificity in when a skill is useful and a little more choice in auto-activating them might be nice. The difficulty might be implementing that so playing doesn’t become an exercise in sitting back and letting your macros do the job for you — but since that’s already an option on all the major games I know about (maybe not a legal one, but certainly one that people aren’t shy about exercising), that sounds like crying over milk that spilled so long ago it’s turned into cheese right there on the floor.

9 thoughts on “Begone, Skills!

  1. After my SWG days, I’ve avoided macros nearly entirely and at this point am pretty much of the mindset that macros are just evil and lazy.

    However, I’ve also wondered about this subject in my own way.

    I’m not one of those people who consider their character to be an extension of themselves, first. I guess that goes back to my tabletop days. In an MMORPG I am directing my character’s virtual life and actions but I expect that character to have some damned sense and be able to do some things on his own. Which is probably why I’m not offended by “auto-crafting” systems in the games that have that since after all, my character is the one with the crafting skills, not me. I can’t really say I want a cooking mini-game where I have to mix the ingredients, boil the stews and pan-fry the rabbit tails and boar feet my character has been collecting.

    Similarly, I expect my character to know if he’s in melee or ranged combat depending on his position and switch to an appropriate weapon or stance on his own. Age of Conan annoyed me to no end by making me use a key combo to manually switch my character from melee to ranged and back. Back in SWG the characters would even go into auto-attack if a mob aggroed on them but that was abolished due to macro-botting because auto-attack would level up your basic weapon skill. But still, because of having that experience I get aggravated in modern MMORPGs when a mob starts attacking my character and he just stands there like an idiot until I order him to do something. At the very least, he should go into some defensive or evasive stance to take less damage until I get back to the keyboard. I’m not asking for full-on AI where I just sit back and watch him live his life. We saw how well The Sims Online did, after all. But basic common sense automated actions, I’m fine with.

    Whether or not we reduce the number of skills — and I’m a firm believer that ranked skills (Fireball 1, Fireball 2, Fireball 3, etc.) are a waste — anything that keeps my eyes on the screen and off the UI is a good thing. Action games and shooters tend to have a single context-sensitive “use” button (the MMORPG equivalent would be the right-click) which gives more possible actions my character has available without needing any extra UI slots for it or taking my attention away from the action. Run up to a turrent and ‘use’ mounts the turret. Run up to a door and ‘use’ will open or close it. Maybe there’s a way to advance that mechanic without turning it into a series of quick time events? Rather than having 10 ranks of a single Fireball, why not use a ‘charging’ scheme where holding the button charges the skill then releasing it will ‘fire’ the skill? Just need a little fireball to aggro? Quickly press and release the Fireball button. Need a medium heal? Hold the Heal button until the meter is in the middle then release. It’s just like the “hold the trigger to determine how far you throw the grenade” mechanic, and also is a bit of player participation and skill rather than staring at the UI and selecting Heal 5.

  2. i’m horrible at PvP, because on the run back to my corpse i realize all the cooldowns that i DIDN’T use are sitting there on my action bars mocking me.

    but yeah. I’ve tried to take an active role recently in just being like ‘screw smite, I’m going to use mind flay if i need to DPS, there’s no reason to have BOTH on the bar’.

    it’s a hard decision to make, but in the end it’s best to just make it and move on.

  3. My wife took a breastfeeding term and applied it to this particular situation: nipple confusion.

    One of the negative side effects of my altitis is that each class plays a little differently and thus I tend to get confused and I’ll more often than not hit the wrong key at the most inopportune time. It takes a while to remember how to ‘play’ that particular class.

    To mitigate this somewhat I try to keep my binds congruent across all my characters (i.e. Alt+1 is thrown weapon, Alt+0 is mount, etc).

  4. For me it kind of goes back to the old AD&D levelling process. As a magic-user/cleric/druid when you levelled you got to pick from a selection of spells that were (mostly) unique. I’d like to see something like that in an MMO. Give players the option of three or four new abilities each time the skill-up arises, from which they get to pick one. But make it so that for a certain “level band”, you get given some options more than once.

    So, say, you hit level 5 and you pick Flash of Awesomeness from your choice, turning down Hammer of Doom, Arrow of Mercy and Slap of Shame. At level 10, you get the option of picking one of the other three you didn’t pick last time. At level 15, a whole new set opens up. That kind of thing.

  5. In Mickey Mouse Clubhouse they often have examples of things that they’re trying to show the kids; let’s say it’s some shapes for the sake of example, they put up a square and say “It’s a square”, then they put up a triangle and say “It’s… A GRENADE! HIT THE DECK”, but only because I sat on the remote and accidentally changed to the History channel.

    They say, obviously, “It’s a triangle”.

    However, if they want to talk about the square again they need a way to focus attention to it whilst having the other shapes on the screen. So they draw a little starry line around it that jingles as it’s drawn, and then the line fades away. Simple and effective.

    Is there room for Mickey Mouse Clubhouse skills? Have those skills that are known to be rarely used, but vital in certain situations, make themselves gently known to the player under the right circumstances? It’d be an option, like tutorials, that could be turned off by those hardcore dedicated players who need their MMO to hurt them physically and mentally or else it’s not worth playing.

    I’ve seen some lovely interface ideas from Apple and various other companies about how to subtly point a user in the right direction without getting all in their face. This is important too, because to the first MMO developer to create Microsoft Clippy for an MMO interface, I will hunt you down and 2D10+6 your sorry arse.

  6. Wasn’t it the Elder Game article that suggested a relatively small stable of “active verbs” for skills, and a wider variety of pre-combat strategic “conditional” verbs? Maybe I read that somewhere else…

    These are things we’d call “on proc” items in WoW. With that, there would be plenty of variety and customizability in gearing up a character, but come combat time, there would be only so many active verbs to use, and the rest of your “spec” or loadout is based on automatic “oh, crap” and random lucky “procs”. That would make character preparation more important than remembering not to use the “Fumble Sword” before the “Greater Two Left Feet” skill.

    WoW already does some of that, but yes, it might be good to shift some of the active verbs to proc/passive abilities.

    At the same time, I’d rather combat itself be more engaging. The thing is, I’d want a smaller active verb set, but a wider variety of tactics to employ them in. At present, most MMOs still use the Threat mechanism and the trinity, so it strikes me that the preponderance of active verbs might just be a way to give some variety to that very basic set of tactics. Change the underlying assumptions about mob behavior, and a smaller active verb skill set can tackle a wider variety of *play* situations, making for greater play variety without greater confusion.

  7. I don’t mind “proc” items at all, it’s quite enjoyable when they trigger and the best thing: I didn’t have to do a thing. Which means yes, I despise “clickies.” As if MMOs already didn’t my screen cluttered with hotbars and other UI frames, now I have to make room on the hotbar to click pieces of my gear? I don’t think so. If I have to click my gear for a special ability, that special ability will never, NEVER get used.

  8. I agree with your post greatly.

    1. The loot situation is recent MMOs is unsatisfying. In Warhammer, the last i tried, it hovers on the line between what I would call normal itemizing and just providing a gift box of appropriate gear in your inventroy when you level. Of course, that is provided you level.

    2. I too am always forgetting that I can do suchandsuch in a certain situation. Well, I’m getting old (almost wrote, I’m old, and had to change it for vanities sake…) and sometimes I go to the refrigerator and forget I am hungry, but still! There are just too many to reasonably keep track of and the ones you remember to use each fight, your mainstays as it were, require one to pay attention to one’s chat box or refresh bar instead of the fight in general. It is much like a job, which may be exciting to the young, but oh boy will they learn …

    3. Something you didnt touch on in this post, but may have in others, is the questing situation. When I began to play Warhammer, I set out to read the quests and learn the lore. This quickly degraded into hurriedly hitting the correct buttons in order to advance the process as quickly as possible. A personal failing, of course, but doesn’t it seem a bit too easy to embark upon these things? Honestly, and there is likely no happy medium, but this system is just not for me. It added to my overall disatisfaction with the gameplay.

    All in all, these things decided me to return to Everquest I, believe it or not. Having been around so long, it too has clutter (again, in my view) that could be pared down, in all its facets. Nevertheless, I much prefer the simpler mechanics of EQ1 to the flash and glamour of what is becoming available nowadays.

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