Time spent in relation to how well you play a game is an interesting concept. There are always people all across the spectrum – some become proficient fast, some slow. Even chess has young prodigies that can challenge older “hard-earned” grandmasters. And yet, experience itself is a huge boon even in a game where younger players can quickly catch up to older ones.
As a proponent of skill-based gaming, my stance has always been that your skill should simply be your skill, and time spent shouldn’t affect anything. Granted, time spent will always affect at least the meta-game (the aspects in a gaming environment not under your control, such as your opponents play styles and tendencies), but I’ve mostly only meant the extreme cases where games actually increase your ability to perform better through time-based activities. In an acronym: MMO’s, or massively multiplayer online games.
Although not all MMO’s have this feature, most do and it has become a cliché of the genre. You start out with a skill level of 0 in fighting, you attack and kill a rat, and you gain 1 fighting skill throughout the duration of the fight. Or 10 experience towards your next level (increasing your attributes and combat ability), or perhaps the rat drops an item that you can equip which makes you do more damage to the next rat you face. There are many methods that could be employed, but they all share the same time requirement trait. This is in direct contrast to traditional tournament games such as first person shooters, real-time strategy, or fighting games where you simply enter the match, play the match, and then leave the match with nothing of permanence affecting you in the next match (again, aside from possible meta-game aspects such as your mental state). Given this, these games are usually considered to be much fairer and thus much better competitive games as the only resources are raw knowledge and “skill” (knowing how to play the game and having the ability to do so). Of course, you have to expend a third resource to gain knowledge and skill, and that’s time.
After thinking about how many hours a lot of top tournament players will spend practicing a day in their chosen game, it seems a bit strange to keep my prejudice against the MMO system of skill gain. At the end of the day, what is the difference between a Starcraft player spending 12 hours a day practicing a match-up, versus an MMO player spending 12 hours a day to advance his character? If your character still requires out-of-game skill and knowledge to be played better in the latter system after he is “capped” (you are no longer able to expend time to advance his in-game skills), how is it any different to the former game?
Starcraft: Brood War is the most popular e-sport game currently.
Another dynamic in MMO’s that I believe I touched upon in another article is community status. Much more so than one-match-at-a-time genres, your role in an MMO community plays a huge part, as social aspects are a huge part of persistent world gameplay. One recent example of this is in EVE Online, where the group of players in Goonsquad managed to use their social presence to influence a key member in a huge rival alliance, which ended up with the total collapse of that alliance. Even though Goonsquad was enormously outnumbered, their community and social placement in the game allowed them to overcome a very large threat they may not have been able to deal with on the terms of the normal game rules (i.e. combat). In this example, the time investment leading up to this gain for the players would have been purely meta-gaming related. It had nothing to do with the players’ character skills, they all could have been freshly made and still have carried out this operation. It’s also worth mentioning that “the Goons” as they are known play many games, and have earned such a reputation that merely hearing about them coming to play your game, or on your MMO server, is enough to make some people quit or stay away from that game on that basis alone. Even when they choose to play a game that is based on time-based skill gain, their long-term gained social presence gives them an advantage in the meta-game. Ironically, EVE Online is the prime example in this regard as well: the method in which you train your character is by selecting a skill, and then the game tells you an amount of time until you get better at that skill – this time passes regardless of whether you are online or offline, thus your overall skill is directly related to your character’s age.
CCP’s EVE Online places more emphasis on community interaction than most games.
“Macroing” is yet another interesting concept the MMO genre brings to the table. This is the act of gaining character advancement in a game without necessarily having to pay attention to the game itself – basically, advancing your character “for free”. The time investment is either much slimmer (i.e. a “semi-attended” macro, where you can do something else and simply check back from time to time), to not having to invest at all (unattended macroing: your character “plays itself”, gaining skill in the process). Macros can come in many forms: from sticking a penny in your keyboard to hold down a key, all the way to a custom program made specifically to play your character with specific settings (also called a bot or script). Whether be it a macro, bot or script there is usually a fairly big time investment for the author to actually create the method employed. After he distributes it, there can still be a time requirement for the people who acquire it to learn how to use it, but it is much less given that they don’t have to actually come up with the concept and create the method by hand. In either case, there is time spent in the process of setting up your character to work on its own (saving you time in the end – spending time to make time). What’s interesting here is that while macroing is often called a form of cheating or exploiting, one cannot deny the fact that the player is using this to his advantage. Essentially, the player is becoming a prodigy – advancing in the game faster than other users. Remember also, even if the macro goes at the same pace (or less) than another user playing “legit”, the player using the macro can spend his time to strengthen his community role which, as discussed above, is certainly one way of becoming more powerful at a game.
Glider is one of the leading World of Warcraft bots used to advance characters and farm gold – the game’s currency. The program has become so controversial as to inspire lawsuits from WoW’s creators, Blizzard.
This is all relative, since in actual tournaments these things almost certainly wouldn’t be allowed. Of course, in most tournaments we do not have to worry about this – but now that the World of Warcraft Arena has become a tournament game in and of itself, it could be cause for concern that players may used some ill-gotten advantage to strengthen their avatars. Fortunately for that game, however, it’s not a very big deal to “max out” your character to a point in which he would be equal to others in tournament play, so it’s not an issue in the big picture. If a game does come along where the time investment is much higher, and it becomes competition worthy, it will be interesting to see how these cases could be handled. On the other side of the coin, the standardized “match-at-a-time” games are also starting to bring in some time-based concepts to the table: we are starting to see first person shooters where you gain experience, ranks, and access to more varied equipment based on your avatar’s skill or experience.
In the end, I think the bigger question aside from which version of time investment is superior, is what goal is the person asking the question trying to pursue. Even monetary gain can be had via both systems – tournament earnings versus playing letting bots run their characters, earning them items or money that they can sell for real world currency. It’s all relative to each person’s particular goals at the time of asking said question.