In light of the Counter-Strike tournament taking place this weekend, I thought I would throwback to the dawn of the new millennium and the initial debut of CS 1.6 (originally a mod for Half-Life). In what will probably be the most subjective statement in this whole article, I believe that first version of Counterstrike is what sparked the competitive first-person-shooter genre - and arguably, e-sports in general. I played hundreds of hours of CS 1.6 back in my teens - mastering every map, every weapon, and the majority of scenarios that would unfold on any given map. Very few mainstream games up until that point had such a skill-based focus.
Of course all games have some amount of skill and chance, but CS involved far more of the former and very little of the latter. If anything, unpredictable latency was about the only aspect of chance that players encountered in the game - as even weapon recoil could be mastered and reliably manipulated with enough practice.
There's an interesting dichotomy in gaming between skill and chance, and it's been a part of the gaming industry since its inception with some of the earliest games ever created. Some players prefer one or the other, other players enjoy a little of both. Either way, they both clearly have a market - and the rise of online gaming opened the door to a whole new world of possibility.
Chance vs. Skill
When it comes to games of skill, the internet offered the ability for players to link up and compete from the comfort of their own homes - which made competitive gaming extremely accessible for the average gamer. It was revolutionary back then, and today is completely common-place. Another interesting note is that this type of competition has a unique audience, as there are plenty of people around the world that just aren't capable of competing in real-life sports (perhaps due to physical disabilities or other medical limitations and factors).
You might be asking where I am going with all of this.
Well, I've noticed a trend in gaming, as more and more traditionally chance-based games start infusing more and more skill-based play into their framework. Consider the MMO genre, which has always employed a fair mix of both mechanics through the use of user-timed abilities (skill) and random hit percentages (chance). (There are lots of other skill and chance elements, but those are the ones specific to combat which is the topic I'm going to focus on for the last bit of this article). Most MMORPGs have stuck to this model since their initial inception with Ultima Online and the original EverQuest.
Rise of Skill-Based MMO Combat
Move forward to today with games like Tera, Wildstar, Guild Wars 2, and even older games like WoW and EverQuest that have added plenty of user-placed AOE skills that can be dodged or avoided in some of their later expansions. MMOs are seeing a significant amount of skill infusion and are moving farther and farther away from many of the chance-based mechanics of old. All of Sony Online Entertainment's newest titles are employing skill-heavy combat (Landmark, H1Z1, EverQuest Next), to the dismay of some - and the rejoicing of many.
More than anything, games like Counter-strike have taught us how many people enjoy Player vs. Player combat, and more importantly, how many people prefer victory in those scenarios to rely much more on their own skill than on time-investment, random chance, or the size of an opponent's wallet. When you look back at the MMO genre, PvP rule sets have largely been "additional features" to the main game itself, and haven't typically been crucial to core gameplay. Yet games in this genre are increasingly looking at PvP as a primary feature.
I've often pointed to the rise of MOBAs in popularity as a signal of larger shift in the gaming industry, where PvP-themed games are becoming more and more prevalent (and less intimidating) for the average player. As we continue to get more and more comfortable with direct player confrontation - I expect to see more and more of a mechanical shift towards skill-based systems, particularly when it comes to combat. There's nothing worse than suffering a defeat and feeling powerless or defenseless because of the odds or some other factor completely outside of your control or influence.
Totally Conflicting Motivations
I am curious to see how these changes will affect the development of future games in the MMO genre and beyond. I have a good, intelligent friend (one of my co-hosts on the Theory Forge Friday Livecast) that is convinced e-sports will eventually find their way into MMORPGs at some point. Although I tend to think the fundamental motivation for playing an MMORPG and competing in e-sports are diametrically opposed... yet that observation continues to get more and more blurry as time goes on.
After all, MMOs are meant to be massive, and massive means catering to the largest audience possible (ala WoW). With so many gamers enthusiastically participating in e-sports, even if on a casual level (I know that sounds weird, but think along the same lines of "flag football" or "recreational league sports") it shouldn't surprise anyone to see developers curving traditionally non-competitive RPG games to more of a conflict-embracing style of gameplay. It's definitely a dangerous prospect - as moving too far in that direction could easily alienate long-time fans and players of traditional MMORPGs; but the risk isn't without its rewards.
There is certainly something to be said about how direct player confrontation can further enhance immersion and better model a realistic socioeconomic environment. I mean, with how large MMO game-worlds are today (often trying to reflect entire planets with diverse cultures and peoples), some direct player conflict makes a ton of sense and can dramatically improve realism - if implemented properly. It is for that reason (among many others) that I remain intrigued by the enigma of EverQuest Next - which promises to employ plenty of mechanics that pit players against one another directly and indirectly.
"Next" Gen Experiment
I find it increasingly more ominous that SOE refuses to publicly comment about their PvP plans for EverQuest Next, when the basic core elements of almost every other game element (environment, AI, questing, story, objectives, combat) have been revealed at least partially already. Even more mysterious is the fact that Landmark combat was first released with only the PvP element intact. (Of course that could be attributed to complications with enemy AI pathing in Landmark's crazy voxel-based world, but my gut tells me there was more to it than just that).
We'll just have to wait and see what future MMOs like EverQuest Next plan on doing about including more PvP elements in their core gameplay. As a fan of both traditional RPGs and skill-based PvP, I'm cautiously optimistic about the future. Modern games (like EQNext) could find a happy medium with an infusion of both elements - or they could end up being an ugly mechanical Frankenstein where both elements end up being less enjoyable than other games that stick more to one or the other.
I'll tell you one thing though, we're definitely going to find out in the very near future.
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