The Dilemma of Level vs Skill - How Old Became New Again

Since MMORPGs became a mainstream medium, players have debated the two primary methods of advancement. Which is better? Is it the level-based system that is so dominate in today's games or the lesser used skill-based system? This has been a strong subject of debate on many forums, blogs, and gaming sites for as long as the genre has existed. This week Cody "Micajah" Bye investigates the two concepts and gathers input from some of the brightest minds in the gaming industry about their thoughts on the two systems of advancement. Although MUDs and MOOs had been around for ages, using a variety of different systems derived from popular pen-and-paper RPG systems of their day, Ultima Online really started the modern massive gaming craze. Unlike the persistently popular Dungeons and Dragons, Ultima already had roots in a usage based skill progression system, which many gamers grew to know and love. But when EverQuest was released, it used a level-based character advancement system that focused the majority of a players power on their overall level rather than their skills. This dichotomy has caused quite the stir in MMORPG gamers, and blogs posts in every corner of the internet have brought the argument to their readers. You can read the full story here. Discuss this and more on our forums.
The Dilemma of Level vs Skill - How Old Became New Again
There are a number of fundamental arguments that you'll run into if you spend enough time in the massively multiplayer online gaming industry, and most of them began at the very beginning of the modern MMO era when EverQuest and Ultima Online dominated the market. These were two games that were similar in their massive nature but completely divergent in a number of areas including artistic style, social structuring, and character progression.

It's the last difference that has continued to pester gamers and developers alike for the past ten years. Although MUDs and MOOs had been around for ages, using a variety of different systems derived from popular pen-and-paper RPG systems of their day, Ultima Online really started the modern massive gaming craze. Unlike the persistently popular Dungeons and Dragons, Ultima already had roots in a usage based skill progression system, which many gamers grew to know and love. But when EverQuest was released, it used a level-based character advancement system that focused the majority of a players power on their overall level rather than their skills. This dichotomy has caused quite the stir in MMORPG gamers, and blogs posts in every corner of the internet have brought the argument to their readers.

But at Ten Ton Hammer we like to do things with a bit more discussion in mind. As we've done in the majority of our premium articles to date, we went straight to the game developers and to you - the gaming public - to hear what you had to say on the age old dilemma. Specifically, we asked the gaming developers six questions specifically pointing at the future of skill-based games, the sudden resurgence in games focused on individual skill advancement, and their thoughts on whether skill-based games could ever overtake titles with level-based progression systems.

 To ensure that we're being absolutely crystal clear, this article isn't focused on the discussion concerning the differences between the pure RPG leveling system versus "player skill-based" games. That's a completely different conversation altogether, and - unfortunately - some of our paneled public and developers thought that was where the discussion was leading, and thus some answers from particular teams won't be printable...at least in this article.

Without any further rhetoric on my part, let's open up our ears and see what our developers and players thought about the skill vs. level dilemma. Throughout this article we'll be hearing from individuals from the Fallen Earth, Guild Wars, Jumpgate Evolution, Earthrise, and EVE Online development teams along with Ten Ton Hammer's own premium members. So strap yourselves in, it's going to be an entertaining ride!

Advancement systems, at least in the vast majority of MMORPGs, are a piece of the core element that makes up our favorite past time. The thrill of announcing "Ding!" to your guildmates hasn't dwindled in the years since its origination in EQ, and every mainstream MMO to date has had some form of progression.

Therefore, the selection of a game's advancement system comes with a great deal of pressure behind it.  Development teams need to pin down exactly how players are going to be progressing in the early stages of pre-production, and so I thought it would be appropriate to ask our gathered panelists to give us their reasoning behind why they selected their particular advancement systems and why it was appropriate for their title.

Of course, all of the answers rang with a similar sort of tonality that stated, "This is the game that we're making, and this was the advancement path that fit that our product." It seems like most of the designers had a specific idea or setting in mind, and thus their core systems fell in place around the product. Fallen Earth's lead game designer, Lee Hammock, was the first to chime in with this notion.

"On a very basic level one of the goals of Fallen Earth was providing players with choices," Hammock said. "We have a huge world that players can explore, ten crafting skills they can pursue, and six factions to ally with (and change their allegiance) among other features, so a classless system seemed the logical extension of that overall design philosophy.  Also the post-apocalyptic genre does not have the strong archetypes that the European fantasy tradition or the fantasy RPG ancestors of most MMOs do (wizard, warrior, rogue, etc.). Instead you’ve got more multi-skilled characters that fit into narrow roles less easily."  

The Bulgaria-based Earthrise's CEO Atanas Atanasov had a - not surprisingly - very similar answer. Although Fallen Earth and Earthrise are completely different games, their pseudo-futuristic, reticule-based combat systems almost appear to lean more heavily towards skill-based, open option systems.

"The skill-based system's particular strength is in the freedom of choice and the versatility of the character," Atanasov commented. "In level-based games, players often feel confined within set archetypes and their only choice is to accept it or not; they cannot define their own character around their own actions. While developing Earthrise, we have decided to encourage our players to experiment with all available options and to evolve their character as their play style changes over time. One of the greatest benefits of skill-based advancement is that we never run in a situation where the player may not like the direction their character is moving towards and can always change it. "

On the other hand, NetDevil's Jumpgate Evolution and ArenaNet's Guild Wars are games that focus on level-based gameplay, but both sets of development teams seemed eager to point out the variety of achievements players can explore while they're leveling or after they've reached the level cap.

The folks over at ArenaNet had a very interesting take on the dilemma, which is what you'd expect from a team that put together one of the most unique and innovative titles on the MMO era. Here's what Isaiah Cartwright had to say about their initial development strategy:

"When making games for a large number of players with different play styles, it’s important to make sure your advancement route has plenty of reward opportunities for all," Cartwright answered. "In Guild Wars, we tried to break the mold a little by having the power curve cap quickly, so high-level PvE and PvP players could focus on improving their skills over time rather than increasing their character’s power over time. In addition to high-level PvP and PvE, we offered many other ways to play the game and feel rewarded—collections, titles, weapon and armor skins, story completion, lore. We played around with different styles and different ways of doing what we did in Guild Wars, but all of our ideas were very different from the normal level-based system."

Among all the developers, it seems like allowing for player choice is an important aspect to their development philosophies, although the importance of those player decisions seems to be something that varies from studio to studio. Those that give players the option to choose their own skills rather than simply setting them on a level-based appear to have the belief that giving players the options to determine their own future - for better or worse - is the correct course to take.

However, studios like NetDevil are sticking with the leveling formula to keep their core advancement system simple. Hermann Peterscheck, producer for Jumpgate Evolution, is always vocal about what he thinks are the correct and incorrect ways to approach game development, and he weighed in on this topic.

"We chose [a level-based system] because we thought it best fit with the kind of game we're making," he explained. "It really is that simple. I think it's a bit silly when developers think about unique advancement strategies outside of what makes sense for the game. I think that we should focus on making a great game and that they systems and features should support the game, not the other way around. That being said, it's fun to try new things and see where it leads and I think that this is a natural impulse in creative people; so as there is an increase in parity there is pressure for diversification. Level advancement is easy to understand and well established so it has the advantage of not requiring much explanation. We started with a level based system and never had any reason to change it. That being said we have lots of alternate advancement methods in the game such as licenses, crafting, faction ratings and so on. What we encountered is that people need to feel like they are progressing as much as possible. Level is just a nice easy way to show that."

Finally, we heard from the folks at EVE Online, specifically Game Designer Matt “CCP Greyscale” Woodward, who really took his time with each question and cogitated on all possible aspects of our questions.

"I’m not in a position to comment on the exact reasoning behind the original decision, although it’s reasonably public knowledge that there were a lot of UO players involved in EVE’s gestation – the skill-driven system we have today may owe something to that fact!" he answered. "That said, EVE’s system hardly represents a “standard” implementation of a skill-driven progression system, with the biggest departure from the norm being the real-time skill advancement. That is to say, once you select which skill you want to advance, it continues to improve at a set rate per day until it either reaches the next level or you switch to a different skill.

"This delivers several advantages over other skill-driven systems," Matt continued. "For example, by removing the ability to affect your progression rate, we also remove the compulsion to constantly work to maximize that rate, which in turn frees you up to do what you want to do rather than what will maximize your progression – but without also losing the sticking power you get from persistent progression systems. It also lets us bypass some persistent issues of use-based skill systems, such as the encouragement of repeating mindless tasks to progress and the macros that inevitably follow. As with all systems, it has drawbacks too – it’s an oft-repeated maxim that EVE’s system means newer players can never compete fairly with veterans, and while this is largely untrue (due to the relatively small number of skills applicable in any given situation and the relatively low cap on progression in a given skill) it’s a perception we have to work against constantly."

So which do the players really prefer? Among our polled gamers, there didn't seem to be a major consensus, although the major set of thinking - and I paraphrase - that there just hasn't been any major contenders in the skill-based advancement category.

And why is that? Why hasn't there been a AAA type of skill-based game? Although there are a number of skill-oriented games that have been released recently or are going to be released in the near future, what has kept the market for these types of game advancement systems so small, without much love since Ultima Online?

For this answer, we turn again to EVE Online's Woodward, who surprised the Ten Ton Hammer staff with his extensive answer:

Of course, there’s also the deeper skills versus levels discussion, which is linked intimately to the skills versus classes discussion. Within this limited area, there are I think two similar separate choices to be made. Firstly, are you going to constrain the scope of abilities that a given player can possess or improve? On the one hand, you have a system similar to the one in EVE where you can acquire and train basically any skill, giving a much wider range of potential combinations, whereas on the other hand a strongly class-based system limits the available combinations to only those which a developer has explicitly approved.

The first, “arbitrary abilities”, system (I don’t think there’s any inherent need to implement this as a traditional or semi-traditional “skill system”) gives more freedom to players to choose, customize and progressively modify their roles, but by extension also in its purest implementation gives the player the ability to seriously mess up their character, and of course is significantly harder to balance as a system due to the number of combinations involved. It’s extremely hard to prevent “flavor of the month” builds from emerging: even if your title doesn’t contain any PvP, the power delta between an optimized FotM build and an unoptimized one is going to cause you significant content-balancing headaches and ultimately end up having a lot of the drawbacks of both the arbitrary abilities approach and the class abilities one.

By contrast, a “class abilities” system makes balancing significantly easier, leads to more homogenous power levels for a given amount of progression, and generally makes it easier for players to understand their progression path. The downsides are that you remove a big chunk of player agency, and also tend to end up locking characters into specific roles, which can place a player into situations where their character just isn’t very useful, and the only solution is to start from scratch.

The second set of choices is whether you allow players to progress different abilities at different rates and progress at arbitrary intervals, or clump progression into milestones – this is more the “skills vs levels” side of the debate, although it’s obviously interlinked with the above decision. Arbitrary progression generally allows a more granular power curve (as you’re improving lots of numbers by small increments on a regular basis), which usually leads to a less black-and-white “you must be this tall to kill this monster” dynamic.

However, it makes it more challenging to implement really interesting and new abilities for players to unlock unless you also build some kind of ability ladder or tree into things. It’s also much harder to mechanically assess how strong a given character is with this approach, which makes for significantly vaguer content gating – without being able to easily tell whether a given character is strong enough for a given encounter, you run the risk of generating lots of player frustration due to unexpected and unfair failures.

The level progression approach makes gating content much easier, as you have a nice clear number to tell you roughly how strong a player is (and if used in conjunction with a class system, as is usually the case, a good idea of exactly what build options they’ve had to choose from, refining the assessment further). It also makes it easier to drop in new abilities at the right point in the power curve, and makes for nice clear milestones for the player, giving something tangible to aim for. The gating that’s a characteristic strength of this sort of system is also a big weakness – by separating players in ability so strongly, and optimizing combat around specific levels, it also serves to separate players socially, making it very difficult to play with characters of higher or lower levels.

So the obvious question comes next: How does EVE solve this problem? It doesn't seem like something that could be easily remedied, but the outside-of-the-box thinking of the CCP devs has come up with a unique solution, which Matt details below:

The EVE system looks like it’s fairly strongly arbitrarily-minded in both respects, and in terms of just the progression system it is, but it’s pulled more back towards the centre by the way those skills are utilized. In particular, the various ship classes available are in fact a fairly strong surrogate for traditional classes – your choice of ship determines what role you play in a given combat. You are, however, allowed to own as many ships as you like, although flying them is gated by having trained the right skills.

This creates something of a hybrid system under the above schema, where your core progression and abilities are fairly arbitrary, but which effectively unlock different classes (which you can switch between at will) when the right combinations of skills are achieved. I think it makes a pretty good middle ground; in particular, the ability to arbitrarily switch between defined “classes” (ships) is something which I think is worthy of further thought.

It has taken a number of years, but MMOs based on skill advancement are once again forming in the core of developers' minds. Games like Fallen Earth, Earthrise, Mortal Online, and Darkfall are featured regularly in high caliber articles from every major gaming press outlet.

But why the sudden change in thinking? Why didn't the developers just stick with the systems that they knew were relatively popular among gaming fans? The leveling system obviously has limitations, but don't the perks of a simple, well-known progression feature outweigh those issues? We asked the developers to find out what they thought.

Atanas Atanasov had a fairly realistic point-of-view. Rather than claiming that Earthrise was going to be the end-all-be-all of MMOs, Atanas presented his honest argument, which seems to be fairly sound from this game journalist's opinion.

"For a long time MMORPG design has been dominated by the success of traditional titles, most of them set in the fantasy genre," Atanasov said. "As MMORPGs mature and expand into new genres and universes, it will become evident that designers are more and more willing to take risks and implement new mechanics and ideas that have long been ignored. Although we don't expect a skill-based game to become a flagship title for the MMORPG genre any time soon, we think that this type of game has a healthy and growing audience that has specific needs to be catered to."  

The CCP developer also echoed Antanasov's. Woodward again provided an insightful view into the reasons behind an expanding skill-based game market.

"[It's] possibly a backlash against the gating limitations in particular of a level-based system – stopping people playing with their friends is something of a downer – possibly simply an attempt to differentiate themselves from the market leader," he said. "EVE recently had its sixth birthday, so this isn’t a question we’ve had to wrestle with in quite some time – you’d have to go back a few years to see what the state of play was when the fundamental decisions behind near-future titles were made to get a handle on this question (or be a developer on one of those titles, of course). I suspect that the further you get from levels and classes, the harder time you’re going to have explaining your progression system to players, which makes it more difficult to achieve the same broad penetration, but I’m not sure that an inspired skill-driven system couldn’t do just as well as a level-based one."

Perhaps the most thorough answer of all came from Hammock, who definitely has a vested interest in seeing skill-based games succeed. With Fallen Earth, the player levels up and then spreads points among a variety of skills. Here was his response, in full:

There’s always a progression in games from less complex to more complex systems.  As players master one system in a game they look for another to master until they have mastered everything, at which point they stop learning and the fun goes down (not all the way, mind you, as many people play games they’ve mastered the skills of, but the feeling of achievement is not as prevalent).  Eventually players master one game and move on look for something else, often moving in to a more complex game similar to the one they just played since it will contain more new systems to master yet still be familiar.  Thus you have players starting out on games like World of Warcraft which, at its basic levels, has a limited number of systems to master.  After they master the many systems it contains, those still looking for more to learn move on to more complex games, such as Eve Online where the learning process begins again.

I think there are a lot of players coming out of games like WoW looking for a bit more depth and control in game systems in terms of character advancement, and thus start looking at skill based systems.  Also game companies have realized there is no such thing as a WoW-Killer, so they’re trying to target the gamers who aren’t getting what they want out of WoW, such as the aforementioned character advancement complexity.  Sure, that market may not be as large as the market WoW dominates, but it doesn’t involve as much direct competition with the 800-pound gorilla.

I don’t think skill-based games will ever be as popular as level-based since level-based games provide such a basic and visceral advancement measure.  You have one number, and if it goes up you’re winning.  It’s hard to argue that sort of reward for playing and it’s something folks new to games can get their head around.  I think skill-based games will always be the refuge of the veteran gamers looking for more complexity, but in the ever-growing MMO market such players are the minority.   

But do the players really believe that skill-based games can succeed? Centrik thought that being successful as a niche game was a possibility, but he didn't seem to think that the games would ever achieve popularity over that:

"There is a very vocal group of players that are advocating skill-bases games," he said. "While they have the potential to become successful niche games, I don't think in-depth skill based games, which are usually more complicated than level-based games, can really be as popular as level-based games."

That said, our own staff writer Reuben "Sardu" Waters believed that there's certainly a possibility that a skill-based game could eventually enter the ranks of MMO popularity again.

"My own take on this type of shift comes down to a larger percentage of players wanting a more dynamic form of advancement than we've seen previously," he said. "AA points and talent trees have really just been dazzle camouflage to help give players the illusion that they control at least a portion of their advancement, when the reality of the matter is that level based games are applying a very single-player mindset to a multi-player environment. In other words, freedom comes in the environments you opt to spend your time in, rather than through advancement systems."
 
So why are skill-based games so hard to develop? Are they harder to develop, or is that just a myth perpetuated by the lack of developers willing to undertake skill point systems? Due to my inexperience as a game developer, I won't even gesticulate on this topic, and let the developers answer the questions for themselves:

EVE Online's Matt Woodward:

I don’t think that skill versus level is an issue here – the difference comes when trying to balance skills versus trying to balance classes. My gut feeling here is that, for a given total number of available skills/abilities, classes will always be easier to balance simply because tying specific skills/abilities to specific classes mathematically reduces the number of possible combinations. That said, even within classes with at least some degree of flexibility you’re still going to see optimized builds in most cases. I’m honestly not sure it’s possible to achieve “perfect balance” without making the variations effectively meaningless and/or soullessly, boringly mathematical. Maybe if you had some incredibly cool tool which could calculate the damage/tank/other combinations for every possible build and flag up the ones which were potentially problematic you might be half-way to solving it, but you might also just be giving your balance developers a nervous breakdown – finding problems and solving problems aren’t the same thing!

I have a sneaking suspicion that the best way to resolve this sort of issue is to design a series of optimal builds and then build the system around those builds. If you have some choices which are meaningful and tweak specific builds towards different playstyles without having a large impact on power, and other choices where there’s a subtle but compelling optimal choice, then you’ll end up with a system that has “bad abilities” designed in that no sane person would use, but you also end up with a system that gives the appearance of choice while also (hopefully) giving you a stable, balanced set of “flavor of the decade” builds that you can take as given and design around. It’s kind of a class system masquerading as a level system, and it’s pretty underhanded, but it might at least get away from constant power swings. Until you try to create new loot sets, of course…

Fallen Earth's Lee Hammock:

I think they are always harder since so many more possible combinations of abilities exist and the current role structure favored in MMOs (tank/healer/DPS) begins to break down under the myriad possibilities.  At that point you have to re-teach people how to play MMOs to some extent and depending on how well you do that, you may get a ton of bugs that aren’t bugs but communication failures.

As for “build of the month” issues, that‘s going to happen no matter what you do—regardless of if you have a class-, level-, or skill-based system.  People are going to develop a build they think is the best no matter what you do. You will have thousands of players and many fewer QA people, and your players will think up combos of items, skills, and abilities that never occurred to you or your QA.  It is impossible to think of all the abuses your player base will find, so you have to concentrate on finding the most egregious problems.  This leaves lots of smaller issues unfound that your players may use to create their ideal builds.  When these arise you have to consider whether they are playing as intended. If not, what parts of the game allow such builds to dominate.  I’m not a big fan of reducing the power of a build because it’s effective, but instead trying to find other weaknesses that make that build effective.  This may not always be possible though and sometimes things need to change.  

Earthrise's Atanas Atanasov:

Skill-based systems are hard to balance because they place a massive amount of options in the hands of the players with very little or no limitations at all. To ensure balance, such systems require an incredible investment in time and testing, and even then the final result never reaches perfection. Yet, the key to the success of MMOs is not balance itself, but the feedback from the designers that respond to the evolution of the game and provide fast and proper changes that cater to the expectations of the players. Instead of allowing players to take advantage of unbalanced character builds, changes should be made to ensure that the design team responds before such issues could reflect on the whole game.   

Since Dungeons and Dragons, the idea of leveling and raising skills has been synonymous with RPGs of every kind. Although MMORPGs don't follow the same standard rules as their single player compatriots, the style of progression hasn't really changed since its inception so many decades ago.

But the developers of today are the best and the brightest that the world has to offer, and if anyone can think up a new system, its the men that I  queried to complete this article.

And unlike the previous answers, the responses I received to this question varied greatly in direction and tone. EVE Online's Matt Woodward, for example, seemed genuinely open minded about alternative methods of progression.

"Even assuming that you need a clear progression mechanic, I think it’s safe to say that there’s more than two ways to skin a cat," he said. "Are there more viable approaches? I’d say yes. Should a team try something different? That’s up for each team to decide on their own. If we’re self-selecting for AAA titles here (a thorough discussion of /all/ MMO and MMO-like titles would reveal a lot more variation than we’re discussing here), we’re also self-selecting for conservativeness. That is I suspect the answer to a lot of “why aren’t MMOs more innovative”-type questions – there are innovative MMOs, and there are big-budget MMOs, but there are very few innovative, big-budget MMOs. It took EVE three or four years of solid growth to get into a position where people would even consider it worthy of discussion as a mainstream game, and under the hood we’re still reasonably conservative."

From the other end of the world, the Seattle-based Guild Wars developer answered the question succinctly, but with a clear emphasis on execution. "There are all sorts of different systems that can be used for achievement in games—skill usage, collection, power over time played, power over real-world time, skill over time, and a handful of others," Cartwright stated. "I don’t expect innovation in every aspect of every game I play, but if you’re going to do something new, make sure you do it well."

Peterscheck, on the other hand, was much more hesitant to simply accept that other advancement systems are even necessary when creating these sort of games. And it's a pertinent question; why change a system that isn't really broken at all. You need numbers and a way to represent a player's advancement, so why muddle with the tried-and-true formula?

"There's probably all kinds of methods that could be tried, bt the question is to what end?" Hermann discussed. "Levels are nice because everyone understands what level 10 vs. level 20 means - that is that level 20 is higher than level 10. It's also a nice way to be able to present progression. In any kind of game where you have to compare ability and power you need some kind of relative measurement - that's all that "level" really is. I think people make a big deal about it, but it really is that simple. Ultima Online had a skill based advancement system that went from 0% to 100% and that worked as well. At the end of the day if your game has some kind of progression you need to have some kind of number that goes up as you advance or get better. So yeah, we can spruce it up all we want, but at the end of the day, that's all it is. The other reason for just using level is that I think innovating just for the sake of being different is silly. If people understand something and it does what it's supposed to do, why change it? You don't see every band and symphony inventing all their own instruments and notation just to be different, so why should game developers do it?"

The Earthrise CEO had a similarly cautious response, although his mind also seems open for other ways of advancement. Perhaps some that aren't so divergent from the norm to appear confusing? Or maybe just systems that utilize technologies that aren't necessarily a part of MMO structures at this point?

"While those aforementioned advancement systems are most familiar to the players and proven to work very well in many titles, there's still a ground for experimenting and implementing new, exciting ways of character development. For example, offline character development takes into account even the time that a player is not logged in the game, but could interact with the game in new ways using various emerging technologies - web or mobile access. "

Finally we return to Fallen Earth's Hammock who, like Woodward, believes that there are innumerable possibilities for games to break out of the D&D mold. Here's what he had to say:

Tons.  Tons and tons.  I would love to see a game that used a social mechanic where you have so many XP each day and you can give them to whoever you want (excepting other characters on the same account or whatever other limitations are wanted) so players are rewarded for being helpful or generous and encourages social interaction (which is sort of the point of MMOs).  Or a strictly usage-based system (which some games have used) where skills go up when they are used.  Or maybe a social system where the entire game levels up together to face game-wide threats.

There are so many possible systems out there, but people tend towards what is familiar and so for now I think we’re stuck with the “need XP to level/get more skill and I get XP through missions/killing/whatever model.”  I would love to see someone really break outside that.  There are plenty of game designers who could make an awesome game without a level/skill XP grind, but finding the financial backing for such in today’s market…not so much.  Sadly the size and cost of MMOs makes “garage game” MMOs extremely difficult, so seeing such an MMO from the indie game scene is unlikely at best, but hope springs eternal.

Strangely enough, it appears that gamers also have a divergent level of thinking when it comes to breaking out of a level/skill mold. Progression is always a mainstay in MMOs, and finding a functional system without progression is incredibly hard to do. Gating off access to particular areas of the world, without a mechanical number to help players, can be disastrous as gamers run into monsters that are much too high for their level.

Still, the day will eventually come where a developer creates a new "norm" and every subsequent MMO will follow their lead.

As the final note to this broad-sweeping look at levels vs. skills, I asked the developers what their thoughts were on the future of skill point-based games and whether there will ever be a game that smashes the level-based strangle hold on the market. Again, I'll let the developers speak for themselves.

Fallen Earth's Lee Hammock:

I think both skill- and level-based games will be around for the foreseeable future since they cater to different audiences generally.  As MMOs grow in popularity, which they seem to do, we’ll have a continually growing pool of both beginner and veteran gamers, each veering to level and skill games respectively.  I think in the long term some other design paradigm will take over MMO progression to remove numerical measures from the system since they feel very artificial (but are used because they are so easy to understand).  Much as the Natal Project at Microsoft hopes to change the way people play games by removing the intimidation of the controller, eventually MMOs will have to get rid of some of the math on the front end to make things more accessible.  

Earthrise's Atanas Atanasov:

While it is hard to predict the direction the genre is heading into, we believe gamers may look towards seeking some very strong skill-based games breaking the MMORPG stereotype.

EVE Online's Matt Woodward:

I genuinely hope that the future will see a gradual but persistent broadening of what’s viewed as an acceptable risk for a big-budget game, as more lower-budget titles push through and demonstrate that other approaches can sustain big-budget incomes. If the market keeps growing and broadening I think this is inevitable, and I do hope that a day will come when we can all look back and laugh at how silly the argument over whether to emulate UO or EQ seems, given the huge profusion of successful MMO models that look nothing like either.

There you have it folks! While we'll never be able to answer which of the systems is "better" for creating MMORPGs, we have delved - albeit briefly - into the reasons behind the sudden resurgence in skill-based games and why gamers may be itching for something beyond the standard leveling system. Keep your eyes peeled for next week's premium article as we continue to explore the MMO industry and get to the bottom of its many mysteries!

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