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Skills or Levels: Gaming for the Modern Socialist

Posted Mon, Mar 18, 2013 by ricoxg

In my last article we took a look at how The Elder Scrolls Online handles progression with their odd mix of level-based and skill-based systems. Today we’re taking a more in-depth look at some of the reasons players prefer those two systems by looking at the two game types that most often employ them, sandbox and theme park. In addition, we’ll be seeing whether or not Joseph McCarthy would have approved by realizing what these game models have in common with two systems of economics.

Skill-based: The Conservatives

Skill-based games tend to be harder, packed with hackers, and rarely come with all the bells and whistles of their level-based cousins. Yet people increasingly love playing them over level-based games. Why? There’s not a game forum out there that doesn’t have at least a few threads dedicated to the superiority of sandbox games over theme park games, but it’s a challenge to figure out why people would play them with all their current flaws.

Skills or Levels

Darkfall had mounts, but due to high numbers of hackers, it felt like you were the one constantly being mounted.


The answer friends, is a love of liberty. Turns out it’s all about one basic idea. Nearly every sandbox game out there uses a skill-based system of some sort because it allows players the freedom to choose their own path. No one is locked into one specific play style and, whether for good or ill, you’re allowed to advance in any skill you choose. Want to invest all your time into gathering ingredients and learning to make bright red clown shoes? You can do that, but don’t expect to get much return on investment. Or could you? Maybe it’s just a matter of marketing. Maybe all the cool kids wear clown shoes, and that’s where sandbox games and skill-based progression start making sense.

The option to take even the dumbest idea and make it a viable in-game business model is what freedom from levels can offer. Yeah, I think you’ve figured it out by now. Skill-based games are the Capitalist’s take on gaming. The system focuses on you the player, your ability to make specific choices in the direction you want to go, and the freedom to change your mind later if you like. In these games, you get back exactly what you put into them, and the wisdom of your choices translates to success or failure.

Skills or Levels

EVE Online has a solid model of additive development where they’ve constantly added to the game for balance, rather than taking away, another hallmark of sandbox games.


Players tend to love skill-based games for the freedom they allow them to grow their character and be whatever they want to be. The great thing about a well-built sandbox game with a solid skill-based progression system is that the players themselves generate all the content. Nothing is more dramatic, ingenious, vicious, or noble than players. If done well, tapping into all the brightest and darkest aspects of humanity provides the ultimate story, and that’s the major draw of games like this.

Losing is Okay

Few people think about it this way, but skill-based games have one major difference from their level-based cousins--they’re built around the idea that losing is not only okay, but sort of expected. You’re not supposed to want to lose, no one does, but these games tend to be a little more difficult because it’s not just expected that you’ll occasionally lose, it’s your right.

Starting to see the eerie parallel between games and economic models or forms of government now? Capitalism relies on the idea that everyone will strive harder to succeed if working for their own gain, and holds as one of its most basic principles that failing is okay. Failing is actually important, because as much as it sucks and hurts, it also teaches us valuable lessons. Well, it does if we choose to learn them.

Skills or Levels

EVE’s not just like an economic model, it IS an economic model, proving how ingeniously creative players can be when you give them the freedom to be.


Those who choose to accept failure as part of growth go on to own massive chunks of the in-game world, changing the markets of EVE Online on a whim, or sending whole corporations to war with a single soft word. Those who fail to learn the lessons offered in every failure tend to rage quit and never have the opportunity to know the world-shaping glory of even the most basic sand-box game.

But how can losing count as a reason people play a game? It seems kind of like an obvious answer because there are a lot of people who enjoy challenging games, but it’s not just a question of challenge. There’s an excitement to the risk inherent in sandbox-type games and an enormous sense of accomplishment when you succeed. Knocking a bunch of blocks down on top of cartoon pigs is entertaining, but it doesn’t compare to the hair-raising escape from vicious PK’ers. It doesn’t even rate on the scale used to measure the immense joy of crushing said PK’ers a few minutes later when you return geared and with friends. The joy in victory is proportional to the fear that came before it.


once again ricoxg writes a piece that barely disguises his political views.

so we're to buy your line of sandbox games are the capitalists game of choice eh? Well here's the rub the skill based progression systems ultimately reward those who have the most time to put into it. this could be argued about MMO's in general. but in level based games it only works for equipment as once you leve cap you will ( or should) be balanced against others in terms of raw power.

however in skill based games the no lifers will have access to as much power as the game has, meaning the game rewards them for having way more time than other folk. you can run around with a huge weapon skilled up to the max then throw fireballs of carnage the next simply cos you don't have a job IRL to pluck you from your march to uberness for a few hours a day.

so the "conservative" model (to use your own description) ultimately allows the few to lord it over the masses destroying all who come near them as mere playthings. I can see why you would advocate it knowing your own view on society. The analogy with conservatism doesn't end there, you allude to it yourself. "these games are more prone to cheaters" yes you find in these games that many of the ultra rich and powerful actually abused the system to get there. (familiar anyone?) be it by means of manipulating the auction house to garner insane amounts of in-game currency or by using cheat programmes or macros

here's the rub tho , unlike in RL where the lords of the masses are the rich and powerful, in MMO land the lords are the unemployed. so while we all go to work and pay taxes they sit at home sharpening their skills ready to destroy us for having the audacity to Log in for a few hours to relax after work.

thanks but no thanks , perhaps that's why these types of games are niche or fail utterly within a few months? Because as with society in general most folk (the masses) dislike feeling they are simply peons for the powerful to use and abuse as they see fit. As with every walk of life the less rules you have in place to protect the masses from those who would pervert and cheat the system for personal gain the less friendly and enjoyable that place ends up being. You can't change human nature but you can legislate for it and employ systems to ensure the many are allowed to have fun un spoilt by the few.

Ginzo... you seem to have missed the point. The skill-based system NEEDS a loser. This is WHY it has a fanbase. It's not SUPPOSED to be "fair". Just like there are people with the luck/perseverence/inheritance/dedication that allows them to drive a Rolls Royce while you drive a Kia, there are those in skill based games with the luck/hacks/disability/dedication to have more shinies than you.

Liking one or the other isn't wrong, and if you don't like it, then don't play sandboxes. We won't miss you, I promise.

all games have folk that are better geared or whatever , I said clearly that ALL mmo's reward those with most time to throw at it. That being said the reason imo that most sand box MMO's fail miserably to grab more than a small fraction of MMO players. is that while you can flex your ego about how tough you are for enjoying losing long enough to achieve Uberness then set about crushing those new to the game most folk dont seem to like that sort of skewed way to play.
If i wanted to be king of the MMO (and i mean any MMO sand or theme) I'd give up my job, divorce my wife and wave the kids goodbye. So if by that you mean luck/hacks/perseverence i'll pass thanks cos I also won't miss playing with you.
All mmo's have learning curve's, demand time investments (perseverence) not just the sand box griefers paradise type ones. So the premise of the whole piece that somehow only the sandbox type hack fests are for the "uber conservative rightous " players is utter garbage imo.

I've played all MMO's pretty much since SWG and EVERY single one involved failures and success's I raided in EQ2 and WoW and had as much failures in both. So trying to convince us that sandbox games are the only place where players have to endure fialure to ahcieve success is laughable, as is using a political analogy to make the point.

Ive played enough sandbox games to learn that anonymity plus internet gaming = act like an online sociopath for enough gamers to make me believe that these games attract more of that mindset. If you allow folk to grief and harrass other players then folk will do it in any game. However once a game actively removes any system to curb acting like a moron it simply encourages more morons to come and play. I dont mind my games trying to prevent folk being morons and actively spoiling others fun , cos its not something I do anyway. I dont act like a jerk in real life (you know where there's consequences) so i dont get a boner doing it online. Some folk do tho they enjoy doing stuff in game that would earn them a punch in the face if they did it outside their bedroom. So logic dictates that they will migrate to the type of game that lets them behave like that.

funny thing is on these type of games the forums usually start with the theme of " this game is only for the hardcore" Then within a few months it changes to " is this game dying, It's full of hackers"
Followed by a few more months " come back they fixed stuff"

double post urgh

Very interesting game it is. I've played thrice when I was in college.
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