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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.