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.

Level-based: The Progressives

Thus we come to the alternative game style which is most often associated with theme-park games--level-based progression. The two are not quite as synonymous as skill-based progression and sandbox games, but they’re found together far more often than not. The reason they’re often married is because theme park games are looking for the easy everything. The developers want the game to be easy--easy to maintain, easy to upgrade. Most importantly, they want it to be easy to predict what you’ll do.

In level-based games, where you go, what you can make, what you can wear, what you fight… it’s all based on your level. So, yeah, it’s a lot easier for developers to build a game around that. They can keep everyone on neat little tracks from point A to point B. The advantage is that they know exactly how powerful the others in your group are, and precisely how powerful the opponent is, whether mob or player. If you lose a fight in a level-based game, it wasn’t due to the fact that the other player had more skill than you; he just played his character better than you did.

Where skill-based games expect you to fail, level-based games are trying to keep you from it. You only attack mobs that are the right level, or get missions/quests that you can actually complete. Then, if you do bite off more than you can chew, there’s rarely any real loss involved. The Affordable Healthcare Act allows you to rez at your nearest spirit healer with little to no real penalty.

Skills or Levels

Absolutely, comrade. Healing is free… if you don’t count the 14% sales tax we use to pay for it…

The result of all that is a consistency that a lot of players (and I shamefully admit, often older players such as myself) prefer because you always know what you’re going to get. You know how long it should take to accomplish certain tasks. You also know about how challenging any given part should be: easy. It’s not a bad word, but “easy” is what we’re talking about here. Level-based games are just easier all around and, for a lot of gamers, just what they’re looking for.

Enjoy WoW, Comrade

Of course, we have to get to the touchy part of the game-type, how it relates to the socialist model for economics, and why that appeals to a lot of people. Before you get out of shape about your game being a communist propaganda tool, take a second to look at it. Consider some of the core concepts of most theme-park games.

The biggest, or at least one of the most glaring, is the concept of uniformity. There’s an illusion of choice and individuality, but ask yourself if that’s actually real. There’s always a best set of gear for a given class, best talent/skill/whatever build, and best line-up of abilities. There may be some minor differences here and there, but everyone is just expected to conform, and those who don’t find themselves without a group soon.

The second is that of imposed equality through game mechanics. While it doesn’t really shout at you like the some of the other things pointed out above, it’s still pervasive in these types of games. You can’t have exceptional weapons and armor for your level because they’re all restricted by level. If the gap between those who have a lot of in-game currency and those who don’t widens too much, systems are put into place that serve no purpose other than to suck cash out of the game. Additionally, all crafts tend to be equally accessible by everyone and no one is really allowed to become the grandmaster forger of awesome swords +12 on the server because anyone can get that recipe if they want to.

Skills or Levels

Ten folks a fishing, and not one of them doing it wrong…. Because you really can’t.

That sounds like a lot of bad stuff, so why would anyone like something like that? Because it’s fair… well, people think it’s fair, but that’s another article. The idea is that if we even everything out to where I can’t craft anything you can’t craft, and I don’t have access to any abilities you don’t have access to, then you should never get steamrolled the way you might in a skill-based progression system. You’ll never get run out of the market by a competing corporation like you would in EVE because resources and recipes are pretty universally available. It’s more complex than that, but really it’s all about leveling the playing field so everyone has an equal chance, and that’s why it appeals to a lot of players.

Tao of the Reed

You may think the point of this article is to point out which system is best, but that’s not the case. It’s no secret that, being a rather capitalist-oriented fellow myself, I happen to prefer the skill-based progression system and sandbox games. But this isn’t really about what I prefer, it’s about answering a question: which system is best?

Skills or Levels

Maybe it’s just a dream, but maybe ESO will manage to combine the best of both worlds to redefine what progression means in MMOs.

The answer is neither. They both have their place in the gaming industry, just like the economic and associated governmental models have their places. We couldn’t have a good capitalist society without a socialized library or education system, both of which are institutions I’ve taken serious advantage of over the years. In the same way, I think the next exceptional game will be the one that finds the proper balance between the two.

Until then, we’re all going to have our preferred system and good reasons to like it, but we also need to understand that not all players are alike. What works for the potty-mouthed pre-teen, probably isn’t that great for the employed adult gamer with responsibilities. Both systems have strengths, and both have their weaknesses. I’m very interested to see how the hybrid system promoted in The Elder Scrolls Online addresses each and whether this will be a redefinition of gaming, or another failed attempt at having our cake and eating it too.

Perhaps, the best method is to be like the reed in the wind; bending upon the breeze, it finds its strength in flexibility.

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Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016