An Ode to High Skill Ceilings

areluin-48I miss the days when MMOs created classes that had high skill ceilings. By that I mean classes where your success or failure actually hinges on how well you can play your class. This is why I love my rune-keeper in Lord of the Rings Online; depending on how well I’m playing that day, I can take on four or five things my level at once, or die after a single one-to-one fight. Like in chess, I have to think several moves ahead, about how long I can keep throwing DoTs before I switch to putting bubbles and HoTs on myself before switching back to damage. When it works out, it’s the best feeling on Middle-Earth. When it doesn’t, I have no one to blame but myself, and I’m ok with that. Somehow the knowledge that I couldn’t have possibly beaten an encounter because of my class and level makes the game feel scripted and robs it of some of its fun. Both rune-keepers and wardens are looked down upon by some players as “bad” classes, but I’ve seen people do some amazing things with both. It’s not the class that’s bad, it’s that it’s less forgiving to bad players. Sure, we need both–everyone has to start somewhere–but I love when I find a class that allows me to solo group quests, but doesn’t feel overpowered because I had to work for that win.

The worst case is when the skill required to do well is high, but the game doesn’t reward players for it. For instance, I remember when Star Wars the Old Republic’s Shadow/Assassin class could out-tank any other class if the player knew what they were doing. Their rotation was complex, with a lot of defensive cooldowns to make up for their light armor, but it was totally worth it to learn. Sadly, from what I’ve heard from current players, they’re only a shadow of their former selves (pun totally intended) in that respect. They can still tank, but at the end of the day they don’t make better tanks than the Knight or Vanguard, who have to do only a fraction of the work to accomplish the same thing.

Sadly, it seems like many newer games tend to have lower and lower skill ceilings. Some would say it’s because the genre is being slowly dumbed down and casual-ified, and, while there’s some truth to that, I would argue that it has more to do with balance. It’s much easier to balance classes that have a pretty low skill ceiling, because you’re fairly safe in assuming that everyone is going to be playing at or near that ceiling. Also, your testers don’t have to be experts in every class to get an accurate picture of how it will play in the hands of players, just average. I really like WildStar’s solution to this. In WildStar, classes are fairly simple, but player skill is still a huge part of doing well, because you’re constantly moving and dodging red telegraphs while making sure you’re pointed at whatever you’re currently attacking/healing.

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3 thoughts on “An Ode to High Skill Ceilings

  1. I wouldn’t know about the skill ceilings of classes getting lower in newer MMOs (the newest I am knowledgeable enough to say something about it SWTOR and that one is 5y old), but I often get the impression that people don’t *realize* the capacity of the class they’re playing due to landscape and easymode group content being easier than in older MMOs; they don’t get challenged to make an effort.

    Some notes about SWTOR & LOTRO:
    Shadow tanks in SWTOR are actually the best of all three tanks momentarily, and have been since 4.0. The latest expansion (5.0) didn’t really change that.

    It’s funny that you mention RK as having a high skill ceiling. I would say that, because RKs scale so well with LOTRO’s ongoing power creep, they actually have one of the lower skill floors. Even if you’re not particularly great at DPSing you will still get good DPS numbers on RK. Classes with a high skill cap would be burglar, warden, captain, guardian. (Just to make sure we’re talking about the same thing, when I say skill ceiling or skill cap I mean the amount of skill required to reach 100% of a class’ potential.)

    Generally speaking, the skill cap in SWTOR is higher than in LOTRO, because the action per minute (APM) is so much higher (note that the classes I just named as having a high skill cap in LOTRO are also the classes that have the highest APM in that game, or need to make decisions very quickly). For instance, you can get better away with clicking rather than keybinding your skills in LOTRO than in SWTOR.

    • Ah, I knew repeating that bit about the Shadow without confirming it would get me in trouble. A guildie who still plays SWTOR told me that he felt like they were nerfed when he went back for 5.0, but he hadn’t played in a while, so it could easily be a perception problem.
      As for RKs being easier than other classes, I can see how that would be true in a group, but I’m level 48 at the moment, so I’m playing entirely solo at the moment. I feel like long cast times actually make things harder in solo play because you have to plan ahead; will I need to heal in the next X seconds, or will this cast make it? Also, in imagining how it would play in endgame content (although, let’s be honest, at the rate I’m going, I’ll never catch the endgame), I’m interested in healing, which seems to me like it would be more skill-based than the other healing classes, but maybe I’m wrong there too.

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