I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable new year. I am getting right back into continuing the Casual Alpha’s Guide series.
Let’s talk about skills. In character-driven video games, our avatars learn how to do things that we can only imagine, whether that is summoning a fireball with a magic spell or piloting a starship that’s faster than the speed of light. For us in the real world, our skills are limited by four things:
- What is possible according to the physical laws of the universe. This is why it has never helped for me to shout fus ruh dah at any of my cats when they jump back up on the table yet again.
- Access to training and materials. I don’t have access to spacecraft or the trainers who could teach me how to pilot one.
- Physical and intellectual capacity to learn the skills. Even if it was possible for a human to attain the near-superhuman skills of the Batman, it wouldn’t be me doing it.
- Desire and inclination. While it may be realistic and possible to go salsa dancing, I live near enough to places I could learn, I probably have enough money to pay for lessons if I were to prioritize this, and am at least able-bodied enough to give it a shot, in order for me to learn this skill I must put in the requisite time.
What video games do, for our entertainment, is to exempt our characters from the first three requirements and drastically commute the last one. The games offer us a vicarious experience by redefining the rules around what is possible. However, in the absence of the normal restrictions, the game must preserve a sense of incentive/reward in order for the title that goes along with the skill to mean anything. Remember, a title must be seen as compensatory for some kind of effort put in.
In some games, simply progressing through the plot unlocks new skills. In others, “experience points” are rewarded for killing enemies or for accomplishing other tasks on the side. EVE Online, however, indulges in the ultimate technological fantasy: being able to plug our brain into a computer and downloading knowledge and practical skills while sleeping. From a game design perspective, what EVE does is make learning skills a question of allocating real time that the player does not have to spend in front of the computer rather than incentivizing the player to spend as many hours at the keyboard as possible to grind the EXP to get the level-up in order to get the skill. The following is a snapshot of Aleff Knoll’s skill queue from a few weeks ago:
Yes, that’s over two full days of offline training I’ve got queued up in there. If I was a subscribed user, I could have a month or more in this queue silently ticking away whenever I am not online. While there are many new character skill guides out there, I have decided to follow my experience rather than metaknowledge gained from the various wikis and guides available online. I acquired a destroyer and I can look at the details for this model which tell me what skills I need to fly the ship with increasing levels of expertise:
So that’s what I have been doing instead of what would have been my assigned readings from EVE University. Now in tandem with the “skills” of the character come the skills of the player. For these, the career agents in my starter system have been quite helpful. The quests they give out are nothing special, like go haul this or kill bandits there. What I found is that the player-skills I picked up (such as how to use the targeting system effectively rather than the clunky way I was doing it during the introductory tutorial) all emerged from trial and error rather than having a big flashing sign that said “click here.”
This, rather than some kind of EXP grind, feels more rewarding because understanding the game for myself is a small personal accomplishment, whereas simply having a character that holds certificates and “skills” doesn’t mean I know anything or can do anything in particular. A few years ago, one of the richest players in EVE spent an inhuman amount of ISK on creating a brand new character with maxed-out skills. No grind, just the character skill reward for “cash.” Of course, one must have at least a basic understanding of the game to know how to use the in-game items to make this happen, and the guys who do this sort of thing aren’t plunking down $28,000 in real money to CCP in one shot. These are top tier players paying with ISK made in-game; the dollar values are usually used to illustrate the scale of these things to people who don’t play the game. What that case does prove, in principle, that this game can be pay-to-win but only if you consider your character’s skill level to be a valid ranking. And the truth of the matter is, while it certainly does give an in-game advantage in some areas, having maximum skills doesn’t end the game. You don’t get a certificate saying you’ve won an academic victory. Life in New Eden simply goes on. Both character skills and player skills are essential to winning, but you have to decide what winning means. In this way, it’s a lot like life. It’s great to know things, and be able to do things, but really: what you choose to do with what you’ve got is what matters, not what you could do if you chose differently. It is perhaps more important to have a good sense of what winning is than it is to have the skills to get there.
The next post in this series will be on January 28th, 2017. By then I will have left the local environs of my noob station to explore a little bit more of the local neighborhood, if not the whole galaxy.