High Horse: Practice makes a perfect game

High Horse is a rotating opinion column in which GamesRadar editors and guest writers are invited to express their personal thoughts on games, the people who play them and the industry at large.

I can’t draw worth a damn. Put a pencil, paper, and an apple in front of me, and I’ll return an amorphous blob with a line sticking out of it. For whatever reason, I cannot transfer the image of whatever I’m looking at from my brain to the paper in front of me. It would take a long, long time for me to become a passable artist, and lots of frustration and crumpled paper along the way. 

But once I get to the point where I can get my shading down, the shape of the apple just right, and the oh-so-important stem leaning at just the right angle, I will feel like I’ve really accomplished something. Practice begets reward.

Games have an approximation of this experience, most often in the form of experience and levels. As a player goes through the world, swinging swords, casting spells, crafting armor, brewing potions, they grow in strength. With each milestone, they’ll often be met with a satisfying noise and a screen-covering notification letting them know of their growth (note: not accomplishment).

More often than not, these levels are an expression of how much time you’ve spent with a game. How many times have you heard someone ask how long it takes to reach the level cap in an MMORPG? Chances are, you‘ve even asked the question yourself. When questioned as to why they’d like to know that particular information, their answer is likely some variation on, “Well, that’s where the game really gets started.” It’s as if they don’t really care for the initial hours of the game, and only want to get to where things seem challenging.

So what keeps players playing until the endgame, if they’re not terribly concerned with the experience that these early hours offer? It’s the search for the almighty “ding.” What Braid creator Jonathan Blow called “a Pavlovian or Skinnerian scheme” during a talk at the Free Play conference in Sydney, Australia. We’re rewarded on a regular-enough basis that we don’t get bored, always striving for the next landmark. Plus, these levels put a numerical value to the amount of work the player has put into the game, thereby compelling them to continue or lose all that progress. I’d stop short of calling it “exploitative,” as Blow says, but it’s certainly an effective way of keeping players hooked. I’m certainly not immune to it, as my hundreds of hours in World of Warcraft will show.

I’m not convinced that these days’ worth of time spent in game, leveling and leveling, have any analogy to real practice. You, as a player, aren’t getting any better at the way you’re playing. You’re allowing your character to get better without you. There’s a huge disconnect there. As a result, with traditional leveling mechanics, players will never feel as if they’re getting better with their characters. They’ll never share the sense of accomplishment that the characters that they’re playing are being awarded by the game.

In Skyrim, for example, players are rewarded any time they act. Cast a spell, gain some experience. Make a potion, level up. Hell, you’re even given experience for crouching and walking around. It’s incredibly arbitrary. There’s no sense of importance placed on practice, only repetitive action with no possibility of failure. For a truly effective growth of character, there has to be a period of struggle and failure before mastery of any skill.

In this way, RPGs could take cues from fighting games. In Street Fighter IV, players are judged almost purely on skill. Rather than being rewarded for throwing the same fireball over and over again, players must learn how each character interacts with another, which moves can cancel into one another, which specials can be blocked. It may not be as tangible as going up a level, but through practice, players are gaining knowledge and skills much the same way that a character in Skyrim does. 

So why not reward the player for succeeding in their goals, rather than just for attempting them? Dark Souls does this perfectly. Players aren’t allowed to level until they’ve brought back souls to a specified area, and even then it’s a struggle to decide whether they’d rather level up or use the deathly currency for important items or weapons. As a result, the levels and gear gained are true rewards, rather than the bit of cheese at the end of the maze.

This is not an argument for an RPG whose abilities are based entirely on player skill. The constant growth of character strength is still a necessary part of the genre. I’d just like for the time I spend with a game to be spent practicing, not simply doing.


  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - December 12, 2011 4:13 p.m.

  • funster - December 12, 2011 3 a.m.

    Many people would argue games are meant to be 'fun' and switch off their brains after a long day of work. Not to mention 'skill' usually involves timing, which would preclude lag (it's hard to do timing, especially for MMOs where connection can be finicky and slow in many parts of the world)
  • funster - December 12, 2011 4:07 a.m.

    I mean, timing in MMOs is hard to do, not games in general. :p
  • tocsin201 - December 10, 2011 3:58 p.m.

    In a way, Guild Wars is an MMORPG that encourages player practice over character lvl. Guild Wars only has a level cap of 20, long before the end of the main story arch and forces the players to fight against foes lvl. 21-30 in large mobs after you reach the cap, forcing you to play smarter and not rely on gear and level. Another addition to this need for the player to learn and practice is the small skill bar of only 8 skills that can only be changed in a town. By limiting the players skills this much, they must pick and choose skills carefully for the most effective build for the given area the players are going to go through. There is no "one build to rule them all" build that is effective in all areas and players must learn how to adapt.
  • Manguy17 - December 10, 2011 3:09 p.m.

    I reckon skyrims xp would work better if you didnt get xp for doing low level things, like making 1000 daggers to level smithing, or standing about getting punched by a guard while healing. at the same time i like the feeling of not having to strive for levels, simply play how I like and my guy gets stronger. especially as theres not alot of skill in skyrims combat, other than potion/enchant/magic combos, which you rarely need to consider actively. Perhaps a system similar to fable, so range/stealth actions gain xp which earns points that you can then only spend on range/stealth. at least that would remove the ability to power level easy skills and put points into combat, but i feel im getting off topic so ill stop.
  • avantguardian - December 11, 2011 2:34 a.m.

    while i agree for the most part, i think part of skyrim's appeal is that it gives YOU the option. you're aware of possible exploits in regards to level boosting, but in the end it comes down to your own choice as to whether or not you want to take advantage of them (it's even a bit meta). i didn't HAVE to get my smithing skill up to 100 in 50 hours, but as a sword-shield-heavy armor nord, it was one of my highest priorities. hence the ridiculous amounts of iron daggers/leather bracers. that there's freedom in how you choose to level up based on your own principles is nothing short of an astounding success as far as i'm concerned.
  • Elementium - December 10, 2011 12:41 p.m.

    I can agree with that to a point.. I don't need to grow with my character.. In games where leveling offers you new abilities is where I enjoy leveling the most. You get to form your character spell by spell sometimes having to sacrifice one for another and looking forward to your new more powerful spell at your next level. That's the leveling I like. I like fighting games but I don't need them in my RPG's. To me.. (even though Blizzard is changing it in MoP) WoW has had the best leveling system around for both classes and professions (although profession leveling could be more fun..) Being able to train your new skill and expand your talents further into your spec is a good feeling. Skyrims leveling.. i could do without.. As you said.. every breath is rewarded.. and the options are all there for you off the bat.. No sacrifices need to be made if you want to be a heavy armored, spell casting, necromancer. For me.. that's too much choice. Especially since it effects balance so greatly.. like in oblivion, ranged is all powerful and those of us who prefer melee are forced to at the very least.. run away and heal frequently.
  • FlagrantPilgrim - December 10, 2011 9:08 a.m.

    Nice article, Mr. Cocke. I've always preferred the way games like Monster Hunter handle player improvement. There's no leveling up, so there's no improvement of the base stats of your character. It's all based on your equipment. I always feel better killing a wyvern in MH than a dragon in Skyrim. I'm not saying that MH is better than Skyrim, of course. It just does a couple things better.
  • TaylorCocke - December 10, 2011 12:17 p.m.

    Embarrassing confession: I've never played a Monster Hunter game. Perhaps I should! It kinda bums me out that we have to point out that if we like one aspect of a game more than the same aspect in another, it doesn't necessarily mean that we prefer one game over the other. We can dislike certain mechanics of our favorite games without throwing out the whole thing!
  • FlagrantPilgrim - January 4, 2012 7:51 a.m.

    Well said! As for not having played Monster Hunter, if you don't know anyone else that plays it, don't bother. It's roughly 1/4 as fun by yourself.
  • ObliqueZombie - December 9, 2011 8:07 p.m.

    Wow, I was JUST having a similar discussion on this! Good timing. After watching egoraptor's "Mega Man vs. Mega Man X," this sort of thing was HEAVILY discussed. Games, as of late, haven't been "teaching" us how to play their games. There's no true tangible skill being taught, and it's mainly hand holding. Now, of course, there's still a lot of that "old school" teaching left in Skyrim. For example, casting Fireballs. After wasting an obscene amount of Magicka trying to hit those erratic AIs, you start to learn how to predict their modus operandi and where and when to fire. But, I digress. Fantastic article, and I think a lot of developers could learn from this. We want more achievements that tell us, "hey, you're getting better" instead of "hey, nice numbers."
  • D0CCON - December 9, 2011 5:01 p.m.

    I thought this was going to bash modern games and say how something like Super Meat Boy is better instead of saying levelling up isn't that special.
  • Y2Ken - December 9, 2011 4:46 p.m.

    I like where this article is going. I'm a big fan of the Skyrim leveling, but it would be nice to feel you've earned levels for more substantial reasons than "I used it a lot". Perhaps they could implement challenges similar to those found in Red Dead (for example) - maybe get two headshots with a bow in five seconds gets you a point towards your Archery skill, as an example.
  • jackthemenace - December 10, 2011 1:37 a.m.

    That's a pretty decent idea, to be fair. I hate the idea of having to CHOOSE between either levelling up OR getting better gear, as Dark Souls apparently has (I haven't played it yet- sob), but your example -even if it IS RD:R... - makes sense. start of giving points for simple things, like just USING a skill, and then, as the player levels it up, they need to complete harder and harder challenges to level it up further.
  • Ultimadrago - December 9, 2011 4:44 p.m.

    But Dark Souls is booooring and slow-paced. There has to be more fun examples of what you're explaining.
  • joemonkey - December 9, 2011 4:33 p.m.


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