Raging debate of the moment pretty much everywhere in UO now is skill gain and has it been nerfed.
Here’s what I see as the problems with skill gain:
Trade skills are too hard to increase. Specifically smithing and bowcrafting, although most of the others aren’t pretty either. Combat skills are, on the other hand, pretty easy to raise, except on Siege Perilous (which is why most folks hate the shard with an undying passion and post “BRING BACK ABYSS YOU PUDS!!!1!!!” as their sig on CoB dev board posts.)
The random number generator in UO isn’t. This has been a subject of debate ever since UO began. The developers insist that the random number generator in UO really works. The players insist that, no, they consistently get runs of successes and failures that are statistically improbable, to say the least. The developers respond that this is proof of randomness. The players then pull out a Glock and go Xerox on the developers. The resultant death of the developers is possibly one of the reasons Necromancy is not yet ready for release.
Skill gain is tied to global usage of that skill. This is a philisophical underpinning of the skill system in UO and, no offense, is a crock of festering insert-disgusting-dead-thing-here. Its purpose is to slow down skill gain to make grandmastery rare. However, since in almost all skills grandmastery is required just to compete on a level playing field, players macro the skills to gain them as fast as possible. This drives usage rate up and makes them harder to gain in, thus increasing the desire of players to macro them. It’s a vicious cycle, and instead of fixing the problem, Origin simply created brand spanking new ones by just outlawing macroing. Gotta love that linear thinking.
How do other ORPGs handle this problem?
Everquest slows down skill gain by instituting a level system and putting a skill cap per level on most skills. This moves the problem from skill gain to level gain. Macroing isn’t a problem in Everquest because you, um, can’t. Even if some clever weasel figured out how to, there’s not a whole lot that could be macroed efficiently anyway since so much of EQ is basically sitting around waiting for a level-appropriate creature to magically spawn.
From my brief experience with Asheron’s Call, the skill system was one of the few things they nailed. The system works off of experience points (you have levels, but they are pretty much just marker points and have no in-game value) which can be spent to increase the skill of your choice. Skills can also be gained via use as in UO. I don’t know enough about AC to comment further on skill gain, but it seems fairly straightforward.
Now, I could refer you to some highpaid consultant’s $500 guide to how to fix online games, but heck, I don’t have $500 on me, so I don’t know if it actually addresses skill gain. So instead I’ll just make my own suggestions. I won’t charge a dime, although of course if you WANT to send me $500 you can. (On second thought just send it here, they can use it more. I’ll just spend it on more computer games and perpetuate the problem.)
These games are inherently competitive. Even in “co-operative” games like Everquest, players compete with one another, to see who has the most toys or the highest level. Competition is a part of basic human nature. At least for males, which make up a good portion of the gaming demographic. (My wife insists she doesn’t have a competitive bone in her body, and since most of her time in ORPGs is spent helping newbies it’s hard to argue the point.)
People like to compete on a level playing field. Very few folks like to start at a disadvantage. In UO, that means grandmastery, whether in combat skills for PvP or in trade skills for economic domination. No one wants to bring a knife to a gunfight. Sean Connery will laugh at you.
People will try to get to that level playing field as fast as possible. It’s human nature, again. No one wants to be inferior. Especially with the allure of what’s around the corner so readily apparent in such community-based games. So, in UO you macro (attended, of course, to stave off the Happy Macro Police), in EQ you camp and powerlevel, in AC, I dunno, kill 9,000 Matt Drudges for experience. You want to get to the real game.
In UO, especially, the journey is not the reward. The process of skill gain is pretty damned tedious, for the most part simple repetitive activity. It sucks. No one enjoys macrosmithing or macromining or powerlumberjacking or even sparring polar bears. It’s stupid and fiction-breaking (for those 4 people who still care about that).
Skill gates aren’t the answer. Sorry, Abyss freaks. It didn’t work. Skill gates utterly destroy the concept of a persistent world. There has to be SOME journey to validate the reward. Possibly not the ironman endurance test we all grit our teeth and experience now, but popping through a moongate and popping out a GM Everything only rewards the twinks who like to make instant characters for grief purposes. It doesn’t work for normal play.
So. Those are the problems. The solution?
I think a solution could be cribbed from EverQUEST. Allow in-game quests to reward players with skill gain. We see this implemented already with the newbie quests already in place, so it is do-able. Allow master blacksmiths to find the Holy Forge of Truth or something to get a point of skill gain. I don’t know. We have lots of overly creative minds which could be put to use on this problem. Yes, they could and would be “powerused” by folks to get to GM quicker. Um, so what?
If the journey becomes more of the reward, people wouldn’t be so intent on shortcircuiting it. And we’d quit bitching about the fershluggin’ random number generator.