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The Soapbox: Grinding skill instead of gear

Patrick Mackey

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

One of the most troubling things I see in gamers these days is their incessant pursuit of loot. If you happen to play World of Warcraft, you know that getting into a pick-up raid involves a lot of people waving around GearScore like it's an actual measurement of player ability. Ever tried to get into an Ultra-Max Security group in Global Agenda? I hope you've got top-quality token gear and are level 50 because the time you spent getting those things matters a lot more than actually having any sort of skills.

As a tournament fighting-game player, I take offense to this. You don't need to have an epic'd-out Chun Li to win in Street Fighter. In online games, gear is important, but it isn't the first thing you should be pursuing.

Your argument is invalid

There is a straw man fallacy regarding this that I really have to address before I move any further. Some of you are going to argue that if someone is in terrible gear, it doesn't matter how good he is at the game. This statement is true, but it's not what I'm saying at all. It is obvious that a low-level, undergeared character cannot do top-end content. However, max-level, poorly geared characters can do a lot of things you guys would never expect.

It doesn't take top-level gear to achieve things in most games (some Asian grindfest MMOs do skirt this rule somewhat). In Global Agenda, it's nice to have high-end gear, but being level 31 gives you access to 90% of the best gear in the game (shatterboost aside) and the same talents as a level 50 character. In Guild Wars, gear is nice, but good builds and smart play are far more important for success.

Yes, some games are extremely focused on gear as a barrier for advancement, and being geared is a requirement to get anywhere. In most games, the gear needed is not top-quality, even if people might insist otherwise. The few games that do fall into that mold are probably not worth playing.

Being awesome means spending less time, not more

It isn't readily apparent from playing, but a little time spent on wikis, gaming websites, or your game's strategy forums can make a huge difference in how much time you spend doing frustrating content. Most teams spend a lot of time struggling or wiping on tough content. You can vastly decrease the amount of time your group takes to get through tough situations by doing 15 minutes of research before you join a dungeon team.

I have a friend who plays WoW pretty religiously. He mains a healing-spec'd Druid, and he was doing some 5-man instance with a pick-up group. His group suffered a wipe, and my friend furiously screamed at his "fail tank" for wiping his group. I asked him what happened, and he exclaimed that his team had aggroed the next group of enemies before he had arrived and then blamed him for not healing. He further elaborated that he had "gotten lost" in the dungeon and didn't know the proper path to take since this was his first time in the dungeon. I quickly responded: "They're blaming you because it's your fault, dude."

It's pretty simple -- if you are inexperienced with something, not doing research about where to go in a dungeon is your failing, not your team's. There was certainly blame to be had on all sides, but freaking out and blaming someone else for something you are partly responsible for is not a very good solution.

Why should I spend hours researching when I'm already good enough?

The blame-game I presented above stems from one big problem: People think they're good enough when they're really not. This isn't something I just randomly made up; there's quite a bit of scientific evidence backing up that claim. People suck, but they are usually blissfully unaware of how unskilled they are. One of my friends who played World of Warcraft claimed that she was one of the best healers on her server; she claimed that she was so good that she did not need UI addons to help her heal in raids. If you have ever been in a raid before, you would know that those two statements just don't go together. In my brutally honest manner, I told her as such. I think she was pretty miffed by it.

I'm going to make this a little more clear: If you think you're good at something, you probably suck. An expert is aware of his own failings, and unless there is a mountain of evidence that supports his position as one of the elite, he tends to be very modest about his performance.

I'll point out my video guide for defeating Shadow Destroyer, one of the endgame bosses in Champions Online.Throughout the video, I comment heavily on how bad I play and ways I could have done better. We don't all take videos of ourselves doing high-end content to analyze later, but it's critically important that we observe mistakes we make when you play. If we're not finding ways to improve, our skills stagnate.

Once you've taken that critical look at yourself and found some ways to improve, improve them! If you think you're doing everything right, look at whatever resources you have to find out what you can do to make yourself better. Sometimes that will mean changing your build. In many F2P games, it might mean you have to spend real money to buy a skill respec. In other games, this might mean completely rerolling if your spec is particularly bad.

Although it's really just an extension of what I said above, if you think that you shouldn't have to respec into a "cookie cutter spec" in order to play the high-level game, you are probably one of the people for whom those specs exist. It is true that standard builds are not for everyone, but the only way you can really know if they aren't for you is if you have a lot of experience with those kinds of builds and understand specific reasons to deviate from them. The reason FOTM builds are FOTM is that they're good. People have spent hours and hours of gameplay testing and refining them. Don't claim you know more than experts who have put dozens or hundreds or thousands of combined hours testing and perfecting top-level builds. "This build works just fine for me" is not an excuse.

Gear really does matter, just not as much

"If you accept the fact that there is a lot of stuff you need to learn and you work toward gaining that knowledge, anything is within your grasp."

I won't lie. Gear is important. However, if you're grinding gear to get into top-level content, you're probably missing the point. You are what is keeping you from being a top-tier PvPer or endgame raider or whatever you want to be. If you're an amazing player, the rewards will come, and unless you're playing some crazy grindfest MMO, the journey to better gear will be easier and more fruitful.

Now here is the real lesson that I want you guys to take away from all this. MMO skill isn't the only thing you can apply this lesson to. If you accept the fact that there is a lot of stuff you need to learn and you work toward gaining that knowledge, anything is within your grasp.

I'm a roleplayer, and roleplaying isn't graded in absolutes like winning or losing. Still, I practice my skills and take notice of the things I do wrong. If a disconnect happens or drama ensues because of something I did in RP, I take those failings to heart and try not to let them happen again. I improve my ability to convey ideas and feelings in-character and talk over what happened IC afterward. I often keep logs and re-read them, too. As a result, a lot of people think I'm a good roleplayer. Heck, my writing skills are polished enough that I'm writing this column on Massively and not on my personal blog. Even though I'm fortunate enough to have the best writing job in the universe, that doesn't stop me from being critical of myself. I know a lot of writers that think they're good; I think I'm OK, but I could be better.

The beginning of the journey of self-improvement begins with a single step: telling yourself that you suck. If you think that you're not very good, the desire to get better takes care of the rest.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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