Conditioned For Boredom

I'd like to finish Skyrim, just to say I did and also to enjoy the epic content in this game, but I'm afraid I've learned to hate the game.  And words such as "learned" and "conditioned" apply well to the situation, because that's exactly what's going on

As you play games, and learn to "beat" them, you learn lessons that you then take on to other games.  Sometimes, these lessons will actually ruin the next game, whether because it's such a clone that there's nothing new to learn, or because you're conditioned to play the game in a way that is less enjoyable from previous games you've played.



My foremost trouble with Skyrim is that my lessons from massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) translate poorly here. There's a natural temptation to apply those lessons there because, after all, both have massive worlds and your job, as the player, is to beef up your characters to unlock more content until you reach the end.  However, the subtle differences between an MMORPG and a single player game end up sabotaging my experience when I take those lessons to Skyrim.

Min/Maxing

One such lesson is to "min/max," seeking the most powerful possible character.  In MMORPGs, this is because you know you'll be investing a lot of time on a character, eventually you're going to reach the top level in the game, and you don't want to look like the guy who doesn't know how to play the game when you get there because this will hurt your chances of getting a group and (under some rulesets) get you victimized by player killers.  Yet, in offline games, there's really no competition, I should be perfectly able to enjoy having a "gimped" character.

The first time I played Skyrim, content still fresh for me to enjoy, I started out on the right foot: the developers said that this was a game where you can try out all the skills and eventually grow your character into a preferred play style.  Then, my min-maxing instincts took over:
  • I soon picked up on the fundamental fact that Skyrim gives you many ways to the same end of inflicting damage (archery, one-handed melee, two-handed melee, destruction magic) and I would be better off on just focusing on one.  
  • Destruction magic fell by the wayside when I realized I could use the crafting skills to make an extremely effective weapon.  
  • Of the given weapons, I settled on archery because I realized it was the easiest way to land nasty sneak attacks on foes that would multiply the damage.
By level 63, everything sucked.  I had min/maxed so effectively that, on maximum difficulty, I was killing dragons with a single shot and clearing out entire forts before the enemies could locate me.  I also had maximum conjuration, but I never needed to conjure any helpers.  The game had been trivialized to the point of boredom.

The solution to min/maxing is to try to find alternate ways to enjoy the game besides having the most efficient character.  For example (and this is just one way) you could follow this Skyrim Role-playing Guide, built around the idea of trying to tell a story as you play your character.  You really do not need to worry about getting powerful in Skyrim: knowing the way the game is balanced, you'll eventually get there no matter what you do (although you likely will find the road of being a generalist more bumpy: specialize on a specific combat style).

Alt-a-holicism

Another lesson I learned from MMORPGs is altaholicism, or starting another character whenever an old character starts to get boring.  It's a bad habit to have even in MMORPGs, but it's a practical one.  The trouble is that many MMORPGs have a ridiculous grind, or the long amount of time the game designers expects you to perform repetitive actions.  Starting a new alt immediately grants you a new character with new abilities, and this makes the game feel fresh and interesting again, as well as returns you to a point in the game where the time spent between levels was not so pronounced.

If altaholicism has all these benefits, why is it problematic?  It's mostly because roleplaying games are designed to stay entertaining through the introduction of higher level content: in-game locations, monsters, activities, ect.  When you start over with a new character, you force yourself to retread lower-leveled content which is usually not nearly as interesting the second time around.  Another issue is that, when you try to go back to your old characters, it is easy to confuse what this character has accomplished versus what your other characters have, and this hurts the cohesion of your experience.  Via the nature of memory, the more alting you do in a short period, the more pronounced these problems (and others) become.

Though Skyrim does not have the duration requirements of an MMORPGs, in some ways it could be looked at as a game that has a grind every bit as bad as an MMORPG.  The temptation to alt is as strong as ever.

I've never beaten altaholicism; I'm the worst altaholic I know.  However, I have found a few things that can help cut down on it:
  • Think ahead.  Before choosing a character, consider what it will be like by the end of the game.  Is that the gameplay, or the role, you really want?  There's a good chance that no one character will be able to do everything you want, but is there a compromise you're willing to settle for?  This is something I'll work out on paper sometimes.  Don't be too discouraged if, as you play some more, you learn some things (probably based off of how the game balance changes at higher levels) that make you realize there's a better choice of character for you: this is a rare example of a productive reason to start an alt character.
  • Never delete an old character.  (In an MMORPG, this may involve having characters spanning several servers due to limited character slots.)  Categorize those characters by type and keep track of them.  If your whims switch back to desiring to play a type of character you had before, don't start a new character, go back to the old character.  As long as those levels keep increasing, you'll eventually reach the end game.
  • Set a comfortable frame of time to stick to a single character.  It should be short enough that you'll know freedom is on its way, which can help you to stick with the character at the low points.  Simultaneously, it should be long enough to allow an opportunity for interesting developments to have happened that may have made that character worth playing again.  The comfort zone will differ from person to person, but for me I'll usually set it to a weekend or a whole week. At the end of this frame of time, it should be clearer whether you want to keep playing that character or if you're still feeling you would be better off playing something else.
  • Above all, remember that your goal is to have fun.  If you're not playing the game for your own enjoyment, then the game must be playing you by addicting you to its grind, in which case you need to stop wasting your time, knock down the walls of the mental cage you're in, and take control of your leisure time.  It begins by only playing characters whose game mechanics, or role in the greater backdrop of the game, you really enjoy, and not characters you think you "aught" to play for whatever reason.
  • Cheating, hiring third parties, using an exploit, ect to get to the maximum levels now can be considered a solution to the grind... but it's a flawed one.  While this should get you banned on a shared online environment where it's considered important that everyone is playing by the same rules, it can be problematic even in a single player game.  These shortcuts ultimately cheapen the experience by destroying the illusion of legitimate progression, consigning yourself to the personal Hell of a nothing-special end game.  Good blockbuster RPGs just don't come around often enough for you to ruin them for yourself (or others) like that.
Conclusion

While there are undoubtedly more lessons one may have learned from MMORPGs that reflect badly on a single player game - for example, not evading or blocking attacks because latency prevents those mechanics from being manual in most MMORPGs - I rambled on long enough.

If I know the way to enjoy Skyrim, why am I doing such a bad job of getting myself to do it?  It's because curbing habits is hard.  People are creatures of habit, there's apparently part of our brain that says, "it takes more energy to change my behavior than it does to endure the consequences of that behavior."  And you know what?  That part of the brain is right: it does.  However, we need to exert a bit of energy we wouldn't otherwise if we ever expect to get out of our ruts, even if that rut is as trivial as playing a game in such a way as to make it boring.

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