In the past, you have often seen me argue against player segregation. When I started playing MMORPGs, my experience was that the new players were welcome by the more experienced players. And I liked to play with the more experienced; and later I liked to play with the less experienced. In this scenario, segregating players was not only unnecessary, but actually detrimental to everybody's fun.
But over time things changed. Surprisingly one root of this change was a design principle that I always supported: "A game should be easy to learn and hard to master". There also were other causes, like anonymity and focus on raids in WoW. But let's ignore them for once, in this post.
All good games are easy to learn and hard to master. Klepsacovic won't like me, but I'll still discuss soccer and chess as examples, fully aware of the fact that there are differences between these games and virtual worlds. In fact, these differences are crucial and discussed at the end of the post.
The reasons this design principle is so important are player retention and new-player attraction. Both are needed for any good game. And so you see soccer players of all skill levels. Even 35 year old men often play soccer or chess (or any other well-known game) at all skill levels. And they have fun. Sure, at times we wish we were a second David Beckham, and maybe we occasionally thought about training more to really show the others our superiority.
But mostly we have fun playing even though we cannot win the world championship, even though we are not rewarded with millions of Euros and even though our reputation as a soccer player is negligible compared to our reputation as a dad, as a friend or as a professional. We still have fun.
Because we understand that to be more we'd have to invest much more time and effort - and pain. And because we understand that the time is past. In this life we just won't become a soccer star anymore. And even those of us who strongly believe that we are all flesh and no soul and will rot under the earth (or the sea?) eventually and for eternity .. they just accept this inevitable truth. It's not fair, but to say it bluntly: Somebody perfectly managed our expectations. Thanks.
Now, this is something you cannot say about Blizzard. World of Warcraft changes all the time. It feels as if somebody told the developers to not change the golden goose too much, but since this is a large and motivated team they just cannot stand idle. So, the lead system designer muses about critical hits instead of real innovation. And rightfully so, if we look at the kind of 'innovation' that came along with Cataclysm.
Anyway, since our expectations were that badly managed, we evolved a sense of entitlement. In the past, I never cared much about that I couldn't access all content. In fact, this made the game world more credible for me. But since WotLK we think that we deserve to see all the content. Spare me the "we all pay the same price" argument, please. Point is that this is just a matter of expectation management and a harmful sense of entitlement can evolve if it is neglected or even ignored.
So the answer to the question that I haven't asked yet: why do different skill levels work in most games, especially sports, but not in some others?, is expectation management. It is something that happens quite naturally.
This is also why it is so very valuable if the designers state clearly what they want the game to be and what not. When Ghostcrawler said clearly that they don't balance arena on a 2:2 basis, he did something very smart (without knowing?). Players now know what to expect. CCP does it much more often. For example they state clearly that if you get ripped off, it's your fault. Now, you can disagree with these design intentions, but knowing what you can expect helps immensely with enjoying an activity - any activity, really.
If I climb up a mountain, perfectly certain that there is a very comfortable hotel at the top, the whole trip can be ruined if there is just a basic campground. Compare that to finding a basic campground where you didn't expect anything! Fact is that, within a certain limit, we can enjoy a lot of things, if we just know what to expect (or, alternatively, if we are pleasantly surprised).
So, how are expectation management and player segregation related?
Player segregation can help with expectation management. If you are part of a group of soccer players who just play 'for fun' and you also 'just play for fun' yourself, this is great. However, if aspirations differ too much, it is harder to have fun. This is not only an effect of comparisons with peers: You can have more fun as a below-average player in a good team than as an above-average player in a bad team. It's not necessarily the case, but it is quite possible. For example, even the worst player in the soccer-world championship is happy to be there. Even if he doesn't play a minute. He wouldn't trade this against playing somewhere with good friends and just having fun.
If we believe in the "A game should be easy to learn, hard to master" design principle, we also need to face the consequences: the more we succeed at implementing the principle, the more important does it become to empower players to choose the correct groups; to allow them to segregate the community. This segregation doesn't have to be total. Players of various skill levels and expectations should still occasionally have contact with each other! But to force these players to play with each other is a recipe for frustration.
And how does this relate to the debate about optimization?
There is an endless amount of readily available material about how to get better at soccer and chess. Now, we don't know how good these games were if this material was not available, but what we do know is that it's not much of a problem. Why?
Well, firstly, because of the mentioned player segregation that comes naturally to these games. If your peers don't read up on soccer strategy, you can have fun without doing it, too.
And secondly, because the challenge is not alone in the execution: not in soccer and certainly not in chess. In both games, donkeyspace plays a very large role. And this is true for most successful games. Actually, I am hard pressed to come up with even one very successful game for adults that focuses on the execution challenge alone. Do you know any?
So, I have changed my mind. If your game is easy to learn and hard to master, you might need to empower players to segregate into groups of roughly similar skill and aspiration. Watch the expectation management: if all players feel like they have a right (or important reasons) to be in the top group, it's your mistake.
It is maybe not a surprise that this problem occurs in a MMORPG. While you might be able to segregate the community in a game like WOW, in a better virtual world, you don't usually have this luxury! And that is a major problem. If you want a group of 5 players to literally destroy a group of 20 players if they are more skilled, you better (somehow?) make sure that the group of 20 doesn't develop an aspiration to not be destroyed. Because if they do develop this aspiration, they either try hard to get better or leave your game.
And thus, I reach a conclusion that nobody is more surprised about, than me:
If, in your game, mastery makes the players much more powerful, and, if your game is easy to learn and hard to master, then segregating the community is necessary.
But while this is an option in WoW-like lobby games, it is much harder in a virtual world. And thus, a virtual world either requires a lot of finesse (for example, geographic segregation of the community along skill levels/aspirations), or it may just not be that easy to learn and that hard to master. Alternatively you could try to develop a virtual world that is easy to learn and hard to master, but doesn't much reward mastery. I cannot say if this would work.