At some point, League of Legends champions have become for me toys that are just displayed on a shelf, gathering dust, having never been played with. Smite asks me to tear open the packaging and actually get down on the floor to appreciate all the toys I have again.
I wrote last week about the completion of my two year quest to unlock every League of Legends champion without spending a single dime (”On Having Caught 'Em All”, PopMatters, 11 June 2014). In doing so, I raised some questions about some tendencies in myself as a gamer towards completing sets for the sake of completing sets. Indeed, I have written in the past about how video games play on a very human (or maybe a very modern) need in ourselves to complete tasks, checking off lists of minor goals to achieve “greater goals,” and how I sometimes love doing so and sometimes loathe doing so (“Post-It Note Gaming, or the White Collar Warriors of Skyrim”, PopMatters, 8 January 2012).
Another thing that I noted on having completed my quest was that I had almost immediately taken up with playing another free-to-play MOBA that allows me to scratch my collector's itch by allowing me to not merely collect “champions,” but to now collect “gods” by playing matches of the game Smite and earning “favor” (the equivalent of League's influence points) in, perhaps, a new quest to catch 'em all. While it seems certain to me that I never got over the mania of action figure and comic book collecting that I did as a kid, playing Smite, though, and attempting to start a new collection from scratch has given me a few new thoughts on the sorts of reasons that motivate one to play the sorts of games that include playable collectibles.
As I noted, playing any given mode of Smite rewards the player with a kind of currency called “favor” that is very similar to the League of Legends currency called “influence points.” These points allow cheap ass gamers like myself to avoid spending actual currency on these games but to enjoy their content by “playing to pay” instead of paying to play. However, in addition to earning favor to buy new characters to play with in the game (the characters in Smite are based on ancient gods, like Zeus, Kali, or Sobek), a Smite match (whether you win or lose) also offers the player “worshipers.” You, of course earn more worshipers for a win and less for a loss, but I was honestly baffled at what this prize meant in terms of gameplay. The name of these “points” (since worshipers are merely recorded as numbers, like “+2 worshipers” or “+8 worshipers”) made sense in the context of a game about gods, but I didn't understand their value in the context of the game itself.
Investigating further, I discovered that worshipers are tied to another stat in Smite, a stat that keeps track of your “mastery” of a character. In essence, earning worshipers represents your relative experience with playing a character, as acquiring 50 worshipers marks your character profile as having a Level I mastery in whatever god you earned those worshipers with. Raise your worshipers to 155 and you will earn a second level of mastery with that god and so forth.
Now, of course, as a freakishly driven completionist, I was immediately motivated to raise the first goddess that I tried playing, Neith, to Level I. I didn't know why exactly, but it seemed an important task.
It wasn't until I had achieved Level I mastery of several more gods that I asked myself the question, “Why am I 'mastering' all of these characters at all?” Without considering directly the developers intentions in this regard yet, there are a few interesting results of the way that I responded to the “mastery system” that are probably worth noting (though I assume these responses do indicate indirectly some of the developers intentions, as I assume that they created this system with some motivational purpose in mind and that I am, of course, playing right into their hands).
First off, the obvious. By focusing my attention on collecting worshipers for Neith, I, indeed, began to master her. I got better at playing her, win or lose, with each match that I played as her by simple trial and error experiential learning. And honestly, I wasn't quite sure I felt comfortable with her immediately. She is essentially a ranged marksman, the equivalent of what is referred to as an AD Carry or ADC in League of Legends, which I have played a fair amount of in that other game. However, still I was mixed about my initial skills with her, but again, “mastering” her first has made her one of the most comfortable characters to play the game with for me so far.
Secondly, having mastered Neith, I immediately moved on to attempting to master another character. Having a Level I on one character only seemed kind of lame. Plus, mastering Neith to Level II would take twice as long, so why not get a sense of achievement again right away? Now, the player who registers to play Smite is given five free characters to get you started. Additionally, like League, several characters are available on some kind of weekly or biweekly rotation to try out for free. So, I decided to take advantage of the fact that Vamana was free the week that I started and that I could master him before actually owning him.
Vamana is a melee bruiser, a character that is probably the type that I play least in League of Legends, largely because I usually play them poorly. However, having been randomly assigned Vamana in one mode of the game, I found that by building him kind of tanky that I had a natural affinity for the character. Basically, the mastery system had encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone and to practice with a type of character role that I usually avoid.
All of which brings me to the actual purpose of the mastery system in Smite. In order to play ranked games in Smite and again much like in League, the player is required to reach level 30 (this is a player level, separate from the mastery levels earned for individual gods). However, additionally a player must own and have at least a Level I mastery in 16 gods in order to play ranked as well. The long and short of it is that to play Smite at a more competitive level, the developers are requiring players to get some less than superficial play time in with individual gods, to likely get familiar with several different roles that are typical to MOBAs by playing a diversity of gods, and even to just get familiar enough with a good mix of gods to have some idea of what each one does. This latter element seems to me a particularly interesting one, as I honestly still don't have a good sense of some of the abilities of some of the 119 champions that I own in League of Legends because, while I collected them, I have never really played some of them much. Sure, I own Rumble, but when I face him on the battlefield, I sort of only vaguely realize what he is capable of. I've only played him like twice since unlocking him.
What I find interesting about Smite's mastery system is that at some point League of Legends champions had become for me toys that are just displayed on a shelf, gathering dust, having never been played with, appealing on some level only to the collector in me, not the player. Thus far, Smite is asking me to tear open the packaging and actually get down on the floor to appreciate all the toys I have. Maybe this is a small thing, but, you know what? I never wanted to be that ungrateful, spoiled kid down the block who has all of the toys but could care less about them. And honestly, I never was that kid because my parents didn't buy me every bauble that caught my eye. So, as a result, I'm kind of glad that Smite is teaching me to appreciate what I already have once again.