Virtual skill is a concept made popular by role playing games. Not the video game genre; I'm talking about the RPGs of the pencil and paper variety. A player has a character, that character has skills. These skills may or may not (mostly not) reflect real skills of the player. The skill level of the player has no influence of their character's skill level. For some games, making nearly every skill virtual makes sense. Some games require a bit more real skill than virtual skill. One such genre that is near and dear to my heart is First Person Shooters; well, was First Person Shooters.
In the 90's most of the games I played were FPS. Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, and Half-Life all adorned my shelves. At some point, I noticed an interesting thing about all of these. When I first played each of them, I was horrible. By the time Duke 3D was released, I had mastered arrow aiming. However, new features were added such as, vertical movement by jetpack wearing aliens. By Quake I was set, but wait, "WTF is this mouse look crap." I realized that each game taught me skill because I started off getting destroyed and ended up getting better and better.
I fell out of love with the multiplayer FPS genre after Counter-Strike. Sure, I dabbled here and there; Team Fortress 2 was purchased because I had been waiting for it for 10 years. My first real exposure to the modern unlock system was with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. A friend suggested we do some LAN play after work with some other guys in the office. We all agreed that we would use a "cheat" to unlock everything for our sessions. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it.
After a few sessions, I felt pretty confident. I went online with it at home. As anyone who played this game online probably expected, I got destroyed horribly. I had none of the virtual skills I had been used to when just playing with my friends. Playing it to unlock them became a chore. The game now sits on my shelf (metaphorically) collecting dust.
Pretty much every recent major release of multiplayer FPS games have had a supplement of virtual skill. Levels or ranks have been employed to grant bonuses to players who devote more time to the game. Passing these level barriers allow players access to new weapons and augment things like run speed, health, armor.
From what I gather, people like this modern FPS style. It leaves me wondering, are these games popular because they are fun or is it the constant level grind, albeit redressed, that have plagued MMORPG addicts for years?