Rands Dabbler or S-Tier?

The Cello in Soho Square

This was the second time we’d heard Audrey play her cello in Soho Square. She found a bench and just started playing. We learned about the first session days after it happened and begged her to give us a warning next time, but her small smile silently said no. We mobilized. Her roommate, Bruce, was on cello watch. He’d message us an early warning when he saw her tuning her cello. When she left the building with her instrument, a second message was deployed, and we’d hustle across the city to the square.

Spring in Soho Square. Audrey is sitting on a random park bench, playing her cello. She practiced alone for years and never played for anyone. The first “concert” in the Square was a shock, the second a delight, and the third the last. Sadly, Bruce, Natasha, and I sat there because we knew Audrey was a classic dabbler.

Four years ago, it was baking. Two years ago, it was architecture. The past two were the cello. Audrey would dabble in a new hobby every two years, like clockwork. Sometimes she brought us along, telling us the history of bread, generously sharing the results of her baking, and dragging us across the city to discover a rosemary ciabatta “to die for.” Sometimes the dabbling was intensely private. The cello had been in her room for as long as we’d known her, but suddenly we heard it. When asked about the cello, she changed the subject. Ok. New topic.

Still Playing Destiny

Yeah. Still. It was released in 2014, and here we are in 2023, and I remain an avid Destiny player. There’ve been other games during that time. Most notably: Sea of Thieves (I never played anything like it), Fortnite (I tried to get others into it but failed. Still solo yolo.), and New World (the first legitimate World of Warcraft competitor I’ve experienced in decades). Each of these games, while enjoyable, looks like a distraction compared to the total time I’ve put into Destiny and Destiny 2.

I would classify myself as Good for most of my years in Destiny. While I understood how the game worked, how to progress, and how to acquire epic loot, I still regularly asked fellow clan-mates many questions because I knew they knew. I had no drive to become an expert in any aspect of the game, and I could sense what was required to be an expert. I could see it in those around me. Looked like work.

In my opinion and without judgment, there are four experience classes of players within a video game.

Average. The majority of players within a game. They understand and enjoy how the game works. They will play a game until they are bored and then move on. If completing the game is an option, your average player will likely not. They will become competent and build a good feel for the game but will probably not complete it.

In a multiplayer game, your Average play will briefly wonder how Good or Better players perform that skill, acquire that fancy armor, or achieve that thing. Still, they won’t wonder long because their commitment to this game is minimal. They don’t take the time to understand the intricacies of the game. They enjoy gently being led along a well-designed path.

They are… most players. If I had to guess, average players represent 50-60% of the player base.

Good Still a double-digit percentage of the player base. Your Good players have committed to the game. These humans will complete the game and then be looking for more. Video game designers build more challenging modes and difficult achievements for these Good players because they want to give Good players a reason to keep coming back.

Because Good players are likely to play the same content over and over again, they are more versed in the intricacies of the game, where complexities could mean: in-game economy, weapon dynamics, lore, play styles, or numerous other aspects of a given game.

Your Good players understand multiple aspects of the game and, as a result, have developed an aptitude for playing the game. They have developed skills. When Good players see other players perform exceptionally, they ask themselves, “How did she do that?” When Good players see better players sporting unique outfits and other heretofore unseen loot, they wonder, “How do I acquire that flying dragon?”

While not the majority of the players within the game, Good players are a sizeable chunk, the Dabblers. If Average players are 60% of the player base, I’d say Good is 30%.

Great A single-digit percentage population. Great players are measured by their demonstrated high aptitude for the game. These players don’t play the game; they live the game. When changes come to the game, they can explain why the changes are occurring and how they’ll affect gameplay. They know new game features before anyone else because they comb all news sources for any snippet of credible information to continue to piece together a complete picture. When Good players see and compete with these Great players, the Good player is good enough to know, “Whoa, she is one of those… the great ones.” Great players, less than 10% of the players in a game.

S-Tier Someone explained S-Tier to me a few years back. We were discussing scout rifles in Destiny, and someone in Discord said, “But, Mida (a gun), right now, Mida is S-Tier.” S-Tier? S-Tier is the top tier. It may mean “Superb” or “Super” and may originate from academic grading in Japan. In video game culture, S-Tier means “the best.”

I’ve never been S-Tier at any video game, but having watched many humans work at becoming great, I can tell you the difference between Great and S-Tier is… a second faster. It’s a sub-second judgment call based on endless experience where you are almost imperceptibly better than your peers. The seconds add up.

As a Good player, all I can tell you about them is, “I know when I see them.” I have never been great at video games, so how could I possibly explain what it means to be S-Tier? What is the difference between Great and S-Tier? It’s microscopic. Acquisition of this skill is exponentially more complex than Good, and only a handful can tell the difference. Consistently a smidge better… forever.

I’ll never be S-Tier, so am I just another Dabbler? Wait, that’s not the question.

Are You Willing to Do the Work?

You might read between the lines and believe I’m suggesting the label Dabbler has a negative connotation. Like a Dabbler isn’t genuinely committed to the effort, they’re just there because it’s interesting… right now. Briefly.

Here’s what the Dabbler knows. There is an infinite list of exciting things to learn, but the Dabbler knows they have finite time, so they dabble. They get 80% of the juice, and they move on. Respect.

S-Tier knows the last 10% of the challenge is the hardest, but it also teaches you the most. S-Tier sticks with it because they contradictorily and confidently believe two things:

  1. This puzzle, project, or challenge task can be conquered.
  2. There is always 1% more to learn.

Some humans have a natural predisposition for a skill. The cost of getting from Good to Great appears lower, but it is the story we tell ourselves because we instinctively know the real cost. Do you know what it takes to be Great? Endless stubborn effort. It’s not that you are unlucky in the genetic sweepstakes; you know being Great means never giving up.

It’s inspiring to see someone be Great. You see them do their thing and tell yourself, “I could never do that.” What you don’t see is the practice. It’s the invisible years they spent working on getting better. The incessant failure. The friends and family who innocently and deflatingly asked, “Why are you working so hard?”

To Inspire

One of my favorite quotes is from Penn Jillette, magician: “The only secret of magic is that I’m willing to work harder on it than you think it’s worth.” This applies to any craft.

Whether striving for S-Tier or a Dabbler, the work is the same. Spending the time to understand. S-Tier focuses on impressive depth, whereas the Dabbler appreciates the variety and complexity of breadth.

The magic you produce is two-fold. First, it’s the immense joy and sense of accomplishment of discovering understanding. It’s reaping the rewards for curiosity, whether it’s one thing or everything.

Second, it’s the unintentional inspiration. Here I am, years later, telling you about Audrey in Soho Square. Three unannounced concerts.

She still inspires me. I wonder what she is learning… right now.

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5 Responses

  1. THIS! of course, this is your next book. It has to be.


    I can’t wait to read it.

  2. Daniel Jacobowitz 1 year ago

    Save us, Rands, you identified four buckets and labeled the bottom one Average.

  3. Amanda Jameson 1 year ago

    Population wise, I think you’re underestimating the percentages. There are far more Average players (90%?). Hours-spent-in-game though you might be closer. Better players spend more hours, and so are more visible.

    As a game developer I’m an uber-dabbler. Once I can see how the game works I’m straight on to the next one. I’m chasing the meta-target of understanding games as a whole so I can’t get fixated on one.

  4. JoeG 1 year ago

    “S-Tier knows the last 10% of the challenge is the hardest, but it also teaches you the most.”

    Can you say more about this? It feels counterintuitive to me.