Thursday, June 18, 2009
Elements of making MMORPG combat better
The biggest disappointment when playing a new MMORPG is finding out that it plays pretty much like the previous one, especially regarding combat. Most MMORPGs have been using exactly the same combat system in the last decade, since Everquest, based on targeting a mob, usually having some auto-attack, and launching various spells and abilities with hotkeys. There have been minor variations with combos, and due to technical advances combat has become a bit faster since Everquest, but mostly the system has stayed the same. So how could MMORPG combat be improved?
For this post, I've decided to stay with the basics. There are probably a million ways how you could make combat better using new input hardware, like the Wiimote, or EyeToy, or Project Natal. There are also lots of ideas using the mouse to lets say draw runes on the screen to cast spells. But in this post I'll stick with the system where you target an enemy with your mouse, and then use hotkeys to launch spells and abilities. And I'll show that even under those constraints there are a lot of very different systems that could be designed. So many that I'm not going to design just one new system, but list the elements that could be combined to design many new systems.
First of all we have to set some goals. What do we want from a MMORPG combat system. Combat is the "basic repetitive unit" of MMORPGs, that is over the life of your character you'll be in many thousands of combats, from level 1 to the final raid boss. So as players do it a lot, combat needs to be fun and engaging. Basically we need to hide the fact that combat is repetitive by making it more interactive and slighly less predictable. Most of all we need to prevent every combat having exactly the same sequence of keystrokes, because players will either macro that or get bored fast if they do 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3 all day long. Another important goal is that the fun should start early; we don't want to force players to have boring combat for 80 levels before being allowed the first interesting fight.
The first element which could make MMORPG combat better is interactivity, meaning players have to react to what happens on the screen. That doesn't have to be twitchy and fast, but it has to make a difference whether you press the right button or the wrong button. In a game like World of Warcraft, once you targeted a mob in single combat, it often isn't necessary to watch the screen. If you turned your monitor off, you could still beat the monster as long as you have your keyboard shortcuts memorized and a sense of timing for the cooldowns. In an improved MMORPG combat, that wouldn't be the case, you would have to react to what you see happening in combat. There could be, for example, a system of opportunities, where you can detect a weak spot in the enemies defences, and hit that spot with a special attack. Those attacks would be more powerful than a standard attack if you used them on the appropriate weak spot, but less powerful than a standard attack if you used them at the wrong time.
Related to interactivity is the second element of randomness. At the moment combat is not very random, except for a small variation of plus minus a few percent around standard damage of any attack, and the possibility of spikes from critical attacks. A good example of why interactivity doesn't work without randomness is the combat system of Age of Conan. AoC has a somewhat different system than other games, without targeting, and the enemy has "shields" left, right, and center. So in principle you would attack the enemy where his shields were lowest. Only in AoC that was very predictable, if you hit the mob right three times, it would lower its shield on the left side and strengthen it on the right. So you still ended up doing the same sequence in every combat, right-right-right-left-left-left and so on. AoC also had combos, but again the sequence to do a combo was always the same. So as AoC was somewhat too twitchy for me, I ended up having the combos programmed on my programmable G15 keyboard. That is exactly what we don't want for an improved system. So combining interactivity and randomness, we could have combo attacks that are not started by always the same sequence, but by doing attacks in a sequence shown on the screen, which would be given randomly. And of course the previously mentioned idea of weak spots opening up also should happen at random.
A very different use of randomness is one used by Wizard101, as well as all trading card games: You don't have access to all your spells and abilities at all times. Instead you "build" a "deck", that is before combat starts you select which abilities you think you will need and what your chances should be to have them available. For example your deck consists of 40 "cards", but you can put in your fireball 4 times, so your chance of drawing a fireball is 10%. At any given time you only have access to a "hand" of e.g. 7 cards. So your average chance of holding a fireball in your hand is quite good, but there will be moments where you hold all 4 of them, and moments where you hold none. Thus every combat is different. Of course this combines very well with a system like the weak spots, because it opens up great tactical opportunities: How many cards do you put in your deck which are specialized attacks for weak spots, giving you a chance of hitting the monster for much more than average damage if only you hold the right card at the right time? Other systems of not having always access to the same set of abilities can be designed. The Chronicles of Spellborn have a wheel which advances after every keypress, but the sequence of abilities on that wheel is fixed, not random, which still allows you to do exactly the same sequence of abilities in every fight.
The last element I want to point out is tactical choice from not having every attack being equally effective against every possible opponent. Whether you fight a wolf, an ogre, or a fire elemental in World of Warcraft doesn't matter, except for the few classes using fire attacks and the few mobs like the fire elemental being resistant. But this is something that could easily be expanded a lot, with various weapons and spells being more or less effective against various enemies. For example the D&D classic of skeletons being more susceptible to blunt weapons that shatter their bones than to arrows or daggers that glance off or pass through. This opens up the possibility of having not just standard attacks, but specialized attacks that are more efficient against specific types of monsters, and less efficient against others. Many Asian games, including Final Fantasy XI, use some sort of elemental cycle of fire, water, earth, and air each being weak to one other element and strong against another. Of course this doesn't add much in the current system where you can use all your abilities all of the time, because then you'd simply always use the best attack. But in combination with systems in which you only have access to some part of your abilities, the tactical choices can become interesting.
So, as you can see, there are a wide range of different combat systems available which would all improve on the current system, without even having to use new input media or other new technologies. The different elements I listed can be combined in various ways, making combat more interactive and interesting, without even having to leave the "target with mouse, attack with hotkeys" boundaries. Not only would a new combat system be more fun, it also would allow a new game to differentiate itself from the competition. It is often said that players don't want change, and it would certainly be foolish to change the combat system of an existing game much. But a new combat system would be a major selling point for a new game, a "unique selling proposition" in marketing speak, the reason why people would buy your game instead of sticking with their old game or buying something else.