Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Interactive is not necessarily twitchy

Yesterday's discussion on the future Blizzard MMORPG evolved into a discussion of possible changes to MMORPG combat. While various games have fiddled with the system in different ways over the last decade, MMORPG combat is still remarkably similar in various games. Very many games have systems in which you target an enemy, and then use hotkey bar buttons with various spells and abilities to hit that enemy, with your stats determining whether and for how much you hit him. The abilities have some sort of cooldown, ranging from 1 second to several minutes, and there is no aiming involved. Why is that so?

A very impressive experiment you can do at home to illustrate the fundamental problem behind MMORPG combat needs two computers running two different accounts of World of Warcraft. Move the two characters to the same spot, somewhere where there is an elevator, get on the elevator, and observe your two screens: The big surprise is that the two screens are NOT synchroneous. Far from it. You can easily have a situation where the elevator on the one computer is down, while you see the exactly same elevator in the same world on the other computer as being up. And you can continue that experiment by setting one of the two characters to follow the other, and just run somewhere and observe the distance between the two characters on the two screens: It will not be the same. In other words:

Your character in a MMORPG does not have a one completely determined location.

Instead, in our example, your character has 3 locations: The one where YOU see him, the location where the server thinks your character is, and the location where your character is shown to be to the observer. When standing still, these three locations will eventually merge into one. But while there is movement, the mix of lag and predictive algorithms means that your characters location cannot 100% accurately be determined. Obviously that makes a combat mechanism which relies on aiming impossible. You would need to remove the predictive algorithms, and sync servers and clients much better than is currently the case. And if for some reason there is lag (e.g. Dalaran), you have a huge problem.

Apart from the technical problems of making a MMORPG with a aiming-based combat, there is also an even bigger problem of what people would be interested in playing that game. The demographics for a shooter game and the demographics for a MMORPG are not the same. Multiplayer shooters rely on split-second reaction times, which favors younger players, and these games is predominantely played by male players. Your average middle-aged housewife would not only not stand a chance in that sort of game, she wouldn't even dream of buying it. And that will be true for all changes to MMORPG combat which make it far more twitchy: While a minority of players will certainly enjoy that, a large demographic will feel excluded and not interested very much in that sort of game.

So what could be done? Fortunately making combat faster and more twitchy is not the only possible improvement. A better option would be to make MMORPG combat more interactive *without* making it much faster. The curse of the current MMORPG combat system is the "spell rotation", that is you can look up on a website for a given character class and level the optimal sequence of buttons to press for best damage output, *independant from* what the enemy is or does. Fighting a wolf, an ogre, or a bandit is exactly the same, with only a few spellcasters or mobs with special abilities requiring small modifications to your spell rotation. The obvious disadvantage of that system is that very soon players don't really care any more what monster they are fighting, and get quickly bored because every combat is the same anyway. The solution would be a combat system in which the best button to press would strongly depend on what enemy you are fighting, and what the current situation is. And that is independant from the time frame you give the player to react.

So here is my prediction: Some future MMORPG will introduce a much more interactive, but not too twitchy, combat system, and it will be a huge success.
That's something I've thought about before. Currently (I'll be using wow as an example), it doesn't matter what you're fighting. The most interesting fights are the ones where your enemy has special abilities (a fear, a stun, etc) and those require some tacts. But while this appears to a more fun style of combat, I feel like the majority of players cuss whenever a mob has some new ability that makes them break their spell routine.
For me, more buttons != more interactive.

Your future MMO sounds more 'strategic' - what skill should I use for this enemy/situation? It will only become less 'twitchy' if time is given to consider the options.

This could be done by providing a Final Fantasy-style interface, where abilities are queued up rather than triggered in real-time.

I agree with your World of Farmville analogy - just remember that you might be in the minority with your desired MMO. Console gamers are twitchy, social networkers dislike complexity.
Let us hope that some one will come up with ideas for mmo combat that are better than what is in most games now. Any kind of aiming and quick reaction system will be too much dependant on a fast computer, a good internet connection (including your distance from the server) and the general lag.

What I think developers should concentrate on is how to make a simple to use combat system, that isn't as predictable as what we have today. A system that incorporates randomness, strategy and counter strategy, and that can give you the same chances of winning regardless of your computer specs and internet connection. But is should not be to slow either as I'm quite sure most don't want some kind of round based combat system (Great for single player games, but will be too slow to please the average mmo player). Though I have no idea how to..
Hmm. AoC with its shields-and-combos system? I enjoyed that a lot.
final fantasy MMO, abilities are trigged in real time but there's generally a lot less of them and combat is slower but timing is hugely more important since the fights are much deadlier and dying is to be avoided (xp loss)

It's quite surprising how in even low level parties (lvl 12 say) how vital timing is and how quickly a fight can go bad if key party members don't do what they're supposed to at the right time.

the first time I ever got in a party in wow, probably deadmines, I was like OMG this is so disorganised!
"But while there is movement, the mix of lag and predictive algorithms means that your characters location cannot 100% accurately be determined. Obviously that makes a combat mechanism which relies on aiming impossible"

This approach works ok on a smaller scale with FPS's on dedicated servers though (e.g. counterstrike / TF2).

Maybe a way of restricting the number of people in a particular combat zone (e.g. instances you normally have a max of 25, battlegrounds not too far off that either) would support this?
Well Age of Conan certainly did venture into more [inter]active combat system . I really like AoCs system, but LOTRO's take on it with the Warden class is just as interesting if not better.

The only problem is, while the combat mechanic is fun, there's not really incentive to use it interactively.

It's like playing Mortal Kombat/StreetFighter/Soul Caliber and just pumping out the one combo after another, regardless of what the opponent is doing...

So the next step up towards a "real" interactive system i'd think, is one where the Mob-AI gets some attention AND the ability for the player to gain/loose control of combat based on how they react to the opponent's attacks.

i.e. The mechanism whereby you "counter" a certain way encourage the opponent to attack/defend a another way, so that you can in turn "open up" the opponent for a certain other attack. Kind of controlling the fight, without doing the rather "basic" task of "attacking faster than the opponent" .

As it is, things are pretty basic, you either completely shut the opponent down [stun/interrupt] or you just make sure you attack faster or harder. There's really little reason to actually check what your opponent is busy doing...yes sure you might interrupt a heal, but again that's a twitch-action, not the kind where you truly "fight with a plan" or "react with a plan" based on the opponents plan.

I'm of course excluding Raid Bosses from this, but again the flaw is evident there, all those Raid Bosses fights with a -fixed- pattern with a -fixed- use of their abilities. There's nothing YOU or the RAID can do to the boss that will "force its hand" into doing something will still spout you with water or "enrage" whether you shot it with arrows or fireballs...
Darkfall may not have a big subscriber base, but they have managed to make a working FPS style combat system. Their mob AI is a lot smarter too. Smarter AI alone could provide improved interactivity without redesigning the combat system. I remember back when I was leveling through the 50's in WoW, and hunting the elite mobs outside Blackrock Depths because they provided some challenge, and I was bored with the normal quests.
"The solution would be a combat system in which the best button to press would strongly depend on what enemy you are fighting, and what the current situation is."

Ah Tobold. As a player who has a double Feral Druid as his main let me introduce you to my friend named Cat DPS. Cat DPS is what you just described. There is no set rotation. You constantly have to react to RNG, be it combo points, clear casting procs, trinket procs, glyphs, DoTs during movement, etc. Cat DPS is one of the few talent trees in the game where it is actually better to be slower. You aren't supposed to just spam your buttons. You constantly must balance your energy and keep it at the "butter zone" of greater or at 35 and less then 80. So there are periods during fights where you have to actually control that tendancy to just mash a button because it's active and wait until it is the right time to use that ability.

And yet when you ask people about Cat DPS the common consensus is that it is one of the, if not the the hardest dps class to play well in the game.

So it would seem that the playerbase doesn't want a game based on a system where you constantly have to react and use abilities to match whats going on, but prefer the standard 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 3, 1, 1, 1, 2 type of set rotations that they can just memorize and fling out with their eyes closed.
As Jesse said, Darkfall has done this pretty well in terms of both twitch control and making the mob AI good enough to need skill at operating the controls. I have only been playing DF for 3 months (Mainly Tobold it was your occasional comments on it that got me interested enough to give it a try :)and I've hardly done any pvp as the pve is genuinely good fun. Even the easiest mobs in the game will run and hide, climb trees, evade magic and call their mates to help. Throw in having to aim a bow and take into account gravity and its the most refreshing MMO mechanism I've seen for years.

Aventurine/Darkfall is offering 1 week trials for 1 dollar atm if anyone wants to see for themselves how twitch and AI can work in an MMO.
@Bigeyez Playing my feral Druid in Battlegrounds is much the same with Bear and caster form added in for extra spice. If it wasn't for that complexity I would never have played WoW as much as I have.
I'm so tired of twitch gameplay. I want more turn-based games, but most games are RTSs that fit the type I want (controlling an army).

I wonder how a turn-based MMO would be like....
Bigeyez: Cat DPS is what you just described.

I'd like to stress that. Unfortunately it only applies to raid bosses or mobs that live long enough. Actually only in raids there are mobs that live long enough.

"I wonder how a turn-based MMO would be like...."

There's a reason why the F2P MMO called "Atlantica Online" is doing quite well...that's exactly what it is. Final Fantasy style turn based combat...but it might be a little too much for some.

And as for the Cat DPS comments, the problem is, while Cat DPS require a little "timing" , you still pretty much go through a pre-definied ROTATION at the end of the day. Instead of going "1-2-3-wait" you go "1-2-wait-3-check the dots-1-2-wait-3".

I distinctly remember on my Cat DPS it was all about getting the skills you rotate and energy use just perfect , so that when a bleed drops off that boss, you have the energy to restart your sequence.

Ultimately you're not really fighting the MOB , because there's nothing the mob is going to do that will change your little routine, you are simply playing solitaire.
Randomized Guitar Hero partitions depending on the monster you're fighting, abilities it uses and your own abilities.

For example, you fight a wolf., the combat starts.

seconds 0 to 2: You get a normal attack indicator, progressing on a timeline and you can see that after that, he'll use a howl.
- You can react by dodging (granting you a bonus to defense) or parrying (granting you a momentum attack afterwards and while reducing damage you take). You can also ignore the attack and try to charge a bigger attack for next round. Or you can just attack normally with some abilities you have.

seconds 2 to 4: The wolf starts howling.
- You can attack normally with one of your abilities (granting you attack bonus on them since the wolf is busy doing something else) or you can try to hit the wolf in the face to cancel his howling (low damage attack). You can even try to break the combat and flee, since the wolf is busy.


It would need
1) Various attacks and reactions per mob types (with some being shared among mobs)
2) Custom reaction animations depending on the class you are and the enemy you are fighting.
3) Some options to be in synergy with friendly players involved in the fight.

Combat would seem to be much slower pace so you'd need some recalibration on HPs/damage. A normal combat would last 5 to 10 rounds while a bigger fight would last 50-100 rounds.

Also, while it's simple in a one versus one fight, imagine the timeline when there's 4 wolves and 2 players. Do you try to dodge one wolf? All 4? Attack one? Protect player 2? All decided in a 2 seconds time-frame per "attacks".

PS: Darkfall combat is more like a FPS with swords than anything else. Mobs AI fits nicely for this but as a whole, it's REALLY NOT user-friendly. Cool game though :)
Your average middle-aged housewife would not only not stand a chance in that sort of game, she wouldn't even dream of buying it.

One of the most accurate statements I've ever read on your blog.

And unfortunately, it's also the reason why we won't see combat get much more difficult -- even if that's just strategically as you suggest.

The issue is that what you are describing as interactive is just another way to make the game more challenging (and therefore more interesting).
That's great for you and I, but Mom is going to still struggle with anything more difficult than a spell or shot rotation they can memorize.

Without big neon signs pointing the way to PUSH THIS NOW, I just don't see the common housewife being all that interested.

That's the problem with designing for the least common denominator.
I hope you're not advocating turning MMO combat into a relatively slow series of quick-time events, Tobold. That would be awful.

We need MMORPG combat systems that make good use of terrain and interactive environments. That would significantly up the player-interest while not necessarily leading to lag problems.
DDO kinda does that actually.

there are mobs there that are immune to certain attacks, so you find yourself switching weapons, using different spells. its not exceptionally distinct and complex, but the mechanic is still there
"I wonder how a turn-based MMO would be like...."

Once again I've got to mention Wizard 101, which has excellent turn-based combat. It has random elements like those in any collectible card game, so combat less predictable and more strategic than in many other MMOs.

As far as turn-based combat being "too slow," that's really a matter of taste. Many older gamers, casual gamers, and other non-hardcore types enjoy it.
I don't know if a more complex combat system will be a success. Blizzard seems to do well when they make WoW easier. Heroics are easier than the old world standard dungeons.
so how does MAG achieve such a high number of players in one area and still make the twitch combat work?

look at some of the Asian AAA games that will be coming out soon... continent of the ninth, TERA, Mabinogi Heroes, etc:... they all use a much more action oriented combat system but still seem to make it work... i don't think it's an issue with technology, it's a conscious design decision to make MMO combat lame so that a half-wit monkey could do it... because that's where the money is... in appealing to half-wit monkeys.

i'm not saying we need pure twitch based gameplay like CoD or Quake... but somewhere in between WoW and Quake i think there is a sweet spot that is waiting to be found.

watch some Continent of the ninth videos and tell me it doesn't look like 10x more fun than WoW... the only reason it wouldn't be as much fun, is if you simply don't have the necessary skill to play the game.

WoW and pretty much every other MMO are a perfect example of how our society caters to the lowest common denominator... this way of thinking needs to stop... i'm hoping some of these newer games can put some skill back in our virtual worlds.

(granted there's a good chance that everything else about C9, Tera, etc:... is going to suck, but i think their combat system is a huge step in the right direction.)
I don't know if a more complex combat system will be a success. Blizzard seems to do well when they make WoW easier.

As long as the bottom line rules the roost, this will continue to be the mindset of gamers.

The distinction here is one that bloggers and pundits seem to love to refuse to talk about - in that what we are seeing right now among MMO's is a shift from competitive gaming, to one of a virtual world themepark where rewards drop out of the sky like candy rain..regardless of the combat system being used.

Blizzard could very well introduce a combat system in their next MMO that created an environment much the same as it was in Vanilla WoW, where raiding was initially difficult and created a distinction between casuals and those more hardcore in their gaming approach. Meanwhile WoW keeps the masses preoccupied while the new MMO slowly gets easier and easier with each content patch allowing more and more WoW players to migrate over time.

That is my prediction. I think Blizzard will pit their new MMO against WoW at the onset to draw back those hardcore gamers who have left due to WoW being too easy. Then, after a period of time, Blizzard reduces the difficulty of its new MMO to create a "crossover" point which will serve to draw in more and more casuals from the WoW playerbase. In the end, the new MMO will be just as easy as WoW is, and by then Blizzards next generation MMO will be looming on the horizon.
"Multiplayer shooters rely on split-second reaction times, which favors younger players, and these games is predominantely played by male players."

While I can't argue with the gender portion of that statement, the shooters-favoring-younger-players thing is one of those nuggets of common knowledge that doesn't really match my experience.

I play a lot of TF2, L4D2, and lately BFBC2. If I had to guess, I'd say the average age of players is in the 25-30 range, which is not exactly what people think of when they hear "younger gamers."

I should say I only play shooters on PC which probably skews older.
Blizzard just needs to take Cat DPS and use that as a model for all future WoW combat. Where using basic abilities suboptimally is enough for Mom and every bad player to faceroll through heroics, but players who learn how to press (I mean, interact with) their abilities the best do a significantly greater amount of production. Non-Paladin healing is somewhat similar to this as well, without as useful meters to look at.
the problem ultimately is no matter how you slice the combat pie (twitch vs. no twitch, 30 seconds b/w moves or 1.5) ultimately someone will dig through the math, figure out what does the _most_ damage, and post it on a forum or write a mod that tells you when to press each key.

Instead, what needs to be done is attacks need DUAL purposes. We need to associate cost with production. Like, this spell does uber damage but hurts me, or this attack shields my fellow melee but this one reduces the target's armor.

You can force players to make decisions without making the game too hard for the "bads" while still demonstrating who knows what they're doing the best.
I don't understand how you claim the twitch thing is impossible.

I have played FPS games for years and they work without problems.

I am currently playing Darkfall and in that game its all Twitch. FPS aiming with gravity affecting your arrows and some spells.

I know you swore to never talk about Darkfall for some reason or other way back when, maybe its time you reversed that opinion and take a look at it.

As your more focused on PvE why not get the 7 day trial for $1. You get 24 hours noob protection stopping people from killing you. Try the game and at least you will see some new mechanics, even if the game isn't what you would normally go for.
First off, some great ideas by both Tobold and some of the commentors. Especially impressed/intrigued with the comments Chris left a few entries above this one.

I think Blizzard has attempted in some cases to make combat more interesting. New abilities start interesting, but eventually get swallowed up into a simple rotation.

Rotations are OK so long as there isn't always 1 rotation that is best, or even 2. A rotation is meant to maximize output, but there should be different variables affecting how you maximize that output.

I always though spell damage was so half hearted in this game, even when it mattered (pre TBC). The state price of spell resistance always seemed to tax items to the point they were undesirable. I always felt spell resistance should be exempt from an items stat allocation, making the iteam desirable in a given situation (and maybe since I am a warrior I am used to different sets of gear).

But the idea makes sense, as WoW is a very gear-centered game. Having specific gear for specific encounters makes sense with the ideology of the game's design, and isn't too hard to fioure out for noobs "gosh, its firey in here, I need some fire resistance!"

This would help make combat more interesting without making it harder. Because I think games like AoC simply make combat harder and after time, moe tedious. How fair is it for a melee class to worry about when an attack goes through to which follow up to use, on proc, on chance, etc, when a spell caster class just spams lighting bolts?
A combat function which could address the twitchiness factor and the "housewife effect", is allowing the creation of limited macros which would define your character's reaction to being attacked, how it would initiate combat, and what abilities it would use based on available energy/mana, etc.

You would switch macros depending on the course of the fight from more or less defensive, when adds arrive, enrages, etc. And creating specialized macros could have enough complexity to interest high end players, and could be tailored to particular fights.

Also you would have more and more options as you progressed through levels.

That way the strategy or turn-based aspect of combat would be done prior to combat. Like you would plan for any particular battle.

It would also potentially make the game even simpler for soloists, and more complex for end gamers.

In order for the macros not to be abused by botters there would have to be some consistent input by the player.
Bristal, we have to be careful about macros. Certainly you can't mean such a system as WoW's macro system, which is very non-user friendly and not very intuitive.

But maybe a system like FFXII is more what you are talking about. It definitely takes combat from a twitchy/rotation style to more of a player/group mangement sytle.

I liked the combat system in FFXII but it sometimes didn't hold my attention as well as previous games did. Is that the combat's fault or the story's fault, well maybe a little of both.

definitely an intersting idea. I would be concerned that adding anothing exterior level of detail might alienate the same people you are trying to appeal to however.
It's one of the things that are slowing me down in WoW now. I'm still not level 80, and at my current rate the Undergeared experiment will end just around the time I get there... One of my gripes is, my combat is always the same! And I'm not even playing a class with a fixed rotation. But still, 5 - 8 - 6 - 2 - 3 - 2 - 9 tends to be pretty much it for anything I fight. Add in a 7 after the 6 for humanoids. There's no thinking involved, or very little.

What's worse is that, thinking doesn't help much either. I get two or three mobs? Aah then I use the mouse as well to use 3 more abilities. I get 4? Then run baby run. Hardly ever is there a combat that looks like if I played just a bit better, I would win but currently I lose.

The AoC system looked neat in theory, but the shields didn't come into play all that much. At least, I never needed to think about which combo to use when shields went left or right. And try being a caster in AoC, you pretty much don't have options anyway. Or very little.

I must admit also that WoW has disappointed me in being a LOT easier than it used to be. What happened to the elite outside zones? I remember dwarves in a Horde zone somewhere, and those elite trolls you had to beat to even see Gahz'rilla. And there were more. All non-elites now? Gah...

At grinderrobot: 25-30 sounds about right for PC shooters. You'll find younger people on console shooters though. And I have definitely noticed that my reaction times are dwindling with age, I'm half a decade over that bracket there. Hell, I just got Bayonetta (which is beautifully ludicrous) and I have trouble with 'Normal' mode. I'm just not that fast any more...

@Ben: "ultimately someone will dig through the math, figure out what does the _most_ damage" NOT if the system is complex enough. That is the issue, it's not even speed. Twitchier would be more challenging if I can't keep up, but that would also be annoying enough to start thinking 'Screw this'. Get me something with more depth though, where the perfect strategy for the enemy Human might be a sequence of abilities 1, 2, 3 and 4, but that wolf is optimally beaten by 1, 6, 7 and 8. But otherwise yes, your idea is good too. More complexity is needed in general. Take a look at 4th Ed. DnD for instance. Pretty much everything you do (other than the one standard free attack you have) needs some thought. And people call it a Pen and Paper MMO eh. If only MMO's had that complexity..
We need a combat system where there is no best ability. Every ability should have a purpose, but every ability should be able to be countered. This is how units are designed in StarCraft and it is the reason StarCraft is the video game equivalent of high level chess playing.

There should be no right way to beat an encounter. It should be dynamic, with abilities that complement and counter one another.
Not having played many MMOs other than Wow (I was a long time P&P RPGer and CCGer), I always thought that if Hasbro/Wizards ever developed a Magic the Gathering MMO, based around your toon being a planeswalker, it could involve some neat innovations on gameplay.

Namely, your available spells (both creature summons and non-creature spells) would be available to you to cast on a random basis, having a maximum of 7 available at a time, each disappearing when cast, but replacing itself with another spell (possibly the same spell, possibly different) based on a GCD timer. Yes, I realize that this sort of combat system would rely upon a RNG, but so do the ones in WoW and most other games, this would just be in a different way.
Your characterization of WoW's combat is simply untrue for most cases. As a previous commenter mentioned, Feral Druids are a good counterexample and I would add Warlocks (particularly Affliction) as another. Most classes/roles operate on a priority system not a set rotation. These priorities often include conditions like: "If this debuff is up on the mob and it will live for greater than thirty seconds but less than sixty seconds, then do X".

The only remaining example I can think of what you would call a standard rotation is a PvE Arcane Mage. If you're bored with WoW's combat system, I would give the Affliction Warlock a go. The fact that I write custom triggers for addons to tell me about different conditions obtaining during a fight is testament to the combat system being more interesting than facerolling 1,2,3 in order (e.g. Tier 4-piece bonus proc + Critical Strike debuff up + trinket usable = display of an icon that tells me I can now use that trinket and a potion while recasting one of my DoTs to maximize its effectiveness).
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