Thursday, August 05, 2010
MMORPG combat fundamentals
One of the problems when discussing game design theory is that some people have experienced only a limited number of games which happened to do something all in the same way, and now think that this is the *only* possible way to do this. If you for example look at MMORPGs with more than 100k subscribers, it is totally possible that somebody played World of Warcraft, Everquest 2, Lord of the Rings Online, and Warhammer Online, and comes away with the impression that MMORPG combat needs a tank, healer, dps trinity based on static abilities. Thus when I talked yesterday about Mytheon's random abilities selection, somebody reacted with a stunned "how could that even work in groups???". Thus I think it is time to go back to basics and have a look what are the fundamentals of MMORPG combat, and which parts are actually optional, even if you find them in many games.
Throughout the history of human warfare a one-on-one combat was usually decided by who got the first hit in. Weapons are designed to kill or maim, thus it isn't surprising that they tend to do so. One-hit combat is realistic, but makes for lousy movies and games, thus in both Hollywood combat and MMORPG combat a less realistic long combat with multiple hits leading to a final demise is usually preferred.
So lets accept that premise, and talk about combat in which each combatant has a number of "hit points" or "health", and each hit by an enemy reduces that number, until the combatant is dead at 0 health. Now if you look at the calculations going on during such a combat, you'll see a lot of parameters. There is a chance to hit, an amount of damage dealt with some random variation and maybe "critical hits" for extra damage. On the side of the recipient there are chances to negate damage with skills like parry or block, or to diminish damage with armor. And then there are chances on the side of the damage dealer to negate armor. Looks extremely complicated, but if you follow a combat for a while you'll notice that all these chances and calculations tend to even themselves out in the long run. Thus for all practical purposes people can, and do, just look at the amount of damage finally dealt per second. If your opponent has 20k health and you deal 1k damage per second, it will take you 20 seconds to kill the opponent. Then you can do the reverse calculation with your health and your opponents damage per second to find out how much time it takes *him* to kill *you*. If he needs less that 20 seconds, he wins. If he needs more, you win. Easy as pie.
If the combat is not one-on-one, but for example involves a combat of a group of players against one computer-controlled monster, the AI needs to decide which of the players to hit. That is mandatory, that is you can't have a system in which this decision is *not* taken, unless you design it in a way that damage is always evenly distributed among all participants. But how that decision is taken is optional. You can easily design a system in which the decision is completely random, or depends on factors that can't be easily influenced by the players. Thus the often seen system in which one character is a "tank", with abilities to influence to manage "aggro" onto himself is optional. You can have MMORPG group combat systems without tanks. In fact even games which have tanks in PvE combat often make do without aggro management in PvP combat, because players would object to not be able to choose their targets freely.
Less obviously, healing is optional too. That again is easiest to see by simply imagining a PvP combat without healers. By fiddling with the numbers of health points and damage per second that the monsters and the players have, it would be perfectly possible to design a combat system in which no healing takes place during combat, and health regeneration only happens after combat. And even if you design a system with healing, the role of a dedicated "healer" is still optional. There are a number of Asian MMORPGs in which healing is done exclusively by quaffing health potions, and every player is responsible for his own health.
Thus overall, only damage dealing is a mandatory function in MMORPG combat. Not every MMORPG needs to have "tanks" and/or "healers". And there would be obvious advantages to such combat systems without the holy trinity of tank/healer/dps: If every player is responsible for his own aggro and health, there is less of a blame game going on when things go wrong. And getting a group together would be much easier without having to wait for a tank and healer to sign up. Of course the disadvantage would be that there would be less differentiation between classes in such a game. But with damage dealers being far more popular than healers and tanks in every game, and there being a tank and healer "shortage" in spite of groups usually being designed with far more dps than tanks or healers, maybe less differentiation wouldn't be all that bad.