Tobold's Blog
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.
In my opinion more randomness will be the focus in the improvements i would suggest. More randomness means less predictability, and this is good (to a certain degree). Simultaneously, the quality of feedback a player gets from a MMORPG combat event should be increased significantly. More and better information on the status and progress would make deciding the next combat-step more involved and challenging, adding a tactical/strategic component.
Perhaps do more interesting things with disabling attacks? Usually a stun or silence ability makes you sit there and feel useless. In LotRO, one of the interesting things I've noticed is that the silence ability only affects certain abilities. A caster type can't cast, but a melee type can't shout, either. While there isn't much interesting gameplay with this in LotRO, I think you could expand that.

For example, let's say you get disarmed in a game. Instead of losing your weapon abilities and having a weak auto-attack, what if a melee character then use weaker punch and kick attacks that had special effects. Maybe a neck punch has a chance of silencing the enemy, or a leg kick hinders the enemy's speed. Or, a silenced spellcaster focuses their magic into their weapon and gets a bonus to damage for a while. This could open up a lot of interesting PvP combat situations, too, where the status effects you inflict should be carefully chosen and the wrong status at the wrong time could lead to problems.

I agree that combat has gotten stale, and even games like AoC really didn't do much to breathe new life into it. One thing I worry about is making the control system easier. The reason we have 1-2-3 as our attack sequence is because those are the keys players can reach easily from the WASD control keys. Adding more abilities and situational modifiers leads to more hotkeys, which could lead to a lot more confusion and frustration.
Great post!

The first element which could make MMORPG combat better is interactivity, meaning players have to react to what happens on the screen.

I think this is the key. Run-of-the-mill MMO monsters usually can't really do anything too deadly, so players focus on their own skills rather than on what the monster is doing.

Here's one obvious approach: Give monsters powerful attack and defensive abilities and give players abilities that can counter them. When a monster is about to use an ability, display an icon on the screen representing showing what it is, and give the player a few seconds to respond.

So for example, the player could have an ability that reduces the damage of the next incoming attack by 50%. The player would obviously want to wait until the monster was about to use a powerful attack and then cast this spell in reaction to it. Or the player could have an "interrupt" ability that he could use in response to a monster's attempt to heal itself.

Some games have already done something like this. For example, Vanguard gives casters a "counterspell" ability that can be used to counter an incoming spell. Since there is a bit of a cooldown on the counterspell, there is some strategy involved in deciding when to use it.

Anyway, great post. It all seems like common sense, so it's strange that more games haven't tried to make combat more interesting.
I've always enjoyed the pokemon style where different mobs were weak to different types of attacks. But I think if you do that, you have to give players some decent options of what to go and kill.

I mean, if I have just picked up an awesome mace of undead slaying, I probably want to go kill some undead, not have a quest send me off somewhere I can't use it.
One of the more interesting combat systems I encountered was in Guild Wars where the choice of 8 abilities was limited to the non-instanced town area. Once you decided your "build" and ventured outside you couldn't change it without restarting.

For extra points Guild Wars was "plagued" by combos. Some abilities when used together could make what MtG players would call broken combos. These combos could work in solo combat (55HP monk anyone?) but also groups of players could use builds that complemented each other. I loved that game! Too bad that it became boring relatively quickly.
Click and attack isn't too bad of a combat style, the best thing about WoW is that I can play it half asleep as I relax after work. I usually go to bed when I'm done playing WoW, so for that it's perfect.

I don't play a fighting game before going to sleep, that's more of a mid afternoon kind of thing.
Be careful when designing an engaging and interactive combat system. In a game like WoW, were you have to fight a hell of a lot against many very weak enemies (during leveling and farming) it becomes to tiresome very fast.

This was one thing I didn't like about AoC. The combat was too tiresome (although it wasn't even that hard) for a game that required mob grinding to gain the last 20 levels.

One thing I personally dislike are systems that have no credibility - like your card game systems. Why? Why do I have this ability now but not then? Give me even a little explanation and I am satisfied. But don't you dare to put such a system in place without any explanation at all. It is still a Role Playing Game ...
I programmed my G15 keyboard to "spam shadowbolt" in TBC. Now that wasn't much fun.

Although we complain about these systems, I found it hard to go and play a game like sacred after playing WoW. These hack & slash games basicaly force you to just click click click. No clever combos or easy access to multiple spells.

An example of a good combat system would be the death knight class in WoW. Lots of great additions. 3x2 runes with 8 seconds cooldown which can be used in combos. And a rune power which goes up to 100. And a few one minute cooldowns. And weapon procs. And trinket procs. It's complicated enough for my taste. Although it's still possible to program your key stroke chains in a G15 macro. But I never felt the need to do so as I could use a priority system.

And as for weaknesses, that has a downside. I remember playing a mage in molten core. You were forced to play frost. No other viable options.
The thing I see as difficult (not impossible) to solve is balancing.

If you have pvp in your mmorpg (but even in pve) ppl with complain if they can't beat something/someone. Especially if the balancing is the problem.

You brought up skeletons in d&d. It's a great idea that blunt weapons do more damage and in d&d it makes perfect sense.
Translate that to wow though and you'll have rogues complain that they are not invited to scholo runs because they do 20% less damage compared to mace swinging warriors, ...
Or hunters won't do much damage with their arrows and aren't invited.

Horde would only roll undead classes as they're clearly the best pvp class etc.

Adding more randomness (be it through trading card game like mechanics or something else is pretty much the same thing.
You'll win if you're lucky and you'll lose if you're unlucky.

Could be difficult to balance around as well.
Interesting post. I think it's a great idea to consider new and improved combat systems, as I'm also in the camp that thinks MMO combat has gotten stale.

I feel that the biggest hurdle would be getting around the issue of character stats, gear stats, resistances, racial specialties/abilities, cooldowns and the whole gambit of the design holdovers from the D&D PnP days of combat. Why? Because in such a system there is no way around preventing the "holy trinity" from rearing its ugly head unless "death" is not a designed or required outcome from the combat itself.

I would say that one needs to define the outcome and purpose of the combat before a proper combat system can be designed. Is death going to continue to be the end-all, be-all of combat systems?
Just a couple of ideas off the top of my head....

Change mob tactics: they could move behind you, keep dodging certain type of attacks, or pull you into a specific spot like a lava pit,etc. This forces you to pay attention.

Change interface controls: Instead of keyboard shortcuts, use a Wii controller to allow uppercuts, slashes, thrusts. Suddenly attack vectors are important!

Combinations: I know AoC used these but it could be expanded to include specific item/move combos or skill/area tactics. ie. Taunt the mob into raising his fists then use the dagger-thrust to hit past the weak point in armor.

Body-part specific damage: Focus attacks on a specific body area like the ribs and take out your foe even though he still has 50% health!

Unfortunately, most of the suggestions rely on increasing the detail and complexity of combat to allow for most tactics. This is opposite of the trend among games to simplify combat but add flashier graphics.
One thing I personally dislike are systems that have no credibility - like your card game systems. Why? Why do I have this ability now but not then? Give me even a little explanation and I am satisfied. But don't you dare to put such a system in place without any explanation at all. It is still a Role Playing Game

Credibility? What do these games have to do with credibility? Is it credible that only a limited number of players can enter a dungeon? Is it credible that a raid performs a complicated dance around Helgan? Is it credible that a group arms themselves with powerful tanks in the first combat at Ulduar, but then leaves the tanks behind for the other fights, where they sure would have been useful?

And on a more fundamental level, are mages hurling fireballs credible? Are warriors who are able to taunt both mindless and hyper-intelligent enemies into attacking them credible? Is being at full strength when you only have 1 health left, but dying at one more point of damage credible?
I wish more games followed Guild Wars example of have a wide array of skills available but limiting the number of skills you can carry at any one time. I think choosing and trying out new skill sets adds a lot of variety to combat. Arena-net, to their credit are very assiduous at weeding out "flavour of the month" uber-builds.
I'm not sure there's really a combat system that can survive contact with the Internet. No matter how complex your system, if enough people are interested, someone's gonna design a simulator, or run the epic math, and there will be a "best practices" or a "priority queue" and a "best build". The goal shouldn't be to avoid that outcome, but to make sure the result is entertaining.

Decision trees > priority queues > rotations

You're never going to get a combat system that someone can't "write a script" against, but you can make sure that script is sufficiently complex as to keep people interested, or make sure there's enough nodes in the decision tree to make people think in the moment.

But what you have to be aware of is varying player skill level. The more complex the combat system, the more advantage "better" players have. If that's your design goal, that's fine, but if you want your end game accessible to the "average players", you have to limit the distance between "decent DPS" (average skill players) and "great DPS" (well-skilled players) for balance reasons.

You also need to balance difficulty and difficulty benefit. If two classes have the same maximum DPS with good players, but one has way worse DPS with average players, you have a balance issue that's a lot harder to fix than normal. Right now, the WoW kitty-druid class has average DPS for the average player, but OP DPS if you're good. An average kitty matches up to an average rogue, but a great kitty destroys a great rogue. How do you solve that balance problem.
AoC combat was fail imho. First it introduced inherent imbalances between melee and casters (melees had to bind additional 6 buttons for their positional attacks, and deal with shields, positions and such, while caster had their old click button ,watch cooldowns system)

And combos are cumbersome to use which many players complained about - I have good FPS skills (including melee fps such as Jedi Knight etc) and yet I did not like AoC combat all that much. Combos are a gimmick making system harder and less enjoyable to use without introducing anything fundamentally new

The game should be based on reactive moves (attacks and their counters) , so it matters what you do based on what opponent did before.

As is in WoW it is limited to CCs juggling mostly (which still takes considerable skill - try arena) .

All in all I beleive WoW combat is actually pretty decent in itself, I havent seen anything better in MMOs and it certainly could be improved but i dont see need for any overhauls

BTW I strongly dislike Guild Wars system (or the one in TCoS) - all it does is limits your available skills, without doing anything for actual combat. It just makes you play the metagame layer of speccing more explicitly, while cutting your options during combat short - less options ,not good imho
BTW I noticed that many complains seems to originate here because players here play vs mobs exclusively. - I hate to break it to you , but if you want any sort of interesting dynamics you have to play vs other players , no amount of scripting or combat mechanics ATM will solve it for PvE

It seems like you guys want "interesting combat" without frustration of losing ( I mean the reason you don't find PvP interesting is because you get thoroughly owned and give up before you can improve) . - Interesting combat can not exist without being challenging and that requires self improvement on your part
In response to Chris …

I say yes to the holy trinity. Why not have a player make a healing based deck to help his party or a deck with aggroing and buffing cards. Want to solo, well make a hybrid deck with DPS and healing. It would be exciting since it makes it possible for great deck building fun. People generally like the Guildwars approach of skill selecting, but I find that tuning your deck would be much more interesting. Anyways both are better than just maxing a point system.

Stats and gear would stay to govern: hit points, power (mana mechanic), damage dealt, damage mitigation, etc. I imagine a system of looting monsters for gear and gold. While cards could be provided by capturing spells from monsters (like Guildwars) and from shops (game currency and real money probably). Naturally quest rewards could give either one, both or make you chose.

New stats would appear like: maximum handsize, initial hand when starting combat, drawspeed (a cooldown between each new spell draw) and graveyard regen rate (spells would go to a graveyard with a cooldown before being reshuffled into your deck).

I just think that pacing will be important, because a player will need more time than a button bashing mechanic to analyze his hand, plan future moves, search graveyard or deck with special spells.

Crafting could potentially have new twists other than gear making, would it be possible to master a spell (card) to the point of inscribing it on a scroll for others to learn it ?

I see grouping as being very important and even with a temporary card sharing mechanic. It would permit me to lend cards to a grouping player so that he can use them (and having them grayed out in my spell book) until condition X (time, logging, ungrouping, etc.) is met and the cards return to the owner. An expanded lease system for guilds would also be nice. Heck why not even be able to rent cards from a shop (with real life money ?) for an X amount of time.

Tobold I love to read your blog, but I follow it for post like this on a potential trading card game MMORPG (Shandalar). If only I had the mean$ to produce such a dreamgame. I loved questing for cards in Duel of the Plane Walkers and Etherlords pc games.

Tobold, I hope you expand on any subject I touched in my comment in a future blog post.
I disagree that introducing randomness in what buttons to press would be any improvement to the basic combat mechanics. That is just making it worse - instead of having a system that might be considered easy to master but still deterministic (and thus measurable in terms of skill) you introduce a game of chance.

If you like to play lottery and calculate probabilities that is fine, but I do not think it plays out well.

The problem is rather in the other end - enemies are annoyingly stupid and they do not learn. And in most games the behaviour of the mobs is very predictible and very much the same, more so than player combat mechanics.

You can revamp the combat mechanics all you want, but without revamping enemy behaviour or just focus on PvP I do not think any significant improvements will be made.

The challenge I think is in making the PvE enemies smarter in a resonable pace and keep it fun, rather than frustrating if they become too smart too soon.
Two points that I think would make for much more engaging MMO combat:

1) Limited tools
Maybe this is just personal taste, but I always liked the tactical shooter games where you only had so much room for your kit, and you had to pick the weapons/support items that fitted your play style and the situation ahead. By modifying the effectiveness of weapons and spells on various enemies, you create a system where there is no one "ultimate weapon" that works on everything: going dragon hunting requires different equipment than close-quarters undead dungeon-fighting. Let the player have a chest or locker or house that can store as much equipment as they can stand, but only let them carry 1-2 primary weapons and a belt full of support items, with a backpack for loot.

2) Make things harder (AI/Difficulty)
I know there is a spectrum of skill levels out there, and a portion of the spectrum wants an easier game. For those of us that feel up to a challenge, I'd love to see an MMO that's not afraid to throw enemies at you who have just as much chance to kill you as you have to kill them. Quality over quantity, perhaps: throw out the "trash mob" mentality of the main world, and make each fight actually matter. Give the NPCs AI that can't be fooled into the standard tricks of farming/kiting/grinding, perhaps. Instead of a full camp of enemies that can come at you one at a time and fit a regular pattern, reduce the numbers, place them in random orientations around the camp, and beef them up to non-trivial status. Hard combat puts the feeling of victory back into the fights.

All of this has, of course, been my humble opinion.
I don't think most people like randomness in the combat formula. Let me give you an example;

You and your group/raid go to fight Boss X, and you know the mechanics of the fight. You are prepared, everyone is on their game, and you are a focused and well-oiled team. The fight is difficult for you at your level but not impossible. Here are the four likely outcomes;

1. (Current system) You execute perfectly, and barely take down the boss, leading to a feeling of accomplishment.

2. (Current system) You make some mistakes and it costs you the encounter. You learn from it and make an adjustment for your next attempt.

3. (Randomness included, a la MTG example) You execute perfectly, but still lose the encounter because the one ability that would have saved the day never "popped" for you. You feel powerless and the game feels unfair.

4. (Randomness included, a la MTG example)You make errors, muck up the whole encounter and you still win because some lucky event happens with the RNG.

In examples 3 and 4 above, you minimize the already small aspect of skill in MMO combat, leaving the player feeling relatively powerless against the encounter. Even if you WIN, you feel like your contribution is less because the RNG saved the day. If you lose because the RNG screwed you, well, you know how that makes a population react.

I do believe that there is room for improvement in combat systems via more tactical options and decisions, but I think introducing a layer of randomness to the encounter has only negative outcomes.
At several of the above posts:

Many of these posts seem to make the assumption that the game will be designed with the same sort of "kill lots of enemies, level up, ...kill bosses several times to learn a raid, raid" style than WoW has. If a game had a different combat system, though, its likely that it would be designed with a different sort of gameplay in mind, or at least with some adjustments to this model, to work with the combat system.
You just explained why Magic the Gathering couldn't possibly work. I'm afraid that doesn't fit very well with reality.

What you can say, and I agree with that, is that *some* players prefer deterministic games to random games, chess to monopoly. But randomness has always been a huge part of game design over many centuries. And a game like Magic the Gathering is not "a lottery", it is a mix of strategy and random elements, with the skill of the player showing in how he deals with the randomness.

So it is current system = "Somebody once executed an encounter perfectly, put the video on YouTube, and now everybody just copies the strategy" vs randomness = "Every fight is different, and you need to think for yourself". As long as you are ONLY interested in execution, not strategy, I can understand why you would prefer the former. But MMOs can be more than that, they can offer a strategic or tactical challenge.
>>I say yes to the holy trinity. Why not have a player make a healing based deck to help his party or a deck with aggroing and buffing cards.

I'm not against what you are proposing, as any change to the current combat system is a good thing. But I fear that the trinity effect will continue to hinder the development of proper combat mechanics for a long time to come if the current goal orientation process continues as usual.

What continues to happen, is that at the end of the day, no matter what little surprises you add in the combat mix, the computer makes some calculations as it rolls its virtual dice, and we are still slaves to the RNG and the diminishing returns it offers to the "fun factor" of combat.

In order for a combat system to make sense, and work in the grand scheme of things, I feel that it should be coupled with other elements like diplomacy and/or reputation gains.

I'd also go as far as wanting to see a "moral" angle to combat, whereby the NPC mob or PvP player is given the option to "yield" or "run away" and give the victor some incentive for letting them do so. In cases such as this, the trinity is not a foregone conclusion from a design standpoint.
I haven't seen any comments yet talking about latency, aka "lag". Or it's partner, "older hardware." Any combat system which requires observing what mobs do on screen, and having the player respond interactively, will require both low latency and a fast computer.

There are people playing WoW over dialup, or satellite internet, or on five year old computers. They rely on shadowbolt spamming, or in effect play with their monitor off. So a company rolling out a spiffier combat system would lose these customers.
I would really keep it simple. 3-4 choices available to the player at any given time, no more. And then I'd make choosing the right action out of those 3-4 possible ones really matter. For example a game of counters and limited resources.

That is where encounter design comes into place though. If every situation is the same, then the player response is the same and ofcourse that gets repetitive (see WoW Frostbolts / Sinister Strikes). The trick would be to properly build and balance encounter design beyond "mob gets range aggro and attacks in a straight line", while keeping it simple enough at the same time.
"But MMOs can be more than that, they can offer a strategic or tactical challenge."

It's rather simple to suggest, but how would you plan to implement such a system?
I haven't seen any comments yet talking about latency, aka "lag". Or it's partner, "older hardware." Any combat system which requires observing what mobs do on screen, and having the player respond interactively, will require both low latency and a fast computer.

No, only if you don't give the players enough time to react. WoW raids already have a lot of visual inputs players need to react to, like the flame waves at Sartharion. I'm just proposing to extend that to the earlier game.
If you add too much complexity, you will make the combat too difficult.

I agree with the comments that say to add more unpredictability on the mob side of the equation.

Also, I enjoy WoW's talent trees, and I've found that different builds refresh the combat. It's a big difference playing an affliction warlock vs. destruction.

I'd also like to see true FPS MMO one day, one with a big, open world. Huxley doesn't look to be it.

I like deck building too, but I don't see how this works with fast-paced combat.
I've seen a lot of posts/threads over the years about how to "improve" MMO combat. For my money, I have never enjoyed any system better than the original EQ. I think the whole thing falls squarely into the category of "if it ain't broke...".

I prefer one-click combat to button-mashing. It's my character that's supposed to have the skills, not me. I am more than happy to just make the executive decisions about who he should fight and let him handle the details. Making me react to what the mob does adds nothing to my experience beyond irritation.

I particularly loathe any system that requires me either to aim or move about during combat. Gimmicky at best, infuriating at worst, generally I avoid any game that goes for this kind of make-work.

Reacting to what the opponent does isn't quite as awful. I'd prefer not to have to pay that much attention, though. It's ok in turn-based games, but in real-time it's annoying.

I'm not a "gamer". I play MMOs because they are very easy and require very little player-skill. I don't play other types of computer games and haven't for 20 years or more. I came to MMOs from CRPGs and Adventure games, where everything moved at a very much more stately pace, and I conssider even original EQ to be somewhat too fast for comfort nowadays.

I'd be open-minded about a variation in combat that slowed things down, or that automated more functions, or that was turn-based. Anything faster or requiring more attention in real-time, I'm really not keen.
Same here, David. But I think you can make interactivity "pseudo turn-based" by giving players enough time to react. If you have 2 to 5 seconds to react to an event, taking the right decision is more important than fast button-mashing.
It should be noted that combat in Wizard 101 is turn based (with a timer). It's not about quick reflexes, it's about quick assessment of the combat state, and quick decision making. That's a big part of its appeal to more tactically minded people like me. Atlantica Online has some similar effects, what with its team-based timed turn-based combat.

I'm oddly reminded of the Highlander card game, where there were high, low and medium attacks and corresponding defense. Combat was about predicting the opponent's behavior. Yes, it's PvP, and it has a Rock Paper Scissors feel to it, but a bit of massaging can make something like that tactically interesting, by limiting future choices to previous ones, both for players and NPCs.

We already see some of that with a WoW Rogue's combo system (certain attacks are only available after other ones land). Making combat take both the attacker and the defender into account can make for those "situational" actions, and canny players can manipulate the flow of battle by being aware of these situational effects.

Of course, this all assumes that combat is necessary in an MMO. I'm not convinced that such is a foregone conclusion. Still, I'm all for some experimentation to get more tactics and strategy involved.
I remember reading an interview with one of the designers of civilisation saying good game design was about giving players meaingful options- that often involves limiting choices to a few important ones rather than giving us loads of options that we never use.

For example with my mage in wow how i fight is determined before i enter battle. I spec fire- so i throw up scorches, spam fireball and do a pyro or living bomb every so often.

But in a combat system were i have options... well say i fighting an ogre, during a part of the fight he might raise his weapon above his head in preperation for a big attack. The more I attack him the more enraged he get and the more damage he's gonna deal- unless i damage him above a certain limit in which case he topples over i i can kick him in the nuts for bonus damage. So I have to judge, based on what cool downs or burst damage I've got, what option to take.

But lets say he does the big attack and i dodge out the way, his weapons stuck in the ground. Do i run up the ogres arm and attack him from the back of the neck for a short time or try and destroy his weapon, weakening his attack? Or the ogre swallows me whole- Do my allies stop attacking fearing it will damage us both? Do i try and slice my way out from the inside before his stomach acid kills me? Or use my fire skills to force him to spit me out? what do my ice skills do?

Combat becomes more about problem solving and trial and error, finding out what tactics work best, or work best in combination.

The risk with that is, that like a zelda game were you have to work out what each mobs weakness, is once you know it becomes a chore- use the grappling hook to remove the armour then finish off with a arrow rinse and reapeat 100 times. This would be especially true with guides, mob databases etc. But give each mob various different reactions to each event and you have loads of possiblities, not easily predictable. So one ogre after you dodge a set number of attacks might go in to a blind furry attack all around (inculding over mobs) another might step back, pull out a shotgun and fire a shot which can't be dodged (but maybe blocked). Combine that with different number and type of mobs in each group and you have limitless battles.

So combat becomes about experimenting and dealing with unexpected reactions.
The intricacies of some of the combat systems that have been mentioned as examples are overwhelming to even create. Then you have to actually implement it in code for a single mob. Then you have to repeat that process for a few thousand mobs. At that point, unless you're charging your players $40 a month to play, it will take the company forever to recoup their initial investment.

While I agree with Tobold's initial article that combat can be made more interesting, I don't think it can ever be as interesting as what PnP games or individual boss encounters provide.
>>> I think you can make interactivity "pseudo turn-based" by giving players enough time to react. If you have 2 to 5 seconds to react to an event, taking the right decision is more important than fast button-mashing.

I think that a 2-5 second reaction time is appropriate for crafting, or a quest. (Think of the "Simon" quest for Ogri'la.) But for combat? If there are two few decision points, then combat will become formulaic. If there are too many, then a single combat would extend over several minutes. Unless an individual combat gave a higher payoff than Wow (in terms of exp / loot), then the grind to the level cap would be an overwhelming time sink.
Excellent analysis.

The annoying thing is at times they have got close to some of these things then backed off, eg EQ2's original crafting system.
Asheron's Call has more dynamic combat (physically dodging spells is quite a departure from other games) and is one reason I enjoy it so much. You also use different weapons/spells on different creature types.

As a rad/rad defender in CoH, much of my combat was related to positioning the bad guys and not just mashing my buttons, which was also a different combat feel.
I somewhat like the combat system from Jade Empire. It’s fast paced, you launch light or strong attacks via different mouse buttons. You can learn different styles (martial arts, magic, weapons etc.) troughout the game an can switch between them in a fight when an enemy is invulnerable to an attack style (eg. ghosts are immune to weapons, so you switch to a martial arts chi style). You can evade an attack via backflip or jump when you double press a direction buttton. Enemies have active blocking an can launch special attack ans strong attackscan penetrate blocking…ist both active an reactive and feels so much mory dynamic, you can not sit there an let auto attack do the job. Heck, for my part you can even leave auto attack completely out of a game.

Then put a lot of styles in a game (for individuality ;)), add combos - maybe a system where you can build your own combos to a degree ( like in GW) – and a decent KI (which could be difficult ;-) ) and I will play the keyboard till my fingers bleed ;-).
What would be great, though somewhat laggy, would be a combat system like Savage 2. With the right programmers, you could eliminate some of the lag and involve actual skill into MMORPGs.
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