Tobold's Blog
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.
A few points:

1) You don't need to have played another MMO to imagine different combat systems; you just need to use your brain. People should do this more often, I agree.

2) I also agree that the strict differentiation into dd/healer/tank is not necessary and should be replaced by other mechanisms. This, however, is non-trivial if you still want to have interesting combat. The alternatives might be worth a detailed post.

3) Combat systems should be plausible. For a mage a prepared collection of spells might make sense. For a warrior I have problems coming up with an explanation for why he suddenly unlearnt to apply ability X. A world vs. game argument, as usual ;)

4) Having different classes with different combat systems adds replay value to your game and is certainly worth the trouble of balancing. (Which is overrated, anyway).
What I like about 4ed D&D is that the tanks can tank without relying on the monsters being very stupid. How it works is that if the critter that the tank is tanking attacks anyone beside the tank something bad happens to the critter. So the critter can do what it wants, but it is penalized for not attacking the tank.
Diablo 2 is a good model for multiplayer fantasy PvE with no trinity, no healers, no tanks, and still a good variety of classes that feel very different to play.

I think Diablo 3 might shake up a few people's ideas about how games "must" be. Sure, it's not an MMO - but I think people will see a lot of things in it that could and should be tried in an MMO.
The problem of the dps/tank/healer trinity is (unfortunately?) a direct consequence of the way you have defined combat.

Inflicting damage = DPS
Ability to reduce incoming damage = Tank
Ability to reduce taken damage = Healer

The only way not to have this is to prevent some abilities from existing altogether, but in that case you risk that the optimal solution will always be "full dps burst" (= doing as much damage as fast as possible, ignore anything else).

Note that this would also apply to Mytheon, just like it emerges in team-based card games, where teams tend to focus on deck construction which resembles the trinity (damage/attack = dps, block/stall = tank, negation = 'heal', a bit like a disc priest). This because a single-themed deck are in general a lot more stable than mix'n'match.
One way of making tanking plausible might be for the tanking class (eg a warrior) to have very strong melee attacks, but for every hit taken in (say) the last 5 seconds to reduce the effectiveness of the warrior's melee attacks.

Thus it's fine to ignore the warrior if you like, but if you do he becomes and Unstoppable Tidal Wave of Death with very high dps (perhaps the highest of all classes). Mobs or other players might choose to attack the tank to keep his attacks weak.
With what David said, D&D4e is a great example of what the next level of MMOs should be aiming for. Each class has a primary role, and then chooses from two sub roles that allows them to play a little like another type of role.

Each class focuses on certain stats, which improves a defense type, so that a Mage might be best at "tanking" enemies that attack the mind, since he is the least likely to get hit by it, but he doesn't really get to choose who the creature is going to attack, unless he specifically gets in the way, and even then, that creature will probably have a physical alternative to attack with.

The concept of roles of course comes from choosing to specialize (sacrificing damage for survivability for example) which in turn leads to the thought of, "Hey, you can hardly be hit, and you don't take that much damage, and you have a ton of hit points, why don't YOU go in first, and we'll attack from back here."

At the same time, you would think that there would be some way to get an enemy angry at you to the point of ignoring other targets, especially as a way to save someone who is being beat up on.

As much as I don't enjoy the trinity, any game that is designed around NOT having a trinity, but allows enough customization to have a trinity, will result in people using it to make combat easier. At least that's my opinion on the matter.

@Everblue, there's a chance of creating a ping pong effect with mobs if this is the case, resulting in very ineffective mobs.
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I thought the question in yesterday's post wasn't so much about tanks and healers as it was about how you described combat as having a pretty strong random element. If you can never predict what anyone's next move is going to be, you just have a big and messy free-for-all, thus to have any kind of organisation in groups, everyone would have to try and specialise, thereby removing the very randomness that you mention as being fun. Or at least that's the impression I got.
It is interesting that in your list of 100k sub MMOs you left out EVE and Lineage 2. Both are well over the mark.

One thing I have noticed in L2, as you said with asian games, people do depend on health potions more but in that game not exclusively. It is generally a mob grinder so usually the game is to go out with what ever group you have and find and pull mobs at a sustainable rate for your healing/tanking/dps/buff makeup.

L2 has 3 dedicated healer classes and 4 dedicated tank classes but out of 35 possible that is not much and even with the 3 healers, two are for end game purposes, support healers with buffs and mana regen. they are most often assigned to regen the cardinal who has the very best heals of all.

But what I find interesting with L2 is that even when you go after bosses in an instance you don't always need a full up healer or tank. At least while leveling. In that regard it is very flexible. You really take the group that you have and make do. Perhaps saying, hmmm, we are thin on heals lets get someone. But that someone could be any mystic type we even just a bit of heals.

All the classes in L2 start as either fighers or mystics. but with mystics for example, even if you go for being a heavy hitting nuke type wizard, you still have a few healing spells that you picked up before you were lvl 20 as a general mystic. Likewise, ever fighter has an aggro ability including the archers, rogues and song/dance bard classes. Of course they cant tank nearly as well but they can help and if your group is not pressed they can do fine.

So with L2 it seems more like they went with the idea that everybody is more or less either a type of healer with dps and maybe buffs or they are a type of tank with dps and maybe buffs. Everyone brings dps, where you can help to fill in gaps for healing and aggro and how much you can fill depends on your class. Dont have a real healer for you instance? fine bring 2 off healers or 3 incidental healers.

But in the end, what I appreciate about L2s system is that groups will often take anyone who wants to join and will only look for specifics if the groups is way out of balance. And given the buffing structure, greater diversity in classes in almost any combination will make the group stronger. Everybody brings something useful.
Good comment, but no need to post it three times. ;)
As for EVE, well, that is sooooo different that it is sometimes hard to think of it in the same category. Of course with spaceship battles you don't generally have any healers. You can outfit your ship with repair systems or with systems that will repair other ships but except in very large fleets with a high level of coordination and specialization, it is simply not common.

Rather it seems that the EVE "trinity" consists of having a fleet with tacklers, ships that lock other ships down and keep them from running, ECM ships that try to keep that ship from killing the tacklers and then dps ships that pile on the hurt. The question being how much hurt you can take and if you or your fleet either have counter measures to the tacklers and ECMers or if you can put more hurt on them than they can put on you.
sorry about the multi-post, google wasn't showing me as logged in.
That wasn't supposed to be a complete list of 100k+ MMORPGs, but just to make a point that several 100k+ MMORPGs use very similar combat mechanics.

Funnily enough a system in which one hit doesn't kill you, but multiple hits slowly wear you down is *more* believable in a Sci Fi space ship combat game like EVE than in a medieval fantasy game like WoW. Shield energy depleting is more logical than a warrior being wounded repeatedly without any effect until a last minor wound kills him.
Aion would be another that, outside NA and EU reaches above 100k.

Aion has much more of a traditional trinity but still with some of the flexibility of off healers and off tanks that can often do just fine in an main healing or main tanking in an instance if you don't push it too hard.

One thing I have noticed in Aion (and L2) is a heavy dependence, in general, on random numbers. Mostly in loot drops and crafting but also quite heavy in combat. The result is that you can bring a templar for tanking and a cleric for healing and 4 dps and around 80-90% of the time you will be fine but without the flexibity of off heals and off tanking or at least one or the other, you have a very hard time dealing with the oddball circumstances that often come up.

It seems like it is hard for NA/EU folks, especially coming from WoW to get used to, or even recognize that Asian style randomness really results in a lot of "shit happens" moments. No, it really wasn't healer's fault, no it wasn't the tank either. Nope they dps, surprisingly, didn't screw anything up, we just got unlucky with crits/heals/provokes/whatever landing.

Aion gets frustrating and doesn't do well here in the west at least in part because we want to find someone to hang if we don't succeed in the task. If we do everything we are supposed to do, we should always succeed. At least that's what we expect.
I still find it odd/funny that people completely forget the combat that both UO and AC had. Neither one of these games had the holy trinity and they both imployed pretty much the same style for tanking/healing/dps.

In both games, melee and mages were able to dps fine and were able to tank pretty much most any mob. Healing for the mage was via magic while healing for the melee was via bandages. Unlike EQ, bandaging could get you back to full health so neither class was dependent on a dedicated healer.

Only with EQ and the games afterwards did the Holy Trinity evolve. It was a bit of a progression from Dungeons and Dragons but even in D&D, the Holy Trinity didn't really exist.

The Warrior was not really considered a tank but for the most part was DPS, there really was NO actual tank. The mage, although being able to put out very good damge, was much more than that, mages were also utility.

Finally clerics/druids and the like, although healing, were very good DPS melee classes, usually 2nd to Warriors.

I never understood EQ and further games progression to the Holy Trinity of Tank/Heals/DPS when in D&D, the game these MMORPG's evolved from, that trinity never existed.
A game which balanced DPS and tanking could be quite fun.

After unleashing your most devastating attack, you'd need to be prepared to tank for a minute or two, using your defensive cooldowns.

Everyone takes their turn to DPS/tank.
It's a mud not an MMO but Dragonrealms has an interesting system as far as your realism of battles versus playability is concerned. Getting hit doesn't kill you but you get wounds in specific areas which reduce your capability to perform certain actions depending on where you were hurt. There are issues with getting into a spiral effect though where the more you get hit the easier it is to get hit but some of the physical combat-oriented classes have abilities to temporarily help them in this regard.

As far as lacking differentiation with the lack of dedicated healers and/or Tanks why not differentiate in different ways? Could just as easily see a debuff-area-damage trio
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In single-player games that translate to multiplayer, like Diablo 2 or Titan Quest, the game is balanced for a single player, so adding anything onto your team only makes you able to smash the content even faster. Trash mobs are completely throwaway and can be killed in under a second, boss mobs don't hit hard enough to put a dent in a health bar, so are trivialized by health potions or even minor healing. Anything that actually does hit hard enough to make you think twice about getting close to it can be kited to death, even by a melee class who jousts while chugging pots.

In MMO's, mobs [in instances in WoW's case] are balanced for a group of 5 players, and tend to hit very hard. It's completely possible to run heroics in wow without a tank or spec'd healer, classes like enhancement shaman can easily fill the void with maelstrom weapon if the group's dps is high enough. But therein lies the problem. The tank and healer are the fallback for when dps isn't overwhelming.

In a massively game with many abilities and reaction timing/choice ("rotation"), you can't assume that everyone can do the maximum theoretical output of their character, even at regulated gear levels. Therefore they balance the games around people needing to rely on others.

In a group setting this means someone will probably want to take the majority of the hits to keep things uncomplicated; thus the creation of the tank. It's annoying to have to wait on regen in between combats (assuming a mob can be killed before the tank by an average group, per your dps assessment), so they find someone who can fill the tank's health bar much more quickly and cover the group in a pinch where they fight something that can't be killed before the tank, and the healer is born.
Interestingly, City of Heroes had archetypes (ie, classes) that fell into the typical RPG roles such as tanks, DPS, and healers/crowd control. Yet for much of the game, the roles didn't really matter that much, although it helped if your healers were on the ball.

For some content it definitely helped to play the traditional roles, but the game was a lot of fun with a large group that wasn't too regimented.
I've played umpteen MMOs and experienced a variety of combat systems. In my opinion the EQ/WoW type that we are all familiar with is the least "gamey".

I like systems that are "my character knows how to do this, this and this. His character knows how to do that, that and that, her character knows how to do this, that and the other. Let's use our knowledge and abilities in a complementary manner". That's how you end up with something like the Holy Trinity (still means Tank/Healer/Crowd Control to me, too. DPS is jsut a background activity).

I very much enjoyed Wizard 101's combat and I like Mytheon's, but small doses of either are plenty, whereas I can enjoy good EQ/WoW style combat indefinitely. The former seems like playing a fun game whereas the latter feels like being someone else.
There are a couple of hidden questions in this discussion I think that are worth addressing separately

Do we want something other than the current trinity in terms of number?

In any system, the balance and design of encounters forces the number of roles, or else the roles disappear. In WoW it is easy enough to imagine the removal of the tank or the healing part of the trinity (scale down boss damage, add a healing aura respectively). If this were consistently implemented that would eliminate that role instantly.
So do we want more roles or less?
If we increased the number of roles to a quartet then it increases complexity of balance, but more importantly, in PVE group encounters, which I presume is what we are all discussing, then this makes the whole LFG situation worse. In a 5 man we would need maybe 2 dps, 1 tank, 1 healer, and 1 new type. Similarly in 10 or 25 mans or whatever. This is quite an important consequence, and I think a big barrier to the introduction of a quartet system.

What do we want the new classes to be like

A useful way to approach this is to break down the elements of the differences between the classes (mechanically). Some of the elements that I can see is:
- Focus: who and how many units are we looking at, i.e. DPS - boss only, Healers - raid members only, Tank - boss mainly but some environment. This element includes both whether it's looking at friendly, hostile or enviromental, as well as scope - single or multi target
- Responsibility - it's some element of how likely you are to wipe the raid. Tank's would have the most, and DPS could have the least. It would be possible to have DPS have much responsibility while still doing damage, such as by having enrage DPS checks every 10 seconds, so 1 lapse in rotation could lead to a wipe
- Interactivity - The level which your play depends on others - so DPS in most cases is absolutely zero, healers depends entirely on what happens to the rest of the raid. In practice this is quite limited in today's WoW. Higher interactivity would be something like LOTR's fellowship combo
- Lore/Socialogy/psychology - This is the catch all of how it's perceived by the player base. Today healers are still considered more feminine then dps, less bad ass, tanks are "tough".

So do we want something that is different enough along some or all these dimensions, or some dimensions where the current trinity are undifferentiated?
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As mentioned, City of Heroes doesn't stick as closely to the Holy Trinity. The way it gets around this is not as many super-tough mobs.

The only other MMORPG I've played is WoW so I'll go with a comparison.

In WoW, you have to group up to take on Elite mobs, and complete Group quests that focus on killing Elite mobs, or Dungeon quests that focus on killing a dungeon filled with nothing but Elite mobs. Elite mobs hit very hard and the Holy Trinity of Tank/Heal/DPS is in place to deal with elite mobs that hit very hard.

In CoH (at least up to level 40ish), missions very rarely involve Archvillains, who are about the only mobs that require something like the Holy Trinity. And even then, with a little bit of min/maxing, you can create characters that can solo AVs. Up until that point, missions tend to be a free-for-all. Having someone along who can heal is nice, but not required. Having a Striker (usually the best at Boss-killing) is nice, but not required.

It really seems down to what sort of enemies the game puts you up against.
Oh, almost forgot:

The whole tank/melee DPS distinction seems to have come down to the fact that MMORPGs were looking for something exciting for the classic Dungeons and Dragons Thief / Rogue to do in combat. Such Rogues have Backstab (and later Sneak Attack) which usually require the mob to be focusing on someone else. To make things interesting, and to give the the analogue of the Fighter something to do that the Rogue analogue can't, the Fighter got heavy armor and the ability to take damage.

This leads to the strange case these days where the analogue of the Fighter is less adept at doing damage in melee combat than the analogue of the sneaky unscrupulous Thief type.

Rogues / Thieves were primarily there to help the group out outside of combat (as a scout, trap-handler, lock-opener, ambush-spotter, etc.), but not even Dungeons and Dragons subscribes to that model anymore. (It's now become rather based on a "Holy Quadruplet" of roles...)
Great post!

Combat systems should be plausible.

I think this is worth discussing. Most MMO combat systems don't feel very realistic, especially combat based on tanking and chain-healing. The few realistic combat systems (like EVE and PotBS) are in non-fantasy MMOs.

So here's the question: Is is possible to make a fantasy combat system that is both authentic and fun? The closest thing off the top of my head would be something like Mount and Blade, although I'm not sure how well it would work in an MMO. Any thoughts?
@Tolthir: D&D HP is viewed more as your morale. Since you are a hero, you aren't so easy to put down, but as you lose morale you end up getting to the point where you can no longer fight. Healers are more like cheerleaders.

Now to make a PVP based football MMO.
@sscougall you are correct and it's what my post was also saying. AD&D, 2nd Ed and 3rd Ed D&D never really had the holy trinity at all. Not until WotC introduced 4th Ed, did we actually start seeing it. (4th ED is much more like WoW combat than anything in a Pen/Paper RPG that I've ever seen before.)

The whole hard part about D&D is the fact that mobs behaved like they should. Yes an unintelligent animal would stay focused on one person but not something with any semblance of a brain. That's one of the things that made D&D so fun.

I agree though, MMORPG's need something other than the same typical Tank/Healer/DPS.
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