When the combat system in 1997 was better than what we have today, you know we have a problem.

Now that his resurrection is complete, Tobold has started a multi-part series of posts talking about why we play MMOs, with today’s topic being gameplay. In most MMOs today, gameplay generally means combat, and so the type of combat system you base your MMO around is a key decision. As Tobold mentions, if you clone WoW combat, you put yourself into direct competition/comparison to it, which likely will end up with your new game coming out looking unpolished (Blizzard has their issues, but it’s hard to argue that they did not nail the feel of the combat system in WoW).

This is not to say ALL new MMOs should avoid the hotbar mash style of combat, as not only do a large number of fans prefer it, it also ‘works’ when done well. For example, Warhammer Online having a similar combat system to WoW was not a bad choice, as WAR genuinely beats WoW in the areas it specializes in (RvR). WAR is a better game than WoW if you are primarily a battleground or casual PvP player, and that population is large enough to justify a business plan (WAR’s numbers would be far higher if only T4 was not the massive ‘meh’ that is currently is, but the T4 issues have little to do with the choice of combat system). Another example would be LotRO, which applies the same basic formula WoW uses, but is able to separate itself thanks to both its graphics engine and its use of the LotR IP, two very strong points that create enough separation when comparing the two games to make LotRO a success.

Yet while examples exist, far too many MMO games do fall into that ‘bad WoW clone’ category, and they do so primarily because at their basic gameplay level, their combat is just too similar to WoW, and their separation points are not strong enough to overcome this. It’s somewhat mindboggling why any company would invest serious money into an MMO today that plays similar to WoW at its core. Given that WoW does it so well, and that five years later, so many people are burned out on what WoW offers, it’s asking for an uphill battle if your MMO is set in a fantasy setting and has hotbar combat, let alone the fact that while hotbar combat does work, it’s certainly not the be-all end-all of fun ways to fight mobs in an MMO.

And when talking about combat systems, it’s very possible that less can be more. For example, DarkFall has a grand total of four melee combat abilities, (and shooting an arrow is your only ability for archery) of which two are useful (knockback and whirlwind), one is primarily a PvE skill (power attack), and one is useless (seize). Yet without question, the combat (be it PvP or PvE) in DF is far more complex and interesting that it is in most MMOs, WoW included (unless you just absolutely love Simon-says raiding). Its complexity does not come from knowing the best spell rotation or min/maxing your stats, but because it holds the player more accountable for all their actions, and nothing is assumed. You click to swing, but what you hit depends on what’s in front of you rather than what you have targeted. Giving up your back to get behind one opponent is a decision you make on the fly, as is considering your melee range based on the weapon you have equipped. Even the decision of WHEN to swing is not assumed; if your enemy is standing too close to an ally, you might hit both, possibly causing more harm than good, and a skilled opponent knows this. By keeping a combat system ‘simple’, the developer has more time to refine what they have, and it’s perfectly fine to leave it up to the players to add in the complexity (they will).

Looking over the MMO genre as a whole, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that the industry has only one game with a million+ customers, and it’s that very game that has the most solid implementation of its combat system. Ultima Online launched in 1997, and yet in 2009, it’s arguable we are seeing new MMOs released with a basic combat system that is LESS fun and interesting than what UO had. We can debate the merits of all the other factors that go into making an MMO what it is, but it’s not hard to see why average gaming fans won’t dig into that depth when the most basic aspect (combat) is either broken, not fun, or just a lower-class copy of something else. The novelty of just being online has long since worn off, and it’s time for MMO devs to rethink the basics of what makes this genre interesting enough to keep players around for months at a time.

19 Responses to When the combat system in 1997 was better than what we have today, you know we have a problem.

  1. Shamus says:

    I’ve not played Darkfall but from various descriptions of it what we’re dealing with here is what LRPers would call the difference between a soft skill and a hard skill system. In the former you make a decision to do something and your character acts it out. In the latter you have to actually perform the action.

    The former is made more ‘interesting’ by giving you more choices about what you can do.

    I personally prefer the former for the same reasons I don’t play FPS games (the epitome of hard skill systems). It feels like I can compete more fairly with the soft skill system. It’s much less reliant on having decent reactions and an ability to target your mouse quickly and accurately.

    Now, someone with good reactions and mouse skills but who struggles more with numbers and spell rotations etc. is going to think differently. But fortunately we have variety in life.

    Darkfall isn’t more, it’s just different.

  2. veksar says:

    There are actually 4 mmos with over a million subscribers. Besides WoW there’s Runescape and Dofus, and the second highest subscriber based MMO is Aion with about 3.5 million subs. source – http://www.mmodata.net/

    • syncaine says:

      You do realize those 3.5m subs in Asia don’t pay $15 a month right, but rather the rates that WoW-Asia players pay?

      The other two are tough as well, since neither charges the full amount for a sub. 2m Dofus players pay the same amount as 750k WoW players pay, while taking up 2m worth of bandwidth and customer service time.

      Not saying those games are not successful (they are), but they are more in-line with other successful MMOs (LotRO, EVE, etc) than comparable to WoW.

      • sente says:

        And do you realize there is no single “Asia” fee? That it can be quite different depending on countries?

        I have not seen fees for Aion, but I have seen some numbers for Lineage 2. For those that paid subscription fees (one of multiple options to pay) in Japan and South Korea, it was actually more expensive than the $15/month fee that US people pay. It was certainly much cheaper in China, Malaysia etc – but the fees and payment options did vary quite a bit.

        And I would consider including Guild Wars in the million+ count as well.

      • syncaine says:

        You can currently play Asia Aion here in the US, and it’s much cheaper than $15 a month.

        But just to simply the discussion, I guess I should have said 1m+ subs in the US/EU market, paying at or near $15 a month on average.

      • veksar says:

        I’m not really sure for the other mmos in Asia. For Aion though, I know they pay by the hour rather than by the month. As to whether that comes out to more than $15 a month or not? Well that depends on how much you play I suppose.

      • syncaine says:

        I just know that you can currently play china Aion here in the US, and I believe it’s something like $7 a month, if not less.

  3. Andrew says:

    Nice article, Syncaine. Personally I’m bored to tears with hotbar combat, and am chomping at the bit for something – anything – different in an MMO.

    While I won’t play Darkfall (burnt that bridge a while ago), I am heartened by the fact that there are a lot of MMOs coming out in the next year that seem to deviate a fair bit from the WoW model. (Mortal Online intrigues me, though I’m worried that they’re in trouble based on leaks from the beta.)

  4. Ravious says:

    I’m still trying to find the Tobold insult in there…. hmmmm… maybe between the lines this time? :D

    I think the main issue here is not with hotbar combat, but with skill rotations vs. skillful use of skills. It’s easy in a PvP game because one can’t just rotate through the skills and expect to win. (I would be interested in hearing the difference of how WoW PvP is played.) I know in Guild Wars PvP, and to a lesser degree PvE, skill timing for maximum effectiveness is absolutely crucial.

    PvE has been designed for so long as a game of creating the most cohesive unit possible. Any adaptability is for the unit itself, not the individuals, and for me this makes boring encounters. When I myself can’t adapt out of a “role” requiring a specific skill rotation, things get boring real quick.

  5. Snafzg says:

    What ever happened to reactionary skills?

    It seems the pace of combat has sped up to the point that these abilities are pointless because the human thought process can’t react quickly enough to a button-mashing barrage of attacks buffered by a short global cooldown timer.

    I think some progress was made in Age of Conan’s combat system with the use of positional combos. I’d like to see that refined and brought into a new MMO.

    Additionally, maybe MMOs will eventually be able to integrate with controllers as complex as those found on consoles. You could have a system similar to one found in Street Fighter (basic attacks augmented by special attacks based on button combos).

  6. Yeebo says:

    Even WoW has a few reactionary skills. For example the Warrior attack that lights up when your opponent has the temerity to dodge one of your attacks.

    DAoC had tons of reactionaries and positional attacks, and they varied depending upon what weapon you decided to specialize in. I’ll be honest, the system had almost too much depth. A lot of attack chains were a bit too difficult to get off, and it was pretty easy to gimp your character by choosing poorly when allocating points.

    LoTRO also makes pretty heavy use of reactionaries on some classes, from abilities that work differently when your pet gets a “flank” off on Loremasters to attack chains that cue off of blocks and parries on Guards. Very few positional attacks however, just the standard back stab stuff that Rogueish characters get in pretty much every MMO.

    The one game that seems to completely lack reactionaries is WAR, which I find a bit surprising. The half dozen classes I’ve tried didn’t have any, in any case. Unless you count the special attacks that light up after you have been fighting long enough. You generally are pretty happy when one of those comes up.

  7. syncaine says:

    It’s almost two different things though right, reaction based actions and skills that trigger off something. In the WoW warrior example, you don’t do anything to cause the ability to light up, you just have to click it whenever it does. In a game like DF (and to a lesser extend DDO), you choose to block or dodge based on an incoming attack. If I see someone drawing an arrow in DF, I either try to dodge his shot, or I parry the arrow. In DDO you roll away or block from mobs when they look like they are going to strike (sometimes impossible to tell, depending on the mob). That’s kinda what I was getting at when I was saying the combat in DF is more interesting/complex, despite not having as many skills/abilities in the mix. When my only decision is to swing or not to swing, the WHY behind it gets complex, and that’s all based on the player.

  8. Bhagpuss says:

    I like Hotbar combat. I prefer it slow, too.

    LotRO was extremely physically painful for me and I had to stop after about three months because I had RSI/arthritis issues in my right index finger, wrist elbow and shoulder, all from the excessive button-clicking required (my fault for playing a Guardian, really).

    All games that use skill-chains give me this problem, which is entirely from ten years of MMO play. Games which require much less button-pressing, like WoW, EQ1 and FFXI give me virtually no physicalproblems at all.

    My ideal combat requires me to use some tactical thinking in pulling strategy, splitting mobs, crowd control and so forth, but need very little repetetive button-pressing. Really, once the mob is separated and engaged I like to have the option of just letting auto-attack do most of the work while I take my hands off the keyboard and mouse for much of the time.

    As far as I’m concerned, it’s my character that has the skills, not me. I am in the director role, not the actor and he should know what to do without micromanagement.

    • Tesh says:

      While I agree wholeheartedly with the notion of making tactical decisions important and reducing repetitive button pressing (with a slower pace of combat), that doesn’t necessarily mean going with the WoW hotbar system. Heck, it could even be turn-based.

  9. Yeebo says:

    @Syncaine: Yeah, there is a bit of apple and orange going on in my comment. There’s reactionary skills that are triggered by random events such as blocks, dodges, and parries, which is what my post was mostly about (and in response to Snag). In my mind they add a lot to turn based combat by forcing you to actually pay attention and modfiy the attack chains you are using on the fly.

    However, I can see where actually physically blocking attacks or manually dodging could be a step up from that. I have yet to see that done well in an MMO, however I also have yet to try DF or DDO.

  10. Damage Inc says:

    I’m going to have to agree here with Sycaine. I’m currently playing DFO on the NA-1 server and the combat, even though it’s pretty much just left click for melee, is still more interesting than WoW’s IMO. Why? Because there are a ton of other things you’re doing to try to gain the advantage over the other person while left clicking.

    Also, one of my other favorite MMO’s combat was Asheron’s Call. Yes, you just had auto attack there but there were a number of other choices you could make. In AC, you could attack high, medium or low and each setting hit a different part of your target. There was also a ton of different things to do while in combat that kept you occupied. Healing, putting your shield up etc…

    I think one of my favorite memories of that game was when I was defending Hebian-to from a rival clan member. I was firing off my bow like it was a machine gun and chasing this guy. All of a sudden I hear him scream and drop dead. I checked my logs and woot, I had hit him in the hand and critted him. He probably didn’t buff his gloves so when my arrow hit his hand, no armor buff = dead target.

  11. sid67 says:

    In my mind, the trend towards crappier or stale gameplay in “Triple A” games started sometime around the release of 11th Hour and Myst. What made these games unique was the use of CD-ROM to provide photo realistic graphics.

    The gameplay was shit, but wow did it look good!

    Up until then, games lived and died not by the quality of the graphics or sound, but by the quality of the gameplay. It was hard to look or sound cool when the best you could do was a pixelated square and a computerized voice.

    If you were going to make a good game, then it needed stand solely on the quality of its gameplay to hook players.

    If you think of “games” as a business, then Myst was a revolutionary game for game companies. Not just because of the multimedia elements, but because it showed them that “presentation” could sell a game.

  12. Marchosias says:

    I’m not sure that a deviation from hot-bar combat is very realistic. It’s become such a staple that if it’s not there in an MMO, the players will fairly balk.

    To move the example to browsers, say IE, Opera, and FF. They all use virtually the same interface, and there’s a reason for that. If in the next rev. of Opera, they decieded to change all of the drop down menus to roll-up menus at the bottom of the window, with no way to move them back to the “expected” top window position, users would freak. You don’t just throw out a proven, expected interface. Period. That’s why not only browsers, but spreadsheets, word processors, photo editors, etc. all have the same basic interface, with the same tools in the same place. You might call it boring, predictable, or unoriginal, but it might also be called not throwing the baby out with the bath water – it just works.

    I think the same can be said for MMO’s. It’s become an expected interface feature. Now how you use that feature can be different in each instance. Just because you have a hot bar doesn’t mean one game will play out the same as any other MMO. EVE, DAoC, WoW, LoTRO, heck even AO – all have hot bars, but they all play very differently from each other. Should we remove or wildly change WASD movement as well? It ain’t gonna happen. Just my .02

  13. sid67 says:

    I respectfully disagree, Marchosias. No one wants to reinvent the wheel, but you need to be willing to at least challenge the idea of the wheel or you’ll just pigeon-holed yourself into a box of pre-conceived ideas.

    You can’t get any real innovation without challenging the ideas behind the status quo.

    The irony is that you point out the browser market as a perfect example of why interfaces stay the same. Sure IE, Opera and FF all look virtually identical but Google Chrome doesn’t. They’ve simplified the whole interface and tossed our the whole “Home Page” concept. Browsers as a whole have also undergone several interface revisions in recent years (including “Tabs” and smaller toolbars). Just think about what IE 6 looked like compared to IE 8.

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