Swing and a Miss: Dice or You?

The somewhat recent re-launch of EGM magazine has, so far, delivered. The new quarterly version contains more interviews and ‘blog-like’ content than just a slew of preview and review sales hype (though it still has some of that as well), and overall just comes across as an in-depth look at the current state of gaming and what direction key people are taking it in. It’s odd that someone like me, who already reads a ton of gaming coverage online, would need yet another source, but the new EGM manages to deliver unique and interesting content, and while the computer is fine for reading, physically having a magazine in your hand is a nice change of pace as well.

In the most recent issue EGM interviewed Todd Howard from Bethesda, and while overall an excellent interview, one part jumped out at me as being both so obvious and yet so critical. Todd was talking about the difference between The Elder Scrolls Morrowind and Oblivion, specifically the “to hit” dice roll that was used in Morrowind and removed in Oblivion. His point was that for core gamers, we accept a “to hit” dice roll, but for ‘casual’ gamers, it’s confusing to see your character swing a sword, the sword look like it connects, yet the result being that you just missed. He explains that the change was rather simple overall in terms of balance; in that they wanted to keep the overall length of combat the same, so they simply tuned down the amount of damage each swing deals in Oblivion to compensate for the fact that you can’t miss due to a bad dice roll.

In almost every MMO, the “to hit” dice roll exists, along with the stat to track it. In something like WoW it’s far easier to accept due to how static the combat is. You run up to a mob or it runs up to you, you both stand and exchange attacks, and either the mob or…. well the mob dies. The scrolling combat text will inform you of hits or misses, and the miss is needed to add at least some variety to an otherwise almost static and pre-determined sequence. Bonus points for having yet another stat to tack onto items and get players to chase.

In a game like DDO or Fallen Earth, missing is more difficult to accept, because although you can tab-target mobs, you are still required to run up to them to engage, positioning somewhat matters, and you can freely swing in the semi-active combat systems. It’s an odd mix, similar to what Morrowind had going for it. Looking at it after reading the interview, it’s almost like game designers feel compelled to include such dice rolls to keep the RPG-ishness of the game, when in fact such an inclusion seems to only detract from the experience.

Darkfall has no “to hit” stat or dice roll, and instead gives the player full control over whether they hit a mob/player or not. The advantage is greater reliance on player skill vs lucky dice, but this also means that the gap between the elite and the ‘average’ is very noticeable. In a game with auto-targeting, while hopefully player skill still factors in, even someone fairly inexperienced can target someone and deal some damage, contributing to the battle. In Darkfall, a highly skilled player (or mob) will run circles around you and ‘flawless’ you in combat, which can lead to frustration and a feeling of hopelessness.

In EVE, hit or miss is actually a deep (and very confusing) system that smart players will use to their advantage, because rather than a set “to hit” statistic or random dice roll, hitting in EVE is a complex calculation with variables that the player can, in part, control. Whether this is a step up or step down from straight dice rolls or all-aim systems depends on both the game and the player playing it. It’s fun to master a game and see improvement, but do you really want to be doing algorithmic calculations during your one hour of ‘downtime’?

It’s also important to note that like many current MMO system, part of the adoption of the “to hit” dice roll is due to early technology. When everyone was gaming on a 28.8k connection, it would have been impossible to ask a game to do complex collision detection calculations, and so the latency-friendly “stand and trade” system became popular. Technology has caught up however, and what was once difficult is now very possible, so the question remaining is do the players want the change?

As noted here before, exposing a player’s skill level is not something you always want to do, as most people highly overestimate just how good they really are, and when the illusion is shattered, many don’t take it well, especially when that skill level is directly compared to others. It’s one thing for Oblivion to ask you to aim, and punish you when you miss. You always have the option to turn the difficulty down, and no one will know you played the game on “lulznoob” level but you.

It’s entirely something else when you start getting kicked from a raid because you can’t hit a boss 95% of the time, or someone destroys you in PvP despite the fact that you have a superior character and gear. Even worse, what if the base PvE game is tuned to a certain level of skill, and you are just under that? Do we see the creation of an ‘easy’ server, with all that comes with it? Or do you simply drop the skill level to the lowest common denominator? If you can distract everyone with shinies, it might work, but if player skill is actually a core feature, what then?

24 Responses to Swing and a Miss: Dice or You?

  1. Bhagpuss says:

    I refer you to my comment on a previous thread. My character has the skills, not me. All the computer is required to do is roll the invisible dice.

    • Randomessa says:

      My perspective exactly.

    • Xyloxan says:

      Yea, I read your previous comments about skills and I don’t understand it. How can you enjoy such a (ideally) completely passive role as a player? I would think that at least some skills should be required to create a skilled character. Am I missing something?

      • Randomessa says:

        Not to answer for Bhagpuss at all, but from my pov, the role is not completely passive because I’m the director of the character, just not the stand-in. My role is in the decision-making and the strategizing.

        If I wanted my personal, physical dexterity to factor into my successes, role playing games in which I play a character that is not me in a world that is not mine would not be where I would be testing those skills; I’d be using those skills for sports or at the shooting range or something.

        • Bhagpuss says:

          Randomessa has my perspective perfectly :)

          If you look at an MMO as a story with characters, as I do, then my role is Writer/Director. I cast, I write the script, I tell the actors what I want them to do, I give them direction, I even oversee the costume, make-up and set-design, but performance is out of my hands.

          That’s in an ideal gaming world, of course. In practice in MMOs I have to do a lot more of the “acting” than I’d choose.

        • Mala says:

          That is absolutely the way I look at pencil and paper games, but insofar as MMOs have utterly failed to recreate the kind of experience table top RPGs provide, I simply must have engaging gameplay to replace it. The standard MMO combat model and meta game just dry as can be to me at this point.

        • SynCaine says:

          Have you ever played Majesty or Majesty 2 Bhag? While not an MMO, it’s exactly what you are looking for in terms of playing the director and watching the actors interpret what you are trying to say. Majesty 2 is not without it’s flaws, but if you have not tried it give it a shot (I think they have a demo)

        • Xyloxan says:

          Well. Would you prefer to be a good “writer/director” of your ideal MMO or you don’t care? I am guessing you, Bhag, and Randomessa care about the quality of your product. In other words, you still need skills (albeit different) in writing/directing your MMO.

        • Randomessa says:

          @ Mala: I can respect that POV, and it is definitely one my better half shares. I do gravitate towards games with interesting combat models and story-based content such as Guild Wars, otherwise I grow bored quickly as well in more WoW-like models. I play far too casually to get very far into the metagame anyway, and will happily “gimp” myself for an interesting character combination.

          @ Xyloxan: I suppose you’re right – I value a different skillset in my MMOs. I guess I’d say I value my brain being substituted for character AI over my physical dexterity substituted for character dice rolls.

  2. Jezebeau says:

    The problem I had with Darkfall is that skill never entered into it. I spent about twenty hours over the week trial and never once had a ping under 1200. I had to kind of guess where things were going to be, swing at the air, and hope it registered a hit. I had several deaths (and subsequent opportunistic lootings) at the hands of NPCs who struck me down from twenty yards away with melee weapons.

    • SynCaine says:

      1200 or 120? Because if it’s 12000 obviously something was up with either your IP or the connection to the server. If it was 120 that’s more than playable.

      • Jezebeau says:

        1200 and, at times, as high as 3500. My IP has no problems connecting to other MMOs at reasonable ping. Might have been because it was the second week after they released the trial, but it perfectly highlighted the game’s fatal flaw.

        • SynCaine says:

          I was playing during that time, no ping issues, and I don’t recall there being a major issue server-wide. I do know they had some IP-specific issues at some points, maybe it was during that time as well.

          Either way, no game is playable at 1200 ping, I’m actually surprised the game kept you connected to the server like that.

          If at all interested, I’d give the game another shot after this next expansion. Should be a lot of nice changes, including noobie dungeons and the terrain revamp.

        • J. Dangerous says:

          You blame a 1200 ping on the *game*?

          I’m flabbergasted, but as Sync says that 1200 means that there is a big problem on *your* end. For sure 100%.

          I don’t even play Darkfall but its just common gamer knowledge. Maybe check firewalls etc.

        • Derrick says:

          A high ping problem may not at all be on her end. Certainly could be, but it could also be a problem anywhere along the chain.

          If common gamer knowledge says high ping is *always* the users fault, common gamer knowledge is wrong. What a shock!

          If you only have a high ping in a certain game, it definitely begs for some investigation. A simple traceroute or some such could easily show where the lag is happening – whether it is in fact on the local system or if it’s somewhere in between.

          Anyways, it’s not blaming the game per sey, but rather pointing out that if you’ve got a high-latency connection, some styles of games are unplayable while others you can struggle through. “Roll To Hit” style games tend to be a lot more forgiving for high latency connections.

  3. coppertopper says:

    Ranged damage should always start with good aim period. Bows, guns, spells per aim only. But melee has way more complexity, and should be affected by stats, skill, and the RNG to some extent. Think of all the ways RL can be changed by the RNG.

    Anyways its all moot given the biggest factor is latency. Keep sieges in DAOC and WAR, fleet battles in EvE – these wouldn’t work w/o tab targetting.

    • SynCaine says:

      Yet they work in Darkfall because…?

      (And I’m not saying remove all randomness from combat, just talking about the “to hit” roll here)

      • coppertopper says:

        “Yet they work in Darkfall because…?”

        Not nearly as much math going on in the background as EvE for sure, and probably DAOC as well since DAOC (melee) is a combination of aim to hit/miss then die rolls for buffs/debuffs/multiple types of armor and weap procs, all of which gets even more complicated around a keep with siege weaponry blowing holes in walls, NPC guards spawning, ect.

        • SynCaine says:

          Naw, not even close. The collision detection alone in DF would trump anything that DAoC had going on, let alone arrow/spell trajectories and their collision vs players and terrain.

          In EVE it’s a different scale, where DF maxes out at around 300ish, EVE can go into the thousands before things get unplayable.

          It’s just a tech issue though, where in 2003 the average internet/database speed was not even close to what we have now, and the US itself is rather behind in terms of connections.

  4. Derrick says:

    Honestly, I’m a fan of both methods. The key is to have the designers know what kind of game they are making, and stick with it. When the designer waffles back and forth, you end up with a confused mess that just doesn’t work.

    So, yeah, I’m 100% with the old “dice roll to hit” system. I loved it with pen and paper games, I love it with modern games. I enjoy being able to play a character that has skills that I do not possess (and am not interested in possessing, in many cases).

    For me, the divide comes in most frequently in perspective. A first person perspective game, in most cases, should be manual aiming or else it feels really bizarre.

    In MMO-land, it’s particularly difficult to build a good manual-aiming sort of game that’ll work well for the majority of users. It’s certainly possible, and implemented well enough in Darkfall for example. However, Jez points out the key failing – poor ping, or even just having a noticably worse ping than your opponent can be a crippling disadvantage.

    In your traditional dice rolling game, the difference between a 120ms ping and a 600ms ping is irrelevant. In a fast paced manual aiming game, though…

    Finally, I’ll note that the “roll to hit” paradigm goes back much further than early MMO’s. It exists (and existed) for two reasons: First, it’s how traditional role playing games have rolled since the very first – they were based, after all, on P&P RPG’s. And second, it’s far easier to build a game around a turn based(or semi-turn based) RNG system than it is to build an equally detailed on with manual aiming.

    • SynCaine says:

      Oh I’m all for dice rolls and such in TBS games. Love those. This was more about games like Oblivion, where you as the player actually swing the sword and ‘aim’, yet still get effected by stuff like dice. It’s certainly not applicable to all games.

  5. Dblade says:

    The most hilarious example of why dice rolls are stupid mechanics was found in FFXI. In Campaign, you are asked to pound on fortifications. These are big, building-like things where you attack them once you’ve defeated the defenders.

    Dice rolls were present, and it was possible to miss the fortifications. This would be like the old phrase “Not being able to hit the broad side of a barn” at point blank range.

    Even more hilarious, the game had dice rolls for evasion, so once in awhile the fortification would evade your attacks. This despite it being, well, a building on a foundation. That can’t move.

  6. treeshrugger says:

    Going way back to the original versions of P&P D&D, the “to hit” roll was actually a combination of hitting *and* getting through the enemy’s armor.

  7. Nom says:

    The first thing to consider is your latency model.

    For example, Guild Wars PvE (and low-end PvP) is mostly playable even on a 1s ping. Unless you’re playing an interrupt mesmer, at which point you really want a negative ping. Which is why Gwen (a computer-controlled ally) is so popular in this role.

    In contrast, in FPS of the Quake era, every ms of ping counted.

    The difference is whether the game rewards reaction time and precision or thought. One can imagine a continuum that starts at chess and progresses through speed-chess and beyond. Chess has basically no physical skill component. Speed chess likewise, but the time pressure begins to reward not only the “right” decision but the speed at which you come to it; there’s a distinct trade-off between “best” and “good enough, but fast”. Progressing further along our imaginary continuum begins to add physical effects also; not merely how fast you can arrive at your decisions but your physical skill in exercising them.

    The further that way we go, the more the physical environment – including latency – matters.

    To-hit rolls are sort-of orthogonal to this. They introduce artificial chaos into the system, by making results non-deterministic. In games like Eve and Guild Wars, the magnitude of randomness is small relative to the game world; you re-sample lots of times, so a few extra points of damage one way or another will only make a difference if the encounter is already too close to call. On the other hand, I’ve played several single-player games where it’s “do or die”, especially with respect to the bad guys attacking you. I’m sure we all remember foes who can kill on a single hit, if they hit. Or, more annoyingly, if they randomly choose to use a particular attack.

    In a lag-friendly environment, randomness can be a way of mixing things up a bit, to keep things from being too deterministic.

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