Lessons from the past: MMO combat

Keen alerted me to a private version/server of Ultima Online, and due to extreme boredom I grabbed the client and messed around a bit. I have no intention of fully returning to UO, because to really get to the good stuff of UO I would have to invest more time than I want to, but even just spending a few hours with the game, it amazes me how far the genre has fallen. UO’s original version still, to this day, does so many things BETTER than many modern MMOs.

For this post I want to just focus on combat.

Combat in UO is very simple, especially melee. You move next to a mob, double-click to start swinging, and that’s it. Once the mob is low it tries to run away slowly, and you just follow it and keep whacking. Compared to the 60 abilities on a hotbar that some games have, it’s night and day. And yet I find combat in UO more satisfying than any themepark, including the most recent GW2 (invuln-roll faceroll, yay…).

First, the pace allows you to actually watch and enjoy what is happening, rather than watching your hotbar spin cooldowns. Now sure, UO is not exactly a looker, so what you are left watching is 2-3 animation frames of an attack and crude blood splatters, but yea, still better than a hotbar. And in UO, watching your surroundings is very important for many reasons.

And while 1-on-1 combat is simplistic, in all but the easiest examples, drawing agro correctly and getting a mob into the right spot is more than half the battle, and for that using the environment is critical. UO-does-it-better example two; the environments and their impact on combat.

In many/most themeparks, where you are fighting only matters in terms of the color pallet or other non-gameplay visuals. A ‘dungeon’ fight is the same as a fight in the forest or a cave, save for pre-scripting “hide behind the obvious pillar” gimmicks of a boss. In UO a tight corridor fight is 100% different than out in the open. A location with many mobs is very different than one with only a few, and again not in the pre-scripted “this is an obvious bring CC situation”.

The value of a farming spot has just as much to do with its actual location (the layout, proximity to other points of interest, player traffic) as it does with the mobs or the quality of the loot. How different would themepark raiding be if the decision of ‘where’ was based on ANYTHING other than “we need the purple shiny from X”? It’s just one factor of many that change a game from an on-rails journey to living in a virtual world, but these are the lessons that today’s MMO devs have almost all but forgotten, or don’t have the ability to recreate successfully.

Magic and ranged combat add some complexity to combat in UO, but even then it’s still nothing like hotbar spamming. Magic becomes a resource management game that is deeper than “spam until empty, wait a second, spam more”, while also adding in the cost of reagents. Just because you could take a mob down quickly with multiple flamestrikes does not mean you do it; if you spend almost as much gold on reagents to kill something, that’s not exactly efficient farming.

Group farming has its own layer of complexity that I won’t cover here, save to say it’s not as simple as “more dps, faster kills, go go go”.

And of course all of these factors are in a mix that includes open world PvP. So being able to beat a mob but just barely is dangerous. Farming for a long time has added risks. Farming a popular or highly-efficient spot is not “the best choice” based solely on gold/hr like it is in PvE games.

But even with PvP removed from the equation, the simplistic combat in UO trumps more modern systems in the most important area for an MMO; replayability. The ‘burnout’ rate is much lower, because the point is not to simply master (Google) a skill rotation, or cap-out and get BiS gear, or ‘finish’ some personal story.

No, getting better at combat in UO is simply a tool; one that allows you to reach your next goal (a house, a PvP rep, control of an area) faster or more efficiently. And as you get better, the tiny details become clearer, and mastering those is truly an art, one that requires some serious buy-in.

Assuming, of course, you decide to focus on combat. In UO, and any good sandbox, that is but one path to success. And way back in 1997, UO got that path right.

Looking at it in the context of 2013 and the current state of the MMO genre and its combat, UO got it scary-right.

11 Responses to Lessons from the past: MMO combat

  1. bhagpuss says:

    If UO got it right, why aren’t all subsequent MMOs UO with up-to-date graphics? What does “right” mean?

    Which is not to say I disagree. I didn’t particularly like UO. I find that graphic style alienating, like watching an an farm. For combat gameplay, though, you could replace “UO” throughout your piece with “EQ” and it would work equally well.

    In all the years I’ve played MMOs I have yet to find any of them that does combat even half as well as Everquest for exactly the reasons you detail. I still attempt to replicate that combat playstyle in the MMOs I play, even though it’s largely unnecessary and often counter-productive. Positioning, timing, pacing, tactics, spell selection, mana and resource management – all those and more made every session, every fight, intellectually engaging in a way that, while it still happens, is no longer normative.

    Will that kind of gameplay return? Probably only in these niche MMOs that as yet are still wishes and dreams. The mainstream audience voted with its wallet long ago: it voted for hotbars and scripts and if that’s gradually changing it’s only towards faster console-style action, more whizz-bang explosions and even more rigid, complicated dance steps.

    More’s the pity.

  2. kalex716 says:

    I think he means “right” in the sense that combat is a tool to a broader goal of x,y, or z.

    And that contextually, that tool is used differently depending on what your goals are.

    Modern day games spend all their dev cycles on trying to make “fun” combat, and forget that the over arching design goals need to be leveraged more, as fun in the mechanical sense is always subjective and has a short life regardless.

    Sometimes just keeping it simple, allows you to focus on intangibles that might matter more….

    We don’t do that in modern games anymore in so much as we don’t live in camps and sit around campfires at night telling legends and stories over food we hunted very often either.

    • SynCaine says:

      I’d say the different between the camping example and modern games (if this is the point you were trying to make), is that we HAVE replaced hunting our own food with better solutions (shopping), while the MMO genre has not. People don’t play MMOs longer today than they did back in the big three era, and if the metric is retention (which IMO is the biggest metric for an MMO), games today are worse.

      • Raelyf says:

        In fairness, I’m not sure you can directly compare retention in a modern game to one from the big three era. I played EQ long after I would have stopped playing EQ had there been any serious competition. Granted, I never really found ‘the next EQ’ for me.

        At least there’s EVE.

      • kalex716 says:

        Well my point was I’m not convinced shopping is a better solution really, just an overly complex one, that trivializes food scarcity.

        It’s awesome and efficient, and has tons of compelling aspects to it like choice, and money, and transportation etc (like a hotbar)…

        but in my own opinion certainly not as much fun as needing to catch, and cook your own meal you caught around a campfire with close friends might be. Full-filling that need is where the satisfaction is. Somehow, modern MMO’s have thrown out that need part entirely…

  3. Jenks says:

    @bhagpuss
    “For combat gameplay, though, you could replace “UO” throughout your piece with “EQ” and it would work equally well.”

    Not at all. EQ had a hotbar (laid out a little differently but it was the same idea). The cooldowns were longer so you didn’t have to “stare at it,” and some classes (warrior) you could macro all your skills to 1 button, but it still is much closer to today’s mmos in combat than UO. “Double click and watch,” EQ was not.

  4. [...] thing, I do recall with fondness some simpler times.  SynCaine has a piece on simple elegance of combat in Ultima Online.  I have raged against talent trees and and the proliferation of skills in games like EverQuest II [...]

  5. bonedead says:

    I’m not gonna download UO. I’m not gonna download UO. I’m not gonna download UO. If you say it three times it works, right?

  6. Goom says:

    Nostalgia is something else. Just like going back to that ex girlfriend and then you remember why you left her shortly after…

    I did the UO thing for 3 months, played plenty of games longer than that since then. It had some fun parts and others that sucked. For everything it got ‘right’ it got several wrong. I mean wearing armor and taking extra damage from lightning was a great idea but in theory it made everyone run around in robes to take less damage. PvP wasn’t fun, it consisted of killing everyone who wondered along until some good players can out and you had 5 minutes of fun until it was 20-1 and everyone was dead.

    UO isn’t all that, never was or their subscription wouldn’t have lowered and UO 2 wouldn’t have been cancelled multiple times. I’m wondering if everyone writing how great it is played it longer than their other MMOs?

    Eq was a huge step up compared to UO, 9 months of fun!

    life moves on

  7. [...] I’ve covered combat already, as well as talking about the slower pace and why that’s important. Keen has a post about his enjoyment of crafting, which I think touches on some of these points as well. [...]

  8. [...] play on the Emerald Dream server in order to dodge the WoW subscription price, and I doubt Keen or SynCaine were so influenced with the Ultima Online [...]

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