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.