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?