MMO combat needs to evolve
One of the earliest complaints that I can remember in MMO’s has been MOB AI. When MMO’s were starting to appear, most of the buzz revolved around enemy AI and how poorly it was being done, this was also an issue with some single player CRPG’s. "Horizons" was one of the first MMO’s to boast about their extremely unique and intelligent AI with town invasions and patrolling mobs. Unfortunately it really didn’t deliver what players thought they were going to be given. In a nutshell, the AI introduced then is pretty much what we have now: MOBS that spawn in a semi static location that detect players in a radius and react to them the in some way.
Gradually the focus was completely turned away from AI and more on questing, and I think that was a mistake. Not that questing isn’t a necessity in a role-playing game, and is a debatable necessity for a MMO, I just feel that the AI in our current MMO’s is partially to blame for this genres “been there done that” feeling and not so much the quests.
Tab lock combat has been done to death and it seems to be the formula for making an MMO. You must have series of abilities that compound an effect when used in a certain rotation on a MOB you have locked into your target. Every MOB acts nearly the same, some just use different types of damage and have different ranges of hit points. (Boss encounters are a different beast, so I’m only going to speak of the leveling grind which is where most MMO burnout occurs.) When we progress through the game, difficulty is determined based on the gear we have equipped, how much damage a MOB can do and how many hit points it has. Secondary to this is our gained abilities and how we use them to also determine how difficult a fight might be. This isn’t just isolated to a single game either, almost every mob you fight in every MMO you play feels the exact same way.
So, for now lets forget about the current MMO mechanics of combat and lets think about the old days when we knew at the birth of CRPG’s and MMO's what would make a more interesting game and think about enemy AI. Shouldn’t MOBS have different mentalities and combat styles instead of only being defined by their hit points and the damage they do to the players? MOBS just don’t seem alive for the most part and they should. Each species of MOB should have a way of combat that we as players need to figure out to successfully defeat them much like a “boss dance”, but instead of watching for the goo or the fire on the floor, we’re watching for the MOB’s physical cues to tell us what it is about to do much like a boxer would watch his opponent to land a left hook, when to dodge or when to throw a jab. A spider should act like a spider and a boar should act like a boar. Players should have to learn the physical cues of these in order to defeat them and when we go to the “next big MMO”, it should be a fairly new learning experience based on the species of MOB we are fighting and the developers vision.
Instead of tab locking a target, players would need to use a target reticule to focus over specific parts of the mobs body to do different forms of damage to them using standard fare MMO abilities but at the same time be on the lookout for the mobs cues to know when its about to strike to possibly avoid damage, or unleash an ability for severe damage. I know I’m getting into very specific scenarios, but the point I’m trying to make is that there are other ways to give players a combat system that will challenge them in all aspects of leveling. Currently a mob might offer a different type of damage, but that doesn’t change how we react to them nor does it rarely change how we attack them. However if they had an active combat style we had to learn, I feel it would make combat much more interesting and would feel more like you were fighting and learning your opponents weakness instead of button mashing. PvP would feel more believable and would challenge players abilities more than bunny hopping around spamming buttons on your keyboard.
I know this sounds like a huge undertaking, but some games are starting to progress in this direction. Vindictus and Age of Conan for instance recognize this and have created a more action based combat system. Tera is another game that feels a lot like what I described, I’m just not sure how much variety mobs have in their combat styles and if this is something that is being focused on. I do like the trend of this combat style and I really hope to see it evolve further, and personally I think this is the next big “must have” feature that we will come to expect much like quests or crafting. I realize there’s a portion of gamers who will still prefer tab-lock skill rotation MMO’s, however I think if action based combat continues to evolve it will be the preferred combat mechanic in an MMO.