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In My Humble Opinion

My ramblings on where the MMO's of tomorrow are going to have to go to keep us all interested...

Author: Melf_Himself

Random idea - symmetry of combat

Posted by Melf_Himself Friday May 16 2008 at 6:51AM
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Ok, I feel it only fair to warn you that this idea is a little out there. Stick with it to the end before you jump in and flame it though.

I was pondering the nature of group PvP combat in RPG's recently, and it occurred to me that combat systems are very asymmetric. By this I mean that damage, pound for pound, is better than healing, even though it's more expensive. By better, I mean that damage dealers can concentrate damage in a short time frame ("spike") to kill a character before the healers have enough time to react.

To make up for this, games always make healing more efficient than damage - a healer's "HPS" (health per second) is more effective than a damage character's DPS, both in terms of cost efficiency (eg mana cost) and in terms of health change per second.

But what if we removed this concept? What if healing and damage were truly opposites of each other? Let's think about this...

First of all, symmetry means that it would be possible to heal a character above their normal HP. ie a character may start on 500hp. 500 points of damage will take them to 0 HP, after which damage has no effect. Equivalently, it should be possible to heal that character to 1000hp, after which healing has no effect.

Let's take this a step further...


Attacking inflicts damage on an enemy, reducing their HP and causing total debuff (death) when HP reaches zero….. to put it another way, that player’s efficiency is altered by -100%...

Why not make it so that…

Defending inflicts healing on an ally, increasing their HP and causing total BUFF when HP reaches max… to put it another way, that player’s efficiency is altered by +100%...

What do I mean by "total buff"? Since death involves your team being "down a man", your "total buff" would involve it being "up a man" - your character would effectively double in abilitiy. This means attack speed doubled, mana cost halved, cooldowns halved.

Now if you're struggling with the realism of this situation at the moment, envisage "total buff" as ascendancy to a higher being. This comes about as a result of a large amount of healing, or channeling of divine energy through your body, to reach this higher state. Or something.

Now let me say right here, I of course realise that the ability would probably play out as being extremely overpowered. The ability can be tweaked to not be a +100% buff of everything... maybe it would only be 50%, maybe only 25%, worst case scenario only 10%.

Wherever you draw the line, it would have major cool factor to include this in a combat system because:

a) Healers would no longer be just "healbots", they would also have to try and conserve some of their energy to try and "spike buff" their damage dealers

b) When a character is ascended, you'd give them a cool glowy aura, wings, whatever, and it would just pretty much feel awesome to be uber godly for however short a time.

Now that you've got your head around where I'm coming from, a few extra features of the idea:

1) I'd still end up making combat fairly asymmetric to favor damage, in the traditional way... it's just I'd throw in this "ascendancy" system as a way to liven things up a bit. If damage didn't have a clear edge over healing, players would never be able to take down teams of all healers.

2) What happens when you die? You start on a respawn timer to res at some nearby res shrine. So what happens when you ascend? You start on a "despawn" timer (ie the buff only lasts for a while). To avoid being imbalanced, this timer could be made shorter than the death respawn timer by some amount.

3) What happens when you die and somebody resurrects you before your respawn timer is up? You return to life on the spot..... so, keeping with our theme of symmetry, it would be possible to "desurrect" ascended people, returning them on the spot and removing their buffs. No extra skills would be required for this - you could make standard resurrection skills do double duty (making them a bit more interesting). The stronger the "desurrection" skill, the less health the ascended player would have on returning.

4) What happens when you die and people try to keep healing you? Nothing, you're dead, no amount of healing can bring you back alive. What happens when you're ascended and people try to damage you? In a perfectly symmetrical system, the same thing - no amount of damage can kill you while the effect lasts. In practice, for the sake of balance they wouldn't have to be completely invulnerable - you could make it so that a certain (large) amount of damage would knock them back to normalcy. There does need to be some kind of extra HP pool or invulnerability granted though, otherwise it would be possible to "fart" on people and de-ascend their character.

5) I'd also make the person still vulnerable to debuffs (otherwise it would be a bit unfair since they'd be unstoppable and have ridiculous damage). However, debuff duration would be halved (since we're going for the concept of there being "another you", that other you shares the debuffs with you).

6) Continuing the "other you" concept... if there really was another you, you'd be able to move him around to attack other targets. I thought about granting people an NPC clone to do their bidding, but the AI would probably suck quite a bit. Then again, since the concept is possibly very overpowered anyway, this may be a good thing.

Another option would be to give you a "shadow" which you can position wherever you like while you go about your business. All players could see the shadow. At any time, you could swap positions with your shadow. This allows a neat teleport effect, but players have some forewarning since they can see your shadow come towards them.

Again, this could be balanced by reducing the range of the teleport, introducing a small latency (eg half a second) to signal a teleport is incoming, etc.

7) In many RPG's when you're outside of combat and you've been damaged, your health will regenerate. We would do the same thing here - when your health is above the baseline, if you haven't been healed for a while, it will slowly degenerate back to normal. Again, a balancing factor can be introduced here - this rate of degeneration could be faster than the equivalent rate of regeneration to overcome damage.

8) Death is usually pretty obvious in RPG's. I would make ascension equally obvious. For example, maybe when someone dies a great black pillar appears from the sky. When someone ascends, a great golden pillar could appear from the sky.

9) Some games make you invulnerable, or at least less vulnerable, just after being resurrected. An equivalent period of enhanced vulnerability could be implemented following the ascension, to balance out its powerful effect.

10) When the res timer runs out, a dead person appears at some remote location (res shrine). When the ascendancy timer runs out, the person shouldn't appear at a remote location (we don't want to punish them). They should get to choose a nearby location to "despawn" at, since they will be temporarily more vulnerable as per point 9).


So, ascended characters could have 2 extra controls – a shadow or an npc to control (visible to all) and a despawn marker (visible only to them).


So that's about it on that idea. Just curious what others make of it... is it workable? What parts sound good, what parts sound ridiculously overpowered, and what checks and balances do we need here?

Travelling in MMORPG's

Posted by Melf_Himself Sunday May 11 2008 at 8:43PM
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I’ve decided I am a big fan of taking other people’s ideas, reworking them slightly, and then passing them off as my own work :p

I read the above blog by vajuras from a couple of months back. In it he talks about long travel times (ie no or limited teleportation) being a good feature for MMO’s in 3 different ways:

 A) In RvR, imagine 2 sides fighting over control of res shrines. By taking over all the res shrines, you can gain control over a particular area, since the other team will have to run a long way to get back to fight you. It creates a natural territory-based PvP victory condition.

B) Localized economies. If there is a particular area with good access to some resource, and other areas with no access, you can create some really interesting trade opportunities for players, as well as whole new professions such as haulers etc.

C) Makes the world feel bigger, since you have to run for quite a while to get anywhere.

An important comment was added by heerobya, which was that it sucks for somebody interested only in PvE for their res shrines to be taken over by a PvP army, and have their game negatively impacted.


On to my opinion.

I think point C kind of blows because I really don’t want to spend half an hour traveling to get somewhere. But points A and B are just so much fun, so I’d love to see a game implement them without having point C to bog us down, and without players who don’t want to participate being negatively effected.

I think the problem could be solved with a combination of ideas:

Point A (PvP): I picture the RvR as having large NPC armies, who will admittedly be somewhat cannon fodder, but there would be lots of them. These are accompanied by players, who accomplish the real objectives and direct the NPC armies (maybe players get small npc squads to control based on their rank with the faction).

As vajuras said, have special resurrection shrines that are static and capturable. When you die, if there is nobody around to res you, you res at the nearest shrine owned currently by your faction. Let’s space them a modest amount apart (say, a 5 minute corpse run).

But, have the NPC army ALSO include special npc "resbots". When you die, if you are closer to a “resbot” than to a res shrine, the closest resbot will resurrect you, which teleports you to them. They do this after a short delay (max 30 seconds) as long as they aren't being directly threatened. BUT they consume XXX amount of some finite resource to do so. That way, if a force wants to invade, they will need to equip a LARGE amount of these guys as a kind of supply train (which will make PvE resource gathering an important part of the war effort, as well as hiring mercenaries and buying weapons/armor for npc's). They would be an important tactical conflict point, as the other team would want to take them out, and you would want to defend them very hard.

Both teams would have their little group of resbots to protect, and so you'll have to choose between defending your own and trying to sabotage the enemy's. They shouldn’t be the only point of interest in the landscape though - for example there could also be shrines that when held give your entire force within a particular radius various buffs (offensive/defensive buff/debuff shrines, shrines that alter the amount of time between enemy/ally respawns, etc), as well as resource nodes where you can recharge your "resbots" somewhat.

So, PvP could be kept fairly fast paced but still heaps and heaps of room for tactical play, and it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake and die, because you’ll be coming up again really soon.

But what about teleportation? How do you get to the battle front in the first place? It would be easy enough to have teleport waypoints located in the various cities. When you click on the waypoint, a map can be brought up showing the locations of all your faction’s resbots, as well as your res shrines. You can teleport to either of these from the city, again at a cost of some limited resource.

But what if, as heero said, Joe PvE is getting his res shrines messed around with when he wants nothing to do with PvP? My solution to this is what I’d call a “tiered resource” approach.

ie the “resource nodes” (whether these are mines or uber dungeons or whatever) with the greatest output would be located in the areas of greatest conflict, eg half way between 2 rival factions. There would be other resource nodes stretching all the way back to home base for either team, but with diminishing returns, so that the resource node closest to home base is the weakest.

So Joe PvE and pals would need to choose where to adventure – if their faction is successful, they get the greatest node “hotspot” to adventure in.

Now, you might say, that’s unfair, what if Joe PvE’s alliance has lousy PvP’ers, meaning Joe PvE can only ever do lousy resource collecting? In answer to that, I’d say it should all be tied in together. If his faction are losing the war effort, Joe PvE should gather more resources for the army, and hunt down more monsters so that the army can divert more attention towards the opposite faction.

Point B (localized economy): Obviously, teleportation to and from the “battle front” and to other cities would have to be limited in what you can carry with you, to prevent “taxi-ing” of items.

I think the best option would be to make teleportation more expensive the more items you have on you. You could make “strong magic interfere with the teleportation” (more expensive magic items cost more to teleport), as well as large amounts of weight (carrying lots of, say, steel ingots) or volume (carrying large amounts of, I don’t know, wool :p).

Another (some may say unrealistic) way to do it would be to make items “bind on teleport”. ie if you’ve teleported with an item, you can no longer trade it. A warning box would pop up saying: “Your items will no longer be tradeable if you teleport with them… continue?”

Another way to do it would be to make all items “bind on equip”, and not make inventories able to be teleported. I like the “bind on teleport” way better personally, and the simple scaling of cost with quality/number of items idea better again.

Regardless of the option chosen, I’d allow people to teleport back from PvE land to the closest town if they’re within a certain distance of it… Nobody wants to run an eternity back to town through an area cleared of monsters. Once back in town, if they want to sell their items elsewhere, they can form a merchant caravan to start their way off to another town, or (even cooler), they could subcontract it out to a professional “hauler” who does that sort of thing full time and really enjoys it.

Throw in some border taxes on the main roads and the increasing ability to rob said merchant caravan the further it gets from the main roads, and you’ve got yourself some extremely fun professions added to the mix – bodyguards, bandits and smugglers!


Easy To Learn vs Hard To Master - Part II

Posted by Melf_Himself Thursday May 8 2008 at 5:33AM
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This is a follow-up to this blog:

In there I basically said that on the one hand, modern RPG's in general have too many choices for people to make when they're new to the game, it's overwhelming. On the other hand, you can't remove those choices because then there's no room for people to experiment and come up with their own builds, once they've become semi-pro at the game.

I think there are a couple of ways to address this problem.

1) Make PvP and PvE the same. I've said this several times before, and I'll say it again. The reason for the great divide between PvE and PvP players in most games is that PvE doesn't teach you to play the game properly. The AI is usually so bad that a set of tactics to exploit that AI is always the best strategy in PvE. Then when you get to PvP and those tactics don't work, you feel like a noob.

The bottom line is, you're already asking people to practically learn a new language when they play your game with all the options open to them. Don't teach them to become fluent in that language before they realise that they have to learn a whole new one to PvP.

2) Allow full respec of a character whenever you want to. Preferably for free. If your game makes use of skill levels (eg WoW), make it remember the max level that each individual skill has been trained on that character, and allow it to be put back to its max whenever the player wants to.

Guild Wars allows unlimited respec and it makes it really easy/fun to mess around with builds. They also really remove the grind, by not requiring use of skill levels. Skills are just linked to specific attributes, which can be changed around whenever you're in town.

3) Every class should have many BALANCED builds available. What do I mean by balanced? I mean the builds function slightly differently from each other, but one is not inherently better to the team than another. If ever build X is the only build people want character Y to take, then the build selection is not balanced. If people want build X to match one team build and build W to match another team build, that's fine and dandy.

4) Start new characters off with one of these builds, COMPLETELY ready to go. This is a tough one. It means you actually have to know what's good in your game. Devs, please please play your own game, or become buddies with the top guild and get them to tell you about your own game.

In Guild Wars, when you make a new character you get a default set of skills, which are a complete joke. At one time, there were premade templates available that allowed you to use the skills even though they weren't unlocked. The problem with these was that the templates sucked, were an even bigger joke than the default skills, and still required people to unlock the items to use the builds properly.

Now at one point, they actually allowed one of the top PvP guilds to alter the templates that new players get at the start of the game. This dramatically decreased the incidence of "tardness" all across the game. But for some reason, these templates were later removed. This was an epic failure.

The added bonus of starting someone off completely decked out for a given build is that it means that newer characters can adventure with their veteran friends without dragging the group down. Goodbye mentor system.

Now, you don't need to give the character that build/items RIGHT at the start of the game.

Let them pick a general focus at character creation (eg a warrior might pick sword/axe/hammer), and make the opening few hours of gameplay a large series of quests aimed at being a tutorial, and culminating in the acquisition of several items of uberness and unlocking all the skills for this build. Once this build is unlocked, players can feel free to mess around however they want to (now that they know the rules of the game), and they can still participate FULLY in the fun stuff like raids, sieges, RvR, FFA pvp, etc, without being gimped. Imagine leaving "noob island" in an MMO and not being easy fodder for a ganker, because you're both on the same level (both in terms of character level, and item level).

In summary, I feel like Guild Wars got half way there. It gave templates, allowed full respec, had lots of balanced builds available, and made it fairly quick to get to max level. But they failed for not knowing their game well enough to provide good templates, removing good templates suggested by people who DID know the game, and having crummy PvE AI that meant all people's hard work at getting good at PvE was wasted when it came to PvP.

I'm sure there are more good ideas out there to tackle this problem - thoughts?

Easy To Learn vs Hard To Master

Posted by Melf_Himself Wednesday May 7 2008 at 9:12PM
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So I found out recently that Shadowbane is now free to play, and had a server restart (characters wiped) < 2 months ago... Seemed like a perfect time to jump in and try it out. Downloading it, patching etc, no problems, load into character creation...


/me loads up shadowbane forums, spends the next several hours trying to figure out which choices to make so I don't gib my character...

There are a ridiculous number of options. Four base classes, 10 "real" classes on top of those (including ones that you can access via different base classes), a plethora of races, attributes, background traits. Then you get into the game and you have to split your "training points" as you level up between "skills" and "powers". Apparently attributes drive skills which drive powers. Or something.

I mean, I consider myself if not an MMO vet, at least an RPG vet. I've gone through a similar experience as above to one degree or another through many years spent playing a combination of Diablo II, Baldur's Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights, then on to the more traditional WoW, and Guild Wars. Also have played Magic the Gathering on and off for several years. In every case, if you want to make a character/build/deck that is competitive, you HAVE to do your homework. And you know what I've realised?

I spend more time researching how to play games then actually playing them.

Well, just about anyway.

I had an outsider's perspective of this a couple of months ago. I convinced my gf to get into Guild Wars (which I am very very happy about). I told her what the various classes entailed, she likes the sound of the ranger, gets through a couple of early levels. Time to buy some skills.

Her: "I have to buy skills now honey.... Is Power Shot any good?"

Me: "No, it sucks."

Her: "Oh... what about Penetrating Attack?"

Me: "Sucks."

Her: "Oh... what about Sundering Attack?"

Me: "It does the same thing as Penetrating Attack."

Her: "They made 2 versions of a sucky skill, great....ok forget about bow skills. How about Otyugh's Cry?"

Me: *Shudders* "Look, get Distracting Shot, Savage Shot, Apply Poison, Troll Unguent, Natural Stride, and take Monk secondary for Mending Touch"

Her: "Um, ok... How come 90% of the skills in this game are shit?"

Me: ".................."

(I don't know)

Mulling it over recently, I have come to the conclusion: if they only put the "good" skills in the game, then there would be no "choices" to make, and so the game would be easier to learn, and less hard to master.

Now, many of you will argue that knowing which skills are good is simply part of "skill" at the game. However, I would argue that it is useless "skill", in that it has no context outside the game. Compare this to learning such generic gameplay such as knowing which characters to snare at which times, which characters to interrupt at each times, when to switch targets, etc.

Learning what all the "skills" in the game do gives you a pseudo increase in power because you have mastered an arbitrary ruleset invented at the whim of a game designer, which is subject to change at any ime anyway. It creates a hurdle that will result in someone who would otherwise be a prodigy at the game being a total noob for several months.

Exactly like the much maligned "vertical progression" of characters getting better items and hence being much better than characters who spend less time playing the game.

Of course, as I said, they do this for a reason. They want to give the game "depth" to keep you entertained. I now throw the question out to the viewers: is there a better way to do this? Assuming that there was some kind of intuitive combat system that can be picked up in the space of, say, a couple of hours, how can we offer our players different, interesting, yet all *equally good* choices to promote depth?

Revisiting the Holy Trinity

Posted by Melf_Himself Tuesday April 29 2008 at 4:31AM
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I've read a couple of blogs today about the Holy Trinity. First was heerobya's:

Heero's position was that the trinity isn't THAT bad, it leads to camaraderie / dependence on your fellow player.

Next vajuras responded with:

His position was that it's unrealistic for an enemy to attack the most highly armored target on the field. The enemy should always target the healers.

I've touched on this in my previous blog, but it was loooooong, and I'd like to make a couple more points along with a possible foundation for a combat system, so:

1) PvP and PvE players are always segregated in MMO's. This is because completely different tactics are used. This is because monster AI is nowhere near as smart as human AI.

Monster AI often attacks the nearest player, not the most vulnerable, it doesn't learn from its mistakes (ie continues to attack the tank even though it's taking no damage), and it often doesn't run from AoE effects. Designers also gimp monster groups, usually not allowing them to have a good mix of monster classes.

Because monsters are so dumb, they are invariably buffed in either damage or hit points or both, in some cases to flabbergastingly astronomical levels.

2) It's not as simple to fix the AI as to just "make it go for the healer". This is for 2 reasons:

a) If the healer being targeted is smart, it will see the monsters have targeted him, and run away. This is called "kiting". The AI then needs a further step, to identify when their target is kiting, and to not chase them too far before switching targets.

b) Usually the best target to pressure are actually the NON-healer casters. Think about it: if you attack the DPS, you can either interrupt it or force it to kite. Either way, you stop it from doing its job (doing DPS). Whereas, if you attack the monk, the monk will kite.... but it's still doing it's job by kiting (it's job is to negate damage). And, that DPS guy that you COULD have targeted, is still doing his job.

So, by attacking the healer, you don't achieve anything - if the healer is smart. And we want our AI to be able to play well against smart players.

The AI needs to be able to have options open to it to disrupt enemy players, and to be smart enough to disrupt the right players at the right times.

3) In vajuras's blog, JB commented that the AI shouldn't be always programmed to do the same thing under the same circumstances, do decrease predictability. I agree with this to a certain extent. Many theories about having "fun" in games state that the fun comes from analysing patterns, and solving problems based on those patterns.... if the AI is to predictable OR too unpredictable, the game would likely not be as much fun.

However, as long as the AI does whatever a smart player would do, the AI is predictable to an extent (you just have to know what a smart player would do). This would allow people to decipher the pattern.

4) Following on from point 3, you don't want to always have to be wracking your brains every PvE fight. The AI needs to be scalable. You could make this tie easily in with realism - eg the horde of zombies you fight in the evil liche's castle use stupid tactics, but the liche at the end with his posse of uber zombies and vampires are smart, and consequently tougher to take down.

Another option is just to make a gradual transition as players move through the content in terms of the AI slowly getting better, with the game completely finishable where the enemies only use moderate AI, and optional "end-game" content with "real" AI.

5) Where do warriors fit in under such a regime you ask? vajuras mentioned that as long as server-side collision detection is implemented, the warriors can still deter enemies from attacking their squishy casters. However, another poster raised the issue that this would cause a large imbalance in the mage : warrior ratio of player characters needed, since you could have one line of warriors with a large group of mages behind.

An idea to stop that from happening:

Make warriors the best melee characters

Make the best disruptive characters in the game need to go through warriors to be able to disrupt the mages.

For example, you could have the assassin who's abilities may be centred around throwing casters off balance, or you could have a DnD monk-style "anti-magic" character who is able to cut through magical defenses, etc. You could also have ranged disruption in the form of archers/rangers.

You'd then have a dynamic situation in which the mages deal large damage but are interrupted easily by assassin/monk/ranger types, and so require warriors to protect them from these types, who could in turn be temporarily disabled by mages, etc.

You still have a rich inter-dependance between all the classes as heero said is a good feature, but it seems to make a bit more sense than ye olde Holy Trinity.

That's just one idea - I'm interested to hear any shortcomings people see with that system, and especially any other ideas people have had to end this Holy Trinity nonsense.



I haven't blogged here for a while. Last blog I mentioned a lot of things I hate about current MMO combat systems, and hoped that in my next blog I'd have magically solved all those problems. I haven't come close to solving them all, but hopefully this is a start :p



How to make a real combat system in an MMO - Part 2

Posted by Melf_Himself Wednesday September 12 2007 at 8:14AM
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Thanks for the comments from the last one guys - I'll start off by replying to those comments, as they raised some interesting points:

Real-time vs turn-based: I wouldn't suggest an actual turn-based system, it would have to be sped up and made real(ish) time such as they do with the DnD style games. Real turn based would be boring to play, I agree. Ideally I'd want to speed things up just enough to beat lag + reaction time (which imo you need to allow a minmimum of 0.5-0.75s for...reaction time at best is ~ 0.2s, and my lag playing in Australia is routinely ~ 0.3s).

Age of Conan: It sounds like AoC with it's 0.5s attack time may meet my minimum requirements not to be twitch...and if not, at least it's better than an FPS. I hope it is an awesome, deep combat system to boot :)

Fighting games (eg street fighter etc): I think these games would need to be slowed down to make an MMO, again to take away the lag/reflexes factor. I'm not sure how balanced those games would be if things were slowed down a lot though...not that I've ever tried, but it seems like it would be pretty hard to lose in street fighter playing ultra slow-mo :) My goal is to create a system that would theoretically stand by itself as a turn-based game.... if there's a console fighting game that can do this, I'd love to see it implemented as an MMO.

And on to today's instalment...


To recap, I want to see an MMO that allows a large number of viable builds, each of which feels very different in play (but not in function) to the others. The game should be strategic and not require excessive reflexes or micro skills, but should be fast-paced enough that the combat feels like it moves at a similar pace to current MMO's. Before we get to the idea I have to solve this problem, there are a couple of more restrictions to add to the mix.

1) PLAYERS ARE MONKEYS I've seen a lot of people recently arguing that skill-based systems (where any character can pick any skill, and you level up that skill through use, effectively creating your own class) are more interesting to play than class-based systems (where your class can only pick from certain skills, and your role is more clear-cut). Now, I agree that these make for great games (eg oblivion).... IF you know what you're doing. If you don't, it can be kind of overwhelming.

The solution in single player RPG's: give players suggested builds to follow. The problem is, some players won't follow the builds, and will choose their own options anyway. While it is fully possible to come up with a much better build than the suggested ones, let's face it, many players are going to pick the worst possible options, whether because they're not familiar with the game engine, have some preconceived notions about what should be good based on other games they've played, or are just monkeys :) But, fortunately, in a single player RPG you can go at your own pace. If you die because your build sucked, you can reload, or you can spend time luring enemies off and killing them one by one, or whatever. The point is, it doesn't harm anybody that the player has made themselves a sucky build.

However, the same isn't true of an MMO. My experience with MMO's, specifically, class-based MMO's, is that players routinely choose the worst possible build imaginable, and refuse to try another build for whatever reason. The problem is, it's hard to identify these people before they join your group. Imagine taking a player into your group who claims to be a healer, load your team into a really hard mission, and then your 'healer' goes 'leeroy-ing' off into the enemy with a sword in hand. The group is quickly going to return to town, probably swear at the n00b a little bit before booting him and searching for someone else. That n00b just wasted everybody's time, and let's face it, is going to feel a little downtrodden. He'll then tell all his friends that your game sucks, all the people are assholes, he's going back to WoW.

Now, this is a problem that I've noticed with MMO's that HAVE classes, ie pre-defined roles. The main reason that I quit playing Guild Wars, which I played for 2 years, was that it was difficult to find people to play with who actually knew what they were doing, and this was due to the huge variety of builds available (most of which sucked). If we try and give these monkeys a skill-based system to follow, I think it would increase the proportion of completely ridiculous builds that we'd see, which would lead to even more elitism than seen in other games, and all around general frustration both on the part of the experienced player (being forced to play with n00bs) and the new player (sucking so badly!).

So I think classes are pretty much mandatory in MMO's, unless the human race evolves their IQ about another +50 average points...


Talking about PvE exclusively now: the combat system should not in any way promote passive tanking. That is, a class with high armor that just draws aggro and stands around, stopping to refresh their tanking skills as needed. In a real combat system, MMO or otherwise, standing still and LETTING THE ENEMY HIT YOU with their BIG, POINTY WEAPONS should result in you dying. Fast. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for that warrior striding into battle, his sword flying in an arc of death in front of him, deflecting enemy blades as he dances nimbly between them, etc etc. But that would be an active process, where you don't die by virtue of your skill, as opposed to just sitting there like a sack of potatoes.

Note that this is not necessarily killing the beloved 'holy trinity' of tanking, nuking and healing. It's just making the tank work for it a bit.

Who's next on the block for the holy trinity? The tank's best buddy, the healer. Imagine a game where heals don't cast in under a second, from range, to heal someone's health bar almost full in one go. Imagine a game where heals are something that can only be realistically cast after battle, to patch things up (say they have a touch requirement a la DnD, or take a long time to cast, etc). But how do we then stop someone who is the target of focus fire from taking a ton of damage?? I hear you cry. The answer is obvious for those of you who know anything about Guild Wars PvP.

In Guild Wars, monks have conventional healing skills to choose from. But they also have a different attribute, protection prayers. Protection prayers are something you cast on the person when you see that they are about to get walloped, ie BEFORE the damage lands. This reqsuires a ton of a lot more skill than simply being a 'heal bot' as is often lamented in other games. All the good monks from the top GvG guilds ran protection prayers as their main spells, resorting to the healing prayers mainly to cast party-wide spells to mop up excess damage.

And that leaves our friend the nuker. My temptation here is to say, make AoE spells affect party members also, ie friendly fire. This would completely obliterate that which is all too common these days, watching a tank fight in a veritable rainbow shitstorm of spells, which somehow all manage to miss him and only hit the enemy. However, see point 1) about monkeys.... I am sure that people will continue to play their nukers in the exact same way, and obliterate their own party most of the time. So how to make the nuker work a bit harder? Imagine a typical dungeon in which enemies are encountered in small groups, but the nuker has limited nukes, or mana, or something available to him (DnD does this).

This would necessitate nukes being saved until they're really needed, and seen as somewhat precious, as opposed to randomly nuking everything in sight. Of course, the nuker can merely quaff a potion, or rest in most games, to recover his spells/mana. Perhaps a game with more restrictions on these kinds of options would lead to more tactical nuking.

3) THIS IS WAR, PEOPLE I'm going to talk often about Guild Wars probably, as it has the most balanced combat system I've seen in an MMO. However, tactics in a GvG boil down to the following:

- You can fight 8v8, or you can "split"

- Fighting 8v8, your warriors build up until ready to unleash their most powerful moves, and then a player on the other team who is vulnerable at the time is selected to "spike", ie kill quickly before the monks can react (the monks are often shut down temporarily during this window by anti-caster characters). There's a lot of interplay between the various class types and heaps of skill involved in terms of timing, skill selection, positioning, energy management, kiting, and much more, but in terms of overall TEAM tactics, not much is going on. The idea is.....stop enemy spikes, while killing enemy with spikes. OR, you can...

- Split. There are NPC's in GvG maps who contribute to the final showdown at the end of the GvG. If you can take down some of these NPC's while preserving your own, you will have a huge leg up. Without going too much into it, splitting involves basically running around the map and trying to chip away at these NPC's.

Anyone ever read Sun Tzu's Art of War? See anything missing here? This is supposed to be a battle, where is the strategy? The deepest PvP game I've ever played has 2 real tactics open to it! I'd like to see a system where:

- Scouting

- Destroying supply lines

- Diversionary tactics

- Flanking

- Ambushes

and probably a whole lot more are all possible. Now, all these things are both possible and are actually quite important in a game like Starcraft.... would that we could see an MMO where this stuff mattered too.

4) CAN I PLAY TOO, DADDY? Finally, the most delicate line of all to walk. We all know that to be a successful MMO, you have to dangle the proverbial carrot on the stick in front of the player, make them always strive for that next level up, that slightly better item, etc. On the other hand though, casual players are put off by this because it means that they aren't going to be competitive, whether in PvE or PvP. The last thing you want is for a new player to, say, download your 14 day trial and go wtf, these guys that have been playing for 12 months are so much better than me, I'll never be able to compete.

A newcomer to the game who is actually skilled, should be able to catch up, and in terms of item power and character level, be able to compete within a couple of months (ie, long enough for them to learn how to play the game properly). But, the dedicated players will hate you for this, bitch about there being no end game, etc.

What I'd suggest to do is borrowing and improving upon another page from Guild Wars' make things that effect the power of your character relatively easy to obtain, but to make anything else difficult to obtain. In Guild Wars, max weapons and armor are obtainable within a month of not too hardcore playing....and if you make a "PvP only" character, within a few hours of playing. The catch? The stuff looks BORING. You can pick the leet players in the game because they have the terrifying great black sword with swirling shadows on it, burnished silver looking platemail, etc, etc. This gave incentive for hardcore gamers to grind and get the coolest looking stuff, without making it unfair for casual players.

After playing such a system, I have to say, I will never again play an MMO like WoW in which you basically never become 'maxed out'.

My ideal MMO would need more stuff for players to grind towards than just weapons and armor though. I would make fairly much anything that you can think of that DOESN'T effect the outcome of a battle something that must be worked for. So along with weapons and armour, stuff like player housing, guild halls, player built cities, titles/emotes for completing a vast array of different content, ladders, and anything else that you think players might want to work towards.

So, the combat system is ALLOWED to be item- and level-centric, but the items can't be too hard to obtain for casual players.


That wraps it up for now, I want to read everyone else's blogs before I go to bed :) Next time, I shall put my money where my mouth is and stop talking about problems, and start suggesting solutions! Feel free to discuss or add any more points you think I may have missed. Who knows, maybe somebody will listen...

How to make a real combat system in an MMO

Posted by Melf_Himself Tuesday September 11 2007 at 10:24AM
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Disclaimer: I'm talking about designing a system around PvP combat. That combined with good AI = much deeper PvE experience than most games, so bear with me even if you don't like PvP...

Standard MMO combat doesn't require much thought. Oh, sure, you've got to spend several hours researching your build to come up with the most leetest character with which to pwn all, and you've got to grind for a few hundred hours to get the right gear, but once all that's done, a monkey could pretty much be playing your character.

Depending on the MMO and your class, you'll either spend most of your time auto-attacking, or pushing the same couple of buttons over and over again.

I'm hearing more and more people say that they're over this kind of system, they want something deeper. And game developers are apparently listening, for example one of AoC's biggest selling points is its 'skill based combat' involving a bunch of combos that have to be executed by the player. This is a nice idea in theory, but it sounds like it's going to require twitch reflexes and heavily favour whoever has the slightly better ping.... I'll play an FPS for that thanks.

Another way for a combat system to go might be one that is less intensive on reflexes but more intensive on micro-management. Think Starcraft in MMO form (somehow). This again doesn't appeal to me, as I don't have crazy korean micro hax :)

That leaves us with one more option - combat via some kind of turn-based strategy system. Goodbye lag issues, goodbye micromanagement, hello tactics.

One blogger I read recently suggested a system similar to Magic : The Gathering. This is a nice, balanced game (ie many different builds all fairly much equally viable in the right hands) with loads of strategy. However 2 things that don't really make it suitable: 1) The luck factor. If you don't draw the right cards and your opponent does, there's often nothing you can do to win ; 2) The game is based around summoning creatures that attack and defend for you. I can't see the majority of players wanting a system like that, they want to feel like THEY are the uber leet ones, not their pets.

Another game worth talking about is Guild Wars. True, Guild Wars does revolve around the standard concept of pushing a few buttons over and over to fire off your skills. But thanks to the way the different classes were designed, there's a very rich interplay between them all, and various tactics are made possible by virtue of map design. The only problem is, the game seems to be designed around one build, the so-called "balanced build" (for those that never played guild wars, it was 2 melee, 2 anti-caster, 1 support caster, 2 healers, and a flag runner). This led to cries of a stale metagame. Any deviation away from this metagame was usually nerfed (as the deviation would otherwise just become the best build). So top end GvG often looked pretty damn boring.

The next big thing in MMO's is going to need to have multiple builds all equally viable, all with equal chances of beating each other, and all feeling completely different to play compared to each other - ie the choice of build should be purely an aesthetic one that is made before the match starts, and has no impact on your odds of winning that match. Each build should have multiple tactical options open to it. The more builds that are viable, the more interesting the game feels to play, and the longer it takes players to get bored with it. Looking at Starcraft again - a beautifully balanced game, still I believe one of if not THE top game in Korea. Number of aesthetically different options available to player before the match begins? Three! (there are 3 races to choose from, all equal, that all feel extremely different).

It turns out that it's pretty damn hard to design an RPG with a turn-based combat system AND lots of different yet equally viable builds available. But I do think it's possible, and have a lot of random thoughts floating around on the subject which I shall start going through next time. Feel free to share your own as well! Who knows, maybe somebody will listen...