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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

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

Posted by Melf_Himself Wednesday September 12 2007 at 7:14AM
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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...

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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...

2) FORCE PLAYERS TO THINK....JUST A LITTLE

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' book....to 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.

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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...