Over the course of the past two decades of MMORPGs, there is one feature that the vast majority of games have, that most players can’t live without. Combat. One question that has been on my mind lately is whether MMORPGs can not only be fun without combat, but actually thrive. Traditionally, combat has been a core element of every popular MMORPG, such as World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV. However, there have been many games in the past, and even a few on the horizon that are taking a different approach, emphasizing social and exploration gameplay instead.
Not long ago I was excited to jump into the extreme sports MMO Riders Republic. Ubisoft went out on a limb and built an MMO unlike anything we’ve seen, with activities such as skiing, snowboarding, and mountain biking. Although there is some competitive gameplay in the form of races and events, the core gameplay loop revolves around exploring the massive open world and discovering new challenges to conquer. Obviously, the game hasn’t amassed what would be considered overwhelming popularity, as the team at Ubisoft had to remind players that it has not abandoned the game last year, and Twitch Streamer statistics have shown very few players interested in watching gameplay. However, I felt that it was a refreshing change of pace from traditional combat-based MMORPGs, and it's interesting to see how Ubisoft is experimenting with new gameplay mechanics, going so far as to ask players what sport they’d like to see next on their official Twitter page. (Skateboarding, obv.)
Another example of an MMORPG that de-emphasizes combat is A Tale in the Desert. This game is set in ancient Egypt and features a cooperative gameplay style that revolves around building and managing a community, sometimes to the detriment of other players. For those that haven’t taken notice of the game, A Tale in the Desert has been around for 20 years, and has attempted to build an in game community and economy by having players work together to create a thriving society, with challenges that range from agriculture to engineering. The game has no combat at all, but has still managed to keep development alive. The 10th telling of A Tale in the Desert released in May of 2021, and fans of the game are awaiting information regarding the 11th telling, which does not have a release date as of yet.
In many ways, MMORPGs have also expanded and evolved into new spaces with the rise of social MMOs that developers are cleverly disguising as “The Metaverse”. Games like VRChat are more about socializing and interacting with other players than they are about combat or questing, though there are areas and gameplay modes that do focus around combat. Yet, VRChat, players often create their own avatars and worlds, or find avatars others have created while they explore, chat, and game with other players in a “metaversey” online experience. This type of gameplay is extremely different from traditional MMORPGs, but it's no less compelling. In fact, the popularity of games like VRChat suggests that there is a demand for more social-focused MMORPGs, but that it might be difficult to find a medium to bring people together in novel ways.
Sometimes I feel like many MMORPGs take the easy way out by simply focusing the entirety of their energy on combat. Okay, sure, combat is a lot of fun. Many of the most exciting adventure stories revolve around conflict, that leads to long, drawn out battles. However, the combat focused games are a dime a dozen, and usually, outside of combat, what is there left to do? I feel like many developers are scared to stray too far from a combat focus. There are a few games that are trying something completely out of the ordinary when it comes to their design. Palia, by Singularity 6, is an upcoming game that aims to foster cooperation and relaxation through agricultural activities like farming and fishing. You will also spend time exploring the different biomes, and building your home. It almost feels like a more adult version of Animal Crossing. Although there will be some combat in the game, it won't be the main focus, which is a stark departure from most of the games on the market.
Can MMORPGs still be fun without combat? The answer is a resounding yes. That, unfortunately, isn’t really the question. It’s not about whether these games are fun. It’s about whether non-combat games can thrive. From Riders Republic to A Tale in the Desert, there are a few examples of games that are engaging and immersive despite not having traditional combat. Neither of these games have exactly broken through to a mainstream crowd. VRChat on the other hand has consistently racked up 25K peak players on Steam, and that doesn’t count the thousands of Oculus players. Those numbers indicate that there is a large population out there looking for social interactions where you can explore, chat, and play with other players.
It would be fair to say that VRChat is also a different animal, simply because it’s a VR game, but there are far more players on VRChat than there are in a VR game like Zenith right now. All that being said, it seems like VRChat may be the exception to the rule. For all of you MMORPG players out there, what do you think? Does an MMORPG need combat? And if not, do you think it’s just too niche to thrive? Dig your way to our comments section and let us know your thoughts.