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Cerebral vs Visceral Combat, Part 1

Ryahl Smith Posted:
Columns The Eorzea Prospect 0

My last column promised a two-part examination of what has been and what is to come in FFXIV.  While I have every intention of finishing the second half of that column, I want to address one of the recurring reader comments in Eorzea Reborn discussions.  It is time to talk about combat systems in MMO’s and what we may expect in A Realm Reborn.

"Same old [insert derogatory adjective] combat system.”

The statement above pops up in pretty much every FFXIV discussion at some point or another.  The other variant of this comment tends to be that “tab-based combat is dead, everyone knows the genre is all about action combat."  This is a bit odd, since no incarnation of the Final Fantasy series mirrors TERA-esque action combat.  Expecting action combat in FF is a bit like wondering where the full body contact is in a Magic: the Gathering match.

It bears observation that action combat MMO's are not without problems and that the bulk of the market share (e.g. the majority of players) still play classic combat MMO’s.  Note also that the player’s choice MMO of the year here at MMORPG is a turn-based game.  Additionally, one of the commonly listed nominations for PC game of the year, X-Com, is also turn-based. 

Popularity doesn’t necessarily mean better though, and action oriented combat has been the trend in recent MMO releases.  Given Yoshida’s interest in studying the MMO landscape prior to rebuilding Final Fantasy XIV, I think it’s fair to expect some action combat influences to appear in

Party Combat in the FFXIV:ARR Alpha

I believe, however, that the classic vs. action combat debate isn't simply an evolutionary story.  Rather, it is more a case of tastes and preferences and quite possibly the sign that our MMORPG genre is ready to segment itself along combat systems.  Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is potentially a very interesting market re-entry, in that a “throwback” style of combat is likely what fans of the intellectual property expect.

In this column, I want to review the basic combat mechanics in MMO's.  My point here will not be to denigrate any single system.  While I have my preferences, they are just that, preferences.  Each of the following combat systems has merit; each has an appeal to a different type of player.  Each affords the developer with a chance to emphasize a specific gameplay element. 

It also makes sense to think about combat systems as a primary segmenting device.  Be it sandbox or theme park, we spend a great deal of time in combat in our online hobbies.  The approach used in the combat system ultimately influences both encounter and world design.  The move towards action oriented combat brought in a number of (now common) encounter mechanics, but it has also removed or eliminated other elements.

Turn-based Systems

Turn-based combat used to be a staple of the RPG.  Even today where it is largely overwritten with real-time combat, the idea of pausing to issue commands still manifests. The primary benefit of turn-based combat is the ability to engage in strategic action.  Whether this involves taking advantage of interdependencies between units/abilities or setting up a complex plan over multiple rounds, turn-based systems appeal to the more cerebral aspects of game play.

That isn't to say there aren't drawbacks to turn-based gaming.  I still recall the look of horror on a college roommate’s face when I announced the invitations to a gaming night event we were hosting.  "You invited [NAME]?  What the [expletive] were you thinking?"  I was thinking he was a friend who liked games, what could possibly go wrong?  Three hours into the evening, when we were not yet done with the second turn of our first game, I understood that horror all too well.

The thing is, slower paced players can be prodded along with some form of timing system.  The Kings Isle title, Wizards 101, uses a card based combat model and its sibling title, Pirates 101, uses a turn-based miniature system, both with a timer to help keep the game moving.  While both of these games are targeted towards younger audiences, their systems represent the rare MMO which rewards sequential thinking.

Tubthumping in Pirate101

Combat simulations

While RPG's draw on turn-based board games for inspiration, the modern MMO actually draws more from pen and paper gaming for its inspiration.  In the earliest MMO's, your character is just an accumulation of statistics.  When combat starts between you and another accumulation of statistics: (1) random numbers are generated, (2) tables are consulted, (3) and someone eventually wins.

Based on Ripper X’s work, I was recently inspired to pick up and play around with the zombified Asheron's Call 2.  It has been a very interesting experience, ultimately shocking in just how much things have changed in MMO combat.  The two things that really stood out in my first hour back in Dereth were:

  1. Auto attack damage is a significant part of the offense and
  2. Wow, that is an awful lot of missing!

In the older systems, you went into combat with a couple of abilities and a very finite resource pool.  Your abilities were more akin to trump cards.  They were big abilities which, played at the right time, made a huge difference.  Yes, I could spam my basic combat maneuver, but I would quickly be out of power.  Worse, by spamming it, I would miss weak moments where my enemy might be susceptible from extensive damage from the same trivial attack.

Combat in Asheron’s Call 2

It also opened the door to different types of character builds.  In AC2, a player walks around with a base 50% accuracy rate against similar level opponents.  Offensively, he or she can invest character points into upping damage or upping accuracy.  In essence, build choices and resource management in combat were a function of preferences and play styles. 

While builds matter in the modern MMO, it’s more about DPS optimization than play preference.  In the modern system, misses are now hits, hits are now crits and crits are now super-crits.  In (player) skill-based systems, the player should hit pretty much any time they successfully complete an attack.  The only variables of interest now are how much damage (per hit) and how frequently are you allowed to hit (global cool downs), all of which is normalized to a base-line maximum damage per second.

Moving away from the combat simulator model has resulted in the loss of a number of classic MMO game mechanics.  Breaking a spawn, knowing how to pull a room, and managing a multi-spawn encounter (and I’m not talking about fast spam AOE on the trash mobs) are long gone from game play.  Indeed, the entire support/control class system has been so watered down that people these days legitimately think DPS is the third leg of the MMO trinity.

Action Oriented Combat

While it is common to attribute the start of this to TERA, the road to action combat began quite a bit earlier.  The first step probably starts with City of Heroes and the decision to drop auto-attack from the combat system in favor of "greater immersion."  I am not certain that pushing the #1 button repeatedly immerses one, but the shift from passive observer to active engagement began with small steps.

Later, Dungeons and Dragons online launched with an action oriented combat system and DC Universe Online billed itself as a full action oriented MMO.  Since that time, we have seen Planetside 2, TERA, the Secret World and Guild Wars 2 all launch with action oriented combat elements.

Combat in DCUO

The core idea of the action system involves trading off the cerebral for the visceral.  In doing so, they all represent an attempt to broaden the base for the MMO.  Where the MMO started off with its natural appeal to RPG and wargaming, the modern MMO is reaching out to action and shooter fans.

The action combat system trades strategic for tactical and cerebral for dexterity.  Movement, positioning and accuracy take precedence.  Combat generally drops (or greatly minimizes) auto-attacks in favor of rapidly repeated, but player enacted, combat rotations. 

Nightmare Dungeons in The Secret World

If classic combat is Baseball, then action combat is Ice Hockey, and I happen to like both sports.  At its best, action combat is fast paced and exciting.  Players who react and adapt quickly to changing circumstances flourish.  At its worst, action combat devolves into a flurry of circle-strafing jump-monkeys.  By that, I don’t mean to be derogatory to action combat itself, but rather to the less immersive outcomes often found in action combat PVP.

Action orientation, though, has become the foundation for MMO game design.  Even in the more classic combat systems of RIFT, WoW and TOR, highly scripted PVE encounters boil down to whether or not the party/raid excels at synchronized movement.  Self-responsibility checks (get out of the goo) have replaced interdependency checks (party maneuvers or ability chains).  While the additions of personal responsibility checks are welcome, I wonder if we have replaced tactical play with motor memorization games.  Raid, Raid Revolution anyone? 

Next week, we’ll take a look at which way is the right way for FFXIV and MMOs in general… and what it means for A Realm Reborn.  Thanks for reading, and tune back in next week! And don’t forget to check out Eorzea Reborn and follow Ryahl on Twitter (@EorzeaReborn)!


Ryahl Smith

Ryahl / Ryahl is a columnist for MMORPG.Com. He is also the host and primary author for Eorzea Reborn and TSWGuides. He has been playing MMO’s since 1999 and remembers when the holy trinity didn’t involve DPS. You can follow him on Twitter @EorzeaReborn or just argue with him in comments anywhere he posts.