Dynamic versus scripted worlds

MMORPGs are some of the most complex things made by humans. As world simulations there’s a massive amount of things going on behind the scenes the user may never be fully aware of. But there are different levels of complexity to these games, some being more complex than others – that is, in terms of game and world design, not graphical optimization or anything of the like.

Why are some games simplier to make sense of for the player than others? One thing is that where as most games today tend to have a massive amount of scripted events, other games are built around dynamic systems.

What exactly is the difference between worlds built around scripted events and worlds built around dynamic systems? There are many differences, both from the point of view of the developer and that of the player. Environments which are solely built upon scripted events are far more predictable, first of all. The developer has full control whether something will happen or not. Monsters will spawn when and where they are wanted and they patrol the routes set by the developer. Harvesting nodes spawn in exactly the the developer put them to spawn at. And so on.

Where as scripted events are easy to predict and control, the results of dynamic systems are quite the opposite. A classic example of this is Ultima Online’s original resource system, which didn’t quite work out at the time. The system would probably have needed some tweaking all around in terms of numbers and the like, but most of all the developers failed to predict player behavior – players just killed everything too quickly forĀ  the system to work.

While there’s the definite con of unpredictability to handling the world in a more dynamic manner, it still has an immense charm to it. Dynamism is definitely the way to go if realistic fantasy worlds are what we aim for – the real world isn’t based on scripted events either but on complex systems interacting with each other. There is something beautiful in attempting to simulate a living world with what is almost pure mathematics. Of course for some games a more directed approach is preferable, but if anything, games like Ultima Online and EVE are extremely fascinating examples of dynamic system design.

Furthermore, the dynamic approach can be cheaper. It is less predictable and the developers have less ways to control the player, yes, but ultimately it has the potential of cutting down production costs. With the correct systems in place, there’s no need for the developer to individually script every NPC’s patrol path, no need to time spawns by the second, no need to make a world object interact in exactly a certain way. Having to script every little event in a game from rolling stones to rats’ daily lives is a time consuming endeavour, and if these things were handled dynamically, a lot of effort could be spent elsewhere.

Of course dynamic systems have the risk of something ending up in completely unpredicted scenarios. But then, its not like scripted events don’t also have exploitable bugs and whatnot in them as well. Overall, what would be nice to see more in future games is the dynamic school of design. To some extent, it has sort of died in the fantasy MMORPG world, maybe partly due to the death of isometricism (which is a topic for another time); when you only have two dimensions to worry about, things are more predictable. But if anything, games like SWG and EVE Online show isometric graphics are a not prerequirement for a game that is strongly based on various complex systems that intricately tie into each other. And I suppose there’s some revival happening, what with Crowfall’s dynamic maps and all – but that game’s got Raph Koster working on it, does it not?

Advertisements

Unhealthy reasons to spend money

I have recently been looking for a new game to sink my teeth a little further into, and as a part of this endeavour I found myself running into a game called Eldevin for the first time since it’s release in late 2013. That means the game is still new – only a year old – and from my experience, games tend to be at their best when they’re still fresh.

As I delved into finding more information about the game, I was reminded of why I originally put the game off my radar of potentially playable games. When I first played the game in beta right before release, it wasn’t the gameplay that put me off – no, while I didn’t get very far, I thought the gameplay looked quite promising. What put me off was the business model, which I considered P4P (pay for power – note that here it is being used synonymously with the term P2W).

To explain the business model of the game, it is as follows: just about all the game features, items, skills and whatnot are available to all players. Practically speaking, all the content the game has to offer is open. The client and accounts are free as well. However, there is a subscription option. What does that give? The answer is, subbing increases all experience and money gained by a percentage and periodically rewards the subscriber with potions that may be used in combat.

The first time I heard of the business model, I knew I had a problem with it. But when I would call the model P4P, I would often get objections from fans of the game. They would claim that since all of the game’s content was available to the free player, the game could not be P4P. Even Hunted Cow Studios, the creators behind the game, say the following on their site:

Eldevin is a free to play game. As gamers ourselves we are definitely opposed to “pay to win” games, so when we say free to play, we mean that our players can enjoy the entire game – all realms, all quests, all levels – without spending a penny.

So I had to go back to thinking, what exactly was it about Eldevin’s model that made me feel it was P4P. You know those moments when you intuitively understand something, but find it difficult to put the thought into words in such a manner other people can see a reasonable argument behind what you’re saying? That’s the sort of feeling I had.

The end result of thinking it through is as follows. The fact a free player can see all of a game’s content is not what constitutes a non-P4P game. In fact, this has nothing to do with it. Content, you see, does not equal power. This is something even the developers of the game seem to (purposefully?) misunderstand, judging by the quote above.

The simple reason I regard Eldevin P4P is that paying customers are not paying for content (or cosmetics) – they are paying to progress faster than free players. A subscription boosts progression rates and money gain instead of providing the paying customer with new content.

This model is inherently different from that of another medieval fantasy browser game, RuneScape, to the model of which Eldevin’s has been compared to a couple of times by some people. In RuneScape, subscribing unlocks all of the player’s skills and the full map along with all the quests, items and what ever may come with that. In addition, subscriber-only servers become available.

The difference between the two models is that in the other, the dedicated customer pays for content, where as in the other they pay to merely progress faster than others. The conclusion becomes easy to draw. RuneScape’s free portion is a form of an extended trial period of a subscription game – you like the game, subscribe to it for more content. In Eldevin, you subscribe because you want to be stronger than others. In one you pay for content, in one you pay for power.

Now, whether or not one likes either of the models is down to opinion. But personally, I strongly dislike the P4P (or pay-to-grind-less, which is a form of P4P) model of Eldevin. When I pay for a game, I expect to pay for content, for stuff to do. I don’t expect to be spending real money to make my character stronger than others – one of the reasons we play RPGs is precisely to get out of that situation, for in games we all (usually) start at in equal beginnings.

Frankly, I view Eldevin’s model as unhealthy – not necessarily from a business perspective but from a psychological one. Especially considering browser based games tend to attract a lot of younger players. What exactly does it teach our children when even in virtual worlds they are expected to embrace and exploit our inequal beginnings in life?

Inventory systems as game features

When we think of the feature list of a game, we often think of things like the combat system, the PVP system, the content, and so on. Unless we’re part of that niche that’s constantly looking for a very specific type of game where things like logistics of goods are something that requires a lot of thought put into, rarely do we come to think of anything that is closely related to the inventory system of a game.

The inventory system touches many areas of a game. It may seem like a boring subject, a tiny little thing beside the things we tend to see as more important, such as combat. But overlooking it is not justified, for how the inventory is handled in a game affects all of it’s players, raider and playerkiller, crafter and warrior alike.

Often do the effects a game’s inventory system go subconsciously unnoticed. Or rather, we tend to not think of the chosen inventory system as a feature – handling the system as it is simply becomes second nature. Yet, while we may not notice it consciously, these systems affect our view of how the game feels, how immersed we feel within the world, how fun or satisfying the gameplay feels, and so on.

In many an MMORPG, when for example a blacksmith is at work, they may be carrying hundreds of kilograms worth of stuff in their bags. They might pick up 400 iron bars from their bank, run to an anvil and turn those bars into 80 iron swords. Is that realistic? Not at all. But does it suit some games? Obviously, the most popular of them all, World of Warcraft, uses this system. Still, it is quite a bland system, and not very satisfying as far as immersion goes. It also does not offer much in terms of gameplay – how much the player can carry at one time is so unrestricted you rarely have to think about it. They might buy the occasional larger bag, but that’s about it.

Compare WoW’s system to that of another very popular Western game, RuneScape. On paper, there’s not much complexity to it other than the fact the weight of items affects how long the player can sprint. But that’s not all that completely differentiates Runescape’s inventory system from that of WoW – there’s also the fact inventory space is much more limited. It’s not just the bag size that does this, which by the way is limited to about 30 slots – its also that much fewer items stack. Foods, potions, all of that – each piece requires an individual slot.

Would WoW’s very, if not overly convenient system, where one is able to carry a hundred battleaxes within a single inventory without breaking a sweat, suit RuneScape? The answer is that it wouldn’t. As a game, RuneScape is built around the idea of a limited inventory. The skill grind relies on it – you have to constantly run between the bank and the crafting spot, and this makes the endeavour of skilling up slightly more varied. This, along with planning one’s inventory, is made more important by the existence of the various unconventional and advanced methods of skill training, which experienced players know more about. And the limited inventory size has a major effect in combat and quests where inventory planning is a common practice and indeed essential. The inventory system, as it stands, is a crucial part of the RuneScape experience. A core game mechanic.

Yet, the effects of the inventory systems used in these two games often go unnoticed. The simple lack of item stacking and the more limited space can already add a lot of gameplay. Of course the game’s other mechanics must support this, however. RuneScape lacks for example the trash items of modern themepark games, and healing is done mainly through food instead of spells. These two points both make the inventory system more viable for the game in question.

The two of the most popular Western games are of course not the only MMORPGs on the market, and their inventory systems aren’t the only ones out there. Ultima Online, as many will remember, as a pioneer of the genre tried a more realistic approach to handling the inventory. In UO, there are no inventory slots – the bag is a two-dimensional space where items must be dragged and dropped, and each item is given unique coordinates.

This adds more inventory-related gameplay than either of the two systems presented before. Having to individually drag and drop each item from the ground to one’s bags is a completely different experience from shift-autolooting a corpse or spam clicking an item on the ground (especially in PVP) – as is the organization of a bag without a nice grid within the limits of which your items line up nicely in a perfect order.

There is a reason however why very few games have adopted UO’s system – the only one I can quickly recall from recent years would be Darkfall. The reason is the simple fact it is annoying and predisposes players to carpal tunnel syndrome. This is of course a matter of opinion, but I think in this case the majority will agree that more gameplay is not automatically a good thing.

While the choice of inventory system depends quite a bit on the game itself and it’s other mechanics, I would personally hope for all games to add at least some level of inventory-related gameplay, something more complex than bags with slots of a fixed fit-for-all size. One of my personal favourite systems from recent MMORPGs would probably be that of Eldevin’s – it is much akin to Neverwinter Nights’ system in that there’s still a grid, but some large items can take multiple slots.

What I would add to this system would be weights, modified by some character statistics such as strength. In addition, I wouldn’t have the extra bags be purchasable only by real money, as Eldevin does. About those bags, another idea would be to be able to enchant some bags to magically reduce the weight of items inside them, or something of the like. That would add some more gameplay, and something non-combat related for an enchanter to do. Anyway, as far as inventory system design goes, I think what a developer should aim for is a good balance of gameplay, realism and convenience.

The evil of homogenization

In most games, players generally expect all players to have an equal chance in winning from the point of view of game mechanics, the end result being mainly reliant on the skill of the players or sometimes simple luck.

This expectation is not easily justified in the world of roleplaying games, where winning alone is difficult to characterize. Some would go as far as arguing there are no winners or losers in RPGs.

Despite this, a lot of very competitive gamers play massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. They create pressure on the developers, pressure not only to make games more competitive, but to make what little competition there already is in these games more fair or balanced.

Balancing is always important, even if a game’s playerbase isn’t particularly competitive. As a developer, you want different options of gameplay to be at least viable, even if they aren’t optimal. If you implement different choices but they are never utilized, you are wasting development time (or alternatively, attempting to trick players with false choice).

Even in a non-competitive game, balancing can still be a fairly complex deed. Making characters and playstyles varied, not too similar to each other yet still viable, is a demanding task. It is easy to imagine then that balancing in a way that makes different options not only viable but also equal in terms of performance is very difficult.

Traditionally in RPG balancing, complete equality in terms of performance has not been a goal, because it hasn’t been needed or called for. The players don’t expect it. A lot of players don’t even want it. But again, the player base of the MMORPG is different from that of other RPGs. These players often have a history in competitive online gaming and expect completely different things.

So we can see that satisfying both, players’ demands of fairness and of variance are very challenging to simultaneously achieve. What can the developer do?

While going for the lowest common denominator isn’t usually the best recommendation, I think the safest answer to the question would be to aim for a middleground. A game doesn’t need complete balance, but options don’t have to be extremely far from each other either in terms of performance. If you are giving players the option to play a gnome warrior or an ogre warrior, it’s fine to let the ogre be more powerful in the job – as long as the gnome is still playable despite some possible difficulties. If the gnome tries hard enough, maybe they can reach almost similar levels of performance as the ogre. Or maybe the gnome has a special ability, like being able to move silently. This approach keeps some level of variance and choice in place yet doesn’t go overboard with homogenization.

Talking about homogenization, this is the big problem with balancing. When developers try too hard to make performance equal for all the possible options, homogenization tends to happens, and unfortunately it has the capability of diluting gameplay. We can see this in effect in a couple of games. Darkfall made all the races use the same model to unify their hitboxes. World of Warcraft’s developers got stuck on looking at damage-per-second numbers and little by little made most of the classes of the same role feel very same-y – things that were unique to some classes, such as rogues’ crowd control or paladins’ strong multimonster tanking capability, were either given to everyone or removed.

My strong opinion is that the latter is bad design. Yes, greater balance and fairness is achieved, but something is lost on the way, something that is very close to the heart of the RPG genre. Variance in gameplay, immersion (the gnome and the ogre shouldn’t have an equal Strength score), the feeling of playing the character you chose – you know, roleplaying.While loudmouths on your game’s forum will never seem satisfied, in the end my belief is that it is better for a game to keep true to the genre, at least to a reasonable extent. Overdoing balance and homogenizing things along the way has the problem that in time, even the majority of the more competitive sorts who have been asking for fairer gameplay will come to realize your game has become bland, lost some of the magic that originally drew them in. In the end, diversity is a very big part of the draw of RPGs.

Implementing alignment in MMORPGs

While levels, roles, dice rolls and many other features have all been successfully transferred from traditional roleplaying games to their massively multiplayer online counterparts, some features remain unimplemented to this day. One of those is alignment.

Most gamers are probably at least to some extent familiar with a form of the D&D-type alignment system. Even if one has never played a roleplaying game in their life, the good-neutral-evil, lawful-neutral-chaotic table should be a familiar sight from viral images if nothing else.

The purpose of D&D style alignment is to provide a moral framework for one’s character to base their decisions on. The character is to act accordingly to their own alignment. An evil character does evil things, and vice versa for a good character, to put it simply.

Ever wanted to play a chaotic evil character and have the game mechanics actually support that choice? That’s what alignment is about. Making choices against your alignment could change it, and should it change too much in one direction or another, you may get penalized. Maybe you are a cleric and some of your spells stop working because your deity disapproves your actions, or maybe you gain an experience penalty as an assassin because you are becoming too good to be one of your profession. Or maybe you, as an evil character, just gradually become good through a series of life changing events, and spells like Detect Evil will no longer return the same results when being used on you as they did before.

Indeed it isn’t just a character’s decisions that their alignment has an effect on – alignment is to play directly into the game’s mechanics. Alignment isn’t to be something that you simply pick and then act as you like, maybe sometimes completely contradicting your original choice.

But the consequences of changes in alignment, or of actions opposing one’s alignment, are not necessarily what’s on the way of implementation of the feature into MMORPGs – it is the decisions themselves.

We can philosophize all we want, but essentially what branch of alignment an action represents is subjective. Normally it would be the Dungeon Master that decides whether an action is good or evil or whatever, but you don’t have the luxury of having one of those deciding things for you in a massive online multiplayer game. Instead you have developers who have to hardcode these things into the game.

The developer can introduce dialogue and other options to quests that represent different values of life. They can make robbing an ancient grave move the looter’s alignment to towards evil, and they can make giving money to a beggar NPC do the opposite. But the one thing they cannot do is easily tell whether an action of a player character towards another player character is good or evil or something else.

Some situations may seem easy to solve. Should a player for example kill another player, the action could be regarded as evil. But what would be a good action towards another player? How would you tell whether a thing a player said to another was full of malice or goodwill? How about this: if greed was regarded as an evil trait, would manipulating an in-game Auction House system for profit be regarded as evil? How would you track it?

There are so many obstacles in the way. Not even the killing of another player is as simple as it may seem. What if the victim had murdered a friend of their killer earlier? That would make the deed revenge, and in some societies that could well be regarded as a lawful act.

Maybe some sort of a voting mechanism could fix the issue. One where players could vote whether this or that action by a player was within their alignment or not. But systems of this sort are prone to abuse, and require a very specific type of game, likely one with an extreme focus on in-character roleplay.

All that considered, its no wonder why just about no MMORPG supports an alignment system. SWTOR had it’s light and dark system, but frankly the game was a very singleplayer experience. The system itself was only ever a part of NPC quests, which felt very awkward, seeing as an MMORPG by definition is about interacting with other players.

Maybe in the next couple hundred years artificial intelligence will have advanced enough to analyze player characters’ actions towards each other and modify their alignments accordingly. With the issue being as complex as it is, I don’t see that happening very soon.

MMORPGs to look out for in 2015

I try not to go too much into talking specific games on this blog, but as the year 2014 draws to a close, I think it may be appropriate to list the upcoming MMORPGs that interest me personally and will hopefully also interest the reader. Along with the game’s name, I will try to give a brief description of it – what makes it interesting, what negatives may come with it and why.

Pathfinder Online (link)

Based on the popular tabletop RPG franchise, PFO is a high fantasy title being developed by Goblinworks who, by all accounts, don’t seem like the most experienced developers in the industry.

The key features of the game as I take them are the massive open world, EVE Online -like territory control in the form of environmental hexes, emphasis on roleplaying, and freedom in character progression.

It is easy to conclude Goblinworks is taking a very sandbox approach, which is something the company has not been keeping a secret. CEO Ryan Dancey has in a couple of speeches made points as to why this approach was chosen. One of the reasons, according to him, was that a sandbox world where the mechanisms matter more than the content would be cheaper to develop for a small team in comparison a full-fledged themepark.

I do hold some skepticism towards this project. What worries me are a couple of things. The first thing is the release model: the game just went through it’s alpha period, after which there will not be a beta phase, but instead a phase Goblinworks refers to as early enrollment, a stage of development where the game is not nearly finished yet and that will last for a couple of years, but after the beginning of which characters will no longer be wiped.

What this seems like is an evolution of the paid beta model that has in the past years become very popular, if not the norm – you know, the model where the beta is only regarded as a marketing phase rather than a testing one. However, in Pathfinder Online’s case, the game doesn’t even have most of it’s core features like movement or combat in their final stages yet as the game enters the early enrollment phase.

Talking about unfinished, having played the alpha, I am worried the developers may be focusing slightly too much on complex systems and forgetting about the fun. The character progression system and the crafting system for example seem complex yet dull in their current, hopefully far-from-finished implementations. The same goes for combat, which has interesting concepts such as separate main and offhand attacks, but which currently feels extremely boring.

Now, one probably shouldn’t judge a game by it’s alpha (except in cases where the alpha is just a marketing period, ArcheAge acting as an example), so I will try to not draw complete conclusions here. I will say however that the designers probably need some redirection in terms of what players actually find fun. That being said, I will be keeping my eyes on the game.

Shards Online (link)

Here’s a pretty unique concept – a player run MMORPG. What makes Citadel Studios’ Shards Online intriguing is that they will be selling the server side software, promising each player run server to be capable of supporting at least 64 players at a time. Now, 64 players isn’t much, but it is only the minimum number the developer is currently sure player-run servers are going to be able to support. And more importantly, servers or shards may be connected together to form a cluster, allowing for much larger realms to exist.

While player run servers are interesting by themselves, the game doesn’t look bad on it’s own either – it reminds one of a slightly modernized Ultima Online, a game on which some of the developers have in fact worked in the past. Unsurprisingly, official servers with a monthly fee will also be available. What is surprising however is that not all servers will have the same theme – the plan, according to the developer, is to create multiple art sets for players to be able to play and create not only high fantasy but also steampunk, sci-fi, and other worlds.

Camelot Unchained (link)

For the players who fondly look back to the Realm vs. Realm battles of Dark Age of Camelot, Camelot Unchained probably seems like the most interesting thing on the horizon. The game is being developed by familiar faces from both, DAOC and Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. I will not lie, personally I never was a big RVR person. But it will be interesting to see how a game with such a strong name and development team will do – whether it will find and be able to keep it’s own niche of RVR players or not.

Albion Online (link)

Another title strongly in the sandbox train, but this time with a focus on more open world PVP and bite-sized gaming – an unconventional combination. So far I have personally not been keeping up with Albion Online too tightly, mainly because of the fishy-seeming paid beta testing and the fact the game has been stated to be utilizing a F2P monetization model which I fear may not suit a PVP focused game very well.

Whether or not the F2P model will work out or not remains to be seen. With stylized graphics and gameplay that has had a pretty polished feel to it even during testing, as well as cross-platform support (which is very important to me personally, being a Linux gamer), the game will still be worth following – and in the best of scenarios, even playing. It has already grown a pretty strong following for itself.

Corecraft (link)

After a little bit of thinking I decided to include this one here. Corecraft isn’t a new game – it is an emulated World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade server.

While there are a lot of private WoW servers out there, Corecraft is unique in the amount of attention it has spawned. While it utilizes the open source MaNGOS emulator, the developers have rewritten a lot of previously existing systems themselves to get them functioning better. This is an exception from the norm in the emulation community where it is common for server owners to only be capable of creating simple scripted events but not much else.

The biggest selling point of the server is that it will be releasing the content of WoW’s first expansion in an unnerfed state and in the correct order, with all the attunements intact, albeit classes will be balanced for the later months of the expansion due to the 2.4.3 client.

I’ve personally witnessed a couple of popular emulation projects crash and burn so some level of scepticism is only appropriate. But if everything goes as planned, I believe many people will be able to squeeze a nice amount of nostalgia-filled gameplay out of the server.

Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen (link)

After the business failure that was Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Brad McQuaid has for whatever reason appeared as a pretty hated figure in the MMORPG community. Having been one of the original idea guys behind EverQuest, he still has his fans however, and those fans are surely waiting for his next game, Pantheon.

Similarily to Vanguard, the main selling points of Pantheon: ROTF are uninstanced dungeons and group-focused gameplay. The target audience is quite obviously the same: older EverQuest players.

While the game has suffered from difficulties with funding and malicious rumours being spread on various forums, some concerning Brad’s personal life, some how the employees of the developing company are being paid, a modern open world themepark is a thing a lot of people are sure to be interested in. And unlike a year ago, it does seem like the game is actually going forward, for update videos are being made on a monthly basis now. It remains to be seen what comes out of this project.

Project Gorgon (link)

While currently at a very early phase in development, Project Gorgon is already showing quite a bit of promise. It’s goal is to be the sandbox for the PVE player, and despite the team’s (currently) very limited resources, the pre-alpha version of the game, available for testing purposes free of charge, feels surprisingly solid and thought out. It shouldn’t be very surprising to hear, then, that the small team behind the game consists of veteran developers who have worked on such past titles as Asheron’s Call one andĀ  two.

Early into development or not, a sandbox without open PVP is something a lot of players have for a long time been asking for – Project Gorgon might just one day be able to offer that, but we shall see. There is at least one obstacle on the way to mainstream success however, and that is that mechanically the game probably feels rather dated to the younger audience.

Shroud of the Avatar (link)

What would this list be if it didn’t include the game of two very familiar faces of the MMORPG world: Richard Garriott and Starr Long?

Shroud of the Avatar is to be another medieval fantasy sandbox title, which in itself probably isn’t very surprising considering who’s behind it. There are a couple of reasons to keep an eye out for this game. The combat system for one, which is to deviate from basic tab targeting and apparently will be having something to do with cards. There’s also the fact the developers are desperately looking for ways to not segregate PVP and PVE players, but allow for the playstyles to co-exist. It remains to be seen how this is handled. Lastly, its worth noting that like a couple of other titles on this list, SOA also uses the Unity3D engine – rather surprising from Garriott, but then again we live in another decade now.

The Repopulation (link)

The mandatory sci-fi game on the list, The Repopulation is another title claiming to aim for a very open sandbox experience, this time in the spirit of (and I am quoting here) Star Wars: Galaxies and Ultima Online.

Personally I am not into the theme of the game, which is non-space sci-fi. Hence, I have not been keeping up with news on development. However, the game is planning on going with a free-to-play model, which is worrying considering it will feature open world PVP. The sci-fi crowd has less games to play than us in the fantasy field however, so I will be following how development progresses. It is currently at an alpha stage.

Play2Crush (link)

The last object on the list could well be a hoax, but when a developer associated with the creation of Shadowbane along with another name about just as familiar from Ultima Online promise to be publishing news about their upcoming project in the near future, its probably worth the effort to keep one’s eyes and ears open.

Conclusions

That’s quite a nice amount of games coming up. Reading it, two things come to mind. The first is, a lot of new small developers have started up recently, many of them going for crowds one can with good conscience refer to as niche.

The second thing to take home is that the use of Unity3D is a rising phenomena. I have yet to see a finished MMORPG created with the engine that was a success, but it looks like we’re heading towards something new in the MMORPG industry: a standard. This has the potential of speeding up MMO development and making the market more varied. It will remain to be seen, however, whether or not any of the MMORPGs made with the engine make it big.

Innovating on combat

Had one read an online forum focused on the topic of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games a couple of years back, they would’ve seen a lot of discussion on how the tab targeting combat system was outdated and needed to be replaced by something more modern.

Today the opposition to tab targeting doesn’t seem quite as vocal as it once did. That may partly be thanks to the era of clones-of-a-certain-big-game being about to draw it’s last breaths. But at least equally importantly, new systems have been tried in the past couple of years. Darkfall‘s combat, however clunky, is about as close to true FPS combat as you can get – its almost as if playing Quake in a fantasy setting and in a fully open world. There’s TERA with it’s semi aim-based system and rather console-like feel. There’s GuildWars with it’s modified tab targeting, and there’s WildStar with it’s telegraphs.

Now that’s not a definitive list of everything that’s been attempted recently, but the amount of different combat systems has increased. Granted, some of the attempts have been imperfect at best – Darkfall’s take on FPS-like combat for example falls short due to certain bad design decisions and lack of polish in the UI and control sections. But what’s for sure is there’s plenty of alternatives to tab targeting now – alternatives that have actually been tried in practice.

Is there really anything wrong with tab targeting, though? I think some people who used to think they hated tab targeting are now coming to realize that the system isn’t really that bad.

A couple of years ago, when players were practically being fed clone after clone by the market, it was easy to put tab targeting into that pile of features that made a game a WoW clone, amongst other things. See, players like to think they know what they want. But the truth is, often times they really don’t. They know they are bored with what is currently being offered, so they do know they want something different. But putting a finger on what needs to be different is surprisingly difficult.

That could be what made tab targeting so unpopular for a while. Because it was the de-facto system of combat, players felt it needed to be changed. At this point in time though, it is easier to see the system in a more neutral light – that it is just a system amongst others. It suits some games well, even very modern, action-packed games – FFXIV for example. One could go as far as claiming it is one of the best systems for a RPG even because it is not super reliant on the player but more on the character. And yet, with slight modification it is very flexible and can be transformed into something that feels very different.

But that’s enough about tab targeting. As great a system as it is, it indeed is just one system amongst many. So talking about those other systems, which ones have not been utilized in an MMORPG as of yet?

One source of inspiration could be lobby-based battle games like MOBAs. There are various types of them, and one in particular comes to my mind when thinking of MMORPG combat: Bloodline Champions. It uses the usual fixed camera view from an angle, but instead of targeting, abilities are aimed using the mouse pointer and they have travel times in the fashion of missile spells. That’s one concept to think about.

As for the systems that have already been tried, it would be interesting to see first person combat done properly in a fantasy setting. Darkfall and Mortal Online have both tried, but both games have major problems unrelated to the combat system itself, making them remain extremely niche products.

TERA’s third person, aim-based combat system is an intriguing case as well. Now, if only a Western fantasy themed game tried utilizing it, but with a little less flashiness.