To action combat or not

Massively multiplayer online roleplaying games haven’t traditionally featured exactly the most exciting combat out of all the various genres of computer gaming. This is not very surprising, seeing as these games are direct descendants of computer RPGs, which in turn are mostly based on systems originally designed for tabletop games.

The traditional MMORPG combat system, tab-targeting and skillbars coupled with random number generators simulating dice rolls, is in the end a modern adaptation of tabletop systems transferred over to graphical computer games. While the system still works quite well in the opinion of many, there is also a large crowd out there who strongly oppose it. So what’s the problem?

A small analysis is in place. RPGs are not competitive games, and their combat systems reflect this. While combat in traditional RPGs does grant the player with the ability to make a limited amount of tactical decisions in non-real time, the idea in the end is that the player is acting as a character in a story, and not as the player themselves. It is the character’s knowledge and skill that are supposed to make the difference between the effectiveness of different actions, and randomly generated numbers, generated with dice rolls or what ever device one prefers, are there to bring flavour to the story through unexpectedness.

This doesn’t translate perfectly to online games, first and foremost because in them decision-making must be done in real time. There’s no pausing a world with thousands of players. To work around this issue, developers have come up with things like global cooldowns instead. Nevertheless, because decisions are made in near real time, so called twitch skill comes to play and this alone differentiates MMORPG combat from traditional RPG combat quite a bit.

Another point to make regarding the issue is that the audience of RPGs and MMORPGs is not the same. The latter attract the online gamer crowd of other genres as well, and they have different expectations from combat. They often expect twitch-skill to be a major factor in combat and to many of them the tab targeting model does not offer enough of this. Non-roleplayers tend to also have a competitive mindset (although that’s not to say some roleplayers would not also be prone to this), and randomness lends itself poorly to competitive gaming.

Because of the issues listed in the last paragraph, demand for action combat has been on the rise for a while. And as an answer to the quench for more action oriented combat, the tab targeting system has been developed forward over the years. While in EverQuest it was slow and recovery even slower, World of Warcraft kept made the system faster, more fluid, and lessened the amount of downtime. And year by year World of Warcraft made it’s combat feel more and more action-y with faster ability sequences and more semi-aimed spells. And now we have games like GuildWars 2, Neverwinter and WildStar, and tab targeting is where it is today: it has kept it’s basic principles, but there’s more buttons to press in a shorter while, some aiming to do and generally it just requires more twitch skill than it used to.

Because of all this recent evolution, currently it feels like the tab targeting system may not be developed much further. There probably still is some innovation here and there to make when it comes to it, but the line is beginning to be thin against the side where we can no longer call it the same system it begun it’s life as.

So the natural next step is to go in all the way and make the transfer to pure action combat – it is after all what many view as the best suited combat system for the genre due to it’s perceived immersiveness. And sure, viewing the world from first person and having to aim stuff does have something to do with immersion. But action combat also has it’s critics as well. There’s the traditional roleplayers who want the character’s skill to matter, and not that of the player. There’s those who simply dislike action combat. And lastly older gamers can find fast reaction based combat irritating and even impossible to play at the worst.

With that in mind, while tab targeting has been criticized a lot in the past couple of years, I don’t think it’s going anywhere; it still has it’s audience. In fact, even after the release of a couple of recent titles that developed the system forward, some newer titles seem to be taking the system a step or two backwards again – see for example ArcheAge and Pathfinder Online.

That being said, action combat also has it’s place and personally I am, to be truthful, expecting it to surpass the more traditional systems at some point thanks to a new generation of gamers who don’t have their roots in tabletop gaming. Or if that doesn’t happen, a hybrid of the two systems I would expect will become dominant – something along the lines of WildStar, but executed better.

Before action combat can become the go-to system in the genre though, a game needs to come out that has action combat but doesn’t solely focus on this one shiny feature – a mistake made by TERA and Darkfall Online for example. A fully featured MMORPG with action combat might just set the standard.


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