To continue with the theme of putting combat and non-combat gameplay against one another, when was it it that attributes (or stats/abilities if you prefer) such as Strength, Intelligence and Wisdom became strictly combat-related variables? After all, RPG players are used to attributes affecting many areas of gameplay, not just combat.
The idea of attributes is to represent the character’s capability in physique, brain power and the like in a general way. But the truth is that in the world of MMORPGs, attributes have just about always been regarded as combat stats and not much more. One reason for this is that the genre tends to be quite combat-heavy – and that’s because combat is some of the easiest content to create. But the other, possibly greater reason is that coming up with meaningful non-combat uses for attributes in a massively multiplayer online world is difficult. Where would it make sense to make an Intelligence check, for example?
Attributes could be made use of in quest-driven MMOs, but hard-scripted quests that don’t branch are cheaper to make and have no place for attribute checks that might indeed branch the story. The way to utilize attributes would be that a quest could for example at some point make a Wisdom check that would be used to determine whether a character has some (possibly divine) knowledge available to them or not. Depending on whether or not the player would pass the Wisdom check, the quest would branch differently.
The fact quests with multiple branches are more expensive to make isn’t the only obstacle in the way – there’s also predictability. Unlike in a game session with a Dungeon Master capable of making up and modifying adventures on the fly, in an MMORPG multiple people will complete the same quest. Even if the quest can branch multiple ways, it cannot be dynamically changed. What this means is that eventually players will discover the attribute levels required to pass a given quest’s attribute checks, and they will make it known on the internet. Not much fun to it if players feel forced to use a search engine for every quest-related attribute check they come by.
Scripted content in the likeness of quests isn’t the only place where attributes could be of use though. If an attribute like agility increased a player’s run speed, it would be useful in not just combat but just about everywhere else, too. Maybe Intelligence could increase a player’s chances of getting a discount from a vendor. Dexterity could increase the chances of lockpicking or thievery further, or maybe increase the rewards or skill gain rate. Charisma could increase the gold gain from selling things to a vendor, or increase the rewards from tasks done for NPCs. And Strength could increase the rate of mining and inventory weight capacity, to give a couple of examples.
Many of the things I mentioned above have been done (the most common one probably being Strength increasing inventory capacity), however, none of them are particularly common in MMORPGs, and most of the time if an attribute has four or five uses in combat listed for it, there’s only one non-combat use, if that.
More importantly, even if an attribute affects a non-combat area of gameplay, it can still in some games only be increased by partaking in combat. It rarely seems to be the other way around, and while combat oriented players are generally more picky about balance (the PVP crowd especially) and hence a developer probably doesn’t want to force them to do non-combat content just for the sake of minmaxing, it is not just unfair but also, to put it in a word, lame to then do the same to non-combat players. Then again, such an approach is understandable in games that focus solely on combat – take Shadowbane for example where farming characters, no matter the class, would have had to allocate a lot of their attribute points into Strength for inventory capacity – forced combat made sense here because after all the game was advertised with the slogan “We don’t play to bake bread – we play to crush.” But generally speaking, it such an approach makes no sense.
I would like to see attributes utilized more in non-combat gameplay – for the sake of realism if nothing else. I wouldn’t want to force combat-oriented players to start doing non-combat content just to increase their attributes, no, but a character who’s been a miner all their life without a fistfight’s worth of combat participated in should have a Strength score higher than that of a brand new character. Combat attributes, such as those from gear, could in fact be separated – armour gives armour, and maybe in some cases increases a mage’s spell casting speed or something similar through an enchantment. And I am sure there would be other ways to balance it out, but to put it simply, it would be nice to be able to look at attributes as something a little more than numbers that increase my Damage-per-Second.