Category Archives: Combat

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games a couple of years back, they would’ve seen a lot of discussion on how the tab targeting combat system was outdated and needed to be replaced by something more modern.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.


Attributes in non-combat gameplay

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.

RPG classes – not all about combat

In traditional RPGs, experience is often regarded as universal – you gain it by taking part in various activities related to adventuring, but what kind of activities those are hardly matters, for you use the same pool of experience to make your character stronger in different areas. And fair enough – when you step into such a game, you expect to be playing a specific role, a class, an archetype to which are tied some specific elements and traits, some related to combat, others not so much.

The traditional approach works well in tightly scripted games with limited scope, such as most tabletop games and their CRPG adaptations. Such games focus heavily on adventure of the moment and there’s no persistent world populated by other players out there, no player economy with it’s supply requirements and whatnot to speak of. The world outside of the view distance of the adventuring party may almost just as well not exist at all in the very moment.

But universal experience is problematic when it comes to games featuring more open world design, such as most MMORPGs. In many games it would just seem odd to get better at combat by, say, picking herbs or opening locks. And indeed there’s also the issue that no matter how well balanced a system is and no matter how many options there are for gaining experience, one method is always going to reign supreme in terms of pure efficiency. If both, crafting armour and battling orcs add into the same pool of interchangeable experience points and crafting armour turns out to be more efficient in terms of experience per time unit, people who would prefer to make their characters more powerful by battling orcs will be dissatisfied. And vice versa.

Because of these issues and some more, use-based systems have been invented. In your typical open world game the player’s blacksmithing level is a separate number from their combat level, and where as crafting armour will grant blacksmithing experience, battling orcs will grant combat experience.

Use-based experience works well enough for crafting and combat. But what about class-defining skills like picking locks, identifying magic items and similar activities that aren’t related combat?

The case of the learned wizard

In a typical fantasy world, swordfighting,  spellslinging and woodcutting aren’t the only activities characters partake in. Druids tame animals, clerics call to their deities for aid in all sorts of situations that aren’t at all related to battling foes, wizards teleport people around and rogues pick locks or pick pockets.  We come now to an area that to this date has been lacking in implementation when it comes to the MMORPG genre: non-combat class skills.

Think of the typical fantasy wizard, one who is deeply learned in the arcane arts and could be regarded as extremely powerful. How do you think the wizard reached this level of skill in wizardry? Was it by battling hordes of orcs, or rather by studying books and scrolls? Maybe by experimenting with different power words and reagents?

Being a wizard is much more than being able to effectively hurl fireballs at enemies. But in the majority of MMORPGs, hurling fireballs at enemies is the way one trains to become a powerful wizard. In fact, hurling balls of fire is often the purpose of the wizard. Along the way they might learn to use a portal spell or another trivial non-combat ability, but progression-wise these are tightly tied to the wizard’s ability in combat.

Part of the problem is balance. An online multiplayer setting will always be somewhat competitive, and hence class balance is a delicate topic. Training to be good at combat is part of balance too, and if different classes were able to hone their combat skills in very differing ways, players may find some ways unfair due to reasons related to efficiency.

But balance is only one thing. Maybe the real problem is implementing a proper training system for non-combat class skills. Its easy to figure out a satisfying way of training combat – slaying monsters. But how would a wizard train their skill in portal magic, or a druid their skill in animal taming? Repeatedly killing monsters for experience may be grindy, but not as grindy as, say, casting a few hundred portals to another realm for no other reason but to level up one’s portal creation skill. If anything, such a system would encourage macroing and not feel satisfying in the least.

Despite the difficulties of implementation, it wouldn’t be impossible to have non-combat class abilities make a bigger part of gameplay in MMORPGs. Surely there would be a way to implement a separate thievery or lock-picking skill for rogues that would be somewhat entertaining to train. Couldn’t be more boring than typical mining training, right? And as for non-combat spells, a modernized and improved version of Asheron’s Call’s original spell research system could well work even in a class-based game. And how about druids taming animals? There have been animal taming skills in games not even utilizing a class system before.

What I am sure about is that tying all of a class’ abilities to combat is, in a word, lame. And neither does it make sense that a fighter cannot learn a combat spell or how to magically open a shut door, but is then capable of learning the ability to permanently enchant equipment with powerful magic – a deed you would expect from a wizard rather than a fighter. Take the latter sentence as a note aimed at certain developers. Anyway, the area of non-combat class abilities is thirsty for innovation.

Balancing randomization in MMORPG combat

Roleplaying games are pretty much built around the use of random number generators (RNG). The history of this derives from the tabletop world of course, but there’s a reason randomization has stayed a part of the genre throughout it’s years of moving to the digital world of computers: player skill isn’t what is considered important, but that of the character – hence the term roleplaying game. The player does not play themselves but a character with a distinct set of skills and abilities.

Another reason for the existence of randomization is that it’s an easy and cheap way to make gameplay more varied. In the tabletop world this point isn’t as crucial because no campaign will ever be exactly the same, even if run by a the same game master, but fighting for example the same monsters in a computer RPG would get boring much more quickly without RNG as every fight against a particular monster type would be exactly the same as the one before. Here we step on the main point of randomization: it spices up the gameplay.

While previously pretty much an unquestioned part of the genre, as competition has become a regular aspect of the multiplayer CRPG, especially the massively multiplayer online variety of it, random number generators have come to be a subject of debate. Especially in games that involve player versus player combat the subject is seen as one of great importance. It of course also affects another form of competition, the competition between raiding guilds to down encounters faster than others, but this is  to a lesser extent and hence I will not go into that in this post.

Its easy enough to understand why randomness is regarded as such an important subject in PVP-focused games – after all, continuously losing to another player due to bad rolls can with fair reason be called lame. It makes one question whether a game is suitable as a competitive platform to begin with.

With that in mind, it is surprising to me that, from my subjective experience at least, in games where losing in PVP can present a far greater penalty, RNG isn’t discussed nearly as often as in some games where losing to another player presents little to no penalty at all. I am talking about two distinct game types here: the open world, free-for-all, full loot games such as EVE, Darkfall or the bygone Shadowbane, where death can mean the loss of your entire property at worst, and games where just about all PVP is instanced and rather sterile, and where defeats represent nothing but a mere loss of time and rating – for example the Arena minigame in World of Warcraft.

At first glance it seems weird RNG is discussed as little as it is in open world PVP games in comparison to ones where competition happens in a far safer environment in terms of what one can lose. But what it maybe comes down to are two things.

First, because open world PVP is already not artificially limited by a set of rules that would, for example, limit the amount of participating players, there already exists such a great level of randomness that the addition of randomized damage ranges, hit tables and whatnot does not seem like such a big deal.

The second reason is social: the game types appeal to different kinds of people. From my personal experience, players in open world PVP games tend to have backgrounds in the RPG genre, where as people into instanced PVP often have at least some background in esport-type games – FPS, MOBAs and the like – and often little to no background in roleplaying.

While in instanced PVP randomness is especially frowned upon, just about no game that offers this feature has completely gotten rid of it. There’s has to be a reason for this. What that reason probably is is that developers realize having at least some randomness to combat is actually beneficial even in a competitive game. The question to ask is: what is a suitable amount of randomness to spice up the game without making it too random.

Once again it comes down to what a game’s playerbase expects from the game – what sort of player the game appeals to. The competitive arena player who watches esports streams on Twitch probably despises randomness and wants things to be decided based on player skill. That being said, while some would claim otherwise, having a level of randomness doesn’t completely eliminate player skill, not even close, and despite numbers sometimes being more in favor of another team, in the long run randomness always balances out. A reasonable amount of randomness in a game of this sort can make it slightly more interesting to watch and play without completely deciding matches – critical hits, damage ranges and the like. Pseudo-random systems are not bad either, and many MOBA games utilize them despite these games being very balanced.

Contrast to arena players and the like, players of open world PVP games tend to be more used to traditional RPG mechanics and expect them.This alone makes them more prone to be acceptable of randomization, but in addition to this, world PVP is already almost always unfair in one way or another. Of course a randomly generated streak of missed strikes causing a death and loss of property is annoying, but just about equally annoying is getting killed by a group of two players who happened to stumble upon you as you were adventuring alone. In such an unbalanced, unsterile environment RNG does not get to stand out in a negative way very often due to the huge amount of other factors that affect who actually wins a fight. This, I would conclude, is the reason RNG is so little discussed in open world PVP games.

Now, if we did want to completely remove randomization from combat, one could ask: what harm would that do? The problem is that as for PVE, random number generation is almost necessary, because encounters are normally tightly scripted. Without randomization, PVE would quickly become extremely dull, because the exact same strategy without the slightest bit of variation would work every single time against the same encounter.

Few games have a completely separate combat system for PVE and PVP, so the two must overlap – if randomization is part of PVE, it must also be part of PVP. That has to be accepted by the developer. But the amount of randomization should probably depend on the type of game they are making, and the type of playerbase they are aiming for – different types of players expect different things.

UI design: too much information

User interfaces in MMORPGs tend to be quite extensive to put it mildly. From various exact numbers like threat, damage-per-second, health and other resources to real time boss strategies and timers, you’re likely to find an option to display it on your interface in many games.

A justified question is whether this is a good thing or not. The question  was sparked by a YouTube video by Corpsealot (whose videos I very much recommend to anybody interested in MMORPG design philosophy by the way), titled Players know too much. In the video it is argued that players have too much information, and that the right way to design a truely immersive game experience would be to not convey more information to the player than can be considered to be available to the player’s character.

I don’t necessarily agree with the view all games should be designed around this principle, but then again in the video is presented a single person’s opinion. That being said, there’s a point to the commentary there. Having more information of, for example, the health state of an opponent being conveyed by visible phenomena within the game, for example by bleeding and slowed down movement rather than by numbers on the UI, might well be more immersive than the typical RPG approach that displays a lot of things as raw numerical values.

Is a minimalistic UI a prerequisite for an immersive experience then? Of course not, we all know that. Whether it was while playing a tabletop RPG or a tab-targeting based CRPG, we’ve all (I hope) at some point felt very immersed in a game world. And honestly, most people probably aren’t even looking for complete three-dimensional world simulation. The majority of gamers are perfectly happy with character health states, feelings and other things being presented to us as numbers, icons, bars and text. But I think there’s room for discussion whether we need as much information as we are currently being handed.

Take for example exact unit health values. We already have a red or green bar roughly representing the health percentage of boss X. Do we really need to know boss X has a maximum of exactly 120,063 hitpoints, of which 99853 are left? I would argue that discovering the rough amount of health a unit has by trial and error would make for intriguing gameplay in many games of the genre.

For another example, take unit levels. How do we know this cat-like beast we’re engaging in combat is exactly at a combat level of 37? And why does a unit with the exact same model and texture have a combat level or 8 instead? Or 56? Coupled with the knowledge of the exact maximum health of the unit amongst other possible bits of information conveyed to us by the UI, we can pretty much tell without ever engaging the opponent whether we’d stand a chance or not. Why does this information have to be so exact?

I’m not saying design should go back to the EQ days when you would type /con to consider every single unit you ran into. But I feel that a game needn’t tell the player exactly whether or not an opponent is suitable for them to take on or not. Even color codes for names based on relative level would in my opinion be an improvement. Not only is it ridiculous that a knight rushes headlong into battle against a massive troll whose combat level is 5, yet hides when they meet an exactly similar looking troll who’s combat level is 50 instead, but if exact level display was disabled, in PVP it would be more difficult to decide whether or not you might want to attack that lonely rider on the road as you couldn’t tell for sure if they were just a regular traveler or a master swordsman in disguise.

The overabundance of information isn’t always nonsensical. It suits EVE Online for example because, well, spaceships – complicated machines with all kinds of sensors and buttons and whatnot. But as you’re trying to become immersed in a high fantasy world, it’s a little ridiculous you have 7 boss ability timers on your screen as with a battleaxe you smash away at the Dragon Queen who you know has exactly 74302/120000 mana left, meaning that after she’s spent 24302 more mana another mechanic, shouted at you by a big block of red text in the middle of your screen, will enter the fight.

Combat: complete balance isn’t necessary

Following a discussion on regarding character hitboxes in games with aim based combat, I came to think a little more about balance. The following questions popped into my mind: what exactly is the function of balance and why is it needed? And what would players consider balanced enough?

To start with the first question: combat balancing is done, of course, in the name of fairness, but also to encourage character diversity. It’s job is to ensure that players feel like they can participate in combat in a meaningful way no matter their choice of race, gender or archetype.

I mentioned in my last post regarding action combat that RPGs by their nature are not competitive games. This isn’t entirely true for the massively online subgenre of them, because there are abstract and sometimes even direct forms of competition in these games. Whether it’s fighting over getting a raid slot or a piece of gear, defeating an opponent in PVP, or maybe beating another person in damage-per-second numbers, its all a form of competition between players.

Sometimes homogenization is necessary…

Despite the fact competition exists, the acronym MMORPG still has those three letters at the end of it standing for roleplaying game. And because of this I would still argue that the goal of MMORPGs is never to solely act as competitive platforms, but rather to provide an online medium for players to take on various character roles in a virtual world.

This weird mixture of competitive and anti-competitive features makes balance in the genre a delicate topic. On the one hand a developer wants to make archetypes, races and whatnot distinct from each other, but on the other the developer also wants them to perform roughly equally or at least stand a chance against each other to not force any choices down the players’ throats.

The easiest way to achieve balance between classes is to make them function very similarly to each other but change the visuals. The problem here is that doing so makes gameplay feel less varied and bland. In a tabletop game, a wizard is a wizard. With a massive fireball, if available to them during a specific encounter, they can be the most destructive thing you’ve ever seen – yet in a fight where they don’t have that fireball available to them, it might be the wizard can suddenly be considered a nearly useless character. For comparison, an archer can provide a good amount of well sustained damage all the time, but is incapable of delivering similar amounts of massive destruction to the fireball-weaving wizard in their prime.

Now compare the tabletop versions of the wizard and archer to similar archetypes in just about any modern MMORPG. Both the wizard and the archer are ranged classes, they both use a limited resource such as mana or stamina or focus, and their abilities, while having different visuals, do roughly the same things: grant sustained damage, slow targets, and so on.  Frankly, they are differently skinned versions of each other – there may be some small differentiating features such as reagent usage or amount of AoE damage in addition to the visuals being different, but nevertheless the archetypes remain very similar in fuction.

In the specific case of the wizard versus archer we can justify the homogenization with the fact that playing a traditional tabletop wizard in a 3D, massively multiplayer online setting could not be made to work very easily. Their  downtime would make them boring to play most of the time, and when they would be able to use their spells, other players would probably deem them overpowered. So while unfortunate, it makes sense to make wizards more similar to archers in the case of MMORPGs.

…but sometimes, homogenization just ruins the game

While the former is a case of balancing where homogenization is almost inevitable, often there are other ways to work around balancing a feature.

Take character hitboxes in aim based games from which this discussion started. In a typical fantasy setting you have races of various sizes: humans, dwarves, ogres, elves… This creates a problem: smaller races are inevitably going to be more difficult to aim at. How would you solve the problem?

If you were a company called Aventurine working on a title called Darkfall: Unholy Wars, you would take the easiest and cheapest route: take out all the small races. See, in the original Darkfall game the competitive PVP folk used to be upset about certain races having smaller hitboxes than others. Some of them felt it was mandatory to play those races to remain competitive.

Aventurine decided it was a good idea to change this for their re-branding of the game so that all races would use the same 3D model but a different texture. This required some lore changes, such as having dwarves go practically extinct by crossbreeding with humans. The end result was that all the game’s races ended up looking like humans. For a game classifying itself as an MMORPG, I would say this is horrible design.

Aventurine’s way of solving the issue is by no means the only way to achieve balance. They did it because it was easy and cheap, although to be fair it probably didn’t affect their playerbase much as the game had already become a sort of a giant battle arena instead of an Ultima Online-esque sandbox by this point – a topic for another time.

There’s a couple of other ways to solve the issue of hitboxes, actually. Imagine yourself being a game developer. If your ogres have giant hitboxes making them easy to hit and everybody rolls a gnome with the smallest hitbox as a result, what can you do? One of the following, for example:

1. Treat hitboxes as just another stat. If your ogres are easy to hit, give them other statistical bonuses such as higher strength or longer reach.

2. Restrict classes, archetypes or skills based on race. This requires that all the classes are useful and wanted.

3. Normalize hitboxes but not the visible character models.

Out of the three, the third one is in my opinion on about the same level as normalizing character models – a lazy and bad solution. It isn’t as big a negative for the roleplaying aspects of a game, but it is going to create confusion when an arrow passes a gnome a meter over their head and they still take damage. Additionally, if collision detection exists as well, this becomes even more confusing.

My favourite solution would be the combination of options one and two. Including reach and hitbox size as statistics and adding some race restrictions to skills or classes gives the developer a good amount of parameters to play around with when it comes to balancing a character’s other traits in relation to the advantages or disadvantages gained through various hitbox sizes. This model would, as far as I can see, include all the positives of the RPG part of the genre, yet would also suit the needs of the more competition-driven player.

Balance doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect

There are difficult and easy, good and bad ways to balance an MMORPG when it comes to combat. Despite this, it is important to keep in mind one fact: this is a subgenre of the RPG, and as such balance needn’t be perfect. There’s no reason to spend too many resources in finding the perfect balance in a genre that wasn’t intended to be competitive in the first place – as long as classes and races are varied and they have at least some job to do, there’s a good chance most of your players are going to be pretty happy.

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.