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games a couple of years back, they would’ve seen a lot of discussion on how the tab targeting combat system was outdated and needed to be replaced by something more modern.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

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Combat: complete balance isn’t necessary

Following a discussion on mmorpg.com 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 Рthere 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.