Combat Alternatives

peace_bday_259_20080416-152905MMO creators seem to be trapped in a dilemna — they know that the genre has become far too combat-centric, favoring that mode of interactivity with the game (meet interesting things and then kill them) over most all others.  It’s understandable why this is so — combat is an easy system to comprehend, create and engage in repeatedly.  But its extreme use in MMOs have created an almost satire-like state in these games, where one imagines worlds not populated by sane, thoughtful, heroic types, but hordes of sword-waving, gun-shooting maniacs murdering everything in eyesight just to “level up”.  The only reason that the NPCs haven’t run for the hills is that they’ve found the secret to magical murder force fields, rendering them immune from the relentless hunt for XP hidden deep inside every living thing.

But really, what’s the alternative?  In single-player RPGs, you can have a much more rich and varied experience, but that sort of thing doesn’t translate as well into a multiplayer environment for various reasons.  It was possible, for example, to finish Planescape: Torment as a near-pacifist, with only two battles mandatory to beat.  Can you imagine topping the level cap in your favorite MMO without killing a single thing?

It’s not that I have anything against combat in MMOs — it can be very fun, with a deep and rich center — it’s just that every alternative to a combat system seems shallow and pale.  Why is that?  Why can’t devs finagle other systems that are just as fun and potentially complex to play without falling back on the sole crutch of combat time and again?

Let’s explore some of the current alternative-to-combat systems that we find in MMOs today:

Crafting

If a new MMO is announced, inevitably one of the first questions is, “Will it have crafting?”  Crafting is the ol’ reliable MMO busy work that’s never — to my knowledge — been done in such an exciting way that people go, “Wowzers, I want to keep on doing that instead of anything else!”, but gets a lot of complaints if left out.  It’s a side activity for those who like building and creating instead of destroying, totally commendable, but while the idea is great, the process is typically recipe-based “combine A with B with C to make D, rinse and repeat” boring.

At best, crafting is a terrific source of income, a way to support your character or guildies, or a way to provide utility in your game experience.  A Tale in the Desert was HUGE on crafting, as were many of the older titles such as SWG.  Yet I’m unconvinced that any game can make the crafting process enjoyable to the point where I’d want to do it above other activities.

Card Games

This is becoming a new side activity in MMOs, and one I heartily applaud.  Collectable card games are already established as a fun hobby in both the real world and online, and it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to throw them into a MMO.  It works, too, as part of the game world — characters sitting down to while away the time by playing cards and sharing war stories, etc.  Free Realms, EQ and EQ2 prove that it can be done, and not only that, but suck players away from combat without making them feel as though they’re missing out.  I’m quite surprised that Blizzard hasn’t incorporated WoW’s CCG into the game (imagine the revenue sources for them), and I truly hope that The Old Republic has a CCG, as KOTOR had a primitive one.

Mini-Games

This is kind of a newer attempt at implimenting systems that are combat alternatives, but I’m not sold on it yet.  The idea is that you have to complete mini-game X successfully to achieve a good result in the game, something that MMOs such as Wizard 101, Puzzle Pirates and Free Realms are all over.  The problem is that, so far, these mini-games are pretty kiddy in nature, and that lots of folks don’t subscribe to MMOs to play something that PopCap or Kongregate could give them for free.  Or even their cell phone.

I’m not saying that mini-games aren’t a good idea — they offer a smaller game system within a larger one, and if really new, addicting ones are developed, they could provide a nice diversion to axe slinging.  The major problem that this, and many of the other alternatives on this list, is that you never see your avatar doing any of them.  They yank you OUT of the game world so that it’s you the player doing this, not you the character, and that’s disconcerting.

Vehicle Action

I mention this because of Free Realms’ kart racing/demolition derby jobs, as well as WoW’s tenative steps into vehicle combat in Wintergrasp and elsewhere.  Personally?  I like it.  It keeps your avatar in control by hopping in a vehicle or on a mount, and doing something with it other than just utilizing it as a faster mode of transportation than running.  Races, demolition derbies, mounted combat — these are things player do love and ask for, but many titles have been slow on developing them.  Because they were scared off by Auto Assault, mayhaps?

Achievements

While some people think we’ve been over-saturated by achievements in every form of video games out there and don’t relish more of it, I say, “Bring it on!”  I adore achievements, even if they’re not tied to any specific reward, but especially if they are.  Let’s face it: we’ve had achievements ever since we started video gaming — they were called “high scores”, as well as any stupid thing we would challenge each other to do in a game to make it more difficult.  I like achievements because it shakes up my routine, challenges me to play the game in a new way, and offers me incentive to do so.

As much as I lauded the praises of WAR’s Tome of Knowledge (and related unlocks/achievements), I’m even more attached to LOTRO’s deed log, mostly because they’ve paired these deed achievements directly to character development.  It’s nothing revolutionary or varied or crucial, but there’s a giddy thrill when you do reach a goal set by the game that not only congratulates you, but makes your character stronger independant to the leveling system.

Diplomacy

Another one I’ll mention just because of Vanguard — this was much-talked about prior to launch as the “third sphere” or somesuch of gameplay.  When people found out that it was pretty much a minigame that wasn’t so much about actual conversations than numbers on a line, it got a lot less interesting.  Yet I still find the concept of NPC social interaction as a challenge to be intriguing, especially when tied to CCG elements.  I hope it’ll be revisited, and perhaps vastly improved, in the future.

Puzzles

I suppose this might overlap the mini-games section above, but I mention it separately to specify puzzles that your character solves as an avatar in the game world, not in a separate window.  Such as how DDO might have you figure out a puzzle in a room to unlock a door, or how WAR’s lairs often came with puzzles that had to be solved before accessing them.  The obvious problem with such puzzles is that spoilers on the internet would render them without challenge before the game even launched — unless puzzles could be randomized for different players.

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31 thoughts on “Combat Alternatives

  1. Longasc May 25, 2009 / 7:36 am

    ECONOMY + PLAYER CRAFTING. Not the silly crafting jobs that WoW offers. EVE Online does more in this regard, and this needs to be expanded.

    Achievements need to be restricted. They have mutated into silly repetitive tasks or to do-lists, this has to stop. They are not wrong per se, but this is what they have become.

  2. Drew Shiel May 25, 2009 / 7:45 am

    EQ2’s crafting is one that I’m playing to the exclusion of the rest of the game, except when I realise I need to level my adventuring class a bit higher in order to gather the materials I need.

    EVE’s ‘crafting’ takes ALL my time when I’m actively playing; I don’t do much if any combat.

  3. Green Armadillo May 25, 2009 / 8:29 am

    EQ2’s crafting has a lot of content to support it, but the underlying game unfortunately revolves around a minigame that can get old at higher levels.

    Stargate Worlds was supposed to have some sort of diplomatic alternative (negotiate instead of shoot), but I don’t know that I’d bet on that game ever launching.

  4. Pete S May 25, 2009 / 8:42 am

    My understanding is that A Tale in the Desert has no combat. It’s all crafting and politics.

  5. Misanthrope May 25, 2009 / 10:57 am

    rather than straight out combat, I’d like an evolution of WoW’s shaman and hunters, in the sense you set up traps and sentries BEFORE fighting to take out your enemies- all about planning ahead.

  6. Sharon May 25, 2009 / 11:35 am

    I was playing Vanguard last night, and while I think the civic diplomacy idea had potential, I agree that it devolved into a mini-game that got old fast. It’s not as bad as the persuasion mini-game in Oblivion, but still… (And yes… I’m in *that* much of an MMO rut. Watching my kids playing Free Realms gave me a hankering for Vanguard.)

    A less combat-driven game is an interesting idea though. Some of the old MUSHes (and even a couple of MUDs I can think of) were very successful with a variety of systems in place for character development, item creation, playing housing, even questing, all sans combat.

  7. Jennifer May 25, 2009 / 11:45 am

    I don’t think we’re over-saturated with achievements and I didn’t say in my post that I “don’t relish more of it.” I merely said that many veteran gamers (of which I am not one…it’s a kind way of saying “old folks who rant endlessly about how much better older MMOs were than WoW or WAR or insert modern MMO here) don’t like them, then discussed TF2’s take on achievement-based gaming. I specifically said that I like achievements, and described myself as an Achiever in games.

    I appreciate you mentioning my post (and also mentioning my WoW itch post on the podcast), but between calling my blog by the wrong name on two separate occasions, the Warhammer community post debacle, and now this misinterpretation of my words, I’m getting a little ticked.

  8. Syp May 25, 2009 / 12:25 pm

    @ Jennifer – “One of the biggest complaints I hear from veteran gamers is that games these days rely too much on achievements.” I’m not misinterpreting your words, I linked to the post because you discuss how some folks are, indeed, tired of achievements and their over-saturation. That’s your first sentence, right there. It may not be your view, but it was what you were discussing.

    If I’m discussing a topic and someone has recently mentioned anything pertaining to it, I like to throw out links to them to give readers a greater perspective. I’m not trying to misconstrue what they’re saying, just broadening the discussion.

  9. Steel May 25, 2009 / 12:59 pm

    starwars galaxies had an amazing economy 100% player run. Every element of items was based upon the quality of ingredients put into it, which was also then affected by the quality of gear that the crafted had to experiment with.

    It had no levels as such. So you could in theory “finish” your game having killed nothing. Master dancers were actually quite common.

    Truely fantastic and I loved my master droid engineer. Then they overnight destroyed it with their “combat uprade”. Which essentially dumbed it down to a bad fps.

  10. Dblade May 25, 2009 / 10:45 pm

    I actually tried to plot how to level up in FFXI without killing anything. It’s impossible, you have to kill mobs to level before 10, although after you can theoretically level a gimped player with no subjob that way.

    I don’t mind crafting but I can’t see a game designed around it. I’m not really playing an MMO to be a pie vendor, and I would love my new sword to be part of a dragon’s treasure hoard instead of one of a thousand made by someone grinding from crafting level 69 to 70.

    To be honest I think combat is fine, but we just need to get rid of the whole “kill 5 million things to get to cap” idea. Darkfall seems to get this right at least although it fails in other ways.

  11. hatch May 26, 2009 / 3:43 am

    Planescape torment, amazing game

  12. Melf_Himself May 26, 2009 / 3:44 am

    IMO, any alternate gameplay in an MMO (crafting, mini-games, whatever) is a waste of time to do ‘properly’ since if it were actually as fun as the combat side, then it would probably be more profitable to just make it into its own game (i.e. Tale of the Desert). So, we’re going to keep seeing the ‘meh’ mini-games as far as that stuff goes, and I’m ok with that. Some of the better ones are from Guild Wars, with their Rollerbeetle Racing, Snowball fights, Dragon Arena, etc.

    Vehicles/functional mounts are cool.

    Achievements are OK as long as they’re not random arbitrary grind achievements. i.e. if they’re used in the “high score” sense as a challenge, they’re great. If it’s just “Kill 10,000 Rats”, it’s silly. Also, if the reward for the achievement is tied to the power of your character, it’s a bad idea (see: leveling in general).

  13. Argal May 26, 2009 / 5:40 pm

    Perhaps I missed it, but I didn’t see pre-NGE SWG get a shout out.

    Crafting can be as fun as combat if done correctly. SWG crafting was the best because it mattered. There were no loot drops – the armor and the weapons you bought were all player made.

    Unfortunately, no MMO since SWG (to my knowledge) has attempted another player-driven economy. It was great in it’s hey-day.

  14. Steel May 27, 2009 / 5:48 am

    Read up Argal 🙂

  15. Tesh May 27, 2009 / 11:09 am

    Puzzle Pirates has a largely player-driven economy. The main mode of gameplay is via puzzle minigames as well. It’s a great alternative to the combat-heavy standard fare.

    I’d still like a crafting system that is considerably freeform. I want to be able to use my personal skills to create unique items in-game, making a name for myself because I’m a master artisan. I want a Tesh Sword or Timepiece to mean something in the game world. I want to impact the world because I’m contributing to it by building things, not because I’m killing things.

  16. Ed May 28, 2009 / 9:00 am

    Earth and Beyond had 3 ways to get XP, combat, trade, and (apparently uniquely) exploring.

  17. Kelli May 28, 2009 / 6:56 pm

    I’m sure it’s been stated before and I respect everyone’s viewpoints on videogame violence and ways to have fun without the need to shoot, stab, and run over things with the hooves of one’s own mount. That said as an mmo player for many years and having played many mmos I think there is room for combatless gameplay. Free Realms has shown that it can be done, with their array of minigames and noncombat classes. One can play the game without ever having to shoot someone.

    I just don’t see that kind of game being offered nor viable for say oldergamers. Let’s face it it’s a rush to shoot someone down and destroy them and/or ship ala Eve Online or beat down old gods like i WoW. Not to say I won’t be more than happy to see minigames incorporated to those games though but say in a job skill type deal like for cooking instead of gathering the ingredients and pressing one button voila you’re done in WoW I rather like the cooking in Free Realms, it was interactive.

  18. VeliciaL May 28, 2009 / 7:19 pm

    No one here has mentioned Pirates of the Burning Sea. I only have limited experience with it, but the economy there seemed very player driven. Which could also turn to driving the pvp, as nations could conquer ports for access to resources.

  19. Derek K. May 28, 2009 / 8:16 pm

    I’ll third the SWG nomination. There are still people that only have combat classes to supply their crafters with components.

    Pre-CU was like that, and, although many vets will burst in to flames hearing this, it’s back to that again. The downside to SWG now is that there’s no item decay, so crafters almost have to make top end stuff to compete. But I still take hunting contracts in SWG to supply crafters with top end hides. And I made an Armorsmith two weeks ago, and the community is still extremely active.

    In fact, SWG, in either pre or post CU, has pretty much everything you listed.

    There are people that play only entertainers, which is 100% social. There are people that play only crafters. There’s a card game (which, honestly, is only really useful for getting loot in game, but…), there’s swoop racing, there’s minor puzzles in the instances.

    SWG is still possibly the best MMO out there, even after they killed the classless system that was so freakin’ amazing.

  20. The Claw May 28, 2009 / 8:34 pm

    It’s ironic that Eve Online, undoubtedly the current MMORPG which is most hardcore in its violence, also offers perhaps the greatest possibilities for players completely uninterested in violence, in the form of trading, industry, research, mining, etc.

  21. Conquests May 28, 2009 / 10:56 pm

    Innovations in MMO’s are slow, and they’re mostly addressed to casual gaming. Bleah.

    Neway another great element is housing and managing a shop, as seen in UO.

    Furnishing the crib with bits from your adventures, establishing connections with all kinds of crafters, managing prices and competitions. Ideas are so easy to find, just take ’em from reality.

    Maybe people are finally realizing that today’s MMO’s lack depth and content and that because they’re persistant virtual worlds you can make ’em work like a real world?

  22. halidan May 28, 2009 / 11:52 pm

    I can’t help but feel there is something in diplomacy that is really compelling. Imagine the ability to talk a mob so it doesn’t attack, still gives exp, and allows the character to continue on their way. I imagine that all those hunters out there with pets didn’t get them by manhandling their beasts. Just a though but a class which is purposely designed to avoid combat would be a lot of fun and actually kind of useful in a group scenario

  23. Skipjack May 29, 2009 / 7:09 am

    LOTROs achievements are very good. I love those. Finally you get rewarded for exploration. Exploration is something that should have been mentioned in that list btw. I love running arround and trying to get to places that are hidden or hard to get to (e.g. the airfield near ironforge in WOW).
    WOW was very unrewarding in this regard though. LOTRO is a tad nicer in that sense (checking out every last bit of the old forrest and finding every flower there was a cool deed, e.g.).
    I do not agree that the internet necessarily spoils puzzles. Otherwise any puzzle based game would suffer from this. I mean adventure games, e.g. are all about puzzles and there are solutions online. Yet people still play them (I love them). So more adventure game like puzzles (inventory puzzles would be very welcome. Now I do not really like box pushing puzzles in adventures, but inbetween killing 100 monsters of the same kind in an MMO, I would love to push some boxes arround in order to reach a cave full of treasure somewhere. I would also like to see some inventory puzzles. Combine item X with intem Y to get item Z that you then have to use in a place somewhere to open a secret door to a dungeon, or whatever.
    By randomizing some aspects of these puzzles one could make the experience more varied (e.g. places where items are found, the types of items, or how items need to be combined).
    All this could be easily implemented into an MMO without destroying the emmersion. I mean I can totally see some complex mechanism in a dungeon to open a huge door. Heck even the entrance to Moria was a puzzle in the book. So having something like that in a game cant be wrong, can it?

  24. Lethality May 29, 2009 / 8:22 am

    I’d like to see some sort of “sim” mechanic worked into the crafting game, in order to make it playable to an endgame as well.

    For example, as a crafter or gatherer or merchant, why not be able to do quests/missions etc for “NPCs”. The NPCs then become your customers instead of players, which allows for economics of scale to occur.

    Then, if you get a reputation as a crafter of note, more and more new “NPC” customers would frequent your shop, and in fact, visit your city. Because of this, your city could grow in population, and all merhcants and players of all kind could benefit from this – a top level crafter simply being present in their city.

  25. Slipstream May 29, 2009 / 10:22 am

    I’d like to add my name to the supporters of early SWG. My main character in that game was a master tailor/master merchant. In the entire span between opening day and NGE, that character never killed a single creature, yet I still rank it as one of my richest gaming experiences ever.

    I admit that it is not a play style that would appeal to everyone, but that was the beauty of it. There was a role that was suitable to everyone. If I needed materials from animals, I would buy them from the hunters, who in turn would buy my finished products to help them hunt better. This is just one example of the many interdependent relationships one could develop with other players.

    I’m still waiting for an MMO that dares to try to create a fully developed world, with a wide array of play options, and not just endless variations on virtual hunting grounds.

  26. Hypester May 29, 2009 / 11:11 am

    The reason combat is always the focus is because it is versatile engaging gameplay, and we all know how to make it so.

    These things have never been done to crafting, diplomacy and environment manipulation because we view these other gameplay avenues as “minigames” and “puzzles” as though combat itself is not a suped-up minigame as well as a puzzle.

    Games that are a wide-array of “minigames” don’t do so well, as everyone can find a better version of what they want somewhere else, except for the relative minority that have flexible, if not eclectic playstyles.

    What has potential is if someone does Combat, Crafting and Diplomacy as full and well developed games in the same gameworld, instead of the traditional Combat, Commerce, Competition set, which I suspect we’re all pretty tired of by now.

  27. Arden Kar May 29, 2009 / 11:29 am

    It’s been mentioned three times, but EVE ONLINE has multiple career paths that don’t involve combat. Since only industry (i.e.: crafting) has been mentioned, I thought I’d toss in a few other non-combat examples.

    Scouting and Exploration
    Salvaging, Hacking and Archeology
    Starbase Construction and management
    Corp CEO, Recruitment Officer and Trainer
    Business Tycoon, Day Trader and Freighter pilot
    News Reporting
    Software Developer

    Check out the Eve Career Guide (http://www.eveonline.com/careerguide/) to see others. The huge amount of options is what makes Eve so complex, but it rewards those who are patient and persistent enough to learn it. A hint for beginners: Join a rookie training corp right away (Like Eve University), and pay attention to the tutorial/career missions.

  28. Simon Jaco September 7, 2009 / 9:19 pm

    A lot of the career paths in EVE are like mini sub careers. The game is still very combat focused.

    I find this more frustrating in EVE because as other posters have highlighted, the game does have some pretence of being deeper in other ways.

    * Scouting and Exploration

    This basically amount to scanning for hacking / archeology sites. Which involves fighting huge kick arse pirates. The whole exploration aspect is designed to be most satisfying for combat pilots, Who may take along somebody who can “Hack” or “Anaylse” stuff after the fighting

    * Salvaging, Hacking and Archeology
    See above, this is not really a career, more of an activity.

    I can’t be bothere to break down the rest. The EVE fanboys will argue the toss, and most of them that do are playing combat centric characters, they are not playing the game purely as buisness or exploration person.

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