Forging a better MMO combat system

combat

The other night in WildStar guild teamspeak, a group of us got into it over the subject of combat systems in MMOs. I voiced my opinion that while there’s so much about WildStar that I love, it’s highly twitchy and constantly mobile action combat system is somewhere down toward the bottom of the list. I’m not terrible at it and I’ve made my peace with how it works, but to me it’s not as interesting or engaging as, say, tab-targeting GCD titles.

For example, every fight with my Engineer more or less goes the same. I hold down my main attack button so that it starts auto-firing and then I quickly jam out all of the remaining abilities in rapid order (usually between six and nine additional skills). Then I keep auto-firing while I wait for those ablities to recharge and continue to spam them out as they come back online. That’s it.

It might be nice not to have to wait for a global cooldown, but at the same time I lose any sense of how each skill impacts the fight because they’re all going off together. It’s just a bunch of button-smashing to get the DPS meter up, throw out some buffs and debuffs, and hope that things die quick.

Not every WildStar class or build is that frantic, of course, but even as I’ve tried other ones, I’ve found that the game’s combat ultimately requires more keystrokes as I’m constantly moving and firing off multiple rotations for a single encounter. This was even worse in The Secret World, of course, because those battles can be so long as to have their own epochs named after them. Probably the most I’ve come to liking an action combat MMO was Neverwinter, and that only because it utilized the mouse so much.

Part of my dislike of action combat is that it feels as though MMOs are trying to compromise to the dumber, simpler console titles — you know, the ones that look beautiful but are slowly and surely taking information and choice away from their gamers, as if they couldn’t be trusted. I’m not the only one who’s noticed how in Fallout 4 the game outright hides kind of important statistics and information when it comes to shaping your character through perks and stats. Nah, we’re just all going to button mash, so what’s the point, really?

Maybe that’s being willfully blind and a little bitter, but I don’t think — for MMOs and RPGs — that I’ll ever grow to like action combat as much or even more than the older systems. I love having hotbars that give choices and offer a slightly slower-paced but more strategic combat system. Positioning? Not every fight has to be a mimicry of a boss battle where you’re constantly dodging out of red circles (because this gets downright silly when you’re fighting dodos and level 10 bandits).

In WildStar I’ve even started to get stubborn about NOT moving out of telegraphs, a stubbornness that I can afford due to heavier armor and a lack of caring whether or not an attack will kill me. I’m rejecting the game trying to make me some twitchy bunny player. No, I’m more stoic: I want to plant my feet, tab onto a target, and start unloading skills until one of us is dead.

I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for a comprise between the two systems, you can’t really do better than Guild Wars 2. Yes, that combat system had some issues — the telegraphs were messy and hard to see (especially when multiple ones overlapped) and identifying what skills people were using to chain off of was a pipe dream of the developers more than a reality of regular grouping. But the combat felt good. Animations, sounds, pacing, the amount of outgoing damage — it all had a really great feel to it. It was a little faster and more flexible than the traditional tab-targeting setup but less “ahh! run! duck! weave! juke! firefirefirefire!” than action systems.

That isn’t even to say that it has to be one or the other or a hybrid. There are other possibilities out there. Two other (much less used) systems include turn-based combat (such as Wakfu) and a kind of “wind them up and let them go” automatic combat.

Could a better MMO combat system be made? Maybe, but I really don’t mind sticking with what works and has worked well for years. If developers are going to try to improve these systems, by all means go ahead and try, but don’t just do it to try to be like the non-MMO crowd. I mean, who’s that worked for? Destiny?

Aw crap. We’re stuck with this type of thing, aren’t we?

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12 thoughts on “Forging a better MMO combat system

  1. bhagpuss November 17, 2015 / 10:47 am

    Great post. I feel exactly the same way. One of the key reasons I’ve played so much GW2 over the last three years is that the combat just feels right. It’s the only semi-action combat I have ever played that I prefer to the traditional EQ/WoW MMO style, although in truth it’s closer to those to any real action game.

    I’m not for one moment suggesting all MMOs should use a similar system. What I would suggest, though, is that where possible developers should include a choice. GW2 recently added both first person and mouse-driven combat similar to Neverwinter’s on top of the existing system. I’d love to see more MMOs offer that kind of choice.

    Oh, and while I was playing WildStar (something I will be doing again some time soon I hope) not only did I pay no attention whatsoever to the telegraphs, I turned them all off in the UI. Kudos to Carbine for including that option. So far (level 17) I have played WS exactly like I would play a much older MMO and have had no issues at all.

  2. jason wolcott (@woolydub) November 17, 2015 / 11:35 am

    I have had my issues with GW2 over this last year but I totally agree about the combat. The combat is second to none in my personal opinion. When a big chunk of what you do in a game is combat, it’s really important. If they continue to clean it up visually it will make a huge difference. It will be interesting to see how players react to raids. I didn’t buy the expansion and I am glad that I didn’t. My guildies who are fairly casual players all finished and were less than thrilled about the story line. They said it’s really gorgeous but really light on content as far as replayability goes.

    I have enjoyed WildStar’s combat so far. I play a Spellslinger. It’s definitely not of the caliber of GW2’s combat though. That isn’t a knock. There isn’t another MMO that is. Now if they could bring back dungeon loot and Fractal loot, I’d start playing it again. Too bad they gated Fractal loot behind the HoT Mastery system. Taking modes from the core game, refusing to add any new levels and putting the loot behind an expansion’s new progression system is dirty.

  3. kiantremayne November 17, 2015 / 11:58 am

    I like the way GW2’s system requires some element of reflexes but is still perfectly workable for dyspraxic old fogies like myself. I also like traditional tab-target and GCD games when done well (LotRO for instance) where you have a lot more abilities, and the gameplay becomes about making the decision of which one to use in each GCD cycle. I can admire the more action-oriented games (ESO, Wildstar) but find they’re increasingly not for me because I lack the reaction speed and precision they depend on.

    The problem is with games that require neither the reaction element nor the decision element. If all I have to do is press the next button in the optimal rotation once every 1.5 seconds, that isn’t really gameplay. RIFT suffers here because you can macro your gameplay down to 1 or 2 buttons in most instances. SWTOR verges on it – you have a lot of abilities but you can get away with ignoring most of them and perform adequately, because the solo PvE isn’t all that challenging.

  4. Tyler F.M. Edwards November 17, 2015 / 12:10 pm

    I’m the opposite. I’m totally over the old tab target system — I never liked it that much to begin with.

    Now, I suspect a game could be made where I might enjoy tab target more, as not all of my problems with it are intrinsic to the system. It’s just that every game that uses the system also seems to strip out any kind of challenge or complexity from its combat. Mobs die in a handful of hits — rarely even landing a blow if you’re ranged — and you just end up spamming a rote rotation ad nauseam, with all your other abilities reserved for very niche situations. It’s simplified to the point where people can and do end up watching Netflix while playing, and that’s a failure of game design if I’ve ever seen one.

    If enemies were made a bit more challenging, and if there was some sort of reactive play and/or reason to use more of your toolkit than a handful of core abilities always used in roughly the same order, I think I could appreciate tab target combat a bit more. Although there’s always the chance it might make things even more slow and tedious, and I definitely don’t think any attempt to deepen the system would go over well with the system’s current fans.

    Games with action combat also seem to be the only games where developers have put any real effort into the combat system, and while they’re not necessarily rigorously challenging, you do at least have to devote your full attention to the game.

    Action combat also has the advantage of making player skill take a much bigger role as opposed to raw stats. Part of the reason Neverwinter was the only MMO where I actually enjoyed PvP is because it’s a game where undergeared characters can actually compete with those in full epics. It’s still a disadvantage, but it’s not a crippling one.

    And once again, if fights in TSW are “so long as to have their own epochs named after them,” that’s an issue with your build and/or gear. It’s not supposed to take that long. TSW does have a longer time to kill than the average MMO, but only by a small margin, especially since the global nerfs.

  5. Isey November 17, 2015 / 12:30 pm

    I have written before (“Greatest Fantasy Movie Ever” on my blog) that combat in MMOs should mirror more combat in movies. It is pretty ridiculous these giant swords cleaving enemies in have 10 – 15 times before they die. Once the tech catches up, slow down combat and have way more parries, blocks, and misses – and when the killing blow does actually come then have the sword go through the guys neck. That will be true evolution (finally) in MMO combat.

  6. coppertopper November 17, 2015 / 12:36 pm

    Actually Fallout 4’s VATS+FPS system is a perfect combo imo. VATS is basically the same as tab targeting just boiled down to a graphical UI. If while in VATS mode you can’t move, but using FPS style you get the mobility advantage, I think an MMO could pull this off.

  7. Redria November 17, 2015 / 3:04 pm

    Depending on my mood, I can appreciate both action and non-action combat, but I don’t think I can EVER go back to clicking unit frames or health bars to heal in a raid or dungeon. In Wildstar, I love being encouraged to look at my teammates, look at the enemy, look at my surroundings, and predict the right location for healing abilities. Every MMO manages to promote those elements to some degree but never to the extent that I’ve experienced in Wildstar. In other, more traditional MMOs, there is usually this strange balance to be kept between looking at bars and looking at everything else. When I play Wildstar, I don’t feel torn between the encounter itself and the healing mini-game. That said, I play as a Medic, so I’m not sure how other classes fair in this regard. For me, it’s quite exhilarating! I’m curious to hear about others.

  8. ironweakness November 17, 2015 / 7:04 pm

    I like the combat of WildStar and don’t find it any more “dumbed down” than any tab target MMO I’ve played. Sure, I have 4 action bars with 40 abilities in those games but generally I’m only using a handful regularly and in the same order; there’s no real choice involved and I can easily watch something else while I play if I want.

    WildStar has fewer abilities but I use them all nearly every encounter. I like waiting for the telegraphs when I can use my interrupts and get the bonus damage. There’s a lot more “respond to what’s happening right now” and I like that. Build and gear make a difference though. I’m starting to get more of the ilvl 80 pieces and time to kill is getting quicker and quicker.

    I know a lot of people enjoy the combat in GW2 but I always found the movement sluggish and some of the abilities clunky. I could never get the dodging right either because the timing of the visual queues were hard for me to predict. So personally, I think the combat in WildStar feels more natural and intuitive. To each their own however, there’s certainly a broad spectrum of preference when it comes to combat as the comments here illustrate.

  9. carson63000 November 17, 2015 / 8:01 pm

    I always played GW2 the same as any non-action combat MMORPG. I never bothered dodging – what was the point? It slowed the fights down, and since you healed in about a second once you were out of combat, there was no reason to care about reducing incoming damage. So yeah, I just stood there and did my rotation, same as WoW or any “old-school” game.

  10. Sylow November 18, 2015 / 5:37 am

    Hmm. I disagree on much of the posting. Let’s see.

    1. For Fallout it’s perfectly fine to hide the stats. Actually i think many games would benefit from having less of numbers on the screen. As long as there are numbers, there is the huge disparity between the world of the game and the number game. The less numbers you show, the easier and more coherent you can blend the world with game mechanics.

    Also note that due to the first person shooter mechanic, your numbers matter less while player skill matters more. (Mind you, i haven’t played Fallout 4, but from all i saw the mechanics are very similar to Fallout 3, which i have played through. )

    Also note that i’ve spent years in an old-school mud which, while internally actually having numbers, hid everything behind text. So you didn’t know if your strength was 5, 10 or 150. All you had was along “You are weak/mediocre/powerful”. Assessing weapons and armour gave you “small damage” or “superior protection” and even for your health you ranged between “feeling very well” over “not in a good shape” to “terribly hurt” and “at deaths door”.

    By hiding all numbers (and also some other steps), this game had a level of immersion and quality of the roleplaying you don’t see any more these days. Unfortunately the need for “endgame” in any current MMOs and thus the victory of the numbercrunchers pretty much means that no game out there really can dare not to give people the numbers any more. Fallout 3/4 go as far as they can to reduce the numbers, cutting them down even more would probably lead to negative reactions which they have to avoid. But alas, as long as some games push into that direction, there’s still some hope. 🙂

    2. I to a high degree agree with the assessment of GW2. It’s a fun game, it’s actual substance is limited and the writing is weak, but as long as you stick to “casual and easy” content, the combat is really perfectly fine. Only when you get yourself into harder content, the whole obscurity of effects and the necessity to dodge when the enemy blinks his left eye while better tanking the huge cleave, as it does little damage comes into play.

    So from all the games you mention, it for me has the highest ration of frustrating “learning by dying”. Thanks to enormous effects, particles, flashes and the likes, every new fight requires many deaths till you spot the tiny difference between the standard animation and the one which kills you.

    3. Why the TSW hate again? If fights are actually that slow as you claim, you might want to occasionally slot one or another passive which is not aimed at pure survivability and slowing down the fight. When i play solo, i run a survivability-setup which, when bad comes to worse and i accidentylly pull stuff in double digits, can win by outlasting the enemy. But despite my deck thus being slower than many other decks being in use, my killing times in TSW, even in Toyko with the “dreaded” Aegis are actually lower than the killing times for my Guardian in GW2. (And my guardians gear is focused on all power, precision and ferocity for maximum damage. )

    Mind you, some time ago somebody posted some actually valid and understandable points why he has problems with TSWs combat, but the general “it is slow” is not a problem of the game, but of the player. The only enemies which take longer than a few seconds to kill are bosses, and this is the very same as in any other MMO.

    4. Wildstar. I fully agree here, i just couldn’t find this game to be fun. For myself i think i actually mostly disliked the terrible story (hidden behind sms-texts) and that the jokes were obviously made by a “laughs per time played” requirement and added by unstinting use of a crowbar. Next to that, i also agree that it’s eye-cancer inducing combat system tried to put even more stress on the player, just like the rest of the “forward, forward, faster, faster” of the game, including it’s UI, without having any benefit by itself. Just no fun.

    5. As Rift was mentioned, i also dislike that one. I played and enjoyed it for a while, till i started playing around with the macro system and had to find out that by just using the features given there, i was able to cut down my toolbars to two buttons (single target and AoE) to execute perfect rotations, with only 3 or 4 extra buttons for rarely needed special effects.

    Thus i wonder, people often complain about the “1111123” of TSW. They pack a lot of additional survivability into the setup so they can disregard telegraphed effects and then complain that combat is slow, while not making good use of the other 60% of the toolbar. In contrast, for many people GW2 plays as “2345”, for extra damage it might be “78902345”, then they also stand and deliver. In either case you profit from watching what’s going on and dodging out of trouble, with the only difference here being that TSW provides the information much clearer, while GW2 hides everything behind a wall of “awesome flashes”.

    But either of them is superior to the stand and just do “111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111” till the enemy is dead which Rift allowed and “forced” me to do. (Yes the forcing is in inverted commas as i could have played differently, i just would’ve punished myself by working much harder to get lower damage, so i would have permanently played with the “you are stupid” tag. )

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