Combat is on my mind, lately. It can be one of those weird things, where you like an MMO very much but, if you’re honest with yourself, that game’s combat isn’t anything to write home about. With few exceptions, combat is at the core of most MMOs these days, and not all of them get it right. I’m not just talking about tab-targeting versus action combat, but the other factors that can make the difference between a system that’s fun and engaging and a system that’s rather lacking. Off the top of my head, here are eight factors that make or break MMO combat systems.
No matter what type of combat system a game uses, it’s 2016 and there’s no excuse for it to not be sharp and responsive. I’m talking about little to no lag between activating an attack or skill and having it happen. These systems have to have a crisp and polished feel so that you’re melding fully with them instead of struggling against their apparent attempt to get you killed in the line of duty.
2. Casting bars
Introducing cast time as a component of skills is one that adds some more options for skill design, but I’ve never thought it was an enjoyable one. Mayhap it’s time to get rid of casting bars altogether? Even worse is being forced to stand still while you’re queuing up a big attack, something that every magic-using cloth class knows all too well from the olden days. This is an archaic and unfun design, and it’s time to bury it for good. I’m glad that we’ve seen games make this a priority in their combat systems.
3. Sound design
You might not notice this consciously, but when an MMO has poor sound design for its combat, it takes an awful lot out of the experience. A sword that sounds like a whiffle bat when swung is going to feel a lot less powerful and fun than one that sounds like it’s slicing through sheet metal. Sound needs to be equally responsive, with hits being backed up by solid audio cues the moment they happen. Great sound design can even help overcome some of the visual shortcuts that MMOs take (for instance, not actually making contact with your foe — but if you hear it, you’re willing to buy into the suspension of disbelief that it’s happened).
As much as I do love simple, straight-forward rotations, I also want combat to occasionally challenge me and force me to use skills that don’t always come into play. Is combat routine or strategic? Am I countering with skills — like hard stops to spellcasters — and reacting to events as they happen? Is the battlefield easily understood or too chaotic? When we get into boss battles, is there enough information to make informed choices during the fight?
5. Enemy AI
Enemy AI can be tweaked in such a way to make them supremely annoying; everyone hates mobs that run away at 20% health or crowd control you, for example. But mobs don’t need to be mindless cannon fodder, either. It’s interesting to figure out mobs and face a variety of attack patterns and techniques, especially if it gets you to engage in more #4 up there.
6. Group combos
One of the weird holy grails of MMOs is being able to chain player skills together to perform united combos, something that games like LOTRO and Guild Wars 2 have attempted to varying levels of success. It’s hard to do on a large multiplayer scale, especially when the battlefield gets nuts, but there’s merit in games trying, too. A combat system that gets more engaging when it partners up with another player’s system is the first step to emergent gameplay in this area.
I won’t deny that balancing MMOs and their incredibly varied character power levels has to be one of the most headache-inducing and thankless tasks, but it must be done and done right. There’s a sweet spot in every game in which an average world mob should be able to be killed — not too quickly, but certainly not too long. Personally, I think that games that err on the side of faster combat kills are more enjoyable, even if that means that the game has to throw more mobs at me in response.
8. Visual flash
Yeah, we’re suckers for eye candy — don’t deny it. If we’re going to be watching our characters engage in a quarter-million battles during an MMO’s lifespan, then it really helps if those battles look cool. Spell and weapon effects, combat moves, particle effects, the whole works. Make it look awesome and we’ll be coming back for more every time.