8 factors that make or break MMO combat systems

combat

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.

1. Responsiveness

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).

4. Strategy

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.

7. Time-to-kill

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.

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9 thoughts on “8 factors that make or break MMO combat systems

  1. Wilhelm Arcturus March 23, 2016 / 9:20 am

    So now you not only want to be on the move while casting, but you want everything insta-cast as well? I suspect that next you will complain about the limitation a mana pool places on a caster, because that keeps them from solo kiting raid mobs to death. Just get straight to the end goal and ask for all casters to have an insta-kill all mobs spell as well, because it sounds like having to cast all those spells will become too much of a chore as well.

  2. UltrViolet March 23, 2016 / 9:58 am

    All future MMORPGs should model their combat after Dark Souls, imo. (It fulfills most of your list too.)

  3. Athie March 23, 2016 / 12:35 pm

    I mostly agree with this list — except that I don’t mind cast bars and I am just bored of “highly mobile” combat. Constantly dancing around the battlefield was engaging for me when it was novel (for me, early days of TSW and GW2) but now it’s just a tired cliche to me. I get that people want “more engaging” combat. But that really means one of two things. For some players, it means they want shooter mechanics in all their games because shooters are the one true genre. For others, it really means novelty, surprise, and the opportunity to learn a new system. Dodging telegraphed attacks and moving out of the fire really don’t meet either of these goals at this point. How bereft of creativity is the world that most “new” mechanics in MMOs are just rules about where to stand when?

  4. Sylow March 23, 2016 / 1:45 pm

    Let’s see.

    1. Responsiveness

    Hmm. Yes. Not much to say here. (I just use this point to be able to match the numbers. )

    2. Casting bars

    I see what you want to get out of it, and for a pure PvE gameplay that might be acceptable. Actually we have to look at the two different mechanics which you pack together.

    2.1 The first aspect is the actual casting time

    By removing the castbar by itself, you unavoidably remove one method of balancing exceptional abilities by requiring them to be casted, but rather have anything insta-cast, but in a purely PvE environment there are other methods possible to balance special abilities.

    The problem arises the very moment your game has any form of PvP. Casting times are one of the few viable mechanics of counterplay. If there is no way of interrupting special abilities, all abilities have to be created equal. (Another often used mechanic is a charge-up, but that’s just a variant of a timer and requires some elaborate other mechanics along, to make it viable as even a limited form of counterplay. )

    To drive home my point here, look at classics like Street Fighter or Mortal Combat. Their most powerful abilities do not have a “cast bar”, but they still have an execution animation, which gives the opponent time to react to it and counter it. The general rule (there are some exceptions, which are generally considered to be mistakes of the games developer) of those games is, the stronger an ability, the longer the chain to prepare it or the longer the animation time.

    2.2 Stationary casting.

    You include this into your point, although it’s not much seen any more in modern MMOs. Yes, there are a few abilities which lock you into place in GW2, there also is one ability in TSW which gives gives you a massive damage bonus for a few second, but locks you in place for that duration, but they by now are the exception. In TSW any ability which slows you down is so powerful that everybody agrees that it has to come at a price, which is beyond a long cooldown. In GW2 there are some abilities where the rooting makes sense and others where it’s clearly lazy design and lack of care, but hey, quick and easy and without attention to detail is a trademark of GW2.

    3. Sound design

    True. Although i also have to say, i personally think that sound by now im about any game actually is overdone. You can’t swing a sword without the sound of it splicing air molecules, and in most games they sing and scream a lot when being spliced.

    We don’t really need more of that any more. I personally would like things to be tuned down a good deal, but i guess i quite alone here, among the crowd of “harder, louder”. (But hey, who do i blame? I mean, Hollywood also have taught us that it’s physcially impossible to pick up a knife or any other halfway sharp object without it making a “tsing!” sound. )

    4. Strategy

    Uh… how do you want to counter skills after your point 2 is covered and the first you see of an ability is that it was executed and has affected you?

    Yes, this leaves us with positioning and with clicking faster than the enemy, but most many tactical effects (and the strategical selection of which abilities or which gear to bring in advance) would be replaced by the all-too-common game of “more damage”. I wouldn’t consider that progress.

    5. Enemy AI

    I would like that, but face it, we’d be the minority. I can name a number of older MMOs where the enemies in the first part were really smart. And if you go there, and go to the old areas, you’ll see that they still use their “AI”, so it’s not like the mechanic was broken.

    Despite that, enemies in all newer zones use a much weaker AI. So, how can you explain that?

    It’s not like the AI could not have been used again. It would be a simple copy/paste job, use what you have, just pack a new model or even just a new skin on it and you have a perfect new enemy type. It would actually have been easier and cheaper to do that, than to produce a new AI type which was easier to handle than the old one.

    The very only reason i can come up with is: too many players complained about the too smart enemies. Of course, they would write “too hard” in their postings, because no AI could ever be smarter than them, they’d just be coded to be “too hard”, but you get my point.

    That being said, i also have to admit that killing some of the “smart” enemies of old MMOs was a tedium and i sighed in relief when getting to face simple “fight till death” enemies again.

    So, be careful what you wish for, and i think most players would hate a present day game where enemies would actually be as hard to handle as some were in older MMOs.

    6. Group combos

    No! For the love of everything that’s good or holy: No!

    You just listed the two of the worst designs of game mechanics i could come up with, the combo systems of LotRO and GW2. The one of GW2 is still bearable, it’s usually not fun, their telegraph system is vastly inferior of TSW, but at least you can combo with yourself, which is the most frequently seen way of using them in the game.

    The combo system of LotRO on the other hand might not be the worst combat mechanic ever designed, but i couldn’t come up with anything worse straight from the top of my head. If you actually like that thing, i guess you never have tried to tank or heal in a dungeon there?

    I very much remember my few attempts to do that, where i way too often was in the situation of “damn, now comes the combo, i have to wait for players 1 and 2 to do their thing, then i use my assigned combo button and then, if the tank is still alive, i can try to heal him”.

    I rather broke the combo and saved the tank, and the tank player experienced the same, he rather used a defensive ability instead of dying on the combo, but it lead to a lot of complaints from the damage-number-farmers. No fun at all and one of the key reasons that drove me out of the games group content and effectively completely out of the game.

    I know that if you really love the game to no end, you might get used to the combo system in the run of time. But getting used to it, and it being an actual improvement and being valued by the players is something very different. But the love of that combo system will only be limited to a small part of the playerbase, while most will have it, making it a “suboptimal” idea.

    7. Time-to-kill

    Matter of taste. But your point here doesn’t connect to your point 5 at all. I mean, you want enemies which are clever, call for help and set up a hard fight, but have to be pushovers so you can defeat them quickly? So, you want your beef steak to be completely vegetarian?

    This does not compute for me, sorry.

    8. Visual flash

    See my comment at point #3. When looking at games like WildStar or GW2, where all the screen is filled with flashes, particles, ground effects and whatever else, how do you want even more of that? I think the only way to handle this would be to use one or another extra monitor just to display flashes and stuff, while the main screen can get reduced to displaying actual gameplay. 😀

  5. bhagpuss March 23, 2016 / 2:03 pm

    Some of that I agree with and some I don’t. There’s nothing wrong with cast timers, casting bars or having to stand still when you cast. You don’t like it, I do. The answer is to have enough different spells, instant, timed and my favorite of all, channeled, so everyone can pick and use the ones that suit them.

    Time to kill is the one that I really disagree on, though. There was a time, very, very long ago, when killing whole gangs of mobs in short order seemed like a refreshing change but the wheel has turned full circle on that as far as I’m concerned. Let’s say I need 1000 xp to level and the designers expect a level to take one hour. I would rather fight ten mobs for five minutes each and have ten minutes recovery time between them, with each mob giving 100xp than fight 100 mobs for 30 seconds each and get 10xp per mob. Fewer, slower kills with each fight having greater individual significance makes combat more satisfying, I think.

  6. bhagpuss March 23, 2016 / 2:05 pm

    Oh, and I’m with you on point 8. One of the worst decisions ANet have made lately from my perspective is cutting down on the visual flare (and flair). Unlike Sylow I’m never happier than when I literally can’t see what I’m fighting for particle effects and explosions. I can read the chat line if I want to know what’s going on in detail.

  7. Jeromai March 23, 2016 / 8:07 pm

    While we’re discussing combat, can anyone explain to me what “floaty” combat means? Preferably with a few examples of games I can get my hands on. I’ve never understood that precise term of complaint.

  8. Isarii March 26, 2016 / 2:31 pm

    I think it generally means things like hits not feeling weighty or like they’re making a physical impact, characters moving in a way that feels like they’re floating (though the flip side of this is animation locking, which people also have a tendency to hate), etc… Combat feeling “weighty” would be the opposite of floaty.

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