Monday, April 12, 2004

Environment and Tactics

Why doesn't the physical environment of a MMOG play a larger role in what players can (and can't) do?

I may have some more to say on this later (uh-oh!), but for now let me just focus on the kinds of things we could do in combat if the game made better use of environmental phenomena.

Combat in MMOGs is still too much governed by who's carrying the bigger stick. Why are we as gamers satisfied with that? The really interesting stuff happens when you're able to make tactical plans (and counter-plans) based on environmental factors.

Environmental factors that should (but currently don't) play a meaningful role include:

  • line-of-sight affected by:
    • weather (rain, fog, haze, etc.)
    • darkness
    • distance
    • ground/rocks
    • water
    • trees
    • structures
    • mounts
    • vehicles
    • mobs
    • NPCs
    • PCs
  • paradrop ability (death from above)
  • tunneling (death from below)
  • underwater movement (sneak attack)
  • camouflage effective against PvP foes
  • tree density in forests (should slow vehicles down more)
All these things ought to factor into combat planning and operations... but they don't. Right now "tactics" in most MMOGs is basically just deciding which of your character's special attacks to spam at an opponent. And getting "good" at combat means grinding XP so you can get a bigger stick to whack someone with.


Wouldn't it be more fun to be able to sneak up on someone, or to have to carefully plan an assault on a fortified position to make use of environmental assets, or to make the most efficient use of faction points by thoughtfully using environmental features when setting up a base, or to plan the best place to ambush an enemy column, or to need to post guards, or to be able to outwit guards, or to plan your escape if something disrupts your op?

The bottom line is that it shouldn't be just the size of the stick that determines your effectiveness, but how you use it.

(Can I say that here? ;-)

In fact, not only should there be environmental factors to visibility and movement, there ought to be various types of technology that can make use of, add to, or cut through these factors as well.

For example, suppose you've been tasked with setting some demo packs in the middle of a lightly-populated enemy campsite. The enemy has cleverly set up camp out in the middle of an open field (rather than in a forest where the trees could hide your approach), but you've elected to make your infiltration attempt at night, when visibility is lowest. Now you have a better chance of sneaking up on that enemy camp without being detected... but what about guard animals that use scent? OK, there's scent masking, that's good... but what about the sniper in the guard tower whose rifle is probably equipped with an infrared scope? Maybe there's an armor mod that can mask your infrared signature (at the cost of some protection)... but what about motion tracking sensors? Well, maybe crawling will let you sneak under their beams... but what if moving so slowly exposes you to the searchlights on that tower? Would a HALO parachute jump be a better option?

Let's try another example. You and your team are driving your vehicles back to you HQ after a long session; you're low on powerups and stims, and your healer has just logged out. Suddenly dozens of laser bolts arc toward your team from behind the bushes and trees -- it's an ambush! What do you do? You can try to run, but they can run too, and they'll pick you off from behind by massing their fire on each of you one at a time. Would you like to be able to block LOS by popping smoke grenades? What if there were "caltrop grenades" -- little disposable robots you could drop whose function was to run toward an enemy vehicle and explode? What if you could duck behind other trees, or put away your vehicle and equip a rebreather that let you dive into the deep part of a nearby lake? Do you think having these options might increase your odds of surviving?

You get the idea. Allowing a meaningful set of environmental factors to alter visibility and movement options dramatically enhances the player's ability to make interesting combat choices. Adding such factors will definitely complicate the physics of the game, and that's a technical challenge... but it's one worth taking on for the major payoff in enjoyment provided.

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