Monday, March 13, 2006

Special Moves in MMORPG Combat

Auto-attack -- as in, click the button and your character starts swinging the old battleaxe until either he or the target is toast -- doesn't bother me in a MMORPG.

In a first-person shooter or a MMOFPS, in a game that was designed to be all about combat, yes, just clicking to resolve combat would bug me. But in an RPG? Not so much. I can handle that level of abstraction.

1. In a role-playing game, we're already abstracting capabilities we (the players) don't personally possess into an in-game character. We (the players) aren't really bards or thieves; we probably don't actually know how to play a lute or pick a lock; and we definitely don't live in a world where magic works. And it's not likely that we're all master duellists, either.

So if we're willing to accept the abstraction of magical abilities in a game ("I cast my Heal spell") as things our characters can do that we can't, why not also accept the abstraction of combat as click-to-attack? In terms of plausibility versus our real-world capabilities, one's about as good as the other.

2. On the other hand, making combat more complex than clicking an "attack-until-dead" button doesn't bother me, either. I prefer complex systems; they're more interesting.

That said, however, I do object to building complexity into combat simply by implementing special moves. Here's why.

A. It's not "tactical." Tactics isn't just about spamming special attacks faster than the other guy. Tactical superiority comes from having a better perception of the features of the local environment (including your opponent's capabilities), from planning that makes effective use of those environmental features, and from being able to adapt quickly to changes in the environment.

A game that really wanted to offer fun combat would go there, rather than implementing an artificial, Mortal Kombat-like "special moves" system.

B. When games implement special combat moves, they send the message that what combat is about is one-on-one dueling, rather than squad-level action. If dueling is the conscious, deliberate choice of the game's developers, then OK, but if the designers would prefer combat to be about group action, then implementing special (individual) moves probably will not achieve that goal.

C. Going beyond auto-attack in combat can wind up getting very complicated very quickly as developers have to exhaustively test all potential combinations of attacks and defenses. (Otherwise some player is likely to find a "win button" and *poof*, there goes all the fun out of your combat gameplay.) This can create systems that are hard to maintain and time-consuming to test.

D. Designing, implementing, enhancing and maintaining a particularly complex system of special attack and defense moves reduces parity between combat and non-combat gameplay. When a developer spends a lot of time on a complex combat system, and as a result has little time available to spend on a similarly complex crafting or economic or magic system, the game can become too unbalanced.

Even accepting that a game should have more combat than non-combat features (a proposition I don't accept for a mass-market MMOG, but let that pass), the examples of other MMOGs suggest that trying to keep a system of complex attack/defense moves properly balanced winds up becoming a huge time sink. It really does seem to prevent much useful time being spent on serious non-combat content. Eventually that imbalance will drive away the non-combat players a MMOG needs for maintaining long-lasting communities.

E. No matter how much time you put into a system of special combat moves, there'll always be some players howling that "their" class needs more love in the form of special moves. It's a no-win situation.

F. Implementing combat as special moves is an invitation to players to use macros and third-party hacks. Simple combat keeps the playing field more level.

In summary, I'd rather combat was about group action than one-on-one dueling; I'd rather it was about environmental perception and exploitation than about spamming special moves; and I'd rather it didn't come to dominate a MMOG that was intended for a mass market.