Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Environmental Richness and Tactics

Originally Posted by Samodelkin:
I am a major supporter of this line of thinking.

The biggest problem I have with how most MMORPGs handle combat is that they are too game-y. Effects are abstracted away into a trivial game rule: activating weapon X does Y damage to a target. There's no use of the environment beyond simple line-of-sight (if you're lucky).

That's easier to program and easier to balance as a game, but it creates an incredibly impoverished tactical experience. Without accounting for environmental factors such as terrain (hills, foxholes, nebulae, planets/asteroids), weather (fog, rain, snow, ion storm, magnetic eddies), light (day/night, searchlights, photon burst illumination), chemical traces (scent, ion trail), particle radiation and electromagnetic effects, "combat" is reduced to stationary one-on-one duels consisting of spamming a couple of special attacks at each other.

That is not "tactics." It barely deserves to be called "combat."

This isn't to say that all of the things I mentioned above have to be included in a MMORPG. These are gameworlds, not military-grade tactical simulators; most of them (especially the fantasy-themed ones) don't need that much environmental detail.

But I would argue that more realistic game worlds, including science fictional worlds, do need to include more of those kinds of environmental features for combat to feel interesting. Furthermore, the Star Trek universe, as I've documented in Sensors and Star Trek Online, is incredibly rich with environmental phenomena. To make Star Trek Online's combat (ground or space) just a matter of repeatedly whacking a couple of hotkeys no matter what the target would utterly fail to capture the spirit of the Star Trek license in which the universe is teeming with environmental phenomena of all kinds.

So while I wouldn't say that Star Trek Online's combat model needs to implement every phenomenon I listed in my Sensors essay, or even the extremely limited subset of phenomena I suggested earlier in this thread, I agree completely with Samodelkin that thinking of combat purely in terms of special moves (like most MMORPGs) is too simplistic for this game.

Star Trek Online doesn't need to be a Federation-specific version of "America's Army" (although that could be a fascinating game!). But I do think it needs to do better than imagining tactical combat as just another hotkeyed slapfight.

Designing the online Star Trek universe as full of phenomena that have specific effects on mobs and ships, and which can be produced by mobs and devices, would be a far more satisfying approach. Not only would it be more fun as a game, it would be a much more effective use of the license.

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