ACTION COMBAT IN MMORPGS: THE PATH FORKS AHEAD…WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE

“These virtues are formed in a man by his doing the actions.” – Aristotle

 Ethics and the Nature of Happiness, Part VII.

Looking At – Ping Pong is an Olympic Sport?

Today’s topic has been on my mind for some time, but its selection as the 1st topic of this new blog has been encouraged by the recent views found in this MMORPG thread and Ten Ton Hammer’s 2014 “Best of” awards to WildStar for the category of “Best Combat.” Phertias begins the column seeking wisdom through wonder from his experience of reading threads that complain about the combat systems and asks contributors why they prefer tab-targeting. The thread has some interesting conversation, but Zorgo’s reply is the one I want to highlight. Zorgo has two reasons in reply to Phertias. First, there is immersion, and second there are natural limitations of an individual’s hand-eye coordination. The latter being expressed nearly as a dimension that surfaces exclusions by default (citing his age at one point or personal capability). Both of these are important points, and deserve some dialog and attention.

Competitive engagements whether they are against another person/team (most sports), against an environment (hiking, survival, puzzle), or machine (clock or maybe a Paul Bunyan experience) have varying degrees of coordination or physical/mental development. At some point ping pong (known professionally now as “table tennis”) became an Olympic sport. What is being recognized is obviously very different than what Michael Phelps is being recognized for in swimming. One delta worth pulling out for this assessment is its hand-eye coordination. Perhaps Zorgo feels like WildStar or other action-combat MMORPGs are like this table tennis match. While there is quite a big difference between swimming and that table tennis match on hand-eye coordination, there are granted other types of limitations to being successful at swimming.

MMORPG’s using tab-targeting are not devoid of hand-eye coordination and have perhaps an equal degree of their own immersion issues. There are varying degrees across the present MMORPGs of “action-combat;” it is not clearly a strict bi-conditional. There has been over the last 15 years variations in approach, but never has hand-eye coordination been checked at the door nor really been absent as an ingredient for effective game-play (especially when playing with others – MMOs). Over the last several years, there has been some whom have even set forth to elevate others’ game play by teaching them how observational play and responsiveness in an encounter are material to achievements. @Taugrim for example published in 2011, A Guide to Keybinding and Strafing in MMORPGs, which covers combat engagement in a vast number of MMORPGs as a general principle for elevating game play. Keybinding and strafing are relevant because the value and even necessity for survival of movement and keystroke responsiveness is prevalent in any MMORPG. They do help players with their hand-eye coordination in the encounters players find themselves in whether that is in a player versus player match, moving out of area damage, getting into range for a skill to work, line of sight, inductions/interrupts, leveraging coordinated attacks/group maneuvers, positioning behind a target for increased or modified damage, avoiding adds, responding to player effects (bleeds, poisons, etc.).

Tab-targeting is not fair to represent as a “sit back lazy play style,” and even where it is implemented, players will not find hand-eye coordination absent, or the value of improving it a worthless venture. It is not “easier” game-play either. It is perhaps–relative to the encounter in question–slower game play, but this itself can have equal challenges in hand-eye coordination and immersion. As for immersion, with a history of leading group content, I have encountered more than I would like to have experienced occurrences of players watching TV or even one who once claimed “I was licking the Funyuns off my fingers!” Logistically, literally dodging an attack can be just as immersive as a passive dodge skill a player has because they have xx number of skill points where such dodging is a word floating over your head or in your combat log versus an actual cinematic avoidance. Likewise, aiming is not merely passive in tab-targeting, even there it requires line-of-sight, target skill range, and in some games positioning (behind a target). Finally some roles, like Healer roles, which often have had its trouble in player attraction over DPS roles have spoken out about tab-target healing being a “mini-game” in which they are watching HP bars rather than being immersed in the on-screen action. This was actually a particular rationale cited by WildStar for moving toward its version of action-combat.

The degree to which action-combat is an obstacle to immersion is relative to the success a player has with it. That success I would argue does not have to be naturally inhibitive either.

Looking Back – Glad for that Pause Button

Action-combat versus tab-targeting is merely a fork in the road to combat engagement approach, but an evolution the genre has been down before. In times past, the genre moved from turn-based/pause-play to tab-targeting. I recall the questions I use to hear like “where is my pause button?” or “Why am I taking damage while looking in my inventory?” when that evolution had begun to have more mass exposure. Turn-based play allowed players a lot of room to think through their set up, positioning, and action/re-action decisions. When tab-targeting came into play, there brought with it increased accountability for responses in time and even preventative play (like interrupts). “Crowd control target A please, and watch area damage near it!” Action-combat in the forms some of the games have today (telegraphs) are the next evolution in responsive design, but are set with their own challenges like twitch, key spams/macros, and “my neck first” game play mentality.

Tab-targeting games and their players have benefited from telegraphs when dealing with things like mass group/area damage. I recall for example in Lord of the Rings Online in the raid Ost Dunhoth, the battle with Durin’s Bane. In this fight on Tier 2, players had to move out of the Balrog’s fire “puddles.” The effects looked rounded, players often were defeated, and moving too far away from it would mean a loss as well since the fight nearly requires all the platform to succeed. The developers announced that the effect was actually a square (and in fact almost all of their damage effects were pixeled squares). They made a change to show the borders of this effect (in other words a telegraph to an already action-combat raid boss), and this resulted in helping players work together better and more intentionally.

Accessibility to levels of content in principle (not always application) is different between tab-targeting and action-combat (as was between turn-based and tab-targeting). In one sense this is what Zorgo means by immersion. The gear, the learned skills, the time investment in leveling, a purchased item should contribute much more than a player’s ability as a human to hit the right keystroke at the right time in the right direction. This will mean progression will have different long term implications (not a topic for this article). The point to ponder, however, is that hand-eye coordination and gear/stats are not mutually exclusive in either approach nor have they been. Having the gear and levels and renown have never equated to tab-targeting an opponent to its defeat. Progression, practice, and habit is what brings about the achievements.

The speed of game play does, however, have an impact. It impacts stress, patience, culture, and interactive/role-playing mechanics. A player gets focused primarily on where they need to be first versus what their combat friends are doing and how to help them. In turn-based or legacy RPGs you could pause to adjust or consider. Tab-targeting was faster by virtue of not having a pause and the consequence was learning skill rotations, getting the right gear, knowing what your role was, but it never had lost its need to learn the encounter and adjust.

I am presently teaching my 8 year-old son how to play Mario and Zelda. He asks from time to time if I can warp him or get him past a certain level, which I reply, “No, this level will help prepare you for the next. If you cannot do this one, you will not be ready for the next.” Hand-eye coordination and responsive play are important whether you Mario or you Zelda. These games, however, are not diametrically opposed, it’s not just spam “A button” with sword thrust – Zelda. Being in the right place and with the right gear is important, too. Mario is the same way, sometimes you need to jump on something, over it, the screen is pushing you, you need a fire-ball versus a star, or you need to B-run jump. The point is that when you look back over the RPGs or MMORPGs you have played or even games in general, they were not absent of the need to develop hand-eye coordination. It’s always been there, we have just grown adept to the previous forms. This is not a value judgment, but just a consideration.

Zelda

(Here you have several things to dodge while positioning for a hit with the right gear.)

Looking Ahead– More Zelda, Less Mario

I believe all said, however, that Zorgo is asking for the Goldilocks principle when it comes to combat systems. This is fair. Some recent MMORPGs have gone more toward Mario than Zelda. The spirit of thought is worth the dialectic not so much in avoiding one or the other, but how to help combat systems in their next milestone of maturity. Having good gear has never been the sole solution. Thoughtful play and responsive choices are valuable, too, and proper considerations like motion and keybindings are helpful in working toward achievements. Players do like MMORPGs for the world they get to immerse in and discover, and on that level they want it dangerous and challenging, but they don’t want it stressful.

More like Zelda would not mean trending toward tab-targeting per say, but it would mean movement and approach are important, more interaction with others in your party, the ability to think through a strategy and simply be able to enjoy the environment without feeling like every 5 meters of terrain means combat. Do you want a dodge to be floating letters over your head or something your character actually does? Do you want hit chance/aim to be controlled by a passive stat or something you more intentionally do? We do not help the genre by saying, “This combat system sucks,” or by being mutually exclusive in approach, but rather how do we want to see encounters evolve, prepare players, and bring diversity.

What combat engagement approach do you want in your MMORPG? What I encourage you with–whatever your answer may be–is that immersion comes with game play, and game play comes with practice. As Will Durant summarized the context of Aristotle’s quote above in The Story of Philosophy (1926), “Excellence is an art won by training  and habituation: we not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather have them because we have acted rightly; these virtues are formed in man by doing his actions; we are we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act, but a habit.”

Cheers,

Wise

3 thoughts on “ACTION COMBAT IN MMORPGS: THE PATH FORKS AHEAD…WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE”

  1. Excellent post Wise.

    I have liked action combat for a while now. I was first introduced to it in AoC (Age of Conan) combat system back in 2007, then TSW, Neverwinter, Tera and DCUO. Although I have enjoyed it throughout the years I now find myself leaning towards tab-targeting. I suspect that my recent experience with Wildstar’s approach to active combat has moved me in that direction.

    I have a love/hate relationship with Wildstar which I think is contributing to my current feelings about action combat. I’ve loved action combat in all the games I mentioned above including Wildstar but for some reason if I spend more than a couple of hours in a Wildstar dungeon I find myself getting fatigued. Then once I am away from the game for a while I terribly miss it. So what is it about Wildstar’s implementation of action combat that is having that effect on me? The cause is what Wise has mentioned above; too much emphases on positioning is making self-preservation the primary goal of every player in group-play. This is ironic because group play by definition should be about working together.

    Wildstar’s combat and dungeon mechanics are also creating a game-play where some (or most) boss fights become jumping puzzle and movement fests. The game then becomes less about heroes trying to defeat an evil boss but more about avoiding red geometric shapes in the ground. This lowers player immersion into the world significantly. As this is not true in other MMOs or RPGs it is unfair to single out action combat as the immersion breaker as well.

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  2. I think Action Combat will become more prevalent over time in MMORPGs, given that other MMOs in particular MOBAs are already there.

    I have played Tab Targeting games for 10 years, and I think it’s insufficiently engaging. People used to raid in WoW while watching TV / movies. You could execute some boss fights with your eyes closed, simply by managing a rotation and dealing with specific stage mechanics.

    People accepted it because that’s how games were.

    I do understand why some players, especially those who grew up playing old-school Tab Target MMORPGs, may be resistant to this change. And I sympathize with players who struggle with the hand-eye coordination challenges of playing an Action Combat game.

    That said, I think most players can meaningful improve their gameplay in an Action Combat game, and for PVE Action Combat doesn’t have to be so Actiony that it’s devolves into a twitch-fest.

    Action Combat tends to require the player have to *watch* what’s actually going on and react accordingly, and I think that’s an important element.

    From a PVP perspective, mechanics that increase the skill cap are appealing to me. I want to be able to move out of the way of an opponent’s incoming attacks. I want angles to matter.

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