More “combat” in Action Combat

“One must look both along and at everything.” – C.S. Lewis

 Meditations in a Toolshed.

In my last blog, I addressed some thoughts MMORPG players are communicating relative to hand-eye coordination as well as immersion in action combat MMORPG systems. While the blog aimed and focused on demonstrating that tab-targeting did not have an advantage for immersion or less hand-eye coordination requirements, it concluded with suggesting that action combat systems should be less Mario and more Zelda as well as being much more collaborative and thoughtful in an approach and leverage the classes and abilities within your party for group play. What I want to discuss today and look for your input is how to make choice matter, group play mean working collaboratively and actively in combat, and finally not just merely being a stat and a subject of the random number generators (RNGs). I have a lot to say about RNGs, but that will not be the focus today. Today, I would like to look at, look along, and find our way forward to “combat” and the possibilities of action oriented play within it.

Looking At

When a player thinks about engaging in combat, there are a number of possibilities, but we have been trained that there are primary ones and then there are passive ones that are not part of the player’s direct control, strategy or consideration. I would ask, why do the passive ones, even have to be passive? What are these primary and passive combat actions? The primary ones tend to be with some variances:

  • Attack
  • Control
  • Heal

“Attacking” is what most players do or MMORPGs have trained them to do, but in group play, players have roles. Action combat would mean they are performing these roles in a more action-oriented way. They are aiming their attacks, they are aiming their healing toward the players that need them, or they are aiming or choosing which targets to control or when to coordinate control. “Aiming” has been initiated as a component of action combat systems that differentiates them from tab-targeting games. It means the effect of a hit starts with the player to aim a specific attack at a target (not merely select it), and then complete the skill or action; some action combat MMORPGs do this with telegraphs. “Avoidance” has also been initiated as a more player controlled combat mechanic. Avoidance is not in action combat games a stat that the RNG determines whether a player is hit or not. While I discussed previously that tab-targeting games have quite a bit of hand-eye coordination in them and gave examples of avoiding damage, puddles, area effects and even yes, telegraphs in their early stages, the main difference in action combat games is players may have enhanced movement mechanics: sprints, rolls, high jumps, dodges, flips, dives, duck, etc.. “Interruption” is another combat component that has seen more action-oriented evolution. Interrupts often requiring timing, or range, or specific skills, or sequencing or coordination, (but still rarely require aiming) to prevent another targets skill cast.

Despite these three combat components giving players more action-oriented engagements and results being determined more by a player’s skill than a stat and RNG, action combat games have still not really initiated other combat components (often still passive ones) into the group play. Examples of these may include:

  • Parry
  • Disarm
  • Diffuse
  • Block
  • Deflect
  • Re-direct
  • Cleanse
  • Raise from defeat
  • Level of impact
  • Micro targeting

Players may wonder then, how would one make any of these more traditionally passive or skill button combat components more action-oriented and less RNG? There are a couple of things I would offer.

Defensive type skills could require players to make more choices about rotations and predictive play. A block, diffuse, or deflect could mean a skill use while standing in the direction of the attack (a telegraph) and literally preventing it from hitting other players that would normally take the hit in the area. Movement can still play a large role as a Tank may want to move their target or dive, jump or throw their body in front of another player’s to prevent a random targeted or area effect (AoE) attack by its target. A re-direct or cleanse could mean using the environment or setting up things in the environment that allow a player to move damage to it or move players to it. A totem or banner or enchanted object could be used by pushing an attack at it or it pulling that attack to it. Parry, disarms, micro targeting (head, legs, weapon), or other act/react combat components could make use of gambit-systems. Where weapon action (slash, swing), impact (pierce, thrust, pulverize), partial defensive (parry, disarm), and micro target (belly, head, arm) each have an intentional selection in a cycle of skill builds or motions. My main point is that I think MMORPGs are just at the threshold of what could mean more action combat in a player’s control. However, when looking along some current action combat MMORPGs some changes would need to evolve to allow players this type of interaction.

Looking Along

One of the more currently developed action-oriented MMORPGs is WildStar. It can be helpful to look along an experience to understand what considerations we have looked at above can be applied or understood. WildStar is definitely recognized for having progressed the “action” in action combat approaches to game play. Its “Combat Sandwhich” video series introduced a lot of players to its approach and quickly set itself apart in the genre. In its launch year, it was awarded “Best Combat” by Ten Ton Hammer. Despite these accolades and the progression it provided, it is not perfect, and it has been met with a lot of player criticism. WildStar may or may not have gone madly wrong, but in the very least it can serve a good example of how more “combat” in action combat can be in a player’s control.

I am intentionally not going to talk about all WildStar has to offer. Players can discover this from their website, videos, or just playing the game. Even if it’s not your cup of tea, it is worth trying as an amuse bouche to understand where MMORPGs may go and how they can constantly be improved. What I do want to discuss is where it leaves off or some of the consequences of what it has done.

In an oversimplified description, WildStar has approached most group play contests as: Move, Aim, and Interrupt. If a player can do those three things well, you will generally do well in the game. The group play approach for damage is that damage spread is fairly big or uses a lot of space or the enemies move through a lot of space, while these are adjusted by telegraphs to keep the player meaningfully re-adjusting the aim of its skills, it in its most simple form means nearly every enemy action (and player action) is an Area of Effect damaging skill. The ground lights up with bright red, the player needs to find the hole or edge of the telegraph to avoid taking on damage. Avoidance (movement) becomes paramount. The result of this can also be oversimplified in describing it like a fast played ping pong match or at best a jumping puzzle. It is essentially Mario.

While WildStar respects the “Holy Trinity” of tank, healer, and damage, it has the result that if telegraphs can be avoided, then really only the tank is taking damage, and the healer only needs to heal the tank (generally true and admittedly oversimplified). This choice though to have players fully engaged in a jumping puzzle in group play makes for what I called in my last blog a “me first mentality.” It forces the player to think about their actions (not other player’s) bc if a player “avoids the red,” and keeps the target tanked, the tank healed, and the damage going, then the player’s will be successful. The added consequence that most serious telegraphs if not dodged will result in a player’s defeat or at least no more than 2 mistakes a row, and that  there is no in-combat resurrection press the need for each player to focus on movement and location first and role second. This impedes group or class roles. When there is so much area damage or the need for so much Mario, the Tank role cannot expressly block or prevent damage (even directionally most of the time) on the team that is not equipped nor role played to take damage. Since many of the attacks are AoEs and since not avoiding one or two means death, it leaves the healer few options, they cannot raise the defeated and as often as it is, there may be a series of telegraphs or impossibilities between the player and the healer. This makes it especially hard on new players or on groups with new players…it shifts a burden to learning the fight more than normal since likely 1 players death can mean and entire group’s failure. As for the damage roles, class distinctions begin to mean little. If the rest of the parties role is DPS, then this will mean in WildStar they are to “avoid red,” leverage max damage, and bring interrupts and use in coordination. These damage roles have little to offer to the group as a boon (or a bane for that matter). There is little room for non-healer support roles. Finally, since most damage is area of effect, this goes for players, too. Almost all damage roles’ skills are multi-targets with variable shapes and sizes and ranges of telegraphs. While a minor set-back this does leave more on the table than the average tab-targeting game’s immersion when it comes to player group damage. In other words, there is a mass amount of telegraphic damage taking place on the floor in WildStar (some of it the enemy and some of it friendly), my group’s telegraphs do damage to the enemy anywhere they intersect, but I can stand in them all day long…because they are not “red.”

Now, WildStar does a lot really well with its system, but I think there is room to grow where players can feel less fatigue and more a sense of distinct contribution. Get to the atmosphere of the world created and the enemy the group is fighting and less on the jumping puzzle and straightforward approach to skill/role application.

Looking Forward

MMORPGs have held their grip in the gaming community because it allows players to go deep in a role, contribute to a group in a distinct way, and work together in diverse ways to find various approaches to success. Single path to success in encounters are not optimal. I’d like to see action combat continue, but I want to see “block” mean something more and intentional. I want to parry and re-direct damage. I want more diversity in the trinity without creeping in on tank/healer/damage roles. I certainly want less gymnastics, but I want aiming and dodge to be active not merely stat numbers subject to a RNG. I also want to see mistakes meaning something more than complete failure. An encounter that does not allow for mistakes is not the only way (nor the best in my view) to tighten the reins of difficulty. There are many ways to make an encounter extremely hard without the need of “deathless” achievements. Moreover, mistake-free designs can actually lead to fatigue and frustration and a “one way to rule them all” approach/solution. I want to see group response to a mistake be an option like damage transfer or rescues or raise from the dead. Slower or less AoE damage does not mean easier, but with fewer area damage, it would require more for a damage role to do than aim and attack. It would mean more for a healer than heal tank, and it would mean more for a tank than stand in corner with the enemy. Active moving enemies, re-engaging, active combat defense maneuvers, and other support roles or ways to move damage around that do not always require a new encounter to feel like a jumping puzzle to learn like playing Frogger or Mario.

What do you want to see in the “combat” in action combat? Where would you take these usual passive stats or combat components? I do not disagree with Confucius when he suggested “Better is a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” but I think action combat is still progressing and has some interesting options in front of it. I’d like to hear from you.  What say you?