Thursday, March 29, 2007

No skill in MMORPG solo combat

I've mentioned it before, but I'd like to start a discussion about MMORPG solo combat, the situations where you are one-on-one against a computer-controlled mob. Given that in World of Warcraft you can level up from 1 to 70 by doing nothing else, and even the most ardent group-players like me spend a good part of their time soloing single mobs, I wonder why this sort of combat has to be that boring and void of a need for skill.

The reason why I'm thinking about that is me playing the Puzzle Quest demo, where each combat is played out as a Bejewelled-like puzzle. There are elements of chance, and your character stats influence the combat, but in the end you need to be good at this puzzle to beat the opponent. The game has a function that if you can't find a move, one possible move is pointed out to you, but if you always just take this random move, you are unlikely to win. Setting up some clever combo of moves and spells requires some thought, and when you win the game due to that, it is a lot more satisfying.

Back in World of Warcraft combat against a mob appears to be a comparatively boring sequence of button presses. Very often the sequence is the same. WoW even has a special /castsequence macro function, so if you find you're always casting the same three spells at the start of combat, you can put them all on one button. My priest always pulls with Holy Fire and Mindflay, then bubbles up, casts Shadow Word Pain, and then wands the mob to death. Except for sometimes having to renew the bubble or cast a healing spell, each combat is pretty much like the last one, regardless of what mob I'm fighting. My warrior either charges or pulls with a ranged weapon, and then pretty much randomly uses all his different special attacks one after the other until the execute button lights up and I can end the combat with it. The most exciting is fighting spellcasters, where I need to react and either interrupt their spells or try to reflect them back to them. Compared with most other video games, a MMORPG combat needs very little eye-hand coordination skills, and very little decision-making skills. Random button mashing, or even going afk in the case of well-armored melee fighters, often works just as well.

Unfortunately the only "improvements" to this system announced are MMORPGs where you need to target manually instead of locking on a target and repeatedly click on the mob to hit it. I don't see how that needs much more skill, this is just the same "action" combat system that goes back to the old days of Diablo. You create the illusion of action by requiring lots of clicks, but there is no skill in clicking. The outcome of combat will still largely depend on your character stats, and not on whether you made intelligent decisions during combat.

Thus my fascination with both puzzle-based combat systems (Puzzle Pirates, Puzzle Quest), and combat systems using elements from trading card games (Metal Gear Acid. Chronicles of Spellborn is going in that direction, but not far enough). Basically everything which turns combat into a mini-game of its own, and where your skill in that mini-game, together with luck and character stats, determine the outcome.

But other systems would be possible. Asian RPGs often use systems which are based on mobs being resistant or weak to certain elements. The whole Pokemon system is based on that, and the Final Fantasy XI MMORPG is using this in a minor way. The idea is simple enough, the player gets more different spells as he has in WoW, but they don't all work equally well on every opponent. There is usually some diagram of elemental oppositions, and the fire mob will be resistant against fire, but weak against frost, while arcane deals normal damage. WoW has the resistant part built in, but only on very few mobs, and whether a mob is fire resistant would only be interesting to a mage or warlock, and not to a warrior, priest, or rogue.

So what are your ideas to make MMORPG combat more interesting? Please, solo combat only, we'll keep the discussion about group combos and chains for another day.

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