Sunday, February 22, 2009

The value of targeting

Combat in MMORPGs hasn't evolved much in the last 10 years. In most cases it still consists of targeting an enemy by click or keyboard (usually TAB), and then attacking with a spell or ability by clicking on a hotkey or using the keyboard shortcut for it. So it isn't surprising that some developers at least try to do something new. Most notably, in Age of Conan and Darkfall, having combat without targeting. You do a sword attack, and hit everything in range in front of you. Is that a good idea?

Fighting without targeting can be fun, but certainly isn't adding to realism. If somebody were to swing a sword, even a very big one, with three enemies in front of him, it would be physically impossible to hit more than one of them. The sword you just get stuck in the first guy it hits. To go right through and hit the other two guys as well, you'd need a light saber. So maybe we'll see this in SWTOR.

Where fighting without targeting fails is particularly visible in Darkfall. Darkfall has very few restrictions on what you can attack, so hitting a player of your own faction is totally allowed. But Darkfall has a minor anti-ganking mechanism, in which the player who attacks other players is labeled a "rogue" for 5 minutes, and takes a hit to his alignment. But as there is not targeting in Darkfall, a player who wants to gank you, just needs to run between you and the goblin you are currently fighting. Thus without intent you'll hit the guy who wants to gank you, and it is YOU who turns rogue, while the ganker even gains alignment for killing a rogue player. A combat system with targeting would make that impossible, because it would make clear who you intended to hit.

Without targets Darkfall also isn't able to discern whether you launched a magic missile that simply missed its intended target, or whether you just launched that magic missile into thin air. Which matters because Darkfall has no xp and levels, but only skills, which improve with practice. So to improve your magic missile skill, the best strategy is to go somewhere where there is no monster or player around, and endlessly launch magic missiles against trees or rocks. Pretty quickly players realize that this can be done unattended with the help of programmable keyboards or other forms of botting. In consequence the best mage in Darkfall will always be a botter. Compare that to World of Warcraft, where you can't improve your weapon skill without actually hitting a monster (or recent patches even eliminated most monsters who can't hit back from giving skill). If there are targets in the combat system, the game knows what you are trying to hit, and whether your intended target is a mob that is in range and can hit back.

So the value of targeting is enabling the game to know your intentions better than it could without targets. Thus the game is able to properly reward or punish you for your intended actions. You aren't punished for hitting somebody you had no intention of hitting (unless you use AoE), and aren't rewarded for hitting thin air. So, nice try, but removing targeting isn't making MMORPG combat any better. Next idea, please!

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