When we recently discussed how we could make MMORPGs more challenging and interesting, we listed things that had been tried before, from forced grouping to death penalties. But I believe that the answer is not twiddling with numerical parameters. The fundamental problem of MMORPGs today is that combat is based on a system that lacks interactivity and is completely pre-determined. You can go to a website like Elitist Jerks and find out exactly which combination of keys you have to press in what order to deal the maximum amount of damage for your class and build. And that same spell rotation will be valid for most fights in the game. Hence there is no need for players to make decisions, the only "skill" lies in the flawless execution of a predefined script. To make MMORPG combat interesting, interactive, and by forcing players to make decisions automatically more challenging, we need to introduce some sort of randomness.
Giving myself a generous game development budget of $5, I'll develop in this post a new MMO combat system which is inherently more interactive than what exists on the MMORPG market today, and more tactical, through the use of randomness. For my $5 I'll buy a standard poker deck, and turn it into the base of a MMO combat system. Obviously a real MMORPG would use computers and random number generators and fancy graphics, but this is just a demonstration of principle.
So first I shuffle my poker deck, and then I draw 5 cards. What I get is some sort of poker hand, but thinking outside the box I can also see that I have 5 different "icons" in front of me. If I imagine those 5 icons in a row on the bottom of a screen, the upper part of which shows a 3D virtual world with a monster about to attack me, I can easily make the connection between "playing a card" and "pressing a hotkey", which is the typical way to interact with a MMORPG.
So lets say each card is some sort of attack. To keep within the spirit of both regular playing cards and MMORPGs, lets say that the lower card values are cheap, weak attacks, and the higher card values are more mana-consuming, more powerful attacks. Thus in my first iteration of my combat system I simply play a card, the card "deals damage" to the monster, and I redraw a new card to fill my hand up back to 5 cards. So far, so boring.
But now it gets interesting. In a MMORPG when I press a button, the hotkey goes through some cooldown and is available again. In my poker MMO combat system the card I played is now on the table, and I drew a different card. So unlike in a classic MMORPG, I can't use the same ability again. So now I play a different card, and notice something: The two cards that are now on the table can have some sort of relationship with each other. They could be the same suit, the same value, or they might be of values following each other. What if we integrate this relationship into our MMO combat design?
So we make a new rule: If the new card played is of the same suit, or same kind, or forms a direct sequence, the amount of damage the card deals to the monster in front of me increases, without that its cost increases. For the next card the same thing will be true, but we'll consider longer "X of a kind" and flushes too. Thus playing a 7 of spades, 8 of hearts, and 9 of diamonds in this order deals *more* damage than playing them in 7-9-8 order. Now we'll just need to devise a table, similar to poker hand rankings to list exactly what kind of damage bonus what sequence gives, and our combat system is up and running.
It is easy to see that through the randomness of the shuffled deck the player is unable to say what cards he will play before he actually draws his hand. And as he draws a new random card every time he plays a card, he can also not know exactly what cards he will hold next round. But just like in a poker game, he can make tactical decision. If he is for example just holding a pair in his initial hand, he can play that pair right away, or he can first play the other cards, hoping to draw a third card of that kind. That decision will not only depend on his cards, but also on what monster he is fighting in our MMORPG: For a weak monster a quick burst of damage might be sufficient, for a stronger monster and longer fight it might be better to first build up some combos.
Now while this poker combat system would already be tactical, we can still improve its interactivity. So lets add resistances and vulnerabilities to our monsters. Keeping with the theme of randomness, lets have the monster from time to time exhibit either a resistance to certain types of cards, or a vulnerability to them. So for the next 10 seconds our monster could be taking only half damage from queens, or it could take double damage from hearts. That creates new decision making points for the player. He was maybe holding 2 heart cards in hand, trying to build a straight flush, but now the monster is vulnerable to hearts he rather plays those cards immediately. And what if these resistances and vulnerabilities aren't completely random? Lets say players learn with time that wolves more frequently have a resistance to spades than to clubs, or undead are often vulnerable to kings, that would change their planning depending on which monster they fight.
To wrap it all up, and turn this poker combat system into a MMORPG, we just need some polishing. Maybe change hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds into air, fire, earth, and water. Maybe not give a full deck to players at the start of the game. Maybe allow "deck building" between fights. Maybe not use a simple Ace to Kings sequence, but make up new card values with new tables of interaction. We could even think of turning the whole thing into a "trading card game MMO", which then opens up the door to interesting business models beyond monthly subscriptions.
Of course this is just a skeleton of a combat system, what did you expect with a $5 budget? But once you start thinking about this system, you'll realize that the existing system of static abilities isn't the only possible one. Chronicles of Spellborn tried putting static abilities on rotating wheels, but I think a truly random system has a lot more potential. By varying the rules of how the deck looks, how many "cards" you have in hand, how the interaction table looks, what other abilities than damage you add, you can create thousands of different combat systems from this basic poker idea.