Yesterday's discussion on the future Blizzard MMORPG evolved into a discussion of possible changes to MMORPG combat. While various games have fiddled with the system in different ways over the last decade, MMORPG combat is still remarkably similar in various games. Very many games have systems in which you target an enemy, and then use hotkey bar buttons with various spells and abilities to hit that enemy, with your stats determining whether and for how much you hit him. The abilities have some sort of cooldown, ranging from 1 second to several minutes, and there is no aiming involved. Why is that so?
A very impressive experiment you can do at home to illustrate the fundamental problem behind MMORPG combat needs two computers running two different accounts of World of Warcraft. Move the two characters to the same spot, somewhere where there is an elevator, get on the elevator, and observe your two screens: The big surprise is that the two screens are NOT synchroneous. Far from it. You can easily have a situation where the elevator on the one computer is down, while you see the exactly same elevator in the same world on the other computer as being up. And you can continue that experiment by setting one of the two characters to follow the other, and just run somewhere and observe the distance between the two characters on the two screens: It will not be the same. In other words:
Your character in a MMORPG does not have a one completely determined location.
Instead, in our example, your character has 3 locations: The one where YOU see him, the location where the server thinks your character is, and the location where your character is shown to be to the observer. When standing still, these three locations will eventually merge into one. But while there is movement, the mix of lag and predictive algorithms means that your characters location cannot 100% accurately be determined. Obviously that makes a combat mechanism which relies on aiming impossible. You would need to remove the predictive algorithms, and sync servers and clients much better than is currently the case. And if for some reason there is lag (e.g. Dalaran), you have a huge problem.
Apart from the technical problems of making a MMORPG with a aiming-based combat, there is also an even bigger problem of what people would be interested in playing that game. The demographics for a shooter game and the demographics for a MMORPG are not the same. Multiplayer shooters rely on split-second reaction times, which favors younger players, and these games is predominantely played by male players. Your average middle-aged housewife would not only not stand a chance in that sort of game, she wouldn't even dream of buying it. And that will be true for all changes to MMORPG combat which make it far more twitchy: While a minority of players will certainly enjoy that, a large demographic will feel excluded and not interested very much in that sort of game.
So what could be done? Fortunately making combat faster and more twitchy is not the only possible improvement. A better option would be to make MMORPG combat more interactive *without* making it much faster. The curse of the current MMORPG combat system is the "spell rotation", that is you can look up on a website for a given character class and level the optimal sequence of buttons to press for best damage output, *independant from* what the enemy is or does. Fighting a wolf, an ogre, or a bandit is exactly the same, with only a few spellcasters or mobs with special abilities requiring small modifications to your spell rotation. The obvious disadvantage of that system is that very soon players don't really care any more what monster they are fighting, and get quickly bored because every combat is the same anyway. The solution would be a combat system in which the best button to press would strongly depend on what enemy you are fighting, and what the current situation is. And that is independant from the time frame you give the player to react.
So here is my prediction: Some future MMORPG will introduce a much more interactive, but not too twitchy, combat system, and it will be a huge success.