Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Proposal: Combat

Last post highlighted how important the exact implementation of the combat minigame in Wowlikes is. This post will make a proposal on how to iterate on it.

Since Age of Conan, Wowlikes have given up on iterating the combat minigame much. The exception is, ironically, WoW itself. And Cataclysm's revamped combat isn't bad. At low-level most of the gameplay is unchanged. Only at maxlvl do players have to do more than just push *any* button. But the new combat still has a big problem: you end up watching your action bars much more than the actual combat.

Reacting to *anything* frequently and fast is very exhausting. A game that consists of fighting hordes of monsters for hours must not have exhausting combat. Moreover, millisecond reactions are a bad idea considering that the main demographic of MMOs doesn't like them.

While picking fights should be a tactical or even strategic decision, the combat itself should not. The logic processors of our brains are painstakingly slow. Combat which requires analytical thinking always ends up frustrating, extremely simple or turn-based. Moreover having to think logically very fast for long periods of time is exhausting. Hence, combat has to be intuitive.

Currently combat consists of abilities that are triggered instantly by the push of a button. This leads to a problem with feedback. Typically a good combat animation takes some time to ramp up. But if the ability triggers instantly the player also needs instant feedback (a number). This is quite the problem, really. You can't just delay any of this, because it feels awkward. The player must, at all times, feel in perfect control of his character.

My proposal is to no longer ignore the duration during which a button is actually pressed. For example, a typical melee attack move would do most damage if you keep the respective button pressed for 1.34 seconds. Any deviation reduces damage done.

The exact implementation is this:
- The player pushes the button down.
- The attack animation starts.
- At 1.34 seconds the animation reaches it's climax. The appropriate sound also has a climax at 1.34 seconds.
- Should the player release the button too early/too late, the sound/animation give him a feedback. They sound/look 'less successful'.

The duration does not (or rarely) change while progressing a character. The point is that the player learns to intuitively press his buttons for the optimum duration. At the same time, the song must never feel artificial. Keeping a button pressed, while your character raises his sword to strike a blow and then releasing the button the second the sword *hits* the opponent should, in fact, feel more intuitive and more satisfying than today's combat.

Naturally, something like this would have to be iterated a lot.

Macros are a potential issue for this kind of combat minigame, because there is a strong incentive to keep a button pressed for exactly the optimal duration. This is much easier to do for a macro that for a human. There are a few ways to fight this abuse that all require the player to sometimes not keep the button pressed for the optimal duration depending on something a macro cannot know. The challenge is to make this not-exhausting and not based on fast reactions.

Game companies might want to assign a professional (music) with creating satisfying rhythms that are later translated into concrete gameplay.

This proposal adds an intuitive dimension to the current combat model. Combat becomes more interesting without becoming exhausting or more dependent on watching the user interface.

What do you think ?


  1. Comment number 1: if you end up looking at your action bars, then it means you aren't very good at playing your character. After a time, things become automatic. Ultra-optimal DPS may require you to keep exact track of timers/cooldowns, but this is rarely needed and an intuitive DPS rotation + focus on the combat is a lot more effective.

    About the system you propose:
    - real life implementation would kill it instantly. The problem is: where do you measure your 1.34 seconds? On the server? Then it's a "get lucky with lag" game. On the client? Get ready for bots pressing the keys at the right time (or just sending the data packet with the right time in it). Designing a real-time combat system which survives lag/hacks is a lot harder than it seems....
    - it's not that different compared to what happens with some classes (casters in particular). Correctly chaining spells (= 0 time lost between casts) requires you to chain your keypresses just at the right time. Of course you can spam like mad, but good luck keeping it up for a combat lasting 10 mins.... And interesting classes have multiple spells with different time intervals between casts, requiring you to learn to adapt and react (moonkin druid has a nice dps "cycle", one at which I suck quite a bit :).
    - if you need to react to graphics, then the effect need to be very visible even in a mass of AoE effects. Right now, something like this would be completely impossible in WoW (= you would need to rely on intuition and ignore the animation, since you would miss it, at least in melee).

    Your proposal also looks a lot like a GCD (time)-limited gameplay. I find it to be "spammy". It's probably my cat druid side showing again, but I find that resource-limited gameplay where you can have pauses between attacks is more interesting (cat dps has around 40% of the time waiting, note also that knowing WHEN to wait is the key to good dps).

    BTW I agree with your comment on reacting to things. On some classes you can have a whole set of christmas tree lights lighting up when procs are up.... Reactive effects are very good at "breaking the rythm", but abusing them is basically putting a sign "spam all keys all the time" on the class...

  2. Well there are many good combat models out there. I think main problem iterating is that more advanced models are inaccessible (even age of conan melee was too hard for most people)

    Significant part of MMO audience are older guys with bad reaction and reflexes. There needs to be a model which accommodates them

    Personally I was thinking some part of classes in game should be fast paced - twitch oriented. While other should cater to people who do not like action combat ( in aoc it was close in that caster classes were like this)

  3. You're just moving the twitch to another level. I don't like your suggestion at all.

    I would prefer a combat where positioning your character is more important then which spell you use. And I'm not talking about moving out of fire.

    Something like Witcher 2. (Not the buggy combat system, only the fact that you constantly have to reposition your character.)

    Or like tanking in WoW was before they "fixed" the "bug" that mobs tried to move around you and reach your back. (They said it was a hitbox size bug but tanking was much more dynamic and fun with this bug.)

    Or think Onyxia where it's more important to not be hit by her tail then to do damage. A melee DD constantly has to move a little bit to compensate for Onyxias movement because the tank was feared.

    Such movement feels much more natural instead of the "I'm going to put a green circle on the ground to see if you can move out of it fast" mechanic.

    Repositioning during Onyxia ground phase or moving away from her breath feels more immersive then moving out of the lich kings defile, to me.


    > Combat which requires analytical thinking always
    > ends up frustrating, extremely simple or turn-based.

    Pokewow has a lot of potential. It could be amazing if they don't screw up.

    WoW already has frustrating.
    WoW already has extremely simple.

    Now they get turn-based.

  4. I'll chime in and say I'm not fond of your proposal. I'd like to see more emphasis on decisions than on pure twitch.

    Plus, Helistar is right in that you'd either have to trust the client for the measurement (hackable) or the server (and be victim to lag).

    Here's something to think about: what if you didn't have to have the same combat system all the time? What if about 10% of the fights were a bit harder? So 90% is still not terribly challenging, but on occasion you get a combat that takes a bit more attention. Instead of only having the "special" fights be set bosses.

    Something to consider.

  5. Thanks for your opinions.

    I still think that the basic idea of using the duration during which a button is pressed, shouldn't be let go just like that.

    I agree that there are technical issues; in that case such a system could be tested with a single player game before introducing it into a MMO.

    It's a waste in my opinion to ignore this duration and instead add yet another ressource bar and yet another resource points, that need to be looked.

  6. Contrary to a lot of commenters here, I don't believe it's 'twitch'. I'd consider twitch to mean systems that rely on speed or reaction time, and your system - while still 'execution based' - doesn't fall in to that category.

    I'd agree about the technical issues though: single player would be no problem but I don't see any simple way to do it multiplayer.

    I think it does have the potential to form a very intuitive system. The question I would have is: would a completely intuitive system keep the player's mind busy?

  7. You are right, Me, it is not twitch. Honestly, I was a bit too tired to get into it at that level of detail :)

    I'm satisfied that I wrote down the idea so that I can find it, should I ever want to in the future. To argue with the comments on this post would have been a lot of work ..

  8. I think your idea as stated is insane :) Even if it would be possible to figure out the technical details.

    I think the idea of holding down a button is going to be very inconvenient and unfun.

    Mostly the same effect and, in my opinion, much better can be achieved by something like combos. Basically to achieve maximum damage [to continue combo] (or whichever) you must hit the next button exactly X seconds after the previous one. It'll be also much easer to visualize and 'feedback' too. Not to mention that I believe games that try to make combat "more interesting" already do that :)

    And in the end it'll still probably suck. It may be more profitable to explore action game direction, e.g. Diablo or to take an example I'm currently playing (for free) -- Dragon Nest. Basically multiple enemies that require positioning and control to prevent them from beating your character into a pulp.

  9. Hellistar: I agree that if you are looking at your action bars you aren't playing your character that well, but I don't think that's really the issue.

    An intuitive understanding of your character works better if you are up to that level of play. If not, memorization or staring at UI elements happens instead.

    After I stopped playing WoW I played some action games. It turns out that video games require incredibly fast decision making and hand movement and remarkable coordination. If you play a few action games on hard difficulty settings then go back to WoW, you'll notice that heroic raiding moves at a quite leisurely pace and that there is plenty of time to make decisions.

    The point, however, is that if too many of the people playing the game are looking at their action bars, then the game has a problem. Unlike the action games, they don't get to set it to normal or easy difficulty. (WoW doesn't actually have multiple difficulties, it has a progression path. Normal dungeon -> Heroic dungeon -> Normal raid -> Heroic raid. That is difficulty levels in the same way that levels 1, 2, 3 and 4 of Pac-Man are difficulty levels.)

    If MMOs are not going to have multiple difficulty levels then they need to have combat systems that appeal to the median, not to the top.