Is MMO Combat Really That Bad?

Everquest Combat

I miss the days when the most exciting part about combat was reading the damage output text

Perhaps having grown up playing the original Everquest, I’m spoilt with combat in MMOs these days. I mean, one of my most beloved character in Everquest, a Warrior, had only two buttons to press when fighting, Taunt and Kick. And Kick was useless. People aren’t joking when they say that combat used to be a case of pulling a mob, turning on auto-attack and then going to make yourself a cup of tea. I drank a lot of tea in my late teens.

Still, on reflection, to call combat in the MMORPG of the late nineties or early naughties (I hate that term) mindlessly simple is probably doing it a disservice. Grouping was mandatory, pulling was an art, managing aggro was important, crowd control was a skill, maintaining a rhythm in order to chain fights was essential and death was inconvenient enough to make it all matter. Plus, in the time between button pressing (which for a Warrior was quite a lot), there was plenty of opportunity to chat, discuss, gossip and roleplay.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that those days are over (mostly) and now I actually have attacks and maneuvers to perform during melee. Aside from giving my fingers a workout, it adds a lot more complexity and thought to fights than I ever experienced in 1999. Even if such once fundamental considerations such as threat, crowd control and a death penalty are a lot more diminished than they used to be, we still have a more factors and strategic decisions to make than ever before.

Of course, I acknowledge that soloing in most MMOs (particularly at lower levels) doesn’t exactly require a lot of thought due to its inherent lack of challenge but what about other activities like grouping or raiding or, in particular, PvP? I personally don’t think combat there is any less fundamentally complex or any more hugely tedious than any other type of video game. Perhaps I’ve been blessed with nimble reflexes and reasonable finger dexterity, honed during my childhood years on every type of game from Street Fighter II and Super Mario World to Doom and Command & Conquer that I don’t rate reaction time to be enough of a differentiating factor. Indeed, when you put eye-hand-coordination aside, these genres of games, whether it be modern incarnations like Call of Duty or Starcraft 2, are pretty basic for all intents and purposes.

Maybe my view is skewed though. As much as I enjoy leveling up characters in MMORPGs, my primary focus for many years now has always been player-vs-player. Whether it’s battleground matches in WoW, RIFT or SW:TOR or open world PvP in Everquest 2, fighting real opponents is my thing. I’m not a particularly competitive chap either, bothered about always winning, I just really like the challenges and decisions this form of gameplay comes with. I suppose fighting against other real people will always be more rewarding than the even the most challenging AI but to me, the decisions I’m forced to make on both a micro (when to use my cooldowns, when to counter spells or crowd control) or a macro (what flag to capture, who to attack, when to retreat) level are truly satisfying and deeply complex.

I wonder if the issue isn’t that MMO combat is bad but rather that, due to the long standing nature of these games, we simply become bored of it so much quicker. There’s only so many times you have play the same encounter over and over again before you get fed up, no matter the genre. Even combat in fast paced games like Call of Duty or Halo starts to become predictable and dull after you’ve beaten the AI multiple times – the challenge being the player-vs-player combat, something I would contest PvP in a MMO is just as strategic as.

I’m curious to get other people’s thoughts. Does MMORPG combat really suck? Or do we just have a perception that it’s less exciting than other types of games? Depending on the activity being undertaken, I’m probably in the latter camp and would recommend to any skeptics to give PvP a proper go.

-Gordon

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17 Comments

  1. bhagpuss says:

    I don’t believe any combat in any MMO I have ever played, and that’s a lot, holds a candle to original Everquest combat. All the things you describe are exactly right but there was so much more. The length and pace of the fights meant that there was time to make tactical decisions and indeed to discuss tactics (in text-chat not voice-chat).

    The restricted number of abilities in play for casters meant meaningful decisions had to be made on what to use and what to go without, but you could in extremis try to unlearn one spell and get another out of your book. I have never had any experiences in any MMo more thrilling than playing a healer in EQ back in the days when opening your spellbook obscured the entire screen and having to take the decision to sit and try to swap out a spell that I needed to cast in a matter of seconds to keep the group from wiping.

    The degree of co-ordination between group members, the ability of many classes to fill many roles, the existence of many roles in the first place, the gradation of preference between classes as to which could do what better than whom… nothing in any game since, nor in EQ itself in its later days for that matter, even comes close.

    As for PvE vs PvP I’ve done a lot of both. I like PvP and there is a high degree of player skill, not just reaction speed, but even the best fight against a player has none of the resonance of a good fight with a monster. Why? Because I know it’s another player. Another person, sat in a room, pressing the keys on a PC keyboard. Winning or losing to another human being is unoriginal – I’ve done that a million times playing pool, cards, tennis, Trivial Pursuit… Insofaras I play these games to fight, and of course it’s by no means the only reason I play, or even the main one, but insofaras I do it’s to fight magical creatures of great wonder, not other middle-aged men.

  2. Azuriel says:

    “early naughties”

    Haha.

    Anyway, I agree with you that most of the people describing “normal” MMO combat to be boring are simply bored themselves. I personally find it exciting doing even the same rotations and such, trying to eek out that extra bit of DPS or otherwise improve my tanking/healing skills. Reacting, switching tactics, and so on are also fun, but I’m completely content with the usual combat too. I mean, hell, if the combat wasn’t amusing enough on its own, how did anyone get to the level cap in the first place (multiple times, even)?

  3. Pathak says:

    I’m doing a lot of PvP in GW2 at the moment. And just the structured variety (instead of WvWvW).

    There are a couple of interesting observations:
    * You can partake immediately after creating the character. You probably won’t, but the option is there.
    * You get all your skills and traits to allocate as you see fit, without penalty for resets.
    * Even though you get given a default set up for armor, weapon, amulet, runes and sigil, it appears you can change these for alternate stats, and for free.

    This last part puzzled me for a bit, since I was looking around for gear upgrades. Turns out, as far as stats are concerned, there don’t seem to be any. The greatsword you get at rank 1 looks pretty much the same as the greatsword at rank 70 or 80, or however high PvP ranks tend to go. I’m only at rank 7 at the moment, and the next major rank step is at rank 10, transitioning me from Rabbit to Deer.

    So then I was wondering, what will I get by doing this PvP thing. Well, since there’s no better stat based gear, all that is left is cosmetics, and becoming a master of your craft by experimenting with traits, amulets and sigils.

    As you become more aware of what is going on around you, making meaningful selections of skills and abilities (rather than just spamming), somethings become apparent and a little different that what you might have been previously used to (like my WoW background). Like, dodge is something you do, not a stat (from a soldier POV, anyway). Sure, there’s a stat to increase the recharge on your dodge ability, but if you actually want to avoid some incoming damage (like a pending AoE attack), then double-arrow and get out of there.

    Rank, which is account based, becomes an indicator of how long you have been at this PvP thing. With no significant gear upgrades, just stats choices, you’re more likely to be beaten by skill, rather than gear.

  4. Pathak says:

    Oh, the question: Does MMO combat suck?

    MMO combat scratches my itch for battles not full of burst, and meaningful selection of skills. Particularly GW2 combat, at the moment, where its choices and skill, rather than tiers of gear that will win the fight.

  5. Kelindia says:

    The problem with trying to discuss whether MMO combat is bad is that you’re tossing the various incarnations of MMO combat into a mixing pot and then asking the question. While I’m sure you meant to imply that there are incarnations you can only ask whether they are bad or not by comparing them to a standard that will have to vary with each different version of what we call MMOs.

    That aside, what happens to me over time while I play is that eventually i get to the point where I know the game well enough to be able to execute the strategies that have the best chance of working with very little room for improvement beyond gear upgrades. When I get to a point in playing where the gameplay becomes stagnant, it isn’t to long before I quit. This is regardless of how well the system responds, or how many abilities I have or how many moves I have in a turn.

    Even games that I enjoyed thoroughly don’t have lasting appeal if I get to a point where combat become merely going through the motions. Fallout and Skyrim come to mind particularily. There is zero appeal for me to want to jump back into them, while games like WoW, Rift or even chess and Magic have lasting appeal to me simply because of how much more room for improvement there is.

    As such for me the leveling game was by far the worst experiences of WoW and Rift for me from sheer boredom. Thats not to say I didn’t enjoy the stories(thats what made me continue leveling) but I took longer breaks of play, played less per week and took much longer to accomplish things while playing this part of the game. This right here is the reason I never finished leveling my SWTOR toon even though I was enjoying the story quite a bit more then most other games I had played.

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  7. Tesh says:

    I like mindless, auto-attack combat when I’m just playing while trying to rock my little one to sleep. I like thoughtful, intricate combat when I have the attention to spare for it. I love careful, tactical combat, but that tends to be turn-based, something uncommon in MMOs. Games that are flexible and allow more than one of those get bonus points in my book.

  8. Spherix says:

    The issue is that it’s highly unlikely that anyone would have ever designed any of the combat systems used in MMOs for any game that wasn’t an MMO. They’re designed first and foremost to be forgiving of latency. As a result, there’s a greater disconnect between the pushing of keys and the actions of your character. It’s more like you’re ordering your character around, rather than directly controlling them. It feels like a compromise, like they want something that feels like a console game, but know they can’t do it.

    Really, they should either embrace that disconnect, and deliberately make them feel more like an RTS, or they should invent something new. I think it’s that sense of compromise that makes people feel MMO combat is bad. It feels like it’s a bad version of something else, rather than a good version of its own thing.

    I’d suggest too that whether people perceive MMO combat to be good or bad would depend on what other gaming experiences they have. Someone who primarily plays MMOs will probably just take it for granted, that MMO combat is a thing unto itself, rather than a poor version of some other system.

  9. Steve says:

    I miss the EQ style in that the chat time you had allowed you to get to know ppl…. I still chat online with 8 ppl everyday that i met while playing EQ. We’ve been friends ever since and even though we are all doing different games now we still meet in a chatroom everyday to keep in touch and talk.

    If the fighting style and combat that we have now was in place back then I don’t think I would have a friendship with anyone. Today in games it’s all about soloing unless you need to get through a specific piece of content then everyone is back to soloing.

    I wouldn’t mind at all some ‘forced’ grouping at a slower pace that would give people a chance to actually make a connection. Who knows, you may even make a FRIEND or two.

  10. bubble says:

    The main thing i want is to not be staring at my hotbar the whole time. They create all these cool mobs and fancy animations and all i ever see is my hotbar or a dead mob (or a dead me) because if you stop clicking cooldowns like a mad monkey you die.

    I’d like one skill a level that each have a particular tactical use – which i choose from a tree with different branchs – and a deck of say 5 of those skills that i can use at a time which i select to use for particular mobs and situations e.g. for a very tough single mob i might load up on defensive skills with just a riposte skill for attack while against a bunch of weak goblins when i have strong armor i load up attack and aoe attack skills.

    If positioning was made important then constantly moving would make the fights dynamic while still being focused on the centre of the screen and not the hotbar. Also if the equivalent of cooldowns e.g. your riposte triggering or an ability triggered by a group member’s action, create a clickable icon in the centre of the screen that you have a second or two to click rather than the hotbar then again you get the dynamism while still watching the actual fight.

    • AidanPryde says:

      I came here looking to see if others have the same sense of dissatisfaction I do about combat in MMOs. You hit the nail on the head with your first paragraph. I feel like all combat involves is staring at the hotbar, clicking buttons as quickly as I can to take down my foe. I don’t get to enjoy what’s happening in the battle, because I am too busy watching cooldowns. I love the combat in games like Fallout and FPS, and I think the difference is I get to observe and enjoy what is happening, rather than managing a dashboard.

  11. [...] Gordon at We Fly Spitfires wonders what’s so bad about MMO combat anyway. [...]

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  14. Andre says:

    I have to agree that combat in PvE MMORPG gets boring after some time. Why? Because it’s always the same pattern. As example, you charge your enemie, put in some AoE, pressing button XYZ and it’s done.

    What makes me excited about MMORPG’s combat is structured PvP together with my teammates. It’s much more complex, you have to take a look at the healers and interrupt them, control them. This requires a bit more reflexes and overall look then just jumping into a crowed of NPC monsters and killing them with AoE spam. Thats my personal oppinion.

  15. [...] Is MMO Combat Really That Bad? is a post from someone who likes the challenge of PVP and is happier with combat now than it used to be in past. Share this:TwitterFacebookGoogleLike this:Like Loading… This entry was posted in LOTRO, Roundups and tagged games, mmo, play, psychology. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  16. Everquest was such a revolutionary game, anyone who was anyone was playing that back in the day, MMO games rock! You just can’t beat em, especially PvP. Thanks for the post Gordan

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