Tuesday, February 17, 2009

RPG's: back to the roots

A core gameplay component in the RPG's of yesteryear was the management of a limited set of resources. In particular, the number of spells that could be cast in a given dungeon were limited, and your gold was limited which meant that you only had a certain number of potions and magic items to take with you.

This meant that a large part of the gameplay revolved around the player's decisions on when to use those resources. You don't want to waste your big guns on the punier enemies that you run across, but then again you have to make sure that you can still handle them without becoming too injured, otherwise you'll have a tough time later on.

Further, healing was especially scarce. Most healing spells only healed for a pitiful amount compared to your HP, and they were touch range with a long cast time to boot. This meant that healing was relegated to post-combat usually. The focus was really on mitigating damage as much as possible in the first place, through smart use of spells and abilities - your HP pool was there as a margin for error.

Fast forward to current (online) RPG's: spells are spammed. Damage comes flying in by the thousands. Limited use items are a dime a dozen and can be farmed up the wazoo before entering a difficult area. The fundamental RPG gameplay notion of limited resource management is gone. This is why MMO combat feels so dumbed-down - all the strategical decisions have been made before the combat started (your character build, your team's build), leaving the players to just go through the motions.

Forget the fact that spam heals at range do not agree with any fantasy lore ever created whatsoever (no, WoW books don't count). The spammy spammy nature of healing is killing off one of the few interesting areas of RPG decision making, and sapping all the depth out of most games, leading to posts like this one (which inspired my mini rant here).

Design should be based instead around damage mitigation. Light healing is ok, but shouldn't completely reset the scales after each battle, otherwise to be a challenge EVERY SINGLE GROUP OF MONSTERS has to have a fair chance of killing someone in the group (leading to many current MMO 'hard difficulty' options where enemies can just 2-shot you).

Guild Wars has done some impressive work in this area with the Protection line of skills. These are used far more extensively than healing skills in PvP. Sadly in PvE people mostly resort to the good ol' trinity. There are probably a few reasons for this - a big one is that tanks already mitigate damage to a large extent, and so often the only stuff that gets through is stuff that ignores most damage mitigation. It's clear that getting rid of the spammy spammy nature of healing goes hand in hand with getting rid of the notion of a tank that can miraculously 'hold aggro' with magical taunts that also have no basis in any lore I've ever heard of. That means, of course, changing mob AI and a bunch of other goodness.

Another necessity seems probably to limit the number of limited-use items that can be used by the team during a dungeon crawl, to prevent simply stocking up on a pile of them beforehand. Alternately, such items could be made available during the dungeon crawl, rewarding adventurers with more power for exploring off the beaten path a bit (but of course with the added risk of burning more resources than you gained on fighting the extra monsters that you'd encounter... Strategical decisions, no?).

An interesting 'half way' solution is the Halo combat system. Each group of enemies there have to punch through your shield before they can damage your health. The shield regenerates quickly after each fight - your actual health, not at all. This avoids painting yourself into a corner where you simply can not possibly beat the next group of enemies, while still limiting your resources over the course of a level (aka dungeon).

Expansion of this idea would, I think, be the best way to go about overhauling MMO combat systems to be a bit more deep and a bit less auto-pilot. Also, when you have to focus on protecting people, you get to *gasp* pay attention to the actual game world, instead of watching a bunch of health bars. Everybody wins! (cue wining of people who say "omg I play healer in every MMO don't tell me how to play!!!!~1111")


Anonymous said...

I seem to remember the Wrath beta including "potion sickness" which limited potion use in combat. I don't think that made it to the live game... but I do wonder what that would have done to combat for those brave enough to work within that constraint.

Rich said...

people cried too much about not being able to chug pots.

i linked back to this post in my own expose on changing healing over at ixobelle. <3

Melf_Himself said...

Oh, I'm sure they did cry. For several reasons:

1) The gameplay to back up the limited resources just isn't there in WoW. There's not enough of a focus on mitigation, so chugging potions and spamming spells on recharge is the only way to stay alive.

2) There's a psychological factor involved if you've got 100 potions in your inventory but can only use, say, 2 per dungeon encounter. Change the gameplay so that those 2 potions were found during the dungeon run (and couldn't be brought in the inventory) and things become completely different... it seems then like a great boon to be able to use those 2 potions.

3) People cry in games whenever you change anything. Especially MMO players :p

Ixo, I know I probably won't sell you on this idea, but my most compelling argument is that a random vanilla fight is not a challenge unless the monsters stand a decent chance of diminishing your ability to complete the area.

The only way for that to happen in a spam-heal system is for each monster group to pack enough damage to stand a decent chance of getting a kill. This leads to either:
a) Monsters with mega pumped up damage (did you lag for 1 second? Oops party wipe).
b) Easy monsters that pose no challenge (boring)

In a non-spam system, instead a small bout of lag won't kill you, one mistake won't end the whole raid, and there is some level of attention that should be paid to even the 'trash pulls'.

Rich said...

i'm all for making trash pulls hurt more, in fact i had a post where I wished that each time you needed to use a weapon, it was a long drawn out ordeal. In an instance like SM Cath, I wish each pull was a 5 or 6 minute ordeal, and that there were fewer, but more meaningful encounters.... and *then* Bosses.

I was also one of the two people on the planet that was in favor of Potion Sickness, it seemed. I dunno about having to find pots inside the runs (it would kill alchemy outright), but making a potion provide a HoT instead of a lump instant heal would be a step in the right direction.

Melf_Himself said...

Hrm, I'm not sure if I'd want each pull to take 5-6 minutes, that seems like it would get old fast. Especially if you do it the standard MMO way, which is to give the monsters ridiculous amounts of HP. I think the only time a fight should take that long is probably:

a) against a balanced group that has healing and debuffs and such, which should probably be limited to bosses
b) against a horde of enemies that keeps running to you (which is cool)

Finding pots wouldn't have to kill alchemy. Maybe you find ingredients during the run, which can be cobbled together to make a potion (ooh, flashback to Aragorn finding bits of some plant to heal Frodo's wound after Weathertop, gogo Aragorn alchemy + 20 :p).

Alternatively, treasure searching / secret door finding / lock picking becomes a useful spec to take along. Which was a lot of the point to taking the rogue/thief class along in old-school RPG dungeons. That's fallen along the wayside in MMORPG's.

I also think the idea of minimizing damage taken on each pull (because of the limited healing) could re-enforce the need for stealth / scouting ahead just like back in the good ol' days. Anything that can be added to the gameplay to add strategy that isn't explicitly combat-related is welcome variety I would think.

Cap'n John said...

Gameplay like this would also bring back CC, and potentially remove today's current style of AOE Tanking and rushed Instances.

Can you really afford to let 6 Mobs beat on and wear down your Tank's "shield" while you AOE them down? His "shield" won't last long against 6 Mobs, and as soon as it's down his health will start taking a beating.

Considering his Shield will replenish itself out of combat but his Health will not, AOE Tanking would not be a sound strategy.

Melf_Himself said...

Anything that makes groups rely less on tanking and more on active use of CC is a win in my opinion, another good point.