Disclaimer: I have not yet played WildStar in Beta, and as the NDA is still in place, even if I do start participating in Beta I’ll honor the NDA. So I won’t respond to questions about what I actually think based on playing the game.
There has been a significant shift in the combat experience of MMORPGs with the introduction and evolution of “Action Combat” – and Carbine Studios is adding meaningful improvements to this paradigm in the upcoming game WildStar.
To fully appreciate the extent of change and what Carbine Studios is doing, let’s contrast the two dominant paradigms for combat in MMORPGs:
- UI-Based Combat: as popularized by World of Warcraft (WoW) and implemented in pretty much every major MMORPG prior to 2012
- Action Combat: as popularized by TERA and especially Guild Wars 2 (GW2) in 2012, and further advanced by WildStar
The Old Paradigm: UI-Based Combat
Here are the typical characteristics of UI-Based Combat:
- The vast majority of abilities are usable only if the selected target is in line-of-sight and in-range, and in the majority of cases those abilities when fired would automatically hit
- A significant aspect of skillful play involves managing the cooldowns of many different abilities
- Abilities are often most effective when used in a predetermined sequence or timing, a.k.a. rotation
- As the number of abilities increases, combat becomes more and more about staring at your ability bars (and addons) that track cooldowns and significant pre-conditions for using other abilities (e.g. target below x% of health, Execute is now usable)
These characteristics synergistically create a context where 80% of a player’s attention is devoted to the elements of the UI as opposed to observing and reacting to the actual fight, and combat often consists of the same ability rotations over and over. Think of the “9-6-9″ rotation for Paladin tanks in the WotLK expansion for WoW.
This is not the most immersive experience, and you can end up with rather ugly UIs such as this:
Granted, the above example is an extreme case of a healing Druid, but it hammers the point home: the UI elements are king, not the actual combat. Heck, you can barely see the combatants and you don’t really need to. I ended up spending a lot of time evaluating, managing, and updating addons for WoW, and it was a headache.
How have game developers innovated in this particular paradigm? Often by adding “more of the same” (MOTS): more abilities, more UI elements. Maybe game developers figured that having more abilities would make gameplay more dynamic. What I do know is that over the course of several years, from WoW to LOTRO, WAR, RIFT, and SWTOR, the number of abilities available to a given character at endgame exploded to several dozens. Playing a character in an MMORPG requires the dexterity of a pianist, and it’s a reason that there has been so much discussion on the material I compiled on keybinding.
Of course, we know that more is not necessarily better. In the incredibly insightful book, Design-Driven Innovation, author Roberto Verganti talked about how commonplace it is for companies to innovate by adding MOTS, or what he refers to as “technology-driven“ innovation. For example, in the smartphone space, for years manufacturers focused on loading their devices with more hardware features, more battery life, better voice quality, and increasingly complicated UIs. Apple re-thought the smartphone experience and delivered disruptive and compelling “new-meaning” innovation with the iPhone, an elegant touchscreen device backed by a 3rd-party developer app ecosystem.
Is it possible to have engaging combat with a much more limited set of abilities? Absolutely!
The New Paradigm: Action Combat
In 2012, the TERA and GW2 delivered “Action Combat” to gamers in North America and Europe, and its characteristics diverged from UI-Based Combat significantly:
- Abilities can be activated at any time, even if your target is out-of-range, not in line-of-sight, etc. Therefore, positioning and distance truly matter
- Many abilities require active targeting with an aiming reticle by the player to determine their trajectory and destination
- There are generally fewer abilities to manage, and the emphasis with abilities is on the timing of when they’re used, not just activating them whenever they’re off cooldown
The emphasis on combat in this model has shifted from the UI to actually observing and reacting to the combatants.
This is what ArenaNet intended when they said they wanted gamers to “play the game not the UI” as they outlined in their pre-launch Golden Rules for GW2. This is not to say that the GW2 UI is perfect; for example, I would love the ability to make certain elements more visible, such as the indicators for boons and conditions on targets and friendlies. But overall I believe ArenaNet delivered on their intended combat experience.
You could say that the Action Combat model has adopted some of the characteristics that were long present in First Person Shooters (FPS games), in particular active targeting. Five years ago, I would have said that this would be a slippery slope and combat could become too twitch-based. But after having experience the over-emphasis of the UI in the older model, I now prefer Action Combat. It’s far more engaging and dynamic.
And this brings us to WildStar…
WildStar Advances Action Combat
Carbine Studios has taken a very intentional approach in designing their combat system, as outlined in their videos on the 3 parts of the WildStar “Combat Sandwich”: Movement, Aiming, and Crowd Control.
In case you’ve been stuck under a rock bigger than the one I’ve been hiding under recently, here are those 3 videos (I put Movement last since the other two are more eye-opening to veterans of UI-Based Combat games):
Free-form targeting and telegraphs add the element of skill to hitting targets and avoiding being hit. Contrast this with UI-Based Combat, where hitting targets and avoidance are typically math-based stats, which is something which has always felt so counter-intuitive in other games.
Granted, good movement in PVP in UI-Based Combat games has generally helped, but making all aiming and avoidance based on player control is awesome.
Games prior to WildStar haven’t quite cracked the nut of crowd control (CC) in PVE or PVP.
In UI-Based Combat, you typically have a very limited number of options available when you are CC’d, and those abilities are tied to long cooldowns, and bosses are typically immune to most forms of CC, which devalues specs and gameplay that emphasize them. Many games have diminishing returns for CC in PVP, but the problem is that with the exception of SWTOR, the DR is not made visible (without an addon). Or with DR some knucklehead on your team may give an opponent CC immunity at a time which is actually advantageous to the opponent.
GW2 partially (and I tread carefully here) addressed the problem of CC by having no DR on CC, and letting players decide the extent to which they want to spec into CC-inflicting abilities and CC counters.
WildStar elegantly avoids all of these limitations with their Breakout Gameplay mechanics when you’re CC’d.
Finally in WildStar, we may have the expectation in PVE that tanks move and position themselves in ways that make sense. As a former WoW raid tank, my #1 pet peeve is raiding with tanks that don’t know how to position their targets. I’m talking about incompetent tanks who run up and facetank the boss, forcing all the MDPS to circle around so they don’t get cleaved. What the tank should do is strafe and flip the boss so that its back is exposed to the MDPS. It makes sense to have 1 person move than 8, amirite, and it boost raid DPS.
Potential Concerns for WildStar’s Implementation
Thinking through what I’ve seen so far, here are two potential concerns:
- Not enough abilities
- Combat will be World of Telegraphs
With WildStar, the number of slottable abilities will be even less than what we have in GW2. That said, I’m not concerned. Given the “Combat Sandwich” mechanics, there will be plenty for the player to focus on. In terms of abilities, less is more.
Keep in mind that with GW2, abilities are tied to weapons, some weapons have dud abilities, and some weapons are superior to others. With WildStar, the weapons for each class are fixed, and you can slot whatever 8 abilities you want. I’d prefer that model, which is more like the Chinese Menu approach as opposed to being stuck with a Prix Fixe setup. Hopefully Carbine will do a good job at balancing the available abilities and creating incomparables, so that players will have to make meaningful tradeoff decisions.
Regarding the 2nd concern, is it possible that WildStar is so telegraph-centric that we’ll be replacing our watching of UI elements with watching of telegraphs? Granted, it’s still a huge step forward in terms of immersive, engaging, skill-based combat. But if I can essentially just stare at the ground for telegraphs and ignore the boss / mob combat animations, I may get that disconnected feeling I have with UI-Based Combat games.
Editor’s note (2014/01/27): I also neglected to mention the risk of telegraph spam, which readers commented about.
I really appreciate that Carbine is walking gamers through their thinking on game mechanics. Mythic Entertainment with Warhammer Online demonstrated the power of social media and blogging to generate interest for a game, but Carbine’s “Combat Sandwich” videos are the most insightful content I’ve seen pre-launch on the most important aspect of an MMORPG, the combat. It gives me confidence in what they are doing.