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.
Great post. I personally like the GW2 approach and to some extent, the Wildstar way of using a “limited action set”. It frees the player from watching the action bars and focusing on the game itself. The limited amount of skill buttons to push helps to create a natural keyset without using macros.
Playing both games, I think Wildstar is going a little too far with the telegraph system. In larger fights with more sophisticated mobs, the screen can become a mess of red squares and circles. You end up spending alot more time trying to move then you do focusing on the game.
I think Wildstar is implementing an alpha transparency option for telegraphs, which would be very helpful for game immersion and less distraction in general. I still want to know if I am standing in red, but I don’t want to trade a screen full of bars for a screen full of red circles and squares.
I was wondering how telegraphs would work when there are multiple enemies targeting you, so thanks for speaking to that.
Telegraph spam sounds like something that still needs to be sorted out.
That makes sense.
Do telegraphs have different visual treatments based on effect? E.g. CC’s have one color/shape, damaging attacks have another?
Generally telegraphs in PVP are about the same shape and color as other abilities. It sometimes makes it hard to make a choice between standing in this one and that one. But overall, it seems to work fairly well with the breakout gameplay.
I totally agree with that. I also find it hard to make a choice on that point. Since the last update, i just regained the feeling of having fun again.
For me it works out fine now
Not only does the telegraph system seem to be over done the combat itself seems more boring to watch honestly. All you have to do is watch for these telegraphs. So like you said, instead of watching the UI you are now watching circles, etc.
Ugh, that’s what I was afraid of.
The telegraphs are applied in both directions, right?
1. my targeting the enemy
2. the enemy targeting me
#1 makes sense.
#2 may make telegraphs best suited to smaller-scale combat. I imagine in a 1v1 context or 2v2 context, where you can clearly tell which telegraphs are for which opponent, it works well. Or for solo PVE.
But what about larger-scale combat?
It’s a complex design challenge. How do you make combat revolve around aiming and movement, and have a way to be able to tell what the opponent is doing, so that you have the option of avoiding their attacks? With GW2, players rely on their opponent’s animations, and it helps to know the abilities of your opponent’s weapon to anticipate their actions.
Lol I think the best answer is a tab targeting system. Hear me out a little bit, make a simplistic version of tab targeting that marks a specific pve mob or player in pvp. Your target is the only mob/player for whom you can see the telegraphs of.
The meta game goal for pve is to force players to watch adds for tells, and guess the locations to move to avoid them. A targeted boss however would have their CC and one shot mechanics clearly marked on the ground to be avoided.
Similarly in pvp, you would be able to target the player of greatest threat to you for helping avoid their CC and abilties, but but avoiding other player’s mechanics would require you to have greater situational awareness of their positioning and tell. Also, if you are numerically overwhelmed you are not going to drag out the fight by moving to the one spot on the ground without color.
Best I got, taking off my developer’s hat now.
That’s a simple solution, and sometimes those are the best for a complex problem :)
From a practical standpoint, that makes sense. In real combat, you can’t focus on what 10 opponents are doing, unless you’re Bruce Lee.
Let me give you my opinion on the telegraph system. Its not overly distracting at all.
In larger scale PvP stay out of the red and stay in the green not much different then other mmos. Its not a cluster and its easy to learn what they are based on the classes projecting them. In pve its simpler mobs have basic auto attacks and telegraph abilities. Its still not a cluster and I don’t feel distracted at all. Where I am looking at the screen in my LAS bar and my character. It is easy to see where my telegraphs are going and where the mobs are going. I think this new style of combat of action based mixed with the old familiar is a genuine refreshment to MMORPGs. Cant wait to see ya in beta
In PVE, the telegraphs get very complex and require you to move a lot. Sometimes, you have a choice of standing in one, or standing in two (obviously, you stand where you’ll take less dmg).
In PVP, big skirmishes can be a little hectic, but ultimately with a little practice you start reacting to the situations based on what you see. Telegraphs become part of the battle. You instinctually avoid them and aim your shots.
So far it seems to be working fairly well. There are some instances where the combat gets spammy and there’s not much you can do but take the AOE (melee). But you pick your fights and avoid those situations unless your group controls them.
I wonder if it’s like The Matrix – you eventually get used to seeing all the data and understanding what it means…a red-head over here, a brunette over there…
Do AOE attacks have the same efficacy as single-target? I wonder if treating them differently from a telegraph perspective would help.
I’ve pretty much figured out as melee, you don’t want to get into the big red-mess in battlegrounds. So when I see a telegraph, I tend to move out of it and try to position myself to better attack.
Depends on the ability. Most abilities tell you how many targets they hit in the telegraph. The game determines who’s hit by who is closet. So an attack that hits 3 targets will choose the 3 closet. The abilities that hit multiple targets will hit them all the same, and generally have a wider telegraph.
Single target abilities are generally more narrow. There’s not many that I know of, and they’re almost all utility or support abilities. Most assault abilities will hit more than one target.
I wonder to what extent this will favor RPDS over MDPS.
Interesting. In every other game AOE abilities are fewer than single-target.
Overall I’m fairly impressed with the combat. It’s deep enough that it forces you to make interesting choices in how you load out your toon but easy enough for new players to pick it up fairly fast. Very low barrier to entry and high skillcap.
That should be the design goal for any MMORPG system. Easy-to-learn, hard-to-master. That’s one of the things I appreciated about World of Tanks.
I’m one of those strange folks who loves playing around with addons in WoW. Not having access to the same robust community in other games can be disappointing at times. I’ve lost countless hours to trying out and tweaking different combinations of addons. I think it’s one of the few things that keeps WoW engaging for me when I come back after long breaks.
There were always times in Rift and SWTOR where I’d wish for the same level of customization. Filtering out other player’s debuffs and managing personal buffs could get convoluted pretty quickly with certain classes in raid and pvp environments.
I won’t comment too much on Wildstar’s UI since it’s still under construction. Action combat and the limited number of abilities definitely reduces the need to rely so heavily on watching UI elements though.
I haven’t done large group pve content yet. I agree with the other comments here that stacking telegraphs in pvp gets a little out of hand. There are some forms of CC that are instant cast and don’t have a visual cue associated with them.
I guess you should just memorize what the telegraph shapes are for big abilities for each class and try to avoid those at all costs.
I’m hoping I can get some decent play time in the coming weeks, but a busy schedule and some vicious lag kept me away from the beta for a while. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts once you’ve had a change to try it out.
I have mixed feelings about addons. Looking back I realize what I wrote only talked about the negative side.
On the one hand, they can be powerfully insightful and improve quality-of-life (e.g. AH addons). Addons also provide the opportunity for the community to creatively problem-solve for the issues of the default UI, and over time some addon features are selectively integrated into the game by the developer.
OTOH, they can feel required to perform in some games or trivialize the content. I felt that way with addons in WoW, esp the boss mod ones.
Yes, I agree the UI should be customizable.
This can be done without addons.
I’d suggest doing away with all enemy telegraphs, and see if one can still achieve balance re PvE difficulty.
Wildstar combat looks like a nice evolution of what funcom did with TSW. The “breakout” concept was already in Champions.
I’ll probably try it, but outside of the combat and maybe housing, i’m not sure the game will bring much of what i like.
I have to say I have really enjoyed the PVP and PVE combat so far. Granted I have only leveled a couple toons (both melee) to around level 18. I have participated in the last beta as well as the current one. I think they are winter beta 2 and 3.
Combat feels interesting, especially when solo questing. You cant zone out and watch a movie on another screen like i have in both rift and wow. I have not found the animations to be spammy or overbearing, i find that i simply avoid specific cone types that i know cause large damage, i.e. spellslinger very long and thin telegraph which does big damage. I also enjoy the ability to see healing telegraphs and make sure i stay in them as well. One thing to note is that you really cant just stare at the ground since you have to be aiming your own abilities as well. I dont understand how anyone can say they just stare at red circles. If you are, then you cant be generating much offense. You always have to pick and choose what abilities are worth dodging and which are not. Overall i would say they implemented the system very well and it makes combat much more varied and immersive. The housing is very well done and the pvp zone design is excellent as well.
O a side note i will admit i havent had those 6-10 hour sessions like i did with rift and wow. I usually last about 2 hours and then i log, Perhaps that is because the combat is a little more work than the previous games, who knows. Maybe I’m just 38 years old now and my priorities are shifting LOL…….Love your guides Taugrim, happy to see interest in Wildstar especially since i did not dig GW2 or WOT very much.
That makes sense, and what I would intuit by watching the videos. Telegraphs work great in a solo or smaller-scale context.
I think even with aiming there could be the tendency to just watch your opponent’s feet, but not really have to pay attention to what they’re actually doing with their weapons.
I’ve been taking a break cold-turkey from online games for a couple months, and it’s been healthy.
I want to enjoy games, but not to the detriment of other aspects of my life. But that’s a topic for another day :)
Have you ever played DCUO? It has one of the best action combat systems, imo. Combos, active blocking, block breakers… it’s a bit like they took some fighting game mechanics and put them into an MMO. And there’s almost no need to watch the UI.
Also, it’s good to see you’re still around. I’m looking forward to seeing what you think about Wildstar. :)
No, but based on what you said the combat system sounds good :)
The problem is that the UI will always dominate. Until we get full immersion setups, we’ll always have some interface. The best players will master the interface. The example of a WoW raider interface above is from someone who has optimized it to see the information they need to perform the best. My UI when I did healing on my Druid was a lot simpler, but I probably wouldn’t hold a candle to the healing ability of the person who set up that UI.
I’m personally not fond of less skills, a la GW2. The problem is that it doesn’t really put less emphasis on cooldowns, it actually puts more on it. In a game with a lot of skills, you can stand out by using the right skills at the right time. My favorite WoW memory was when one of the rare moments I was bear tanking on my Druid. We were doing a boss that did a special move where I wouldn’t need to tank for a moment. During that time, I shifted out, used my combat rez, and turned back to a Bear and continued tanking. The raid leader went bananas over that. We didn’t end up winning the fight, unfortunately, but it was a fun memory. I couldn’t have the same experience in GW2, because everyone can “rez” in combat, and it would be nearly impossible for someone who wanted to focus on tanking to take the time to do the rez.
But as a healer, you’re still staring at health bars instead of the action. That’s the major difference with healing in WS. As a medic for example, your healing range is short, so you’re actually in the thick of the combat. Healing actually works out like DPSing. You’re aiming your abilities at the people in range and hitting them with heals. You don’t spend a ton of time looking at the raid frames.
This is a good thing. It takes you out of this whack-a-mole mini-game and puts you more into the action. And that’s GOOD.
That sounds awesome :)
Sure, but how do you know who needs healing? You’re still looking for hit point bars. Even if you’re in the thick of the melee, you still need a good way to know who actually needs your attention. Looking at avatars is going to be less efficient than seeing a list of health bars on a screen.
The other problem is: how does that work in raids? The ugly whack-a-mole focused UI above was from a raid. Nobody in WoW ran around the world with that sort of UI up. In raids where people want world firsts and performance counts, I think you’re going to see some equivalent of the ugly UI. Maybe not quite yet in testing, but we can come back after the game has been out for a year and see how players have beaten things into submission.
It’s really that last part that’s important: it’s the players that do this. It’s the players who developed the add-ons for raiding. It’s the players who chose to have more UI elements showing on the screen instead of the world. it’s the players who expect others to live up to that sort of performance. I’ll bet that if we could travel back in time before WoW’s launch and could ask the developers if that was a design goal, they would have said “no”. But, it’s the players that decided to take that route, because it helped them accomplish their goals.
So, in Wildstar, you have 3 different types of healers.
1. Medic — Close quarters AOE healer.
2. Spellslinger — Long Range AOE (some single target) healer.
3. Esper — Single Target (some AOE) healer.
Each one of these provide a different style of healing and different utility to the group.
With that being said, with an Esper, you could (if you wanted to) play the whack-a-mole game. They’re really good at that type of healing. However, if you’re playing a medic, you’re looking at the battlefield in front of you and placing your telegraphs in the areas that need them. You DO look at health bars over avatars rather than raid frames.
As a spellslinger, you may stand back and take in the bigger picture, spot healing single targets as needed. Watching either the battlefield or the health bars over avatars.
Additionally, you have to remember, that end-game PVP and PVE will consist 40man raid groups. Healer placement will also play a bigger role, as a vast majority of heal spells in game are AOE.
Sounds similar to Bear Shaman in Age of Conan.
Yep, as a Feral Druid tank in TBC, I’d be watching not just the boss and threat meters, but also the blue bars of our healers.
I’d shift out while kiting the boss, or during transition phases, to Innervate a healer proactively. Healers loved that. And of course the clutch brez was always a fun thing to do.
That being said, there were serious inequalities between classes of the same role (e.g. tanks) in WoW, and I’d rather not experience that again.
Well, I’m certainly not in favor of terrible imbalances, although I think that the imbalances in TBC weren’t truly as bad as people made them out to be. But, I think there are ways to address imbalances besides drastically limiting the number of abilities each character has to play with.
Ed, I think you’re doing a disservice calling it “UI Combat”. It’s rules-based combat where knowing how to build your character meant more than simply knowing how to twitch him around the screen.
I don’t think either system really requires any more or less focus on the UI.
That said, WildStar seems to be a perfect hybrid of the systems and I’m really looking forward to it!
All combat is rules-based.
In both paradigms, yes, you are looking at the same UI. The real question is: what are you looking at during combat? For “UI Combat” games, it’s the bars / addons, not the actual combatants.
All games involve building / spec’ing your character. That isn’t the focus of the issue here.
And I think this is where your concern lies: that it seems too twitchy.
I used to have the perception that Action Combat would go down that slippery slope, but if designed carefully, you can have combat which does require skill / aiming / moving, without going to the extent of an FPS where twitch is everything.
Looking forward to Wildstar, but do have some concerns. While watching the steams, all I remember is watching the telegraphs. Not the boss, not what was going on, not the action bar. Just looking at the ground for the telegraphs. So, I don’t find it a new paradigm, it’s just all AOE attack, that sill allow you to tab target/click target and point your AOE attack with assistance from the telegraph system.
But, Wildstar includes double jump, very interested in how double jump and dash really change PvP. That might be the game changer for this MMO.
Yes, this was my concern without having played the game.
I like the emphasis on movement and positioning for combat a lot. We’ll have to see how well it plays out.
I have been playing Kingdoms of Amalur this weekend. It is on sale on steam this weekend btw. The combat in the game is great. It has a telegraph system which makes it very obvious when and where to gtfo, I don’t know if such a combat system could be implemented in a large scale mmo, but I would love to see someone try. There are many other parts of KOA that failed, but the combat system is stellar.
I enjoy an action oriented combat system like Tera and GW2. I tried Tera and i found it unplayable to be honest. Guild Wars 2 held my interest for a while but unfortunately my friends drifted away from it. I tried Neverwinter online and that had a similar combat system to GW2. I played NWO for a while until I lost interest. So I went back to Wow.
But now my interest in Wow is fading fast again.
There are aspects of all of those games that I am sure will be integrated into the next big mmo. I agree that action oriented combat is a likely direction. If someone can also integrate the successful parts of Wow, (which there are many) then i think they would have a winnner.