Monday, May 05, 2008

Combat Pacing and Raiding

I've recently been suffering from a bout of ennui with World of Warcraft brought on by the direction the game has taken recently. I will probably organize my thoughts into a post eventually but at the moment I'm just going to say I've been playing other games more often. One of the games I picked back up on a temporary basis was the original Everquest which was always fun in that "OMG, I don't want to die kind of way". It’s changed a bit though and been made very solo friendly at the early levels since it’s pretty difficult to find a group. Another new feature is the addition of newbie armors quests which help jump starting your gear progression. In fact about the only thing which hasn't changed in the game is the combat pacing which is still much slower compared to modern MMOs.

While leveling in the early teens I could often pull a mob to me and turn my auto attack on and walk away from my keyboard. I usually had time to get a drink from the kitchen, use the restroom, and do my taxes before my target died. I exaggerate a bit but it’s still clear that Everquest was made during a time when time sinks were common and the term "casual player" had yet to be coined. There's a certain bit of charm in playing an old fashion game like this and it reminds me a lot of my experience replaying NES classics like Zelda, Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. While the graphics in these games are poor they tend to highlight the evolution of the game design now used in most MMOs.

In the case of Everquest it has made me look at where we might be going with combat pacing in the future. World of Warcraft has always been a much faster game then Everquest and this becomes especially apparent in raids. An experienced raid team knows exactly how to maximize damage/healing and is lightning fast on the instant abilities. In fact I think the global cool down is the only limiting factor for some raiding guilds. This has always made it hard to balance raid content for World of Warcraft. Back in the 40-player raids it became apparent that most encounters were doable as long as at least 25-30 people knew what they were doing. The rest could be inexperience players or even paying customers who bought their raid spot.

I believe Blizzard realized that this was a common occurrence and that it allowed hardcore raiders who could field 40 well experienced players to burn through new raid content. Most guilds though have to worry about fielding new players and teaching them the basics of how their class works in groups. In Everquest not only was the pacing slower so less split second decisions were needed but players learned group mechanics early on. Blizzard tried balancing the last couple of raid zones before the expansion towards having 40 experienced raiders. It was a disaster. Most guilds couldn't even beat the first boss and the number of players who saw the content was minimal.

I think this hints that bad things might be awaiting games that are even faster pace than World of Warcraft. Trying to balance encounters for large raids is going to be impossible when reactions times become more and more important. One of the things I'm looking forward to is being able to run new dungeons in Age of Conan. However, I wonder about the button mashing the game requires for most melee classes. If they follow the same trend as most MMOs then are they going to require their raids to clear through trash before fighting bosses. What happens when your main tank has pressed right, front, and left 12,000 times before even the first boss fight?

Exploring Tabula Rasa and looking through the beta material for Age of Conan has really made me doubt that old raid formulas can work for these faster paced games. I think PvE material can be introduced but it’s going to have to be structured completely differently then what we seen before. I expect ideas and features commonly used in PvP areas like battlegrounds, arenas, and realm combat to start showing up in raid content. People with different skill levels want different levels of challenge and static raid content just doesn't work. It forces developers to focus on the most skilled raiders to balance content and that is going to alienate the mostly casual player base that exists in MMOs nowadays.

In the future I wouldn't be surprised to see games that allowed players to set the difficultly level of a raid zone. This could be something as simple as a "Heroic" setting or even a system that automatically increased mob difficulty based on a guild rating. I'm also sure that new ideas will arise which better match fast combat to large scale PvE content. I don't really see the market moving backwards to slower combat since it seems to go hand and hand with increased downtime. While MMO players almost never agree on a subject, there's a common belief that we're better off without downtime or time sinks.