26 Ways to spice up MMO combat

When I started writing this article some while ago, it was called “10 ways to spice up MMO combat”. As these things go sometimes, it’s grown considerably in size ever since, with more and more ideas accumulating in my draft that I wouldn’t want to abandon. Well that’s that – I guess we call it proof of how badly MMOs need to improve one of their most centric features: battle.

Now, I don’t claim that any of the here suggested features or effects are new; nothing’s new under the sun, everything has been done somewhere, sometime, in an online or classic video game. Some of it we’ve sadly not seen enough of, some has never been done properly or very poorly. Not all of it is applicable to every type of MMO or necessarily in combination – but these are all features with some great potential to make future MMO combat more tactical, cooperative and dynamic in my eyes. And yes, more action based.

Actual fast-paced combat opens (or really, re-opens) the doors of possibility when it comes to MMORPGs. If you don’t have to spend an hour theorycrafting, respeccing, buffing, and finally, dice-rolling your opponent to death — and instead could catch him unawares and simply send him packing with a blade to the throat — you’d have free time to do things other than combat.” [massively]

Many of us probably agree with the Massively article in that it’s time to move away from lengthy battle preparations, clicking ability bars and waiting on cool-downs, as you stand beside a few more people. Or as Epic Ben (whose page has sadly disappeared since?) put it a while back: “raiding is like synchronized swimming”, MMO combat is often static, repetitive and not exactly interactive. While it will never be quite the real thing (and certainly shouldn’t in every way), there are ways to make virtual combat feel more realistic, alive and exciting. And there are genres that can still teach MMORPGs a lesson or two.

So, here goes – I’ve tried to create some rough sections and to keep detailed descriptions short. I am also feeling lucky today and will just assume you know exactly what I mean by my weakly attempts to name and simplify complex mechanics (y’know, be creative!). In hindsight, I also realize I utterly failed to create any logical order. Good luck!

26 Ways to spice up MMO combat

A) Player-/Class & Group-centric features:

  1. No roles; no holy trinity, no dedicated tank & healer slots. Instead, every class is defined by specific DPS, CC and mitigation abilities. Ideally, we will see this in GW2.
  2. Low health bars, weak healing; similar to most FPS, players can only take so many hits before they die from a level-appropriate target. One-shots are possible. Healing is relatively weak (Darkfall) and most healing abilities target self-sustenance.
  3. More deaths occur as a consequence of the above points; to balance more deaths, death penalties shouldn’t be harsh and combat res becomes a more common ability.
  4. Friendly fire exists; AoE, cone attacks or similar can hurt allies and must be used with caution.
  5. Exhaust effects; players on low health suffer from slower reaction, blurred vision or similar impairing effects. Likewise, status ailments (with individual cures) will affect certain abilities.
  6. Class combos; players can set up combo- and sequence attacks for more powerful DPS. Difficult encounters enforce group interaction/timing and making use of class synergies.
  7. No auto-targeting; spells and abilities must be “aimed”, directed, positioned (AoE zones). Special attacks are responsive to player movement (for ex. influence the flight path of a boomerang by running along). There are several targeting “areas” per body (head, torax, limbs) with individual weaknesses.
  8. Players can actively block, dodge or parry melee attacks if timed correctly.
  9. Classes come with individual elemental affinities and magic resistances (as mobs do).

    B) Opponent-centric features:

    1. Enemy “states” such as aggressive or passive are not indicated by tool tips. There exist different aggro ranges for all kinds of mobs (also within the same family, call it a bad mood!).
    2. Enemies are frequently linked; more multi-mob pulls enforce smart use of CC.
    3. Enemy “AI”; enemies will fight differently depending on group size or spec composition (for ex. switch resistances). Enemies can block, dodge or evade attacks. 
    4. Enemies will pursue attackers more relentlessly (FFXI).
    5. Enemies can attempt to flee battle – the chase is yours to decide on.
    6. Content difficulty is dynamic; enemies/dungeons will adapt to group size and player levels.
    7. Outdoor boss fights or public quests are pick-up and FFA.
    8. Dungeons are randomly generated for each reset and may offer a random boss order and pick.

    C) Environmental features:

    1. Enhanced sounds and need for sound awareness; enemies can be heard from a distance, stealthed enemies can be tracked via noise. Players can discern “10 yards away” and “two levels above at six o’clock” (FPS).
    2. Impact of positioning; player damage responds to range, favoring tactical spots (hills, cavities), shooting from behind walls etc., thus encouraging smart use of terrain and map conditions.
    3. Drawing on the environment; special abilities or spells can be triggered by suitable surroundings – standing in pools is used to create tidal waves, woods proximity triggers archery bonuses etc.
    4. Night/day and weather conditions affect combat and individual abilities.

      D) Eye & Ear candy (never to be taken lightly):

      1. Nice combat visuals; high quality animations for trademark attacks, spells and special abilities. Characteristic palettes for each class, no animation copy&paste.
      2. Finisher and executioner animations (AoC or Skyrim).
      3. Combat music; engaging combat will trigger dedicated up-tempo tunes, with different tracks for ordinary, dungeon endboss or big epic baddie scenarios. (FF)
      4. Dramatic boss scenarios; cinematics/cutscenes before end battles, zone intros, dramatic phase switches.
      5. Allow players to switch dynamically between 1st and 3rd person view.

      Well, have I missed anything you think should be up there? Where do you see the biggest difficulties?

      I know that quite a few of my favorites will be featured in GW2; I don’t wanna go into another hype-stage at this point, but I am greatly looking forward to class & profession combos (which I loved in FFXI), terrain and movement dependent spells, small health pools and health deficit effects – and yes, losing the trinity of course (even if that last bit is still awaiting full confirmation).

      In general, I think we need MMO combat to return to a more dynamic, cooperative focus rather than a group-setup or spec-focused one. Let the actual teamplay, group tactics and performance matter; allow more randomness (for more situative reactions), create more need for control and pro-active play (as opposed to reactive/passive with heavy healing) and more need for situational awareness. Let our worlds come alive; let our opponents act smartly or erratically, let us find different answers to the same problem. Let us care less for stats, procs and cooldowns and more for general timing, synergies and spontaneous action. 

      Most of all: challenge us, so we may rejoice in our victories! I think we are ready for the next chapter.


      1. I actually think slowing down combat would make it more tactical and allow it more difficulty.

        Decisions in WoW are made in fractions of a second. That’s fine for an action-oriented system, but deep and difficult situations don’t really present themselves (best that can be done is the Learn-the-Dance ‘synchronized swimming’ encounters).

        Slower combat means that each decision can carry more weight. Choosing to cast an offensive spell rather than a heal might mean your entire group wipes.

        I also think your “No roles” bullet is a bit misplaced. Any interesting and asymmetric combat game is going to have roles and specialties. Even purely offensive classes in Team Fortress (e.g. Soldier, Scout, Demo, and Heavy) all have strengths, weaknesses, and roles to play during a match. Traditional combat IRL has offensive roles and roles that support the offense. “Support” is quite broad: artillery, supplies, communications, medical, transportation, intelligence, etc..

      2. The thing is, I don’t like strategy games with slow combat, it’s not my idea of a thrilling encounter. for me FPS have it right when it comes to realism and teamplay – and you’d be surprised how tactical you can and need to play in a game where you can get shot in a heartbeat and need to be fast on the ball replacing a fallen ally.
        As for WoW combat and raids, I do not recall anything even close to fast ‘action’ there – it’s fully rehearsed and prepared performances & strategy, encounter design revolves around the same 3 fixed roles that never change.

        This is how you should understand my A1), no more fixed roles as in tank, healer, dps. no encounters that cater to a specific group setup. dynamic teamplay, where you decide on flexible ‘roles’/jobs on the fly, reacting according to what a situation needs. you can call them roles still, but they’re not pre-defined roles and also, healing is a weak part thereof.

        The holy trinity is a crutch I personally don’t want. It also always ends in group setup woes – again, do not want. 🙂

      3. I believe “thrill” to be an emotional response to risking an encounter. There is something to gain, but also something to lose. A game of StarCraft is thrilling because of pride, records, and leaderboards. A strategy board game can be just as intense to play. Experience points, time, and wealth are often wagered in RPGs, and the severity of the loss directly relates to the emotional response of the player.

        The Holy Trinity has evolved from human nature to specialize coupled with simplistic enemy AI. Either make the mobs smarter or place emphasis on player vs player.

      4. That’s partly right – yet to me there’s still a difference between a pressure-loaded adrenaline rush and leading leaderboards or calculating your next move. 😉 maybe it’s purely depending on the player type, but I believe one response is still more ‘physical’ in a sense, than the other. if you create fast paced encounters, you cut back time to make decisions and that is a challenge in itself. performance, reflexes, awareness etc. become a focus, whereas in slower, strategic games it’s preparations, doing your maths etc. – basically theorycraft. it’s not the type of challenge I enjoy personally.

        I’m all for better AI though, because that too is challenging players to perform less scripted motions. unlike you, I don’t think humans are specialists, in fact we’ve survived for so long and evolved because we are ace multi-taskers, versatile and very adaptive. I’d like MMO combat to challenge that versatility. that’s me though, I am versatile in real life, my interests are, the jobs I do are – but not everyone feels comfortable with the same things.

      5. A developer should be careful with combat music, though.

        As I played briefly through Skyrim, I would often be lost in my own little world within it, wandering down a road or through the woods. An enemy would try to sneak up on me, but wait… combat music clicked on so I knew there was someone nearby. Instantly on alert, never once sneaked upon. The same thing happened whenever an enemy was in front of me, but outside my vision or attention range. Combat music was always an obvious giveaway.

        I think the lack of combat music would allow players the opportunity to look out for each other as they explore the world, or even form watches in particularly dangerous areas. Sneaking enemies would become dangerous, as they were meant to be. Small or crafty enemies could use these advantages to get a first strike or stay out of view even in plain vision range.

        Alternately, it could be programmed for the combat music to start once you take a hit from an enemy or hit an enemy, rather than being triggered after coming within a certain distance of an enemy regardless of stealth or other craftiness.

      6. A very good point – I agree you’d have to make sure combat music doesn’t give away stealthed enemies and backstabbers.

        I have a soft spot for game music in general and I’ve simply missed combat music for a long, long time. 🙂 I think FFXI was my last MMO that reliably had it, in WoW proper battle themes like the one for Ragnaros were horribly spare. I know some players don’t care for soundtrack at all or it distracts them while playing, but then there’s still always the option to turn it off. for me, it adds loads of suspense and excitement.

      7. I fundamentally disagree with almost all of your sugestions. You aren’t making suggestions on how to improve MMO fights, you’re making suggestions as to how to turn them into FPS games. What you’re asking for is a co-operative FPS game, simple as that. Those games already exist if you want to play them.

        RPGs have different conventions, both by virtue of their history but also because they fill a genuine and different gaming desire, one that is more dependent on preparation, character progression and slower strategic thinking than twitch action moves.

      8. I can see why someone might like the current MMO/WoW-based combat, but I don’t agree with what you say about these features not being “part of MMOs”. on whose authority do you claim that, yours? It’s funny because, most of the features listed have in fact been part of classic MMORPGs in the past, in isolation. They’ve been in games like AoC, FF, UO etc. which is why I talked about “returning” to more dynamic and cooperative gameplay, rather than the current spec-/gear-/setup focused one (which is frankly WoW’s baby). Funcom did for example put some thought into creating a more versatile and active MMO combat a few years back.

        But sure, few of them are characteristic for FPS (which I have indicated, too). It’s correct that I believe many FPS combat features are superior to what we currently see in MMOs, especially in terms of coop play and “atmosphere”. They are also applicable to other genres though and ArenaNet is borrowing quite a bit there for GW2. Or do you not consider that an MMORPG? 🙂

        It’s not just combat that defines a genre – it’s scale & setting, it’s traditional classes (usually sword&sorcery based), it’s story orientation, it’s character development. Take all that tradition and see where you can make things more flexible and dynamic. cooperation is what MMORPGs are about for me. so no, that next generation AAA+ MMORPG does not currently exist – but I’m sure we’re getting there. I hope nobody believes we have already reached the end of the road.

      9. I like your suggestions, as it happens a lot of them are being done in guild wars 2 so I am rather curious to see how it works out for them.

        Though I haven’t played SWTOR yet I have long though that getting rid of auto-attacks (or automatic incoming damage) would be a step towards making the game more tactical…if avoiding damage is more about dodging or using defensive abilities at the right time then it becomes less about the trinity and more about the player.

      10. Similar to the anonymous poster, my first reaction after reading this was: If I wanted to play a FPS, I would play one and not a RPG. I do not consider split-second precision clicking fun – I admit the fact I’m bad at it probably does play a role – and it’s one of the things I consider when choosing a game.

        About your points:
        A-2) While I learned the healing/support role, I’m willing to let it go if the combat gets more interesting that way. I do not like the low health part and think it should be the opposite, i. e. the damage should be low compared to average health of mobs and players. I want the players who got slow on their first shot or missed to be able to come back although their opponent should have an advantage – just not a totally overwhelming one.

        A-3) As a consequence, the deaths should be meaningful – I’m not talking about penalties but meaningful for the result of the combat – instead of being just another form of CC.

        A-7) The form of targeting would be OK if the FPS qualities were removed from it. I. e. either all spells would be a small AoE/cone or the cursor would snap to the target if the player clicks in a proximity. The targeting areas would be removed as it would be a bit tricky to target the one players want to with this.

        A-8) …if the time window for a dodge was big enough.

        A-9 and C-2 through 4) This might be tricky to balance. The necessary condition for this would be for the players characters to have quite a lot of skills so they can switch between them based on the environment and the resistances of the target (which might lead to skill bloat). In general, I think it would be nice to have this but it needs to be balanced well but it has a great potential to turn the game into a more spec/setup focused one compared to the current system.

      11. @Clockwork
        We both do! and I’m not currently playing SWTOR, but I also read that it features more multi-mob packs which is interesting from a tactical PoV. that also greatly depends on how difficult these packs are though (or it just ends up being a AoE fest).

        You make some good points. I fully agree that for A7) targeting would need to be forgiving, otherwise it would be way too frustrating for a great part of the playerbase. this is also the difference between ‘arcade shooters’ and realistic FPS – the first one is more widely popular for a reason.

        For A8) I could imagine dodge to be something that isn’t necessarily always an option for all melee hits, but rather a ‘save’ for especially long/big melee attacks that you can see your opponent prepare for.

        A9) is pretty straightforward. in WoW too you have (or used to have) classes with certain elemental affinities or talents, that would give them better shadow resistance or nature etc. than others. it’s not a big dealbreaker, but it makes ‘sense’ that a fire mage should have excellent fire res for example.
        as for mobs, you have mobs with elemental resistances in pretty much every MMORPG.

        I agree C2/3) are tricky but also super exciting – I was hoping to see them in GW2, but nothing is quite clear at this point…the video I linked further down (see again here) could potentially show such features in action. The phoenix spell in the second take looks like it’s being ‘directed’ by the mage’s course of movement. In the fourth take you see ‘water trident’ cast while the mage is standing in a pool of water.
        ArenaNet did confirm that environmental properties and positioning yourself in certain ways will affect combat, so I really hope we’ll see mechanics like these go live! =)

        Thanks for your inputs!

      12. I know I’m late due to vacation and only slowly catching up again, but this time I actually disagree with you, Syl. I’m also worried about speeding up the combat even more than it is in some games now. Granted, in MMOs, you typically only see the demanding and tightly timed combat at endgame level while the rest is a bit boring. On the other hand, I never was a fan of FPSs (maybe because I suck at them ;)). It just feels too twitchy and hectic. The only reason I finished Mass Effect was because I liked the story, and the game had an “easy” setting.

        My love still is a more turn-based system. That doesn’t mean every turn has to take ages, it can be as simple as one choice every turn, so you can breeze through it if the situation is right. But it gives you the chance to actually think about the current fight if necessary. Maybe that’s one of the reasons my favorite Final Fantasy (ok, only played about six of them, and only finished two) is X. It was a modern game (at the time I played it) and had absolutely no time-pressure. I loved that. Shame they went back to ATB.

        Of course, how to make an engaging multiplayer turn-based game is still an open question, isn’t it? Hell, even making a _working_ multiplayer turn-based game isn’t solved yet. At least not if you have a MMO scenario where you play with Joe Griefer, Jane “my mom is making me wash the dishes right now”, and Bob “my dog’s on fire”. Plus the question of how to define turns in an open environment. Or only make it turn-based for combat? Then you don’t have a seamless world any more.

        Questions, questions.

      13. @flosch
        Anyone is free to disagree with me, hehe. 🙂 the thing with FPS is, they have an incredibly steep learning curve. most MMO players that give FPS a shot sometime (muaha @pun), stop early on with the same, frustrated feedback (a bit like PVE players only playing 3 BGs in WoW and then giving up on PvP). yet, FPS combat the way it’s played in clans, is far from hectic and un-tactical – you can actually only win if you play very tactical. it’s an incredibly competitive field.

        I’m not saying MMOs need to aspire that level of tactic coop play, but I think it’s worth pointing out that faster combat does not equal hectic or less strategic. it’s a more cooperative level of strategy maybe, than in MMOs where as an individual you feel that your rotations and CDs etc. are what matters. in FPS it’s being in sync as a team, while every person can more or less do the same things.

        I like turn-based RPGs myself, but I’ve come to appreciate hybrids; Chrono Trigger was a hybrid with it’s ‘active roundbased combat’ and combos. I loved it to death. Age of Conan is an MMO that successfully introduced things like ‘melee areas’ for striking and blocking.

        My personal wish is that MMO combat is more dynamic and cooperative. faster yes, but not in the sense of less strategic. very slowed combat (like the current FF14 appears to have), is a terrible bore to me. but maybe you’d enjoy FF14?

      14. While I do agree with many points on your list (I’m sick to death of Holy Trinity, especially the utter silliness that is “tanking”), I do have some serious concerns:

        1. The ability to one-shot enemies simply isn’t wise, in my opinion. It’s been done before (Dark Age of Camp-a-lot, for example). It makes stealth classes obscenely overpowered. If there is no stealth/invisibility, it still makes any sort of solo adventuring essentially impossible. That might be realistic, but it’s not much fun. I don’t play MMOs to be a tiny cog in a huge machine, I play them to be heroic. And “heroic” means being self-sufficient much of the time. I have no problem with needing a group to take out a dragon, a lich, etc. But if I need a group just to get from Point A to Point B, that is not a game I will play.

        B. Dynamic, fast-paced combat is great, but not the SWTOR type that lacks auto-attacks. Two reasons: lag and quests. Lag, because if you have a laggy connection, auto-attacking means you at least manage to be somewhat effective when you’re hit with a lag spike. Quests, because they usually involve mindless killing of easy enemies. I have no desire to have to spam the same key over and over while “killing ten rats” if I can help it. I’d rather turn on auto-attack and sort my inventory, read global chat, or watch something on TV. MMOs are not single player games; there’s no reason for every single battle to be an epic event requiring single-minded concentration (and repeated mashing of the basic attack hotkey).

        C. Fast-paced combat is one of the factors that has led to decreasing socialization in MMOs. The slower-paced the combat, the easier it is to chat with friends or groupmates while fighting. The faster-paced the combat, the more likely “communications” will be reduced to “rdy” and “gogogo.”

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