A Scale of Skill...

A recent moment of personal panic at the announced closure of Matrix Online set me worrying again; not so much for MXO itself, a game I'd never really looked at, but for the Sony Online Entertainment stable in general, and in particular, PlanetSide, a title I do have fond personal memories of. Based on an analysis of Xfire statistics at Ardwulf's Lair, it now seems as if PlanetSide is now nearest the door in a list of games all of which I'd thought SOE would never let go.

So I found myself signing up for a month, partly out of nostalgia and partly because I genuinely appreciate the entirely different kind of gameplay it offers, compared to the more normal MMO. I'd always thought it was a fun idea, a kind of persistent 400 player combined arms deathmatch, but despite remaining in operation for over six years, it has never seen huge appeal, or approached the popularity of EverQuest, Lord of the Rings Online, World of Warcraft or similar, and I always wondered why.

PlanetSide's main distinguishing feature was that it attempted to create an entirely new genre, the 'MMOFPS', and as such, asked of its players unprecedented things. In particular, First Person Shooter skills that until its arrival, had no place in the average MMO experience, a far remove from the more familiar hot-keys, auto-attack and cool-down timers of the mainstream MMO world. Since then, various attempts have been made by the MMO genre to flirt with this faster paced action, often with little success. Is there ever a place for aiming in the MMO, or are these variations on the normal theme merely unwanted distractions?
The question of skill in MMOs is a curious one, and will elicit a wide and often heated response. Nobody likes to think of themselves as playing in 'Easy Mode', but when laid bare in an abstract fashion, combat in most MMOs is an often relatively straight-forward affair. Press tab until the monster is selected, move to the appropriate distance, press numbers 1 through 8 until either it, or you, are dead. Some elaboration and variation is archived with combos; sequences of 1 through 8 that must be used in the correct order or at the correct times for best effect, but on the whole, the actual business of fighting in an MMO isn't terribly demanding and is very much a tactical exercise.

The fight is less about reaction times and being faster than the opponent, and more about the management of resources; the health of yourself and that of the monster, the power bar, the adrenaline points, the potion cool-down timers, and so on. That is not to say such combat is skill-less, but that a specific kind of skill is required, a kind of overall tactical awareness of the numbers and probabilities involved. As much of this takes place in the auction house or talent calculator, as on field of battle; divining the meaning of your characters statistics, and then maximising their potential through clever shopping, specialisations, training and so on; use of extensive theorycraft. Being correctly prepared is half the battle in statistical combat, such as that found in the majority of MMOs, and going into the fray with poor equipment, or no equipment at all, is asking for defeat before you even start.

While for some, the specific moments of combat are less important in the overall MMO experience, many others often express dissatisfaction at the game of 'Simple Simon' they find themselves repeating dozens of times a night in an otherwise favourite game. These calls for something more skilled have been addressed in a number of ways over the years, resulting in a number of novel variations on MMO combat.

Soon-to-be free Dungeons and Dragons Online provides a strange variation on the theme, particularly in view of the nature of the source material. Dungeons and Dragons is very much the quintessential dice-based game, and with the pen and paper game the outcome of almost every aspect of a hectic dungeon brawl was determined by throwing dice. This makes the online translation a very peculiar place to encounter FPS style gameplay, but swords need to be swung and physically connect and arrows need to be shot at their targets for real; no auto-attack there. This may have confused many customers, approaching the title with something more statistical In mind, given their off-line experiences. Anecdotally, the combat proved to be far more hectic than that found in more usual MMOs and sometimes to the detriment of chatting, typing instructions to one another and in extreme cases, use of special abilities and powers; the more understood array of hot-keys. Darkfall Online also presents the player with an FPS skill requirement, but in general, this kind of hands-on combat is a rare thing in fantasy worlds, and most offer the hot-keys, the tab-targeting and the auto-attacks.

The basic combat mechanic of Tabula Rasa was very much rooted in twitch-based skills albeit with an aiming 'lock' as a kind of compromise measure for those unused to the point-and-shoot style of gameplay, and perhaps the idea of aiming a weapon lends itself more readily to a sci-fi or contemporary setting than high fantasy. Outside the MMO genre, we see all manner of games with guns, almost all of which are of the here and now, or the future. Neocron 2: Dome of York and PlanetSide put futuristic weapons in our hands, and expect us to aim them ourselves. Tellingly, none of these three titles are immensely popular and of those still running, both could fairly be described as 'niche'.

Beyond the handguns, the original Jumpgate and the Jump to Lightspeed expansion of Star Wars: Galaxies required top-notch piloting skills as players took to the stars, but again, compared to the steady success and acclaim of EVE Online, where spaceships are largely flown and fought via menus, neither has been a stellar success.

Many of the upcoming crop of new MMOs look to be continuing to experiment with the inclusion of FPS style mechanics in MMO worlds; Jumpgate Evolution, All Points Bulletin, Huxley, Global Agenda to name but a few, suggesting that our demand for something more realistic, or more challenging still remains, and yet the low profile of those titles which are already here, that require reflexes and hand eye coordination to do well at, suggests that we may not be as sincere in our wishes as we could be. Do we really want an MMO that requires us to be on top of our game for three or more hours at a time? Or that allows us no time or spare hands for idle chit-chat?

I wonder if there isn't a reason that deep down, despite what we might say, most of us opt for the predictability of the hot-keys, the comfort of the auto-attack and the known repetition of the cool-down timers. Perhaps the lessened mental intensity involved frees our minds and typing fingers for other tasks, most notably the social aspects of group work and guild chatter? Or perhaps it is simply that combat we don't have to think about as much can be more easily auto-piloted through, allowing us to reach the end subjectively quicker, when so many games tell us that the end is the important bit? Are our MMOs becoming more hands on, or more hand off, and which do we prefer?
This article was originally published on Massively.