The Think Tank: Non-combat roles in MMORPGs

Two recent topics have collided to create this week's Think Tank topic: Massively's Justin wrote about pacifist characters in MMOs, and Camelot Unchained reminded me that while there's no PvE, it'll be possible to play as a pure crafter to contribute to PvP. These shouldn't strike us as novel concepts. The genre has seen several MMOs (A Tale in the Desert, Glitch) that shed combat entirely, and many sandboxes (Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online, to name just a few), allowed players to roll pure crafters who raised neither blaster nor kryss to attack a foe. Yet many modern gamers still think of pacifist play as an anomaly, having been bred to believe combat is the end-all, be-all of an MMORPG experience.

I polled the Massively team members for their thoughts on pacifist play and non-combat roles in MMOs. Have or would they play such characters and games?

Anatoli Ingram, Columnist
@ceruleangrey: I absolutely loved Glitch and found it refreshing to play a game where combat was nonexistent outside of Rook attacks. I don't dislike combat, but in MMOs I frequently find myself wishing that it weren't prioritized so heavily at the expense of just about every other type of gameplay.

Brendan Drain, Columnist
@nyphur: The thing I enjoy most about fantasy MMOs is just exploring the game world, so much that I'll sometimes switch off the UI and just go for a hike around the map. I'd absolutely play a game that didn't force you into combat, but that element of danger if you get caught by bandits or wander into an enemy stronghold has to be present to make the exploration more meaningful. One of my favourite things to do in EverQuest II or World of Warcraft was to go into zones that were too high-level for my character and navigate around the patrolling NPCs to get into places I shouldn't be able to reach. If an MMO were set up to reward pure exploration playstyles with an entire progression path that unlocks climbing skills, teleport spells, map-making tools, etc., I'd be all over that. Hell, I'd play a traveling botanist cataloging plant species of the world if an MMO would support that.

Bree Royce, Editor-in-Chief
@nbrianna: I like to play MMORPGs with combat, but I consider it non-essential -- it ought to be just one more of hundreds of things my character can do in between socializing or crafting or trading or traveling or making music or investigating mysteries or running a city or piloting a spaceship or whatever, and I'd probably rather be doing one of those at any given time, statistically speaking. Far too many MMOs use combat as a crutch, as the core of their gameplay, thinking that will be enough to keep people hooked, when in reality people who really love combat are probably best off in a different genre altogether because of the dated and stifling combat-mechanics baggage RPGs drag along in their wake. I mean, when I am in the mood to smash things, I don't pick an MMO from my games library. Games that abandon combat as their core element (or abandon it altogether) are forced to be more creative and think outside the box with their gameplay. That's where the future of MMO innovation lies.

Plus, I'll never forget walking into a cantina during SWG's beta and seeing dozens of fresh musicians playing slitherhorns. That changed the way I think about games in a fundamental way.

Eliot Lefebvre, Senior Contributing Editor
@Eliot_Lefebvre: Well, I can already spend weeks and months entranced in The Sims, so obviously I'd be willing to play a game without combat. Heck, there are long stretches of time in Final Fantasy XIV when I'll be far too busy crafting to step out of a city and fight something. The problem isn't whether or not the combat can be removed but whether or not what's left over is compelling and interesting enough without having the old combat mechanics as a fallback.

I'm always fond of games that allow you to create characters who carefully section off their overall content and only experience some of what can be done. Playing a pure crafter is as compelling as playing a pure combat character or playing a pure gatherer or whatever. Make the non-combat gameplay fun and compelling, and I'll happily take part in that, possibly even to the total exclusion of the combat gameplay.

Jef Reahard, Managing Editor
@jefreahard: MMOs with nothing but combat aren't MMOs. You can kill everything that moves in 99.99% of all the non-MMO video games ever made. Reducing MMOs to that is wasteful, cynical, and greedy. Offer combat and the associated grind as an optional part of an MMO's gameplay, sure, but don't make it the sum total of the experience, slap recurring revenue on it, and call it an MMO.

It's a real (first-world) shame that the genre has drifted far enough away from its virtual world starting point that this question needs to be asked.

Justin Olivetti, Senior Contributing Editor
@Sypster: I really would as long as the gameplay that fills that void is as or more compelling. If it's crafting, it needs to be interesting crafting, not just recipe queues. If it's a non-combat way to get through quests, then the mechanics should be engaging and challenging. I'd really love to see a return of Vanguard's diplomacy system in some form as well as more Mists of Pandaria/ArcheAge house and farm tending. Doing research into Myst Online fascinated me with the thought of a massively multiplayer MMO that was far more puzzle-centric without a shred of combat. And it is too bad Glitch died before I could be swayed into playing it because by all reports it was a great take on a cooperative, non-combative MMO.

Larry Everett, Columnist
@Shaddoe: I am probably thinking about this question a bit more deeply than it was intended. I have played characters who were essentially pacifists, but I have never played a game and would likely not enjoy a game without combat. In Star Wars Galaxies, I roleplayed constantly. I had characters who were dancers, entertainers, and of course, crafters. But I also had combat-specced characters who would not fight in-character. And for extended periods of time, I would play those characters without doing a single bit of combat IC or OOC. However, non-combat systems, even ones as robust as SWG, could not hold me to the game itself. I really enjoy combat in my games, MMOs or otherwise. I believe non-combat portions of the game are certainly important, but I could not stick to a game because of its non-combat professions -- at least until some game (like maybe The Repopulation) proves me wrong.

MJ Guthrie, Contributing Editor
@MJ_Guthrie: Interestingly, a recent stream viewer scoffed at my statement that I really don't care about the combat in a game, asking how I could possibly not care "when it's 70% of gameplay." I answered, "Because frankly 70% or more of my favored play is non-combat!" I was discussing the fact that when I judge games, combat is the lowest on my list of priorities. My first MMO had me as a pure social class, and that fit me perfectly. The factors that weigh in my love of a game more involve the existence of other things in the world. Can I build a home, a community, a spy network? Can I solve puzzles, follow a compelling story? Can I explore and discover things? Can I collect shinies? Can I roleplay? These things mean way more to me than combat; if a game shines in these areas, I just don't really care whether or not the combat is the uberest. If the game has really fun combat, then that is just icing on the cake! Conversely, I really dislike when games force combat upon you as the only way to get to the non-combat aspects (harvesting, crafting, or whatever). I want combat to be only one sliver of the experience, and if I choose to eschew it altogether, that should be perfectly fine.

So in a word, yes! I would totally play a non-combat character, and I have. Some of my favorite gaming experiences involved having combat-proficient bodyguards keep me safe while traveling in dangerous areas because a womprat could snuff the life out of me with a sneeze. Of course, there are times I choose to do combat or want to focus on a combat character, but that's not my default mode. I'll always prefer a virtual world to a combat sim!

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the most caring of the carebears, so expect more than a little disagreement! Join Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and the team for a new edition right here every Thursday.
This article was originally published on Massively.