Latest in Gaming

Image credit:

Player vs. Everything: Could a turn-based MMOG really work?

Cameron Sorden

Have you ever noticed how the combat formula for mainstream MMOGs has managed to remain surprisingly stable over the years? There may have been a few small advances: more skills to use (World of Warcraft), counters (Vanguard), twitchier gameplay (Age of Conan), and destructible environments (City of Villains), for example. But even in the games that make use of those newer concepts, the basic formula of the gameplay hasn't changed a whole lot since the days of EverQuest. We run up to the monster we want to kill, pop auto-attack, and start using whatever skills we have to take it down.

It has worked out just fine in most games (I'm obviously a fan of the system), but it's also pretty simplistic, to be honest. Combat tends to occur without a lot of strategy or feedback -- it's usually too fast for a lot of complexity. Even if you had a bunch of interesting skills, stances, and counters, it would be more annoying than fun because using them in real time would require remembering where they all were on your hot bars and clicking all over the place. Given all this, how could you possibly make combat more interesting without making it less fun? Well, I was reading an article the other day where a developer was defending his use of turn-based combat in a modern game, and started wondering how well it would work in an MMOG. If we slowed things down and made a turn-based MMOG, could we have much more complex and interesting fights? Would you even play a turn-based MMO?

Hear me out before you say "No." Many people hate the idea of turn-based games because they see them as slow, tedious, boring, and a step backwards from more "realistic" action games. You could argue that Age of Conan is a step forward while a turn-based MMO would be a step back. But that's not necessarily the case. Our "realistic" action games, where we swing oversized weapons for hours at a time and cut through legions of foes (and never take our armor off) aren't any more realistic than any other game. It's really just a style of gameplay that many players enjoy. It's not like reality -- it's a gameplay representation of reality that focuses on action, adrenaline, and reflexes. The game is all about using the right skills in the few seconds you have the chance to use them to win.

Turn-based combat is just another unrealistic way to represent real actions, but this system focuses on planning, tactics, and resource management much more heavily than action gaming. It's anything but boring. Since response time is slower, designers can instead focus on presenting novel circumstances and forcing players to make decisions about how to react from a much wider selection of possibilities. Look at how many spells your characters have access to in an average turn-based RPG compared to the options you have in an MMOG, for example. Consider that monsters could switch stances, morph, use all kinds of debilitating abilities that you'd have to counter, or try to run away. You could easily provide players with additional NPCs and have a party system of some sort. Combat could easily be made far more complex in a system like this.

As for the argument that it would be slow and tedious, I'm not so sure. Look at a game like Chrono Trigger, a turn-based RPG that almost every RPG fan acknowledges as a fantastic classic. The combat in that game is turn-based, but it doesn't feel slow. Monsters run around on the field, and when you bump into them you're fighting them, right there on the same field. You just pull out your sword and start going back and forth. Spells are used quickly, attacks happen as soon as you select them, and no time is wasted between turns. The only time the action stops is when you stop, otherwise you would hardly notice that it's turn-based. I imagine that a turn-based MMOG would have a very similar feel to it.

There are also other benefits: Imagine being able to go get a cup of coffee mid-fight, or having to leave to pick up the kids, and not having to worry about getting killed by whatever you're fighting. Like a single-player game, you could pause it and walk away. Older players or disabled players who don't have the quick reflexes or manual dexterity required for some games could really benefit from the play style, too. Of course, there are also tons of potential issues and griefing problems with the system, but like anything, a creative designer can work around them.

So why hasn't anyone tried this yet? To my knowledge, the only game that has is Dofus, which uses a combat system similar to the grid-based tactical system popularized by Final Fantasy Tactics, but it's not quite what I'm getting it. We have a long tradition of RPG games with turn-based, menu-driven combat systems that go back all the way to the days of the NES. Companies continue to make and sell games like this to this day on next-generation console game systems (and even PC), and yet no one has bothered to try it in a massively multiplayer setting. Why? Probably because that's not what MMOs "are," and there's no guarantee that players would come play it.

But a very common complaint you hear about MMOGs is how similar they all are. Age of Conan made one tiny tweak to the same DIKU-derived combat system we've had for years, and it was a huge deal. Imagine a game launching with a totally new combat system! You'd have to try it just for the novelty. Just because you're used to a certain game doesn't mean other games are bad. If you've been playing chess and chess variants for years, maybe a game of checkers is exactly what you need (even if you really like chess).

So, how about it? Would you play a turn-based MMO? I think I would, and I think it really wouldn't hurt the genre to try some new ideas like this.

Cameron Sorden Cameron Sorden is an avid gamer, blogger, and writer who has been playing a wide variety of online games since the late '90s. Several times per week in Player vs. Everything, he tackles all things MMO-related. If you'd like to reach Cameron with comments or questions, you can e-mail him at cameron.sorden AT

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr