The Soapbox: Why MMO combat sucks, and how BioWare could've made it suck less

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

I hate MMORPG combat.

It's not because I'm a carebear. It's not because I'm bad at it. It's not because I dislike parsing, being a min/maxer, or solving equations and comparing spreadsheets when I'm supposed to be having fun. OK, maybe it is because of those last four things. Mainly, though, it's because MMORPG combat completely and unequivocally sucks. MMORPG combat is not combat. It's high school math.

And it's the same in every damn MMORPG. Twenty years into the genre here, guys, aren't we ready to grow up even a little bit?

Yoda vs. Dooku

So what's wrong with MMO combat? In a nutshell, it takes too frickin' long. I've lost count of the number of games where I can be pounding on a boss with one hand and reaching for a beverage (or a good book) with the other hand, all the while whittling down some ridiculously large health bar.

"Challenge," as it applies to MMO PvE, seems to equal "bump up the hit points," which thereby results in some of the most mind-numbingly boring gameplay I've ever experienced. It doesn't really matter what class we're talking about, either. Tanks are simply a different flavor of boring when compared to DPS types, healers, or crowd control specialists, and at the end of the day everyone is subjected to the same silly health bar grind. PvP is another animal, of course, but one that ultimately features the same basic gear-is-all-that-matters foundation. On occasion, games like Age of Conan or TERA will sprinkle in some sort of mandatory bunny-hopping, circle-strafing, or other spastic chicken-dance idiocy that fools you into thinking you're actually doing something different.

You're not, though. You're still grinding on that big ol' health bar, and underneath that, of course, you're rolling dice.

Duel of the fates

Choosing the quick and easy path

One of the best examples of how MMORPG combat is completely unfun comes courtesy of BioWare's upcoming Star Wars MMORPG. The Old Republic features player classes based on Jedi, who are arguably the most deadly and badass warriors in the history of popular fiction.

In Star Wars films, novels, comics, and other video games, Jedi are demi-gods who strike fear in the hearts of their opponents and win a lot more battles than they lose. You know what Jedi do in SWTOR? They whack on mobs with their lightsabers 20,000 times in order to deplete health bars. Sure they've got some nice-looking combat animations, but they're ultimately no more powerful than your average Joe who picks up a blaster.

MMO combat has essentially achieved the impossible by making Jedi commonplace, mundane, and really, just flat out boring (OK, the Star Wars prequels did that too, but that's another rant entirely). In most instances of Star Wars canon, Jedi are pretty unstoppable, and as we saw in Revenge of the Sith, it basically takes a platoon of professionally trained soldiers (or a vehicle-class laser cannon) to kill one.

Not so in an MMO, though, as any Tom, Dork, or Harry can roll a Jedi class and run around losing to newbie mobs or getting owned by more pedestrian archetypes in PvP. Yeah, they've got the robes and the glowstick, but the latter is apparently set to stun instead of dismember. Are we feeling Star Warsy and iconic yet?

Lest you think I'm just picking on TOR here, rest assured that I'm not. Star Wars Galaxies was guilty of the same ridiculousness. Yeah, I'm sorry, but it shouldn't take 26 blaster bolts and the better part of two minutes to kill a stormtrooper. Maybe if I'd set my blaster to stun and wanted to be extremely cruel and slow-paced with my stormtrooper-killing, then sure. But wasn't my Smuggler supposed to be an iconic (there's that word again), larger-than-life, savior-of-the-galaxy type hero -- especially post-NGE? You'd think he could manage one or two well-aimed shots to the head were that the case.

But he couldn't because SWG was an MMO. And as I've already mentioned, MMO combat sucks.

Yoda vs. Sidious

You must unlearn what you have learned

Why does MMO combat suck? Generally because it's dependent on dice rolls. Fast combat and one- or two-hit kills aren't "fun," says the conventional wisdom. Aren't they, though? How would we know since no MMO has made the attempt?

Handled properly, one-hit kills (or at least, kills that don't take 26 shots and two minutes) could be extremely fun. In fact, they could feel like that "fast-paced action combat" thing that MMO marketing types are so fond of hyping these days.

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. Sure, the folks who want combat, combat, and more combat might get bored with quick kills, and that's when we can have the discussion about why combat-only fans are hanging out in virtual worlds instead of playing shooters, fighting games, and other titles made expressly for their preferred playstyle.

That's another Soapbox, though, so let's assume that everyone cares deeply about MMO combat and is interested in finding a way to make it suck less. You know what else faster, more realistic combat could do? It could make tactics matter. It could invalidate the gear chase. It could allow for fun scenarios like a numerically superior force getting its ass kicked by a smaller team of skilled operatives. I could go on, but you get the idea. Apparently none of that is "fun," though. Or at least, it pales in comparison to the "fun" that is spending an eternity on the MMO hamster wheel to get a .0125 boost to your attack speed coefficient.

Talk to any combat veteran and she'll tell you that actual combat is nothing like its absurdly stylized and needlessly complicated MMO counterpart. That's not to say that MMO combat should be completely real -- this is entertainment, of course -- but it should lean more toward realism than it currently does. The "adrenaline rush" of combat is supposedly what sustains MMO PvP junkies, but I can't for the life of me figure out why, since the battles are fought during the research and preparation stage, the sword clashes themselves are artificially prolonged and frickin' tedious, and there's absolutely nothing at stake. Ever.

Obi-Wan vs. Anakin

How am I to know the good design from the bad?

The answer to this design rut is more realistic combat, and by extension, combat that matters and has gameplay consequences. The answer is combat that you have a very real chance of losing -- every time -- and said losing will no doubt cause you to think twice about initiating combat in the first place. The answer is combat that isn't pre-determined by dice rolls and could conceivably go either way depending on the elements of surprise, stealth, terrain, armor, and any number of other factors.

But wait, zomgnooooooo, this wouldn't be "balanced!!"

First of all, what the frack is balance? Ask 10 people that question and you'll get as many different answers. Does balance mean that all classes are statistically equal? Does it mean that every player has an equal chance to kill every other player due to some combination of abilities and gear? Does it mean that we all have the same real-world income and are thus all afforded the same opportunity to buy advantages from the cash shop?

"Balance" is a nebulous and ludicrous goal, and it is basically unattainable. Even if it were attainable (by removing RPG mechanics entirely), there would still be "imbalance" because some players are simply better regardless of the system in place.

So, "balancing" dice-roll combat is not the way to make MMO combat more interesting. Unbalancing it is. The concern here (aside from lag and associated tech issues) is that mix/max players will naturally gravitate to whatever the "most powerful" class or ability happens to be. If combat is made more realistic, though, there wouldn't necessarily be a more powerful class or ability. I don't have any real-world combat training, but if I were to surprise a criminal in my home and catch him unawares with a gun to the back of the head, it wouldn't matter. He'd die (or have a big bruise, whichever).

Similarly, a newbie assassin in an MMORPG (or an assassin who isn't a great player) could still assassinate a highly skilled player or NPC if the newb used stealth, patience, and the element of surprise to catch his prey off guard.

Alec Guiness is Starwarsy and iconic

Wasted opportunities

Getting back to Star Wars for a moment, Jedi are simply a horrible subject for an MMO class. Letting everyone be a demi-god means there's a world full of nothing but demi-gods. Well, that and there's also a bunch of trash mobs wearing lightsaber-resistant armor, of course, otherwise there's no challenge grind. Yeah, great immersion there guys, I really feel like I'm the hero in a Star Wars story as it takes me half an hour to best a rodent with my double-bladed saber.

Lore-centric tangents aside, if there ever was an opportunity to take some design risks with MMO combat, it would have been with TOR, which has a huge built-in audience of adult Star Wars fans flush with disposable income and a track record of buying comically inferior products as long as they feature lightsabers and John Williams music. That kind of blind brand-loyalty is a goldmine, and it's a shame that BioWare is wasting it on the same old crappy combat paradigm.

But, hey, welcome to MMOs, right? Boring combat is king, and combat can only be done with dice rolls, and noooooooo way can it ever even come close to being realistic or saddled with any sort of consequence. Ultimately, MMO combat is like the overblown (and over-choreographed) lightsaber clashes from the prequel trilogy. MMO combat should be like the quick and dirty Mos Eisley cantina brawl from the original film.

You know why it should be like that? Because it would level the playing field. Because it would make gear subservient to tactical decisions. Because it would allow casuals to compete with no-lifers. Because it would increase immersion. Because it would free MMORPGs from the shackles of grind, numbers, and combat-slavery and allow them to realize their potential as virtual worlds. And most importantly, because it would be fun.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!