MMObility: RuneScape dev details new combat, hotbars, and critical hits

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MMObility: RuneScape dev details new combat, hotbars, and critical hits
RuneScape combat upgrade screenshot
RuneScape's combat is pretty unique. If I were to introduce the game to someone who has played mostly client-based, mainstream MMOs, he would probably be a bit confused as to how combat worked in RuneScape. The truth is that there is a lot of depth to the combat system as it is now, but it is often hidden behind layered UI screens. A player needs to know where to go to find the best abilities.

Don't get me wrong; this system is great for grinding out experience by killing monster after monster, but in higher-level combat or PvP, a player's "skill" is determined by how much she knows about the UI, rather than how much she knows about her enemy's weaknesses or which skills to use. This is all about to change, thanks to what is being called one of the largest updates in the entire decade-plus history of the browser-based giant.

I sat down with an interview with Mark Ogilvie, lead designer from Jagex, to find out just how large the update will be and how it might affect players.

RuneScape hotbar screenshot
The immediate and most striking news is that there will be a hotbar present in RuneScape once the patch goes live. This might sound like an elementary thing, but in RuneScape it should prove to be revolutionary. The hotbar will allow players to place whatever they want -- abilities, potions, tools, weapons and so on --into the slots for quick access. If a player has a backpack full of food for healing, the game takes a piece of food from the stack inside the backpack, not the piece of food on the hotbar itself. This means players will not have to worry about constantly "refilling" the hotbar every time they eat or use a potion.

Normally, I might be attacking a bunch of scorpions in the hopes of grinding up archery experience. I typically don't enjoy a grind, but with the hotbar, I can experiment with different weapons, spells or items as I fight. The hotbar will bring a new element of strategy to the game without turning it into a twitch-based clickfest. A lot of the culture and pace of RuneScape combat is tied into the slower style. Generally, especially in higher-level combat, the first few hits are the most important. A player might cast a spell or cause a debuff, and then he will wait and watch his autoattack do the work. Occasionally, he might fire off a special attack. In other words, combat starts off fast but continues at a more sluggish pace.

The developers want combat to feel more heroic, so giving players instant access to whatever they need during a fight will help change the pace. As the recent developer blog stated, "That means making it more about mastering techniques, rather than navigating interfaces at speed." True skill, according to Ogilvie, comes from knowledge of one's enemy and knowing what to use.

RuneScape combat upgrade screenshot
Challenge will need to be tweaked as well. Right now a player can grind safely by picking groups of monsters that are just under her level. That same player could spend an entire session just clicking and waiting, slowing gaining experience that will eventually gain her a level. If fights became more dynamic and more about skill and more fun, then players will pick more challenging targets. Experience earned will be higher as well, so players will again go for the higher-level targets. With special abilities, combat styles, and spellbooks becoming easier to access, everything flows better.

I was happy to hear that Jagex is not attempting to turn RuneScape into a completely different game. Most of the players have been with the game for a long, long time. Those players want more high-level content, of course, but every player would like a more streamlined game. That streamlining doesn't mean easier, but rather it opens the game up to more strategic fighting. Will the devs pull it off? An upcoming beta will let them find out.

RuneScape combat upgrade screenshotRight now, those accepted into the combat beta have received a clickable invitation for the summer's beta in their backpacks. How will the beta work, exactly? Being that there was really one other event that was similar to this one -- the switching of classic RuneScape to the version we know today -- it's good to know how to participate in this beta. When it is announced, there will be many, many beta servers that a participant can log into. The game will make a cloned version of the current character, but the events happening to that character on the beta server will not affect the player's "real" character. What happens on the beta server stays on the beta server.

The developers will slowly add on more areas of the game to test and will pay attention to the forum posts, Twitter and Facebook notes from players. According to Ogilvie, if the majority of players are dissatisfied with what is happening, he will switch gears or rethink the design. That's the nature of making an MMO; you have to adapt as fast as possible to what your playerbase wants.

In a surprising turn of events, Ogilvie let me know not only that fantastic new animations will be added to combat (things like transformations and fire eruptions!) but that critical hits will start to play a role. A critical hit will alert players when their weapons or abilities do extra damage and will be reflected in larger versions of those floating combat numbers we're are all familiar with. Critical hits can change how players pace their combat and how they react to being hit with something like a critical. While many MMOs already have criticals, it's important to note that this will be yet another thing that will change how combat is done in RuneScape.

I'd like to thank Mark Ogilvie for taking the time out to not only talk the new combat changes but give me the exclusive news about critical hits. I can't wait to see how different combat feels and how convenient that hotbar will be.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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