I’ve written before about the state of MMOs, the dated mechanics that drive them, and the sorts of innovation that will propel the evolution of the genre. Since I started posting on that topic, I’ve received a lot of feedback – including several emails from MMO developers – that largely agreed with my observations but also made the completely fair observation that talking about how much better a product can be on a blog is an incredibly easy and cheap thing to do. Designing it so it actually works (and then getting the notoriously curmudgeony MMO community to accept it) is much more tricky.
A lot of these discussions take place in direct relation to World of Warcraft, and whether you like WoW or hate it, the reason is quite obvious. Most MMOs that come out are doomed to either failure or at least obscurity specifically because of the behemoth from Blizzard. It dominates its genre in a way that no other game in no other genre does. The very nature of MMOs make them exclusive by default. From both a pricing and a time investment model, it is not reasonable for most gamers to play more than one of them at once. Especially not if they have other concerns like a job, a social life, and might actually want to play other non-MMO games as well.
In that respect, MMOs are unlike any other gaming genre. Some folks might bounce from one to another occasionally, but most of the MMO players that I know have one MMO that they invest genuine time in, and that choice is often dictated by both the quality of the MMO and the availability of their preferred gaming community. I know that the last time or two I went back to FFXI, it wasn’t for the game itself so much as it was for my Linkshell. And I know that when I take a little WoW break, what often brings me back is my Guildmates.
This situation is exasperated by the time requirements of MMOs. While it’s not uncommon for me to return to other types of games periodically (certainly, I might play a new shooter in the same span of time that I log a few hours of Team Fortress 2), it’s just not realistic for an MMO. For the vast chunk of the market, for all of the subscribers that actually matter, an MMO either gets their monthly fee or it doesn’t.
World of Warcraft has capitalized on that truth and tuned their gaming experience for that reality. They don’t inherently care if their customer base plays another game as well, but the truth of their industry is that customers who play another MMO are less likely to continue playing (and thus paying for) WoW. It’s a dastardly reality, but at the same time it has driven incredible levels of content, developer time and genre evolution. Yes, Blizzard’s lead on even the second most popular MMO is comical, but at the same time, they never rest on their laurels.
Constant content, mechanics updates, regular expansions and the infinite re-tooling of the very class mechanics upon which the game is based are designed to keep players interested in WoW, to the exclusion of anything else that might otherwise seem like a decent investment of $15 per month. And in that respect (as Tycho of Penny Arcade observed years ago), Blizzard has the budget, the development team, and the sheer marketplace power to lay smaller MMOs to waste.
Or at the very least, to marginalize them into niche games. And sadly (as has been my experience in four MMOs that I’ve given a month or two’s worth of attention to over the last few years), those games are principally populated by jaded WoW junkies who simply cannot shut the fuck up about how much better whatever they are playing is than WoW, in much the same way (and with the same level of sincerity) a hooker might tell you what a big dick you have.
So, with that daunting wall of financial reality expressed in many more paragraphs than I’d originally intended, I’m going to talk about something that is likely to piss a lot of MMO players off. I said before that MMO players inherently resist change, and I meant it (I’m looking at you, Sad Sacks That Still Play Everquest 1). People assume roles in MMOs and get very comfortable both with those roles and the tools they use to execute on those roles. It becomes part of their playstyle and skillset, rigidly divided into Damage, Tanking and Healing.
I’ve said before that the distinction of these three roles strangles MMO development and forces arbitrary mechanics into the game. The developers for Guild Wars 2 apparently feel the same way, as there will be no tanks or healers in their upcoming sequel. That’s a very radical approach, and it trends the game more towards a Diablo style of play than a Warcraft one – not that I have anything but love for Diablo. It is a radical departure from the established playstyle, though Guild Wars is in many ways a different genre of game (requiring no subscription). In that respect, it is more Diablo than Warcraft anyway.
But Guild Wars 2 stands more or less alone in that regard. And while I agree that they’re addressing the correct problem, I think there is a much more articulate way of solving it than simply removing class roles and turning everyone into a self healing, self tanking damage dealer. Many players don’t want to hear this, but the problem has always been tanking – because in MMOs tanking is a completely arbitrary and mechanics driven activity. Hell, I primarily play a tank and on some level I don’t want to hear it. Doesn’t make it untrue. And I’ll prove it to you.
In most MMOs, tanks have two basic things they need to be good at. The first is that they need to be able to mitigate damage, either through absorption or avoidance. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It makes sense that the person designated to take the biggest hits would want to focus on those sorts of abilities and stats. But that brings us to the designation. The second thing a tank has to do is generate threat. And that’s where the combat mechanics of almost every MMO fall completely apart. Threat (or aggro if you want to go old school) is killing MMOs. In fact, I’ll go one step further. If you can find a way to make threat not matter, you would solve not only grouping problems and role problems, but you would also have an instant solution to the PvP versus PvE branching in MMO combat.
First of all, let’s define our terms. Threat is an invisible game mechanic that causes the AI in MMOs to be stupid. It makes enemies and bosses spend all of their time attacking the most damage resistant and (here’s the important part) least threatening player in the fight. It is a button you press or a meter you watch – and the fact that most MMOs don’t include any graphical display for threat mechanics alone tells you how much of a crutch it is – that causes fights to hobble along in a completely artificial order. Again, it actively causes enemies to make the worst possible tactical choices. Somehow, I have trouble taking seriously the Lich King himself, master of all the Scourge and the single greatest threat to all life on Azeroth, if he can be distracted by a guy with a shield yelling, “Hey you! Come attack me!” every ten seconds.
The proof of this is as direct as the comparison between PvE and PvP. In the average PvE scenario, enemies wind up attacking the tanks first, the DPS second (assuming all the tanks are dead) and then the healers last. Some MMOs swap the healers and damage dealers, depending on the once again artificial threat mechanics, but the point is that the tanks get the most damage and attention. That’s a game device to allow tanking. Compare that to a PvP encounter. In those situations, it’s always either healers or dangerous DPS that get selected for death first. Any tanks on the field (if there are any) are considered a nuisance, relegated to last place status.
The same thing is true of how players deal with enemies. When confronted by a group of AI targets, it is almost always the healer that gets burned first. The only exception is for special mobs that have dangerous or powerful attacks that can endanger the entire group (the afore-mentioned dangerous DPS). Tough but weak-hitting melee targets get saved for the end of the fight to be “cleaned up”. In our AI analogy, those would be the tanks. Except because players have a sliver of common sense, those tanks cannot do their job. Players are not chained to an absurd mechanic like aggro tables. Rather, they are analyzing the actual threat that their targets pose and attack accordingly.
The point is that if you could make tanks the most dangerous target without a threat mechanic, you would simultaneously cause PvE targets to act logically and introduce a vibrant and new PvP mechanic that would largely mirror the normal game tactics. With that baseline, the same abilities, stats and group compositions that are valued in PvE could be valued in PvP. Combat would make sense across the board and true PvPvE scenarios (which games like Aion promised but largely failed to deliver on) would become a reality.
Now obviously there are things that wouldn’t work. You can’t simply ramp up tank damage, or else groups would be composed of nothing but tanks and healers – and healers would still be the primary targets. Rather, you need to give tanks abilities that provide the one thing that aggro tables attempt to: control. For far too long, damage dealers have also been the players that can control and manipulate opposing targets. They are the ones with the snares and the stuns and the roots and knockdowns and the slows the various other crippling abilities. They are the ones who will put an enemy target out of commission completely so that other targets can be focus fired down.
Logically, this makes very little sense. It’s just another reason for DPS to be a bigger threat than tanks. If you were to give these sorts of abilities to tanking classes, you could create all sorts of situations where enemies (both players and AI) need to keep their focus on the tanks in order to avoid or mitigate effects that completely lock them out of combat. Essentially, you give a tank tremendous combat advantages over any target that is targeting someone else. And they would have to be powerful abilities – strong enough to make suiciding against a healer an invalid tactic. They would also have to be balanced around multiple tanks on the field (a simple system where a target cannot be “marked” by more than one tank at once would suffice).
There are even very interesting things you could do with collision, lag allowing of course, to mimic the real world functionality of putting the big armored brutes in front and the squishy rangers in the back. But anything to remove the absurdity of aggro tables would be an improvement.
Giving tanks mobility, crowd control and potentially multiplied damage on enemies who ignore tanks in favor of squishier targets, combined with a ramping down of the instant gibbability of non-tanks (so that a lack of a 100% threat lock via a metered mechanic doesn’t spell utter disaster) would make for a much more balanced, much more realistic game. To Blizzard’s credit, it sounds like they are making non-tanks slightly less destroyable in terms of health pools, so they’re getting there. But I don’t see them getting rid of threat anytime soon. Their system is structured too firmly around the idea, and the concept of the threat meter is as inherent a part of WoW as anything else – even though Blizzard’s own default UI still does not offer an actual threat meter.
But although much of this article talks about World of Warcraft (for the many reasons I’ve detailed above), it’s not a suggestion for Blizzard. I started this article talking about the MMO market and the difficulty that WoW poses to new entries into that genre. As long as companies continue to crank out weaksauce WoW clones that offer nothing significant or new in terms of gameplay, they will fail. The problem lies in trying to best Blizzard’s offering, because it has an incredible level of invested time and polish. Hell, the new expansion is going back and redesigning every single quest, enemy and area from the original game. Not just tuning, but completely burning down and rebuilding it all. I don’t know if there are any game studios equipped to compete with the Warcraft juggernaut head to head, offering a similar product.
The only way to establish more than a loose foothold in that market is to create something that Blizzard is either unable or unwilling to offer in WoW. It sounds like BioWare is taking that route with Knights of the Old Republic, and the combination of a beloved IP with a more personal gaming experience (that blends MMO anonymity with the concept of story and character) might be enough. Turning out a well built MMO that doesn’t take place in a purely fantasy setting will also be helpful.
But outside of that one rather unique example (especially with Jumpgate Evolution in limbo), there’s not much new on offer other than updated graphics engines and clunky fight mechanics. Redefining the relationship between targets and attackers by getting rid of threat is exactly the sort of change that would vastly improve gameplay, encourage more people to take on the tanking role (thus removing another awkward obstacle most MMOs suffer from), and add a genuine sense of realism and parity to a game’s combat mechanics.
Threat is a crutch. A stopgap for lazy design. An artificial construct intended to plaster over one of the gaping holes in MMO fight mechanics. My suggestion for designing it out of existence is one approach, and I am sure there are others. But the development team that launches a solid MMO offering where threat is an effect of combat rather than a cause will have an advantage over World of Warcraft that not even Blizzard’s absurd bank balance can offset.
I can’t say that the next big MMO will definitely strip aggro tables from its combat, but it will eventually happen. And once we are used to that model, we will stare aghast at the old way of playing MMOs with the same sort of chortling disdain and misplaced nostalgia that we currently have for games like the original Everquest. As an outdated relic that expressed the desires of the genre without ever fulfilling them. A few people will never move on – but most of us will never look back.