I’ve been reading the rather interesting developer blog of Orion for Lord of the Rings Online, where they are currently describing the process of revamping the Garth Agarwen instance and also answering questions with regards to Turbine’s decision to revamp a lot of the existing content in order to streamline it. It’s a fascinating insight into how things go on a day-to-day basis, and why and how decisions are made with regard to content updates.

One of the interesting decisions that’s been made is to reduce Garth Agarwen down to an instance balanced for three players, and as such part of the change is to reduce the number of mobs present. This prompted one of those daydream moments where the mind, as though reaching the plateaux of the rollercoaster of thought, is released with a hiss of opening brakes, pauses but momentarily on the cusp of a train of thought before plummeting down into the realms of flight and fancy. Looping the loop, it then twists and turns, throwing ideas violently from side to side until eventually it comes to an abrupt halt back where it started, and the rider sits there stunned as the realisation slowly creeps in that they cannot really be sure what just happened for the last minute and a half.

Still, as my mind staggered wobbly down the steps and away, vowing never to do that again, and wishing it hadn’t consumed that huge blog post just before taking the ride, it did manage to hold on to a small snippet of the short sadistic journey. Simply put, the thing that bothers me is that many MMOs rely not only on the Holy Trinity of classes to see them through combat, but also seem to prefer a design where players will only be expected to face one or two mobs at a time in a large number of cases, especially outside of instances. As such I think I was, in part, lamenting the reduced role of crowd control in many MMOs these days, where it is often eschewed for a more classical tank and spank routine and used only to deal with unexpected additional mobs, or in special cases where the encounter is designed specifically for its use.

One exception to the general rule is City of Heroes, and I believe it does things exceptionally well (as all exceptions should), not only in terms of crowd control, but also in terms of the number of mobs that characters can face once they reach a modest level of power. If there’s one thing that City of Heroes did right, it was in making the players’ characters feel powerful. Heroic, if you will. That and the astonishing character creator.

Two! The two things it did well were making characters feel like heroes, and giving the players flexibility in character creation. And allowed players to effortlessly team across the broadest range of levels.

Three! Three things… I’ll come in again.

Traditionally in MMOs the intended style of play follows the pen and paper style: you enter the fortress or lair of an enemy force, move carefully from room to room (each essentially a micro-instance) and fight the small number of enemies present there. The only time that rule is broken is if a patrol arrives unexpectedly, a low-health runner manages to get to another room and fetch some friends, or Knifestabkilla accidentally pulls the next room in the middle of doing the “Jump around. Jump around. Jump up, jump up and get pwned” dance. Usually such things result in a wipe, unless the party is lucky, exceptionally well coordinated or hideously over-levelled/geared for the content.

In City of Heroes, if you can still see your character under the pile of mobs that you’re fighting ‘you’re undertaking the task in an incorrect fashion’, as I believe the cool kids say down on the MMO street. Not only that, City of Heroes also has an entire class dedicated to mass amounts of crowd control. Admittedly CoH isn’t alone in this regard, EQ2 has some fairly strong CC classes, and LotRO utilises them to a certain extent, WoW used to make good use of it but seems to have let that fall by the wayside recently, but I can’t recall it ever being on the grand scale that CoH allows for. Which is a shame, because I think crowd control in PvE is a viable and interesting game-play alternative to the soft “Yo mamma!” control that the average MMO tank possesses. The controller could be the enabler to huge battles in other MMOs, without having to unbalance the player characters such that they must always face an entire battalion of enemies at a time in order to feel any challenge, and where any lone mobs would therefore simply implode the moment a hero arrived in their zone. Controlling a battle can be tremendously rewarding as a player, watching the ebb and flow of the various enemy groups and locking down those that might otherwise overwhelm your party, judging when to use AoE powers that will inevitably draw massive amounts of ire from the mobs when they eventually break free, and when to simply neutralise the more potent individuals of a wave of mobs – the healers for example – and allow the rest through because they can be managed by the tank-n-spankers. It is a style of play that requires an overview of the field of battle like no other, and unlike healing it would be very hard to reduce it down to a bunch of bars that you simply play whack-a-mez on.

The benefit of the Controller is that, as I mentioned, it is an enabler for ‘crowd combat’, something that I think is sorely missing in many MMOs. That’s not to say that fights with a couple of powerful mobs should be abandoned, but crowd combat is enormous fun when the players are empowered to deal with it. The down sides to massive crowd control are enabling a class that wields it to solo without them being ridiculously overpowered, and that if there’s one thing that PvP players hate more than crowd control, it’s even more crowd control. Unless they’re the one in control, in which case it’s all a hilarious jape and everyone should stop complaining about it; which is about the time that they get stun-locked to death and go off and write a roaring inferno of a post to the forums about how crowd control is overpowered in all cases, except when they use it.

At the end of the day I just think it’s a shame that most WoW players looked at the Leeroy Jenkins video as a hilarious comedy of errors leading to drawing the aggro of a vast number of enemies that couldn’t possibly be survived; whereas City of Heroes players were probably wondering when they were going to pull the second and third rooms to make it more interesting. I think players are missing out on something special, and although there are games that allow you to explore this style of play, they are few and far between, and it is seemingly a style of play that is much out of fashion with developers these days. It’s funny how, in a genre of games where the players are supposed to play heroic characters, developers seem to shy away from many elements of play that would make the players feel exceptional.

Apologies for the somewhat waffling whimsical nature of the post, when one rides the rollercoaster of ideas after having only just dined heavily on the words of others, one tends towards vomiting verbiage thereafter.

Posted by Melmoth at 10:31 am