MMOs are games where you play combat primarily in the user interface rather than the game world.
I think this is best realised in the classic ‘standing in the fire’ error of new raiders: essentially people stand in the fire because it is an element of playing in the game world, where levelling-up has trained those players to instead play in the interface. Combat is in the cooldowns; you watch timers, health bars, debuff bars, and only when you get to raiding or the more ambitious small group dungeons do you need to start looking into the game world too, in order to step out of the fire, dodge the laser beam, jump over the furious shrew of ruin.
And what do players in WoW, LotRO and other such MMOs with LUA AddOn functionality do in response? They add UI elements that warn the player to step out of the fire. They add further UI elements to tell them who to heal, who has aggro, who to cleanse; when the boss will enrage, when the next wave of adds will come, when to run away from their team; what button to press, what direction to run, what lever to pull.
What to have for dinner.
Compare this to a game such as Super Mario where you play the game entirely within the world, and the only time you have to care about anything outside of that world is to glance briefly at your health bar. FPS games generally keep the UI to a minimum, with the player’s concentration focussed on the action in the game world, a glance at health or remaining ammo being all that’s needed, and where games such as Gears of War have experimented with removing the health bar altogether. Even RTS games –where heavy UI use is a genre feature– still have a healthy balance between using the UI and interacting with the game world, where units have to be selected and positioned within the world, and combat requires the player’s attention to be focussed on their virtual surroundings.
MMO combat, on the other hand, seems to generally draw the player out of the game world and force them into the UI, and since combat is still the genre’s de facto method for resolving all disputes and difficulties, this means that most players spend more time staring at the UI than the game world, so perhaps it’s little wonder that so many AddOns seem to add yet further UI elements for the player to focus on. I’m definitely interested to see how games such as TERA (despite it’s painfully immature sexualisation of, well just about everything really; I imagine even the boars will have up-skirt panty shots) try to use the action orientated combat to draw the player out of the UI and back into the game. Despite its many failings, Dungeons and Dragons Online did a fair job of this, and I believe it made for much more involving (albeit otherwise flawed) combat.
MMO games are very character-centric. The characters are defined by a number of stats, and this makes the frontier between “the character” and “the stats” fuzzy. Am I looking at the character and seeing the health bar or looking at the health bar and seeing the character?
In the best of games, any stat which is meaningful would be visible just by looking at the avatar, but this is extremely taxing on graphics (one character animation for each 10% hp damage taken?). It’s also very very difficult to present multiple stats at the same time without turning characters into christmas trees or requiring players to zoom in and out all the time.
So either you make stats irrelevant (in an FPS you usually have two: weapon/ammo + health) or provide another way to see them: enter the dreaded UI with a bazillion bars. Compound this to the fact that there are roles (like healing) which requires you to be aware of the stats of the entire group and the number of bars grows into gazillion range. One of the strong points of WoW is exactly that you can reconfigure everything so as to see what you want to see and not the rest (the “not the rest” often including the 3D representation of the world…..).
Conclusion: unless the combat design changes radically, you’re not going to see the interface getting simpler any time soon….
I do believe the “action-oriented” combat can help get the player focused back on the game world rather than the UI overlay. Specifically, I hope/believe that making positioning during a fight (both for your character and for the enemy) more important than just not standing in fire will force the UI to be less important.
I see this already in certain games I have played. As you mention, DDO can be a good example. Just the fact you can dodge a spell or a blow is a great step. Then there is my Lore-master in LOTRO. I find I pay more attention to the game world because I need to be aware of enemy positions at all times in order to control them effectively.
Even if new games use combat methods to draw players into the world and out of the overlay, though, the question will be how many of those players will want to adapt and stick around.
On the whole, I think DDO does a pretty good job of this. I find that the number of abilities that have significant cooldowns is small enough to become sort of second nature. So that, say, I usually have a pretty good idea of when manyshot’s about to come off cooldown, and the one or two other such abilites, without looking at the hotbar. The one big limitation to this I find is when playing a cleric or FvS, and needing to spam heals.
I don’t think I’d like to play anything more cooldown-intensive.
How do you feel about a UI-less MMO? Do you think it would be possible? I recall a PS3 game that was talked about some time ago in a magazine or something where you simply play as a wanderer in the desert. No UI, direction or anything. And it had internet connectivity, in that you could occasionally find another wanderer. You couldn’t speak to one another, but you could travel together or wander apart if you so wished.
I’m curious how that kind of experience would work in a massive world with far more players. Remove the UI and make it all about the interactions with the world.
@Helistar: “Conclusion: unless the combat design changes radically, you’re not going to see the interface getting simpler any time soon.”
I wrote a little bit about one idea for such a system. I think removing the game from the UI will need a change in the way combat works, but we are seeing quite a few prospective MMOs listing action orientated combat as one of their selling points, so it will be interesting to see if changes to the player’s focus in the game come naturally as part of a shift in combat style.
@Tanek: MMO fans do seem to be notoriously resistant to change, you’re right. Hopefully a change which immerses them in the world more will be appealing, although I do sometimes worry that many fans of the genre actually like just watching hotbar cooldowns.
@delicious.crab: The Monk is the class that I’ve found to be at odds with the action system, because there are so many abilities that come with the class. Also, there’s no real indication within the game world when a player hits one of the combo abilities, so it’s hard to know whether you’ve correctly triggered the ability or not; it’s actually a game element that is crying out for some way to track abilities, be it through a UI element, or through some graphical representation within the game.
@Straw Fellow: I think it could work, but I’m not sure whether players would accept it initially. Games such as Gears of War and Dead Space have shown us that it’s possible to still have a UI, but not in the traditional Heads-Up Display sense. I don’t think it would work as a way to restrict players though, because players would find it frustrating in the main, and whenever a mass of players find something irritating in an MMO, they generally try to find a way around it: community voice chat servers would be one way that they would get around not being able to communicate within the game, for example.
What would the cure look like? I could see a UI-less game, in fact, with only small action bars along the bottom that could not be clicked and do not show cooldowns, but only exist to remind the player what binds to what. There would be no party or raid UI. Names would not appear over players’ heads – enemy or otherwise. There would be no cast bars telling you when a boss is casting – watch him emote it! Spells would only be cast on mouseover or click targeting, making the system more chaotic, which real combat, I’m sure, is. There would be a good deal of movement, with AI being smarter about its own positioning (why would a boss let anyone get behind them; just walk backwards into a wall!).
It’d be chaos, and incredibly difficult to play. This could be compensated for with more forgiving mechanics. It’s because of the information available to us that Blizz can make boss fights so hard; these fights would be just as hard, but not for the same reasons.
I’m sure there’s 1000 reasons this “wouldn’t work,” but heck, I play with names and nameplates off. I like the immersion, and I’m good about raid awareness and not getting healer or dps tunnel vision. This type of thing would cater to me. How about you?
“What would the cure look like?”
I think that’s the million dollar question. I don’t see it as necessarily a fix that would be applied on top of the current design for MMO combat, it may be that an alternative way to activate abilities would need to be found.
I have a feeling that at least some of what you outline is being implemented in action MMOs such as TERA, so it will certainly be interesting to see how visual boss emotes and ground-targeted/mouseover casting will work. I think Guild Wars 2 is trying this too, although it is still very much focused on hotbars at the moment.
I like to believe that that sort of system would work for me, and games such as DDO have been a lot of fun and quite refreshing with regard to the frenetic nature of the combat found there. I could never be certain until I tried such as system, however.
One potential piece of the puzzle may be having a small number of upgradable skills/spells/weapons, much like upgradable weapons in some FPS games, so that a handful of keys control an arsenal that you upgrade or replace rather than a bajillion icons on the screen to click. That makes it much easier to have everything bound to a few keys.
A plus side, besides the desired decrease in UI elements, is that it offers some options for differentiation. Sorta like the DDO sorcerer class, where you have limited slots to fill. I gather Guild Wars does the same. Of course, we recognize that any system is inevitably going to have a min-max community who feels that there is only one right way to configure your selections for maximum output in your approved class role.
The downside to an FPS-style MMO of this sort is, besides balancing spell combos, that you’re likely to introduce a faster speed of combat, especially in PVP, if everything’s keybound FPS-style. This can run the risk of balancing the game for twitch players with lightning reflexes and leaving slower players unable to win fights based on an assumption of much higer casting rates.