We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.

So my time with Star Wars: The Old Republic is coming to an end. There’s no real surprise in this for me: I wasn’t going to buy SWTOR initially, but the breathless blog banter lauding its already much vaunted fourth pillar of storytelling had convinced me that, for the price of the box, it’d be worth a look whether I chose to subscribe to the game afterwards or not. The fact that m’colleague and other friends were also intending to play, however, added much needed girders of reinforcement to the somewhat shaky foundations of my decision, and thus I quickly cemented the whole deal with an order, before the building inspector of common sense could review the plan and tell me that it would never stand the test of time.

Based upon the standard indicators of ‘time played’ and ‘entertainment had’, I certainly got enough out of the game to justify the box price; compared to many games I’ve bought recently, I’d say that SWTOR settled towards the happy end of the value for money scale. Only games such as Dragon Age (89 hours played) and Skyrim (128 hours played, and counting…) can make any sort of impact on the ‘value for money’ assessment, and really those two should be treated as freakish outliers of my recent game time investment.

I have enjoyed my time in SWTOR, but while the story element is certainly entertaining, in wrestling for my continued commitment to the game, it simply wasn’t differentiating enough to be able to overpower and suplex the plodding linear progression and constricting nature which is typical of this type of MMO. This is not a failing of SWTOR – for many this is still as perfectly enjoyable and entertaining as it always was, and for those people SWTOR is surely a fast flowing stream of fresh IP into the rather stagnant pond of fantasy MMOs. My tastes have definitely changed, however; be it through burnout, or having discovered pastures which are richer grazing, better suited to my game-play appetite, I struggle now to find any pleasure in on-rails grind, as well as the hotbar combat, common to MMOs of this sort.

The simple fact is that I like to look into the world when I play a game of this sort, for if it is not –to a greater extent– about the world in which our characters inhabit, why have the world at all? We could easily write games where the player is required to stare at a number of little coloured icons, and press them in optimal order based upon the variable cooldown counters which tick above them, and simulate pretty much everything there is to MMO combat, without the need for a game world. Even UI addons which move these elements of buffs, debuffs and hotbar abilities into the middle of the screen do not alleviate the simple fact that the player’s attention must be, for a disproportionate amount of play time, concentrated on these tiny little UI elements, rather than the world around them. The perceived increase in difficulty of tanking, and to a lesser extent healing, in these games stems from the fact that the situational awareness and positioning that these roles require runs counter to the entire rest of the combat design – to stare at tiny little icons and press them when cooldowns allow, when debuffs require, or when priority demands. The entire combat design of these games, which has barely changed from generation to generation, is akin to a person in a pit spinning a comfortable number of plates on the end of broom handles, and where every now and again an angry wolverine is thrown in such that the plate spinner has to try to frantically beat it away with a spare broom handle while still trying to keep the plates spinning.

In Skyrim I have to watch where my enemy is in the world. If the enemy is close, I try to hit him with a big sword. Sometimes the enemy will try to hit me with a big sword, and in this case I have to watch for him swinging at me, at which point I block the attack. After one hundred and twenty eight hours or so of playing, this is still fantastically entertaining to me. I do not have to look down at a UI element and see if my sword is off global cooldown. I do not have to look at another, different, UI element to see if my shield is off its five minute emergency cooldown. I do not have to juggle a number of short duration buffs which, if they drop, will mean the almost guaranteed defeat of my character. The cooldown on weapons is, to some extent, reflected in the length of time it takes to swing them: two-handers feel slow and ponderous compared to their one-hander cousins, but this simply serves to add solidity and texture to the combat, while building in a suitable restraining mechanic to the more potent damage range of the various two-handed weapons. There are no plates to juggle in Skyrim’s game-play, just one big plate, which I must smash over the head of my enemy; this is what I need in a fantasy game, not taking a sixty second ‘day’ and organising my hotbar meeting schedules into this time period.

“Well I’ve got an armour buff telecon in fifteen seconds, maybe we could reconvene the channelled ranged attack best practise seminar until after then; hmmm, but that does leave me with a short window where we could probably leverage a quick value-added primary attack GCD, which would be win-win if we can then schedule for the thirty second self-heal strategic planning afterwards. Of course, we’ll have to be proactive if an off-GCD defeat response occurs in the meantime – we’ll fast track it and bump the rest of the day’s schedule if that happens. I’ll get my people to macro your people. Okay, ciao.”

I could not program an Excel spreadsheet to play my Skyrim character effectively.

That’s the feeling I can’t shake with many of these hotbar-based MMOs – that an Excel spreadsheet could probably be doing it better. The realisation hits that a spreadsheet program should be my gaming idol, that at the next PAX I may well witness an Excel box surrounded by the flickering flashlight of photographers while two scantily clad women lean in from each side, one leg kicked out saucily behind each of them, planting kisses on the sides of this perfect specimen of hardcore MMO player. And then there’ll be the stupid puns in magazine articles, such as How to Excel at MMO Gaming.

Again, I have nothing against SWTOR as a game, I’ve just come to an even more firm conclusion that MMOs “where you play combat primarily in the user interface rather than the game world” are not for me. Which is rather a shame, because that’s most of them, by my current calculations. I’ll be interested to see if games such as TERA have actually made an action-orientated MMO, or whether it’s the same old concession to hotbar plate juggling, only now the rabid wolverine is a permanent fixture; in which case I can’t imagine it will fair terribly well (the game that is, not the wolverine, who I’m sure will have a whale of a time). I’m also somewhat less sure about Guild Wars 2, because on the one hand the game has a vastly restricted hotbar space, such that there are far fewer plates to keep spinning, but on the other hand the hotbar is still there, and I’m just not sure that you can realistically expect to have a hotbar and a true action RPG occupying the same game client.

In the meantime I’ve rolled a new character in Skyrim; having finished the main story and vast swathes of the game, I now want to go exploring with a slightly less accomplished (read: overpowered) character, and discover all the places that my boss keeps telling me about from his play through, but which I’ve yet to discover. I went for my favourite character type the first time around, a female paladin sort, wearing heavy armour, wielding a sword and shield, and well versed in the arts of healing magic. It was tremendous fun, but now I’m going to play an orc barbarian, with a big two-handed axe, and wearing only light armour; I’m going to see if it’s possible to play an in-your-face melee character without relying on heavy armour or healing magic. I’m also happily taking a leaf out of SWTOR’s book and eschewing the quick save option in all but the most game-breaking cases. This has already lead to interesting developments, where, in the first town at which I arrived, my character accidentally (no, really!) stole something from the bar of an inn and –in self defence, Your Honour– killed the innkeeper when he attacked over the inadvertent indiscretion. As a result of which I quickly fled the town, with the grubby wooden plate I had stolen as a somewhat disappointing trophy of this early exploit in my adventuring career. An intriguing, if ignominious, beginning.

I’ll see you all in another hundred and twenty eight hours.

16 thoughts on “We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.

  1. spinks

    Are we talking about the same Skyrim here as the one where you can pause combat to eat the entire contents of your inventory? Because I thought the combat in that game was dreadful.

  2. Jim

    lol, my thought out little reply somehow deleted itself!

    Instead a “I 100% agree with your assessment Melmoth” will have to suffice :)

  3. Roq

    Yes – But when you have to start making your own rules, in order to restrict your power, and eschew saving the game to retain some tension, you aren\’t really playing the game as is – it\’s like playing hide and seek and frentically searching everywhere, whilst ignoring the fact that you happened to notice your sister hiding in the attic.

  4. darkeye

    I think I’ll quite enjoy GW2 as a hybrid between hotbar and an action game, well it’s my big hope anyways. Being able to move and cast, or swing weapons without anything targeted, dodge roll out of AoEs, or sidestep projectiles and big wind-up attacks from enemies, should make a huge difference to be more involved in combat and the action on the screen.

    There is big cooldown powers in Skyrim too, except you can reset them by resting, as well as the shouts having cooldowns.

    Have three characters on the go in Skyrim,though haven’t gotten very far with any. Which reminds me, there is somewhere I need to be right now.

  5. Vic Sandman

    So, I’ve been lurking about this blog for a fair bit now and have listened to your podcasts, and I must say, this is the first post I’ve read that has REALLY provoked me to respond with my own MMO diatribe.
    I’ve been playing DC Universe Online recently, and have found it to be quite enjoyable. And then I decided to try out Champions Online.
    What a mistake.
    Its interface is precisely as you describe most MMO interfaces: akin to spinning plates on the end of a broom handle with rabid wolverines tossed into your general vicinity at unpredictable and often inconvenient moments.
    So I quit and went back to DC Universe, despite having lost my level 30 character thanks to Sony’s general incompetence and having bought a piece of DLC. But that’s a rant for another day.
    Anyways, I’ve truly been enjoying your blog posts Melmoth, but don’t you think you’re overdue for another KIASAcast? Just saying… :)

  6. bhagpuss

    For those of us who aren’t gamers, never were gamers and never will be gamers, the much-maligned (by gamers) hotbar combat of MMOs is about as much gaming as we want to engage with, thanks.

    Anything involving watching what the other guy is doing and reacting to it is FAR too much effort. If I’m going to have to pay attention there are approximately one billion things more rewarding to pay attention to than computer games. For my money even working out an optimum rotation is more work than I signed up for. If it takes more organisation than random key-pressing, I’m out.

  7. Saucelah

    For Guild Wars 2, my hope is that the hotbar is more like LoL — it’s there, and the cooldowns matter, but we’re only flicking our eyes at since we have to watch enemy movements and, hopefully also like LoL, have many abilities that must be targeted to a space in the world.

    That’s my hope.

    And I’m with you — I need at least some reason to pay attention to the combat, or there’s a million things I’d rather be doing. Rock, paper, scissors is more interesting. Since gaming is rather ubiquitous these days, and any given console action game easily requires much more attention and effort than any current theme park offering, I think people in bhagpuss’s position are by far the exception rather than the rule.

  8. Moridir

    I’m also looking forward a lot to Planetside 2.

    Enjoyed myself immensely with the original, until the game slowly became a ghosttown.

    In the meanwhile I’m still playing SWTOR, and I think I’ll subscribe for one month at least.
    I’ve got a lvl 45 Bounty Hunter at the moment, quite enjoying it and I at least want to see the end to his story.

    After the first month though, I’m guessing I’ll call it quits as well.

  9. Oghma Eh

    I agree that the buff/debuff bar in SWTOR is way too small, however there are also some visual element woven into the game that show when events trigger.

    For example, when my Operative gets a free Tactical Advantage, he does a nifty elbow smash after he slashes the enemy. My Jedi Sage gets a halo glow when she gets a free AOE attack.

    So far around the 30s, I’ve found that the debuffs aren’t nasty enough or last long enough forme to care about them.

  10. Melmoth Post author

    @spinks: I don’t think it’s any more ludicrous than the various food buffs and health pots that can be chugged during MMO combat. I do think that the combat has more finesse than people give it credit for, possibly because they’re expecting to stand still and slug away at the mobs until one or the other of them falls down. I wouldn’t class it as twitch combat, but it is more involved than tab-targeting and then standing still and running one’s finger up the hotbar keybinds while staring at cooldown indicators.

    @Jim: Well, it’s just my personal feeling on the issue, and I tried hard to express that I don’t believe that my feelings are somehow ‘correct’. But they are my feelings on the system, nevertheless.

    @Roq: A fair point, but as with any progression system, you either get to the point where you overpower that system, or the system constantly adjusts to your new level of power, at which point – why have a progression system at all? Really I just wanted to try a different style of character, and visiting content I had yet to experience seemed like a good way to utilise a re-roll; the RP-based limitations are just my personal preference of actually trying to RP a character in an RPG, as weird as that seems in this day and age.

    @darkeye: I’m still hopeful for GW2, but perhaps less so than I was. As always in these things, and despite many readers perhaps thinking otherwise, I would like to be proven wrong in these cases, and hence find myself in a game that engages and amazes me each time I play it. For the record, Skyrim has been one of those games, and I’m continuing to try to understand why that is the case.

    @Vic Sandman: Thanks for taking the time to comment! You should speak to m’colleague about the podcast thing, he’d be able to explain how he’s constantly chomping at the bit to do a ‘cast, but I am, alas, a limiting factor. Spare time of an evening is tricky for me to schedule, not to mention that I tend to hate the sound of my own voice, as well as the various oratorical tics I have, and the fact that my brain is unfortunately not wired to create a coherent cogent discussion in real time. In short: I feel that I suck at talking, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

    The Champions vs DCUO comparison is indeed an interesting one, and I may have to go back and revisit Champions, as both m’colleague and I were trying recently to understand why the game didn’t work for us.

    @bhagpuss: Luckily Nintendo have rewritten the original NES Super Mario game, and now all one has to do is stare at a little ‘jump’ icon at the bottom of the screen, and when the ‘jump now’ debuff appears, you just mash the icon. Assuming it’s off cooldown.

    @Saucelah: Absolutely, and I like the LoL comparison: the tactics of that game involve looking into the game world far more than looking at hotbars, and yet it still has the hotbar, to a certain extent. If GW2 can analyse and understand why this is working for LoL, then there may be a basis for our hopes. And who’s to say they don’t already understand this? GW was a PvP game originally, with a restricted hotbar, so they may have solved this issue – I haven’t played that game enough to know (but I do remember staring at cooldowns a fair bit, for what I did play).

    @Jaggins, @Moridir: I’d put Planetside 2 on the ‘hopeful’ list, along with GW2, but I have far less faith in SOE to deliver compared to ArenaNet. But that’s probably just the fanboy in me talking (I wish he’d climb out and go and pester someone else).

    @Oghma: It’s good that those effects are in the game, but when you have a crutch like the hotbar and debuff icons and such, it’s very hard to ignore them over effects that are easier to miss.

    You’ll notice I’m not offering any solutions to the problem, because it’s clearly non-trivial. My post is simply an expression of my desire for an RPG where staring at a hotbar for what seems like 80-90% of the combat is not necessary; whether this is possible, I’m not sure, but I’ve pointed to Skyrim as an example of something that at least seems to be running along the right lines.


    That game is our last hope.
    No, there is another.

  11. Saucelah

    I was reminded of this post while talking about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning today. It has a hotbar for special abilities, but it’s action-based combat. Someone must have mentioned how terrible it would be to have to look at the hotbar to figure out what’s available when you should be looking up to dodge and counter, so in addition to the ability animations, they added ability cooldown animations.

    It’s a simple idea, but it keeps me from taking my eyes off the interesting stuff. Really can’t believe it isn’t done in every hotbar MMO.

  12. Melmoth Post author

    It’s nice to see that they’ve taken the time to work out how to create suitable UI prompts based on the fact that they’re producing an action combat game. I wonder if aiming it, in part, at the console market has influenced this design somewhat.

    I may well have to check it out, it certainly sounds like they’ve gone some way towards alleviating the issue of combat being focussed in the UI rather than the game.

    Thanks for the insight.

  13. Saucelah

    I haven’t played a console version, but it also seems as if the PC version’s UI was actually designed for PC. I’m basing that mainly on the fact that there are 10 hotbar slots, using the number row or course, rather than the 8 quick slots in Skyrim that were clearly intended to correspond to d-pads rather than numbers. It’s at least a good start for the studio, from the perspective of a PC gamer.

  14. Saucelah

    I was absolutely incorrect that the abilities in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning have animations that show the cool down. Some sort of do, by default of being available after they are done being executed, but I was unfortunately confused. The animation I was seeing was for defeating opponents and filling my “fate” bar, and as I was tending to use my lightning attack as a finisher, and the fate animation happens to be a similar color to the lightning, I was simply fooled by timing and coincidence. Oops.

    Still, cool down animations are a simple idea that I can’t believe no hotbar combat games are utilizing.

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