Friday 15 July 2011

Stay on target.

M’colleague and I got to discussing ‘target marking’ in MMOs the other night on Mumble. It was one of those segments of our more general genially loquacious pratings which we realise, only after the event, we probably could have recorded as a podcast. This was rammed home the following morning when neither of us could recall that specific part of the conversation, and neither of us had thought to note it down. What followed was the best part of an hour spent in the finest Twelve Monkeys tradition, travelling back in time and grabbing at scraps from our fragmented memory of that evening’s conversation, and thence trying to piece together the events leading up to and following our recollection event horizon, like determining the shape of an ancient vase by piecing together the excavated remains of a broken mould.

We got there in the end.

It transpired that I had been relating to m’colleague how our illustrious fellowship leader in Lord of the Rings Online had discovered that he could ‘target mark’ his own fellowship members. Quite amusing in itself, but doubly so when it can be applied to anyone in the fellowship at any time, even if they are half way across the world; confused cries erupting from the four corners of Middle Earth at the time, as strange icons suddenly appeared over the heads of unsuspecting hobbits and elves. M’colleague and I bantered on the subject some more, before he hit upon the idea of mobs being able to ‘target mark’ players. We both laughed, but then wondered if there was perhaps slightly more to it, and so we hopped on the handcar of discourse and chased the train of thought as it puffed off down the track towards Conjectureville.

It’s not an original concept by any means, but having the mobs use target marking to show their intentions might enable them to use a greater degree of tactical ability than current MMO combat really allows. Certainly it could alleviate the need for aggro meters –allowing players to see that the mobs had decided to focus-fire the healer, for example– especially if coupled with a form of combat that didn’t rely on the standard Yo Mamma! aggro management. Removing UI elements and putting them into the game world is something I always like to think about: I still hold to the opinion that playing the game through the UI instead of through the game world is a standard design which makes the MMO genre poorer; having the players look into the game world to see which target markers were set over their companions heads might be a way to draw them away from the UI. Of course there are certainly issues with making mobs more intelligent while also keeping the game fun, but it seems that MMOs too often follow the ribbon dance formation of combat (where the party fights around the maypole of tank and mob, by as much as the ribbons of range and aggro will allow), and perhaps we should have moved on from that by now – games such as TERA and Guild Wars 2 are clearly making tentative attempts towards this.

Of course while drafting this post I quickly got to thinking about the usefulness of target markers in real life. Starting in early life, target markers would be an excellent aid to playground dynamics, where the Small Kid would be able to see that they’d been marked for taunting and thus make themselves scarce (or at least organise all the other small kids into a raiding party and try to take on the Big Kid). Naturally the Big Kid would be marked DO NOT AGGRO at all times, therefore saving many new kids from bruised cheeks and lost lunch money. The teacher’s pet could be marked with a Crowd Control marker, notifying the more ‘adventurous’ kids that they’d need to distract them with sweets or a fascinating maths problem before trying to climb The Forbidden Fence behind the bike sheds.

But target markers would continue to be useful into adult life too. Partners could place a DO NOT AGGRO marker on their menstruating other half, serving as a warning for both themselves and the rest of the world that it would be better to find a wounded tiger and crash a pair of cymbals next to its head than to aggravate She Who Is Hosting Communists in the Funhouse. Men who have a tendency to get embarrassingly drunk at the neighbours’ dinner parties could have a Crowd Control marker popped over their head, thus enlisting the help of others to distract them with talk of sport, or by waving shiny new technical gadgets under their nose, while their partner swaps their can of lager for something non-alcoholic. Shopping expeditions could be executed with greater precision:

“Right, Jess, you sap the little old lady with the basket who will try to block us by swerving indecisively back and forth across the aisle. Steve, you DPS the arrogant businessman’s trolley that is parked sideways across the entire aisle, bonus points if you can coordinate with Jess and get the little old lady to crash into it for you. Tom, I need you to kite the indecisive single man away from the TV dinners so I can get to the frozen vegetables. Targets are marked, everyone clear? Good. I’ve marked checkout six as our primary means of escape, good luck everyone.

And although there’d be no real intention to act upon it, some days it would just be satisfying to be able to put the big skull icon of Attack This Target over your boss’s head.

Naturally, in the current climate of world events, I moved on to various dilemmas, such as whether governments should be able to assume control of the target marking system in times of emergency. The case for such a provision is that, for example, rioting would become much more manageable and less dangerous for all involved, since the police would simply roll a really big artificial policeman into the midst of the rioters and then set it as primary attack target. The crowd would then all stand around fruitlessly punching the giant inflatable rozzer until they eventually got the whole thing out of their system. However, such a system would have its flaws, such as if an enterprising group of young hackers took control of the system and caused a school field trip of young mothers and their children to go on a rampage and attack the local vicarage.

Expanding the thought experiment into the animal realm didn’t work either. Dogs, for example, would simply mark every cat, squirrel, ball, stick, slipper and tail they saw as Primary Kill targets. Cats would naturally set a comprehensive and calculated set of target markers for one another, each expressing a diverse and eloquent set of uncommonly intelligent messages, and then ignore it all because curiosity got the better of them. Spiders would be constantly miffed at having to explain that their crowd control only works on flies and small insects, and that they couldn’t root a cow, no matter how ambitious the rest of the animal team were. And nobody would be able to make a wasp aggro the correct mob regardless of target markers; they are, and always will be, the bouncing hyperactive lolDPS of the animal kingdom.

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