Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column
Steinhauer's Opinion: The Close Combat Archer, Part 1

Jonathan Steinhauer | 18 Feb 2008 16:06
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Thunk! Cuhathel jumped as an arrow sank deep into the trunk of a tree not a foot from his head. He spun and saw an orc a dozen paces to his left already nocking a second arrow in its bow. Bellowing a warcry, Cuhathel drew his sword and charged. He closed the distance as the orc drew back its string, and brought his blade down on the monster's head. At the last second, the orc twisted its yew bow and parried Cuhathel's strike. A moment later, the orc loosed its arrow.

Stunned, Cuhathel looked down at the arrow protruding from his chest. As his vision when black, he thought, "You've got to be kidding!"

When we play an MMO, much like when we read a book or watch a movie, we expect a certain suspension of disbelief. Goblins and dragons cease to be mythical, and we don't scoff at the idea of a wizard calling firebolts from the heavens. We rarely even wonder how so many forests can support such large populations of bears, wolves, and other carnivorous creatures nor why such animals don't avoid humans but rather charge in with teeth bared. Nor do we question why an enemy village is devoid of any common folk like farmers, craftsmen, or children. And, of course, we never doubt the practicality of the close combat archer.

Historically speaking, archers were only valuable when the enemy was kept at a distance. They were critical for sieges and during pitched battles before the two armies clashed in general mêlée. Archers weren't stupid. When the enemy drew too close, they were quick to flee behind their own ranks of knights. And why not? Archers generally carried short swords and wore light armor. They had no chance against a mounted knight in full plate. Furthermore, if a battle went sour, an archer had to rely on his own two legs to escape while a knight had his much faster horse. Even the famous archer victories at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt all occurred, in part, due to extenuating circumstances. The English kings in all three cases dismounted their knights and set them among the massed archers. The knights served both to bolster morale by showing the archers that they wouldn't be abandoned and by being present to lead the fight should the battle come to melee. Furthermore, at Crécy, Edward III had his archers place stakes before their positions as a further defense against the incoming French knights in an effort to protract the period of ranged combat and, therefore, their usefulness.

But developing weapon systems in an MMO is more complex than just transferring over historical data. Aside from most games being fantastical, they have a second major difference from medieval battles: the concept of heroes. MMOs, by their very nature, focus on individual players and are designed to support no more than a handful of gamers working in concert, not the hundreds or thousands of a pitched battle. Despite this difference, however, the basic medieval concept remains. An archer is only valuable as an archer while the enemy is at a distance. Contrary to this rather obvious fact, in games the opposite remains almost categorically true.

In Asheron's Call, for example, there is no penalty for using a bow in close combat other than the inability to carry a shield. I played a crossbowman for a while and it was rather absurd watching my avatar go through the lengthy windup and loading sequence while being stabbed and clawed at by half a dozen monsters. Neverwinter Nights at least imposed a -4 penalty to using missile weapons while in melee combat. Of course, the "Point Blank Shot" feat, available even at Level 1, not only nullified this penalty but gave a +1 to hit and damage targets within 15 feet. At 15 feet I can understand such a bonus, but at 3 feet, the archer is dead.

Lord of the Rings Online has taken some steps toward making their archer class, the hunter, more realistic. Instead of only having bow skills, the hunter also has several melee attacks. Most ranged skills have an "induction time" which can be interrupted by enemy attacks. But it is still not difficult some of the ranged skills with low induction like the Quick Shot. Furthermore, the most powerful ranged attacks like Penetrating Shot and Rain of Arrows have no induction time at all and therefore no chance of being stopped by an attacker.

Ultimately the trend is the same: archers use their bows in close combat. But the question in this conflict between realism and heroic fantasy is if that should change. Archer characters constitute a hefty percentage of a game's player base and designers are naturally hesitant to impose game systems that will drive down their profits. In this case, I think there is general room for improvement of the archer class without making them obsolete. We'll investigate the possibilities next time.

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