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Warfare as an Art
Last time we dived into Clausewitz and began looking at how his theories of warfare can be applied to gaming. We investigated the impact of moral forces on combat and I got a bit ahead of myself. When I think of Clausewitz, morale factors are the first thing that jumps to my mind. However, before we go too far into his theories, we need to step back a pace and look at warfare itself.
In the wake of the Napoleonic Era there were essentially two camps in warfare theory. The first, championed by Antoine-Henri de Jomini, argued that warfare was fundamentally a science. Jomini, as a child of the Age of Reason, took a highly logical perspective on warfare that could sometimes be seen as almost mathematical. The second approach to war was taken by Clausewitz and his argument that warfare was in many ways unquantifiable and lay more in the realm of an art. He says, "...the absolute, the mathematical as it is called, nowhere finds any sure basis in the calculations in the Art of War; and that from the outset there is a play of possibilities, probabilities, good and bad luck, which spreads about with all the coarse and fine threads of its web, and makes War of all branches of human activity the most like a gambling game." (Book I, Chapter I, page 117).
So lets move on to games. Being bound by the mathematical framework of computers, games begin inherently on the science side of the debate. The means by which the art is generally introduced is through mechanisms of probability to create "chance." We see it whenever we attempt to strike at an enemy with the chance to hit or whenever we land a blow and the amount of damage is determined. There are chances to dodge, parry, block, or resist spells. But when it comes down to it, this is still largely a science. The chance to hit is almost always 50% for equal levels while damage variance is translated conveniently into damage per second.
Frankly, these concepts are what I'd expect to see and I have no problem with them. But I'm surprised that that is all I see. There is as much detail in 30 year old pen and paper games... roll a 15 to hit (25% chance), you do 2D6 damage. Sound familiar? Why we can't move further than that? Let's look at some practical examples:
The first one that jumped to mind happened when I was playing WoW the other day. I was dabbling with a low-level night elf rogue in Darkshore and was having fun swimming the coast and hunting Darkshore Threshers. But I quickly found myself falling into a pattern. Most of the Threshers were either L12 or L14. I got into a rhythm of building four Sinister Strikes followed by an Eviscerate on the 12s while using five Sinister Strikes and an Eviscerate on the 14s. In all cases this was sufficient to kill, or nearly kill every Threshers. Then it hit me, this is pretty mathematical. What happened to the art of the hunt?
Here's another example from LOTRO. A while back I was invited by some friends to join them on a trip to Goblin Town (a L50 zone, for those who aren't familiar with it). I was only a Level 41 guardian at the time, but they assured me I'd be okay. True enough, with enough high level companions around, I was safe. On the other hand, I couldn't land a single hit on a monster the entire night. All those sword strikes and not one hit!
Now a PK example from LOTRO. The game is rather non-PvP, but there is a corner of the world (the Ettenmoors) that you can fight other players that control of L50 minions of the Witch King. You can head there at L40, but to be successful you really need to be L50 like your opponents. As I was partaking in a bit of PvP, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. There was a L43 that had bravely (or perhaps stupidly) joined our group. In every battle, the enemy targeted her first. She was killed so often she must have been glad that LOTRO's death penalties are non-existent in the Ettenmoors.
This experience was in sharp contrast to group hunting against regular monsters. In those situations, it wasn't the weak players that were targeted, but rather those that dished out the most damage. I can understand the logic behind both, but there is such a disparity that it points to a flaw. In the PvP situation, the weak player is targeted because they are an easy kill and kills earn points. It turns the Ettenmoors into a sort of Darwinian culling of the herd. On the other hand, in PvE, critters are programmed to attack what hurts them most. This devolves to a strategy of killing the strongest players first and then turning on the weaker. A competent fellowship, therefore, quickly learns who draws the damage and focuses their healing efforts on that individual.
So what do these three examples show? For all of the damage variances and chances to hit, the game is fundamentally mathematical. You don't have to dig very far to see through to the underlying equations and exploit them to your advantage. Once that advantage is determined, the game devolves to a repetitive execution of actions, whether it be the key stroke sequence in the first example, the complete inability to have any impact on anything in the second, or the foregone conclusion of what you must kill or protect in the third. The art is gone because the need for judgment disappears. Instead, Clausewitz argues that "...where judgment begins, there Art begins." (Book II, Chapter III, page 202).
To finish the loop, let's take these scenarios to the next level. First, the repetitive combat actions like I experience against the Darkshore Threshers. The fundamental flaw here is that every thresher of equal level is an identical clone. By comparison, my night elf rogue isn't the same as another night elf rogue of the same level. Differences include weapon and armor choice, not to mention my talent track. Monsters should be varied too, with randomizing along a bell-curve. A pair of L14 Darkshore Threshers could differ in their ability to hit, damage inflicted per strike, hit points, armor level, speed, magic resistance, and amount of damage they'll take before they are likely to run away. Once I can't count on a particular pattern to bring me success every time, I am required to pay more attention and adjust to the shifting circumstances.
The solution to the second example whereby a L41 guardian can't strike a L50 goblin is even easier. First, however, we should look briefly at why designers create this impossibility. The purpose is to prevent players from hunting to far above their level so they can't mass level like they could in old games like AC. While this is a reasonable expectation, the degree of the limitation is absurd. In an encounter with a monster far above my level, I wouldn't expect to hit it very often or damage it much when I do manage to strike, but the chance to hit and damage should never be a solid zero.
Moving to the final example, it is obvious that the targeting choice of PvPers, of course, cannot and should not be changed. In a PvE fight, however, it should not be a forgone conclusion that the enemy will attack the greatest threat first. This should vary by monster type and probably even from monster to monster in the same type. Some enemies will always attack the greatest threat while some always the weaker, and some should latch onto one target and never shift unless acted on in a specific matter (such as a threat generating or reducing maneuver). The point here is to make every combat a little different and less predictable. In some fights it's the strong man that takes the most damage while in others it's the weakest, or the healer, or it's a general melee that keeps everyone's health meter at risk. The moment combat becomes predictable is the moment the art is gone.
These scenarios hardly touch the tip of the iceberg on the potential ways to break the auto-pilot drudgery in the repetitive aspects of MMOs. You've probably thought up a few other examples as you read this. Indeed there are some examples that don't even involve the combat side of gaming. I'll leave you this time with a final quote from Clausewitz. "War is no activity of the will, which exerts itself upon inanimate matter like the mechanical Arts; or upon a living but still passive and unyielding subject, like the human mind and the human feelings in the ideal Arts, but against a living and reacting force." (Book II, Chapter III, p. 203).
Citation for all quotes: Clausewitz, Carl. On War. London: Penguin Group, 1968.