Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO ColumnSkill vs. Statistics Pt. II – GearJonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column - RSS 2.0
In the previous installment I used the rather obscure occasion of water combat to address the impact of location on battles. Fighting knee deep in water is but one example with others including sand, snow, or loose rocks. Any sort of ground that limits stability or speed has an impact on agility and therefore the potential to dodge, parry, or even strike. But battlefield location is only one such tactical decision, what about armor itself?
Currently, armor choices are one of the biggest ways to tinker with a character's combat abilities, especially at end-game. This is predominantly due to various stat bonuses that different choices in gear provide such as combat power, health, and mana recovery. The good or ill of this technique is not the focus of this article. Instead I want to discuss the nature of the armor itself. Curiously, newer games seem to choose less complex techniques of computing armor than older ones. In WoW, LOTRO, or WAR, each piece of gear has an armor value. These are simply added up to arrive at the total armor protection of the character. Asheron's Call, however, wasn't like that. Each piece had its own armor value and these were not combined. In the midst of a battle, there were chances to strike at different parts of the opponent's body and each strike was compared only with the armor at that location. So, for example, if your character had good armor protection everywhere but the gloves, you'd occasionally hear a shriek of pain as the hands were struck. The AC system had its own limitations. Aiming for various locations was simplistic (target high, middle, and low) and so any specific gain from targeting was haphazard at best. A stronger system may be more successful than AC in this endeavor.
My bigger purpose, however, is to discuss shields in particular. For modern games the shield is simply an addition to the total armor level of a character just like any other piece of armor. While there is a high level of complexity in breaking down armor influences for gauntlets, leggings, and boots, refining the shield is fairly simple and extremely logical. This specifically, is where AC combat shines above more recent games (though in most other ways it is obsolete). This is because shields in AC only provided protection to the front. The prime example of this was in its Olthoi Horde Nest (OHN), a warren of tunnels where adventuresome players were swarmed by hordes of bugs with very quick, moderate damage attack. A player caught in the open was quickly chewed apart by flank and rear attacks. Clever players backed themselves into a corner or found some other choke point where only a few olthoi could reach them at a time and only from the front. The shield massively reduced damage intake and, combined with well timed healing, the player prevailed.
Problems with server lag have been mentioned before and should be addressed again here because lag can cause back attacks that otherwise shouldn't occur. This is, admittedly a problem and should be a limiter on the more devastating impacts of positional warfare. However, I have seen the use of shields successfully executed on a much older game (ie. AC) using a much more primitive internet connection (ie. dial-up). From time to time as I gamed in the OHN I encountered heavy lag which caused some back-attacks and the unfortunate see-saw effect as I ran through a swarm of bugs. Yet the effects were generally short term, even on dial-up. Now days where there is an expectation that MMO players all have DSL, cable, or fiber-optic connections server lag is far less frequent and severe making the implementation of shield arcs even more viable.
Now that we've addressed the more simple shields, I'd like to go back and look at body armor locations again. The technique of specific target location can be very complex and potentially difficult to balance, but perhaps there is another way that captures its intent in another way. The purpose of location attacks is to strike the enemy where they are most vulnerable. If their head armor is weak, strike the head, if there boots are low quality, strike for the feet. Naturally, a head strike is more difficult than one to the body. As was mentioned above, AC had a simplistic technique for this with a high, medium, or low strike though the actual locations hit were randomly determined. Ultimately, what this pieced armor technique tried to capture is the idea that striking vulnerable areas can lead to more damaging attacks if successful. Rather than doing this through pieced armor, there is a simpler technique which may give more realistic results. Why not allow players to have a sliding scale to toggle between "to hit" and "to crit?"
The "to hit" concept represents a general swing at an opponent with the primary purpose being to just hit the enemy. This would be comparable to a torso shot. The target is big and therefore comparatively easier to hit. On the opposite end of the spectrum, "to crit" represents attempts to land devastating strikes on the enemy such as a blow to the head. This attack is harder to land but yields more damage. Thus if the toggle is on the "to hit" extreme, the player will strike the opponent with relative ease but critical hits will be rare. On the "to crit" end, the player will miss more often but the attacks that do land will generate greater damage. A balanced position would have a moderate chance to hit or crit. A player could adjust the toggle for different fights: against monsters higher than them they would seek to land hits while on low level monsters where hits would be easier they may slide the toggle towards crits. It could be class based as well. A tank is much less interested in hits than crits, while most DPS are geared toward crits. Perhaps some classes can move deeper on the hit side of the scale while others can slide further on the crits.
All this is to say that armor protection doesn't need to be limited to a simple armor level - a basic statistic that players do nothing else with. By merely applying a shield arc, position in combat becomes much more realistic and gives players more tactical choices. Dividing armor out into different slots is not generally done these days in favor of a summed armor level. To still reflect targeting strategies a technique as simple as a crit-hit toggle could be employed.