Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO ColumnSkill vs. Statistics Pt. III – Special ManeuversJonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column - RSS 2.0
I began this "button smashing" series by stating that, while statistics are the basic foundation for MMO combat, over reliance on them has diminished the importance of player skill. Currently, the highest performing players have managed two things: (1) they've collected an optimum set of gear complete with its stat bonuses, and (2) they know the best button smashing sequence for their special maneuvers to achieve maximum DPS, heals, or threat. There may be some skill involved in more complex dungeons or raids, especially for tanks and healers, but even then it usually boils down to a patterned sequence of movements and actions. The Four Horsemen in WoW's Naxxramas provide a perfect case study. On the surface it looks like a complex fight. A raid group that doesn't know what its doing will wipe every time. But given a group with decent gear (aka decent statistics) that understands the fairly simple steps, it becomes a walk in the park.
This leads me to wonder about special maneuvers/spells/abilities themselves. Ironically, I would speculate that these originated as a plan by game designers to provide exactly what I'm asking for: more realistic and involved combat. Look at old Asheron's Call where melee and ranged players only had a couple simplistic attack options: hit high, middle, or low while attacking fast for low damage or slow for high damage. To give more choices, special maneuvers were added.
Enter the statisticians! This collection of competent mathematically oriented individuals has analyzed the various maneuvers to develop specific sequences or general priority lists to optimize damage output. Don't get me wrong, I'm not picking on the statisticians at all. After all, they are delving into the heart of their class roles and maximizing efficiency and proficiency (which takes skill). But most gamers don't. They just look at the results the statisticians come up with to develop their attack plans.
The introduction of special maneuvers was an important step to improving player involvement in combat. Further steps have been introduced as well. These are generally oriented toward building toward greater maneuvers or combination attacks. A fairly simple technique is WoW's rogue/feral druid combo point system. More recently, LOTRO added a new level of complexity with its Rune-Keeper class that builds attunement over time toward a specific role. In WAR the Dark Elf sorceress, for example, gathers dark magic to cast more powerful spells. Building to combination attacks is also a technique of AoC. Yet all of these games have one major flaw which points to the heart of the matter. Nearly every one of these combination attacks or special maneuvers is built around previous actions by the player, not the opponent.
As long as previous player actions are the driving force behind special maneuvers, MMOs will be nothing but a numbers game. The key to break the cycle is to focus on responses to the enemy's actions. Right now, WoW's feral druids build combos with mangle, shred, shred, shred, shred, and finish off with the powerful rip. Similarly, enhancement shamans know that casting lightning bolts or chain lightning has the highest priority whenever they've built five stacks of Maelstrom Weapons. These sequences and priorities persist regardless of what the enemy is doing. Mangle, shred, shred, shred... whether it has just parried or dodged, had its attack parried or dodged, turned its back or charged... mangle, shred, shred...
The solution is simple. What if a game set up various events that open up windows of opportunity? How long those windows should last depend on the nature of whatever event occurred and allow for server lag (probably 3-5 seconds is a reasonable length). For example, my enhancement shaman is fighting an orc. It lunges at me and I parry the attack. This opens a window of opportunity. Perhaps the parry opens up an opportunity for a quick strike with my off-hand weapon that will cause extra damage.
The crux of the matter is that what drives my action is not a combination sequence on my part, but rather opportunities generated by the actual combat and by the enemy's actions. The types of opportunities are numerous. They can include defensive actions like parrying, dodging, or blocking to offensive actions like landing a critical hit. Likewise, if the enemy parried, blocked, or dodged one of my attacks it would open up certain possibilities. Whatever opportunities derive from these would vary game to game and class to class. As mentioned above, a shaman might be able to follow a parry with a powerful offhand attack while a warrior might be able to use a dazing shield blow.
Statistics wouldn't disappear, of course. After all, a player more skilled at parrying will cause more opportunities of one sort while one proficient at landing critical strikes will generate more of another.
On the opposite side, there is another chance for player involvement. Say the aforesaid orc parries one of my attacks leaving me open to a counterstrike. Certain behaviors on my part could minimize the effect such as withdrawing a step and shifting to a defensive stance. This could reduce the gain the orc might have as it attacks yet it might cost me something too. For example, shifting onto the defensive might reduce my own damage for a few seconds as I try to move back onto the attack.
There are a few examples where this has already been employed in a limited way. WoW's warrior class can use Overpower after dodging an attack while LOTRO's guardian can use Retaliation after parrying an attack. But so far, it is limited to a few maneuvers for the tank class -- not enough to revolutionize combat.
Combat based on interaction with events would be much more dynamic. Rather than just a stats race, players respond to events as they occur, maximizing their opportunities and minimizing enemy opportunities. Rather than just building a nice set of gear and reading up on the analysis of statisticians, gamers could make active choices based on changing circumstances. To achieve this level of player involvement, maneuvers must shift away from player built combinations.