Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO ColumnSkill vs. Statistics Pt. IV – Fear & FuryJonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column - RSS 2.0
The past few articles we've looked at how much skill is involved in MMO game play compared with simply building the best statistical package through the collection of the right gear. Does combat just boil down to smashing the right buttons in the right sequence, or is there more to it? Can there be more to it? Previously, I've discussed how positional warfare, equipment and special maneuvers can all be used to strengthen the role of player skill. To finish off this discussion, I'd like to take a look at morale.
As it stands, true morale has a very limited place in MMOs. There are spells and special attacks that can generate a "fear" effect causing a player or monster to run spastically for a brief period of time. Other spells give a few seconds of a "courage" buff to stats. But both of these are "magically" induced and don't represent a true morale response to a combat situation. Only one common occurrence does. This happens when a mob (usually humanoid) takes heavy damage and tries to run away. Theoretically, this should be a victory of sorts for the player, but instead it often leads to the most dangerous part of the fight. The mob with the broken morale runs to other mobs and soon the player is fighting several enemies instead of just one. While there is some justification for enemies rallying to support each other (such as the technique of an engaged monster calling for help), the idea of an enemy whose morale is broken actually gaining a superior position is not realistic.
That being said, there are several ways that morale can be accurately introduced, making it both a tool for and a threat to players. I should also point out that morale effects don't just have to mean fear or frenzy. These are merely the most extreme. Someone who is steady and confident will fight better than someone who is uncertain or shaken.
If you consider real combat, both on an individual and on an army scale, there are several rather obvious situations where morale effects can occur. One natural occurrence is when you have engaged one enemy and then are attacked by another from the side or behind. Your position on the battlefield has been compromised. At a minimum, your confidence is depleted and you are vulnerable until you withdraw to a more stable position to regain morale and security (one of the most difficult maneuvers in combat). If that is not achieved, the only other options are flight or death.
Accounting for this type of morale situation may not be the easiest for MMOs, given problems with latency, but it is not impossible. If a player is attacked by a monster from the flank, or a player attacks a monster from the flank, the enveloped individual should become shaken. In game terms, the flanked combatant experiences a debuff that grows steadily worse over time. For PvE monsters, it also makes sense that the likelihood of fleeing would be increased (for players this likelihood doesn't need to be simulated because if the debuff continues to grow an intelligent player will withdraw too). The point of the debuff over time is two-fold. First, it allows for latency which can artificially cause a flanked situation. The initial debuff is minor or delayed until positions are resolved. Second, it replicates the very real fact that the position of someone who is flanked gets worse the longer it persists. The debuff itself could induce any number of effects, depending on the specifics of the game, so long as it represents morale loss. Examples include a reduced ability to hit, damage, or defend.
A similar circumstance is the impact of the death of an ally. In combat, it is only natural to have your morale shaken if a comrade is struck down. This is an easier situation to replicate in games. Whenever someone dies, any nearby allies (say within 30 yards or so) are penalized by a debuff for a brief period of time (such as 10 seconds). This rule could apply both to players and mobs.
The final type of morale influence I will discuss here is a little different, that is, the effects of combat in friendly or enemy territory. When someone battles on their home turf, they are more familiar with their surroundings which can give confidence. Furthermore, they are potentially closer to assistance, should they need it. The fight may be more dire in their minds because they are now fighting for their home. This form of desperation actually increases morale in one sense, because it gives greater motivation to stay the fight. On the other hand, fighting in enemy territory has the opposite effect. Surroundings are less familiar, perhaps creating uncertainty. If there is a crisis, aid is much further away. Also, a defeat does not mean the loss of territory, giving less need to stay the course if the battle becomes difficult.
I mention this type of morale last because it is the least important. It is a very real effect, but it is more vague and amorphous compared with the other two. Simulating it in a game would be relatively easy and would probably be a more situational occurrence. The technique would probably be most useful if it were used to represent entering a particularly disturbing or threatening area. Minor effects of this sort exist already. For example, some boss mobs cause a reduction in overall health to anyone within a certain proximity. Why not broaden this idea, though, in some circumstances such as entering a dragon's lair. An adventurer entering the lair is afflicted by uncertainty and reduced morale until the dragon is dead or they return to the surface. As a universal concept, locational morale could also have a very realistic role in some PvP situations such as when one side attacks the other's capital. The defending side would have heightened desperation and would also gain value from a knowledge of their city. The attackers, while possessing the benefit of initiative, would be entering uncertain territory where ambush could take them on any side.
Morale is a very real aspect of warfare. Historical battles are as often won through moral superiority as physical strength. Rules that account for morale loss (and less frequently, morale gain) are very common in combat computer, miniature, and board games yet have been largely neglected for games where a player controls a single avatar. Some degree of this is justifiable due to the "hero" factor that many such RPGs are trying to convey, but it still has a valued place particularly in influencing player decision making in the heat of battle. Morale can be a technique to shift combat away from stats or button smashing and into player tactical choices.