There’s one thing (well, there are several, but one which I’ll talk about right now) that’s always bothered me a good deal about most MMO combat systems, which is that character position and movement are only very rarely an influential factor. There are a few games that do some interesting things: Aion takes into account the direction of your character’s movement to grant small but helpful bonuses to particular stats during combat; Ragnarok Online offers several skills which take into account the direction characters and monsters are facing (i.e., Backstab, which can only strike an opponent that is facing away from the user). Both of these exemplify important steps in what I feel is the right direction, but it’s Final Fantasy Tactics (unfortunately, not an MMO) that hits the nail right on the head with its nuanced tile-based combat.
In FFT, each skill and weapon has its own range, defining the potential distance (in tiles) that said skill or weapon can reach. Many skills also have an area of effect, defining a spread of tiles which are impacted when that skill is used. This should all seem fairly standard for anybody who has played a typical MMO (aside, perhaps, from the “tiles”, which can be viewed as an arbitrary unit of measurement). The things I find most compelling about the combat system, however, are the manner in which obstacles in the environment impact skill use, and the influence that a character’s direction has on their defensive capabilities.
The first area of interest: in FFT, obstacles on the map (boulders, cliffs, et cetera) are capable of blocking, or at least impeding, the range of use for a particular skill; it’s always bothered me that so many MMOs allow for skills in general to simply ignore obstacles. Gears of War stands in here as an excellent proof-of-concept for “cover” combat scenarios (and a fun game, in general), in which placing obstacles between you and your opponents is an important strategical element. One thing that tile-based, two-dimensional games bring to the table is a very simple model for “line-of-sight”, and the idea of utilizing characters’ relative positions for something slightly more thought-provoking than the standard “use these skills in this order” fare should be an exciting one, to anybody who’s gotten tired of such imprecise and awkward combat as can be found in your typical MMORPG. Imagine facing off against an opponent in a hedge maze, constantly ducking around corners to stay out of their range, all the while trying to tempt them to walk into yours. Throw in a handful of skills that intentionally allow characters to bypass obstacles, and maintaining proper spacing becomes a much trickier and more rewarding ordeal.
The other promising concept I mentioned from FFT ties in with the examples I cited earlier, but does much more with the concept: the direction a character faces has a huge impact on how they dodge and defend against attacks. When a character is facing their aggressor, they have a much better chance of dodging or blocking an attack, and even if the attack hits them, they take somewhat less damage from it. Attacking from either side reduces their chances of blocking or evasion, and results in higher damage output, and the effect is further amplified when striking a character from behind. Positioning a character at the end of their turn is a question of optimizing their defensive position; you want to conceal your character’s back and sides as much as possible, and to force attacks to come at them head-on, where their chances of survival are increased. Translating this experience from the rather static context of a round-based tactics game to a dynamic, real-time system would result in a set of mechanics which force players to put some thought into their movements throughout the course of a battle.
A more heavily position- and orientation-based combat system is something that holds a lot of appeal for me, in a market flooded with auto-attacking, “noclip mode” silliness. Of course, the real difficulty with making such a system work lies in ensuring that the controls are intuitive and responsive; such combat mechanics could easily become frustrating and tedious if the game doesn’t offer the necessary precision of control. If I can perfect the touch-controls for Atma to the necessary extent, however, these mechanics could lend themselves to a much more skill-centric experience than is typical of MMO combat, which demonstrates a regular insistence on character class and equipment being the deciding factors for any confrontation.
This upcoming week, I should be wrapping up the optimizations for my sprite engine’s draw procedures, and moving on to implementing character interactions with the world map, including the general movement controls as well as path-finding, leading up to the implementation of a robust skill system. I’ll be back next weekend, with some more posts regarding the design and development of an MMORPG, and a few updates regarding the progress I make throughout the next several days. Until then.