Archive for May 17th, 2007


You’ve seen it many times before. That new “massively mulitplayer online roleplaying game” (MMORPG) releases its ads and PR, and it tells you (like most of the ones that have come out for the last 3-4 years) that is combat will be “action packed” and “dynamic.” Unfortunately for the person trying to decide whether to buy the game or not, these terms, which can mean practically anything unless you put specifics to them, are usually not defined. However, after having seen and tried a lot of these, there seems to be a pattern here: “action packed, dynamic” combat almost always means “clickaholism.” Let’s step back a minute, though, before I explain what I mean.

Roleplaying games, of course, originated with pencils and paper (PnP), played on your kitchen table or living room floor or wherever was convenient, with some dice and a small group of friends. Figures or counters were placed on a scaled map and you moved them around to keep track of the battle. Combat was very slow in these games, in terms of real time — in Dungeons and Dragons it might take 45 minutes for the party to kill a few orcs. In Champions a battle between a half-dozen superheroes and a few villains could take upwards of an hour of real time (the time the players spent gaming it). That combat, in game time (the time the characters experienced) was only a few seconds or minutes in either game. Roleplaying games were, thus, originally tactical and strategic games, much like chess or checkers. You had a long period of time to think about what you wanted to do, and you could even stop and read up on the rules before making your move, assuming the GM allowed it.

When translated into computer games, this strategic level of game play was retained by the expedient (in solo games, which were all that existed at first) of “turn based” play. That is, the cursor would blink infinitely until you made your move, then you’d move and hit “enter”. Then the computer controlled enemy would make his move, and then your cursor would blink again. This gave you, as with table top, as long as you wanted to think, plan, strategize, read help files, go get a bag of chips to munch on, etc. The gameplay, although faster by far than table-top because the complex calculations were now handled by the machine rather than your pencil and brain, remained fairly slow and ponderous. These games were not exciting, like an arcade game, but intellectually stimulating, again like a game of chess. People looking for visceral excitement would turn to a different game, such as Asteroids or Space Invaders — just as someone looking for a fast-paced table-top game would play ping-pong rather than chess.

Once online games became a reality, and multiple players could play together, the utility of turn-based gaming pretty much vanished. If you have to wait for 8 different people to press “enter” before your turn comes up again, it could take hours and hours to play a simple battle, and heaven help you if someone goes “away from keyboard” (AFK) for any length of time.

To solve this, developers of even the early MMORPGs switched from turn-based play, to “real time” play. Thus, 1 second of real time equated to roughly 1 second of game time, and your character could swing his axe or cast his spells say once every 3 seconds… So you had to react now based on timing. The advantage of this game style is that battles are fast and more “exciting” because they happen quickly, and you can have any number of people in the fight, but it won’t (measurably) slow down because time moves forward whether you click your “attack” button or not. The disadvantage is that the speed pretty much kills off any chance of planning out and executing a complex strategy. You don’t have time to look up the consequences of casting “Fireball” — by the time you do, the battle is over (and if you were looking up rules instead of clicking “attack,” you’re now dead).

To compensate for this, the early games such as Everquest included a couple of useful features. The first was “auto-attack” — this was the basic attack with your equipped weapon or prepared spell, that would just fire every X seconds (whenever it’s your turn to “go” in combat). This allowed you to just “attack” the target and then sit back and think about future commands or tactics a little bit (not for long, but a bit). The second feature to help deal with the speed increase was the “combat queue” — this is a pre-defined list of commands your character will follow. One of the last games to have a queue that I know of was Star Wars Galaxies. In that game you could click any number of instructions, and they would all be listed in a small side window, and executed, in the order clicked, by the character. So you could (as a simple example) click, “punch, kick, legsweep, punch, punch, kick”, and your character would do those, at a rate of about one every 1.5 seconds, until the queue ran out. Then it would revert to auto-attack until the target was dead or the user gave new instructions.

Although these two mechanisms helped very much to compensate for the lack of “thinking time” that real-time games had brought about, they ended up becoming maligned and criticized. One reason they were criticized was that players felt they were not “playing” their characters but only “watching.” It was possible to just click “auto attack”, sit back, and watch your character kill off an “even con” (equal strength) enemy (at least if your character was set up right, with proper equipment, skills, and so forth). It was also possible to make long, detailed lists of commands that could be funneled into the queue, and then you could go do something else and your character would happily go along killing things without you. The most extreme form of this was the “macro”, which was basically a small script that the game executed on behalf of your character, running through a list of commands. Players figured out how to “loop” macros and could end up having the character play the game without them. They would set their character up in a place where enemies would “spawn” every so often, and have their looped macro target, attack, kill, and loot the enemy, and then fire itself to start the loop over in time for the next spawned creature. This led to a culture of “botting” the game (setting up a “bot” character who just played the scripts for you) — allowing people to gain loot and levels without even being at the keys.

Players who did this, and games that allowed it, rightly earned the derision of folks who actually played the games. Additionally, as players became more used to the “real time” sorts of combat, clicking buttons and thinking a bit at the same time became easier, and it no longer was as much of a burden to do both at once. To combat this boring “I’m not really playing” feel, designers wanted to come up with a system that made you feel like you were really playing your character — a system where you had to watch exactly what was going on, and respond, or your character would die. Such a system would be more “action packed and dynamic.”

Although they may not have been the first to try it, the first game I am aware of to really implement this successfully was City of Heroes. They had no queue… when you clicked a button, it executed. If command #1 was executing when you tried to execute command #2, then #2 didn’t happen, and you had to click it again. Each action had its own individual refresh rate so you had to watch carefully. Thunder Kick did good damage, for example, but took, say, 4 seconds to recharge. You couldn’t just hit TK, TK, TK… You’d hit TK once, and it would go off and its button would fade. The button stayed faded and un-clickable for 4 seconds, slowly “animating” back to the “usable” version. Meantime, the enemies were swinging at you so you’d better do something else — like, perhaps, clicking Crane Kick instead.

This changed game play dramatically. Bots were gone; auto attack was gone. You had to click each attack as you needed it. That was what they meant by more “action packed,” and it worked somewhat. But it also turned the game into what I call a “click-fest.” Instead of actually watching the battle — which looked really cool with all those special effects and whatnot — players found themselves watching their button refreshes. You stared at your toolbar, waiting for that button to light up so you could click it again. I’ve likened it to a user interface version of “whack a mole” (that game you find in arcades where moles pop out of random holes and you wait with a mallet to hit them as they pop out). This model was quite successful and was quickly followed by pretty much every game that has come out since, including WOW, Guild Wars, Vanguard, Everquest 2, the revamped versions of SWG… the list goes on and on.

Players in general seem to prefer this sort of gameplay, though to be honest I do not. I end up spending too much time thinking about button refresh rates and not nearly enough time watching the pretty combat animations. Now, I suppose in a game like Vanguard where the special effects are about as good as those of the old 1980s Commodore-64 and Apple II games, maybe that’s not a big loss. But for most games, it is frustrating that I spend so much time looking at the UI, and so little time looking at the actual game.

What this has definitely done, though, is turn the world of MMORPG gamers into what I call “click-aholics.” In short, if they’re not clicking, they’re bored. They have to click… and click again… and click again. As soon as the clicking stops, they become impatient. Designers seem to know this (either explicitly or maybe instinctively), so they keep designing “click-fest” games. Nobody is willing to try going back to the queue and maybe fixing it to work better (and most importantly not be bottable), because they figure the players will say they’re bored.

The consequence of all this is that, at the fundamental gameplay level, every single MMORPG on the market today, and every one in development for release in the next 2 years at least, is exactly the same. Every one of them has a toolbar with animated buttons, skills that are used individually and have individual refresh rates, and no combat queue. Now, it’s not that these things are bad, per se — I wouldn’t mind them just in, say, COH. But it gets old when you install yet another MMORPG, and realize that basically, you already know how to play it, because it plays like every other MMORPG out there.

What I’d really like to see is a little bit of innovation. Playing a non-MMO, but single player, RPG — Jade Empire — recently has made me feel this more strongly than ever. In Jade Empire, you have up to 10 “styles”, but each style only has four moves – attack, power attack, block, and area attack. The four moves are entered by the mouse only — left click, right click, center click, and left/right simultaneous click, respectively. Therefore, once you learn it there is nothing to really look at. Style switching might require glancing at your list of styles, but in a given fight you are usually using just one style at a time. Since there are no refresh rates, and no buttons to look at, you spend your whole time looking at the animations, the battle, the enemies, your character — in other words, you look at the game, and never at the UI.

Now, I realize that as Jade Empire is a console game translation, and something you only play one type of character in (a martial artist) with only 20 or so hours of gameplay to it, this exact mechanism would certainly not work for an MMORPG. But the point isn’t the exact mechanism, but the bottom line — which is that Jade Empire is a game where I actually play the game, instead of playing the toolbar. And that’s the real point — I’m sick of “playing the toolbar.” I’d like to go back to playing the game.

I’m not sure if the click-fest style of gaming is going to change any time soon though, at least for MMORPGs. Players are so hooked on clicking, because they are “click-aholics,” that most of them would have to go through withdrawal if they played a game like Jade Empire, where they didn’t have to stare at their toolbar the whole time. I’m going to keep holding out hope though, that someone, somewhere, will design a game that avoids click-fests… but though I’m holding out that hope, I certainly am not going to hold my breath…

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