Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column

Button Smashing – Skills or Statistics


Over the past couple months we’ve looked at the three core functions of the MMO: DPS, Tank, and Healer. There are, of course, numerous subcategories: Mezzer, Decurser, Crowd Control, etc. but these are essentially subsets of the three prime functions. There is one related topic, however, that does relate to all of these and to core functions that I’d like to address before wrapping up this string of articles. That is the relationship of statistics and strategy. When I originally developed this topic, my initial article title was “Positional Warfare” but I quickly realized the theme is much broader than that. Furthermore, as Gavoll so correctly pointed out in response to my Tank article, there is a continuing problem of positional dynamics based on the inherent lag time of processor and server communication.

This really is the root of the dilemma for combat in MMOs. So much of warfare is opportunistic and positional that the unavoidable server lag time hinders and sometimes prohibits possibilities that could make combat more realistic, more involved, and more related to player skill. Unfortunately, many game designers seem to give up. Instead of seeking a skill based work-around, they come up with new statistical probability. I like stats as much as the next person (probably more), but when warfare is boiled down to raw probabilities, battlefield skill disappears. The building of the best stat base becomes much more important than any sort of tactical competency. The WoW endgame, for example, is structured on collecting the best set of gear to maximize stats. Whatever happened to tactical prowess?

Button smashing seems to be the order of the day. When I read discussions for upcoming games, the question of button smashing vs. skill always seems to crop up. “This new game will be different!” The designers claim. Perhaps it is different… you smash different buttons to get different specific results, but the fundamentals of game play remain unchanged. For example, with the druid class, my highest level character type in WoW, the “approved” feral attack pattern is mangle, shred, shred, shred, shred, rip, rinse, repeat. True, WoW is an older game, but the same concept applies to LOTRO or WAR. AoC is one such game that touted an escape from button smashing, but its combos are just a different form of them.

While I acknowledge the debacle of server lag, I refuse to agree that this prohibits the use of location in games. I refer to this both on a macro and micro scale. Did you ever play Axis & Allies? While a fun game in some respects, it always bothered me that you could generate massive amounts of men and tanks in the depths of Siberia or the heart of the Sahara Desert where no technological infrastructure exists. While MMOs deal on a different scale, a similar trend exists. In order to make a point here, I’m going to proceed with a peculiar case study, but it leads to a larger and broader concept.

Let’s talk about water. I’m thrilled that you can swim and fight underwater in WoW. I compare it with good ol’ AC where water was a wall. Water allows for interesting combat sequences. In real life have you ever tried doing anything requiring dexterity in the water? It’s much more difficult, yet my WoW characters can swing their swords just as fast underwater as on dry ground. They can dodge, parry, and block as easily too. Movement speed is slowed while you swim… which is onerous for travel rates (joy, joy), but where water should make things more difficult, i.e. combat, its effects are ignored. If you are on dry ground and fight someone knee deep in water, who do you think should have the advantage? Can you honestly dodge as quickly (and with as much control) in the water as on land?

But what about server lag? After all, you could start the battle on dry ground and get pulled into the water by lag, something you never intended. While I doubt this would affect swimming combatants (lag isn’t so bad that it will suddenly pull you from dry land to deep in a lake), it is a valid concern for someone suddenly tugged knee deep. After all, this is the same fundamental dilemma that affected my argument for characters occupying space in my Tank article. There is one major difference, though. The water problem has a fairly simple work-around. Since all game designers know about server lag, it shouldn’t come as a surprise and in small things like this water example, it can be adjusted for.

The first question is when does server lag occur. Usually it happens where both combatants are moving into combat. When a player is stationary and accepts a monster’s charge, or a monster is stationary when the player charges, lag is not a concern. Battle initiates where the non-moving combatant is standing. The problem generally happens when both player and monster are advancing towards each other. Then the servers are stuck trying to figure out where the two combatants actually meet. But how long does this problem last? Within a second or two the combatants have straightened themselves out and the jumping ceases. Once the combat begins in earnest, lag really isn’t an issue. The combatants remain generally stationary (even in kiting situations they are moving together). They don’t suddenly have a dramatic shift through some sort of server adjustment. It makes sense, therefore, for the game to suspend specific effects for a short duration when the exact location is in doubt.

What do I mean by this? Say you are traveling along the edge of a lake and see a brigand. Both of you charge into the battle. The server jumps and suddenly you are knee deep in water while the brigand is on dry ground. Oops! You never would have done that but for the server compensation. The game knows this and allows you a second or two to adjust yourself. If you choose to stay put you will begin to incur penalties associated with fighting knee deep in the water after a short grace period elapses (reduced dodge, slower melee attacks, etc). However, if you compensate and shift out of the water then no harm done. Perhaps you can even slowly maneuver (combat movement is realistically slow anyway) the brigand until he is forced into the water gaining an advantage for you.

Admittedly, this water example would be a relatively rare occurrence. There are only so many lakes and rivers to fight beside. But the argument goes deeper than this somewhat obscure situation. The broader picture is that the positional choices that players make should have an impact on the battle. More than just water, there should be an advantage for holding higher ground than an opponent. There should be penalties for fighting in brush, while wading through snow or sand drifts, or while standing on loose pebbly terrain. Instead of just smashing buttons, wouldn’t it be great if players actually could consider their surroundings and pick battle locations that provided optimum benefits for them and penalties for their opponents?

So far, I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg for how games can move beyond statistics. Next time I’ll continue by looking at relative positions, considerations of armor, morale effects, and special maneuvers.

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