After having played the recent Batman series, I have found a new love for the combat dance. In my younger days, I played a lot of arcade fighters and usually held my own. There was just one local guy who could really whoop me and I learned the combat dance from him. The dance is a series of timed moves that work symbiotically with each other, in what can only be perceived as “what I was trying to do in the first place”. In older games, this was called (and might still be) juggling. Today, there’s a rhythm to most games that involve combat so that when you watch an elite player, they don’t so much memorize the buttons as they memorize the pattern of the buttons.
As there is a difference in complexity between the Waltz and the Tango, so true is it in combat games. If memory serves, Paladins in WoW have had a longstanding tradition of horrible dances. The 2-4-6 combo was a series of 3 attacks that you cycled continuously on end. Hunters are the same. Most SWTOR classes also suffer this simplistic formula and Rift often suffers from the 3 button macro effect. Some games, like StarCraft for example, have very complex combat patterns and require not only dexterity to accomplish it in short time frames but also the ability to adapt on the fly.
Back to the MMO world though, and the thought process behind generation and consumption in terms of combat. Abilities are limited by 3 main things – time, resources and condition. The first one is usually just a cooldown, preventing you from continuously spamming your most effective abilities. The second can be a bit more complex. Perhaps your character has a single energy pool, where abilities need a certain amount in order to activate. More complex characters have a dual pool, where you need resources from two separate pools to do something – like Rogues, Energy and Combo Points. The third type is where a set condition is required in order to activate an ability. Say they need to be poisoned, or you need to be at a certain distance. All this combines into a complexity ladder for a given character and in turn, the popularity of that character.
Look at WoW and the seemingly immense proliferation of Mages and Hunters. Both have a single resource, little restrictions in terms of timed abilities and very limited conditional factors. Both are all over the place. Then look at Warlocks and Rogues. They are extremely dependent on time (due to Damage over Time effects), multiple resources and plenty of conditional factors. And that’s just DPS. For tanks, with changes in Pandaria to an active mitigation – where you need to press buttons rather than stack stats – this means that the combat dance becomes ever more complex. There are your buttons for attacking, your buttons for defending and your buttons for “oh my god”, all of which use the same complex resource management system of the base class. Tanks not only have to understand dance with a dozen more steps, they also need to pay more attention to the music to even be able to dance without falling down.
There’s certainly a balance to be had between a simple dance and a complex one. In all honesty, I think all classes should have a basic, smooth dance that allows for a player to add complexities when needed. Rift does the former but not much of the latter. WoW doesn’t really do transition between the dances all that well – either it’s dumb easy or carpal tunnel syndrome complex. I think concept of easy to play, difficult to master should be the baseline. If the game metrics are showing that people are having a really hard time with a class structure, maybe it’s just time for a complete re-write.