The Future of MMO Combat is Here

While I hung up my ESO sword, I do have a few comparisons to make with other games.  The Internet and I have an outstanding issue with the combat in ESO (it’s better than Skyrim but combat in Skyrim was never the point) and the mix between a limited action set, “don’t stand in the red”, and free-flowing combat.

Combat is, for better or worse, more than half of the time you spend in game.  Figuring out the model that works for you is key.

Limited action set

I won’t say that League of Legends created it but it certainly put it to the forefront.  LAS provides a strategic (what skills can I slot) and tactical (what skills can I use) view to combat.  There’s a fair amount of situational choice and LoL exemplifies that, to a degree.  LAS in MMOs is best seen in Neverwinter and soon Wildstar (which also combines resource management).  There’s skill variety, different variables (similar to the morphs) on a given skill and the flexibility to change pretty quickly outside of combat.  I think it’s fair to say that LAS is going to be the way forward for MMOs and games in general from this point forward.  It has a low skill barrier as you don’t have to map 18 keys so it’s easy to learn, hard to master.  Good stuff all around in my opinion and sort of makes WoW look like a dinosaur in comparison.  Mind you WoD is cutting what seems half the skills due to bloat.

Don’t stand in the fire

It seems any 3d game with terrain today has an indicator system rather than a numeric damage system.  We’re no longer trading punches (which in Molten Core was 90% of the battles) and debuffs.  There are damage spikes but also telegraphs or visual indicators to avoid it.  Smart play avoids damage, bot play dies.  The margin for error on this is where games differentiate themselves.  Some have a lot of room (SWTOR) and some have next to none (Wildstar, WoW).  Most straddle the line and allow different levels of skills.  This brings in a bit more of the action-aspect of gaming from consoles and makes every fight thematically different as the bad stuff is different as well as the dance to avoid it.

Free flowing combat

This is a bit harder to define but it deals with combat on the move.  Older games were more of the “stand and shoot” variety.  The traditional glass cannon mage is a good example.  Cast-times where you cannot move are a more old-school system, mind you they combine the risk/reward system for decision making.  At a low/medium skill level though, it’s far from evident how you decide to keep casting with 0.25 seconds left or just stop and move.  More recent games force you to be mobile for the majority of an event, with Neverwinter and Wildstar really pushing this concept.

The hiccup with moving combat is keeping track of your target.  With the screen moving everywhere, you want to be able to continue attacking even if you aren’t directly looking at the enemy.  This is a skill thing as circle strafing (a FPS concept) is very difficult for most players to grasp.  For tab-target games, like WoW or FF14, this is built-in.  For free-from games like Neverwinter or ESO, then you lose targeting when you move the screen.  Wildstar uses a hybrid approach. The basic concept is “can I deal damage while moving”.  Depending on the auto-target configuration, ranged and melee attackers have different situations too.

Current Options

Of all current games, I consider Neverwinter the current best case scenario for active combat in an MMO outside of a MOBA.  It’s got skill variety, plenty of stuff you should avoid and stuff to stand in, and a very response active combat system. You need to dodge, dip, duck dive and dodge a lot.  It’s frantic but manageable.  Given that it’s a free to play game, it gives the chance for everyone to give it a shot to see if the model (and not so much the rest of the game) fits.  I won’t compare other games to this system as it’s really personal preference.  It does bode well moving forward that the combat from this point forward is going to be more engaging and require more than a macro of pressing 1, 2, 3 for 10 minutes at a time.

8 thoughts on “The Future of MMO Combat is Here

  1. I have to admit I don’t get the current trend towards limited action sets at all. “Different skills for different situations” is generally true for more old-fashioned MMO combat as well, so from my point of view all these newer systems achieve is more UI busywork as I have to swap abilities in and out between fights instead of having them easily accessible whenever I need them.


    • I would rather have an LAS than another hunter/warlock/shaman skill bloat. I understand the busywork issue though. I think Wildstar has a rather intuitive interface for that with some levels of complexity. ESO takes a slightly simpler approach but it works there too. It’s a decent way to cross-skill between MOBA players too.

      Do you like the way skills in SWTOR work? I think it’s better than WoW but there’s still a lot of stuff you never really use.


      • My main has around 30 class skills on her bars and I can honestly say that there isn’t a single one among them that I never use. I know some people would find that a lot, but I like it as a reflection of the many different things my character can do: single target dps, AoE dps, single target heals, AoE heals, movement control, crowd control, threat control etc. It quickly adds up.
        That said, Bioware is aware of the risks of skill bloat – last expansion they culled a couple of skills that were genuinely never used, and recently when they needed to add a new ability to a class for balance reasons, they merged it into an existing skill explicitly to avoid adding more buttons.
        So yeah, I’m quite happy with that. 🙂


      • It certainly does add up. I guess the difference is what’s available at a given time to use. I know the feeling of “oh crap, i didn’t slot my stun” can mean a wipe but it can also mean that I suddenly do 30% more damage too. I like that kind of thought.


    • I’m with you on this. I’d rather my limitations be from character choice and specialization more broadly. I hate the idea of tailoring my bar to specific fights throughout the course of a run.

      It also doesn’t help that most LAS-style systems I’ve tried feel like they have too few abilities available and they forgo fluff completely. I like fluff. I like fringe abilities. There’s a big difference between World of Warcraft’s idea of bloat and EverQuest II’s idea of bloat.


      • There is certainly middle ground to be had. The benefit and disadvantage of WoW is that if it takes even a small step in one direction, 5 million people get impacted. Which, to really stretch a point, about the total sum of all western MMOs combined.

        My personal feeling is that if my rotation takes more than 15 different abilities at any time, there’s a problem. TESO feels too few, WoW is too much. SWTOR is close. Neverwinter has a double LAS (7×2) and seems the right fit for my style.


  2. I’m very conflicted about it. I really enjoy the more limited skill sets and the action orientated movement but sometimes I think it misses out in parts as well. But the amount of flexibility has gotten a bit to much. Many skills can do multiple things now, swapping in and out extremely quickly which dilutes the roles people play.


    • It reminds me a lot of TSW’s system where so much openeness means no one can do anything properly. ESO, on my templar at least, had sword and board for tanking and the class skills had maybe 2 others but deep in the trees. If you aren’t actively training those skills, then putting on heavy armor isn’t going to help much. It felt like there was a massive skill dip from 25-35 because if you wanted to be good at a role, you needed to focus on 1-2 lines, many of which were marginal compared to a more DPS focused style.

      I do get the homogenization issue. Every line has a single and AE attack, and a knockback/disable attack it seems. I prefered TSW’s approach to that issue, with dozens of skills per weapon line and the concept of decks. Still has a massive skill dip mind you…


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