Thinking about Gorgon Combat

[This post is about Project Gorgon, an indie MMO in development.]

Pop quiz time: say you have two attacks that do the same damage, but one hits a single target and the other hits multiple targets in a small area burst. How much better is the area attack than the single-target attack?

If your initial instinct is “oh, maybe 150% to 250% better”, you’re probably imagining a game with mostly one-on-one combat:

Duke it out against a single dangerous foe, throwing a barrage of attacks against it until it dies. With friends, you each work together to kill this foe, perhaps taking the classic MMO roles of tanks and healers and damage-dealers.

In this sort of game, you work hard to avoid fighting lots of enemies at a time, so an area-effect attack isn’t particularly powerful.

But of course this was a trick question because a typical combat might instead look like this:

Face off against a large number of foes, trying to take out the most dangerous first and keeping them from attacking your vulnerable flank sides. When fighting with friends, you both wade into a mob and start duking it out, helping each other when then going gets too tough.

In this sort of game, an area-effect attack would be incredibly powerful and probably hard to balance.

Project Gorgon is based on an earlier MMO effort called Project Frontier, so I’ve inherited the earlier combat system which was designed for one-on-one fights. (Or, more exactly, one-group-of-players-versus-one-or-two-monsters fights.) So when I started fleshing out the combat system with unique new fighting mechanics, I just automatically kept that assumption.

That was dumb. My favorite MMO was Asheron’s Call, which featured hordes of enemies that you had to wade through. Those combats were often epic, terrifying, and adrenaline-pumping. Why haven’t I even considered using hordes of monsters before now?

Frankly, I just didn’t think about it. It’s hard to examine every assumption, and incredibly time-consuming to have to think about every detail before you implement it. There’s a reason other MMOs steal existing combat systems: new stuff is slow and risky. That’s even more noticeable for me, because every day I prototype is a day I can’t add content.

So I simply can’t question every assumption about my MMO. A vast amount of it will be “old hat”. But this question feels a lot more important: “what sorts of combat encounters do I want to support?”

My natural answer to that is “both!” I want your band of adventurers to wade through hordes of monsters, fighting a war of attrition, only to reach the tough monsters at the bottom of the dungeon and have to muster your last resources — and fight in an entirely different way, working together against solitary tough foes.

Is that an achievable goal? I’m not sure yet… I’m still digging. Here’s what I’m digging into.

Technical challenges of hordes:

Asheron’s Call was way ahead of its time. Fifteen years ago, this MMO could easily handle 100 monsters in a dungeon, and 30+ of them in a single epic encounter room. How did they manage to get all these 3D creatures in one dungeon?

Well first of all, each monster had about 50 polygons, tops. (This was fifteen years ago, though. When the monsters were revamped, they got 200 polygons! That’s still 1/50th of what’s in a AAA game monster.)

Second, the monsters were dumb as can be. There was no path-planning involved: monsters simply ran straight at you, and if they can’t reach you, they just stood there running headfirst into a wall. (This provided a large part of the strategy of the game, as you had to carefully manage the number of monsters that could reach you at any given moment!)

They also had extremely simple decision-making abilities. Finally, they had exceptionally tight networking code (remember, this stuff ran on dial-up modems).

I’m okay with horde monsters being dumb as hell and running in straight lines. But I don’t know if my engine can handle the bandwidth, physics calculations, or even the rendering requirements of having tons of monsters in one area.

It’s a little sad to think that a fifteen-year-old game engine may still be better than mine, but it may well be. I need to do some stress-testing to find out if I’m even in the right ballpark to make hordes of monsters happen.

So I need to get the game up on my live server in order to see what realistic lag feels like and let some friends jump in to help me test. I spent some time working on that this week, but I ran into some snags and haven’t gotten it live yet.

Is It Too Much For Players?

The next big question is, even if I can support both hordes and tough monster encounters, can players switch gears enough to deal with these two types of encounters successfully, given that they will have completely different strategies?

My big worry is that players will get used to one of them and over-optimize for it, so that the other kind becomes very tedious and/or deadly. If they’re used to WoW combat, which is relatively mindless, they may be flummoxed and unhappy having to switch gears and pay a lot of attention to what’s going on.

Not everybody likes having to think about their fights. Some players think it’s poor design if they even have to switch weapons between fights, let alone switching entire strategies.

My instinct is that I’ll have to constrain the variation a lot more than I personally would need in order to reach a large enough audience. So the question becomes, will both hordes and tough solo monsters fit into the mindspace of people playing the game?

I don’t know how to find an answer that one. But my instinct is that I’m probably expecting too much of players to rapidly switch combat styles over and over. But maybe if it’s just those two scenarios I could teach them… provide enough in-game help… hmm…

Does It Make Overly Restrict Mechanics?

The last big question is, does it obsolete too many game mechanics? Players can only select a certain number of “active” abilities at any given time, so you have to load up your character with the skills you expect to use for a given dungeon or whatever.

If the abilities become too specialized, it becomes impractical to use them. Area-effect attacks are a good example: they will probably be very effective against hordes but very weak against solo monsters. If that’s the case, should you bother bringing them at all, or did I just implement a dud mechanic that nobody will use?

And it’s far from the only example: taunting, debuffing, armor-bypassing, knock-back: nearly all combat mechanics end up being significantly better against either hordes or strong solo monsters.

Maybe it will be fine. Or maybe it will be a little too tough, so I’ll add some more slots to the active skill bar, and tada, no big deal. Or maybe it’s just going to be too much specialization and I have to throw out a lot of mechanics. That would suck, and would make me reconsider this whole plan.

More Questions Than Answers

So this week has brought more questions than answers. Nevertheless, I’ve been plugging ahead with coding up some dungeons and monsters and skills and pets and so on, fleshing out the existing combat engine.

I can’t figure out the right answers just by thinking about them real hard: I need to see this stuff, get a feel for how it will play out.

And I can always hear the timer ticking in the background. At some point very soon I’ll have to lock down the sorts of combat encounters the game supports, and that will be that. So there’s a manic feeling of desperation to these tests and experiments I’m doing…

More about combat next week! (Hopefully I’ll get a chance to talk about the Gorgon-specific game mechanics… if they’re still in scope by the time I write the next post!)

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17 Responses to Thinking about Gorgon Combat

  1. Kirk Spencer says:

    On training your players… at base, that’s what the “kill ten rats” meme was about. As long as you make sure they deal with both solo and group fights from the start, preferably with little warning, they’ll have the skills needed.

    It would be the least of my worries, to be honest. Far below any of the other questions you’ve raised.

  2. Nils says:

    This is just my opinion. But I like RPGs that avoid masses of anonymous monsters. I feel more satisfied when defeating a monster that actually demanded some respect.

  3. Fidtz says:

    Olthoi dungeons were particularly exciting. Some things that allowed a different mode of combat:

    1. Mobs couldn’t run through each other or you. So you would back yourself into a corner and take on a smaller number of them. While seeing the unending mass waiting for a kicking behind them. This allowed the combat to be managable but still with an epic feel. Unless you were inept at managing the mass in which case you got chewed up.
    2. Dungeons would respawn mobs. That meant you had to manage the dungeons if you were down there for a while, killing the mobs in the right patterns to prevent yourself being overwhelmed out in the open.
    3. Directional damage. you took a crapload of damage from behind so you couldn’t realistically run in a lot of situations, unless you could get some distance by using the terrain and the other mobs (they took some time to sort themselves out in a big group).

  4. mavis says:

    You could go down the CoH/Diablo route – and have groups be a mix of easy to kill mooks and one or more bigger and meaners monsters…. That way both AoE and single attacks have a value that’s needed a lot. Or if the master monsters can often also summon additional mooks then you get encounters which might well be players vs 20 monsters but AOE is less good because it’s 2 lots of 10 small monsters – while also making things less mean on your server because your not having to handle so much on the screen at once.

    Another idea that might be to change the nature of AOE (or multible attacks) from hits everything to a decreasing values approach – sort of like the chain lighting.

    I’ve no idea if this would be server killing or not but one idea I thought about would be that AOE do some sort of large base damage – but it’s spread evenely between all of the monsters in the area – with a maximum ammount able to be delivered to single enemy. So if a standard solo attack does X damage – then an AOE might do 3X damage of which no more then 0.25X can be applied to a single monster. So the attacks poor against solo monsters, reaches peak killing power at 4 monsters, and then decrease in usefullness past that point…..

    Not sure those idea actually work together…..

  5. BryanM says:

    It really isn’t that rough – you just have to settle on what ratios you’ll use. How much weaker you want your AoE to be, how many players:foes…

    If the swarms aren’t a legitimate threat (like in Etrian Odyssey) then players will only spec a couple AoE abilities into the party, if that. If they are a threat, everyone will want at least some AoE and might need that bigger skill bar.

    Something I always keep in mind is how Magic the Gathering designers allows wonder about a card they’re making – “if I make this target multiple players, would that be awesome? And still somewhat fair?” and if yes by the Hammer of a thousand angry gods they slam that in there for multiplayer.

    … so what I am saying, is that your protector types’ Taunt ability must be AoE. Must. Be.

  6. I am a fan of the idea of making the aoe spells do additional damage and/or have an additional effect against single targets. Maybe add one of those more useful in single combat effects to the aoe spell if there is only one target in the AOE. Things like debuff and taunt which I am assuming you are putting in the more useful for single target category could also be applied in an AOE fashion. Perhaps even have a skill/ability to dilute single target spells/effects to AOE or focus AOE ones to single targets.

  7. Jason says:

    One thing that popped out at me reading this was: Why should the boss mob be a solo fight? Wouldn’t a boss mob want to have his personal guard, his cronies, around him at the end to help improve his survival? Stick to the masses of mobs or the smaller fights, don’t mix would be my suggestion.

    As for the power of the AoE, it scales. The more mobs around you when you use it, the better. But, if can have its drawbacks as well. If the mobs around you are passive (not aggressive or social) then using an AoE is a bad tactic. Alternatively you can always have a cap set on the number of mobs an AoE ability can hit to try and add some balancing.

  8. Kdansky says:

    You could split up your skill bar, and force everyone to bring (at most or at least) 4 AoE abilities, and 4 Solo abilities? Guild Wars did that pretty well with the Epic skills, of which you could only bring one, but they were way more powerful than any other skill you had. GW2 will do that even more so, for good reason.

    And/Or have the AoE abilities be recharged (or improved) by solo ability use? Which means that bringing a mixture of both is way better than just having one or the other? Simple example: “Cleave, hits up to 5 monsters, or do up to +400% damage if the enemy has a [typical single target debuff (armor break)] on them.” If the skill that applies the debuff is single target only, you cannot feasibly use it versus hordes, but that’s fine due to AoE damage, yet the skill is still powerful enough against single target mobs.

    Or design skills in a way that they are good for either fight: Hit one enemy. Does +300% damage if the enemy has above 90% hp. Which is only once for solos (good, but not broken), but pretty brutal against groups, because it just obliterates one low-hp mob instantly.

  9. Bad Mojo says:

    Don’t pretend people will be solo. A group will let people specialize. Give them your intent. Give them the tools. Let them go at it, and then tweak it if needed.

    If you are having trouble deciding which is better, then you are probably close to giving people two even options and letting them enjoy the challenge of facing an unknown enemy.

  10. Bronte says:

    All I got from this post was that you need to upgrade your PC dude! And desperately!

    Seriously though, polygon counts and complex AI are the hallmarks of the endlessly forward-moving pace of modern technology. With games like Heavy Rain out, who is to say MMO will not provide you with photo-realistic graphics, characters and animations in as little as 5 or 10 years?

  11. Anjin says:

    I wonder if something like using different stances worked in The Witcher. In that game, you assumed a different stance depending on if you were fighting a strong opponent, a fast opponent, or a group of enemies. That could be cut down to two stances for 1v1 and 1vMany. Maybe use different skill bars depending on stance. Or use the same skill bar and give each ability a different effect depending on stance.

    That sounds like a lot of work, now that I look at it.

  12. Logan says:

    Some players think it’s poor design if they even have to switch weapons between fights, let alone switching entire strategies.

    So, maybe I’m an oddball here, but I’d much rather have to switch strategies than switch gear. For the time that I played WoW during Cataclysm, I was a main tank Warrior, which meant that I had the luxury of running two Protection specs. Of course, I focused one on AoE, and the other on single target, and each spec was demonstrably better at its role than the other.

    The problem, though, was that I’d constantly forget to switch specs. So, right after a single target boss, I’d forget to switch back to AoE for the first trash pull. After a bunch of trash, I’d forget to switch back to single target for the boss. It was a bit infuriating, but worthwhile for progression fights.

    Changing gears mentally, however, is part of the fun of raiding, in my opinion. Even on farm content, mid-fight strategy shifts do a lot to keep engaged with the content. For tanks and healers, this can lead to complete changes in skill priorities, keeping you on your toes. For DPS, it adds something to actually do while you’re mindlessly activating your abilities in the same rotation that you use for 5 minutes straight every single boss.

  13. Hagu says:

    I think MMO players are trained that there are the “annoying time sink, embarrassed if you die trash mobs” to wade through before getting to the solo(ish) “real boss.” If you are pushing the duality, have some early encounters where the “final boss” is a pack not a single npc

    While I would eat cake all day long, once you start giving me a variety of cake and pie, I shall become grumpy when the menu selection is cake. I.e., once there are two different “modes”, players may decide, perhaps with little rational basis, that they prefer one to the other and find it a bit annoying to have to switch back and forth. Cognitive dissonance may caused someone who specced heavily into X to feel that the problem is not that they misspeced but rather that not-X is dumb.

    And as software evolves, there is a tendency for it to get bigger and slower and more complicated. You see even AAA titles having to scale back on some of the multiple effects for performance reasons, so perhaps you need a little headroom available in 1.0.

    And fighting large groups of mobs does not necessarily mean AOE (be it rain of fire or hand grenade.) You could have other tactics/abilities that enabled you to use your single target abilities against them linearly. (e.g. tactics of a killing field in a narrow hallway, sniping from a ledge, crowd-control.) Which is very different than I think of AOE – lower skill, not a lot of aiming, press button much damage and many deaths. But can be fun.

    P.S. don’t listen to Bad Mojo, “solo play best play” :-)

  14. ExpertNovice says:

    I’d have to argue Nils’ point. Killing one cool thing over and over give it little if any more personality than killing a bunch of things all at once. What you can do is slightly alter the masses like have three kinds of each that are all about the same. Then fights with them have some personality instead of just x of y.

    Fidtz’s mention of Olthoi sounds really exciting and fun. If it were me, that’s exactly what I’d be going after.

    Mavis makes good points all around. Mixing things up will keep it interesting. Also his divided damage mechanics are solid, but I would definitely favor less perfect balance than that for strategic purposes.

    Anthony says use single target effects with different AoE effects around that, if I understood him correctly. Like a light spell that deals damage to one and blinds an area. More than anything else, that sounds really flavourful, really unique. I can see that system really setting a game apart from the masses, or at least providing a really novel class that would challenge players creatively. Nice work Anthony.

    Jason had a point, just throw trash mobs out during boss fights. You won’t have problems with keeping the value of AoE but it will play a tactical descision making process trying to balance how much AoE vs single target damage to bring. And that’s a fun thing to work out.

    Now me, I would have all three types. Solo, Pack, and Pack led by Alpha. Now the only one that AoE doesn’t work well with is Solo but that’s really okay when you think about it. Don’t coddle your players. Enforce both encounters. Who cares which they’ll favor when they get trapped in a corridor. Or better yet, when they need a certain drop or can’t get enough exp just fighting the solo fights due to over camping. Build it and they will come! Play it safe if you want, but it won’t be as cool. *nudge nudge*

    Kdansky had an interesting option. I designed a system similar to it where you would set up combinations like that, but I never thought about changing the function of each action per combo. That’s extremely clever and if you don’t look into it I will. ;)

    Ultimately, please do not give into the urge to do what you think WoW players want you to do. They aren’t going to quit on the basis that they enjoy playing WoW. They’ll quit once they realize how dumb it’s mechanics are and how clever it’s hooks are.

    What indies should go for isn’t something they know will work, but I see your desire to be making real progress daily. Honestly, combat doesn’t seem like it will require such a center stage as in other MMOs, as yours is about exploration. But you smartly are aware that players will go in looking at the combat.

    Knowing that fact makes me aim for doing something new with combat, so that players quickly realize that this is a new experience, not more of the same old.

  15. Akjosch says:

    For what it’s worth, I like the beginning of the Frintezza raid in Lineage 2 (look up videos of it on YouTube, there are a few). The first room you run in, a thousand (ok, it’s more like 400 …) mobs gang up on you all at once. You have 27 people (… or 36, not sure) in your raid. If they concentrate on any single one, no matter the class, level, equipment or buffs, he or she dies on the spot, so the trick is not only to get them down quickly, but also to split their attention, and to watch your companions for signs of trouble.

    Two rooms later, they do it again, but with a slightly different mob composition.

  16. Joseph says:

    I’ve been a longtime reader, but I’ve never posted before. But I think this one pushed me over the edge to respond!

    I miss Asheron’s Call; the managing of masses of monsters is one thing that made the combat very entertaining to me.

    Your question about abilities and locking the player to a set amount and having to decide between AoE and Single Target attacks… there’s actually a rather easy solution to this question. Well, it sounds easy to me anyways, haha.

    Have abilities have dual roles and then just make a stance change that changes between those roles. Kind of like in Asheron’s Call how you could go to and from fast strikes and slow strikes. Both had their advantages and disadvantages. Just make two stances; Aggressive for AoE packs and another for single target bosses/monsters. Each stance would change what each ability does and could be balanced individually from each other. However, this may limit the choice of abilities a player has (since they are melted together in a way). But it frees the player from “gimping” themselves by choosing the wrong abilities for the given dungeon/area.

    Just my 2 cents.. :)

    PS- When can I help test? haha

  17. Joseph says:

    Or even better, make it have some warm up time where you have to build up power to switch to the “Aggressive” stance. That would give the player a little bit of choice “Should I use it now, or save it for the next wave…?”

    Then again, that sounds kind of fun on paper but it may not work out well in an actual game environment. :(