[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!)