Welcome to Part III of a four-parter about the elements I hope I like in two big upcoming MMORPGs: Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn, and Elder Scrolls Online. Part I introduced my overall expectations, perspective, and the topics I wanted to discuss, while Part II delved into Character Customisation.
If you’re paying attention, you might notice that ESO has disappeared from the heading (and if you’ve just come from the ESO half of this post, skip on down to the next section). For this topic, my expectations of the two games diverge enough that they deserve their own posts. Pop over to the ESO version of this section if that’s your prefered game (or after you’re done here). Moving swiftly along, Part III is about the Combat of these games and games like them.
Combat is often the most heavily emphasised mechanical aspect of digital role-playing games: when the player is actually doing stuff in the game, the ‘doing’ is usually combat. Of course, you can also spend hours upon hours dressing up a character (balancing combat stats with looks), hammering away at a crafting system (using materials earned in combat), or chatting with the locals about what you should be doing next (usually running off to fight something). I hope you see the common thread, and thus the importance of a good combat system.
‘Good’ can mean many things though, so let’s get more specific.
Menus, Depth and The Right Choice
Final Fantasy combat comes from a long line of menu-based and turn-based combat (the namesake of this website, in fact). Rather than hit a specific button for an attack, you are given many options in a menu, and then see how the choices you make play out in the game. I could discuss the major differences between this and a more active style of battle control (think push-button-bash-face) or the evolution of the control style, but I feel this could spiral off away from the focus here: what would be a well-designed fit for FF14, based on games past (at least from my perspective).
This style of battle has a lot of history and more than a few variations, and I expect FF14 to have it’s own twists. It will probably have a lot in common with FF12, as being an MMO generally requires a persistent world with no transition to and from battle and no pauses, so let’s start there.
Short aside: if you’re wondering why I’m not making the obvious comparison to FF11, the main reason is that I haven’t played it personally. A close secondary reason would be that the developers must be planning to differentiate FF14 from FF11 a reasonable amount, otherwise they probably wouldn’t make a new game out of it at all rather than piggyback on the previous success and make a big update/upgrade to FF11.
Probably the most revolutionary thing about FF12 combat (besides the aforementioned no-transition battles) was the Gambit system: a set of specific ‘cause and effect’ actions that the player could assign to each character prior to battle. If a character has less than 30% health, cure them. If an enemy is vulnerable to fire, burn them. If you’re not doing anything, smack the enemy until I tell you to do something else. And before you say ‘But then I don’t have to do anything’ I’d like to preempt that with ‘You don’t have to do anything obvious’.
Sure, if you can pre-program the AI to do all these little things then you aren’t doing them yourself, but why would you want to be doing the easy stuff in the first place? If you can predict these events and the correct response to them far enough in advance and with enough certainty that you can use a digital version of a trained monkey, why shouldn’t you set that aside and focus on other things?
You can react to events that you couldn’t, or simply didn’t, predict (like a sudden change in strategy by the enemy), or enact a plan with subtler components than the simple gambits can handle (like starting a heal spell when tells for a certain attack begin rather than when somebody is low on health). Maybe you could combine attacks in a way that’s not just ‘Hit the weakness’ or ‘Use A and then B, repeat’ in order to match the situation. Perhaps sometimes A and then B is right when you’re pushing for a quick win, but B and then C is better if you need to grind out a win defensively, with many more variations possible depending on your personal style.
This kind of thinking pervaded not just FF12, but FF13 (and FF13-2) as well. You didn’t even need to set specific instructions, the AI automatically hit known weaknesses or followed general ‘good practices’ (like using the all-powerful Haste buff before anything else). Very different systems, but a common thread of ‘if it can be easily and logically programmed, then the player can have more fun doing something else while this is handled automatically’. Of course, if the combat systems of either game didn’t provide enough variation or challenge beyond the ‘obvious’ choices, then you really wouldn’t have anything to do, but this generally isn’t the case in either.
To apply these basic principles to FF14, I guess the takeaway message for me would be ‘make sure my actions and choices in combat are at least somewhat interesting’. Now that’s a really vague and loaded point (What is interesting? What choices am I making and which are made for me?), but I think the guidelines set by FF12’s gambits and FF13’s general AI make a great benchmark.
If a simple cause-and-effect program or short list of ‘right decisions’ could do everything that I’m doing, it’s probably not very interesting.
Changing it up
Another angle on this style of combat can be seen in Xenoblade Chronicles, a recent game that has very MMO-like qualities in a single-player package. In contrast to the aforementioned games, Xenoblade did very little for the player, besides automatically performing a basic attack and controlling the two uncontrolled teammates.
At any given time in combat, you have access to nine action options from a max of around sixteen, selected before battle according to your preferences. Much of the player’s action in the combat system revolves around having and using the right attack or power for the situation while juggling cooldown timers (another typical MMO mechanic).
Though I loved Xenoblade Chronicles, I’m hesitant to say this is a great example of combat for an MMO. Part of what kept the combat fresh in Xenoblade Chronicles was the ability to change which character I was controlling and the overall tactics of the team whenever things felt a bit stale.
There was enough total gameplay variety if you consider playing each of the characters for some portion of the game, as well as the diversity afforded by playing with different combinations of characters in tandem (that’s seven playable characters, each choosing nine action options from a different pool of sixteen, in around 100 different possible team arrangements of three characters) that it sustained many (many) hours of gameplay. This is unlikely to be the case in an MMO, where you have your one character, and your team is determined more by whoever is available rather than some desire to change up strategies for a while.
Or rather, that’s what I would say normally, but any look at FF14’s past or current direction will tell you that they are at least experimenting with changing up how you play the game simply by changing your equipment – not so different from changing to a different character in other games. I’m really curious how they will balance having enough character definition (as was mentioned in Part II) while letting the player change things up to keep it fresh and interesting. Will they be able to match the same level of variety that Xenoblade did? What do you think?
The key to success in all of these systems has always hinged on the actions and choices of a single character keeping the player’s interest through battle after battle. This is normally supplemented by some team interactions within the game, but this dynamic changes in an MMO (it gets more interesting in that there are real people as your teammates, it gets less interesting in that you have no say in their skills or actions). Whether the game cuts out a lot of repetitive choice, as in FF12 or 13, or allows the player to really change how they play the game easily and without much fuss, as in Xenoblade, there are a number of ways FF14 can approach combat.
What are your expectations, and what would you like to see in a modern menu-based combat system? Do you agree with what I’ve said up above, or did you have a different experience of the games I’ve mentioned? Let me know in the comments, and then pop over to either the ESO Part III or Part IV of the series (whichever you’ve not read and find more tempting) =)