Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Interactive MMORPG Combat

Tobold just posted on how the game of poker can be used to design a new, more interactive combat system for MMORPGs. When I first saw the title, I assumed that he refers to elements like bluffing and player interaction in general. Apparently I was wrong, he actually talks mostly about the randomness that a deck of cards provides and the “tactical decisions” that card combinations could provide. I think he’s wrong, and here’s why:

Texas Hold'em (image:wikipedia)

World of Warcraft, to take the obvious example once more, already has random elements in its combat. In fact, the designers at Blizzard recently redesigned the way many classes work in the game, to make combat less about following a strict sequence of ability use. This lead to a change in how these classes are played – no longer are there fixed rotations for players to use, but guides list priority systems instead. When looking at Tobold’s suggestion without card combinations for a minute, we actually see just the same type of game play. You don’t know which abilities (cards) you will have available at any point in time, but you know which the best ones are and you always use the best one available to you.

Tobold acknowledges that that system is not very exciting, so he adds the idea of card combinations. A pair would deal less damage than three of a kind, so the payer has to make the choice of waiting for three of a kind or using her pair right away. In poker, you have the same thing – and if you are a reasonably educated poker player you know that there is absolutely nothing interesting about it. There are tables that tell you exactly what your chance of getting your dream combination is, and using pot odds, for example, one can rationally make the correct decision each and every time. Sure, one can make the whole system so complex that it is impossible for humans to do the math in time (or memorize all those tables), but that is just an extension of the existing system of priority lists. Interaction, this is not.
Let’s have a look at what interaction actually is, taken from the book (literally!) of my favourite game theorist Chris Crawford:

“interaction: a cyclic process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak” – Chris Crawford, The Art of Interactive Design

You don’t get interaction with just one actor and both of them need to recognize the actions of the other, decide on a proper reaction to these, and then act. To get proper interactive combat, we need our opponents to change their behaviour based on our actions and we need to change ours based on theirs. An interesting tactical decision is one where you contemplate the opponent’s likely reaction and choose your actions according to that – not a simple calculation of pot odds. Don’t get me wrong, randomness has a place in gaming, as does the calculation of odds. The highest emphasis should be on interaction, however, and no combat system can ever be interactive if it doesn’t fully include (at least) two actors.

The Art of Interactive Design (image: Amazon)

Let’s take a different card game as an example: Magic the Gathering. Randomness does play a role and it is occasionally useful to calculate the odds of drawing a certain card in time. More interestingly, one can try to calculate the odds of an opponent having a certain card in hand, based on assumptions on how their deck is designed. From time to time, card combinations can be found that are so good that decks can be designed around them that don’t give the opponent a chance to interact. Instead of a back and forth, both players will be trying to achieve victory first with complete disregard for what the other player is doing. There is no interaction in these games, making them quite boring. Most matches show a repeated back and forth between the players, however. One player will summon an ogre; the other will send a bolt of lightning at it. One player will expend all her resources to summon forth an army, only to be thwarted by the Wrath of God. The games thrive on the ever changing pattern of actions and reactions, and that’s exactly what MMORPG combat lacks. If you want to take a lesson from poker, think about bluffing, folding, and check-raising. Randomness is just a bonus.
That said, I would LOVE a real trading card MMO. Hell, I still fire up Shandalar from time to time.

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