March 14 2004
It's not uncommon to see MMORPGs criticized for being games that are decided solely on the basis of how much time you put into leveling your character, rather than your incredible skill as a player. We're all familiar with this argument, raised once again in a recent article on GamerDad. The author extolls the virtues of PlanetSide because it brings the manual aim and fast reflexes required by shooters into a massively multiplayer online environment. Even if it's not entirely fair to say that RPGs require no skill, it does bring up some interesting points about what makes a game enjoyable.
Before I go any further, I should point out that game "skill" is not necessarily limited to one's proficiency with mouse, keyboard, and joystick controls. Knowledge of what works best in different situations, team organization, even the ability to be diplomatic with enemies, could be considered valuable skills in many games. Nevertheless, it is apparent that a lot of gamers find typical RPG combat somewhat lacking, so it's worth looking at the relative strengths and weakness of combat in these very different types of games.
Online RPGs have become notorious for what is often described as "sandwich combat," meaning that the process essentially involves pressing attack, pressing special attack, going to make a sandwich, coming back to see how the battle is progressing, and, if necessary, pressing your other special attack, then proceeding to the next target. The implication is that the player's role in combat is so insignificant that they don't even have to be at the controls. Because your character fights automatically in most RPGs, and because your character's level and equipment is typically more important than the combination of special attacks you use, you can't rely on your mouse accuracy to survive.
Furthermore, it's evident that the quasi-turn-based combat borrowed from pen and paper RPGs relies heavily on random numbers and statistics, with the computer rolling the dice and calculating the outcome at a rate never dreamt of when D&D hit the market. Part of the problem here is that seeing a natural 20 race by in the chat window isn't quite as exciting as actually rolling one on a 20-sided die. Another issue is that RPG confrontations tend to be statistically predetermined. It may be mathematically impossible for a 10th level character to overcome a 50th level character, regardless of the relative skills of the players involved. Just the other day I was playing a MMORPG where someone attacked a more powerful player while he was away from his keyboard as a joke. The absent player's character proceeded to automatically defend itself from the attack, and ended up killing the attacker, even with no one at the controls. Not only was it funny, it was a shining example of sandwich combat.
Of course, there is always a chance that two groups of characters that are relatively evenly matched meet on the battlefield, and that the combination of a strength buff and a carefully planned cleave attack does determine the outcome of the fight. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule.