Posts by Tag / GAME: World of Warcraft (10)

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City of Friends

Given how important the social aspect is to MMORPGs, I’m always confused by design choices that get in the way of making friends and playing together. I wrote about how City of Heroes let teammates target through the tank, which makes teamwork smoother than in later games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV. This is just one of several such mechanics present in CoH that I’ve been shocked to find missing from later MMORPGs.

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Target Through the Tank

In MMORPGs that use the “holy trinity” of tank/DPS/heals, it’s generally really important that other party members target the enemy the tank is currently targeting. Both because it’s beneficial to burn down individual enemies quickly to remove them as threats and also because attacking enemies that aren’t the tank’s focus risks pulling them off the tank, which can easily lead to party wipes in tough battles.

There are often in-game aides to make this easier. In Final Fantasy XIV (and as I recall, World of Warcraft, and probably most similar MMOs) the party leader can ‘mark’ enemies with icons visible to other party members to indicate a planned targeting order. And it’s generally possible to see what your current target is targeting, so you can always click your tank in the party roster to target them, and then click to their target to target that.

But the marks won’t help if the plan goes to hell, and having to constantly target back to the tank to see what they’re targeting adds a lot of finicky steps and opportunity for error - what if they switch targets immediately after you switch to their target? It’s really easy for a situation that goes wrong to quickly go more wrong as DPSers accidentally pull aggro off the tank and the healer can’t keep up. These tools are not enough - and in fact, some quick internet searching on the topic turns up discussions for several MMOs including both FFXIV and WoW on how to set up macros or add-ons to make it easier to consistently target what the tank is targeting. It’s clear that this is a persistent need in basically every MMO of this kind that has yet to be solved in-game.

…except that it was fully, simply, and intuitively solved before any of these games came out.

City of Heroes came out in April 2004, several months before WoW and several years before FFXIV. And in CoH, if you use an attack ability while targeting a party member, instead of failing with an “invalid target” message, the attack will trigger against the party member’s target. All you have to do to keep targeting the enemy the tank is targeting, no matter how often they switch, is to just keep the tank as your target. That’s it.

I don’t know if City of Heroes was the first to do this, but it definitely should not have been the last. I don’t know why every MMO since hasn’t stolen this.

I suppose one could argue that doing so would “dumb down” the game, as target management is an actual skill and part of the challenge of tough encounters. To which I’d respond that what’s hard about a game should also be what’s interesting about it. The interesting part of target management is primarily a tactical challenge, not an action one, and is mostly the tank’s responsibility. Once the tank has decided which enemy should be the group’s current target, it is not an interesting challenge to have the other party members scramble through several clicks to change over to that target. Furthermore, it’s not something players can practice on their own in a safe space - it only really comes up in high-pressure group situations, where one person messing up can create a frustrating experience for several players. Given how heavily these games tend to incentivize teaming up, even with strangers, it’s incoherent design to then not smooth over these kinds of coordination problems as much as possible.

Letting players target through the tank, as CoH did, keeps the actual tactics of combat just as interesting but streamlines away a fiddly source of uninteresting challenge in a way that makes it less frustrating to play with strangers. It’s an obvious win. Every MMORPG should do this.

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Gaze Sometimes Into the Abyss, Lest You Forget it is There

I still remember how I lost myself in World of Warcraft.

I remember looking up from my laptop screen and realizing I hadn’t left my apartment in over a week. I’d just—gotten up in the morning, plunked down on my futon, played WoW all day, and gone to bed, again and again and again.

I wasn’t addicted, really. What I was was complacent. My life was in a darker place then, with decaying friendships and uncertain employment prospects. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything real. And it all seemed so scary and risky - especially after some events in my personal life had shattered what I’d thought was my closest friendship and my poor reaction to those events had gotten me fired from the best job I’d ever had. Why put myself back out there? Why work on building new relationships and finding a job when I could just end up burned again?

I filled the gaps with WoW instead, and it was more than happy to oblige. WoW was specifically and masterfully designed to provide the illusion of progress, the illusion of working together toward a shared goal. It sated my appetite but left me empty, giving me everything I wanted and nothing I needed.

I still don’t know if WoW was there for me when I sought comfort, or if it took advantage of me when I was vulnerable. Probably a little of both. Regardless, when I looked up from that screen and saw what I’d become, what I’d chosen to be, it sickened me and I canceled my subscription.


It’s been several years and my life has changed a lot since then. But I still remember the darkness. And this is why playing Final Fantasy XIV today leaves me with an occasional feeling of vertigo.

It’s like I’ve returned to hike a trail cut into the side of a mountain. It’s a lovely walk, especially with friends, but all I have to do is turn my head and I can see that just a few steps off the trail is a great yawning abyss.

I don’t think I’m going to fall into it again. I’m stronger now, more sure-footed, with more anchors to keep me on the path. But it’s still there, it’s always there, and to pretend otherwise would be to invite disaster.

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A Beef With Buffs

Buffs are cool in concept (and I like Green Mages) but I feel like they are rarely implemented well.

One of my favorite examples of buffs done badly is Valkyria Chronicles. That game has a “command point” system that allows you to take a certain number of actions per round. A point can be spent to have a unit move and attack, but you can also spend points to execute “orders.” These include special options like evacuating fallen allies and buffs like increasing a soldier’s damage against certain enemy types. The trouble is, despite just being a numerical calculation it’s not at all obvious when it’s better to use an order to increase your damage output and then attack versus saving the command points to just attack multiple times.

This is because of two problems. First, the UI doesn’t explain how much difference the buffs actually make. If the numbers were clear you could do the math and figure out when the buffs were worth using. Cosmic Star Heroine leans heavily in this direction and is a great example of how to do this well. It has an unusual combat system in which most abilities can only be used once before they need to be recharged - the recharge action then recharges all of your depleted abilities. But it costs a turn, so it’s usually worth using most or all of your abilities first. Many abilities have buff-like effects or other interactions and all the numbers are clear, so it’s a complex but feasible analysis problem to figure out the optimal abilities to use in what order for the current situation. Buffs are thus an interesting tactical option that are often but not always correct to use.

The other problem with the Valkyria Chronicles approach is that the buffs are expensive and short-lived, meaning it’s often a close call whether they’re worth using even if you did have the numbers. World of Warcraft, at least back when I played it, was an example of the opposite approach here - most buffs were cheap enough compared to their duration that they were always obviously correct to use even if you didn’t look at the numbers. This meant they were more of a rote chore than a tactical decision but the result was a system that encouraged class diversity and balanced teams. If you had a Mage in your group everyone would have buffed Intellect, if you had a Priest everyone would have buffed health, and so on. These buffs might as well have been automatic passive bonuses, but they achieved their goal without creating any confusing decisions or making you stop playing to solve a math problem.

Games like Valkyria Chronicles where you can choose to trigger a short-lived no-numbers buff instead of taking an additional action give the player a math problem that is both uninteresting and obscured. There always is an optimal choice, it’s just hard to suss out. So you can either interrupt the action to look up and crunch the numbers or play on knowing you are often not doing the best thing - which is frustrating in games like Valkyria Chronicles that grade and reward you based on your efficiency.

In practice, I usually avoided using the buff orders. Having a unit move and attack was more fun than picking a buff from a menu anyway.

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Crash Course: Top Five Games to Increase Your Gamer Literacy

Are you on the fringes of gaming? Do you want to get in deeper, but find yourself unsure where to start? Do conversations with experienced gamers leave you feeling lost? Is “sorry, but our princess is in another castle” your freshest gaming joke? When it comes to gamer culture, are you on the outside looking in?

Dogs on the outside looking in.

Have no fear: Doctor Professor is here!