Is It Possible To Balance Melee and Ranged Classes?

It’s a perennial problem for MMOs: either melee classes have the advantage or ranged ones do. In WildStar, the constant moving and dodging out of red means ranged classes have an advantage simply because they can keep attacking while they move. In older MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online, where most of the ranged classes are rooted casters and most of the melee classes have a lot of instant casts, melee classes have the edge. From what I’ve heard about SWTOR, it seems that they’ve recently swung the pendulum; melee classes have always had more DPS/tanking potential, but many of the recent dungeon and raid bosses have included mechanics that require melee classes to move back to avoid massive damage, thus limiting their output. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that I do better with melee classes in games with action combat like Elder Scrolls Online because I’m more likely to miss with ranged attacks. Sure, this isn’t really a balance issue so much as a “stop failing” issue, and probably less of an issue in dungeons where, if it’s anything like every other MMO I’ve played, most bosses are the size of a small house, but still, this is a genre where people create massive spreadsheets of damage output to determine the META, and I’ve seen people literally complaining that one race or faction has an “advantage” over the others because their casting animation is a little more subtle.

The best solution I’ve seen to this problem is in Guild Wars 2’s, where most classes can be either melee or ranged depending on what weapon you’re holding. This allows the developers a lot of freedom when designing fights because everyone should be able to step back and hit things from range at least sometimes. Unfortunately, it also means that you really have to have at least one ranged weapon set to be viable most of the time, which is annoying because there are many classes that have two melee sets that I like (for instance, Revenant’s Mace/Axe and Sword/Shield). Couldn’t I have a whole bunch of weapon sets like Guild Wars 1?

So what do you think? Is it possible to truly balance these two class styles? Have you played any MMOs with any clever ways of bringing these two class types into balance?

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Do PvP and PvE Really Belong In The Same Game?

PvP Season 1
Let me say a couple things up front. First of all, PvP, in any of its forms, isn’t really my thing. I don’t usually do any, and, when I do, I usually enjoy it less than an equivalent PvE experience. Second, I’m going to use the broad term “PvP” throughout, but what I really mean is instanced PvP like battlegrounds and arenas. I understand the draw of open world PvP, even though I personally find it more frustrating than exciting. My intention in this piece is not, in any way, to tell PvPers that they shouldn’t enjoy playing in their preferred style, or to say that they aren’t “real MMO players” (whatever that even means). It is honestly just me putting my musings into words.

Lately I’ve been pondering why exactly PvP needs to exist within an MMORPG. Take Guild Wars 2’s Structured PvP (sPvP) for example. At any time, I can hit a button and be teleported to the sPvP lobby. Once there, I am temporarily leveled to 80 if I am not already, I can choose from a set of PvP-only gear, and my build switches to one that only activates in PvP. This begs the question, if my PvP levels, gear, and build are separate from those of the main game, and the rule set is different from that of the main game, in what way am I not playing a wholly different character in a wholly different game? Some MMOs, like Lord of the Rings Online and the original Guild Wars, go so far as to have whole separate classes and characters designed exclusively for PvP. Many others, like Star Wars The Old Republic and WildStar, have gear with stats that only affect your effectiveness against players. I get that there are a lot of rewards given to characters for use in the PvE side of the game as rewards for playing PvP, not the least of which is an alternative source of XP, but again, why bother having levels at all if you have to adjust players’ levels to let them be competitive?

I suppose the same arguments can be made about raiding; you have to be a certain level to even start, and you have to get good gear from dungeons or crafting to even get started. But at least raids play by the same rules as the rest of the leveling experience; same attacks, same stats, same characters, slightly different tactics, and more advanced strategies.

Despite all of this, I literally can’t think of a major MMO that doesn’t have instanced PvP in some fashion. I feel like there has to be a reason that I’m missing beyond “people would complain if they didn’t have PvP.” Don’t worry, MMO players will find something to complain about. Maybe it’s just something that has been a part of the MMO experience for so long that it feels wrong to not have it, but in this post-WoW genre where it seems like every other convention of what make an MMO is being challenged, I’m always surprised that no one has come out and said “We’re making an MMO, but we don’t think our target audience wants PvP, so we’re going to use our resources elsewhere.” After all, lots of games are coming out these days with forced open world PvP, and if you’re not interested in that style of gameplay then you can go play a different game. Why not a game without any form of PvP? It seems better than having the sorely neglected and unbalanced PvP game that I hear about so often in many PvE-centric games.

I see the explosive popularity of MOBAs as the natural answer to questions like this. League of Legends isn’t really that different from a WoW battleground in isometric view instead of shouldercam. Yes, I understand, there are many key differences and I’m talking beyond the realm of my experience here, but really, when you get down to it, it’s not that different from PvP divorced from the MMO. I think this can account for a lot of why the MMO genre is declining but still managing to stay relatively healthy despite dire predictions from the industry; the people who played MMOs just for PvP are moving away to other games–they can get their fix elsewhere with less of the stuff they don’t like as much–whereas players who prefer PvE are sticking with MMOs because there really isn’t anything else quite like them.

So what do you think? Am I completely crazy here, do PvP and PvE really belong in the same game? Is it necessary to have instanced PvP to be a feature-complete MMORPG? Has the presence or absence of PvP ever affected the likelyhood of you playing a given game?

Philosophy Shifts in Heart of Thorns, And Why They’re Wrong

If you follow the Guild Wars 2 community at all, you’ve probably noticed a lot of chatter about the fact that the design philosophies behind the game seem to have shifted over the last few years. The changes have their good sides and their bad sides, but either way a lot of people (myself included) have seen the changes as a concession that some of the ambitious concepts around which Guild Wars 2 was designed may not be the best for an MMORPG. Let’s take a look at what some of those are.

No Trinity -> Kinda Sorta Trinity(ish)
Part of the Guild Wars philosophy has always been that you can throw any random group of characters together and have a dungeon party. You don’t need to find a group with the traditional tank/healer/DPS group makeup because those don’t exist. As long as everyone knows not to stand in fire you’re good. But with Heart of Thorns came a lot of terminology that sound a lot more like Azeroth than Tyria. Most notably the inclusion of raids, but also a few little things like a “heavy healer” (the ranger’s Druid elite spec) and tanks with taunts. That said, this is still a Guild Wars game. There may be taunts, but all they do is force the target to attack the taunter for a given period of time; they don’t actually generate extra threat. And it’s not like your raid is going to wipe every time because you didn’t have a tanked out Guardian in the mix. You may have a designated healer, but they’re going to be spending a lot more time doing DPS than they would in another MMO. In other words, kinda sorta trinity(ish).

Everything is Soloable -> Group Helpful
I almost labeled this section “Group Required,” but then decided that that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I’ve successfully soloed all of the content I’ve done so far, aside from occasionally wandering in on a group event in progress, but I’ve definitely spent a lot more time on the ground while soloing in the expansion content than I ever did in the base game, even in the notoriously frustrating Orr zones. Designing a zone that requires players to help each other sounds good on paper, and honestly, right now, while the content is new, it works fairly well. But what happens two or three years from now when the vast majority of players have completed all of the zones and aren’t interested in going back? Interestingly, this seems to be how Orr was originally designed as well, and ArenaNet has had to go back and nerf the whole zone several times, thinning out mobs and making quests and events easier, even creating a solo version of the story’s ending dungeon. Apparently they didn’t learn from Orr, because I predict they’ll be doing the same thing with Heart of Thorns within two years of its launch.

No Grind -> Masteries Grind
One of the more notable design promises that ArenaNet actually delivered on quite well in vanilla Guild Wars 2 was the idea that leveling wouldn’t feel like a chore. This was accomplished by handing out XP for, not just combat and quests, but just about every activity you could think of–crafting, gathering, events, PvP, and literally just walking around places you’ve never been. The one-to-cap leveling time is shorter and easier than any other game I can think of (there’s a reason why I have three 80s in Guild Wars 2 and in most game I’m lucky to even have one). Perhaps if the game hadn’t done this so well with Central Tyria it wouldn’t have felt so jarring to be presented with such a grind when we got to Heart of Thorns in the form of masteries. And it doesn’t help that many of them seem so contrived. Some of them, like the various improvements to gliding, seem like natural progression, but others, like Exalted Markings or Itzel Language, are clearly just barriers to slow you down so you can’t blow through the content too fast on your first time through. It has been argued that all games do this, and those that don’t get complaints that there isn’t enough to do, and, while that’s true to a certain extent, the difference here is that they didn’t do a very good job making it feel interesting.

I’m sure others could come up with more, but you get the idea. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “But you like some of those things in other games! You’ve complained before about the lack of trinity in GW2! Why would you call these things ‘wrong’ now?” The answer is that they’re making these changes too late. If the game had launched with these philosophies, it would be great. But it didn’t, it launched with the philosophies on the left, and now it’s trying to backpedal. The problem is that all of the content made under the new philosphy is gated behind 80 levels of content designed under the old philosophy. In other words, short of a radical retooling of the content that was made before (i.e. dungeons, fractals, and all of the zones in central Tyria), which we all know isn’t going to happen, people who like the kind of content in the above right column will have to dig through 80 levels of stuff that isn’t made with their preferred game style so they can get to the stuff that is. What’s even worse is trying to force the two styles together. For instance, one of the fundamentals of Guild Wars 2 that still holds true in the expansion is that there’s none of this dreaded gear treadmill stuff you hear so much about in WoW clones. Since that’s true, why would I want to do raids? While I haven’t even set foot in any of the new raids, the only reason I’ve heard so far is to get gear that’s just a new skin for gear with stats that I could have gotten before the raids existed. Furthermore, what about all of the established players who liked Guild Wars 2 because of the philosophies that it was originally built around? Sure, none of that old content went away, but you can only go so long on old content before people start to get bored and leave.

So while, personally, I’m really ok with the philosophy shifts above, I know a lot of people who aren’t. The changes aren’t “wrong” because I don’t like them, they’re wrong because they don’t make sense with the game as a whole.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in the followup, Things Heart of Thorns Is Doing Right.

Three Features Every MMO Should Have: Star Trek Online

This is a part of my Three Features Every MMO Should Have series.

Unique space combat
STO Space CombatI know, I know, every game can’t have space combat. What I mean here is that, in a genre where the best way to say what’s unique about a given MMO is to describe how its combat differs slightly from WoW, STO has come up with a completely different (if sometimes a little frustrating) combat system, that is, ship-to-ship space combat. It doesn’t mean you have to throw out traditional MMO combat, but it would be nice to have something different to break things up when combat gets monotonous. The only game I can think of off the top of my head that has done something like this is Star Wars: The Old Republic, albeit a little halfheartedly, with its starfighter combat. I say halfheartedly because SWTOR’s space combat is basically a minigame, but minigames with reasonable rewards are a welcome distraction in my book.

Character creator
Character CreatorI can safely say that Star Trek Online is the only MMO I’ve played where I’ve spent more time in the character creator than in PvE. With enough fiddling on the ridiculous number of face and body sliders, you can make your character look like just about anything you want, especially the design-your-own alien species. I’ve seen some really convincing characters, from various Doctors from Doctor Who to an excellent Na’vi from Avatar to a variety of recreated Star Trek characters, both human and alien. It’s unfortunate that there is a general lack of clothing options for the game. Yes, I get it, Starfleet et. al. are supposed to be military organizations, so realistically there should be one uniform for everyone, the only variance from person to person being maybe a recolor to identify your section, but that wouldn’t go down well in a video game. STO’s sister MMO, the now all-but-dead Champions Online, has a great variety of costume pieces for your superhero (most of the more interesting ones are, of course, locked in the cash shop), but, ironically, I’ve always felt like it could use a little more customization of your actual character. I guess they’re trying to limit your superheroes to human mutants only, but I’d love to play a more exotic-looking hero. Maybe their secret future project will be somewhere in between?

Optional shooter mode
STO ShooterTab target? Action Combat? Why not both? At launch, Star Trek Online’s ground combat was slow, boring, and a bit flaky, especially compared to space combat. Well, it’s still flaky, but when Cryptic overhauled the combat and added shooter mode in 2011 (was it really that long ago? I’m old), it made ground missions a lot more bearable. Since you really only have three weapon skills and a handfull of cooldowns anyway, shooter mode really doesn’t feel like a disadvantage most of the time. The best part is that it’s completely optional, and can be toggled on and off with a single keystroke. There’s even a small damage buff for using shooter mode versus tab targeting, since there’s a chance you can miss targets. I tend to do a lot of combat in shooter mode, then switch to MMO mode when I’m out of combat. It was a little weird when I briefly gave Cryptic’s other MMO, Neverwinter, a try and it was permanently locked in shooter mode. It was kind of a turnoff for me to be honest, but I’m sure there are lots of people who prefer it, and I imagine it makes things easier to develop with one combat mode instead of two.

Side note here: I picked the features I planned on talking about for each game before I even started this series, and, as if they read my mind (or at least my blog notes), Guild Wars 2 has recently announced a system very similar to this one that will be added as part of their Heart of Thorns expansion. I’m excited, because Guild Wars 2 has always seemed like the perfect game for this, since it’s always had something of an action combat flavor to it. Can’t wait to try it out this Friday!

Three Features Every MMO Should Have: Star Wars: The Old Republic

This is a part of my Three Features Every MMO Should Have series.
Well, that’s possibly the longest post title I’ve ever done. In keeping with my SWTOR post from yesterday, here’s three features from my latest obsession that every MMO should have.

Lightsabers
Let’s be honest here; the lightsaber is the coolest weapon known to man. Followed closely by the double bladed lightsaber. What game wouldn’t be improved by a few glowstick swords? Search your feelings, you know it to be true.

Bounty Hunters
Because Boba Fett didn’t get enough screen time in the movies. Spamming missiles and flamethrowers FTW!

Storytelling
Ok I’m being a bit silly with this list. But let’s face it, the IP and storytelling are the only things that make SWTOR really stand out. Its combat is ripped straight out of WoW, and many of its other systems–player housing, PvP, group content, quest structure, even its F2P model–are just imitations of those of other games, ranging from passable to mediocre. I’m convinced that, if BioWare had decided to make a Dragon Age MMO instead of a Star Wars one, by now it would have been branded as a white noise, generic fantasy MMO with a some ambitious storytelling and character development ideas, and slowly slipped into obscurity. As a whole, it’s actually pretty fun, but if it weren’t Star Wars I’m sure I would have never played it.
So here’s my real three features from SWTOR that every MMO should have, all based around its story.


Class story
As I talked about last time, I recently subscribed to SWTOR for the class story XP boost, and playing them as a more cohesive whole has reinforced how well written the class stories in this game really are. Giving each class its own story was the best decision BioWare ever made when it comes to making SWTOR. Games like Guild Wars 2 do unique stories based on your race, which is the next best thing, and works for that world, but I prefer class stories and they definitely fit the Star Wars universe much better. SWTOR’s classes all represent people from very different walks of life whose archetypes are ripped straight out of the movies themselves. I’ve always felt like games like LotRO have had to water down their stories because every character plays the same story; the Lore Master never helps anyone out by sending a bird messenger to Gandalf, the Captain can rally exactly one soldier to help the Fellowship’s cause, and the Burglar does surprisingly little burgling. Every player just follows the same path with no mention of their individual talents. Not only does it make more story sense to personalize your story to your story to your particular character, it also makes me a lot more likely to roll a new character (not that I particularly need a good reason, but you get the idea). For instance, the Bounty Hunter class isn’t even that exciting to me at this point, but I’ve been enjoying playing mine because the story is good. I understand that a lot of games don’t have the budget to come up with class stories of the scope that SWTOR has, but if at all possible, it would make alt-lovers like me a lot happier.

Compansions
Granted, the companions in SWTOR are not as developed as those of other BioWare games–I’ve recently been binge-playing the Mass Effect series and dabbling in Dragon Age Inquisition, and now I understand why people were so disappointed with SWTOR’s companions–but they sure beat anything I’ve found in any other MMO. It’s always fun when companions interject in conversations, either to affirm or admonish you for your chosen actions, or just to make a smart aleck remark on the side. Even more interesting are the companion missions. They range from a short conversation to a full-on quest chain. Gain enough affection points, and you can even get married to some of them. Obviously not every game has or should have companion characters, but this kind of supporting cast of recurring NPC characters goes a long way toward making me feel like the players’ characters aren’t the only sentient beings in the universe.

Forced roleplay
I’m not really in to RP. I know people who live for it, but I’m just not interested in playing a character in most game worlds. I’m not against it–it is called a Roleplaying Game after all, you should be free to roleplay as long as you don’t disrupt people’s gameplay–I’m just not generally into it. But somehow SWTOR, and BioWare games in general, have really gotten me sucked into getting inside my character’s head. BioWare’s genius is that they force you to decide as you go who your character is in every conversation. Is Shepherd a renegade or a paragon? Is the Inquisitor a Chantry loyalist? How far will your smuggler go to make a few extra credits? A lot of SWTOR players just play in such a way to get the maximum light/dark points, or maximum affection with their companion, but I’ve found it’s a lot more fun to pick one option or the other based on what I feel my character would do, regardless of the alignment gain. Besides, light side and dark side gear isn’t generally that exciting, and affection can usually be gained more efficiently through companion gifts.

Three Features Every MMO Should Have: Rift

This is a part of my Three Features Every MMO Should Have series.

Class customization, with premade classes
Rift, despite trying desperately to appeal to the ex-WoW crowd, doesn’t have traditional WoW-like classes, but instead has four (soon to be five) “callings,” and each of those callings has a number of different “souls” that determine your skill trees. In essence this allows you to make up your own class by choosing which trees you pick. This complexity would be a huge turnoff to me–after all, if there’s anything you shouldn’t overcomplicate, it’s the character creation process–except that Trion has taken the time to hand out a selection of premade classes, with a few even created by players. If you’re happy with your premade class, you can just keep hitting the auto-level button and it’ll put points where they matter most. Then, later, when you have a little more experience with the game, you can start tweaking. I think it’s a great idea; I can’t tell you how many classes I’ve played that have been almost perfect, but were missing that certain something. In Rift, you can simply swap out one of your souls until you find that something. It also happens to be a great cure for altaholism, as you can simply respec and get a fresh play style without having to reroll.

Instant Adventures
I didn’t play Rift for very long (as I recall my highest character is maybe level 25 at best), but when I did I played a lot in Instant Action, probably much to the dismay of my much higher level teammates. For those who haven’t played Rift, Instant Action is a system where the game throws you into a group with a bunch of people, dumps you into some random place, adjusts your level accordingly, and gives you a series of mini quests to do for rewards. The objectives are pretty simple–mostly kill 10 rats type quests–so it’s not like you need much coordination in your group. You can do this for as long or as short as you want, which is great since the game in general tends to be unfriendly to short play sessions.

Wardrobe
Most MMOs these days have either a wardrobe feature or the ability to transmute/transmog gear to look how you want it to, but few of them do it as well as Rift. Every piece of gear you’ve equipped on any of your characters is automatically unlocked in the wardrobe. Simply choose your look from the list, dye it, and keep on questing. The best part is, there’s no fee for doing this, and dyes are one time buys for unlimited uses. Also nice is the fact that the armor class for the gear you’re showing doesn’t have to be the one for your class, so your mage can run around in full plate armor if you’d like. I’ve always wondered how much this is used in PvP to confuse people as to what calling you are, but with the game’s aforementioned customizable classes I’m not sure it mattered much what calling you were fighting anyway. Sadly, one of the reasons why Rift never stuck with me is because I didn’t care for the overall graphic aesthetic (especially the character models), and most of the gear I got looked really boring. To be fair, though, I was pretty low level when I got bored with the game, and all low level gear looks bad, right? It’s unfortunate to have a great wardrobe system trapped in a game that doesn’t deserve it, but at least if you do manage to find a piece of gear you like you can keep it.

Three Features Every MMO Should Have: WildStar

Today I’m starting a new series: Three Features Every MMO Should Have. It’s pretty self-explanatory; I take the top three unique features from each MMO I play (or have played in the past) that I wish would follow me to every game. For some games, it’s been hard to pick only three, and for others… well, you’ll know when I get there. I thought I’d kick things off with my latest obsession, the soon-to-be-F2P WildStar.

Housing
If you know anyone who plays WildStar, you probably knew this was coming. Given that this is a game that tried really hard to bill itself as the savior of hardcore raiding crowd, it’s a little odd to find that their housing system is perhaps the best casual, out of combat feature of any game on the market. There are other games that have housing, but I know of no other game that combines so much creative freedom with the wide variety of whimsical housing objects that WildStar has. Sometimes I log on just to visit random other peoples’ public houses and see what creative things they’ve done with their housing plots. Thus far my favorite is an Aurin who turned their “house” into a giant aquarium (underwater theme, a large glass pane in front of the door, aquitic-looking plants, and I think some kind of fish?) and had built a giant tree house in the forest of glowing trees outside. I know there are more elaborate houses out there, but for some reason it struck me as somewhere I would actually like to live, something that doesn’t happen for me in just any video game location. I wish I could say my housing plot was super awesome, but so far I don’t have tons of money to throw at housing, and the character that ended up being my main character (a human medic) isn’t an Architect by trade. I can’t wait to see what people with the significantly increased number of housing item slots coming with the massive patch accompanying the F2P transition.

Mobility
Ronen_Zell.150806.230349This is an odd one, and it took me a while to put my finger on it. One of the things that makes WildStar feel so good is its sense of mobility. I’m not just talking about hoverboard mounts, though those are a joy to ride as well. I mean that, in general, moving my character around the world feels very fluid and natural. This is surprisingly hard to get right in an MMO, especially with varying character model sizes that all need to run at the same speed, but it’s absolutely crucial in a game with very active, mobile combat like WildStar. It’s also not just about running around; it’s surprising how much the double jump adds to the game. Seriously, Guild Wars 2, you need to get on that. It would make your all-too-frequent jumping puzzles much more enjoyable. And then there’s sections of the game with low gravity. Forget flying mounts; I’d rather jump a hundred feet in the air between floating bits of rock.

Nameplate icons for kill quests
nameplate iconsFile this one under “why the heck didn’t someone do this sooner?” WildStar puts an icon next to the names of enemies you need to kill for quests. No more guessing if this is the particular brand of rat you’re supposed to kill for your “kill 5 rats” quest. There’s even another icon for things you need to kill for challenges. It seems like a really small quality of life thing, but it’s the one I would gladly take with me to other games over the other two on this list, possibly more than any other feature in subsequent lists. If clicking quests in the quest log didn’t put an arrow over your head that points you in the direction of the quest (feature every MMO should have number four, but that’s cheating), I probably wouldn’t ever need the quest log, because my targets are obvious just from looking at them.