Combat is at the core of every MMO I can think of that has released in the past six years. What do I mean by at the core? Fighting or participating in some form of combat is what you ‘do’ and how you ‘do’ it is just a matter of how differently you fight something. I don’t really need to analyze any examples, but to ensure that I get my point across I want to look at some big ones.
In World of Warcraft the entire game is about combat because you’re either PvPing or you’re PvEing. Aside from doing one of those two things, what else is there to do? Warhammer Online is the exact same way in that every effort put into that game has been towards creating game mechanics that get you to fight something. Age of Conan, Star Trek Online, LotRO, you name it and everything revolves around fighting. An argument could be made that the developers have attempted to add little things here and there that aren’t about fighting — such as LotRO’s music system — but that’s not sufficient enough to alter how the average player can play the game as intended by the game’s natural design.
I think back to earlier MMO’s and I see quite a different scene. In The Realm I spent 80% of my time socializing in a town or on a screen (the game was set up such that you walked onto screens and went up down left or right to a new screen) with other people. We would roleplay, talk about life, talk about the game, and essentially be our character. In Star Wars Galaxies, 90% of my time was spent outside of combat. Decorating my house, crafting, socializing in town, and doing the plethora of other activities (like taming creatures to sell, being a Doctor and staying in Hospitals to earn tips healing people) that were designed to have equal impact on the player as combat did were rewarding. Combat in SWG was the rare thing to do — it would be like playing music in LotRO rather than the other way around. This wasn’t the case for everyone, or even all the time for me, because as I said it was of equal impact and fighting could be rewarding too… I just had options. Even in EverQuest, which is very much about fighting, there was a lot of downtime where groups of people, even when in the act of grouping to fight, simply talked.
Kill this, fight that, go engage in combat with something here or there… it’s all about fighting something these days. If you’re not fighting then you’re waiting to fight or your preparing for a time when you will. People associate the lack of things to do combat with in a game as a reason for quitting; I have even used it as a reason for quitting when I played LotRO and beat all the bosses in the game a weeks after they came out.
I think about what I would want to do if I were actually my character in-game. I would want downtime. There are times when I like just talking to other people or doing other things. There should be other options in the new and upcoming games so that we’re not always stuck with just this over-emphasized idea that if we’re not bashing something on the head then we’re wasting time.
Less emphasis on combat definitely creates more of a virtual world feel. It also makes for a more social game which is the seed needed to grow a community. There’s also the sandbox side of a game that offers options; some people even think of EverQuest as a sandbox game when in reality it wasn’t — there was just a ton to do in that game.
I’ve written about how I would create a lot of social mechanics in a MMO if I were to develop one. You may recall my example of a player-run tavern with real players providing the entertainment, food, and services. The key to this working is for combat to not be the core of the game. The guy serving drinks needs to think that the game revolves around him just as much as the guy going out to slay dragons.
Should all MMO’s do this? No. I think combat focused games are great because some people truly want nothing but combat. Do I think that MMO’s without any form of combat at all should exist? Absolutely. I think there’s a real lack of MMO’s where players develop their characters and play a different role other than the hero. Ideally though, a MMO which embodies both aspects equally is going to grab the largest market. It can be done because it’s been done before.
Do I want a Virtual Chatroom? No, but I think a lot of what brought substance — the meat and potatoes — to MMORPGs when they first came about was the fact that it wasn’t all about combat. We need a little more Raph Koster in games these days.