Slower Combat Had More Depth

MMO Combat

I love the image above from a post I wrote a year ago about combat in MMOs changing from slow and methodical to fast-pace button mashing. The summary you all can already glean here is that older combat was slower in the sense that you used less abilities, it potentially took much longer to kill something, and more thinking had to occur to overcome the opposition. New MMOs focus more on using abilities rapidly, creating something that looks visually active, and killing something fast enough that you c an move on to the next before your abilities come off cooldown.

I want to focus in on the older combat and why I think it still has more depth despite having a fraction of the abilities, UI, animations, or tech of modern day games.

Complexity of Decisions

Today there are very few decisions to be made. One simply walks up to a mob and executes abilities in any order. The real decision is which order to use the abilities to kill the monster fastest–everything is about actively attacking. There isn’t much thought to being hit yourself, or minimizing usage of abilities to preserve mana or stamina. The two real thoughts that I have are, (1) Do I need to kill this, and (2) Do I want to? The HOW has been completely lost.

There are several examples in past MMOs where the ‘HOW’ of combat was king. EQ methods come to mind: Root Rot, Kite, Reverse Kite, and Charm. UO had weapon types and spell combinations like the halberd corp por, katana to rapidly poison, or mace to stun. Then grouping added enormous complexity which mostly has to do with what I discussed yesterday with downtime.


Tanks used to require a decent amount of time to get aggro. I really can’t remember the last time I grouped and waited before DPSing. In EQ a wizard absolutely would not nuke until the mob was below 80% — the wizard wouldn’t even stand up. Healers wouldn’t even heal because aggro would come off the tank. Tanking took time, monsters took time to taunt and build up a safe aggro, and players respected that or died.

Class Specialization

This could also be called the “characters do one thing well” category. Having certain classes in your group would actually slow down the rate at which you could kill a single mob, thus slowing combat, but might improve your abilities to survive, pull multiple mobs at once and take a tougher spawn, or recover from battle quicker and move on to the next kill. Sometimes a class would literally be invited to do nothing but pull and contribute very little to DPS. Sometimes a class would do nothing but heal or buff. These days everyone is a DPS.

Managing Resources

Managing mana consumption was often the difference between a great player and a good one. Healers who knew which heals to use and when, Wizards who knew how many times they should nuke to add the most efficient DPS to a group (the key being “efficient”), etc. Consume your resources and combat was slower. Have to worry about them at all and combat naturally becomes much, much slower.

Auto Attack

Remember our old friend “white damage?” I love auto attack. I remember the days when it comprised of a massive portion of overall damage done by melee characters.  The entire concept is all but completely done away with in favor of rotations and constant ability usage. Older MMOs had fewer abilities (most of the time).

All of these things, and more, contribute to the concept that combat in MMOs used to be a much more thought out and slower experience. That said, despite its now archaic UI and tech, no one can deny that combat in older MMOs was a much more dynamic experience and that today’s combat is trending toward the shallow side.

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bhagpuss - July 22, 2014

Preaching to the choir, Brother Keen, most especially on Class Specialization and Managing Resources. The problem is, not only do we have to question whether enough people would want those mechanics back to make it worth any developer’s while to offer them but even if that happened, what developer wouldn’t feel the need to update them for a modern audience? Other than in a strict, historical recreation, could that clock ever be turned back?

And then, one of the core factors that made those systems work so well was the way key information was withheld from the player. The wizard had to wait until the mob was at 80% because no-one had any idea just exactly *how* angry the mob was and at whom. There was no aggro meter ticking up percentages. Similarly, there were no levels displayed over the monsters’ heads. The best you had was a color-coded system that gave you rough idea and the highest color was Red-for-danger. Pull a Red Con mob you’d never seen before and it might be a decent but straightforward fight at one or two levels above your group or something twenty levels higher that would wipe the lot of you in five seconds.

Pre-WoW, MMOs traded heavily on lack of information. Everything was not only more dangerous than it is now by a factor of one-hell-of-a-lot but much more difficult to interpret and predict. That fuzziness in itself made for much more thoughtful, tactical combat.

Gankatron - July 22, 2014

I like the idea of a slow and calculated battle, but what about the whole concept of aggro?

I never understood how an intelligent mob would keep attacking the biggest guy in the heaviest armor who could withstand the attack the best in favor of killing the most opportune target.

Why not have all players utilize different mechanics to mitigate damage and have an actually intelligent AI instead of the playground mentality of killing the guy would taunted him the most?

Balthazar - July 22, 2014

@ Gankatron

I think they tried to do something like that in GW2, didn’t they? I don’t recall that it turned out so well. Admittedly, I did not do a lot of dungeons in GW2, but my recollection is they were total chaos with constantly having to jump around avoiding damage or switch to heals/damage mitigation mode if you got aggro and just not very fun. That is not to say that someone could not do it well and maybe someone already has and maybe GW2 itself has improved or I am misremembering.

I say that based on a specific recollection I have about a conversation with a friend while going in for I think like round 6 on a boss in a GW2 dungeon and saying that I wasn’t too sure about this whole no dedicated tanks or healers thing and that I was actually pretty surprised that I was saying that.

For as artificial and unimmersive as it seems, I think the holy trinity exists in MMOs mainly for the reason that it works pretty well and does a great job of creating specific roles/duties within a group that a class can be built around and keeps things relatively controllable. Anyway, that’s my 2 cents on that whole thing. Like I said, maybe someone has already come up with a better way, but the classic tank, healer, DPS (and, in my opinion a fourth, controller/hybrid/buffer type) creates better (or at the least easier to develop) gameplay.

John - July 22, 2014

@Gankatron imagine it like a battle field where you have the heavy pikemen in front and the archers behind them..the opponents know that archers are more of a threat but in order to kill them they have to go through the spearment/pikemen first. Of course is very difficult to simulate that in an RPG (I think Tera tried to do it by having tank be like a wall that boss cannot pass and players stay behind tank).

Also, as Balthazar said, GW2 tried and didn’t work that well.

Gankatron - July 22, 2014


I didn’t do many dungeons in GW2 either, so I am not in a position to critically talk about that, but I found the general PvE elements fun.

I suppose if WoW isn’t broke don’t fix it, but for myself when we layer too many unrealistic mechanics on top of each other it quickly breaks immersion, with open fields of evil mage clones pacing back and forth within 100 feet of each other seemingly unable to see, hear, or smell their brethren getting decimated by fireballs who for some unfathomable reason don’t walk or cast past the guy holding the large metal plank in their face.


I would like that analogy in a game with collision mechanics if part of the party did form an actual phalanx and kept moving to keep the mob at bay, although I still would be at a loss why ranged mob would still attack the front line in a trinity situation.

I’d be pretty bummed if I bought a military simulation where Fredendall could repeatedly cherry pick individual Panzers out of the Afrika Korps front lines by shouting elderberry insults while the Allied artillery and air support pounded them into scrap metal.

I am unsure why we can’t have more intelligent MMO AI like we have for military sims, other than the issue of packs of players farming mob around disrupting scenarios; maybe in my ideal MMO world everything would have to be instanced, which in and of itself severely breaks immersion. 😉

Vamenn - July 22, 2014

I’m honestly not a huge fan of old style combat. I can’t even enjoy mmos anymore that have the old EQ type of combat (EQ, Wow, FF14). I never really felt like kiting was at all fun. I realize this is very subjective and I may be alone there, but I’m very glad games are changing from that style of combat mostly.

GW2 is (to me) the absolute best mmo ever made, but I’ve had a really had time getting friends into it because a lot of people don’t feel the love of the combat. It did take a really long time for it to ‘click’ with me so I struggle to blame their views on it. I think that playing an Engineer who uses kits or a melee Thief is a really good way to experience it in the way that it was meant to be experienced. Or at least, the way it feels to me that it was.

Engineer took me a long time to really click with too because I didn’t grasp the concept of swapping kits during combat, the same way a lot of new people don’t get that you need to swap weapon sets in a fight to really get the full ‘experience’. I really enjoy the control aspect of the character though…fitting as I love characters like Enchanters in the old EQ days. They feel similar to an extent to me, but your manner of control is more aggressive than an Enchanter was, and they can’t lock things down as extensively. But in a tough fight, it will go something like: initiate the attack, as the enemy draws toward me I drop a barrel bomb at my feet. As they get near, I roll away (which drops a miniature mine) and that goes off right before the bomb goes off which send the enemy flying into the distance. They might open fire from a distance at that point, where I’ll use my shield block that reflects all ranged attacks back into them, and follow up by doing my smooth Captain America shield toss. They will close the distance again while I switch to a flamethrower and lob a flame blob at them which I manually detonate right as it gets near them for extra damage, followed with a stream of flame as they continue to close, then when they reach me use the TF2 pyro air blast move to shoot them back to the distance again, drop a fire wall in the area between them and them and switch back to a pistol as I fire into the flame wall which catches my bullets on fire for each hit. Finally they might close in again where I drop a blinding fog with the flame thrower that causes them to miss their attacks, follow through with a kick to the chest and usually by then they are about done for.
Everything about that type of fighting appeals to me. There are other setups that have different skills but similar control methods. Dropping a net on them then blasting the ground where they were with a shot that hurts them but flings out of their range, etc etc.

Thief on the other hand just felt really weak to me at first. It wasn’t until I realized you needed to utilize dodge more than with other classes. Not just the dodge move that everyone has, but many of their attacks have a split second dodge built into the attack and it is vital (at least with my melee build) to use them. And man do I dig it. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as killing a full health veteran mob when you only have 50 hp left because you timed every thing JUST right.

I will grant you dungeons can be a messy affair, though I really enjoy them. But being a melee character made of paper in a dungeon with 100 effects going off in your vision…well it can be tough.

There’s just a whole lot of variety you can have in the GW2 combat that I think is very difficult to see when you’re new to the game. I always encourage people to give the game a try though, as I said, it’s definitely my favorite and as sort of ruined me for other mmos (at least the ones I have access to right now).

Gringar - July 22, 2014

GW2 was definitely an interesting game. I know what you mean by the “click” because it happened to me with my Elementalist which was my favorite class. Dual wielding daggers gave them a very unique experience too. Now most elementalists I saw, myself included, would just keep to the same attunement and use those abilities. I decided I was “fire spec”.

Then suddenly one battle I decided to try changing attunements mid fight and use those cooldowns as well. I absolutely SHREDDED through mobs like never before. I was creating elemental combo effects off my own abilities left and right which added a whole new layer of tools on top of my abilities that fit right into the combat smoothly.

I could tell other elementalists would watch in awe and that pleased me greatly 🙂

The dungeons were chaotic though any class could spec into tanking and healing to be better at it but when you tell your playerbase that there is no holy trinity, well then no one rolls tanks or healers.

Then the jumping puzzles. They were fun for a short time then old very quickly. They should have been hidden novelties only. There’s no quicker way to kill the mystery of a hidden area than to turn it into a daily and have it be farmed.

Vamenn - July 22, 2014

Elementalist is the only class I’ve not really played much. I can see how they will be very involved and complex (the exact opposite of what I’m used to with casters) because I imagined myself constantly juggling the various elemental attunements. I just haven’t taken the time to really stretch the legs on one yet.

The jumping puzzles were one of my favorite things, especially early on when no one had a clue about them and you’d actually randomly find them, rare as that was. I figured all of them out on my own initially through much, much experimentation and dying…and man I loved it. I don’t ever do them for dailies or anything, myself, but I understand where you’re coming from.

Caldazar - July 22, 2014

At first I thought all these points are still applicable to wow. But then I realized this is only true for the content I do (Heroic raiding), and not for everything else. That said, I personally quite like the difference between raiding and non raiding in difficulty/effort/time investment

solarbear - July 23, 2014

I actually think that the problem with gw2 was an issue with threat being too random and classes not really doing anything defining. Basically each class did much the same thing, deal damage, in a different colour. Aggro did not make sense and was too random to be fun. It felt like a zerg, chaotic and stupid. A move back to pen and paper basics would work. I’d play a game based on 3rd or 4th edition DnD over any game on the market. TBH if Bioware was smart they’d give players the tools to make their own worlds for Dragon Age, like NWN, it would be insanely popular.

Keen - July 23, 2014

@Bhagpuss: Well said, I agree. I think a lack of information in old MMOs can be a blog post unto itself.

@Gankatron: The whole “no one is a tank to hold aggro” concept failed miserably in GW2. It taught me one thing: The holy trinity works.

@Solarbear: Agreed completely. The aggro was random and mobs just ran around which make combat feel random and hectic and messy. I would probably enjoy an MMO based around 3rd or 4th edition.

Warphunter - July 23, 2014

Remember that DDO is still out there! Loosely based on D&D 3.5ish. The pace of combat is still much much faster than old school EQ, but casters have limited mana pools to manage, and tactics like having the fighters block an entrance so mobs cant reach the squishies are quite common (at least until a bearded devil teleports behind the line and everyone starts running around like crazy kindergardeners).

Character customiziation is crazy extensive, and while you still have cookie cutter possibilities, almost any combination of characters can work if you put some thought into playing with a static group (my favorite is a static all-monk team – crazy fun).

You can build a bard that plays (at least in concept) quite similar to an old style EQ enchanter.

Downside is that DDO isnt reallly an open world game. It is instead a collection of “dungeons” accessed around a central hub city. As well – it is primarily (at least until higher levels) centered around Eberron, and the “magic as technology” aspect I think isnt really everyones cup of tea.

My experience is that it is a great game for play with a static group of friends, but devolves into the same old zerg when played with pick ups (speed runs and optimum builds).

Vamenn - July 23, 2014

DDO is such a great game if you have a group of friends who want to do session play and no one is really familiar with the game. Otherwise, yea, random groups just zerg everything and that is not at all fun to me. I was really hoping Neverwinter would be like DDO but the dungeons were such a disappointment.

Damage Inc - July 23, 2014

Another example, because it seems that I’m the only person here who played AC, was that you didn’t just have a single armor class. In AC, armor covered different parts of your body, helm, leggings, chest, arms, torso, feet etc. Mobs would hit you in certain areas as well as do certain types of physical or elemental damage.

Take Lugians (giants in Asheron’s Call), they didn’t hit you below the waist at all and used bludgeoning damage. Or Olthoi, they used piercing and acid damage and could hit you from your torso to your legs.

All your different body parts were part of where they hit, so if one of your pieces of armor was bad or if you forgot to buff a certain piece, you’d take more damage there.

Also, creatures had higher or lower defense for melee and missile damage. Each mob type was very different from another, it wasn’t just what’s your AC or what’s your resist vs. this element as a lump total, it was every individual body part having it’s own AC and resistance. A much more complex system than anything today.

John - July 23, 2014

@Gankatron: “I am unsure why we can’t have more intelligent MMO AI like we have for military sims”

From what I know (read somewhere) more intelligent AI means more parameters and calculators the AI must run in order to “decide” what to do. The whole programming works like “if x=y then do z” with the exception that there are whole lot many “if”.

By adding some hundreds more “if” the game will lose a lot of responsiveness because the game server needs to run all those calculations and communicate them with you. Maybe in 10 years, with much better hardare, all those can be done in a few ms and we will have clever AI or maybe what I read (and write here now) is bullshit 🙂

maljjin - July 24, 2014

Did slower combat really had more depths ? Or was it a false choice situation ?

In a slower combat mode, you’ll have more time to think about which tools to use or what strategy to use for sure, but if there’s only one solution, you don’t really have a choice. This would be a false choice situation. The game gives you the illusion your have a choice of tools or strategy, but if there’s only one way to win or even only one optimal way to win for each different type of situation, the game is just tricking you. Choice and gameplay depth is just an illusion, you’re still on rails.

I started playing MMO with WoW, so I cannot compare with older games and I’ll take as example from there. I played a rogue for a very long time. I had several action bars fills with skills, but how many did I really used ? A handful was enough to optimally solve any issue. Choice was an illusion in this case. Not that I say WoW has combat, just trying to give an example of false choice.

Balkoth - July 26, 2014

I rather…strongly…disagree with just about everything in this article.

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