Little Blog Adventure

A gaming "sketchblog"

Thursday, March 30, 2006

My D&D Online beta impressions- or, how not to design an RPG combat system

Sometimes, non-digital games are poorly translated into digital games. I played the beta version of the Dungeons & Dragons Online Massively-Multiplayer RPG and found that though the designers tried their best to simulate the gameplay of the non-digital version of Dungeons & Dragons, I felt that it was a doomed mission. In order to make the game fun, they had to leverage the factors that made conventional MMORPGs (and conventional RPGs, for that matter) fun. That's OK because the game could only work in a digital setting if they took into account what made digital games unique and fun.

However, they made one huge mistake in translating the game from it's board game roots to the digital version- the made the combat real-time, but kept the element of attacks/defence being determined by dice rolls (which was made obvious to the player by the ubiquitous appearance of a dice on the right-hand side of the screen after every attack). Why was this a bad decision? Well, simply put, it completely undermines the illusion of control that the player has over the game. When I attack an enemy and the game shows my sword cutting the enemy in "real-time," I can't and will not accept a dice roll appearing at the right-hand side of the screen and telling me that my attack "missed."

This creates a disconnect between the player's perception of the game and the actual game systems. Similarly, the game lets the player dodge attacks by rolling back, but the success of a dodge move is calculated by the dice. So several times, I would roll backwards before an enemy attacked only to have the attack, executed at empty air a few paces in front of me, hit me! I felt cheated- as if my actions really didn't matter at all in the game. The illusion of control had been broken completely.

Strangely enough, World of Warcraft- which also has a similar stats-based damage system, manages to maintain the illusion of control during combat for me. The combat, while ostensibly "real-time," is slower-paced than D&D Online and players are not given the same freedom of movement as in that game (where you can run and jump in a similar manner to Tomb Raider!). Because of this, the entire experience feels much more fun than in D&D Online.

That being said, it must be understood that the reason that non-digital RPGs implement combat in the way that they do because they are approximating something- combat- using the best tools available in the situation. Early PC RPGs did the same thing because that was the best early computers could do. Today, the situation is quite different- graphics in modern RPGs seem so realistic that their combat systems increasingly seem arbitrary and redundant.

No wonder, then, that D&D Online tried for a real-time combat system. Their failure probably lies in the fact that they did not try hard enough- dice-rolls probably need to be relegated to the past. RPG game designers need to look at why systems exist in games, and if they cease to fulfill the need they were created for, they should scrap them altogether. Some game designers have indeed realised this problem.

The Elder Scrolls series of PC RPGs have long had real-time combat systems, implemented with varying degrees of success. Judging by the reviews of latest game in the series- Oblivion- it looks like developer Bethesda have finally found the right balance between giving players control over combat and making the statistics in the game meaningful. For example, a well-timed attack that isn't blocked by the enemy will result in a hit, but the damage incurred by the enemy will depend on your "strength" rating. Haven't played it yet myself, but it sounds like a good compromise.


At 5:40 AM, Blogger Joshua said...

Yes, I agree about the dice rolls. What's important to realise is that both systems are really just simulations of reality. But what the online D&D developers' mistake was that they forgot that dice rolls are actually a inferior form of simulation to real-time computer avatar combat. By incorporating a lower-grade system into a higher-grade medium, they drastically threw off the player's perceptions.

I guess the same thing would apply when holographic VR gaming has become fully developed as well. If you could eventually 'see' and 'feel' the enemy in front of you in a 3D, life-size VR world, you wouldn't want to be relegated back to the inferior system of controlling the action via a mouse somewhere. You would want to use all of your body and its kinesthetic senses (safely), dodging, lunging and rolling as you would in real-life combat.



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