Massively Overthinking: Tab-target vs. action combat in MMORPGs

Massively OP patron Duane is kicking the new year off right: with a brawl over combat types in MMOs.

“Tab-target, action, or hybrid combat, for many MMO gamers the combat system, regardless of whether it is a well-made, is a deal maker or breaker,” he writes — I like to imagine he wrote it with a mischievous glint in his eye. “What is the superior combat system, and why is it superior (please give examples)? Let the battle-lines be drawn!”

I posed his question to the MOP writers for this week’s Overthinking. Here we go!

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think it really depends. I won’t lie, I used to love high action MMOs with no tab targeting, a good amount of twitch skills, and voice chat essentially required.

…then a game like that started breaking up my guild and I became an old man with little time to coordinate others. I hate to say it, but tab targeting (or even turn based!) combat may be better for the MMO genre if you care about socializing. The harder the combat is, the harder it is for the non-combat types to stick with the game. I feel it’s a big reason WildStar had trouble retaining socializers, Darkfall had nearly no RP community, and TERA scrapped its vanarch system. As Sylvén and Sundqvist noted several years ago, “mundane tasks are precisely what allow people to build virtual communities.” I’ve been back in Asheron’s Call 1 and 2, and while I can’t (currently) just walk off AFK during combat, I can at least type without feeling as if I’m going to die instantly. Now, that doesn’t mean action combat is bad for socializing. I’ve had plenty of chats with hardcore gamers when I was hardcore myself, and that’s the issue: it creates yet another barrier of entry.

My former partner through my early MMO years decided to play with people who are not so skilled, partially because she’s got extremely limited time. She’s the kind of player who head-shots you from what seems like half a map away. She could roll with the big dogs, but since she can’t research how to min-max her character or precisely pull off a meta-maneuver, it’s kind of where she’s stuck. She’s able to help her “tab target” friends, but she still gets frustrated because they’re the kind of people who sometimes seem like they’re rolling their face across the keyboard and wondering why they keep dying. They’re her friends, so of course she wants to have fun with them, but when they’re not good at the game, it’s rough and creates problems. It’s simply a matter of finding a balance between a game that meets your social needs and is within the skill level of your social group.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I don’t play MMORPGs for their combat specifically, but if combat is the focus of the game, what I really care about is the style and the quality more than the format. I need combat to be good enough to be fun on its own, but not so good that the devs spent no time on anything else in the zero-sum game of development. Fully twitch action combat isn’t really my favorite, but neither is old school tab-target. Justin and I were just talking about old school MMOs and how they had very little to do: Meleers would just sort of stand there in EverQuest and occasionally hit taunt while auto-attack did all the work; in classic Ultima Online, melee amounted to jousting as you ran in, auto-attacked, and ran back out. I don’t want to go back to that. And yet at the other end of the tab-targeting spectrum is World of Warcraft, which still has excellent, weighty, well-paced combat even in 2017. I suppose I prefer a modern hybrid like Guild Wars 2, which is primarily strategic tab-target with a blend of actiony — or reactiony — movement.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The hard part of a question like this is that there isn’t a single good answer; like crafting, combat should be deeply invested in the bones of the game itself, woven through the very structure to the point that you can’t just drop another system in and expect it to work. There is no “superior” system, just systems that do a better or worse job of highlighting what the game wants to accomplish.

Final Fantasy XIV, for example, had a tab-targeting system that works very well because the extra space and time is meant to give you more opportunities to make tactical decisions. It’s not just about what you do, but when you’re doing it and what else is going on around you at the time. Healing party members, debuffing a boss, raising party members who drop, dealing damage, using cooldowns while tanking – they all require you to think about how this action will impact prior actions and what you need to do next. That tactical interplay is vital to the structure of the game, and a more active system would remove those decisions and make the game weaker on a whole.

On the other hand, WildStar’s active combat (which is magnificent) forces you to think carefully about positioning, what skills you’re using and when, and how you’re going to dodge various effects as they pop up. It produces a much more visceral feel, keeping you engaged from fight to fight with a set of simple mechanics that you can deal with in several different fashions. The sheer kinetic momentum of the combat informs almost every aspect of gameplay, and it turns battles into a struggle of reflexes and reaction instead of tactical decision-making.

There are a lot of games that use combat poorly, but that’s not a result of the system; The Secret World, for example, has a rather weak combat system, and the result is that it weakens other areas of the game like advancement. A good combat system is one of the foundations to build your game on, and so it’s less about “which system is better” and more about “which system encourages the sort of gameplay that the game is meant to facilitate.”

What happens in one world echoes through the rest.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I generally prefer tab-target combat because I want to be thinking more about what skills to use and be more strategic than have to constantly worry about moving around and button-mashing to win. I can and have played MMOs of the hybrid and action variety, but while they may promise to feel more dynamic and involving, they’re also tiring to play and usually come at a price of boiling down combat to a few buttons.

Tab-target is tried and proven in the genre, and many of its most popular games feature it. It might be the cool thing to put it down and tout games of the action variety, but there’s no need to push one down to elevate another. If you like action combat, fine, there’s plenty out there. But I’m not willing to give up the ease and enjoyment of tab-targeting without a fight. See what I did there?

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I’m of the mind that the combat system should match the game that’s being played. Marvel Heroes would be a completely different game if it had turn-based combat. Elder Scrolls Online wouldn’t feel like an Elder Scrolls game if it didn’t have an action-style combat. I don’t dislike any combat style other than the traditional MOBA style, but that’s because I can’t seem to wrap my head around it.

My preferred combat style for an RPG is a queued, cooldown style. Imagine what Star Wars Galaxies originally had. It was a less-twitchy World of Warcraft style. However, if I am just playing an online game without an RP element, then I like the Unreal-style, over-the-shoulder shooter style. But what I’d really like to see is someone adapt the Batman: Arkham or Shadow of Mordor style combat into an online, multiplayer game.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): For me, combat is probably the least important aspect in determining if I enjoy a game. Basically I really don’t care about it! Combat is in no way a deal breaker for me if the other more important (to me) aspects of the game are covered. You know, housing, story, those things! And if the combat actually feels like it fits genuinely in the world and the story, all the better, regardless of which type it is. Some games feel right with an action system, and others fit better with tab targetting. You wouldn’t have a very good PvP game if all you had to do was tab and target the player; aiming and shooting fits much better there.

I do tend to find bits and pieces I enjoy more than others rather than an entire system. For instance, I love being able to cast/fire and move simultaneously. I also really hate obnoxious telegraphs on the ground (the most glaring culprit being WildStar); I still care about immersion no matter what game I am in, and giant glowing images pretty much ruin that.

If I had to chose, I’d probably root a little more for tab targetting. Why? An action-combat game tends to be built around the combat and focused on combat, which means there will be less of the other things I enjoy. Now that doesn’t say that I don’t enjoy combat when I am engaged in it (preferably by my own choice, even if that means just being in an area that I know combat is possible in). But combat is not a reason I choose a game to play — unless it happens to be purely combat. Although I am still looking for a deep virtual world to call home more, there are some purely combat games I have tried that I enjoy and continue to play. In that case, the combat style just needs to fit in it to me.

Your turn!

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