Perfect Ten: The circles of MMORPG combat hell


And so it was as I traveled across the many spheres and realms of MMOs, I came to realize one simple truth: War is hell. But it is a hell of many sorts, and as MMOs almost always include some form of combat, it can be said that little forms of this hell approach as you descend through levels. Combat becomes difficult to follow, unclear, perhaps even oblique. The game stops caring what you’re doing.

So it became clear to me that these different circles of combat hell should be documented. For while there are games where fighting things may be taken as a joy (and this will vary for each person, yes), there are also many games where combat is a tedious chore you have to get through, not because the combat is difficult or not to your taste because it actually doesn’t work. And so you may use this guide to determine which circle you are trapped within rather than just saying combat is “bad.”

Sort of?

1. Limbo, the virtuous sinners

In this first circle lie the games whose combat is functional but bland. It is very easy for one to mistake inhabitants of this circle for combat that is good but not to the player’s taste, as the problems with these games are frequently subtle; usually, you can mark exactly what game the designers were trying to copy without understanding why it worked.

There is nothing wrong with these systems, but they wind up feeling bad or unengaging simply because they lack anything to keep you entertained. Thus, you hurry through each combat, hoping against hope that it will end faster. These are the games that feel like World of Warcraft combat stripped down even further, with no real problems but nothing to encourage or reward mastery.

2. Lust, where mastery arrives too quickly

We all may wish for skill, but skill takes time to cultivate. These games “solve” the problem by quickly removing any sort of skill involved; your requirements are simplified to the point that one may achieve mastery with minimal effort. Yet it is a shallow mastery, one where you know that you had to accomplish nothing to receive such accolades.

There is no choice before or after combat that really affects anything, and even making the smallest wrong choice is of negligible impact. Thus, you don’t feel a sense of accomplishment, you feel mocked.

3. Gluttony, where too much is piled on

By contrast, this circle is full of systems that may in fact be good but require you to do too much in a short span of time. A half-second delay results in a huge loss to your damage. Everything requires absolutely perfect timing, and this is just for content where you are playing casually, much less progression content.

These systems reward mastery, but they strongly punish anything less than mastery. The result is that you feel unmotivated to play not because you feel that your mistakes don’t matter but because you feel that anything less than perfect play will be worthless. All of your abilities are demanded and there can be no joy.

4. Greed, where too many systems vie for attention

While the previous circle is punishing, this is a different sort of punishment. Combat in this circle is cumbersome, demanding you fulfill the needs of things requiring exactly the opposite things. If you’ve ever tried to make a build with wildly incompatible souls in RIFT, you’ve likely created this for yourself, with mechanics asking you to have maximum health alongside ones that require you to sacrifice your health.

Greedy systems like this are awkward in play simply because there is too much demanding too many different resources, too many different balls in the air you must catch using incongruous poses.

5. Wrath, where calm strategy is denied

Here, the combat becomes not especially difficult but simply frantic. There is too much happening at any given time for you to react or think; your only real option is to smash on a button over and over until something is dead or you are. You don’t know what’s happening, and you can’t make intelligent decisions about it.

Games like Path of Exile feature very frenetic fights, but the game is also built to reward this and not make you spend combat trying to dodge precisely or carefully time interrupts. You make decisions about your build ahead of time. Wrathful games, on the other hand, ask you to make these decisions in the heat of battle, but at the same time give you no space to do so.

We all float down here.

6. Heresy, denial of impact and choice

Herein lies the dreaded “floaty” combat. Your actions do not seem to have much effect upon your target; you do things and have a difficult time noticing that you have changed anything around you. Similarly, it’s hard to tell that your enemies are hurting you until you’re dying. Things seem to just drift against one another.

Similarly, these can be combat systems that boast a great deal of different options but realistically are best played using two of those options at all time. You have a choice, but there are choices so overwhelmingly better than others that anything but the best looks downright foolish.

7. Violence, enacting arbitrary cruelty

Of course, all MMO combat is violent. But this sort of cruelty is worse, the sort of combat where it is easy – even likely – to find yourself suddenly unable to act or react to things in a meaningful way. It’s the age-old equivalent of having to choose between a fire spell or an ice spell where only one of them will let you get through a dungeon, and you have no way of knowing which one until you’ve made the unalterable choice and can no longer change.

These systems feel arbitrary, and they can also include systems where your ability to win or lose a fight comes down almost completely to random chance. Even a normal encounter is about whether your RNG luck is with you or not. Combat thus feels cruel and sudden, detached from any and all choices you might make.

Call a spade a spade.

8. Fraud, presenting options where none exist

Having a wide-open field of different options for a character can feel liberating and fun. Less fun is when you find out after the fact that you do not, in fact, have a wide-open field of different options; you have three options, and very little space to customize within those options. Combat systems like this allow you to build your character as you wish, but then later make you realize that you actually have just one option after dying repeatedly.

This is different from games where you have many build options and some work while others don’t; this is a game that makes combat a matter of building what you want when most of those choices just do not work. There’s so many pieces that are functionally mandatory that you quickly realize those “choices” are irrelevant from the start. You can only follow someone else’s build and hope you can play it correctly.

9. Treachery, the severance of trust

Herein we find games that present combat systems not functioning as advertised. Whether due to bugs or simple oversight, the things you believe you can do in no way reflect what you actually do. As a result, combat becomes an experience of shadow-boxing, trying to guess at what is actually going to happen when you enter battle.

Enemies teleport hither and yon so you can’t hit them. There are unpatched evade bugs. Stats don’t work as advertised. Inputs for abilities are inconsistent and unreliable. It may not be entirely unplayable, but it is certainly not fun to play, that much is certain.

10. The Center

And what dread lies at the very heart? What, after all of these circles, could be even worse than any of the above, something to stifle anyone’s desire to engage in combat at any point?

Total irrelevancy.

When combat is decided almost or entirely absent of your input. Where you just start combat and sit back and watch, doing nothing or almost nothing as the game compares two numbers and then just shows you who wins. At that point, it isn’t even combat; it’s basic math.

And that’s the worst part: not that it’s a buggy mess but that it betrays your trust by making it clear that you, the player, aren’t really a necessary part of this equation.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at or with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”

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Melissa McDonald

I am pretty sure it’s the Bruinen zone in LOTRO where, true to name, the place is simply lousy with bears. Like cockroaches.

I actually think that is the game’s biggest flaw. Too many bears, wolves, and boars. Yes, I know it’s set in Middle Earth where there are more natural kinds of fauna, but they coulda mixed it up a little more than they did.

Arnold Hendrick

Just as Dante placed almost every famous historical or contemporary figure in one of hell’s nine circles, in MMORPGs the main decision is WHICH circle of hell that game’s combat resides within.

What is most frustrating to me is how poorly documented combat systems are. Theorycrafting players have to do extensive experiments just to arrive at guesstimates of the underlying data and logic, only to find that their work must be repeated or abandoned when a new update arrives. The situation gets worse if the game endures a few years, as search engine results become clogged with outdated opinions and guidance.

For example, Elder Scrolls Online launched in 2014, but saw major updates and overhauls to combat every year thereafter, with an especially extensive rework in 2016. However, the majority of search results for ESO combat and builds are from 2014. The publisher Zenimax refuses to publish info about the internal mechanics of combat, and after 2015 stopped even talking about builds (until a couple new ones were mentioned as part of the Morrowind PR effort). ESO currently has obtuse and sometimes inaccurate in-game descriptions for combat skills. Multiple skills don’t mention range, and at least one DoT (damage over time) ability has a duration of 0 seconds!

I believe that over half the frustration with combat could be solved if MMORPG publishers would spend the time to create proper documentation, updated with each new release. Whether it’s a .pdf manual or a wiki doesn’t really matter. What’s important is giving players enough information to make well-informed decisions.

Unfortunately, the sin of non-documentation was not foreseen by Dante Alighieri, probably because he could not imagine an age where people didn’t write because they were discouraged by people who disliked reading.


I’d guess the devs fear that providing such stats will simply result in either
a) theorycrafters developing their FotM build that 95% of the players follow in hours rather than weeks, or worse
b) number-crunching their way to an understanding of the mechanics better than the devs, and intuiting or calculating exploits based on holes in dev logic. cf AoC where only after IIRC years of data parsing players figured out that all armor (light, medium, heavy) was offering only the same protection as “light”. Brilliant!

The time before players all settle on that single optimum build is basically the time when (to game developers) people are playing it ‘the way it’s supposed to be played’ where their PERSONAL choices are what matters, and they actually feel in control of their toons’ development instead of just following some rote optimized path someone else calculated.

So no, it’s not like they forgot to document it. They don’t WANT to document it and clarify that “high bonus to hit” really means +0.58%.

What nobody (?) seems to have figured out is that this ALL stems from two things:
First, the precision afforded to players who know the numbers in the first place, because the numbers are at the root of it, just like say, D&D. If (as IRL) you only knew vaguely you’re ‘strong’ or ‘average’ or ‘weak’, and if the damage you do to an enemy isn’t a decreasing hit-point-bar but location-based and based on the degrading of their ability to act (or live) by harming those locations, with the final result being you know they’re dying not because they ran out of hit point but because they LIE DEAD BEFORE YOU…then you’re going to see less ability to precisely theorycraft a single optimal technique.
Second, the lack of imagination by devs in that “winning” is *entirely* defined by killing BBEG. If the ultimate goal of every adventure, every encounter can be summed in the equation (If (partyhealth-monsterdamage+partyhealing)>(monsterhealth-partydamage+monsterhealing) = win) then players will optimize their parts of that equation. DUH. It’s what they’re being rewarded for.


If a game system wouldn’t survive having its mechanics seen by the player base, then I consider it a bad system that should never have been in the release in the first place.

That kind of system, whose main protection against exploits lie in not allowing players to know its inner workings, smacks of security through obscurity, a practice that is bad to the point of being dangerous.


a bad system that should never have been in the release in the first place

I’d be curious for you to list games that DIDN’T obscure the details of their mechanics in sum or in part, at least for the initial release (usually by the first expansion it was moot, but some like WoW deliberately rejiggered their mechanics with the expansion enough to re-set the theorycrafting cycle)?


It’s not really about the details not being known, but about the implementation being so lazy and exploit-prone that the only way to prevent exploits is to hide how things work. A good system is one that will remain relatively exploit-free even if the players have full, unfettered access to the game’s inner workings.

And yeah, WoW is one example of bad implementation of its stats and combat systems. With the mess that is the math behind WoW’s statistics it’s a miracle the devs keep it as balanced as they do.


#10 actually works very well in certain games where the choice and challenge lies in deciding when and where to fight; think about chess, there is neither chance nor skill involved in whether a pawn captures a queen.

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Lol, that was an amusing read and take on a much-tread topic. Points for creativity, sir Eliot.