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Cerebral vs Visceral Combat, Part 1

My last column promised a two-part examination of what has been and what is to come in FFXIV.  cheap ffxi gil. While I have every intention of finishing the second half of that column, I want to address one of the recurring reader comments in Eorzea Reborn discussions.  It is time to talk about combat systems in MMO's and what we may expect in A Realm Reborn.

"Same old [insert derogatory adjective] combat system."

The statement above pops up in pretty much every FFXIV discussion at some point or another.  The other variant of this comment tends to be that “tab-based combat is dead, everyone knows the genre is all about action combat."  This is a bit odd, since no incarnation of the Final Fantasy series mirrors TERA-esque action combat.  Expecting action combat in FF is a bit like wondering where the full body contact is in a Magic: the Gathering match.

It bears observation that action combat MMO's are not without problems and that the bulk of the market share (e.g. the majority of players) still play classic combat MMO's.  Note also that the player's choice MMO of the year here at MMORPG is a turn-based game.  Additionally, one of the commonly listed nominations for PC game of the year, X-Com, is also turn-based.

Popularity doesn't necessarily mean better though, and action oriented combat has been the trend in recent MMO releases.  Given Yoshida's interest in studying the MMO landscape prior to rebuilding Final Fantasy XIV, I think it’s fair to expect some action combat influences to appear in

Party Combat in the FFXIV:ARR Alpha

I believe, however, that the classic vs. action combat debate isn't simply an evolutionary story.  Rather, it is more a case of tastes and preferences and quite possibly the sign that our MMORPG genre is ready to segment itself along combat systems.  Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is potentially a very interesting market re-entry, in that a “throwback” style of combat is likely what fans of the intellectual property expect.

In this column, I want to review the basic combat mechanics in MMO's.  My point here will not be to denigrate any single system.  While I have my preferences, they are just that, preferences.  Each of the following combat systems has merit; each has an appeal to a different type of player.  Each affords the developer with a chance to emphasize a specific gameplay element.

It also makes sense to think about combat systems as a primary segmenting device.  Be it sandbox or theme park, we spend a great deal of time in combat in our online hobbies.  The approach used in the combat system ultimately influences both encounter and world design.  The move towards action oriented combat brought in a number of (now common) encounter mechanics, but it has also removed or eliminated other elements.

Turn-based Systems

Turn-based combat used to be a staple of the RPG.  Even today where it is largely overwritten with real-time combat, the idea of pausing to issue commands still manifests. The primary benefit of turn-based combat is the ability to engage in strategic action.  Whether this involves taking advantage of interdependencies between units/abilities or setting up a complex plan over multiple rounds, turn-based systems appeal to the more cerebral aspects of game play.

That isn't to say there aren't drawbacks to turn-based gaming.  I still recall the look of horror on a college roommate's face when I announced the invitations to a gaming night event we were hosting.  "You invited [NAME]?  What the [expletive] were you thinking?"  I was thinking he was a friend who liked games, what could possibly go wrong?  Three hours into the evening, when we were not yet done with the second turn of our first game, I understood that horror all too well.

The thing is, slower paced players can be prodded along with some form of timing system.  The Kings Isle title, Wizards 101, uses a card based combat model and its sibling title, Pirates 101, uses a turn-based miniature system, both with a timer to help keep the game moving.  While both of these games are targeted towards younger audiences, their systems represent the rare MMO which rewards sequential thinking.