Friday, September 12, 2014

Today's MMORPGs Need Better Underwater Combat

For most of us who grew up immersed in 2D video games, underwater worlds provoked a sense of relaxation-filled exploration. Kind of like floating around on a couple of pool noodles with a cup holder and a flamethrower (that just happened to work underwater). It was fun floating around as Mario or Donkey Kong, discovering teeny caves, finding hard-to-reach treasure chests and even idling while floating in place listening to the music. Okay, maybe that was just me. I had this thing about underwater themes.

Underwater combat didn’t feel dramatically different from normal combat back then. The 2D-ness helped with that fact, of course. Without that third dimension, varied environments were vastly easier to simulate. Developers simulated the “underwater” feeling with a resistance push/pull mechanism and let us heave barrels and fireballs to our gleeful satisfaction. It felt familiar—just with floatiness and bubbles.

Fast forward to the MMORPG. In one of the first MMOs I experienced underwater combat in—Ragnarok Online—I felt a joy reminiscent of floating around in Donkey Kong. RO was mostly 2D, and the developers simplified underwater combat even further by making the sprites stay planted on the ocean bottom. There were bubbles, goofy-looking underwater critters, gorgeous underwater music, and an extreme lack of Marc cards most days, but there wasn’t any underwater clunkiness.

Sometimes simplicity in environment design just works. And that brings us to where you all probably think I’m headed with this. Yep, that’s right—underwater combat in the modern 3D MMORPG.

The classic example given is generally World of Warcraft. Blizzard dedicated an entire starting zone in WoW: Cataclysm to the wonders of underwater combat and exploration. Except for the fact that, well, not many players thought that was too wonderful. To this day, Vashj’ir is one of those zones that remains ridiculously empty even while leveling that 9th alt.

And why wouldn’t it? Underwater combat in WoW, and in most 3D MMORPGs, tends to be clunky to extreme levels. Oh, look, there’s a naga thing floating down from above your character’s head. You swim your character upward to wave your swords around and deliver some bloodshed. Oh, look, your swords completely miss the naga and go sweeping through water instead. Now the naga’s inside your character’s hit box and he/she’s dazed and grunting like a fool.

Third-person camera angles in pure 3D environments don’t mix well when it comes to combat. You can’t see exactly where an enemy is unless it falls on top of you. It’s also hard to judge distances in an underwater environment. “Gosh, that turtle looks really close to me,” you think. “Let me shoot my bow.” Seven "out of range" errors later, you might finally be able to hit the thing.

Exploration in underwater zones also tends to leave something to be desired in 3D MMORPGs. WoW tried with the addition of the super-speed seahorse mount and the magical buff that caused you to run along the ocean bottom like a speed freak, but trying to find quest hubs in the middle of dark water, dark rocks, and dark plant things was often a royal pain in the ass. And once you finally found the tiny cave entrance, it was the one for the wrong faction 99% of the time. Of course. Curse you, whatever-faction-you-didn’t-happen-to-be scum.

The Guild Wars 2 development team tried to make up for WoW’s underwater catastrophe and hoped players would love their version. Instead of messing around with swords and bows underwater, ArenaNet went with the realism route and gave players tridents, harpoon guns, and spears to use. For the most part, these weapons (and the underwater-only Ranger pets) helped players feel more immersed and less reliant on precise distances, but it’s still a pain to fight enemies and judge basic distances underwater.

Better immersion doesn’t lead to players forgetting that underwater combat—even in a newer game—is still clunky. In some areas, the quick enemy respawn rates can also lead to a really annoying time underwater. Guild Wars 2 also added an entirely-underwater focused PvP map. You can imagine how much complaining this led to.

Many developers have seemingly received enough angry notes about underwater combat and now go the route of avoiding it completely. WildStar, despite having Farside (a low-gravity moon zone—one of my favorite areas in the game) and a few extremely varied environments, shied away from underwater combat completely. Sure, you can swim underwater in certain spots and even fight a few things, but there’s never a need to hold your breath for too long.

It seems like every couple of years some major MMORPG developer can’t help but hope to reinvent the underwater combat wheel. Unfortunately, the wheel never quite ends up being reinvented at all—just reworked in a shiny, new casing with the same basic, clunky problems.

Trion Worlds recently added a waterlogged coating to RIFT with its next expansion entitled Nightmare Tide. Yep. A whole expansion based on watery zones. The development team released a new patch quite a few months back that previewed the style of underwater combat the team initially had in mind for the expansion. The verdict? Not so good.

Players experienced the same issues we tend to complain about in WoW’s underwater combat—clunky mechanics, failure to correctly judge distances and in particular, annoyances when pulling enemies while using a melee spec. The small underwater area doesn’t see a lot of activity in the game currently.

Given most folks’ opinions of their predecessors' underwater combat, this could be a particularly bad omen for RIFT: Nightmare Tide, right? Not necessarily. Trion specifically added this bit of content in well ahead of the expansion to generate player feedback. With any luck, the negative feedback they’ve gathered will help their engineers make improvements.

Trion has stated that only roughly 10% of the expansion’s content will require swimming. This may mean that players might be able to explore underwater locations by using normal on-land mechanics or that Trion’s balancing out the water-based content to be more varied. Either way, it looks as though the developers are thinking about a few different options. That could be a good sign, but it’s a little early to tell at this point.

One question still begs answering: can underwater combat ever become something we don’t hate in today's MMORPGs? I think it definitely can. MMORPG developers need to approach underwater combat differently than combat in the rest of the game. Slapping in both vertical and horizontal enemy movements when player characters are made to only move horizontally isn’t the answer.

There are two options here:

One alternative is for developers to simplify underwater combat similar to how it was done in Ragnarok Online and force enemies and players both to simpler planes of motion that streamline 3D combat. Underwater combat that takes place on the lake/ocean bottom is one example of this method.

The other option is for developers to totally think outside the box and come up with a way to alter the camera placement or give players a better view of the underwater environment. This would let us judge distances better and have an easier time controlling our characters while underwater. This method is more complicated obviously, but in a gaming world where our options are expanding on a daily basis, there’s really no reason why some developer out there can’t make it happen.

It’s a wide, wide world of possibilities out there, game creators. Make us want to float around on pool noodles and enjoy exploring underwater content again.

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