Guildwars 2 Breaks the Mold (li’l bit)
MMOs have by now evolved a canon of how to deal with combat roles, death, and getting back into play after dying (“resurrection”). This canon has become so fixed that it’s common to hear about tank/healer/dps as the “holy trinity” of MMO combat that many games just do, well, sorta because that’s how it’s been done. Every now and again though, some game comes along and pushes the boundaries forward a little. It looks like Guild Wars 2 is doing that with their approach to combat, dying, and the flow of gameplay.
In a recent post entitled “A New Way of Looking at Healing and Death,” Jon Peters, a designer on GW2, talks extensively about how they approached combat, healing, dying, and in general what actions you can take to bring combat beyond simple button-mashing. It’s a refreshing read. It’s nice to see designers thinking seriously about the experience they’re trying to provide, not just about the mechanics — and not just falling back on well-worn mechanics because they’re traditional.
They’ve done a good job of taking what’s typically a frustrating failure state — being whacked hard enough that your character has no more health — and turned into another bit of gameplay. Instead of having the traditional situation where once you start losing you’re unlikely to turn the tables, characters in GW2 have a set of options that open up to them when they’re “down.” So if you’ve lost all your hit points, you can try a last-ditch move, and if you’re successful, you “rally” and are able to keep on fighting. This reminds me a lot of the popular and effective “second wind” that similarly allowed you to dramatically claw your way back from the edge of defeat — a great feeling and thus a great bit of gameplay. I think this is going to be a very popular aspect of combat in GW2, with many close shaves shared as stories between players.
Moreover, if you do die, GW2 lets you come right back into the game again. Grognards will say this is “easy button” gameplay, comparing it to the olden days of text MUDs where death meant you lost an entire level — in some of them, half your levels. The claim was that this makes for a disincentive to die in the game, but guess what? Players already have this disincentive, as it’s inevitably viewed as a failure state. Why should a game rub salt in the wounds?
The designers on this game have also taken a hard look at what’s fun and what’s not fun about combat and, in trying to break out of the shell of the “holy trinity” of tank/dps/healing, have effectively come up with their own softer trilogy of damage, support, and control. But in re-imagining combat this way, they have opened up important but usually secondary roles like support to be much more than just healing (to the point that they have no dedicated healing class), and damage to be more than just standing there and absorbing damage as in traditional “tanking.”
I’m really glad to see this evolution — even if it is only evolution and not revolution. MMO combat has become fairly staid over the past ten-plus years, without a lot of innovation. I’ve long wanted to try some of these changes myself. In past games I worked on we tried introducing multi-player tactics (e.g., Phalanx, an auto-buff that requires at least three fighters to do), failure-state reversals (last ditch shot, like second wind or “downed” abilities), and some of my favorites, “noble death” tactics — such as a very powerful attack that might well save the rest of the party, but will take out your character in the process, potentially permanently (yes, perma-death, but only opt-in). One idea we had was that if you managed to save others by this kind of sacrifice, you could get a bonus to your next character. We were never able to try these ideas — too radical for the time — so it’s great to see Guild Wars breaking (out of) the mold.
Maybe there’s life in fantasy MMOs yet.