Is it Possible to Build a Combat-Optional MMO?

The whole Newtown tragedy got me thinking a bit recently regarding the combat-centric emphasis of most video games.  I won’t get into a discussion here about whether combat should be eliminated from games or not – I think it’s probably unrealistic at worst, and undesirable at best.  There have been many articles about violence in games before as well; just Google it and you’ll come up with plenty.

Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed are the games people first scrutinize (or blame) when these tragedies arise, but combat in games go back to very aborignal games – you could say RiskGalaga, or even PacMan had something of a “combat” focus – you were certainly fighting an adversary, and conflict is certainly necessary in any form of literature, and even art in general.  Combat versus monsters or dragons is a bit more acceptable, since they aren’t “real” in the sense that other people are—again, more reasons why Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto are the ones that get the most attention.

But is there a way to present a more balanced view of the world in MMOs, the one genre of games that tries hardest to create a virtual world?  Some might say a game without combat would be boring, and there are undoubtedly many gamers who would not play any game where combat was not the prime focus.  But would they play if it was optional?  If they could participate in the conflict the way they normally do, but if there were non-combat roles in the game as well?

Without going over into the whole themepark vs. sandbox debate ( and yes, I know that Ultima Online did this), here’s a few character occupations that I could see being valid in an MMO, though I can see players differing sharply on how “fun” it would be to play them.  These occupations are the backbone of the world, the primary suppliers to the armies and cities and villages and adventures, and are considered critical to a civilization.

  • Merchant/trader: travels from city to city with virtual commodities that are in short demand, and/or fulfills orders for goods from players not willing to invest time in crafting or on the auction house.  Much room for specialization in goods here or alternatively a jack of all trades that carries a bit of everything – optional to the player.  Often hires adventurers or soldiers for protection!
  • Crafter: collects recipes and materials, either in the real world or from traders, then crafts custom items; everything from weapons to potions to food, to materials for building
  • Builder: Specializes in building home or structures, possibly to specification.  It would require open zones in the world where building was allowed, and that could be made permanent (unless destroyed)
  • Diplomat: Help build alliances between clans, villages, cities and—at advanced stages—even nations.  This would require a full political system, and possibly the freedom for players to create their own factions, as opposed to the 2 or 3 pre-made factions that come with most MMOs.
  • Farmer/Fisher/Hunter/Gatherer/Woodsman: Tills land and raises animals for food, hauls fish or hunts game and sells it on the open market.  Find previous herbs that can made into healing potions or powerful magics.  Again, all these occupations feed into the economy, which is completely player owned and run.
  • Scholar: Seeker of arcane knowledge, these are the ones who find the recipes that other occupations make use of.  Research ancient scrolls, read through histories of the world, hire adventurers to return dusty tomes that contain powerful magics.  And sell that knowledge for ungodly prices.
  • Entertainer/Bard: Learn music and play and instrument in the local taverns for money, juggle in the city square, tell stories to children (and their parents) , play a character in a stageplay
  • Sailor: These are the navigators of the world and their services are needed by traders and armies alike.

I suppose the most avid combat players might forego such a game, but there would be occupations for these as well:

  • Adventurer/Hero: These are the standard roles we already see, the dungeon crawler, the explorer, the freelancer, the odd-jobber, the investigator.  They will be paid for their services catch as catch can, but also will draw on the services of the non-combat occupations.
  • Soldier: These are always involved in campaigns or missions for the nation or city.  Local militia all the way up to full scale armies and navies.
  • Guard/City Protection/Sherriff: These are the protectors of the various villages and cities, and work to keep marketplaces safe.  They might be hired to protect caravan as they travel from city to city
  • Brigand/Outlaw (PvP): Of course with so many riches in the world, there will be those who seek to steal them and kill witnesses.   
  • Bounty Hunters (PvP): If the game is to allow open world PvP, or even flagged PvP, there will be those who hurt innocents along the road, and there will be those who work to bring them down.  Special abilities that help them in the conflict against outlaws.
  • Arch Villain: Become the bad guy, and raise your own horde of monsters and supporters.  Bring down armies, raze villages, and create your own evil empire.

Those whose focus on combat is the sole reason for playing might balk at being around non-combat types, at least initially.  But my argument is that increased freedom, variety and specialization as opposed to wrapping up specializations in a catch all “class” will bring about a more interesting world, and one with more longevity.  But how to do it?  So many MMOs are level and class-based.

It means, I believe, moving to a skill-based system that has a vast pool of abilities and specialization that aren’t necessarily balanced across occupations.  They are merely different.  A character with a high degree of skill in baking will not compare in any way to one with a high skill in swordfighting. And even a character with a high skill in bow & arrow will not compare well in close combat with that swordfighter, though he might be vastly overpowered in a long-distance match.  It means dropping our inherent need to make sure every character is balanced and equal as they progress.   That swordfighter will never be able to bake as nice a cake either, unless he drops the sword and takes up the oven.

Much will also depend on the character honing and maintaining his or her skill as well.  If you are spending time on baking, your aren’t fighting and your skill with the sword might get a bit rusty until you pick it up again.

Of course, many will say at this point that I am describing a “sandbox” MMO, and that’s partly true.  But I think part of the thought process here means getting away from these religious definitions that have arisen in game design discussions.  There’s nothing in the things I am describing here preventing the addition of a rich thread of story in the world, or a powerful backstory and setting, or even developer-created events and quests.  These are things that the “themepark” worlds still bring to the table, and should not necessarily be thrown out wholesale.

What are your thoughts?  What else could be done to bring back freedom and variety to the MMO virtual world?  Does providing non-combat options bring some much-needed balance to the gaming experience, or is it foolish to downplay the conflict in video games?

7 thoughts on “Is it Possible to Build a Combat-Optional MMO?

  1. gretch05 says:

    Any contrived world should reflect the interdependence of the real world to be interesting, I am thinking.

    • gpili says:

      Exactly! Interaction with a computer system is inherently less interesting than another human being. Computer systems should facilitate human interaction, not replace it.

  2. Mark says:

    One might argue that Zynga has created such a game with Farmville, Massive, online, and multiplayer game about farming (and spamming).

    Of course that treadmill is not well regarded.

    I’ll observe that I have a level 20 WoW character that’s leveled doing nothing but gathering, exploring, delivering packages, and participating in holiday events. I’ve got a level 70 combat medic that’s never killed anyone or anything, gaining experience by keeping his comrades in arms alive in PVP. One noted pacifist character reached level 90.

    So in Wow it’s at least possible to play as a herbalist, miner, explorer, deliver person, or reveler, and not participate in combat. And of course, on RP realms people “play” all sorts of roles, from merchant to student to dominatrix. I’ll advanced a hypothesis: any sufficiently large MMO will support non-combat play, even if inadvertently.

    Of course, one might object that these edge cases are not relevant, because supporting these styles of play is not the intent of the developer, nor does this limited level of non-combat activity reflect a balanced view, where combat is only an occasional part of life, not it’s sole focus.

    But it seems unlikely that any game would ever have “realistic” rations of combatants to non-combatants. How would one encourage hordes of people to play serfs, so that a handful could play knights. In a modern setting, you’d need a few hundred people playing civilians for every person playing a solider. To look at it from a different angle, your combat game would be would have to be developed and appealing enough so that at least some people would rather play it than Halo or Modern Combat. But your non-combat game would have to be so much better that the vast majority of you player base would rather play it than a game that’s competitive with a dedicated combat focused titles. Clearly a realistic ratios seem entirely implausible.

    Still, you could imagine a “more balanced” ratio of combatants to non-combatants, albeit not a realistic one. The question then is an economic one–if you are going to develop a fun combat game system, and fun non-combat game system, do you make more money selling them as a combined game, or as two separate games?

    • gpili says:

      Completely true and totally valid to play a non-combatant or pacifist in any large MMO thempark available today. That said, doing so in a game like WoW is accomplished despite the intentions of the designers. I think the problem in a game like WoW is that the only way to interface with the market is through the auction house, which involves no player-to-player interaction at all. Sure, you can do direct trades with other players, but the convenience of the AH pushes most players to forego the trouble. Definitely another topic! 🙂

      Games like UO had player driven merchants and markets, which involved direct purchasing from other players, and all the haggling that went along with it. Relationships between merchants and other mercants, merchants and adventurers were formed, creating a much more “fun” environment for the non-combatant. What if the auction house were run by players? The other thing I think might be needed here is a system that allowed player-crafted items to be equal in quality to (and possibly greater with rare recipes) the items looted in dungeons or dropped by monsters.

      As to ratio of serfs to soldiers, my guess is that players would have multiple characters, and would choose to play their serf or soldier depending on mood. That’s actually true of WoW today — alts created simply to do crafting. The problem with the model in many themeparks, is that the serfs are simply tools, and not really very interesting to play at all.

  3. Ben Warmus says:

    Any discussion of this topic require mentioning Second Life and Eve Online. Both have significant non-combat functions. Second Life started out with no combat what-so-ever. Eve may be combat focused for most, but it’s creators wanted an open system where people could play the way they wanted. As a result, for example, there are players whose sole task in game is to organize and run a corporation staffed by other players.

    I think Mark made the best point by stating “any sufficiently large MMO will support non-combat play”. This is less true for some than others, but I don’t think anyone would need to stretch too far to create a game where the combat/non-combat ratio was balanced.

    • gpili says:

      Eve, UO, Second Life — these are all games that have approached the player-driven market seriously, and each of them have made room for non-combatant roles.

      My guess is that any game could move into this territory given sufficient development resources and a desire to add it to the game. Given the combat preference by most gamers, however, it’s certainly a decision not made lightly. Heck, WoW just added a farming system to the game as well as increased complexity to some professions (cooking). The step the game has not made is player-driven markets. How much more alive would the world seem if the shops in the cities were run by players rather than cardboard NPCs? A marketplace and player-driven AH would be something I do believe players would gravitate towards, given that they have done so, in numbers, in these other games.

  4. Billy says:

    I’ve been waiting for years for such a game, but as long as the money keeps pumping in for these watered down games, publishers and devlopers won’t give a damn, whatever is easiest with the best turn around for profit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s