The Help Files ep5: MISSing the point

A long time ago, City of Heroes (CoH) still existed. A bunch of other MMORPGs did too, and they probably qualify for this discussion, but CoH was a game of alts for many people. The “end game” wasn’t quite as entertaining as coming up with new dress up dolls to parade around with silly names while throwing fireballs at petty criminals. I had dozens of heroes that never made it past level six.

There were a lot of interesting things in the design of CoH. The badges encouraged world exploration, the “clan halls” gave players their own space in a way, it had a number of social roleplaying spaces like the dance club, and it had a very poor New Player Experience.

Many MMORPGs at the time had miss and resist mechanics; even World of Warcraft. Early on in your hero’s life, you would miss a lot of attacks. It didn’t matter as much between levels 1 through 6, though, since enemies didn’t hit very hard and there was an extraordinarily easy way to just grind out enemies by grouping up with other people in the Sewers.

Past six, though, it became glaringly apparent when you whiffed attacks. CoH has a combat design rooted in ability rotations. You hit with 1, 2, 3, and then 1 is off cool-down so you start over. As your build progresses, you will usually end up an AoE initiator and an AoE finisher and anyone else still alive just gets cleaned up with whatever is not on cool-down.

Rotation based combat design relies on two primary things.

  1. Your attack accuracy
  2. Your “resource” availability

Both were in heavy competition in CoH through about half your level range (1–21ish, with 50 being the level cap). It hurt when you missed an attack, because missing feels like the game engine is cheating you. You know you have a to-hit chance of ~70%, which should mean you hit more than you miss ,but no one remembers the hits.

Everyone remembers the misses.

So you over-slot your attacks for accuracy; no one wants to miss. Then you become resource starved. You do your rotation, and since you’re slotting for accuracy things hit, but they don’t hit hard as you have no room for damage. So you attack more, but now your energy pool is depleted so you have to survive long enough to get enough attacks in.

You over-slot for energy efficiency next. Brilliant. Now you can hit, and you can attack more, but you’re doing piss-all for damage so it becomes a drag. You start really hating enemies with high defense because they take forever. Whiffing attacks numerically seems to have gone the way of the dodo in most MMORPG designs, and if you invested a decent amount of time into Everquest or CoH you might remember why.

What can we do to fix this?

It’s not a problem for your end game; it’s probably not even a mid-game problem. It’s the worst kind of problem: an early game one. The nascent time when you’re trying to grab someone’s attention and they log into your game and spend five solid eternities killing a rodent because they keep seeing “your sword MISSES a small rat.”

There are ways around this without removing to-hit entirely:

  • Introduce glancing hits. Instead of missing entirely, give players a 10% damage attack in a glancing blow.
  • Introduce hidden pity mechanics. Keep full misses, but ensure they never happen more once in a row.
  • Give the players more control. Introduce stances or combat config so they can choose to fight more carefully for higher hit rate, or more recklessly for lower to-hit with higher damage.
  • Rework misses into the parry/dodge/block system. With hit-stun/stagger mechanics, whiffing as parries/block could count towards staggering the opponent, and dodges could produce positioning mechanics.

There are a number of ways to make people feel better about something they have no true control over.

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