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Salutations, fellow Goblins!
This week's development blog is about mass combat in Pathfinder Online. This is an area where we intend to focus a lot of development energy. We think it is one of the aspects of sandbox gaming where we can make a lot of progress in the state of the art.
Because this topic is so intertwined with engineering issues of load, lag, hardware, and software, we know that our mass combat ideas will have to undergo a lot of change as we test and receive feedback about how well they are working. So the normal disclaimer that this material represents work in progress subject to change is even more appropriate than usual.
If you look at most MMO mass combat, what you see is a mechanic developed for individual fights that has been scaled up for larger engagements, especially in games where melee combat is more common than ranged combat.
Typically, you'll see a stew of combatants essentially fighting individual battles. Where there is overall command and control, it is usually dedicated to healers selecting targets to aid, and ranged attackers picking targets to mass fire against.
Once a battle starts to tip towards one side or the other, there's very little that can be done to reverse the rout. Running away is sometimes an option, but even that is quite often impossible, as the mechanics that were built to make running away from PvE hard get in the way of escaping a PvP battle.
Looking down on such a battle, you'll see virtually no units or cohesion. Each character stands and fights in an island of its own, moving to keep making attacks or to avoid being hit (if one is a healer or a ranged attacker). There are typically no benefits to maintaining any sense of order, so it is therefore rare for such order to be maintained.
The first thing we knew we wanted to address in our design was the lack of any sense of being a part of a larger force. We wanted to give players a reason to form into units and to maintain unit cohesion.
The difference between an army and a mob is that the army knows how to provide mutual reinforcement to each member whereas the mob is mostly concerned with individual acts. A small army can overcome a large mob.
The heart of our design is the idea of combat power. Combat power is generated when characters form and maintain a cohesive unit. Combat power is both offensive and defensive. It is generally much more significant than the kind of attacks and defense available to individual characters.
Cohesion factors in physical location in relation to the rest of the unit's members, the need of the unit to have proper leadership, and the ability of the unit to act in concert.
Units scale from squads of a small group of characters all the way to divisions of thousands of characters.
In order to join or lead a unit, a character must have trained the necessary skills, earned the necessary merit badges and gained the necessary abilities. Being a soldier is a whole career path in Pathfinder Online. Characters will need to specialize in soldiering to become leaders of larger units, and even at the squad level, characters who are more experienced will have more options than less skilled characters.
We envision a system where each character in a unit sees some on-screen indication of where they must be standing and facing to grant the unit cohesion. As the unit moves, pivots, or changes facing, each character will need to be adjusted to maintain this cohesion.
To generate a unit action, each member of the unit will need to perform the correct action. Think of something like Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero, except performed by a lot of characters at the same time; the better each player is at maintaining the unit's cadence of actions, the more effective that unit is.
Every unit has some basic offensive and defensive power. But if the unit includes more experienced characters and leaders, it gains additional options. Masses of raw recruits will be good. Elite units of really precise characters will be better.
A unit's formation dictates the kinds of actions it can perform. The most basic formation is to line up in single file and face the same direction. As characters gain more abilities they'll be able to participate in units that can form phalanxes (really good for punching holes in units in line abreast formation), squares (extremely good defensive posture), or even skirmishing (a loose formation of characters that allow them the freedom to engage in complex individual actions like spellcasting or certain kinds of ranged attacks).
Learning how to maintain cohesion in these various formations, and how to keep up the cadence of actions while in them will require substantial player skill. This isn't a factor of "twitch" abilities, but of timing and attention to detail. Playing with other people who spend the time to become great at this kind of play will be very rewarding!
The point of mass combat is to take and defend territory. The mechanics for besieging a settlement or breaking a fort or watchtower will be driven by mass combat. The mass combat system is not really appropriate for the experiences you may have on an adventure in a lair, cavern or ruin. Armies require sophisticated logistics as well, so they are not likely to be found roaming randomly around a hex.
What we hope to create is a system where players naturally re-create a lot of real-world military tactics and strategies. We want you to care about terrain, about line of sight, about being flanked, pincered, and encircled. We want to see lines break and reform, units to withdraw and be replaced by fresh troops. We want being a solider to be as fulfilling and interesting a long-term play experience as being an adventurer or a crafter.
Discuss this blog on paizo.com.