May 12th, 2015: Taking Your Turn in Turn-based MMOs

In preparation for an upcoming livestream with the developers of Wakfu, I logged into the game in the hopes of touching up on my skills. Wakfu can be challenging for casual players, with abilities and systems that often need to be played with a lot in order to understand them. One of the coolest aspects of the game – other than its original setting, artwork, systems and animations — is its turn-based combat.

Turn-based is pretty rare in MMOs, but I am not sure why. Many gamers, no matter their preferred genre, seem to appreciate turn-based gaming because it represents or feels a lot like a board game or tabletop war game. When I was younger, I loved nothing more than to get together with several of my friends to play Warhammer 40k in my bedroom. My father worked in construction so he built me a 4×8 foot table with siding that ran on the edges, so I was able to fill it with sand. I would wet the sand down and we’d make caverns or hills and then proceed to play for hours at a time.

The gameplay was mostly simple and we were not exactly sticklers for the rules. One of us would go, moving all of his troops a few inches, firing weapons and taking damage. The greatest part was that more troops on the field meant more time for the out-of-turn players to stand back, stroking their chin in mock-general fashion, and plan their next move.

Many gamers might be more familiar with turn-based through the Final Fantasy series or other titles. It’s pretty common in single-player RPGs, and can still be found on handheld game systems and is even becoming much more popular in the mobile market.

MMOs don’t seem to get it on the whole, but I do not want to say that turn-based is unpopular. In fact, Dofus (the sister game to Wakfu) is more popular that World of Warcraft in its native country of France. Wizard101 and its sister title Pirate101 are turn-based games (and wonderfully fun for all ages) and developers Kingsisle recently released information that showed 50 million players had joined the game. There are other titles like Nexon’s Atlantica Online that utilize turn-based combat.

Some games use a tic-based or timer-based system. I have seen this in city-builders and other titles, but the turns seem to be mostly for organization and do not generally pause things. There are some really interesting pseudo-MMO mechanics out there, as well, like the ones they use in Die2Nite or MUSH, two amazing titles from Motion Twin. In both, each real-life day is broke into smaller turns or, in the case of Die2Nite, each day is marked by a 10-minute period of an unresponsive website and game. The entire thing literally shuts off while the game calculates what happened for that turn. It’s simple, scary and genius.

So, it’s not that turn-based is unpopular in general, it’s that it’s not a common mechanic in MMOs.

Why not?

Here are some pros and cons of turn-based MMOs.

Turn-based combat can take serious time. To me, that’s when it is at its finest. I would love nothing more than for turn-based MMOs to feature the ability to stop time completely, meaning to pause for as long as a player would want. Now, I understand that turn-timers that are normally featured in MMOs (usually a 30-second timer or somewhere around there) are there to stop players from torturing others during PvP matches, or to make sure the experience of playing the game is consistently challenging, but wouldn’t it be cool if group of players could vote to extend the turn limits?

I believe that the need for consistency has done away with much of the strategy and fun that comes from, well, sometimes overthinking a move. We used to play tabletop games for hours because we loved the process of deciding what to do almost more than combat.

MMOs that do offer open-world, turn-based usually make it very interesting. In Wizard101, for example, you can literally watch other fights happening as the fighting player sees them. You can even join the player if the group has room. In Pirate101, ship combat is open to all. If I wanted to, I can even pull up to a flying ship in Pirate101, watch the other players fight in real time and scale and can join them!

In Wakfu or Dofus, players outside of the group that is fighting will see a sort of ghostly image of the combat. If people want to watch the battle, they simply click on the player or enemies and can watch. If the group leaders want to enable it, outside players can take part.

Unfortunately, turn-based combat might feel clunky to some. Imagine a typical MMO grinder being stopped in her tracks because she has to wait for a group of strangers to each take their turns. Not everyone is a fan of turn-based combat, and many players would rather push a button and have the character make an immediate difference in a fight.

I love a good action-based MMO as well. Sometimes I jump into Vindictus or Planetside 2 just to blow off some gamer steam, and the same feeling is not as easy to achieve in the slower world of the turn-based game. Turn-based brings on an almost zen-like feeling when it is right, the polar opposite of action-based gaming.

I’m not sure how much a future turn-based gaming has in MMOs. Anything that even appears to be from an older school of design might be doomed, but as I pointed out earlier, many players (even kids!) seem to enjoy it. What I would love to see is a developer who is brave enough to make a game that is turn-based and slow, something that allows players to really think about what they do. For many gamers, myself included, playing an MMO is not about glory or power, it’s about hanging out with a group of people and attempting to think my way through problems.

What better way to do that than with a turn-based mechanic?