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Designing Around Cover

This week in Muscommunication we are going to look at the design implications behind one of BioWare’s class mechanic innovations, the cover system. Only one class per faction has it but I have a strong suspicion that this mechanic will have heavy influence on everything from environment design to raid encounters. The question is, will it hurt the balance of the game?

We need to start with the basics, how does the cover system work? When a Smuggler or an Imperial Agent moves within range of a doodad/wall in the terrain in which they can take cover behind, a green silhouette, which we affectionately call gumby appears and at the press of a hotbar button (or hotkey) the character will roll into the cover position. As of the writing of this article there are two inherent benefits to using the cover system. First, while in cover the character will have an evasion bonus to any target in a directional cone in front of them. Secondly and more important, while in cover a separate hotbar (the bar in your user interface which displays your skills) will appear with skills usable only while in cover. From what I have seen from my hands on these abilities tend to be more powerful than those which are used outside of cover.

At this point we also know that the Gun Slinger AC for the Smuggler and the Sniper AC for the Agent are specifically designed with the cover system in mind. From the appropriate descriptions and skills we can assume that these specializations are for DPS, this will be relevant in future sections so keep it in mind.

Raiding Implications

Raiding for many players, especially the hardcore, is what defines an MMO. When looking at the innovation of the cover system, as a hardcore player myself, I cannot help but notice one major problem which will be tricky when considering raiding, movement. So much of the great design we have seen over the years in raiding has involved movement in raid encounters. I think we all know the mantra of WoW raiding “Don’t stand in the fire”, and although it is good to poke fun at it, the defining feature of much of WoW raiding is movement. The terming of “don’t stand in the fire” comes from the fact that many encounters involve specific spots in the environment which are bad, sometimes lethal, to stand in which would require your character to quickly move out of it or be killed. Whether it is moving to avoid positional attacks (staying out of a dragons cone of fire), moving out of random effects (don’t stand in the fire), or simply a fight that involves kiting a boss or mob. This is not only a WoW mechanic either, raiding, at its core in almost every MMO involves movement. What kind of design might we see when taking into consideration a class who’s primary mechanic is to not move? Well we have a few options:

  • Movement heavy encounters – Any encounter involving a large amount of movement will simply be a nightmare for these classes. Simply put, you will be spending a large amount of your time either using weaker skills, since you are not in cover or wasting time trying to get back into cover to use your more powerful skills. I fear movement heavy encounters could alienate those cover minded classes and in some cases even diminish the fun factor of raiding for those players.
  • Stationary encounters – Although these certainly exist in MMO’s, raid bosses which have no or little movement requirements tend to be nothing more than “tank and spanks”. Now, these encounters are often enjoyable for everyone since they are basically like testing your DPS on a training dummy but the problem is there is such simplicity in their design that they get old quickly.
  • A pleasant mix – This is the most likely and most used option, a healthy balance of movement and non-movement fights. I think where my concern lies here is how you correctly balance the cover classes. Are they gimped on movement fights and then over powered in the fights where they just get to stand still and shoot?

The second issue that needs to be taken into consideration is the environment itself. It is imperative that the level designers make sure that on any movement fight that cover is still readily available throughout the entire encounter area. I believe this is the first time where environment designers can potentially play a huge role in raid encounter design.

Player vs Player Implications

The worries for PvP actually mirror PvE quite a bit but they have different results. Lets look at environment design, but this issue varies greatly depending on the type of PvP:

  • Open World PvP – We do not know if there is any form of organized world PvP (WAR style) but we can assume at the least that there are PvP servers. The main implication here is that BioWare must be sensitive to have cover points absolutely everywhere so that no matter when or where a Smuggler or IA engages another player, cover is available.
  • Warzones – What most players commonly know as battlegrounds, this is one of the forms of PvP that should truly not be a problem. Mostly these stages are designed as a healthy mix of exterior open space and interior confined fighting. Also, they already need to be balanced around melee and ranged combatants so typically these stages are filled with strong and weak points for all classes regardless of mechanics.
  • Arenas – Now there is no indication that arenas will be in this game, however, if they are, they could be tricky to balance around cover. We have no choice but to look at WoW for arenas since they revolutionized arena combat and even created an e-sport around it. The stages differ dramatically but always trend around open spaces filled with line-of-sight conflict throughout. Since typically “doodads” are used as LOS blockers it could be interesting to see a cover class using those same doodads for their defining class mechanic.
  • Objective-based PvP – This section refers specifically to things such as capture the flag or assault/defense maps. This is a form of PvP where the cover classes role could vary greatly but they certainly could find their niche’ and excel in it. For example, capture the flag. Although a Smuggler might not be the best option for trying to capture the enemies flag due to the immobility of their mechanic, the cover system makes them perfectly suited for defense. In theory, the character could “camp” their flag while in cover and be at a great advantage when the enemies come.

Balancing Concerns

Now onto something a little bit more general, what I fear will be BioWare’s difficulty in balancing the damage and effectiveness of skills in and out of cover. At its core, abilities when you are in cover have no choice but to be more powerful right? Otherwise, what would be a players motivation of going into cover. On the flip side, they need to insure that a cover class isn’t completely gimped outside of cover either. I think a fair comparison here would be to a warrior’s stance mechanic from World of Warcraft. In this example the character has different usable skills, dependent on stance and also inherent advantages and disadvantages to each. Increased defense while in protection stance, increased critical chance but more damage taken in berserker stance. What the end result is that all three stances are balanced due to bonuses and penalties associated with each. I think BioWare could take a similar stance with stances (pun not intended), however the issue of immobility does muddy the waters a bit since it is difficult to balance around.

My concern with this is that I could see a tendency to over power the cover skills, in other words make them do a little bit too much damage. However this might be necessary in order to compensate for the time they spend out of cover, I almost see no way to avoid it from the current design standpoint. Just the same, I worry that it is possible that the skills outside of cover will be a mix of low damage skills and crowd control (so that the character can get into cover). Basically what I am saying is that my concern is that one or the other will have to be gimped or overpowered in order to be balanced against the other set. The question is how that could potentially stack up against the other classes.

One last point that needs to be considered with the cover classes is how player skill can be tied into the overall balancing. I make this reference often but it could be similar to a hunters ability to jumpshot, this allowed a players skill to move beyond the limitations of class mechanics. One thing that remains to be seen is the viability of the cover classes to kite effectively. In theory, this would require the player to use a skill or two in cover and then quickly retreat into another position of cover, repeating the process over and over until the opponent is dead. I think this is a difficult thing to gauge when considering balance, since player skill varies greatly, but it should be a consideration nonetheless. Skills such as these can define the amazing Smugglers and Imperial Agents from the average.

I am merely presenting some of the overbearing concerns I have with the cover system. The simple fact is that SWTOR is months away and we can expect to see a lot of changes and balancing to the current system. This is the first time I have ever seen an MMO developer have to balance a class mechanic around a “separate stance” that involves being completely immobile; which adds a whole host of concerns. I think BioWare is well aware of this and the ability for both classes to be able to create their own cover is a brilliant addition and can by itself fix quite a few of the inherent issues. It remains to be seen how BioWare will handle balancing this complex mechanic around 6 other classes in both PvE and PvP, I will certainly be watching intently.

Comments? Leave them below! Want to discuss this article with the rest of the community? Head on over to the discussion thread. Additionally, if you wish to comment on this article or have anything you would like to see in a future Muscommunication, email me! musco@torocast.com

-eric

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