I regularly play Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), City of Heroes (COH, not to be confused with Call of Heroes which sometimes uses the same acronym), and Champions Online (CO). I occasionally play Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO). I recently was in the closed and open beta for DC Universe Online (DCUO), and, while I commented at the time at how awkward the PC interface for DCUO was, one thing they did well was that many of the choices you had during level-up actually made existing powers better rather than providing a new power.
I have four 10-slot power bars, mostly full, up when I play LOTRO. On CO, I have three bars, with one completely full. In COH I have, on the average character, at least three mostly full 10-slot tool bars.
The problem with this is two fold:
- Complexity of the interface. Having that much space on your monitor taken up with power/tool bars means less space to see and interact with the world. You also have to visually scan and see all the icons and select the one you want from 20, 30, 40 visible icons.
- Interaction with the tool bars. In most games, one tool bar is hard-coded to link to the number keys across the top of your keyboard. So, pressing the 1 key means the power or skill in the first slot of that first tool bar activates. However, I've noticed in my own playing and while watching, or asking how, friends play, we all typically put our most used powers in tool bar 1, slots 1 through 4 and then don't use the other slots nearly as often. When we do use them, it is typically using the mouse cursor and clicking. Or, worse yet, we have to take our eyes off the action in order to find the right key(s) to press.
DCUO changed that paradigm to a degree. In the betas, you only had 6 slots on one tool bar to use for your slots (there were two other slots, used for devices/potions). Each aspect of your character (aggressive, defensive, or generalist) had its own tool bar that could be set up with different powers on it but, depending on your aspect, you only had those six slots to work with. The reason for this was that most of the advantages given during a level-up were abilities that made existing powers better.
I have a group of buddies with whom I play LOTRO every Wednesday evening for two hours. We have lots of fun, everyone has a unique character, and everyone fills a different role in the group. However, we're all in the 37-40 level range right now, which means, as I commented above, I have four 10-slot tool bars, mostly full, on my screen with my Runekeeper character. I have some 5 fire power icons, 5-6 lightning power icons, 4 cold power icons, 5 or so healing icons, 5 or so miscellaneous powers, plus a bunch of items, food, potions, or skills that I use regularly. The bottom third of my screen is taken over by this plethora of tool bars and icons.
Last night while playing I thought about the DCUO concept and concluded that LOTRO (and most of these style games) could benefit from the concept of specialization and diversification of existing powers.
Using my Runekeeper as an example, I have a fast, low damage, single-target damaging lightning, cold, and fire attack (3 powers). I then have a slightly more powerful, faster/slower, single-target attack for all three elements (3 more powers). I then have much more powerful, slower attacks with side benefits (for fire, area of effect, for cold, slows, for lightning, stuns). Lastly, I have at least one more even more powerful attack with similar side benefits. So, as you can see, I'm now up to a minimum of 12 attack powers that all do relatively similar things.
What if, instead of getting a new power at level-up, I instead had a choice of power specialization or diversification? Using the same examples, let's say I start with a choice between a starting lightning, fire, or cold attack. I choose lightning. The first-level attack has a fast induction time (time between pressing the button/clicking the icon for the power and when the power activates to do damage). It starts with low damage and is a single-target attack. When I level up, instead of a new power with slightly higher damage, slightly longer induction, and maybe a side effect, I have a choice to make the existing power better from the following list: a) increase the damage/duration on the power, b) add X special ability to the power (may increase induction time), or c) give the power (if applicable) area of effect (may increase induction time). I can only pick one at this level and, in general, once I pick one it leaves the list (except for damage). I pick A, and for the next few levels I'm doing higher damage to single targets. At the next appropriate level-up, I choose C, because I want my lightning attack to have the Stun ability. Because this is a special ability, the application shows that choosing this will increase my induction time for the power by 2 seconds. Now my power is slightly slower, does good damage, and has a nice chance to stun the creature it hits.
The same can be done for the healing power; start with a fast, low heal amount, single-target heal and then add to the power more healing, group effects, heals more than just damage taken, etc.
The result being that my character has improved, has a more powerful lightning attack that does an additional effect, and I only have one key to press on my tool bar. Looking back at the original example, I've now replaced the first three powers with one power that does what each of them does. Now, as I level, I get options to further increase the damage, add new effects, etc.
Or, maybe you break it down so you have your melee (touch) power, your single-target ranged power, and your group/AoE power, each with multiple specialization and diversification choices. Each time you pick a new power, that is one less "power up" that you made to an existing power (or, at least, delayed making). So now you're a generalist who is good in close combat (melee), can hit single targets (standard ranged), or attack groups (AoE ranged), but each individual power is weaker than someone who chose one power and "powered up" that power (say, a melee character who has the touch attack with extra damage and a stun, compared to your standard touch attack at base damage with no extra ability-- you can attack at range and he can't, but he does a lot more damage in close combat than you).
Right now, these games rely on the players having a wealth of the powers available at their current level and making tactical decisions about which power to use in which circumstance, and then finding and using that power amidst that plethora of choices. All while attacking and being attacked. I'm moving the tactical decision making to the character creation and level up points, out of combat, where you have time to ask yourself, "How am I planning to fight (or have been fighting)? Should I take the new power to give me more tactical advantages, or should I stick with what I have and make it better or stronger?"
The downside to my plan is that you will have less to do as a player to start. You will have fewer buttons to hit, and some players may feel slightly more "one-note" by always having just the few buttons to press, even though that one button does more than the previous multiple buttons did. Ironically, many of those who have complex attack chains in their games still predominantly only use slots 1 to 4 (or maybe 6) of the first tool bar when actually playing.
In the meantime, I dream of playing a Runekeeper who is just as capable at level 37 as my current guy, but who only has a couple of attack, healing, and miscellaneous powers to hit. I dream of playing a game where the character-related decisions are left to character creation and leveling up, not for the middle of pitched battle.