Mezz Me and I Kick Your Ass

I gave a look to my enlarging notes file where I write random stuff and I found an old note that I just couldn’t figure out what it meant: “mez in Star Wars”.

Just that. I really don’t know what I was thinking while writing those four words but at least I’m not the only one taking notes and forgetting what they mean. Then the other day I suddenly remembered from where the observation came from and what I was supposed to say about it.

In general my design ravings start from a simplification of an observation. I isolate a problem, something I don’t like or something I do like and try to figure out what are the essential reasons that make something good or bad. Then I try to “reposition” these elements to see if it’s possible to maximize the benefits, reduce the problems and move the design toward a more positive direction (potential, from that point onward). This pretty much summarizes most of what I do. In fact the great majority of my ideas come directly as a revision of what’s already available more than rabid creativity. I try to put things so that they are more appropriate. Starting from what I see to move on what I’d like to see.

In this case the problem was about the “mezz”. Of course with the focus on PvP since it’s where most of the complaints and problems are concentrated. For a long time I sticked with the standard opinion “mezz is bad” because the most annoying thing possible in a PvP fight is about losing the control of your character. In fact in my bundled ideas about DAoC I was proposing to reduce considerably the timers so that they could have been more manageable. But with the time I’m radically changing my opinion and I’ve tried once again to detach myself from the commonplaces in a similar way to what I did when I reevaluated the “unbalance”. In fact “mezz is good”, it adds a whole lot of depth to an encounter and could be an exciting element building up the fun, if used properly.

Here starts the observation. What are the cases where being mezzed is annoying and frustrating? Are there other cases where it’s instead something positive and exciting? In WoW it’s hard to say, or better, too easy. WoW’s PvP is too “disconnected” and lacking strategy and class interdependence and organization. I’ve seen a few recurring tactics like 4-5 mages rushing into a zerg spamming AOE while shielded/healed by priests and the organized stun-ganking groups of 3-4 rogues, but besides these trivial patterns there isn’t much going on and it’s mostly an open field combat where everyone goes on in his own way (and where raids and groups are simply used to share Honor points and a chat channel). This is different in DAoC, instead. There’s way more interdependence between the classes and teamwork. The classes have more defined roles and the encounters can be won or lost based on the performance of the single. This applies in both 8vs8 and the larger battles and it’s in this second case where the use of Crowd Control becomes more of a factor. There’s more organization and depth. The raw combat in WoW is more interactive, smooth and satisfying. You have access to many more “tools” and the actual combat has a better flow (since you have plenty of time to react and enjoy, while in DAoC the combat could just last a matter of seconds and get engulfed in a lag spike between a frame and another). These superficial, coarse observations are already enough to reconfirm a rule. We like the combat to develop and open up possibilities instead of rushing to get resolved as quickly as possible (which comes directly and reconfirms another old reasoning). Like an inverted direction (the “inverted tree” I also commented here).

What I noticed in DAoC is that it is true that the Crowd Control adds depth to a PvP encounter. In particular I’ve seen experienced groups fighting successfully against 2-3 times their numbers and not just with /assist trains. I’ve seen awsome fights that lasted a good amount of time (also because they happened on the classic server, without buffbots and I-WIN artifacts) and it was also thanks to a clever use of CC. What I think is that WoW’s combat isn’t superior to DAoC because of the reduced use of CC, in fact I believe that this is one of the unique strengths of DAoC that it can still hold agains the numb PvP mechanics in WoW. So I think the CC is not the problem itself and doesn’t need to be “solved” (it will surely be a predictable mistake for the upcoming games). But maybe it can be improved once I figure out what isn’t fun about it and how it’s possible to maximize the positive points.

In my experience I’ve been in both 8vs8 and larger fights. In 8vs8 the CC is mostly used to isolate the players out of the fight so that the other group can pick targets one by one. This is the most frustrating example of CC because it *removes* the combat. Once the CC lands and is not purged, the combat is over, you already lost. This is not fun because all the gameplay is trivialized into a first-sighting. It becomes just a matter of fast ping and reflex and there isn’t much more involved. The “combat” here is missing, it’s just a routine to end the fight because it stops to be interactive as the mezz lands and puts the other group out of business. In the larger fights, instead, the situation may change (in particular if you have a keep or a tower to support a defence). The mezz, most of the times, isn’t anymore equal to a timed death. You don’t stare anymore an unavoidable end. In these cases the mezz becomes effectively a “timeout”.The fight goes on, you are forced to see it without being able to contribute but you are anticipating the moment when the mezz will break and you’ll rush in the fight. The fight is there, is awaiting you. The wait builds up the tension and your desire. And these are wonderful premises for the fun.

What I see is that in the first case the CC erases the interaction. You have the “timeout” but once it triggers you have also already lost. In the second case, instead, the “timeout” is still there, but as a premise to the combat and not as a premise to an unavoidable death. So what I think is frustrating is *not* the timeout itself. In fact this timeout not only is required to give some depth to the encounters, as explained above and largely acknowledged, but it also builds strong premises for the fun. It’s a valuable addition to the gameplay and not something that should be minimized or removed. On the contrary what doesn’t work is the definitive removal from the combat. The CC used as an I-Win button too unbalanced and powerful compared to the other skills and spells (which also brought to highly specialized classes that do just CC, another wrong point). So my conclusion is that the negative points of CC are not about the wait it directly implies (the wait), but more about what comes after (the combat). The timeout should lead to some sort of “comeback” where the mezzed player can recover his gameplay. This can make CC work without being annoying or frustrating.

The meaning of that cryptic “mez in Star Wars” had its origin here. I wanted to underline how the final fight between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn/Obi-Wan Kenobi is a perfect example of the mezz and its positive “narrative” qualities. In this fight Obi-Wan is cut out by the force fields and can only watch the duel between Dath Maul and Qui-Gon. In that moment the point of view of the observer is the one of Obi-Wan. We see the action through his eyes and this narrative stratagem is used (and is successful) to build up the tension of the combat. In particular to build up a tension that WILL get discharged (liberation) in the following fight between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul.

This pretty much explains clearly two basic and crucial points. The first is the one I explained above, in order for this mechanic to be effective and successful, the combat cannot be negated. The tension accumulated MUST be discharged or the game (or movie scene) will be just feel frustrating, unfinished. The second point is that, from a functional point of view, Obi-Wan isn’t just waiting there doing nothing. He is building up some rage and when he exits the mezz he is different from when it entered it. He is angry, more determined. The following duel will be a discharge of the tension of both the spectator and the protagonist (empathy+catharsis).

How to translate all this into a game and once again maximize the good points while removing or minimizing what doesn’t work? My ideas are just the direct result of all those observations. And more goals set to reach. As I often repeat what is important is to set goals, then the actual implementation to reach them may vary. The first goal I defined is again that the combat must follow a mezz and cannot be negated. The tension has to flow somewhere in order of the “timeout” to be satisfying and tolerable. If the mezz just leads to a sudden death without giving back the control to the player, the result will be terribly frustrating and nowhere fun. The second goal is tied to the first. It’s about giving the mezz abilities some side-effects so that the players have to stop to abuse this mechanic and add some more depth to it. The purpose is to add side-effects that benefit the victim of the mezz and that counterbalance the power of the mezz.

This is also a perfect example of what I mean with In-Character design compared to Out Of Character design. Here I just observed a movie (or imaginary) scene and imagined, from the perspective of the spectator or the player, how to translate those mechanics into a game. And not planned an abstract formal system out of thin air to then retrofit into a specific setting.

The practical implementation is just an example. I shaped it around DAoC because it’s the game I know better and the one where the mezz has a strong purpose and gameplay role. /and it’s also the game where it was more harshly criticized. A topic still well alive today and rather important for the games of tomorrow.

To begin with, the system I imagined doesn’t include the stuns because they are too rooted in the gameplay and too short to fit in the observations above. So the changes are isolated to two cases: the root and mezz.

In the case of the root:
– If a character is rooted and not in combat (receiving, dealing damage or casting spells, specifically) it will build up an “haste” buff that will trigger as the root breaks and that will last for 1/2 the time the character remained rooted. The buff grants a 20% bonus to melee attack speed, casting times and running speed, plus a “freeze” of the mana and endurance pools (shown graphically by making these pools shine brightly) for the duration of the buff. So that the character can use styles and cast spells without losing mana or endurance.

The buff will trigger only if the character remained rooted for at least five seconds and it will have a minimum duration of three seconds and a max of fifteen. The “purge” RA or similar effects will interrupt the buff build-up as they land.

In the case of the mezz:
– If a character is mezzed it will quickly regain health, endurance and mana at fast speed (in 10 seconds the pools should be completely replenished) Plus, it will build up a “liberation” buff that will trigger as the mez is broken (or fades out) and that will last for 1/2 the time the character remained mezzed. The buffs grants immunity to stuns, immunity to interruption for casters, a freeze of the endurance and mana pools, and a 20% bonus to the damage of melee attacks and spells.

The buff will trigger only if the character remained mezzed for at least five seconds and it will have a minimum duration of three seconds and a max of fifteen. The “purge” RA or similar effects will interrupt the buff build-up as they land.

The purpose is to not affect the duration of the mezz and roots in the game. After a long observation I decided that it’s not that the problem and reducing those timers will just remove the complexity of the encounters. Instead these changes are aimed to counterbalance the power of these spells and offer the victims a “way out”, so that the focus doesn’t stop on who lands the mezz first but on the actual combat that follows the “timeout”.

Of course this is focused to improve the specific mechanics. It’s obvious that those classes that right now are too strictly specialized only on mezzing skills should gain more active “toys” to contribute to the fights.

The proposed implementation is, once again, just a rough idea of what could be possible. It should be tested thoroughly internally so that the system is balanced and fits the goals set. The details I wrote are just the result of approximate simulations that I made in my own mind and with the little experience I have from the game. If they come out realistic and balanced it means I’m cool, but that wasn’t my purpose.

What concerns me is to demonstrate that the goals are valid and should be taken into consideration. The practice, then, may vary based on the experience and what comes up through the testing.

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