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Player Choice in TERA
by Simon Ludgate on 03/30/12 01:08:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Last weekend I got a chance to try out the beta of TERA, and upcoming MMORPG from Blue Hole Studio and localized by En Masse Entertainment. I came in with high hopes: I was looking forward to a game with more to do than just raiding and with more of an action-game feel to it. I was a fan of Phantasy Star Universe and, since I had just played Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I was eager to get into the combat system.

At first, it was great fun. I started off as a Warrior, with a basic left-click attack and a right-click dodge. I was set. Slash and dodge, a familiar and effective formula. Then I noticed the five second cooldown on the dodge. Err, what? That put a big old kink in my plans to dive around all over the place. Still, I could handle it, I could still do this.

It all came crashing down when I reached the skill trainer. Like World of Warcraft, the vast majority of the skills you train from the trainer are just improved versions of skills you already have. After scrolling through pages and pages of upgrades, I managed to filter my options down to what I’d actually be able to do at level 50. And it amounted to “not much.”

I know Blue Hole was developing an action MMO and not a turn-based strategy game, but they should still have followed Sid Meier’s advice: “Games are a series of interesting choices.” And that’s exactly where TERA falls flat: as a player, I never got to make a choice at all.

In many MMOs, there is some choice to be made. Asheron’s Call gave players near full control over developing their characters. DAoC limited characters to choices of abilities relevant to their class, but choices dramatically influenced the way the class developed. WoW further narrowed things to talent trees, allowing players to make some choices about how to customize their character. EQ2 locked down classes, but gave talent-like options with Alternate Achievement rewards. Rift pulled back the other way and allowed players to customize their entire class by choosing three of eight possible talent trees to spec into. Even Planetside, the MMOFPS, let players pick and choose certifications to determine what weapons or vehicles they could use. Ultimately, every game presented players with interesting choices to define their character’s abilities.

TERA has zero customization. Every character of the same class will be the same.

Beyond character customization, most MMOs also present players with some interesting decisions to make in the heat of combat. OK, sure, many MMOs, especially at the upper tier, boil down to fairly rigid spell rotations or button mashing. But even if there aren’t many interesting choices when trying to maximize damage output on a specific boss, there are plenty of meaningful choices when the pressure is off, when you’re just out adventuring, killing monsters or questing.

Consider, for example, how Phantasy Star Universe, despite having rigid classes, gave players choices by letting each class use many weapons, and each weapon could have one of several Photon Arts (kind of like powerful spell combo attacks) attached to them. A player can have six weapons in their quickbar, able to switch between them in the heat of combat. A monster rushes at you: do you switch weapons? If so, which one do you take? That’s an interesting choice, and one you get to make very frequently. It keeps the excitement fresh despite the repetitive nature of the game.

TERA has zero weapon choices. Every class has one and only one weapon restricted to just that class.

Even when weapon choices are limited or non-influential, most MMOs present players with enough skills that they have some sort of choices. When you’re an Assassin in Rift and you’re sneaking up on a target, you have several attacks that can only be executed from stealth. You can only ever make one of these attacks to initiate each fight, but which one do you use? Then you build up some combo points… and which finisher do you use first? Second? When do you use your stun skill? What do you do to take advantage of the stun? Throughout the fight the player can potentially make interesting choices.

TERA doesn’t have any interesting skill choices during combat.

Yes, there are different skills, so you can choose from a few choices, but they aren’t interesting choices, and worst of all many are locked into specific sequenced triggers. As a warrior, I can use an ability that basically just attacks 4 times and triggers a dodge if I press the action button, and the dodge triggers a whirlwind attack, also linked to the same action button. But there’s no interesting choice: either I keep pressing the action button and execute the full combo or I don’t and… that’s it.

I only played TERA so far as to finish the tutorial island, and do a few more quests to get to level 14. So maybe there’s some massive gameplay thing that’s completely hidden from me, something that radically changes the game and makes it interesting after you grind a bit further through boredom. But I never saw it. If it’s there, the devs should consider introducing it earlier, like maybe level 1.

If not, I can only suggest going back to Sid Meier’s game-making 101: give players interesting choices to make!

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K Gadd
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Uh, maybe you should have played more than a few hours of the game? Because there's customization you completely overlooked.

Two examples:
Skills chain off each other and have effects based on which skills you use before them.
Skills can be customized with 'glyphs' that add various bonuses or procs (glyph X to make Y cast 25% faster if used after X; glyph X to make it cost 50% less energy, etc.)

Beyond this, expecting a tremendous amount of customization out of an action-focused game might be missing the point. Even if each player were to be exactly the same, that doesn't matter if there's a high skill ceiling and lots of different ways to play your classes. Nobody complains about being unable to customize their Ryu.

Simon Ludgate
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In regards to glyphs, I wasn't aware they could do more than small percentage alterations, like you mention. I'm not sure if these count as meaningful customization, because they don't give players new choices. WoW's Talents give players new skills, which in turn give them new choices during combat. A glyph that says "whenever you do the only thing you can do anyways, it costs less energy" doesn't provide a choice.

In regards to the comparison with Ryu, I'd agree if it seemed like the game actually had that many choice paths. In TERA, I received 4 additional "attacks" while leveling up, but they were all exactly the same as the basic attack. In all cases they seemed to do the same amount of damage to the same number of targets. They were not interesting choices.

In contrast, Ryu's attacks do very different things. They'll hit high, medium, or low, near or distant targets, knock the target up or back or down, etc.

I'd also argue that a Ryu approach might have worked, but not if you had to "level up". Imagine if you had to "grind" in Street Fighter, starting at level 1 with just a basic straight forward punch and a jump: no block, no duck, no other attacks. And after playing the game for 12 hours you unlocked 4 other attacks. Would anyone actually play Street Fighter? Would anyone actually spend months grinding the way to the top just to play the "normal" game?

K Gadd
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I can't speak for the class you tried, but Lancer, the class I've spent the most time playing, gets meaningful choices by level 8 and gets more interesting by level 26. I think this compares pretty reasonably with other MMORPGs, because you can hit level 8 within an hour or so and 26 doesn't take that long either (maybe 8-9 hours?). You can see a skill list here:

If you don't like having to grind to unlock a class's entire set of tools, I can relate, but that's a design constant in the MMO genre. Everyone makes you do it, even oddballs like Guild Wars or EVE still make you grind one way or another to get access to interesting tools.

For a few examples based on that skill list:
Lance Charge covers a large amount of ground, so you can use it for mobility purposes, to deal damage to an enemy, or both. It's actually meaningful to make the decision whether to use it to move around the battlefield, or to save it to close the gap on someone who's running from you.

Leash not only pulls an enemy closer to you, but stuns it. This means that you have to think about whether you may need that extra stun (since most stuns are on cooldowns) to interrupt a powerful charge attack or trap a fleeing enemy before you use it for mundane purposes. Even at level 28 there are bosses that require you to use this skill tactically.

Onslaught deals the majority of the damage on its last hit (out of like 12 hits), so if you use it on a target that isn't stunned, the target can move out of the way of the damage. When using it you have to find clever ways to line up the attack so that it won't miss, or intelligently time your use of stuns to give yourself more opportunities to use it.

TERA's not chess or street fighter, but the skill ceiling is higher than a lot of its competitors, and the game has content that encourages you to play better. A high skill ceiling is arguably even better than a talent tree since the player's choices are about moment to moment decision making and not about choosing the best talent tree up front before playing.

David Thomas
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Just a heads up, the link to Sid Meier's talk just redirects back to this article. The article can be found here:

Simon Ludgate
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Sorry about that, fixed the link!

Michael Dutill
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I have to disagree with this. In regards to Tera, the choices for different combat situations is made through the glyphs and equipped crystals. Though, your combat abilities don't change much, the classes do react with different rotations and/or abilities. For example, the Archer has traps they can place on the ground or shoot ahead of them with the new 60 patch. When fighting a BAM or dungeon BOSS, the use of these traps is almost never, but with regular mobs and bosses, these traps are very handy. Or another example is dependent on whether you are fighting multiple enemies or just 1. An archer is not likely to use certain AOE abilities on just a single target, but very likely to group them up and use all of the AOEs if they can.

However, for my personal enjoyment in games, I like fewer abilities. I like fewer choices in combat because I don't like to spend time preparing for combat. I don't like having a UI filled to the brim with abilities on all sides. It is just too much to think about and ugly. A little complication is fine, but too much can make it painful.

In an earlier comment: "In TERA, I received 4 additional "attacks" while leveling up, but they were all exactly the same as the basic attack." I'd like to know what class you were playing as I played every class to at least level 11 and never had that impression. But when I think about swinging a sword in real life there isn't much difference in the attacks, just the direction they come from. It is basically the same in comparison. The choice was in avoiding your opponent and striking at the right times.