Developer Diary: Mounted Combat
Riders of Rohan Developer Diary: Mounted Combat
By: Elliot ‘Avon’ Gilman
First, Some History
Horses in LotRO have had a fascinating back story to them since the beginning of the game – a story that may not be so well known outside of our office. During the initial development of the game, horses were added as a late feature. Because there wasn’t much time to work on the system, there were many issues and concerns when trying to implement the feature.
First, there was the problem of not really knowing how to get them to work. Then there was the problem of not having enough time to flesh out the system. However, with lots of sweat and hard work, some crafty developers and artists got them into the game. They appeared first as travel mounts and then as regular mounts for players to ride. For those of you who were familiar with those early days, you remember the mounts as not being very forgiving. You had to manually dismount every time you wanted to do something and you were not able to interact with items within your pack.
After the initial launch of LotRO, there were many times when the discussion of mounted combat would come up; especially when Rohan was mentioned. Every time the topic was raised, an army of dubious eyebrows would rise along with it. For many of us, it was difficult to imagine we could implement a mounted combat system into a Rohan expansion due to the sheer size of the work. The original thought, back then, was that we could launch part of Rohan without mounted combat and later release all of Rohan with mounted combat. That’s not the ideal solution, but at that time it seemed the only solution.
In late 2008 we started work on Mount System 2.0. This was meant as a large “quality of life” update to player mounts, and its goal was to make life easier for riders. After all, mounts had become such a large part of the game and, as developers, we enjoyed introducing new styles of mounts. Mount 2.0 accomplished its goals and only a few of the features intended got axed due to time. For one example, we wanted players to be able to gather craft resources while mounted without having to manually dismount first. This feature was added in a later update and now you are probably happily clicking on resources to auto-dismount & gather.
Again, not known to many, Mount 2.0 laid down some of the framework for mounted combat. In 2009, prior to Mount 2.0 being released, a few of us started to experiment with fighting on horseback. It was fun, but there were a great number of issues extending not just to gameplay but also to the engine. Still, it was an important experiment because, for the first time, it offered a glimpse into what mounted combat could be in LotRO.
Last year, while planning the Riders of Rohan expansion, we started to design mounted combat. Our first thoughts were put on paper, and then constructed in the form of prototypes. Prototypes were the best way to quickly implement features without impacting LotRO’s live development process.
Fairly early into the development cycle we created prototypes of mounted combat in order to incrementally build what we wanted as the core experience for the system. Our prototype consisted of a Champion and a Goblin Rider (the same goblin you see in Moria and other locations). Some of the champion skills were “augmented” (read: hacked) to be usable while on horseback. We conducted combat this way against the rider to reveal the engine and game requirements needed to fully implement the system.
We experimented with mounted combat happening primarily on rails, in what we termed the Choreography System. This meant no free movement during combat and the system would drive as you executed skills. Essentially, it was stand and deliver combat while riding a horse.
Again, it had the essence of fun but revealed a whole new set of issues that we felt were insolvable given the time and resources. Primarily, it was hard to imagine such a system scaled up to involve a full fellowship and an unknown number of AI units.
Even though we moved away from the Choreography System, the work wasn’t entirely thrown out and it gave us insight for improving AI, movement, and synchronized attacks. Spur On, a skill every player receives, is a good example of how the prototype influenced the rest of the system. This skill can be used prior to another skill to have your steed automatically move towards the target and execute the attacking skill. This isn’t necessarily ‘easy mode’ as it does consume more power, but it’s another way of playing and we wanted to support it.
Designing Mounted Combat
Before the first drafts of the mounted combat system were written we did take a look at other games as well as reading through LotRO forum postings to formulate certain concepts. Some of the concepts seen in our version of mounted combat were suggested by you, our players, via the forum. This, I think, was the primary source as we were developing this system for you outside of all others. Concepts such as advancement, speed, and movement, were all mentioned and included in the design.
The initial design for mounted combat wasn’t as involved as the system has turned out to be. Initially, there were no unique class skills, as they were to be shared amongst the classes and granted by leveling the War-steed. The design also called on three War-steed types, each having their own traits by which to rank up. Mounted skills would also be unlocked by the ranking of these traits. In many ways, we took some of the ideas from Skirmish Soldier advancement and built them into War-steed advancement.
As we iterated over the design and continued to play test we began to broaden the system to include these core features that we knew we wanted to ship with:
- 3 War-steed Types: Light (Courser), Medium (Rouncey), and Heavy (Destrier) were not to be tied directly to specific classes. They are different in size and base stats.
- War-steed Stats: Stats that mattered to players and their steed while mounted. Additional information is mentioned later on in this diary.
- Mounted Combat Skills: War-steed and/or player skills usable while moving on a steed.
- War-steed Advancement: The War-steed gains XP just as characters do.
- War-steed Appearance Customization: Just as players can cosmetically outfit their characters, we wanted War-steeds to also be customized. Physical equipment can be cumbersome so these appearances are similar to paper items and take no inventory space.
- Synchronized Combat/Movement: As much as possible, we wanted player hits to be seen while traveling at a fast rate of speed. Implementing this required a great deal of engineering to the game engine.
- Mounted AI Units & Behaviors: Orcs, Goblins, and other monsters riding mounts and allowing players to dismount them during combat. Their mounted combat behaviors would support such things as jousting and fleeing, which were to be important to player tactics.
- Momentum Mechanic: This was originally linked to your speed but was later revised and re-branded as Fury. More on this soon.
For Riders of Rohan we have implemented those core features as well as others. We have made improvements and additions to the radar, camera, selection indicator, added Legendary Bridles, created an auto-loot system, an alternate shortcuts system, and more.
We moved away from the idea of having generic combat skills and we dedicated a lot of resources into making all new mounted combat skills specific to each class. Your class will undoubtedly change when participating in mounted combat, but the essence of the class is there. The class skills were originally being granted as your War-steed leveled, but much of the fun was taken away with this. Now, all of your class skills will be granted to you upon completing the mounted combat tutorial. Other more generic skills can be unlocked to you by ranking up specific War-steed traits.
The Spec is not the System
Early on we had designed and implemented War-steed attacks, such as bites, rears, and kicks. These attacks looked pretty good and were made even better by some specific steed traits. But, as philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski said, “The map is not the territory.” In our case we can say “the spec is not the system.” What looks good on paper doesn’t also look good when realized. The steed attacks, from the start, seemed to be a good and natural fit, but as we played we saw they were problematic and not fun. The animations didn’t always look good and the skills were not conforming well to Fury. Mounted combat is about moving and jousting against a target; not standing in place trying to kick and bite. After seeing the results we decided to remove these War-steed skills and changed their traits to affect character skills. This is a good example of the iterative process of design and implementation taken for mounted combat. Sometimes we try things that sound fun but just don’t mesh with the rest of the system.
Momentum… wait… no… I mean Fury!
We wanted to build into the system a kind of mechanic that got better with speed and we immediately coined this as Momentum. In fact, there is a video dev diary out there in which we talk about Momentum. As development continued on the system it started to diverge away from being entirely linked to speed. We had some skills that cashed out a partial amount of momentum while needing the full amount to achieve a bonus. Not all War-steeds are equal, so one maximized for max speed would gain more momentum and therefore larger bonuses. As such, players would gravitate towards traiting their War-steed for max speed, thereby not leaving a lot for customization. In addition, we were not happy that this only affected vital damaging skills. We wanted more from momentum and needed to find a replacement that served more masters.
Fury was born after many meetings and implemented so that all vital affecting skills could benefit from it. We mostly decoupled it from speed, allowing all War-steeds to build up to maximum Fury and a progression was created to determine the size of the bonus based on current Fury. Skills were then updated to cash out the current amount of Fury as the bonus. Fury will stop building if you are not moving and it will only build to a certain point based on your speed. This is represented on the War-steed HUD as red and yellow bars (red being current Fury, and yellow being your potential max Fury for your current speed).
This served us well and the War-steed Legendary Item, the Bridle, was updated to feed into Fury.
As hinted above, your War-steed has stats and these are only effective while riding your steed. If you fall off your steed during combat you will be at a huge disadvantage if you are fighting a mounted AI unit. When this occurs you can re-summon your steed and it will be fully healed and ready to continue the fight.
The War-steed’s Basic Stats are very similar to your character stats:
War-steed Endurance: Much like Morale, this is depleted when you are hit as a portion of the damage goes to your steed. When endurance reaches zero you will be thrown off your horse and you will have to re-summon it.
War-steed Power: Skills will consume steed power and character power, so it’s important to monitor both in combat. During combat, when traveling at full speed, your steed will also spend power. Special skills, such as Trample, will consume greater amounts of power for both character and steed.
War-steed Strength: This is similar to character Might. Increasing this stat will benefit other stats, such as your steed’s power regeneration.
War-steed Agility: This is similar to character Agility. Increasing this stat will benefit other stats, such as your steed’s endurance regeneration.
The War-steed also has special stats which are dissimilar to any of your character stats:
Turn Rate: This is how quickly your War-steed can turn while moving at its fastest speed. A higher number means a faster turn rate which is helpful in positioning your steed during attacks.
Acceleration: Being able to accelerate quickly means you can reach your max speed quickly and therefore reach max Fury faster.
Max Speed: Speed can give you a large advantage in combat as you can outpace your enemy to escape or outmaneuver them. Max speed is 19 meters per second and your current speed is displayed on the War-steed HUD.
Evasion: Some incoming damage can completely bypass your War-steed based on this stat.
Fury Bonus Rating: Fury gives you a massive advantage in battle as it will provide a bonus to outgoing damage and healing. This stat is increased by Legendary Bridles and increases the effectiveness of Fury.
The Light, Medium, and Heavy War-steed have their own base stats and these can be further improved by ranking up their traits and bridle.
The War-steed gains experience just as your character does. The experience gained is not tied to your active War-steed but to all three types, thereby reducing the amount of grind one would incur by having to level up three different steeds. The War-steed will gain experience in Rohan even as you play dismounted, although there is a penalty to the amount gained per kill.
Completing some quests in Rohan will reward your War-steed with additional experience. Just as players gain a majority of their experience from quests your War-steed will also gain a majority of its experience this way.
With each new War-steed level you will receive a trait point which is used to improve your steed.
There’s another dev diary specifically on War-steed traits and configurations so much more information is revealed there. Being brief, each War-steed type has its own set of traits and these are grouped into Combat, Defence, and Movement trees. As your War-steed levels it will be granted points and these can be spent on traits to improve the steed, your character, or unlock skills. The points you earn are not specific to the active War-steed and can be refunded at any time to be spent elsewhere (using Gold). There’s no need to visit a trainer and all changes can be made on the fly (although it requires you to dismount and re-mount).
The War-steed’s basic stats can be increased by spending points directly into their corresponding traits at any time (as they are not imbedded in the trait trees).
During our play testing we would often pick a character and War-steed type at random and test it out. There are effective synergies to discover, but there’s really no wrong way of configuring your steed for your class. The design was meant to be opened to allow for experimentation and flexibility.
Probably the very first thing you notice when you ride your War-steed for the first time is that it moves completely differently than your standard horse or goat. The War-steed is a large creature and its part of a much larger system, one that requires some skill, time, and practice to master. There are two important differences to note:
- The War-steed’s movement is based on its stats, such as turn rate, max speed, and acceleration and these stats are in play even out-of-combat. It will take some practice to learn how the steed responds to your input.
- The War-steed will continually move once in motion and you cannot strafe when moving. The Quick Stop skill (or double-tapping the move-back key) will immediately bring you to a stop. There’s also a new setting to enable if you wish to have the steed automatically slow down when you release the move-forward key (War-steed Auto-slowdown in the Combat options). This setting will probably be used by those who use mouse movement. You can decelerate and stop by holding down the move-back key, but this takes a couple of seconds to come to a complete stop (if moving at top speed).
Additionally, some changes were made to block jump-steering and immediately switching your direction by spinning your camera and clicking the mouse. Both are features of standard horse riding but completely didn’t fit into the mounted combat sytem.
The War-steed HUD is slightly revised to include steed information: War-steed Endurance, War-steed Power, Current Speed (in meters per second), and Fury meter. The Fury meter displays both your current Fury and potential Fury at your current speed.
You can still rename your War-steed from this UI as well as dismount.
The Mounted Combat of Rohan
You are allowed to ride your War-steed out of Rohan but mounted combat can only be conducted in Rohan. Additionally, there are some areas within Rohan were mounted combat is blocked (such as in towns or special places). Much of the combat will take place out in the open space of Rohan and it is effective against all monsters. You are given a combat bonus against monsters that are not mounted, encouraging mounted combat where allowed. The beasts of Rohan are certainly in peril while you are riding a War-steed.
You can experiment in different ways of conducting mounted combat and you can even fallback on stand and deliver if you desire (although Fury will not build and some mounted monsters will have an advantage over you). The best method is to select your target, queue up a skill, and ride towards your target until you are in range. The queued skill will automatically fire when you get in range. You don’t need to wait for the precise moment to press your skill. It’s important to remember this as trying to precisely time your attacks may become frustrating and distract from the actual combat. You can use quick jousting maneuvers and queuing your skills to defeat most enemies quickly. Or, if you can gain enough distance from your enemy, you can swing around and build up maximum Fury to get the largest possible attack bonus. Either way, you will want to queue your skill before reaching the target. Some of the mounted monsters will be attempting to do the same maneuvers, so be alert as to what kind of monster you are fighting and learn its tactics.
Be aware that you may have skills that force the target into a position relative to you. These skills can be very advantageous as they give you a clear line of fire and you may receive positional bonuses as well. Between your class and the type of War-steed you select you may employ tactics which give you a clear leverage in combat.
Combat & Camera Angles
The radar and selection indicator will provide you information as to where your target is and whether it’s hostile to you. During our play test some of us would lock the camera onto a target and zoom all the way out. While on a War-steed the camera can be zoomed out twice as far and your awareness range is increased. Some of us liked playing with the camera zoomed out as it gave us a wider view of the area where combat was occurring. Playing this way is strictly up to your preference as the system was designed to be played primarily in the default camera view.
There are no fellowship maneuvers while riding a War-steed. They can still be initiated and participated in while not riding, but their effects on a mounted monster will differ, in that they will not be stunned or rooted.
Combat States & Crowd Control
We have the concept of Combat States which has existed since the beginning. These are special states enacted by skills that cause the target to be rooted or stunned for a length of time. Crowd control skills, many of which the Lore-master and other classes enjoy, will behave differently on mounted monsters. It was awkward to see a galloping goblin rider suddenly pause when hit with Blinding Flash. Although the skill functioned perfectly in this case, it was not exactly ideal behavior during mounted combat.
The crowd control skills have been updated to affect mounted monsters differently. The effects vary per skill, but instead of stunning a rider they will place one of a variety of penalties on the target based on the skill used. In Rohan, when fighting mounted monsters, crowd control isn’t going to be as viable as in other regions. This does impact some classes more than others when they are not mounted and up against an enemy rider. Your skills will still have impact, just differently than seen against non-mounted monsters.
Sparring on Horseback
As long as you are not within town you are allowed to spar while riding a War-steed. It behaves just the same as normal sparing except you are on a horse using different skills. You can spar against another player who is not mounted, but they will be at a disadvantage as the rider receives combat bonuses while they remain mounted.
Mounted Combat is an important system to us and in the future you can expect to see changes and additions to it. During the design and implementation of the system there were many ideas left on the table in the interest of time. The curse of the designer is that of having too many ideas and never enough time or resources to try them all out. Thanks to the continual development of LotRO, it is inevitable that some of our unrealized ideas will be implemented in the future. What those are we cannot say at this point, as we will be focused on the stability and health of the new system when it is released. It’s safe to speculate that future improvements will be made and we will continue to listen to the community for the direction we take on them.