If You’re Not Thinking, It’s Not the Game, It’s You

I apologize for the clickbaity title, but come now, hear me out:

Bhagpuss laments the loss of slower-paced, strategic thinking in our MMOs these days, skewing as they do towards action combat, ie. real-time, fast reaction skills required, etc.

I don’t want to touch on the first part of his post, which addresses a corresponding loss of in-game “world” / place / landmark-style trivia knowledge, since I fully agree that most of the mainstream MMOs these days are less about establishing an immersive sandbox-style world and more about creating a movie-like cutscene immersion that shepherds a player smoothly from one quest hub to another quest hub (or zone of appropriate level range.)

No, I want to talk about the -combat-, that supposed loss of situational awareness and appropriately thought-out reactions as the pace speeds up.

It has nothing to do with the pace. It has everything to do with the player.

Thinking, that is.

I’ll grant that it -is- harder to think -during- a faster-paced combat sequence, especially when there are spell effects exploding all over the place, the particle effects are busy emulating the 4th of July, causing the inexperienced to explode in little gibs before they even realize what has happened to them.

But what stops you from analyzing the combat –afterwards– and/or preparing -beforehand- with strategic intent for the next go at it?

This sort of unique game knowledge, this sort of game -thinking-, is what constitutes part of the word “skill” in many games.

A Starcraft expert is playing a vastly different game from what would be my supremely fumbling efforts with it. They have various meta strategies and counters in their mind, even as the actions are happening at several hundred APM, mouseclicking and keyboarding away.

While I would be struggling to even figure out how many gatherers I ought to be queuing up or maintaining on my resources, they’ve probably already assessed at a glance how much resources their opponents are able to gather and the corresponding numbers/types of units they’re likely to be able to produce with said number of gatherers.

Thinking has nothing to do with the pace.

A chess grandmaster would be playing on the same level as a Starcraft expert versus bumbling old me. The chess pieces are moved more slowly, the Starcraft pieces a little more in real-time, the difference in strategic thinking from an expert compared to myself would be the major factor in performance differential.

At most, the pace is merely an additional requirement to master sufficient reaction ability, -alongside- the actual thinking.

If we look at Keen’s actual anecdote:

“I used the right heals on the right people at the right time. I knew the mobs and what they were capable of, so I wasn’t healing people who had a mob I knew they could tank on them while someone else was risking death. I moved where I needed to be to let the classes do their job. I played correctly.”

It has everything to do with specific game knowledge, and very little to do with speed or pace.

Some time back, I read a Civilization 2 Let’s Play from the Let’s Play archive.

I was aghast to realize just how much strategic thinking I had failed to even appreciate when I was busy “playing” the game through my youth – I mostly just clicked “next turn,” researched tech, and brute-force conquered the world. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, but was definitely not ever at the level of thinking demonstrated by the Let’s Play writer.

Very similar stuff happened to me while watching videos of games like Endless Space or Galactic Civilizations. These guys were considering little numerical factors that I’d plain glossed over in the UI, and were correspondingly enjoying success at much higher difficulties while I was getting my ass whupped on the easiest. By a computer.

X-Com, Blood Bowl, you name it, player A can get by with minimal casualties while player B’s roster looks like a blood bath after one or two rounds.

Hello, these are all turn-based strategy games. There is all the time in the world to think before you tell the action to “go on ahead now.” The deciding factor is still each player’s specific knowledge about the game, how it calculates combat, whether they took any tactical factors into consideration, etc.

Take GW2 WvW zerg vs zerg combat. A new, inexperienced player looks upon it as a huge sea of red names facing off his or her own sea of friendly names. Stuff happens. Movement occurs. The crowds surge back and forth. Suddenly he or she is dead, and isn’t sure exactly what quite happened.

Play the game mode enough, listen in on and play with different commanders using different tactical strategies, try out various roles be they frontline melee or backline casters, and suddenly one has a little bit more appreciation of what exactly is going on, and can predict movement a little better, if only through learning the hard way where exactly not to be, in order to not die.

I haven’t played GW2 WvW in a long time. Just the other day, I decided to pop my head back in and run with a WvW commander squad for an hour or so, for the fun of it.

My level = definitely not at the level of a WvW pro any longer. I died a couple times in the initial pushes. By analyzing what had happened to me and using my general GW2 knowledge and -thinking- as I ran back from the spawn point, I started to get a general sense of some of the new meta changes that HoT brought.

CC is pretty fast and furious these days. My necromancer kept running headlong into walls of things that kept knocking me down and separating me from the main group. Apparently dragonhunters are lavishly enjoying the use of Hunter’s Ward on their longbows.

Therefore. I needed stability. I drug myself into a group in the squad next to a friendly dragonhunter, hoping that I might catch Stand Your Ground. I took a very brief glance at my exceedingly scattershot traits that I didn’t exactly feel like refining into a -good- WvW build just then, and did a hasty swap into Shroud giving stability.

I reminded myself that I was geared as a berserker/sinister hybrid – ie. ridiculously squishy, and to play more cautious backline (that is, ignore the commander when he cajoles everyone to run with him into stuff that you know will kill you, and position oneself so that that main group is between you and the bulk of the enemy forces most of the time, but near enough to land AoE bombs when the commander calls for it.)

Over time, I noticed that the enemy zerg had 1-3 dragonhunters that seemed to be traited and geared out to be ridiculously tanky, and these guys were coming ahead first, zerg-surfing. Presumably, I surmised, to bait out AoEs from our zerg. These were probably also the cc’ing dragonhunters that had been so successfully cutting our zerg in half.

Obviously, you don’t waste AoE wells on these guys. But I was annoyed enough with them to consider if there was anything else I could do.

Well. I was in a nonstandard hybrid build for a reason. I used to attend WvW resets as part of a really small havoc group that would occasionally join up with a main zerg mass – so I needed to be zerker enough to contribute in the accepted necromancer marks/wells way, but I decided that in small group pvp situations, I was a lot more comfortable and successful as a condi necro.

I ended up with a somewhat strange halfway successful hybrid that could have 1600+ condi damage with scepter/dagger swap and about 2000+ base Power on staff swap (enough to get loot when I landed wells, anyway.)

So. Since I had nothing better to do while the zerg was backing off away from these annoying dragonhunters, I swapped to my scepter/dagger condi and started autoattacking and applying bleed pressure. (HoT also buffed necro scepter to strip boons, apparently.)

Suddenly, the dragonhunters I’d been single-target attacking started stalling and going down.

I’m not narcissistic enough to think it was all me. For one thing, there wasn’t enough bleed damage being dealt. I do suspect though that between the bleeds appearing (which will usually pressure a player into somehow dealing with or reacting to them) -and- most likely a lucky boon stripping of the -stability- the dragonhunters were using to zerg surf…

…that probably set them up to get caught by the tons of other attacks which were flying their way from other players, some of which were probably immobilizes and damage and so on.

Either way, it was pretty satisfying. Our zerg managed to whittle down the other zerg in this fashion, literally peeling off one at a time like layers of an onion, and at some point, the other zerg caved in morale-wise and the remnants ran away (which is pretty much WvW battle victory) – possibly one of those dragonhunters that had gone down might have been the enemy commander.

Not exactly WvW meta, I don’t think. And I’m sure I’m no WvW pro. I just tell the story as I see it, from my limited point of view, at my current level of play.

Point is, it is still possible to -think-, at whatever level you’re currently playing at. It’s possible to go one step beyond merely reacting.

And my clickbaity post title is not about blame or forever labeling someone as a “bad” player either.

On the contrary, I would beseech everybody to be patient with themselves. To just -think- at whatever level you’re currently at. To strive to understand just that lil bit more each time you play, and not forget to enjoy yourself in the process.

Understanding unique, specific game knowledge comes with time (and an open mind.)

It will happen, as long as you don’t close yourself off to it. Just keep playing. Just keep thinking.

(Speed the process along by reading tips or advice or watching other players, if you like. Apply what you’ve learned in one game to another, where appropriate, etc. Humans are learning beings, the knowledge will sneak up on you when you least expect.)


Today, I was extremely chuffed to finish Path of Exile’s Act 2 Piety fight on Cruel difficulty with only one death – which I knew was very much my fault for getting greedy and not playing it safe.

Contrast this with all the other times I’ve run through this fight on sheer willpower, flask spammage, using someone else’s cookie cutter build without really knowing why it worked, etc.

Today, I realized I finally -understood- the Piety fight.

I grokked, somewhere deep down in my heart and brain, that she had separate phases and attacks that required different strategies to deal with.

And that I was both prepared, and open to using these different strategies.

In some phases, she stays in her human form and just rolls around some lightning balls. It so happens my current character is maxed out on lightning resists. This is a fairly safe phase for me to run up close and do some damage to her, given that my primary attack skill for this build is a close-range shotgunning type of spell.


In another phase, she transforms into a melee monster of epic stabby proportions.

You know what… running away is the better part of valor when she’s like this. Else she’ll kill me in a few stabs.

This was my one and only death to her – because I stayed to try and duke it out with her, when I -knew- I ought to have been running away. As I swallowed the bitter pill of the lost xp and the mistake made, and got ready to click the respawn button, I said to myself, well, this coming next time, you -know- better. Run the heck away from her in this phase now.


In yet another phase, she turns into an ice statue and shoots these crazy shotgunning ice arrows.

My cold resist isn’t that high at the moment. Shotgun style attacks mean the closer you are, the more projectiles will hit you.

So. Better part of valor. Keep your distance again. Strafe up and down, left and right to juke her targeting. Maybe even use the scenery to obstruct the arrows and hide behind it.

Only attack her when it’s safe to attack.

(I feel like there should be choirs playing and “Hallelujahs” in the background at this stunning revelation that took me so -so- long to learn.)

She alternates these phases every couple of tens of seconds or so, so yes, it’s fast-paced, because it’s an action RPG and I happen to like action combat as a preference, so I play action combat games… but look, no amount of mere -reaction- would save you if there wasn’t any -thinking- done prior to, during and after the fight.

Trust me. I know. I have died multiple times and sacrificed numerous bars of XP to her.

I am extremely chuffed today because I actually feel all this prior thinking falling into place.

I had enough damage to kill her. Was it an accident? Hell no. There was some initial build copying. Then the realization that I’d gone and copied a build that was one version outdated, and some things had been nerfed. I’d ended up adlibbing somewhat and using a fairly recent concept learned from GW2 to stack percentile damage increases to up dps. There was a lot of prior scrabbling around looking for anything that stacked extra percentile spell damage, be it on gear or skills.

I had enough survivability to stay alive long enough to kill her. Barely, but it could deal.

Also not an accident. I’d been taking care to stack armor, to prioritize +Life, to put on as much resistances as possible, all Path of Exile specific concepts learned slowly and painstakingly through prior play and watching guide videos.

Just -today- I learned a tip about flask usage that I hadn’t known in all the months I’d been “playing” PoE. The regeneration -stops- when your life or mana fills to the brim. There was a whole efficiency minigame about flask management that I’d previously never appreciated and probably squandered extremely wastefully with my panic-spamming tendencies.

I’d -just- put on a quick movement skill, a flame dash teleport, something I’d previously never used before, but realized super-recently that I would eventually need and learn to use something like a dodge or a dash to evade attacks to make such boss fights more doable.

It came in very handy for running away from Piety when one needed to run away. (I’m sure the 20% movement speed boots I decided to prioritize wearing also played a part.)

What looks on the surface a super-quick fight that barely lasts a minute and seems to be someone just reacting to her attacks… well, suffice to say there’s more going on under the hood that isn’t obvious at first glance.

I daresay it’s like that in every game. Fast or slow.

Pace is a preference.

Thinking, now. That’s not an option. That’s just a matter of time and willingness.

7 thoughts on “If You’re Not Thinking, It’s Not the Game, It’s You

  1. I wouldn’t argue with any of that, except to say that there is a significant element of physicality to consider. No matter how diligently most people train they will never reach the level of representative sports for their county, let alone their country. You can practice running as long and hard as you want but you aren’t going to catch Usain Bolt over 100 meters.

    It’s very clear to me that some people are indeed able and willing to think and, more importantly, act in the new time frame. I’m not, though, and I’m never going to be. There are barriers to entry now that there weren’t then and they relate to things like reaction times and manual dexterity, which are not going to improve as I get ever older and less physically able. However, I was entirely able to make the same kind of assessments and decisions under the old time frame and I would doubt that I have aged badly enough yet that that wouldn’t still be the case.

    That said, if you look at the newest content in GW2, The Shatterer fight, for example, the developers clearly have extremely low expectations of the players involved. Everything is flagged up with circles on the ground and booming great lines of text across the center of the screen. And even with those aids most maps are filled with people failing to do what they’re being asked to do.

    Eventually a critical mass of players develops that knows the ropes and everything falls into place. The Tequatl fight, which used to be so challenging, is now officially on farm status. You can turn up a minute before it begins, find a totally disorganized map, and yet once the dragon appears enough people go where they’re needed and do what they’re supposed to for a win to appear.

    Only that took, what, eighteen months to mature? Not to mention the many, many nerfs to difficulty before we got there. With The Shatterer ANet clearly decided to cut that learning curve to the bone by handing out an instruction manual.

    Your WvW example, though, is very interesting. That certainly is “thinking” in exactly the way I was lamenting had gone out of fashion. I play a lot of WvW and I am very familiar with the Dragonhunter effect. It has literally never occurred to me to do anything about it though. It doesn’t annoy me or inconvenience me enough. I can usually get away from them and if i can’t I just die and run back or go somewhere else.

    As usual we seem to have a semantic issue at the root of it all. “Thinking” probably isn’t the right word or even the right concept. Neither is “pace”. All of these complaints come down to the same thing, really. Something doesn’t feel right. Pinning down exactly what that is is another matter entirely.


    1. I’m not sure what the word we’re reaching for is, then. Willingness to think? Flexibility? Adaptibility? Willingness to strategise? Thinking out of the box? Independent thinking without signposts? Willingness to apply knowledge or use it in non-meta ways?


      1. Okay, I *think* it’s something along the lines of that thing George Peppard used to say in The A Team. That part about loving it when a plan comes together. It also has a lot to do with grace under pressure. “Thinking” is too cerebral (well, it would be…). That probably relates a lot more to the first part of the post .

        When it comes to combat there’s thought involved and also reaction but it has a strong element of performance too, particularly juggling. I used often to compare playing EQ in a group to those novelty acts we used to get on TV when I was a child that were called “Chinese Jugglers” – they didn’t juggle so much as set a whole line of plates spinning on sticks and keep them all going at once.

        That’s the sensation I miss, I think, that sense of keeping a whole lot of potentially disastrous outcomes at bay by repeated, judicious application of various skills and abilities. It requires an awful lot of attention and concentration.

        I am kind of circling the nub of it here, I hope. It’s about feeling that each action you take has both significance and consequence and therefore needing to make your choices judiciously. Let’s be honest, in most MMOs I play nowadays I just button mash for a lot of the time because it makes precious little difference what I do, so long as I do something and get credit. If I’d done that in the olden days I’d never have gotten a character into double figures in most MMOs.

        On the other hand, I’d hate to have every solo session from level one onwards feel like a life and death battle. I remember so clearly thinking something truly bad had happened to me (the player) when I lost a level six character in EQ (and again with a level 9). I don’t want things to go back to being THAT serious. But there has to be a sweet spot between entertainment and achievement, somewhere, that feels satisfying and it seems surprisingly hard for developers to find it with any reliability.

        Not sure this is making any more sense. Probably it all has a lot more to do with the mood I’m in when I’m playing than anything else. Most things do.


        1. Okay, I think I get more of what feeling you’re trying to get at. A little of multitasking, a little of flow, and I’ll have to think longer on if there’s more precise words for this.

          My immediate reaction is that you should really give some thought to speccing as a druid healer and healing in both WvW and even Spirit Vale raids. I have never even tried this, but by merely watching the performances of various healers, I am strongly convinced there’s a very high element of performance/juggling under pressure going on.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s