In World of Warcraft, one of the main ways of control available to the player is the combat system. From running dungeons to collecting boar hides or killing murlocs, the combat system is at the center of the player’s actions. Everything the player does in completing these tasks revolves around how they interact with enemies. This is the case with all players, and as a result, this system can be quite complex, allowing players to deal with a multitude of enemies in just as many ways. A hunter may use a ranged weapon while a knight may use a battle axe while a mage will cast spells to damage or heal. There are items to be used, special techniques to enact, various enemies to target, the avatar’s location to manipulate, and fellow characters and allies with whom to chat and converse, all at the same time.
In short, there is a lot of freedom available to the player, but how that freedom is presented shifts the focus of the game entirely and limits the player’s actions. Combat shifts from being an epic battle in a fantasy world to an advanced puzzle with correct solutions and better strategies, distancing the player from the diegesis of the game. Players think through combat not to slay monsters, but to win a game, to solve a problem with a definite solution. The combat mechanics of World of Warcraft distance players from the game and force players to answer problems in set ways.
Before going further, let’s recap a quick combat scenario in WoW; players encounter a monster and target it, either through the mouse or by a keyboard shortcut (tab in my case). Players then engage the enemy through various methods, such as an aimed shot from a hunter. This begins a combat cycle where the avatar will automatically continue firing on the enemy in normal rounds, allowing the player to utilize items or attacks or to simply move around. Combat ends when the enemy, or possibly the player, loses all of their hit points, allowing the player to target another enemy.
There are a number of components to analyze, so let’s focus on a few, starting with the standard attack cycle. Players will engage enemies, resulting in a constant and automatic attack cycle from the player character. This lets the player do other things, but it makes the act of attacking a machine one. To use Alexander R. Galloway’s terminology, the player begins the attack with the mouse, a nondiegetic player act, which results in an automatic action cycle from the game to continue the attack until one of the combatants dies, a diegetic machine act. In this simple, small way, the player is separated from the character. Thus the player is less straight acting through the avatar and more directing the avatar. This gives the player more freedom, but also limits them to a constant strategy. In my own experience as a Hunter, I would begin a battle and immediately jump to my other skills, such as aimed shot or concussive shot. The main attack was never a consideration. In fact, it was quite some time before I even noticed I was attacking automatically. I was focused completely on my other abilities, and so the standard attack was never a consideration, eliminating it from my consideration. In other game combat systems, players choose how, when, and where to attack an enemy each time, but in WoW, players choose this once and focus on other aspects of combat, all to allow the player more freedom in their actions. By allowing more freedom in other areas, the game subsumes the role of attacking, limiting player options in battle tactics.
This is furthered by the ways in which armor and weaponry, both key in battle, are dealt with in game. While the Auction House and other systems for acquiring goods through money exist, most items and armor are received due to quests and item drops. Additionally, each item provides a quantifiable level of enhancement to the player. What results from this is the fact that each item is often strictly better or worse than the items currently in use. Weapons deal a set amount of damage. Armor provides a certain level of protection, stamina, or other values. It is rare that a player will come across two items which are different yet incomparable. While this allows for a considerable range of items for players to choose from, it means that there is always a best answer, meaning that damage dealt and given are out of the player’s control.
Overall, WoW’s combat system does give the player an enormous level of control over the events of combat. Players can choose whether to wait and deal small amounts of damage or to go all out and end battles quickly. Choosing whether to heal with an item or wait until the battle’s end is another key aspect, and following other players actions and interacting in battle as a group is feasible largely because of this system. But players are not fully engaged in the game world. Numbers rule combat, and whoever has the highest damage per second value is better off. Overall, the player is distanced from the game and battles are number problems with set solutions.