20 July 2019

WildStar's Legacy: The Telegraph-based Combat System

Giving it some thought and a quick search I realized something. It seems that Wildstar has not only revolutionized but created the telegraph-based combat system. Since other games that are similar in combat and gameplay start to implement it slowly over time I figure I should write about it on my blog.

What Is a Telegraph-based Combat System?

Simply put a telegraph is a system sending messages. Which pretty much matches the purpose of this combat system. The goal is to inform players where they can stand to avoid getting hit by enemy attacks, but also to inform them where it is good to stand. While you might think that this makes your game easier it's a helpful system that improves the quality of your game to fix certain issues. These issues appear when players try to beat a challenge but fail and don't know why. One of the things that makes video games fun to play is that there' a clear indication of what the player did wrong. Avoiding telegraphs in a game that requires and relies on the player position may result in the player not knowing where the damage they take comes from, breaking this idea and leading to complain and discomfort of the player.

WildStar's Creation of a new Combat System

In the following, I'm going to talk about where the telegraph system comes into play, how the game WildStar implemented the telegraph-based combat system. Therefore I'm going to focus on what telegraphs there are and the meaning they convey. After that, I'm gonna talk about the accessibility it provides and lastly I'm gonna mention all the downsides it still has or created. While this system is an improvement for movement and position heavy games - like all things - it's not perfect.

Where Does the System Come Into Play?

Back in the old days, tap-targeting was the goto style for combat systems as it was the easiest to implement from a collision detection point of view. For tap-target, we make an animation towards the current target and deal with the respective damage. Nowadays games went away from tap-targeting and have switched to more dynamic systems. Some games use a mix of different styles, such as Guild Wars 2 for example. Anyways with a collision-based approach, it is harder to tell when you are hit by an attack or when you hit an enemy. This is where the Telegraph-based Combat System comes into play. The idea is to mark with telegraphs where an ability hits and allows for simple collision detection of "is a hittable object in the telegraphs area". This means that telegraphs can be used for all abilities that are not single target and tap-target.

WildStar's Implementation

Illustration 1: Illustr. of the
components of a telegraph in WildStar
WildStar uses a total of two different types of telegraphs that, however, come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. These can be found most often in rectangular, cone-shape or circle form. Additionally telegraphs consist of three components. The border, the background and the fill (see illustr. 1). One aspect that is not clear from the illustration is that all three elements have an alpha component. This means that the background is visible as well as that overlaying telegraphs will represent more clear and vivid marks. In the following three paragraphs I will describe the implementation of the three types of telegraphs and how they behave, each having an explanatory illustration giving a visual idea to further help to bring it across. Overall the telegraphs can be identified by their pattern.

Full-Pattern

Illustration 2: A screenshot of a
full-pattern AoE
Full-pattern AoE's (Area of Effect) have full background and fill up with their fill. The way this work is that they can be ignored as long as they do not fill up completely. Standing in one of these AoE's when will result in getting it once it has filled up. After this procedure, they will disappear. This means these types of telegraphs only deal damage once. The border cuts off the dangerous area from the non-dangerous one. The background helps further marking the area in case the border drowns in visual noise and the fill is the warning on when the AoE will affect anything in it. This gives the player enough visual cues to get an idea about the positioning (where should I stand?) and the time (when should I?).

Striped-Pattern

Illustration 3: A screenshot of a
striped-pattern AoE
Striped pattern AoE's have a striped pattern in their background and fill up with their fill. Notice that the fill does not use a pattern but the alpha value to emphasize on the striped pattern of the background. These work differently from the full-pattern AoE's as they deal damage constantly to the target in it. The idea behind the fill, in this case, is similar to the full-pattern fill. With the full-pattern fill, the AoE disappears after it has been filled completely. This is the same idea for the striped-pattern. This is important so that the player can conclude that the filling of AoE's has something to do with time. In game design, it is important to try to let the same instance or happening have the same behavior. The stripes are also animated giving a sort of a dangerous vibe from them and helping to be able to see or detect them under visual noise. The player will know not to stand in these and get out of them immediately. The filling tells the player when they can consider moving to that area if the current position is getting dangerous. Again the "where?" and "when?".

Accessibility of the Telegraph System

One of the biggest issues of marking telegraphs is that not everyone sees colors the same way. A week's red outline will not help on green grass if the player can not differentiate between green and red. Even if the AoE is animated under visual noise it might drown especially for those players. WildStar solved this issue by allowing the player to fully customize the color and alpha of the telegraphs and it's components. This means it is potentially possible for the player to modify the border, background and fill with the types of AoE's so that he can determine the perfect settings where the AoE's are visible under all the circumstances in the game. Or disable them if wanted (e.g. alpha = 0).

Disadvantages and Issues

As I already mentioned this is not perfect. So, there are still some issues. One of the biggest issues I've seen is that the collision of the player or enemies is not quite clear. This means whether you are in the AoE or outside of the AoE when standing near the border is not always clearly indicated resulting in the player getting hit even though they thought they weren't inside the AoE. A plus point of the telegraph system here, however, is that the player knows why he was hit, even though they will feel cheated and see it as unfair. A solution for this could be to give the players and enemies a telegraph for their hitbox that is unique from the others and can be modified respectively. I would advise making it's border bigger to make up for the inaccuracy of tiny pixels. A mechanic that is similar to the coyote time. At this point, I'd advise to always indicate AoE's bigger than they are in this regard.
The other issue is that AoE's still may drown in too much visual noise. If we assume that multiple AoE's overlap each other it is hard to tell which telegraph means which and where AoE's or support is. A priority list may solve this which can potentially be fixed by the alpha values but requires more research, I would say.

Conclusion

So, if you plan to make a dynamic combat system game that requires player position or have one as a game as a service (GaaS which comes from SaaS) then I'd advise you to implement a telegraph-based combat system. If the players don't like it they can disable it by setting all alphas to zero. Believe me, it will improve the player experience.

Also thanks WildStar for creating this. R.I.P. until the private servers are runnable.
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I'm a junior game developer and software developer and I created this blog to share my ideas, thoughts and whatever I'm working on or doing.