Friday, 21 October 2016

Why do we like to pew pew from range?

Last week, a really interesting article caught my eye. It was called When starting a fight in video games, cautious long range is most popular, but men like to rush in and was based on scientific research by Quantic Foundry on 1266 gamers. The news was picked up by Massively OP, but remained unnoticed in the blogosphere. Which is odd, because it addressed a question that is on my mind a lot: what makes us play MMOs the way we do? Perhaps I'm alone in this; either way, it prompted me to investigate why (almost) everyone loves to play ranged in MMOs.

Everybody likes to pew pew

The survey provided two major insights. The first is that the majority of gamers prefers the 'cautious long range' playstyle. Interestingly, there was no statistically significant difference in gender or age: this type of playing appeals to all of us. Moreover, this was also the case for most other playstyles (stealthy evading and assasinating).

Noteworthy is that all examined playstyles were offensive, or - in MMO terminology - DPS approaches. I imagine this is because the research focuses on gaming on the most basic level, in a way that would cover most genres. If we would do something similar for MMO players and incorporate playstyles that are based on team play, however, I suspect we would see a gender discrepancy for tank, support and healer roles. But until then, these are just suspicions.

The hunter class in different MMOs: 
Guild Wars 2 (left), World of Warcraft (middle) and Lord of the Rings Online (right)

The hunter or ranger stereotype

The 'cautiously from range' playstyle is most notably represented by the hunter/ranger class. Most fantasy based MMOs feature one: game developers seem to know such a class is an instant hit. The hunter or ranger typically utilizes a bow as main weapon and may be accompanied by a pet that fights for them. Drawing on the literary stereotype of the lone ranger, the class usually designed to be particularly suitable for exploration, travel and leveling (solo play).

I have the strong impression hunters are much played and loved in every MMO I have played. For instance, whenever I check in Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) which of the ten classes is most played at the moment, the answer invariably is hunter. Hunters are currently not in a great spot DPS wise, yet yesterday evening on Laurelin there were 111 hunters online, versus 21 beornings (the least played class in LOTRO). If the class would be doing better in endgame, I would expect that number to be even higher (but that is speculation for another blog post).

Playing my elf hunter in LOTRO is one of the best leveling experiences I've had in that game

According to marketing company Statista, out of World of Warcraft's eleven classes, hunter and death knight are the most popular; hunter being slightly favoured on American servers (11.7% vs 11.6%), whilst death knight wins on European servers (11.3% vs 10.9%). The supporting data is from June 2016.

Other ranged stereotypes

MMOs that don't have a fantasy setting will usually feature a class with a similar playstyle, but with ammunition instead of arrows. The stereotype that is most similar to that of the hunter is the "cowboy type", think SWTOR's gunslinger and mercenary class. Another popular trope is that of the soldier, think SWTOR's commando or vanguard class.

Examples of 'cautiously from ranged' classes in Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR):
Commando (top left), mercenary (top right), gunslinger (bottom left), sniper (bottom right)

I mentioned some examples of ranged classes in Star Wars: the Old Republic above. The interesting thing is that we actually have information about which classes are played most in this MMO. The following chart shows the relative popularity of DPS classes in raids for the past 16 weeks (one bar per week, most recent week at the right). The data was collected by the popular parsing program Star Parse. When highlighting the ranged classes, it becomes clear they are indeed somewhat favoured; however, much depends on if you regard the vanguard/powertech as a ranged or a DPS class. Notable is the overwhelming popularity of the (ranged) commando, SWTOR's currently most played class. Keep in mind that data is taken from raids only. Other classes, such as the gunslinger, might be more popular among people who are leveling or soloing.

The graph to the left is taken straight from the Star Parse website at 19 October 2016, 2 pm CEST.

In the right graph I have highlighted ranged classes with pink; vanguard - a ranged-melee hybrid class - with light pink, and melee classes with grey. Although the classes have Republic names, the collected data represents both mirror classes.


The last ranged stereotype I haven't covered yet is that of the casters. These magic users typically deal a high amount of damage using flashy animations based on the elements, but are vulnerable to attacks due to wearing 'light armour'. Range is imperative for the survival of the caster, making kiting and crowd control recurring tools of the trade. Once again, game developers seem to know the popularity of such a class, because almost every MMO has at least one.

This is perhaps my personal favourite, because it embodies what sets the virtual gaming world apart from the offline one: the presence of magic or the supernatural in some form or another.

Caster classes in various MMOs:
GW 2's elementalist (left), SWTOR's sorcerer (top right) and LOTRO's lore-master (bottom right)

But... why?

In this article, I've shown how the preference to play 'cautiously from ranged' also holds trye for MMO players. For the games investigated, one of the most, if not the most popular class was invariably ranged. Hunters, casters, slingers and soldiers form powerful stereotypes that understandably attract people. However, other playstyles have attractive stereotypes attached to them as well - yet still ranged dominates. Is there something about the ranged playstyle that makes us love it so much? Here I will return to Quantic Foundry's research.

The researchers broke down each playstyle by relating them to game motivations of players. Interestingly, these did not explain the ranged preference, as its motivations (discovery, design, strategy) were shared with the 'stealthy assassination' and 'stealthily evasion' playstyles. However, the 'rushing in' playstyle showed a connection to the motives excitement, destruction and power and turned out to be strongly impacted by gender and age: mostly young men favoured it (the survey's second major insight). It seems to me that there is a biological factor explaining "rushing in". Perhaps we should approach 'cautiously ranged' with the same line of reasoning.

Assessing her own preferred playstyle, Bree Royce wrote in the Massively OP article:
"For me, which playstyle I follow depends a ton on the game. I prefer stealthy ranged pew-pew in The Elder Scrolls Online, (...) but I dislike casters so much in Guild Wars 2 that I’m a rusher-inner there for sure (...). I also think I’ve become slightly more impatient and more rushy as I’ve grown up — I was so much more timid when I first got into MMORPGs as a kid."
This wasn't so different for me. My first MMO character was a lore-master, a ranged support class in Lord of the Rings Online. Because I had never played an online multiplayer game before, it was important to me that I picked a class that felt right for me. Lore-master played from range, could make enemies less threatening by applying debuffs and could heal - all factors that made the jump into the game less scary. Then, when I got used to MMO gameplay, the virtual world did not seem so dangerous anymore and I started experimenting with other gamestyles. Take a look at Rav's Army: I now enjoy playing all classes and roles, and I value them for their differences. In SWTOR, I play a melee force user (tank shadow) in raids.

Could it be that there is a biological factor in this initial choice? It is generally not evolutionary viable to "rush in" when in a new situation; rather, one would want to observe from a distance before dealing with things. Playing an MMO for the first time is diving into an unknown situation as well. Our 'gut feeling' or instinct could be telling players to be cautious. Even when people get confident in their new virtual environment after a while and try other classes, their first character is often still perceived as their 'main'. This could explain the popularity of ranged classes. I'm no exception: I still identify with my lore-master in LOTRO and my sage in SWTOR most and will play them in raids and solo whenever I can. And when I had to pick that first character in LOTRO? I almost picked hunter.

Think back at the first MMO character that 'stuck' with you. Did you play it cautiously from ranged?


  1. I can safely say I do not fit into that research. The only time you will see me playing cautiously from ranged is on FPSes since I am terrible at those. So, I have a tendency to go for sniping as it is the easiest way for me to guarantee a kill before everything goes to hell. :p

    In RPGs, fantasy games and MMORPGs in general, I tend to go with the guy with the sword. Simply because, in the immortal words of Figther of 8-Bit Theater: "I like swords". That and I am a meleer at heart. Well, with MMORPGs nowadays I am being a bit more flexible and looking for whatever class feel different and fresh enough for me. It still tends towards melee though. For instance, my first character in Everquest 2 was a monk since back then it was rare to find a class that can just punch their way in MMOs. Final Fantasy XIV? Going with a Pugilist with the aim of becoming a monk because punching enemies is fun in that game!

    I do make exceptions for some ranged classes though depending on circunstances. For example, Guild Wars 2 my first character was a Engineer, because guns, which is also pretty rare in MMOs, and because of all the required movement during combat. Had I had to be rooted 5 steps away from the mob while shooting I'd probably hate it.

    That is one of the reasons I don't like playing casters much. I just hate the idea of being rooted in one place slinging spells at something far away. In fact, I used to say that a fight isn't fun if you aren't feeling the enemies bad breath on your face. :)

    The other reason is they are too squishy for my tastes. Lastly, robes and staves aren't as cool looking as armor and some sharp, metalic weapon or fists. :p

    1. I would say you fit well into the group of 22% that likes to rush in, but from how I know you, I'd say your motivations are different. Always good to see the exception to the rule. :)

      I share your dislike for turrety playstyles, by the way. I think that's why gunslinger in SWTOR never really stuck for to me (I did play Y-u'no as my main for one expansion, but it never really clicked). Luckily, a lot of ranged classes are designed to be played on the move. SWTOR's commando is very mobile, for instance, (perhaps that's also a reason for its popularity) and sage isn't too bad either. In LOTRO lore-master, minstrel, hunter and rune-keeper are great at running around in circles while fighting from range. And in GW2, everyone needs to be constantly moving.

      I'm sure the rooted-in-the-groundness of some classes will appeal to some as well, though, for instance because they feel they are already occupied enough with firing off their skills without having to think about their position. Those people probably don't like raids in SWTOR very much. ^^

  2. Interesting stuff for sure. My very first MMO character (I'm a 34 year old female) that stuck with me was Ragnarok Online's Hunter, and the desire to be ranged and cautious certainly was part of the reason I enjoyed her at first.

    A few years later, I then ended up in WoW, tried Hunter, and felt it didn't really "click". RO's Hunters required more movement, kiting, and trapping whereas WoW's were mostly "stand in one spot and let your pet tank". I suppose I wanted a more active role. I then rolled a melee druid (bear/cat). She's still my main today. I fell in love with tanking and melee DPS, and never looked back.

    In other games since then, I always default to the melee/tanky classes. Sometimes I go the stealth route. After playing feral for years, I find I do enjoy stealth at times, but not all of the time. At other times, I enjoy just charging right into the fray and sorting out the mess once I'm there.

    I find I enjoy hybrid/support tanks a lot too. My other WoW main is a prot pally. I like to tank, but I like to do so from more of a supportive role if that makes sense. Clutch heals and stuff, supportive group options. I'm pretty sure it's my protective nature coming out. It's sorta interesting when I think about it, because even when I played RO as Hunter, I always prioritized trapping/kiting/helping my teammates before straight DPS.

    My favorite other classes in MMOs I've played:

    FFXIV: Paladin/Monk
    LotRO: Guardian/Beorning
    SWTOR: Guardian JK/Scoundrel Smuggler
    ESO: Melee Nightblade
    Rift: Cleric (Justicar and Shaman)
    WildStar: Tank Engineer
    GW2: Guardian
    BDO: Valkyrie

    1. Cool to see confirmation of my "cautious from ranged to start with feeling". And it's nice to read you've tried so many different roles and approaches. It's what keeps MMOs interesting in my opinion. And your love of the supportive role in combination with other roles makes sense. I like that as well, because it means you have to think about multiple roles at once and need to make decisions about what's most important for the group as a whole right now. It is something I like about the more 'old fashioned' MMOs, like LOTRO. More varied classes are hard to balance for PvP, but it does make group play very dynamic and versatile.

  3. Hm. I bounce around so much between alts. Let me see if I can really recall how my "main" always went, though.

    Pre-NGE SWG: A Dancer/Teras Kasi Master (monk, essentially) mix most of the time, though I eventually traded out of that to become a "Gun fu" pistoleer. Shortest range of all the guns, but ... still ranged.

    Post-NGE SWG: Jedi. Melee.

    EQ2: Shadowknight (tank) main for quite some time, but eventually swapped to Warlock as main for a while, then moved on to a Fury (the "nuking healer"), then to the Inqisitor (healer, but also quite good with melee dps when solo), and finally settled on the Coercer (crowd control/ranged caster) as my "final main."

    EVE Online: Um... Everything's ranged in this game.....

    Rift: I mostly played a Cleric as the Justicar tank. But also spent a lot of time as an Inquisitor caster dps too.

    SWTOR: Started as commando healer, moved on to Jedi Shadow Tank, then went Sith Inquisitor tank, and while I've dabbled in all the various classes, the melee Inquisitor was far and away my main.

    TSW: Mostly played with Chaos/Blade (pure melee) when leveling up, but in the end-game switched to generally pistol/shotgun or blade/shotgun, then eventually ended up with a rifle/shotgun build that was stupidly overpowered for a while.

    Rift again: Pretty much leveled everything up. Cleric as a melee druid dps, warrior and rogue as melees, and mage with the melee soul as well. Yeah, rift was big on melee for me. In my current toe-dip I'm playing a dervish/berserker melee Primalist. Just love melee in Rift!

    ESO: Usually a melee-ish Dragonknight, though I also had a melee sorcerer that I loved, as well as a caster sorcerer. But my "main" was a hybrid Templar that opened with range and finished with melee.

    FFXIV: I mained Black Mage until 60 changed it all up, then swapped to Summoner. both are ranged dps. I actually have all the combat classes to 60, and the most enjoyable for me after the caster dps is the Paladin tank job. I don't actually care for any of the 3 melee dps classes, nor really the bard or machinist either.

    So overall.... I'm thinking ranged caster damage dealer is my most preferred style anymore, with the melee tank being a close 2nd. I'm either all in, or all out.

    1. Thanks for sharing your playstyles in different MMOs. It's an impressive list! Also interesting that ranged is your 1st preferred, then melee. Fits Quantic Foundry's research pretty perfectly!

  4. I didn't feel as if the survey applied to my own way of playing. My single player RPG characters always have tended to be claymore wielding warrior types who run up on the enemy. My thought was always, even if you're ranged, as soon as you hit the mob, they're going to be right on you, so take the fight to them, hit as fast as you can, giving them no room to fight back. My first Mmo character was an SWG Tera's Kasi/Master Doctor. I could fight the way I was used to fighting, plus I could heal any damage I took. Such a great character. My favorite Hunter type character is from Lord of the Rings Online. The graceful animations for that character made me feel like a real huntress. I like ranged characters with pets for their help and companionship. At some point, I became a fiend for trying out every class available for the challenge of it, and the way it offers a different experience in playing through familiar areas. Jill of All Classes, Mistress of None.

    1. It makes sense to sometimes pick your class based on playstyle and sometimes on "lore". And there certainly is some logic to rushing in in order to "get it over with" asap. I am enjoying the perspectives everyone has written about so far. It's so different!

  5. I definitely prefer fighting from range - it does feel safer and more enjoyable to have a good overview of the situation and the surrounding environment.

    My very first MMO character was actually a WoW paladin (melee), but at the time that choice was motivated by playing it safe too. I had absolutely zero idea what the game was going to be like and pictured myself alone in this dark, fantastical forest. The paladin description in the little manual said that they wore heavy armour and could heal themselves, which sounded the most survivable to me - I was thinking more in terms of defense instead of offense.

    1. *highfive* for fighting from range. The overview is a good point. I like that, too, especially in SWTOR where movement is so important. Then again, I sometimes like the challenge of being up close and still being aware of everyone's position, like when I'm tanking on my shadow.

      Cool to hear you had the same motives but different solutions for your first MMO character!

  6. For PvE, I almost undeniably go Ranged, both because I enjoy the 'turret' gamestyle and because it means that for a good number of fights I don't need to worry about infernal positional mechanics close to the boss. Perhaps the only exception is my Guardian, whose playstyle I do enjoy but sadly can't indulge in too much due to the positional factor which will likely mess with my head.

    PvP is another matter. Again, I'd prefer to do stuff from Ranged (and who wouldn't?) but this is an environment where you're often not 'allowed' by other players. Heck, I even recently rolled a PvP-only Scoundrel to allow me to counter-act this as getting the drop on other players is definitely a crucial factor which Ranged classes rarely ever have.

    1. Ranged in PvP is definitely a totally different story. I guess players are a bit more assertive when it comes to positioning compared to NPCs! Playing ranged can definitely be a challenge due to that, so I understand where you're coming from. I found gunslinger is hard to play when you have melee harassing you. My personal favourite to play in warzones is still sage, though. With practice, I'm fine running around and mind my own business healing or damaging players while running in circles with melee running after me. Sometimes they even grow tired of it and stick to a more turretty victim for the rest of the warzone. I love it when that happens. :P

  7. I prefer initiating a fight from range, such as using a bow on my LOTRO Champion or my Barbarian in Age of Conan, and letting the enemies close instead of the other way around. It allows me to dictate the flow of action, and it prevents me from accidentally pulling more than one mob. Even back in Wrath Era WoW I used to initiate from (somewhat) range via my Pally throwing down a judgement as a pull. When multiple mobs can take you out, or when you play in a PvP world, being able to control your environment is paramount. Sure, running in and bashing heads is fun, but I'm from the video game era of "if you die, it's all over", so I tend toward caution.

    But a stealthed character (a SWTOR Scoundrel, an AoC Barbarian, a WoW Rogue, etc.) is the most fun because you can weave your way through enemies without having to fight them all the time.

    1. Interesting to read about your approach. Determining who to fight when and where are useful strategies in a range of games, so it makes sense to apply this in MMOs as well, even if classes are not built to deal sustained damage from range.

    2. Right. This utility kind of falls apart when dealing with ranged enemies (bow/spear wielding Goblins and Orcs, Ranged SWTOR baddies, and casters such as Mages), so I try to take out the melee enemies first and that clears out a path to take out the ranged enemies. It's not perfect, and it IS slow, but it works more often than not.

  8. And I should mention that a LOTRO Hunter has the best advantage in the game: being able to utilize that campfire.

    1. I agree, LOTRO's hunter is *amazing* for leveling.

  9. I always enjoy the safety of range unless I can get in and out fast. I seem to prefer hunter/sniper over magic users. Games and mains:

    Corum: [first MMORPG] - started ranged but went dual wielding rogue
    Perfect World: Venomancer [magic using pet tamer/pet is tank]
    Rift: Cleric and Rogue
    SWTOR: Sniper/Operative with stealth Smuggler equivalents
    LOTRO: Hunter [as good at melee as well] BUT fav is Warden, although hard to play.

    Think that means that it's more how the individual class plays, then if it is ranged. Definitely like a class that can initiate character from range and then close for the kill - e.g: LOTRO warden

    1. Thanks for your contribution! Seems like your approach has a lot in common with Redbeard's. :)

  10. I am definitely one of those that prefers to rush in. I main a tank and whenever I DPS, I play on my Sentinel or my Guardian. (Tank on a Shadow) I can usually out DPS aforementioned Commandos too, on my Sentinel, not my Guardian! (depending on if I can Saber Reflect Mechanics)
    And as for whether Powertechs are melee, ranged, or a hybrid, I'd say they lean more towards being true melee now. (Speaking purely about AP and not Pyro) Back in 3.0 they were definitely a hybrid, as while they are made to be a melee class, in 3.0, the most melee unfriendly content in the game's history, they had all the advantages of being melee with none of the disadvantages... if they had to they could perform their rotation minus Rocket Punch from 10-15 meters and if they had to move further they still had Thermal Detonator, auto attack, and Explosive Dart to give then PPA Procs. They were able to keep up with Mercs while being more mobile and having more burst, with the trade off being less group utility and sustained DPS. However, with their range being nerfed recently, they are pretty much pure melee.

  11. My first ever character was a Balance Druid (so caster dps). I've generally always preferred casters or healers as my main characters in any MMO. That said for whatever reason I chose a Champion in LOTRO and never have changed from playing him. More recently I tend to play games as part of a static trio group so we always select charactes around the trinity roles - so I invariably have played tank, ranged or healer as my main in various games now (e.g. I've always played as tank in TSW). I think I prefer the variety thesedays over sticking with any specific type of character.

    1. That's what I hear (and see around me) from a lot of veteran MMO players. I play way more alts myself nowadays, too, although I still have a 'main' in each MMO I play.

  12. This is really interesting! The first MMO I ever played was LOTRO, and while I definitely recognise the thought pattern of caution and wanting a class that makes the game feel less "scary", I came to a different conclusion. I picked guardian because while I would have to get up close and personal with the enemy, at least I'd have heavy armour and a big-ass shield. I felt safe in the knowledge that the class was built for survival and wouldn't go down easily.

    Proved right too, my guardian was damn near indestructible. Then I made a lore-master and died all the time because I wasn't used to being squishy and hadn't learned to be cautious, haha! :D

    1. Haha, that makes a lot of sense, too! Especially in LOTRO, where you really have to play tactical in order to survive. Physical mitigation virtues are a great way to make you more survivable, but I would guess a lot of newbies don't know this.

      It is super interesting to read everyone's individual take on this. Your approach seems similar to that of Shintar.

  13. This is an interesting topic. My first character in Lotro was a champion because I liked the fact that it could hit multiple enemies at a time, making me more confident that I would not get overwhelmed. After about 20 levels though I got sick of the long waits for health regeneration and switched to a minstrel, which has been my main ever since. Now I can still hit multiple mobs, but it is at range, meaning I lose less health and I can heal myself back up quickly even if I do take a lot of damage.

  14. My first LoTRO character was a Loremaster. That was probably partly because of the above reasons, and also because I liked the idea of a scholarly charcter who worked with animals (my ambition was to play as a blue-line LM, although as it turns out I don't). My other main character is a Minstrel, again for similar reasons but also because I wanted to be a musician. I play SWTOR on accasion and my highest character is a Sage. So I suppose I do have a type, which is strongly influenced by a sub-RP idea of who they were. I don't RP but I like to have a vague idea of who I'm playing.

    That said, I enjoy my Champion when I play him and Captain when I play her (although a Captain reminds me quite a lot of an LM). I'd play them more but the idea of having too many alts at the cap is a little daunting. I have a low level Hunter and Guardian and a very low level Burglar (Burglar being the one class I've yet to enjoy solo, but as I say I haven't given him much time). I'd like to play an RK, Warden and Beorning but I'm reluctant to pay for them when I have too many to play already.


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