Welcome to the 25th installment of the Game Design Spotlight! This column is your weekly dose of my analysis of game design elements across many multiplayer titles, such as the old-school way of boat travel in MMORPGs and LotRO's subtle and immersive quest design.
Last week, I discussed Guild Wars 2's obscured world map and how its supporting gameplay systems beg players to explore Tyria. And for today, I'm tackling a unique facet of combat seen in MMORPGs and what I believe will eventually disappear from mainstream games: Stance dancing.
I became more intimate with the term "stance dancing" in Final Fantasy XIV back when Heavensward opened its gates to the masses. Throughout the years leading up to playing the game, I knew stance dancing was basically the art of switching stances to perform various situational abilities, meaning its use depended on the flow of combat. However, in an MMORPG context, I learned that stance dancing was a skillful accomplishment rather than ability hopping for the sake of doing so.
For example, the early days of Dark Knight in FFXIV benefitted immensely from those who knew how to shift between tank stances and optimize HP-leeching magic attacks. It was a high-risk feat that the game doesn't explicitly teach players, instead giving them tools to use at their discretion and figure out what works best.
This art of stance dancing even impacted roles whose main objective is to keep a group healthy. Healers utilized the "Cleric Stance" ability, which reduced a caster's healing stat to improve their offensive spells. While its function was simple, it was also a commitment to use due to its five-second recast time. Often, healers switched to the stance to help burn down adds, but an unsuspecting tank buster from a boss would send them panicking until they could switch back.
These instances of stance dancing are small examples from a much larger category of games with their own distinct iterations, but the bottom line is that stance dancing will get overshadowed over time due to developers making adjustments to streamline the combat experience.
Bury The Hatchet
FFXIV's combat system has been affected by decisions like that, seeing the eventual removal of Cleric Stance and making the unique stance rotation of the old Dark Knight obsolete. Fueling these decisions, I believe, is a desire to keep the peace with the intended audience. It's no secret casual players run the market, even though the most hardcore players are loyal benefactors of game companies.
With stance dancing being an intricate ability requiring some know-how, it creates friction for casuals stumbling upon the game. Much of what I discussed were things I learned the hard way, and I remember hearing plenty of players arguing stance dancing was more abrasive than rewarding.
Casual players aren't interested in learning the ins and outs of a class but rather in how it makes them feel when clearing content. Not to say they wouldn't like the added complexity of a stance dancing mechanic, but its ceiling for optimization could scare them away.
The same could apply to World of Warcraft's Warrior stances or the rotating playstyle of Elementalist, Engineer, and more in Guild Wars 2. They have their quirks, but most follow a laid-out pattern proven to work according to their community and don't inspire much in-the-moment planning that stance dancing should represent.
Winging Players Onto One Track
The eventual demise of stance dancing across mainstream games begins when every player converges into a single playstyle. The art form should be the differentiator between players, but it nowadays operates more as a switch that the developers intend everyone to flip on during specific moments.
This guise of player autonomy that wings players onto one track was made for combat to be a clean experience with no outlandish outliers. It's a tall order to nail in an online multiplayer environment since high-skill abilities could cause a rift between casual and hardcore players.
But by sacrificing those complicated elements in combat, the main facet of the game becomes more spectacle than gameplay-oriented for those classes with stances or rotating playstyles. In their case, streamlining a unique attribute to those classes dampens how great they could be in the hands of players hoping to experiment and strategize their way through combat.
That concludes another week of the Game Design Spotlight! Where do you stand with stance dancing? What games do you believe keep stance dancing alive? Let us know below! Also, feel free to comment on games you would like me to cover for future stories if you have any suggestions!
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About the Author
Anthony Jones is a gaming journalist and late 90s kid in love with retro games and the evolution of modern gaming. He started at Mega Visions as a news reporter covering the latest announcements, rumors, and fan-made projects. FFXIV has his heart in the MMORPGs scene, but he's always excited to analyze and lose hours to ambitious and ambiguous MMOs that gamers follow.
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