Depth of Gameplay Does Not Equal More Buttons
I have recently reworked my MMO button scheme. I will admit it; in the past I found it very awkward to use the Shift and Alt modifiers in combat to increase the number of keys I can use quickly. I have large hands, but even so I found shifting my hand to use modifier keys cumbersome at best, especially since I like strafing a lot and need a finger on a strafe key most of the time, especially while tanking. This proclivity also means that using the double mouse buttons for forward movement isn't as useful for me since I prefer strafing when I can. As such, my left hand is usually busy with a movement key, and I find dropping a finger to a modifier key to be cumbersome.
My newest scheme is to remap (with various mouse driver support) one mouse button to be the Shift modifier key. This works well for me as it basically doubles my combat buttons. Once I relearned all my button habits I began remapping certain functions.
I can now use the following buttons in active combat such as tanking and PvP.
A-W-D: Left Turn/Strafe, Forward, and Right Turn/Strafe.
Q: Target Closest Enemy
E-R-T: Mapped to abilities. R is usually my CC break and T is usually taunt or CC.
Shift + E-R-T: I try to make these the AoE or extended version of E-R-T.
1-2-3-4-5-6-7: Mapped to abilities. 6 is usually an interrupt
Shift + 1-2-3-4-5-6-7: Mapped to abilities. Shift 6 is usually my main AoE.
F1-F2-F3-F4: Mapped to abilities, usually my proc abilities so I can quickly see if they are lit.
Shift + F1-F2-F3-F4: Mapped to my "oh crap" buttons like Evasion, emergency heal, etc. Sometimes these are stances.
F: Usually Charge, Sprint or similar movement ability.
Shift F: Mapped to ability, usually a ranged attack to "pull" mobs when I can't charge.
~: Usually to go in or out of combat.
For numpad button use I usually hit them with my mouse thumb. Thus only the outer rim are used for in combat abilities.
Numpad Subtract: Usually used as my "Needs Rage" button like enrage or Energy replenish.
Numpad Add: Mapped to oh crap ability.
Numpad Enter: If I can get it to map separately from Return I'll use it for an oh crap ability.
Numpad 0: Usually a healing potion.
Numpad Decimal: Mapped to an "oh crap" ability.
Numpad 8: Mapped to our of combat rest or food.
Numpad 9: Activate a mount.
Numpad 1-7: Various out of combat abilities like toggles and buffs.
Why am I telling you this?
Well as I was perusing my latest keymap schema I asked myself why am I playing games that require me to keymap 40 buttons. These are not my buffs or toggles, but a layout of actual game abilities I use in combat situations that I feel must be on demand. Some are attacks, some are stances that I need to change on demand, some are abilities that light up under certain circumstances, some are defensive cooldowns, some are agro control, and some are obscure special case abilities that are only accasionally useful. Why do designers feel the need to create so many buttons? Surely they can create depth of play without adding 30+ separate abilities to each character.
One problem with MMOs is that players like getting new abilities. They like a sense of progression. As a result once levels climb the number of abilities that accumulate grows with it. Designers are also loathe to retire abilities as players level as it seems clumsy to just have players drop previous abilities off their bars.
For me the sweet spot seems to be 6-12 active combat buttons. I am not counting buffs or toggles that are hit to prepare for playing the game. I am only talking about active abilities. Fewer and the game seems boring.
As an example, Champion Online is a beautiful game, I love the animations and comic book art style. I love the costume options. The characters have a better look than City of Heroes and I can actually make more of my tabletop characters in that game than in City of Heroes. Why don't I play it? Well, when I log in to my main characters I find I complete most of the content by hitting two buttons; I either hold down my cone ability until the current pod of enemies dies or I hold down my single target attack until the stronger opponent goes down. Occasionally I will hit a defensive cooldown. Yes, I can create a build that chains buffs to increase my damage output but even with that my ranged game play boils down all too often to holding down one button. I understand that the mantra of Champions is to have no cooldowns but this is not compelling gameplay to me.
On the other hand, there has to be a better way to design that having 40 buttons worth of fringe abilities meant for special case situation. On my Juggernaut in SWTOR, for example, I have a 60 second cooldown attack that only works on minions under the influence of a CC, and another 60 second cooldown attack that only works on minions that are affected by a slow effect. And yes, I can find situations where they are useful such as chaining a Force Charge Stun on a minion with a followup attack to reduce the initial spawn, but seriously? Do either of these warrant extra abilities?
In my opinion designers need to pare down abilities to a core set of buttons that provide game play depth. Although League of Legends isn't my thing, it does do a good job of providing a very good depth of play from a smaller set of button mashing abilities. A designer can add a lot of depth and a lot of abilities with a much smaller button set. Designers don't need 40 buttons, and they don't need a player to watch three or four different "proc" abilities light up to make game play interesting.
If game play is such that a player gets bored with a basic 4 button rotation, one proc ability, combos, and a defensive cooldown or two maybe a more complicated rotation isn't the answer. Maybe the basic game play of the game is lacking. That player should get enjoyment from looking at the screen and reacting to the environment rather than looking at their bar for the next proc to light up. This is my problem with typical tank-healer-DPS design. At it's core it's boring to DPS a boss that is totally focused on a tank. As a result designers come up with more and more complicated scenarios to try to add twists and make this basic premise more interesting rather than questioning the premise in the first place.
(As an aside, I am excited to see what Guild Wars 2 does to avoid the "holy trinity" design and I hope they stick to their guns with that.)
So what is a designer who has to fill 90 levels with cool abilities to do?
Instead of giving a new ability, upgrade an existing ability in a meaningful way. As an example, if a player has a basic reliable AoE then that ability can progress in a meaningful and satisfying way as the player levels.
As an example, in addition to getting an increase in damage, a basic AoE can be upgraded.
Level 10: Player gets a basic fireball that can strike 3 foes.
Level 20: The fireball gets a DoT component. The particle effect is upgraded to be more intense.
Level 30: The fireball particle effect is upgraded and made larger. The radius increases and it now can hit 4.
Level 40: Another bump in radius and damage. The particle now has a swirling maelstrom of fire.
Level 50: The maelstrom is more intense, and AoE can now hit 5.
Level 60: The maelstrom now shows a Phoenix briefly appearing in the center. Allies get a small heal.
I feel that each of these simple upgrades would be a welcome addition to the character progression without throwing a new ability blindly into the mix.
Rather than giving new abilities each with their own button, introduce new combinations that result in using abilities in different combinations. Let's say you have a dual wielding melee character with only 4 abilities. you have a basic double thrust, a slashing combination, and three part slashing animation, and a spinning AoE. Even with only 4 buttons you could introduce combinations as the character progresses through levels that have different special effects. While I wouldn't go so far as to add in Street Fighter level of combos, having each combination end with a different special buff or debuff could add a lot of gameplay depth.
This could work well with spells. I can envision a spell casting system where the player only have a few abilities (each a rune) but they need to be pressed in a certain order to get certain spell effects. Creation + Fire + Power might be a fire based heal spell, while Destruction + Water + Persistance would be an Ice Bolt with a freezing damage over time effect.
Using these design principles a talent tree could be used to buff you basic abilities and provide new effects for your abilities instead of giving you new buttons. I feel that resisting a design where talents provide more abilities to press is cleaner anyway.
These are just a few upgrades games could adopt to avoid button bloat.