Sight-reading in music is the act of playing a piece of music you haven't played or practiced before purely by looking at the sheet music in real time. You can apply the same term to video games: to beat a game without reading up on strategy guides, practicing, or otherwise prepare. You jump in and you deal with it. Some games work better for this than others.
Having a game that is easy to read is not only more pleasant for people new to your game, it also makes the game mechanics much more focused on action and reaction, rather than memorisation. It allows the game to be much more dynamic, and by being more dynamic, also more engaging. Within RuneScape, the part where we would benefit the most of making the game dynamic is of course combat, so today I will be talking about PvM (shocker, I know right!).
What do we mean when we say it is easy to read a game? We mean that the game gives all the information the player needs to make decisions within a glance. In the context of combat, I want to focus on how the attacks of bosses are communicated to the player, so the player can respond timely to avoid damage or other effects. For example, let's first look at one of the attacks Araxxor does to the player:
When Araxxor moves its front legs to the side, it's pretty obvious what is going to happen. What's more, we can probably fill in what's going to happen next based on our experience with other games and real life anatomy. A big swipe is about to happen, so we better get out of the way to not get killed. The cool thing about this animation is that it's in-universe. There isn't a big red rectangle overlaid on the game world telling you where to stand and where not, the attack is communicated using in-game animations. This is called diegetic. We will see an example of non diegetic hints later on.
While diegetic hints are great for immersion, this often comes at the cost of precision. In the example above, it's clear that Araxxor is going to do a big hit, and you can roughly gage the range of its legs, but deciding how far back you have to stand to be safe is still guesswork, especially in a game like RuneScape that is grid-based, so game mechanics don't always line up exactly with the visuals. Still, it's not impossible to communicate where an attack will hit. Pthentraken, one of the recently released Rex Matriarchs, has a very clear particle effect on the tiles that are going to be hit by her lightning attack:
While much clearer, it's starting to stretch the meaning of diegetic. The dust particles before a lightning attack seems a bit far-fetched when it comes to realism. Each boss and each mechanic will have its own trade-off about whether it should look good or be functional.
Sadly, there are also cases where RuneScape doesn't quite get it right. When you're done fighting Araxxor and take the fight to Araxxi, there is a poison bubble you have to avoid, or take some significant damage and debuff. Here, take a look at how it looks in-game and try describing what it does and what you expect it to do:
If you're like me, you missed that the black particle effect is important at all. There is a bunch of stuff going on during the fight, there is no indication that this effect is something you have to be very careful about. It also seems to bounce around almost randomly, while in fact it will move towards your space every four bounces. There are a lot of mechanics here that aren't communicated to the player at all, and even if you know it is there and what to do, you still have to do a bunch of counting to keep track of it, while dealing with an already difficult fight. Not very readable at all!
We've looked at a few effects in RuneScape now, but it's hard to come to a final conclusion about how well RuneScape does without looking at some other examples. The first attack we looked at today was a big swipe attack from Araxxor. In the game Hades, the Bone Hydra has a similar attack where she raises her head, and smashes it into the ground for some area of effect damage:
While the animations in RuneScape were in real-time, the animation from Hades is actually slowed down to half speed. It's an incredibly fast-paced game, which makes it even more important to communicate things so clear that you can interpret them within a split second. The more complex a hint is, the bigger the chance you'll miss your chance at avoiding it. This particular hint suffers the same problem as the one from Araxxor: it is unclear in what area the damage will be dealt. I've had many times where I got hit because I hadn't dashed quite far enough.
In a different fight later in the game, the area becomes much clearer. The attack area is briefly surrounded by a particle moving around the damage area. It seems hard to miss, but it's just the right visibility to give you a chance to get out of there:
In this case, the boss also jumped towards my last position, which is a variation on the attack, though usually the boss will stay in place. The effect itself doesn't seem to be caused by any real object in the game universe, and so this is a good example of a non diegetic hint. In general, Hades does an amazing job at communicating game mechanics in a diegetic way, though in-game voice acting and clever animation work on the enemies. Sometimes, the game designer needs to take a step back, and decide that the best way to give information to the player is by blatantly drawing it on top of the game.
Despite being not quite as fast paced as action games, RuneScape still seems to exercise similar methods in making the game readable to players. That being said, many boss mechanics in RuneScape lack this readability, which makes the barrier to entry on PvM higher. With improved technology, there are more tools than ever to give those hints to players in ways that don't completely break immersion. There is still a long way to go, but hopefully the next boss in RuneScape will be one we can sight-read.
Image attribution: the images from RuneScape were taken from a recent Patreon roundtable recorded by Shane. The images from Hades were extracted by a livestream by myself for Clan Quest.