The problem of stealth in MMOs

Melmoth writes about his fabulous Warden in LOTRO – it’s a very powerful and capable class, and great for both solo and group work. It can tank a bit, has some self heals, ranged as well as melee attacks, gets some AE capability, and can even teleport around the map (very useful in LOTRO, which has a large world map).

Whereas my burglar …. has stealth. Which doesn’t work all that well in groups, in raids, or against tentacles (this is a real tentacle by the way, not a tame pond one in the garden).


Stealth classes are usually popular in games. Being able to pick your fights is a huge advantage in PvP – the classic stealther attack of leaping out of hiding and backstabbing an opponent is fun to play (and a nightmare to balance).

Stealth has advantages in PvE also. In particular if you are an explorer.

  • Ever wished your game had a pause button? If you are a stealther, then it does. Any time you need to get the phone or grab a drink, just hit the stealth button. Your character will (probably) be safely there when you get back.
  • Ever needed to get to a quest mob that is behind a bunch of trash and wanted to do it quickly? Stealthers can usually avoid a fight whenever they want to. It’s great for exploring dangerous terrain also.
  • Or even if you’ve ever just wanted to check quickly if a quest mob is present, stealth saves the bother of having to clear an area unnecessarily.

But stealth simply isn’t that great an advantage compared to just being generally badass. You won’t notice this so much in WoW because the classes are all generally very powerful. But if a champion can mow through mobs almost as quickly as a burglar can stealth, then stealth isn’t really much of an advantage. Avoiding combat is never as rewarding as killing mobs in most MMOs.

Most players like to mow through mobs. A rogue-type class that dances around with crowd control, debuffs, and juggling survivability cooldowns is never going to kill a bunch of mobs as fast as the plate wearer with the devastating AE attacks. In WoW they just gave rogues better AE, and watered down the roguelike feel of the class.

In games like WoW that have become so focussed on the group content, and where the main object in instances is to clear then as fast as possible, rogues and their stealth playstyle has no purpose. The tank pulls, the healer heals, and everyone else AEs. No one wants stealth or the more strategic sneak-and-dodge pace of pulls which goes with it.

LOTRO isn’t quite the same style of game. They do provide many more quests which ask characters to scout out an area – something which stealthers can do quickly and neatly. There are entire zones (ie. most of Moria) where simply exploring and finding your way around is a big challenge, and stealth can be really useful. There are solo dungeons where a stealther can explore and set up ambushes without worrying about a group zooming ahead of them and just nuking everything anyway.

It may be that the different pace of a soloing stealther is one that can never really fit into a group based MMO. Not unless the whole game was about thieves (which would be pretty cool, actually). Maybe stealth belongs back in the era where games were more about exploring and less about quick badges and achievements.

20 thoughts on “The problem of stealth in MMOs

  1. The problem is actually the fact that MMO’s as we know them are so deeply based in having combat as the only way to solve any confrontation. In pen and paper RPG you could come up with different solutions to the same problem or encounter depending on the composition of the group. I’ve ran some adventures as a GM to different groups and seen as many solutions as group compositions, really.

    So that stealth ability doesn’t serve any other purpose than to get the high dps rogue to her/his position at the start of the encounter.

    Which is a shame, as a rogue class is extremely fun and rewarding to play in a pen and paper RPG. In MMO… not so much.

    C out

  2. You are quite right Spinks that stealth is essentially of less value the easier the mobs are. In vanilla wow there were many more non-instanced elite mobs, and stealth was brilliant for these areas.

    Similarly, if cc is important then a rogue’s ability to lock down two mobs almost constantly with sap and stunlocking (the blood drinker trolls in ZG come to mind as a place where this was brilliant) is very valuable.

    I remember in the days of grinding for fire res gear for Ragnaros my druid friend was able to stealth to and solo several bosses in BRD. I was very jealous.

  3. Could not agree more with the article. You mentioned all the fun and problems related to stealth in MMOs.

    Makes a comment so superfluous… so what shall I say?

    MMOs nowadays are still focused on killing and looting stuff. Stealth is useful to avoid combat and thus avoids XP and loot. WoW rogues pickpocket ability was a nice idea, but most got tired of it pretty quickly. It is uaully better to simply kill the mob.

    What to do?
    * reward players for completing quests/tasks (DDO is a bit like that)
    & -> advance through quests/story ONLY, not through kill XP
    For groups, the CC and tricks used by rogue class are nice and should not be drowned and made useless through constant combat against enemy hordes. The loss of CC happened to WOTLK dungeons and many LOTRO skirmishes and dailies.

    XP/Level progression (EQ) and skill/attribute gain through skill use (UO) are not the only way to advance, progress a char.

    I think Guild Wars 2’s model of 5 fixed skills based on weapon and char class + 5 free skills of your choice from a large pool give enough freedom of progression through acquiring new skills, but also through exploring skill combos. Longish levelling to the level cap is no longer seen as fun, being at the cap and using the full potential (all kills/abilities) of the class seems to be more important nowadays.

    I see the future of MMO stealth only in very short-lasting invisibility spells/potions or stealth while standing still, like the Nightelf Shadow Meld.

    Balancing stealth will become a huge problem for Star Trek Online. Klingons vs Feds works because only Klingons can cloak and it gives the Klingons advantages. Now imagine Klingon vs Romulans. It is like playing blind man’s buff, but with everyone blinded. When Klingons lose in the Arena (15 kills = win), they often go into stealth and drag the match out for ages. In Capture and Hold they at least lose to the timer, as you can’t cap while cloaked.

  4. This article doesnt help my decision! ;).

    In trying to decide between a burglar and a warden for my next character. Neithet are particularly the normal type of class i play, but i feel like the burglar with its debuffs and group utility is more my style… But then you go and write something like this and my love of ports and run speed buffs flair back up, the main reasons i love my Hunter…

    But i agree. There is little value to stealth mechanics in a game like current WoW. Its useful in WAR, has limited use in LOTRO, but in WoW it just doesnt fit anymore.

    • Fraid I can’t help you with that. But I do like my burglar, despite the fact I’ve never had the sort of power rush while playing her that I get with my WoW warrior. I like stealthing around while I explore Moria and figuring out how to ambush awkward pulls.

      And truth is, no one ever minds having a burglar in groups or raids. They certainly bring enough to the group to be welcomed. I also like having decent CC, that’s quite fun.

  5. I rather liked the Quest for Glory games. You could play as a Rogue, Warrior, Mage or Paladin… more or less. Quests and game problems could be solved in different ways to correlate; it was completely valid to get the Tchotsky of Doom via theft as a stealthy Rogue. You’d get full credit and rewards for it.

    So… I’ll echo Longasc and Copra; the overreliance on combat for progress in these silly MMO things keeps stealth from being as fun as it could be.

  6. I am in complete agreement with the first commenter. MMOs are heavily focused on resolving all conflicts through bloodshed and chaos. Defias are looting our caravans: bring me the head of their leader. Bloodscalp Trolls are encroaching: bring me 12 of their ears.

    Contrast that against an RPG like Dragon Age: Origins. *SPOLER ALERT*. Alistair’s quest to find his sister is a poignant moment in the game, involves zero combat, and just awards the player with experience and a jolly good feeling for trying to reunite the siblings. Personally I think that had a better, if not more powerful impact on me overall, than the endless decapitations.

  7. I think you just explained why I’ve discontinued leveling my rogue. I love my little dwarf rogue, but she’s lost that rogueing feeling.

  8. Wardens get to stealth a little bit too, but shhh, otherwise the You Know Who will come and get us.

    I think I’ve used that stealth ability once or twice so far in my levelling career, and primarily it’s been to avoid fights that I’m really not in the mood for, for example when I’m needing to find a safe spot and log off quickly.

    I think the Resolve All Problems Through Combat nature of MMOs definitely is one reason why stealth has been deprecated over the years.

    I think the primary reason, however, is simply impatience on the part of the modern player. There are plenty of opportunities in DDO, for example, where a stealthed character could sneak ahead, scout the area, take out a few enemies and disarm any traps before returning to the group, but you’ll find that most groups outside of the role-playing crowd will just barrel through regardless and simply tank the traps and extra mobs and heal through it. Nobody wants to stop playing while one person carries on playing ‘solo in a group’.

    It’ll be interesting to see how SW:TOR manages to deal with this, not just in combat, but also in the quest conversation system, because making players wait for other players has generally devolved into being a no-no among MMO developers.

    Personally I think it’s a sad thing, because it’s another pillar of play that has been removed to streamline the experience, but at the expense of weakening the foundation of The Group as an entity in MMOs, reducing it yet further towards the rudimentary collection of players trying to get through unsoloable content as quickly as possible for the greater loot rewards.

    Stealth no loner fits into MMOs because role-playing no longer fits in to MMOs; I think we’re also witnessing the gradual extinction of danger in MMOs, at which point there comes a time when you have to ask ‘what reason is there to hide from an enemy that I have no cause to fear?’

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  11. I think stealth is fine how it is really, it adds to the utility of a class when situations arise (which aint a lot at present – but lets see what the future holds). Overgearing content probably means you dont need to use it as much but its still very much a big part of the WoW rogue playstyle both in PvE and PvP.

    In WoW the only Rogue spec that doesnt use stealth so much is combat, but then they are more toe to toe orientated fighters where as assassination and subtlety rogues are more your attack from the shadows type.

    • I would put money on there being fewer and fewer situations in future where stealth will add to the utility of a class. It just doesn’t fit with the ‘bring the class not the player’ thought.

      • got to disagree, Blizzard have already stated they will be returning CC (the use of sap from stealth more often in raids and dungeons) as an important part of Cataclysm, add to that a new ‘stealth like ability’ which can shield and hide group members from ranged attacks in the talent smoke bomb.

        This doesnt include the useage of stealth already ie disarming traps, vanish – aggro dump. Pick pocket. These things are all useful in their own way but if people dont utilise them then its not really a fault in the design its just human nature to be lazy.

        If anything its peoples reluctance and lazyness to use stealth rather than it lacking any benefits.

        Perhaps Im missing something but cant see what more utility it should bring?!

      • Maybe so. But think of it this way. When you stealth and then sap, does it actually make you feel like a stealther, or is stealth just an extra button you have to push before you can use your CC?

      • To me it is part of the class and thats how I play it. When Im a rogue Im rarely out of stealth.

        If people dont use stealth to the best of its potential then its hardly a design flaw or means stealth isnt useful its just laziness or a lack of understanding of the class as a whole.

        As I said however I cant figure out what more you expect from stealth?

        the utility is there to be used it is down to the player to get the best out of it.

  12. adding challenges to quests would solve some things, Extra exp for not killing mobs, or in quests for certain kills, kill only the target.

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