Begone, Trinity!

This is another one of those blog-memes that’s going round: we’re pondering what our familiar MMOs would look like if most of them didn’t use the “holy Trinity” of classes. Heal, Tank, DPS — which one would you remove or change, and how, and why?

Other articles have asked if we even need dedicated healers anymore. (I’d give references but it was a while back — just take a trip through the blogroll instead, they’re all worth a read!)

And then, more recently, Aaron of Anyway Games said: “[…] grouping in a sport is dynamic while grouping in MMOs is static.” He’s right. It’s one of the weaknesses of grouping in MMOs, though it’s probably also one of the strengths. At any rate, it’s what allows raids to be designed so that each player has to play their role perfectly and exactly or risk wiping the entire enterprise — and do it over and over again until the raid is mastered. I’m probably missing nuances here, because that’s exactly the kind of gameplay I avoid, but I think I’ve got the general idea. Finding out what the right combination of classes and actions is, is part of the raiding challenge.

Personally, I’m not sure that’s a genuine challenge, but if it works for those who enjoy it then it’s not an issue. (A challenge where the stakes are “make ONE mistake and the entire raid group wipes” every time you make a move isn’t a challenge, it’s a slightly expanded form of Russion roulette. But, YMMV.)

The point among all this — as relates to healers — is that while raids restrict what each archetype gets to do, it’s particularly restrictive for healers. They watch health bars, they watch for debuffs or DoTs or other effects they can remove, and they keep an eye on their own mana bars to make sure they don’t run out. Healer nuance consists of making sure you don’t heal too early or too often, so that you don’t waste mana or catch aggro. Sounds to me like healing in raids is pretty much like making efficiency improvements on the factory floor.

I’m not the first to say that, but when someone (several someones, on several blogs in the last few weeks/months)  suggested doing away with healers altogether, even I found myself pulling back a little, and I tend to think of myself as a class-exploding iconoclast. “You can’t do that, we need healers in games!” But — do we? What if each remaining class had self-heals? That’s a quick (and probably dirty) way of removing external healing from the equation. SWG has gone down that road a few steps by giving most classes minor self-heals; they’re mostly not huge, but they’re there.

A wider point for me is, what if we did away with the bloody MMO archetypes altogether? Or at least revisited them, blurred them, melted them into unrecogniseable slag and started again? The original tabletop pen’n’paper games dictated that if you do A, you can’t do B very well — so if you heal, you don’t hit all that hard, and if you hit REALLY hard, you’re probably made of tissue paper. It’s a necessary balance, because if any game ever had a class that could do all things really well — more to the point, better than all the other available classes — then that’s all anyone would end up playing. It’s also a very simplistic balance, and I think MMOs have come a ways since then (not to mention tabletop games themselves). Just because it’s always been done a certain way doesn’t mean that’s the only way, nor that it’s the only good way.

The principle of giving up a few abilities in order to gain a few abilities is sound. We think we want our characters to be able to do absolutely everything, but if they could, we’d get bored. (I don’t actually buy the “and there would be no social interaction!” argument, but that’s for another time.) As far as I can tell from my own preferences, I want some challenge but not so much challenge that I give up — just enough to feel like I overcame something and can go Yay! How much challenge a given player enjoys will vary, but the basic principle holds. If we failed more often than we succeeded, or even if we failed a high enough proportion of the time, I suspect we’d end up walking away. (Raids appear to break this rule, and since I’m not a raider, I don’t understand why. Me not being a raider is why I’d say “This is stupid. I’m not a rat in an electrified maze. Sod this for a game of darts!” — But I’m also not attracted to the shiny, shiny item cheese at the end of the maze. If I were, I suspect I’d understand a great deal more about raiding.)

So, sure, don’t let us be masters of everything. But maybe allow us to cross that hallowed Archetype divide a little more? Let my primarily-damage character also have a little bit of healing. Hell, let my magic-slinging character wear armour! It’s just as easy to make an argument for metal enhancing the magic flow as it was to say it disrupts it. We make the mechanics, then we flange the reasons why, and that’s always been the case. Having it be a give-and-take process is fine — just free us from the single-archetype bonds. There’s a reason paladin-type and druid-type hybrids are so popular (even if they often end up nerfed into unusability); I remember my Fury in EQ2 was a similar kinda-sorta hybrid (mostly healer, but not utterly crap at hitting stuff) and she was a lot of fun.

Yes, it would make designing mobs and encounters and large/challenging encounters (eg raids) in games a fair bit more difficult. Itemisation would probably be a bitch too. That’s not my problem! I’m an armchair dev, not a real one!