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)Β  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!

17 thoughts on “Begone, Trinity!

  1. This is the very reason I decided to do away with pure healers in my game design. There is no direct healing or restoration in my plans, as the game focuses more on regeneration and actual medical healing techniques like setting broken bones, bandaging wounds, etc.

    I dislike the idea of a particular archetype having to pay more attention to their UI than the game they’re trying to enjoy.

    One argument against giving everyone the healing ability in one way / shape / form is that it promotes more soloing than grouping and if 1 person can do it all with their class, they’re less likely to want to do anything with anyone else.

    I know you’re a soloer at heart and group moreso with friends you know, so you may not see anything wrong with it and in fact, there may not BE anything wrong with it.

    Just because a game is an MMO doesn’t mean you HAVE to be playing with those other people, IMO.

    Seriously, the gaming industry needs a revamp when it comes to MMOs.

  2. I see the solo vs group argument, but I’m wondering if the “we MUST have healers or nobody would ever group” argument isn’t a little facile. That’s why we group now, because that’s how games have been designed to do it, but there have got to be options in game design other than the ones we see now and are used to.

    More to the point, perhaps — if a healer’s only purpose is to be the hinge for groups, that’s giving healers too much responsibility for too little variety, and doesn’t do the other archetypes a good service either.

    Does that make sense?

    Mostly I’m just kicking a ball around — just because it’s always been done a given way doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way.

  3. What I find interesting is that when MMO devs drift towards this idea, via hybrid classes, the players tend to rein them back in.

    If you pay any attention at all to WoW chatter going around, you’ll see classes like the druid not being allowed to be hybrids. If you spec your character so you can do a little of everything, no one wants you around. Peer pressure forces you to decide if your druid is going to be a healer or a tank or whatever… (and this isn’t limited to WoW, it’s just an example that most people will have encountered).

    It seems to be there isn’t a lot of incentive for developers to change things much if the players themselves seem resistant to change.

    What we *really* *need* (tangent incoming) is a way for small indie developers to create MMOs. Or maybe LMOs (Largely Multiplayer Online). That’s the only way we’re going to get real changes happening…when a couple people can band together and make a game that breaks out of the mold without putting a risk a company that puts food on the table for 100+ employees.

  4. Oh I know exactly what you’re saying. How many groups don’t happen because we A: don’t have a tank or B: don’t have a healer?

    Without having to rely on a specific archetype to handle that part of the game, groups can form more easily. What I think it will come down to eventually is … a skill based game, where anyone can tank, heal and dps. Problem with that, right now, is class homogenization. It appears in WoW and WAR so much, it’s kinda sad.

    Archmage is a Shaman, Choppa is a Slayer, Black Orc is an Ironbreaker, Chosen is a Swordmaster, BG is a KotBS, etc etc.

    In WoW it doesn’t look as prevalent from the outset since both sides have the same classes, but the classes themselves get smooshed together, or you have certain classes that can do anything, like druids, but that’s BAD because it’s a set class.

    If you have a skill based game where people can pick and choose, then their tanking / dps / healing skills can be very different and the mechanics of playing them can be different, but your grouping problems basically go away.

    In order to DO that though, you have to redefine what a “tank” is and what a healer is actually doing.

    Truth is, anyone can tank. Mages, warriors, rogues, etc. As long as you can keep aggro and have some method of damage mitigation or avoidance, you can tank. In my design, healers would actually be dpsing for the battle and the healing takes place either by removing yourself from battle or after the battle. (It’s more strategy based :P). Traditional MMOs don’t look at mechanics this way because their basis lies in what’s happening IN battle.

  5. I fail to see why I can’t “enjoy the game” as a healer because I have to look at the UI. I like playing healers, they’re always my main. Sure, you get blamed for everything, but for us dedicated healers it’s a great game of managing your ressources and quick decisions – sometimes you have to let someone die in favour of somebody else, and you usually only get split seconds to decide. You also need a very efficient UI/keyboard layout that usually takes a while to build up in any new game.

    I’m not against classes having self-heals, but it really doesn’t change anything. You can’t make them too big (else nobody dies anymore), and when you keep them small you’ll have to adjust the mobs so players still die. You want players to die, believe me ;P

    It might give you a little more fun in playing, depending on what you like. See Guild Wars (strange, in almost every respect I come back to it for best practice) where you can dual-class to Monk or Ritualist. You’ll be missing the primary attribute, though. Still, those builds are usually used for soloing/buddying, not for group play.

    Most whining about healers IMHO stems from the following:

    Non-healers never take the time to understand how healing works. They just want to be kept alive. So they don’t give a shit, run out of cast range/LoS into a mass of mobs and expect to live, never listen to anything (like “out of Mana/Energy/pick_your_poison). Regarding that, doing away with healer classes would probably turn the tide and people would whine about not being able to survive because of “shitty healing skills” or the like.

    Look at Darkfall, for example – vaporware or not – they do away with all this, and the idea is great. I’m pretty sure you’ll find dedicated healers there, too (should it ver get release ;-), since you can’t do everything equally good (there’s some sort of skill decay, too).

    Side note: I wish everybody would get rid of the worst idea ever: player levels. It keeps you from playing with your friends most of the time (“oh, I’m too low/high to do that”) without offering any benefit. See Guild Wars (ok, they do have levels, but everything since Factions gets you up to the cap in the tutorial, and then you can start to access all the content) or Darkfall, once more. What I personally dislike about the latter is that you obviously don’t get to train your skill level, but have to use a skill to “level it up”, like in Morrowind/Oblivion/Dungeon Siege (which, IMHO, has proven to suck). And if you’re Blizzard (or Turbine, or …) you punt your players in the face with every expansion, rising the cap and turning all your hard work and grind (for gear) into … nothing … instantly.

    O yeah. Get rid of the ridiculous gear fetishism. See Guild Wars, that’s how it works πŸ™‚

  6. I played a Priest and a Paladin healer in WoW and I despise looking at my UI the whole time to heal. I used Grid so I could minimize the window I looked at, but it’s just whack-a-mole in the end.

    I do agree on getting rid of levels and item-centricity though.

  7. You can always separate the roles’ responsibilities from each other to shake it up a bit. For instance moving all your mitigation into the back lines and making it position reliant would be an interesting change. But that’s all just synthesis in motion.

    The real truth is that the holy trinity is based on the simplest realities of combat, you need to strike your opponent, defend yourself, and stay on your feet even if you get hit. Of course, these have been abstracted out into entire character’s primary pursuits. Most easily, you could find something else to take it’s place, and the fact that I call that the most easy solution is a hint at how hard all of this really is. In this case, let’s redetermine what we define as a battle. Rather than the basic concept of a cage match, instead a bait and trap. A fairly different case of specializations and needs.

    Problem is, you can break down the trinity, but you can’t stop specialization. It’s natural. I’ve seen it over and over again in real life… unfortunately, it’s just something people expect and rely on.

  8. True, Sara. Whatever you put in place in a game, even skill based, people will naturally design their character a certain way. So you may not have a “tank” class, but someone who wants to bear the brunt of the damage will get skills that raise HP, block, parry, etc naturally.

    But, that’s not the only way to do it. A rogue who raises skill in evasion, dexterity, tricks, blinding, annoyances, etc … can tank as well. A mage who specs into various shield types of spells or quick teleportation to avoid hits can tank.

    I wish I could illustrate the way I want to do magic in our game because I think it’s really neat. (Yes, I know every person says that about their own ideas :P). I won’t bog down your post with it, Ysh, so maybe I’ll make a post on my own.

    As far as this goes, redefining battle is tough because battle is just conflict in some form. Can’t really redefine that πŸ˜› But you CAN use it in different forms. I mean there’s mental conflict where you can throw diplomacy in for a battle of wits, there’s physical conflict and there’s even non-physical conflict where you have to use strategy from far away (commanding a far off army or something).

    Point short: Game companies today haven’t reached out far enough to embrace exactly how deep these games can go. I agree with Pete. We need an indie company to redefine the MMO or LMO to set the big guys on track. Strangely enough, that’s why I started my company πŸ˜›

  9. I’m all for experimenting without the Trinity. It has worked so far, and I’m fine with playing Trinity games, but I get the feeling the days of studios focusing on fantasy are beginning to wane. The Trinity works in fantasy (despite that it was never specifically around back in tabletop days — though it is now in WoW: The RPG… err… D&D 4th Edition) but not so much in any other genre.

    Can there be a common system that would work in any genre and also satisfy players’ desires to have a valued role among their peers?

    How does healing fit into other genres? It’s all fine and good to say “oooooh I cast a magic healing spell” but shooting a healing grenade doesn’t quite cut it for my sensibilities.

    What about tanking? If we’re doing say, a ranged sci-fi ground game, tanking doesn’t really make sense. Some EVE players have built “shield tank” ships which can take the damage, but taking damage alone is not “tanking” it’s just mitigating damage. In the real military world tanks are able to take damage to protect the soldiers inside but they get focused on because of the massive damage they can do if they fire a shell at you. But in our fantasy games the “tank” classes do limited damage in order to give the dps classes something to do. What about sniping? Again, that’s uber dps but since they’re at such a distance and usually hidden, that could be considered a form of “evasion tanking” as well, and they are certainly a “dps” threat to focus on.

    There’s a reason we’re always “LFG tank/healer:” they each require specific skills, can become stressful, lead to burnout, and require a certain about of sadomasochism but are appreciated after that effort. We hope. But dps is always fun all the time for everyone.

    What about UIs? I heal in MMOGs, usually secondary but in LOTRO my alt is a healer class and I also raid healed back in my WoW days a couple years ago. I’m good at it and have developed my own skills to quickly target and heal/buff/debuff whichever player needs it. But I can’t say that I really enjoy “playing the UI” and then missing a lot of the actual action. I have an entire screen with stuff going on but I’m limited to staring at health bars and monitoring my cooldowns on hotbars. I’m accustomed to it, I’m fairly good at it, but that aspect is not enjoyable. I’m not learning about the encounter, I’m not even enjoying watching the rest of the group fight. My screen may as well go black and only show me the GroupUI and my hotbars for all I get to see and play. What about healing (more to the point: selecting any group member) once MMOGs make the jump to consoles? Is there a single UI system that can work on both PCs and consoles or will they have to be completely different?

  10. @Scott

    LOL my buddy and I were just talking about how we never knew what happened in the back half of the Gluth fight in Naxx, either in the 40 or 25 man because we’re both healers. We face forward, heal the main tanks and that’s it. Until recently when I got to DPS on my DK, I’d never seen the fight going on behind me.

  11. Well, some DikuMMOs approach the healing a bit different. Vanguard, for example, had a very cool healing class, the Bloodmage, that required you to do damage to maximize your healing. It was hard to play (though a non-stop solo grinding machine) as a healer, but very rewarding. WAR picked that up (actually, they gripped most of the good stuff from Vanguard [which wasn’t _that_ much, really, but some parts were really well done]) with the DoK/WP, although healing is rather boring, since Mythic is somehow afraid of single-target heals, which takes a lot of fun out of healing, because you are required to spam your group healing a lot. It’s not as retarded as in AoC, where you basically had no healing skills as a healer (well … I exaggerate, but if you played it, you know), but still not very interesting, unfortunately. And the mechanics are broken (in the way that the offhand items destroy the whole balance of Melee Healer – Hybrid Healer – Pure Healer), making them the best healers around for now. Which is nice if you play one, but it’s not how it was meant to be. Probably going to change in 1.3, but I don’t think it’ll change for the better, since (see above) Mythic seems to be afraif of healing.

  12. This is a meme? I just questioned it because it was part of the entrenched MMO design, and I’m digging around, challenging assumptions.

    As I’ve noted either on my blog or on Wiqd’s, I’m not totally convinced that an open skill based system wouldn’t result in people specializing anyway, but even if it did, at least it would be based on player choice, and it would be more dynamic with subtler gradations of specialization. (Rather than a class based “hybrid or specialist” setup.) Also, if you could “respec” your skills whenever you felt like it (or just in towns like GW), people could explore different “roles” without rerolling an alt and grinding it through the “maturation” phase.

  13. Not just you, Tesh — a bunch of people have been kicking this around in the last couple of months. I can’t think who exactly — maybe that Shwayder man or Moorgard among others, you, probably Syp, Muckbeast, etc…?

    I may be mentally collating stuff that’s been discussed in comments just as much as in blogs. I do that. πŸ˜‰

    And for sure, “pure” skill-based systems or whatever other non-class-based system you have is eventually going to be subject to “cookie-cutter” builds — that’s because devs have a finite ways in which to present challenges, and thus the “best” (or often FOTM) builds will emerge for a given game, role, or situation. That’s very much my experience from Asheron’s Call, for instance. However, in principle at least these systems are more open-ended than pure class-based ones where *everyone* is the same coming out of the gate.

    Talent trees are really just a layer of “skill-picking” frosting, and they’re subject to the same cookie-cutter issues — it’s very obvious in WoW raiding, since there seem to be few ways in which you can actually get a raid “right.”

  14. Maybe one big element of the problem is raid design, then? Well, that and the artificial “threat” mechanic, which Chris F aptly lampooned over on his blog. The trinity is built around those mechanics; a different combat core would invite different tactics.

  15. What about the MMOs that don’t have dedicated healers? How come all these straw man arguments always assume MMO = WOW (or something very similar)?

    City of Heroes/Villains, Spellborn, Wizard 101, Guild Wars, EVE Online — these are just off the top of my head, MMOs I have played, that dispense with or heavily modify the “holy trinity”.

    Plenty of MMOs out there are innovating and finding answers to these questions. Instead of wondering “what would MMOs be like without WoW mechanics”, a better question would be, “those MMOs with different mechanics, are their solutions working?”

  16. i’m trying to think of a good system that would allow for healers, but eliminate the UI dependency.

    everyone else in the fight is looking at the monster. I understand that healers don’t pay attention to the monster, but their teammates. this is a different role, and certain personalities enjoy that aspect more (helping friends vs. hurting foes).

    I enjoy both sides, but yeah watching meters sucks (likewise in DPS, watching omen is a drag).

    doing away with DPS meters would eb a huge boon for DPS, and likewise, eliminating unti frames altogether. Give healing a hotkey (Ctrl) that, when held, channels a 2 second ‘focus’ that brings us auras around your team mates. blue auras are 100-85% HP, green 84-75, yellow 74-50, orange 49-25, red 25-10, flashing red less than 10.

    you hit your focus (but can’t just hold it down the whole time, or hey… maybe you can), and seek out who needs the next heal BY LOOKING AT THE FIGHT. targetted members can have a unit frame come up, but there’s no ‘party interface’ to whack a mole on. there’s no tiny raid windows everywhere.

    healing assignments are still there, but it’s like ‘keep and eye on jeff and fred’, and (surprise surprise) you actually need to KEEP AN EYE ON *THEM*, not just their little green bar.

    woo woo, this actually sounds shit hot.

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