Tyler Versus the MMO Trinity, Part Three: My Solution

Over my past two posts on the so-called “holy trinity” of group roles in MMORPGs, I’ve discussed my problems with the trinity, and some of the good times I’ve had outside the traditional role system.

My warlock battling Ragnaros the Firelord in pursuit of Dragonwrath, Tarecgosa's Rest in World of WarcraftNow, we reach the end of this long journey as I outline my personal plan for how to “fix” the trinity.

For some crazy reason I decided to do all three of these posts at once. It’s well after midnight, we’re approaching hour three, my fingers are sore, and my brain is fuzzy, but Hell, let’s do this.

First, some caveats:

I was hesitant to do this for a very long time because I don’t like playing armchair game designer. Well, actually, I like it a lot, but I don’t like the risk of being seduced by the idea that I actually know what I’m talking about, or giving anyone the idea I think I’m better than I am.

I am not a professional game designer. I know this. I’m not going to pretend I can do a better job than they can, because I can’t. This seems like a good idea to me, but what do I know?

And I really doubt anyone particularly wants to hear my pie-in-the-sky ideas for how games should be designed, hence why I haven’t done posts like this before now. But if I’m going to talk about the trinity, I think this is a necessary part of the discussion.

My Templar tanking a lair boss in The Secret WorldSecond, I want to stress once again that variety is what I want. What I’m about to outline is a solution to the trinity. It is not the solution to the trinity. I obviously think my idea is good, but I wouldn’t want to see it become the only system used by MMOs. I want a mix. Some games with traditional roles, some with softened or modified roles, some with no roles.

That said, this is a plan that I believe would solve most of the problems with the trinity while preserving much of its virtues. Your opinion may vary.

On with the show!

Where Guild Wars 2 failed:

Unfortunately, Guild Wars 2 has become the poster child for trying to break the trinity. I say “unfortunately” because they did an awful job of it. Of all the games I’ve played with no trinity or a relaxed trinity, GW2 is the only one that fails to provide fun group dynamics. Ironic considering how much of a selling feature it was.

Things are supposedly a bit different now that raids are in, but at launch, Guild Wars 2 essentially eliminated tanks and healers. This solves some problems, but it also made pretty every class play mostly the same. It made a lot of things into mindless zergs, and combined with dungeon design that wasn’t sufficiently removed from that of trinity games, it was just broken as all Hell.

My thief battling the Sons of Svanir in Guild Wars 2But there are lessons to take from Guild Wars 2’s failure. They were in the right neighbourhood, but they chose the run path.

You see, they got rid of the wrong roles. Tanks and healers are fine.

I say it’s DPS that needs to go.

Death to DPS:

Wait, what?

Tyler, you want to delete the overwhelmingly most popular MMO role? The one you play the most? Are you high?

But think about it. There’s method to this madness.

Imagine what happens when DPS is no longer a dedicated role. You no longer need to tune healers and tanks to have lower damage. In a world where no one is a DPS, everyone is a DPS.

That immediately solves the problem of it sucking to solo as a tank or healer.

My Sith inquisitor in Star Wars: The Old RepublicThen think about what group compositions look like in this hypothetical game where there are only two roles, not three. When you can only include tanks and healers in your group, the responsibility is much more shared.

This solves the problem of the disproportionate sharing of responsibility. It’s not just one tank and one healer. There’s several of each. That glorious double tank run I had in SW:TOR? That could be the norm.

In such a paradigm, if you screw up and get yourself killed as a tank, it wouldn’t be a guaranteed wipe. The other tank(s) would pick up the slack.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds tremendously appealing to me.

Similarly, this makes forming groups a lot easier. Tanks and healers obviously wouldn’t be a rarity, and in theory, such a system could be balanced to no require rigid party compositions. We’re getting far into the hypothetical here, but I think it could be the case that if you have more tanks, your party takes less damage and needs fewer healers, and if you have more healers, you can restore more damage and need fewer tanks.

This would necessitate softening both roles a bit. For example, healers couldn’t simply spam heals all day. They’d need to mix both heals and damage.

My group approaches the final boss of the Slaughterhouse in The Secret WorldThis would require slowing down the pace of both heals and damage. Not slowing combat altogether. You know me; even the standard 1.5 second global cooldown feels sluggish to me. But tanks don’t need to be losing half their health every few seconds. There should be time to recover from a mistake, and on the flip side recovery from bad play shouldn’t be one click a way. Healing is at its best when it’s a tug of war.

I’d put heals on cooldowns or otherwise limit them. Not heavily — healing should obviously be a core part of playing a healer. But it shouldn’t be all you do. Like the devoted cleric in Neverwinter, there should be a degree of adaptation based on the needs of the moment. Sometimes it’s about healing. Sometimes it’s about pouring on the damage.

I’d also like to see a little less emphasis on straight up healing and more on buffs and utility. I like The Secret World’s take on buffs — short duration, dramatic effect — and I’d like to see more of that.

So under my hypothetical design, healers would perhaps be more accurately described as support. They keep their parties afloat through a broad toolkit of heals, buffs, and damage.

As for tanks, I’d soften their role a bit, too. I’m not sure I’d do away with aggro mechanics altogether, but I don’t think tanks should be expected to hold aggro on everything all the time. I’d probably make taunts an emergency cooldown rather than a bread and butter ability. Combat need not be total anarchy, but there should be some unpredictability to it.

My devoted cleric in NeverwinterSlowing down incoming damage supports this, as well. With mobs delivering hits that aren’t so massive, healers (or supports) can take a few hits without collapsing, and combat can afford to be a little less carefully choreographed.

Aggro mechanics are one of those things about the trinity that are painfully artificial, so I’d put a greater emphasis on tanks controlling enemies directly through slows, stuns, pulls, knockbacks, and abilities that manipulate the battlefield. Let them physically impose their will on enemies.

By softening the roles this way, you’re providing everyone a broader experience of combat. Everyone is, one way or another, interacting with enemies, delivering big and satisfying attacks, and aiding their team in a crucial way. At the same time, distinct roles aren’t gone entirely. There’s choice and variety.

It even solves the realism issue to some extent. With multiple tanks, it’s at least somewhat plausible that they could hold off enemies from their weaker team mates. Not because Orcs are magnetically attracted to dudes in plate for some reason, but because they form a physical barrier around their allies. I think I could suspend my disbelief for that.

It’s probably not as simple as I’m making it out to be, but to me, a two-role system seems like an option that avoids the worst flaws of the trinity while still offering much of its benefits.

* * *

Thus concludes my epic series on the trinity. My duty as an MMO blogger is done. Agree or disagree, I hope I’ve at least provided some food for thought, or entertainment value.

While you’re reading epic rants on traditional MMO design by yours truly, why not check out my latest article on MMO Bro: The Case Against MMORPG Button Bloat.

7 thoughts on “Tyler Versus the MMO Trinity, Part Three: My Solution

  1. Great series!
    Some of my favourite experiences in group content have also been when we’ve had to adapt because 1 part of the trinity was missing… I have fond memories of “Mage-tanking” through Maraudon using a combination of slows, roots and blinks.

    I couldn’t agree more though, that it’s variety that’s sorely missing. I think that’s part of what made those moments so great, the fact that they were so different and challenged you to change your playstyle to adapt.

    Removing DPS as a role is one of the best solutions I have heard for solving the trinity ‘issues’ and would definitely allow for more fluid group composition.

    I’m not sure I personally agree (this is the internet, I can’t agree with everything!) with your thoughts on the aggro mechanic, I tend to see it from the other side…
    In the cold light of day, it’s obvious that the goblin mage at the back is the one that’s going to kill you but, in the heat of battle, it’s virtually impossible to ignore the big Tauren standing in front of you, waving his giant axe and screaming in your face! πŸ™‚

    • Glad you enjoyed the posts.

      Your example with the Tauren works if there’s only one or two enemies, but once we get to large packs of mobs, I start have trouble believing that at least a few of them wouldn’t wise up and kill the one in the dress.

      • Which happens quite often when I am tanking… All this time I thought it was because I was bad, but I was actually just being a more realistic tank πŸ˜‰

  2. Late to the party. But i find it interesting how you’ve put TSW in there. Yet you didn’t even see the full spectrum there. It was the most flexible system we had since a long time.

    Just let me give you an idea, how we built our group for the NY raid. Our “tank” was built as DD, just with some extra health and a passive slotted for extra agro. That was good enough for him to be among the best DD in the trial. I usually was the second “tank” we had. My bar was filled with healing abilities and some taunts. Our second healer was also in league with the damage dealers.

    That was while the game maintained the trinity on display. We also at some time did some “all damage-healer, no tank” dungeons and the likes. Things like that were very much possible.

    Despite that, llike 99% of all dungeon tours followed the trinity. For a simple reason: convenience. Going for a wild mix was fun, but trying to make random people just understand what you were doing sometimes was impossible. Making them understand what we’d do took longer than doing the dungeon. So the moment we had a non-guild-member along, we rather resorted to the traditional roles.

    And i fear that’s the very same thing about the DPS role in many other games. It’s the bin for “everything random” in my eyes. There are some DPS out there which really work hard to push the limits. They theorycraft, constantly refine their setups and just try to always get better. But a huge part is just those who don’t want to improve, bear responsibility, etc.

    As you described in an earlier part: tanks and healers take responsibility. Messing up there can lead to a wipe. A DD performing badly just prolongs the fight a bit. (And often is covered up by some more competent DD, too. ) Even if a DD just keeps dying at every chance, it often just means that things die a little slower.

    And that’s where i actually see the “success” of the trinity. It’s the most inclusive system we have. A few people take responsibilty. The rest tags along. As long as they deal at least some damage, they contribute, despite of terrible performance.

    Mind you, as somebody who usually tanks or heals (e.g. my current home: ESO. Five characters, four of them can tank, three of them can heal, neither has a really good damage setup. ) i would absolutely like to try what you propose here. I think i would enjoy it a lot. But it also means that everybody would be required to carry his weight. All the low performers, which just get carried through in the trinity, would suddenly also be forced to do the same.

    So yes, some would shape up and start to shine. Which would be awesome. But others would not. Which in first instance means that they’d make the experience miserable for the others. (For every success story you bring, of which i also know some, i am rather sure that i can bring several where things failed when you pushed people to actually contribute. ) In second instance, it probably means that those players would go somewhere else. An improvement for the game experience of the game, but damage to the producer/publisher due to lost revenue.

    So i am really a bit split here. For me personally and how i play: awesome! Give me that, i’d love to try. But for the game itself, the developer has to be aware that the game will be less inclusive and will have less revenue due to the path taken.

    • The thing is the reason DPS is the low pressure role right now is because the responsibility is spread between multiple people. The large majority of every trinity group is DPS. If you make it so there are always multiple tanks and healers, that diffuses the responsibility similarly. You enter a world where you can carry weaker tanks or healers the same way you can currently carry lackluster DPS.

      • That’s one way to see it. My experience with shared roles is not that positive with random people. It works extremely well and is fun if you know the people you cooperate with. But with random people, I usually saw it fail.

        Different experiences, perhaps also based on different games and how they are made.

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