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r1ft Gaming Blog

A mirror of my gaming blog at The jaded game designer turned corporate lackey. Feedback is always welcome.

Author: Daedren

Gandalf Tanked a Balrog

Posted by Daedren Thursday June 5 2008 at 11:21AM
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While in the recent months I've expressed my dissatisfaction with the possibility of yet another Medieval/Fantasy sort of MMO, I'm also a believer if you do something, you should do it right. Today's discussion is about archetypes - more specifically, the Mage archetype - how Funcom and Age of Conan implemented it, and what they could have done better.

Of course any opening paragraph such as that carries a bit of weight with it. Here I am, Joe Gamer, playing armchair referee and spouting that my ideas are better than a team of game developers. It's not my intention to portray this sort of arrogance. I'd like to think of a set of ideas - which is really all this is - as more of a constructive criticism to a just released game than a direct attack on their core game design.

Age of Conan was released about 2 weeks ago, and as most new MMO's, it has its fair share of problems. This isn't the place to discuss those, as I've already given a general overview of the 12 AoC Classes and done something on the Age of Conan Extended Beta. No, this will be specifically targeted at the Mage Archetype, and more specifically the Necromancer and Demonologist classes.

The Problem

Age of Conan follows a very traditional archetype structure with their Mage classes. On paper, all are "high damage, low survivability" classes. I've left the Herald of Xotli out of this discussion because it's not a typical Mage archetype, which I consider a good thing. I think many will agree with me when I say the Herald of Xotli class is designed fairly well and provides for a "fresh" feel to a Mage archetype. Arguably, it can be considered the "most working" Mage class at the moment in both PVP and PVE.

The Demonologist and Necromancer follow the typical Mage archetype stereotypes by being ranged magical users with little or no defense and a very small hit point pool. We refer to these types of characters as "glass cannons" because they are designed to usually output a huge (and dangerous) amount of magic damage but be short lived themselves if under fire. This method has been used in nearly every MMO, from Everquest to World of Warcraft.

So, what's the problem? Well, aside from these two classes being mostly broken at the moment (as admitted in a recent developer announcement that changes will be coming soon) - these classes lack any real creativity or ingenuity in their design. By this I don't mean being forced into using the same 1-3 abilities every fight (though that's pretty much the case now) - I mean that they're forced into this Mage archetype with almost no thoughts of creating a different or dynamic gameplay experience for the player.

The real problem lies with the glass cannon mentality in itself. This old and tired standard of low hp / low armor / high damage classes is nearly as bad as the leveling system itself in an MMO design. I, as both a MMO player and MMO designer, have never understood why this stereotype is embraced time and time again. It's an overly simple system that leads to a "Rock, Paper, Scissors" system in both PVP and PVE encounters.

Gandalf Tanked a Balrog

I use Gandalf for this example because he's (arguably) what the entire Mage archetype is based off. Of course, other characters such as Elminister and Raistlin helped popularize this (among countless others); I suppose nearly all modern Fantasy MMO's are just a rehash or Dungeons & Dragons at least in some shape or form, but that's another topic of debate.

The dramatization of the Gandalf vs. Balrog fight in the LOTR movies is a perfect example of how a mage Archetype *should* be. Now, before we start talking about how the Balrog was probably level 25 or so while Boromir was probably only level 15 or so while Gandalf was 25 or 30, let's assume for all purposes that D&D levels and stuff don't apply here. While it's clear that Gandalf is the "most powerful" in the group, if you applied modern MMO mechanics to this Gandalf vs Balrog fight, Gandalf would have ran up to the bridge and got one-hit killed by the Balrog with a huge sword.

That didn't happen. Gandalf used a nice glowy shield from his staff to completely deflect all of the Balrog's damage. In this case, Gandalf "tanked" the Balrog because he negated all of the damage the Balrog tried to do to him. Most people know the rest of the story, but that's not relevant to this discussion.

There we have it. The atypical Mage archetype displayed a hybrid-like nature in fulfilling the role of a "tank" in an encounter with an enemy. A soldier with a shield might have been able to deflect the huge firey sword and not get sliced in half. A mage did it here by means of magic. This mechanic of "tanking" can be imagined in countless different ways; from causing the enemy to drop their weapon, repelling an enemy, causing mental anguish, controlling them via voice or telepathic means - the possibilities of Mages fulfilling a different role other than "high damage, dies quick" role is always overlooked in core game and class design.

It's this simple mentality that I believe should be embraced by the Fantasy MMO genre. Why are only Soldiers able to "tank"? It makes no sense at all. While I agree that a Knight in armor with a shield should be great at avoiding harm to himself, magic users should have just as many means to avoid damage (if not more - they're using magic!) - at a level at least equal to their Soldier counterparts.

Another slight caveat to this problem is Mage Archetypes not engaging in melee combat. While we can all agree this was solved in the case of the Herald of Xotli, we're left with two Mage classes that don't even utilize the fun new directional combat system AoC has implemented. While I agree that an absolute focus on melee would be redundant, it's realistic to think that Demo's and Necro's would be able to do some sort of magically enhanced melee (or even touch attack) combos. This also opens the possibility of aiming ranged spell attacks to make a more interactive combat style. Couple these sort of melee attacks with the abilities that allow the mage to survive more than 5 seconds in melee range, and we're seeing the start of a fresh new class archetype that throws the old out and embraces dynamic gameplay.

Yet, here we are, 2008, and the first "third generation" MMO is here - Age of Conan. For a game that has really tried to revitalize the MMO Fantasy genre by "shaking things up" (Dynamic combat system, Healers that nuke/damage well, AOE focused melee characters, even a melee Mage with a huge sword ripping hearts out) -- we're left completely underwhelmed by the core design of the two Mage archetype classes Necromancer and Demonologist.


It's probably too late to redesign the core mechanics of these classes. The upcoming fix will only solidify these two classes into their "glass cannon" roles. I doubt we'll see Demonologists hefting up their staff and repelling hordes of enemies or sadomasochistic Necromancers embracing pain to fulfill a "tank role" in Age of Conan. No, the time for that was a year or so ago when these classes were in the core design phase.

This doesn't mean that Funcom hasn't at least made an entertaining game, albeit more focused on melee combat. It also doesn't mean people can't have fun playing these mage / caster classes - of course they can, just as they have fun playing glass cannons in prior games. What I think most players won't find is a truly unique gameplay experience with these classes in terms of game mechanics.

So, what does everyone think? Do you prefer the tired and tested system of typical mage roles or do you think hybridizing them would be a good thing?

JK-Kanosi writes:

I'm starting to like your Blogs. They are intelligently written and address some good points. With that said, you sparked an idea in my head. Let's assume every MMORPG has the Fighter/Rogue/Mage/Healer Archetypes. Why couldn't they all be capable of filling all roles in a group? For example, a fighter would tank by being able to mitigate dmg with their armor and can single target dps with a one-hander and aoe dps with a 2-hander. With a shield, they can mitigate more dmg. A mage can possibly mitigate dmg with a magical shield, self buffs that would make the mage able to evade faster, or even use magical spells to weaken a targets attacks or even make them cower in fear...essentially giving the mage a way to tank in a group. The mage could single target or aoe dps with spells, and could even wield a weapon as their dps tool. Rogue's could tank by being evasive and dealing out single target dps with one-handed and ranged weapons, while dealing out aoe dmg by dual weilding weapons, 2-handed weapons, and multi-shot skills with ranged weapons. Healers could wear heavier armor to mitigate dmg. Healers could choose to have better healing capabilities, buffing capabilities, crowd control capabilites, or DPS capabilities.

I can see many possibilities using classes, where not one archetype is pigeon holed in a particular role. Let's face it, a sword and dagger can kill just as quickly as a powerful spell, so it only stands to reason that all classes should be dps machines. It also stands to reason that all classes should be able to avoid or mitigate dmg, which means all classes can tank. I don't know why a developer hasn't implemented this before. It really would solve the balancing and group role issues. Imagine a MMORPG where you can just load up 8 inparticular classes into your group and only have to decide who wants to fill which role.

Thu Jun 05 2008 12:13PM Report
samuraislyr writes:

I think this is a great idea but I think with PvP being a must have in MMO's these days... the balance aspect of classes will make this impossible.

Take LOTRO for example... it has no real PVP to speak of so classes only have to be balanced for PvE which means Loremasters (the closest thing to a mage class) have the ability to actually tank. Now they aren't great at it... but I've seen loremasters with up 4,000 hp which is a lot in LOTRO. More then some of the melee classes are able to get easily. It takes a bit of work to do this but the loremaster can tank somewhat...not great, nor are they best, but in a tight bind, they can tank.

When you through PVP into the mix and classes have to be balanced againist each run into all sorts of problems. Class A has to be able to kill Class B and vice versa.

Though Guild Wars did a fine job with class balance as well as things as you talk about. Mages could very well tank in that game.... Earth mages had shields like mad that were just hard for any class to overcome. If more games could do what Guild Wars did and does then I think we could see more interesting aspects in MMO's. Basically balance for PVP and then balance for PVE....have two different versions of the same skill if you must. One for PvE and one for PvP ( I know GW, only just recently did this for numerous skills but they had a similar system with PVE-only skills for awhile before that).

Thu Jun 05 2008 12:17PM Report
JK-Kanosi writes:

I think what it comes down to is choice. If you give every player the choice on how to tank and dps, it really only comes down to making sure all forms of tanking are equal if value and all forms of dps is equal in value. For example, at character creation, a person can choose out of Evading, Magic Defense, or Armor as their possiblities for tanking. For DPS, they can choose One-handed, 2-handed, Dual Weilding, Ranged, and Magic. For support skills, they can choose Crowd Control, Healing, and Buffing. Side skills that everyone can develop are Lock Picking, Finding Traps, Hiding, Sneaking, Disarming Traps and etc.

This is sort of like a class based, skill-based hybrid system. The choices you make for your skill sets will determine the type of archetype you are. For example, if you choose to mitigate dmg by wearing armor, use magic for your dps, you would be a Fighter Archetype, BattleMage class.

In PvP, a Fighter would do the same dmg as a Mage and a Mage would mitigate the same amount of dmg as the Fighter. So it will come down to player skill on who will win that fight. I do not see the problem that you are seeing concerning class balance. As you said, GW did a pretty good job in class balance and they allowed people to customize their classes to their liking.

Thu Jun 05 2008 12:46PM Report
Hrothmund writes:

A well written article, with some very valid points. I guess the main reason for limiting a certain classes abilities is the balancing. Who would want to play a simple warrior that can tank and slash here and there with his rapier, when they could as well play a fireball hurling mage that could tank the toughest opponents out there with the help of his powerful abilities.


It will be interesting to see how classes like death knight and battlemage will be implemented into MMOs in the future. People want versatility for their given class, but once all the classes in a game become too versatile, the point of having seperate classes in the first place becomes moot. I think class balance is somthing that really shows how capable the development team behind a game is. If you can create a combat system where very distinct and unique classes can fullfill their specialist roles, yet prove very efficient as all-around combatants I think you have come up with a very good combat system.

Thu Jun 05 2008 1:01PM Report
jpowell writes:

very very well written article the closest "mage class" that I have ever seen to your description was in original EQ pre-kunark. All mage classes pre-kunark had defensive spells that could make them "Invulnerable for a set duration as gandalf was in the movie.

Thu Jun 05 2008 2:44PM Report
Gishgeron writes:

  Very well written, my friend.  I must agree with you, mostly, and applaud such wonderful text for having graced my screen today!  I think that many of us are quite done with the many tired ideals that have been in this genre for so long.  Many players leaving their long time games right now are hungry for something fresh...something new to tackle and explore.

  The developers are not giving us this...and I suspect it will show over time.

Thu Jun 05 2008 3:06PM Report
Hexxeity writes:

I've noticed that the classes in Aion -- not just Mage, but ALL classes -- are depressingly uninspired and derivative of the same old RPG paradigms.

Let's face it; developers are a lazy and risk-averse bunch of people.

Thu Jun 05 2008 4:11PM Report
Hrothmund writes:

Hexx - Developers are not lazy, that isn't the issue behind the uncreatvie carbon copy releases we keep seeing. The real reason is the business side of things. Would you release bottled water to compete with a cola? Hell no, cola is sweet, tastes good and contains caffeine. On top of this, if your cola has a strong brand behind it, the added value behind that might just be enough to sell it.

Game publishers are out there to make money, not entertain the masses.

Thu Jun 05 2008 6:37PM Report
rsreston writes:

Wow - the end of your blog threw me back into the less-colored world of same old tank-healer-FPS - I was already immersed in the dream MMOworld of a squishy mage tanking or dealing the final blow with his staff as his final act and thus saving his entire group before falling to his knees. I guess I'm going back to table-rpg with my friends for a while... (great blog btw!)

Thu Jun 05 2008 7:43PM Report
1pitboss writes:

HMMM, I hate to point out that you are not correct. I will say that Gandalf tanked a Balrog I must point out out he could not have done it had he not had the ring of fire. One of the three rings given to the elven kings the other two lay with Elrond and Lady G.  I will further point out that Gandalf stated that he has lived 300 lives of men that would put him at 1800 years old. In DnD terms way past a level 30, and a Balrog was as old as the begining of creation though I would like to know who made the sword and whip for him. Now if you remember for all his great powers Sauroman the wizard was done in by a simple dagger and he did nto even see that coming. I think they have the glass cannon idea right.

Thu Jun 05 2008 10:40PM Report
Jamkull writes:

well written and thought out but while your at it, why do games now still use the very old worn out "class" based systems.  that in of itself is bad enough. 

Honestly a Skill based game would solve a lot if not all of our  issues, there have only been a couple that have tried and they didn't really fail but just didn't get much advertisement and top of mind awareness.  But i'm sure if development on a pure skill based structure would give us all the freedom we desire in an mmo.  and with enough thought put into each of the skills you can still have restrictions and benefits that would still make everything work right.  a good place to start would be some old tried and true skill based PnP systems.

Fri Jun 06 2008 12:20AM Report
JB47394 writes:

The fundamental problem does not lie in a mage's inability to survive physical attacks in melee.  The fundamental problem is that melee combat is the only activity in these games.  Everyone wants to be able to operate in that environment - despite the fact that their character's archetype is fundamentall ill-suited to it.

If there were farmers in MMOs, they would have magical scythes  and rakes, and have the ability to call up crops from the ground to defend themselves with.  Pumpkins for tanking, wheat for snaring.  It's laughable.

Make mages into mages, for pity's sake.  They deal with problems in mage ways.  Warriors deal with problems in warrior ways.  Rogues deal with problems in rogue ways.  Archers, engineers, politicians, farmers etc, etc, etc.

But put in multiple types of problems!  MMOs only have one type - how to kill monsters.  That is why your character is a mage and it is faced with fighting like a warrior.  If you had problems that you could face as a mage, then being a mage would have some purpose.

When the game comes along that does things this way, you will be kicking yourself over how you were calling for all characters to be tank mages so that they could melee effectively.

Melee should be a small part of MMO gameplay.  It should be available for those who want it, and for those people, there are the warrior solutions.

Fri Jun 06 2008 8:43AM Report
Nineven writes:

There just needs to be a game where the player defines their own character and they don't have to walk a pre-destined path, like Necromancy or Demonology.

This post is another good reason why classes in MMORPG's just don't work; they get old, really quick, and you can never change.

Sat Jun 07 2008 8:50AM Report
Hordequester8 writes:

I think the biggest thing that offsets Mages vs Melee or other classes is quite simply that they have too many negatives to make up for their positives.

The biggest mistake I've ever heard of has been "Mana". I'd like to figure out who invented that idea and kick them in the balls then try to figure out why other people think its a good idea. Honestly, do people just do it because everyone else is doing it?

D&D originally did not have mana to tangle with. You had your daily list of spells and when you needed more you had to rest. This made for a much more strategic game than today's button mashing method of mages.

But, personally I'd take it one step further. Why should Warriors be able to swing their swords non-stop yet I have to sit down everytime I cast a few spells? Do they all have some godly source of power that is greater than magic? That's conflicting since mages are supposed to be Massive Damage and no defense. I would remove the idea of restrictive spellcasting altogether. It should be no different than swinging a sword. If I get tired of spellcasting then a warrior should get tired of swinging.

I've never understood why people felt it necessary to make mages incredibly weak, restricted by mana, long range, only wearing cloth, cant use a sword (I mean seriously would my arm disintegrate if I picked up a sword?).

Why not just make them enuchs too while you're at it. You've already cut off their metaphorical testicles.

Fri Jun 13 2008 5:02PM Report
Melf_Himself writes:

My thoughts to add:

Gandalf is ridiculously more powerful than any other character in the party. Gandalf would pwn a hundred Aragorns. Why would anybody ever choose not to play as Gandalf (other than RP reasons?)

For game balance, you can't have everyone do everything, regardless of how it plays out in some book or some movie that you think every game has to copy to be qualified to tell a fantasy story.

Wed Jun 18 2008 5:46AM Report writes:
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