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Player Perspectives: Messing with the Holy Trinity

By Isabelle Parsley on May 27, 2011 | Columns | Comments

Messing with the Holy Trinity

A couple of years ago I wrote a post on my personal blog about the Holy Trinity and the need to at least consider rethinking it in MMOs to come. It’s a subject that does the rounds of blogs and forums every now and then, and to some extent it’s a fairly logical evolution in MMO design.

For those who haven’t come across the term before, the Holy Trinity refers to class roles in MMOs, and more specifically in almost every fantasy MMO out there: the Tank gets the mob’s attention and soaks up the damage, the Healer keeps the tank from dying, and the DPS classes try to bring the mob down before the Tank dies or the Healer runs out of mana.

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It’s a concept as old as pen’n’paper games themselves and there’s a sound basis for it. For one thing, it gives players a chance to play different roles and it gives people different things to do in encounters; if everyone around the table (or at the keyboard) could do exactly the same thing as everyone else, we’d all get bored pretty quickly. More to the point, game balance requires that if you can do A really well, you’re usually not all that good at B and you might be utterly crap at C – because if any single class could do everything, then everyone would end up playing it and, again, everyone would get bored.

Some MMOs don’t have the concept at all, at least not overtly; take EVE, for instance, which doesn’t even have a concept of class and where everyone is just a pilot. Nonetheless, you can outfit your ship(s) for varying purposes and again, the tank/heal/DPS paradigm creeps in: you can either take lots of damage, support those taking the damage, or dish it out. MMOs and most tabletop games are based on numbers and the roles basically define what your relationship is to those numbers when it comes to combat.

From a dungeon and raiding point of view, designing for clear-cut roles enables the developers to fine-tune encounters that have to be done in a certain way in order to achieve victory. From a design point of view in general, Holy Trinity roles are probably a lot neater to work with than some general idea that everyone can do a bit of everything: if you know precisely that a group or raid will contain a certain balance of roles (or if you decide that it has to contain a given proportion in order to succeed), then you can design more complex encounters that build on the roles you know will be present.

And yet, for as long as there have been MMOs, there have been hybrid classes, and most of them are hugely popular. In Asheron’s Call and SWG, where you could pick and choose what skills your characters had, most of the highly successful characters could do a little bit of everything; and while they couldn’t do any particular thing as well as a more Trinity-focused character, they tended to have high survivability (usually a desirable trait) and most of all they were a lot of fun. In WoW, my warrior languishes in the 20s while my hybrid alts (druid, shaman, paladin) get to have all the fun, because I have a blast playing them.

It’s partly a matter of playstyle, I know, and there’s definitely fun to be had in playing the “pure” trinity classes. But I’ve noticed that my own playstyle prefers classes in which I can switch what I’m doing without having to change characters; I like taking on stuff I shouldn’t even be considering with my paladin, and I love changing to cat form and sneaking past bad guys on my druid. It’s a change of pace and a change of activity that doesn’t require logging in another alt. And again: it’s fun.

There’s been a trend in recent years to blur the Holy Trinity lines somewhat, if only to give most classes at least a little self-healing or a way to take some damage without crumpling like tissue paper. And some games are going even further, by letting a single character have access to a variety of roles depending on what they want or need to be doing at any particular time (RIFT, TSW and so on). WoW remains a little more rigid, but even there you can spec for different activities, though the range of what’s available varies wildly from one class to another. The pure DPS classes (mage, hunter, rogue etc.) still only really exist to do damage, while other classes can switch from a tanking role to a damage or even a healing role; still, it’s a start, and it’s a long way from Vanilla WoW.

I have a feeling that the Holy Trinity is on its way out, sooner or later, because if there’s one thing gamers like it’s having choices. The basic concept of roles isn’t going anywhere, since we’re still playing numbers-based games with numbers-based mechanics, but their implementation is becoming more fluid and I think we’ll benefit from that.

It should certainly make PvP more interesting, especially if we get away from the current rock-paper-scissors design that’s prevalent in a lot of the games I’ve played. It may not have a whole lot of impact on solo and small-group PvE, which is already pretty well designed in most games, but it will certainly affect the design of dungeons, raids and large-scale encounters – and that’s also a good thing. Raiding seems to have gone from stupidly difficult (and very rewarding for a select few) to rather less difficult (but more accessible) to somewhere in between, and while the elitist crowd may wail and gnash their teeth about how it’s not how it used to be, there are good reasons for making that kind of content available and attractive to more than just the type A personalities in any given game, particularly since they’re by no means in the majority.

In many ways MMOs have evolved far more in the last decade than we tend to give them credit for, but some of the underlying design paradigms have proven harder to alter. That’s partly because those paradigms work, and work well, in terms of letting thousands of people play together. But innovation doesn’t require completely abandoning those paradigms: it just means taking a tried and tested way of doing things (the Holy Trinity) and implementing it slightly differently.

Developers can’t turn design on its head at the drop of a hat. For one thing the suits wouldn’t let them (the product has to sell, after all, and customers tend to be wary of something too outlandishly new, even gamers), and for another, game design is like most other forms of design: in most cases, it builds incrementally on what has come before. It may be slower, but it’s smarter and usually requires less resources, not to mention limiting the possibility of spending millions on a design that turns out to be awful in practice.

We’re already seeing that in practice in more recent games and in the games currently in development, and I’m definitely looking forward to trying them out. (TSW beta spot, anyone? Pretty please?) I’m also looking forward to what’s going to happen in the next decade. MMOs may not change all that quickly but they do change, and it’s going to be an interesting ride.

Isabelle Parsley / http://stylishcorpse.wordpress.com