Thursday, December 17, 2009

Random Shots: Fixing The Holy Trinity

  • Back in October, Green Armadillo from Player Versus Developer tackled the solo vs. group dynamic. While I disagreed with his conclusions, it got me thinking about how to remove the friction from grouping. Others in the MMO blogging community have tackled this as well, so none of this is original thought. But now that Brian "Psychochild" Green has an article up at Gamasutra that does all this better than I ever could, I might as well get this out now. So without further ado, here is my suggestion to fix the MMO trinity:

  • Do away with healing.

  • I know that's going to freak out the dedicated healers in the audience, but hear me out. What I really mean is that healing is propping up an archaic construct in MMO combat: the tank and spank.

  • At its core, the tank, healer, and DPS roles allow for clearly defined encounters to be built. The problem is that it perverts the types of combat the RPGs try to model. Developers have to come up with increasingly unusual designs just to shake up this core mechanic to which they are shackled. In the end, one comes away feeling like they are playing a platforming game instead of participating in a fantastic battle.

  • When healing is done away with, combat can be handled quite differently. Every class should have the ability to hold aggro and survive an attacking boss monster, it least temporarily. They should also have to ability to escape aggro before their defenses are overcome, allowing another character to tank the opponent. In this way, combat becomes more dynamic as every character must attend to offensive and defensive duties. Even better, solo play can train you for group play as the differences are just a matter of scale.

  • I envision boss encounters like this:

    • Each character has high damage/high threat abilities that can be used to draw aggro from the monster.

    • While the creature is focusing on a particular character, the person tanking would an active defense mode using abilities that have a cooldown period.

    • When those abilities expire, they will have to escape aggro or have another character draw aggro to themselves.

    • The opponent would be occupied by each player in turn while various cooldowns expire and the player can return to the tanking rotation.

  • In this way, encounters are about a group of people not letting the opponent focus their rage on one person for too long, instead of someone showering a tank in magical healing while the others hack, slash, and explode the enemy without reprisal. Even in a scenario like that, there is room for healing to recover from failure to exchange aggro properly.

  • The amazing this is that some games have already swirved close to this idea. In Champions Online, active blocking allow any character to withstand massive damage while enemies are focused up them. And until recently, they did not have overly powerful healing powers in the game. Designed more carefully, I don't think the game needs them. (How often to you seen Batman or Superman catch a heal during one of the Justice League's battles?) Guild Wars, with its open aggro mechanics, expects a certain level of survivability from all its characters. There are dedicated healers in the game, but that's because holding aggro is a lot harder to accomplish. (Essentially, they've tackled the problem from the other side.)

  • I doubt World of Warcraft, et al, will throw out such a fundamental part of their designs now, but I would like to see a future where MMOs feel more like the battles I read about in books or see in the movies.

© 2009 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Bullet Points, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. When I think of how combat works in MMOs versus how it works in RPGs, both CRPGs and of the PnP variety, there are two major differences I see. The artificial tank and spank mechanic is a biggie. I agree with you that eliminating the need for tanking and healing specialists would go a long way towards making fights seem more dynamic.

    The other is the length of the average fight. Very few opponents need more than one or two (maybe three) solid attacks to take down in a typical RPG. Whereas in MMOs it's commonplace for even a trivial opponent to require a dozen or so attacks.

  2. I had the same thoughts about Champions when I read Brian's article. I'm interested to see more games try and play with the MMO combat conventions. I remember being interested in Warhammer's concepts of character collision detection and having healers also be able to deal damage. The Champions combat mechanics with blocking, open skill frameworks, and builds are interesting and I think its going to be another few months before either Cryptic or players get a real understanding for what can be done.

  3. @ Yeebo - This is one place where designers need to learn from Champions. Having various levels of opponents, from henchmen to villains and master villains, do a lot to shake up the dynamics of each encounter. It reminds me of the cannon fodder rules in D&D 4e.

    @ Blue Kae - I swear I didn't read Psychochild's article before I wrote this! I knew I should have got this finished back when Green Armadillo first posted. There are lots of ways to shake up the conventions. They just have to get braver about trying them out.