The Holy Trinity

No, this isn’t Sunday School. ‘The Holy Trinity’ is, in MMO terms, your Damage, Tanking, and Healing classes (or roles). It has been a staple of MMO design since the beginning, with only a handful of games deviating from this… divine directive. WoW adheres to it fairly strictly.

I’ll be plain – I think this is an outdated concept in MMO design. When MMOs were esoteric in nature, it was sensible to divide your playerbase in such a manner. Your players were very dedicated, both to themselves and their guilds or war-bands or what-have-you, and they were willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Tanking has never been precisely fun in any incarnation, as it is a role requiring a great deal of responsibility (often entire group leadership) and accountability. Healing is second only to tanking in this regard — you’re there to keep the group, and most importantly the tank, alive. A skillful tank cannot out-skill a crushing attack, that’s why his healer is there. The DPS is there to keep the fight moving at its proper pace, and to kill the Bad Guy to get the Shiny Loot.

In theory, that all works well. When you start assigning real people to those roles, however, you can see where the problem lies. After six years, when World of Warcraft has to “incentivize” people to Tank or Heal (Call to Arms, part of Patch 4.1) then you know there is a problem. And it isn’t a new occurrence. People get burned out on tanking, because they have to set the pace, mark the targets, and lead the group. Healers are keeping their allies alive, but not doing damage to the Bad Guy, which can be dull gameplay for some. DPS is what is most enjoyable, as you are throwing explosive projectiles or shards of ice, and you see a direct impact on the nasties you are fighting — their health goes down, you win.

So, Call to Arms attempts to get people to tank or heal, so groups can form and dungeon runs can be completed. Unfortunately, it is not having the intended effect. Queue times are, a week after 4.1 launched, seldom shorter than they were pre-4.1. If Call to Arms happens to encourage someone to tank, it is someone who is relatively inept, under-geared, or both, and your run suffers because of it. They’re inexperienced, ill prepared, but they’re queuing because they want the Call to Arms ‘goodie bag.’ The result is often a run that fails due to poor tanking, or poor healing.

TotalBiscuit touched on this in his Azeroth Daily for 4/4/2011, in his mail segment. Really, he said it best — there is nothing in the game, currently, that teaches a player how to tank (and tank well), or how to heal a group. A player can use a ‘tank’ spec and fumble their way from Level 1 to 85 without ever learning how to properly use their abilities. Or, more likely, they will choose a DPS spec, level with it, and only investigate tanking when they hit max level and have a goodie bag dangled in front of their nose. Healers also receive no instruction on how to best use their kit of abilities in a group setting, and can be effectively thrown into the fire when they hit 85 and are asked to ‘go Holy and heal us.’

The other day (I promise this is related), I decided to play Team Fortress 2 for the first time in nearly a year. In fact, it may have been longer than a year. Upon entering the game, I noticed something very unexpected: there were tutorials for the game’s basics, and also how to play each of the classes (Medic, Heavy Weapons, Engineer, etc.). Actual tutorials. Step by step instructions, and simulated matches with ‘bots’ (artificial enemy and friendly players). I was shocked to see this, and immediately reasoned out the tutorials’ existence — someone at Valve said that they wanted to make the game more accessible to new players, where the team/class-based FPS was previously a pretty esoteric endeavor, and frightening to new players.

Now, I’m not sure how much luck they’ve had with their tutorials. Team Fortress is not exactly ‘approachable’ for most gamers. But World of Warcraft? Even at the very beginning, back in 2004, WoW attempted to provide something for everyone, even if that ‘something’ was something small. Hardcore raiders dominated the ‘endgame’ but an average player could do quests, gather most crafting materials, and potentially enter a dungeon group or three if they were persistent. Over the years, there has been a real paradigm shift, and more and more of WoW’s offerings are geared toward an ‘average’ player, with more raiding opportunities, more flexibility in group layouts, easier group assembly for dungeons, etc, etc. All these strides were made… yet nothing has been done to truly school a player in how to play the game. Even a DPSer can bumble from 1 to 85 spamming one or two attacks — when they enter groups, however, they are told to do “optimum DPS” which involves linking abilities or performing a rotation, and they are virtually clueless how to do so. The problem is compounded when you look at even more involved roles: tanking and healing.

It’s a big confusing soup for even a halfway proficient player to sort through. They can do it, sure. They can visit fan sites (just be careful of illegitimate sites looking to steal your account info) for guides, or post on forums asking for suggestions (good luck not getting flamed), and cut their teeth, and maybe come out better for it… but Blizzard themselves could do a lot more to instruct players in the more finite gameplay details, in-game where it truly matters, especially when the ‘endgame’ centers around them.

The other option is to abolish the Holy Trinity entirely. That’s a big step, a bold step, and likely not one that Blizzard is going to be taking any time soon. I’m curious to see how it will work for Guild Wars 2, which apparently has shelved the concept of the Holy Trinity in favor of making players more self-sufficient. It may be a much-needed breath of fresh air for the MMO industry overall.

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