Jul 242009

Andrew at Of Teeth and Claws has a post up about the limitations of the holy trinity model for MMO’s, which has spawned some excellent discussion. I’d like to add my own comments, and my thoughts were a bit too long for just a blog comment, so I posted them here. I’ll confine my comments to WoW, but they are relevant to all MMO’s, I think.

The current model

Many classes exist, which allows players to choose a personal avatar that fits them best. (WoW, for example- do I want to be the hulking warrior, the fireballing mage, the stealthy rogue, etc.) To succeed, a character has to balance two roles–doing outgoing damage, and mitigating incoming damage.  When soloing, each class has to balance these roles within their own character. Most classes are reasonably well balanced at doing this…a mage has enough power to kill things before his lack of damage mitigation becomes an issue, while a priest can easily outheal incoming damage, or a protection warrior can shrug off most blows. This is good.

In group play, however, issues start to crop up. In order to challenge groups, bosses must be made more difficult. MMO developers have typically chosen to do this by making the boss hit much harder…hard enough that only a player who has chosen to specialize in damage mitigation can take a hit. Such was born the group avatar of ‘tanks,’ and immediately following, ‘healers,’ who keep the tank alive, and heal any additional group-wide damage. Together, tanks and healers handle a group’s damage mitigation, and the final group role (DPS, for damage-per-second) handles the damage output.  This isn’t a bad model, and it’s worked well for a while, but it has some major flaws.

  • It breaks immersion. It makes absolutely no sense that two fully plate-armored paladins can be fighting a creature side-by-side, with one able to substantially resist its blows, and other dying to a single attack.
  • It places the responsibility for group survival on a small subset of a group. This is bad…Keeping a group alive is challenging and entertaining, but also stressful. Again, it’s nonsensical that the majority of the group can charge in/blast away, with almost no thought to personal survival.
  • It requires the use of artificial mechanics to keep the boss attacking the person who can resist its attacks.  “Hi, I’m Joe the Gnome Warrior, and when I shout, the giant 100-ft cyclops will stop chasing the person who hit it him with a hugely destructive pyroblast, and try to kill me instead, even though I hit like a wuss.”
  • It limits the cool things that encounter designers can do to challenge the players. All random-damage elements must take into account the minimal damage mitigation of most of the players, so they can’t hit too hard; the boss can’t go off on his own and start attacking people, etc.
  • It pigeonholes players into assigned roles. This is unavoidable, to some extent, but it frequently reduces teamwork to an enforced construct.

A better approach

I think Andrew nails it when he says tanking is the issue. So, let’s explore a world without tanks. Obviously, raid-wide mitigation has to go up, or boss damage has to go down. I don’t see a problem with that. You can still let plate classes have the best mitigation, but make the cloth/leather classes more durable (have fun with it…priests have divine protection which softens blows, warlocks have demonic armor, mages have warding spells, etc.) Now, the intent here, I think, is to give each class enough damage mitigation to where they can take a couple hits, but not a prolonged pounding.

That’s where the next innovation comes into play–give each class some form of threat drop. and some form of “protect other” ability. This leads to a MUCH more dynamic combat environment, where all classes must constantly watch out for themselves, and seek to defend others as well.

Let’s create a hypothetical giant, who fights with a two-handed hammer. The giant can melee, smash (cast-time, must be dodged) and whirlwind (knockback  + stun) This encounter occurs in a large cave, so the giant’s attacks also occasionally cause cave-ins that must be avoided. We’ll engage this boss with a party consisting of a warrior, a mage, a rogue, a priest, and a hunter, and examine the fight using both the classic model, and the new model.

Classic Model: Party enters room. Warrior tank engages boss. Giant’s attacks all land on the warrior. who has nothing to do but push his ability buttons to keep the giant’s attention. Rogue moves behind boss, blasts away, and (hopefully) pays enough attention to dodge the smashes, and runs back in after the knockback.  Mage and hunter dodge the cave-ins and blast away. Priest keeps the warrior healed and yawns, hoping the giant will finally drop the Staff of Win (nobody ever explains how a giant wearing only a loincloth, who lives in a cave, somehow has dozens of magical artifacts, and yet only drops two)

New Model: The party enters the room and engages the boss immediately (with no tank, there’s no need to worry about “pulling threat”).  The giant first attacks the obvious target, the warrior, but the warrior succeeds in dodging the first two blows. The giant then feels a vicious stab to the back of the knee, and notices the rogue withdrawing his dagger. The giant spins, knocking the two melee characters back, damaging and stunning them.  He then raises his hammer to smash the rogue, but the mage creates three mirror images of the rogue, leaving the giant confused. After swinging his hammer ineffectually at one, he growls and charges the mage after a large fireball slams into his ear.

His charge is abruptly slowed, however, by the appearance of a large net from the hunter that entangles his legs. While pulling the net apart, he bellows, causing a cave-in, which crushes the poor mage (who fails to move in time). After the last shards of the net are gone, he charges the last target in sight, the priest, who has been attending to the rogue and warrior. The priest begins to murmur a prayer and raises his hands skyward. Suddenly, a white aura envelops the priest, and the giant’s attacks are abruptly slowed as they reach their conclusion, causing little damage. The giant continues to attack viciously, and suddenly, the priest’s concentration abruptly breaks, the aura winking out of existence. The giant snarls triumphantly and prepares a final attack.

Unfortunately for him, he finds himself unable to lift his hammer, as the multitude of small bleeding wounds from the hunter’s arrows, and the ripped cuts from the warrior and rogue, have taken their toll. He aims one final kick at the priest, which is deflected by a quickly interposed shield from the warrior, and collapses.

Obviously, the latter scenario requires much more thought and effort from the players (and I admit to a bit of artistic license)…but wouldn’t it be a rush?

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