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Revisiting the "Holy Trinity" of MMORPG Classes 362

A feature at Gamasutra examines one of the foundations of many MMORPGs — the idea that class roles within such a game fall into three basic categories: tank, healer, and damage dealer. The article evaluates the pros and cons of such an arrangement and takes a look at some alternatives. "Eliminating specialized roles means that we do away with boxing a class into a single role. Without Tanks, each class would have features that would help them participate in and survive many different encounters like heavy armor, strong avoidance, or some class or magical abilities that allow them to disengage from direct combat. Without specialized DPS, all classes should be able to do damage in order to defeat enemies. Some classes might specialize in damage type, like area of effect (AoE) damage; others might be able to exploit enemy weaknesses, and some might just be good at swinging a sharpened bit of metal in the right direction at a rapid rate. This design isn't just about having each class able to fill any trinity role. MMO combat would feel more dynamic in this system. Every player would have to react to combat events and defend against attacks."
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Revisiting the "Holy Trinity" of MMORPG Classes

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  • by bickerdyke ( 670000 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @08:48AM (#30485784)


    Call them by any other name, but thats how you get an ideal game balance.

    Fighter, Mage, Archer
    Human, Dwarf, Elf
    Fire, Water, Air

    There's a reason why this simple game is still around after possibly a few hundred years. And everyone knows some variant of it, (acid, well, hammer, chainsaw..... you name it) and also knows that they suck. messing up the balance.

  • Batman analogy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jollyreaper ( 513215 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:01AM (#30485866)

    Pigeonhold the players into one of the 3 style is easy.

    Letting the players to pick and choose from an array of strength / agility / defense for their own character would be a nighmare for those who program the game.

    I always hated the leveling dynamic in rpg's and the idea that you had to be locked into one class. I'm not likely to have the time to play the game again and it would be fun to play different classes.

    So, the Batman analogy. Sure, he's got his standard suit he runs around in. Lightweight for acrobatics, bulletproofing on the chest and weights in the cape so he can hit people but his main defense is not taking hits. But if he needs to tank up, he has heavier suits. His anti-superman suit was basically space marine power armor. He has bat spacesuits, bat diving suits, whatever. The point is, all he needs to do to change roles is change equipment. the trick is knowing what to bring.

    Strangely enough, Armored Core got this idea right. You can build different mechs specialized for different roles. Some missions you need heavy firepower for crushing hard targets with bolts of energy with low fire rates, sometimes you need autocannons that spam out shells all over the place to hit fast-moving light targets. You equip to suit the mission.

    I'd like to see an rpg take that line of reasoning. You need to do sneaking, you carry your light weapons and black tights. Scouting the woods? Longbow, shortsword, cloak. Have to wade into a big melee? Now you bring out the heavy armor.

    But what ends up happening in the online games, and I'm sure the publishers don't mind, people will run several accounts specialized in different roles just to make progress. In EVE people will have industrial characters, pvp characters, miners, etc. And the best part is that if you find you have less time to play, you can't consolidate those characters. Bah. It's a cycle best to avoid by not playing.

  • The Trinity (Score:5, Insightful)

    by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:05AM (#30485886) Journal

    It's funny; I played RPGs for a couple of decades or more, and until I got to MMO RPGs, had never really heard the terms tank and dps.

    The reason that the MMO genre has devolved to these reductionist archetypes is because MMO gameplay is about one thing and one thing only: doing damage to kill monsters before they kill you. That's it. Pen and paper RPGs have many, many alternative ways to tell stories and player choices.

    Few MMOs I've ever heard of offer anything in the way of goals that don't boil down to killing some stuff. Sure, you might be reuniting two warring factions...but never through discussion or negotiation, generally it's about rescuing someone from some monster/prison/boss or bringing them 10 worg hearts (involving killing many more than 10 worgs). Is there ever any possibility that you could sneak into the enemy fortress, steal the Big McGuffin, and get away WITHOUT killing anyone?

    If your gameplay can be boiled down to a function including monster health, monster damage, player health, and player damage, you're going to get players naturally 'gaming' the characters to fit that function as efficiently as possible.

  • by wtbname ( 926051 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:07AM (#30485908)


    http://tf2wiki.net/wiki/Medic [tf2wiki.net]
    http://quakewarswiki.net/wiki/Medic [quakewarswiki.net]

    Plenty more where those came from...

    So by "of course" you mean, "of course i don't really know anything about the subject, but I'm going to run my yapper anyways."

    Oh right, slashdot...

  • by Thanshin ( 1188877 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:09AM (#30485918)

    Fighter, Mage, Archer

    Cleric, Rogue, Warlock!

    Human, Dwarf, Elf

    Halfling, Ogre, Thri Kreen!

    Fire, Water, Air

    Earth? For God's sake how could you miss Earth?

    And you see what all this proves, right?

    Just by watching it you reach the conclusion that the real game is Rock, Paper, Scisors, Lizard and Spock.

  • Re:Pigeonholding (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bickerdyke ( 670000 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:16AM (#30485980)

    Not the programmers. They work with their array of stats and thats all. Wizard and Tank are exactly the same code. The only differ in the parameters.

    It's the job of the gamedesigners to decide, how much of those stats should be accessible to the player. It's like AD&D. and it's easy to become a jack-of-all-trades charackter, who is completly useless in a game. So thats what classes are for. They are predefined sets of stats. But predefined by the designers to simply work.

    If the designers are lazy, they can offload the job of finding good stats combination onto the player. To one player thats a huge degree of freedom, to the other it's a chance to mess up and make the game unplayable.

  • dual wield ... something that has never been a reality or practicality in entire world history,

    Musashi would disagree with you.

  • Re:Pigeonholding (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ThePhilips ( 752041 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:43AM (#30486286) Homepage Journal

    True. That's not the problem for the programmers.

    But highly customizable characters are pain for story designers. In story player encounters the monsters with not some random stats - but the stats which reflect the role the monster plays in story.

    Just recall the NWN1 where they had the magic button "Recommend". During character creation and level up screen, hitting "Recommend" was defaulting to properly leveled warrior and guaranteeing that player wouldn't hit an obstacle s/he can't overcome. Because playing custom character means that there might be monsters you can't defeat alone. And for some exotic classes there were even specialized modules, allowing you to play in full force, because default campaign was designed for a warrior. (Even playing as barbarian, due to its low persuasion, one would miss many interesting side quests.)

    Essentially, exotic/custom classes increase game complexity on both sides. Making a campaign becomes more complicated as many classes has to be taken into account. Playing with a custom class requires quite a skill of knowing and expoloiting strengths and weaknesses - your own and monsters. That's not something average gamers might expect - many are way too used to bashing stuff with a sword or annihilating everything with a magic.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:44AM (#30486292)

    That's why Star Wars Galaxies had to potential to be the greatest MMO of all time. It's just too bad that they had such terrible management post-launch (not to mention development practices with all the bugs), because it was essentially the "perfect" starting point for a game. If they had been able to add content instead of continually screwing with mechanics, it could have been in WoW's place right now.

    Aside from equipment, a skilled new character was only a matter of a weeks away from joining older players. If you decided you wanted a new role, you were only a week or two away from shifting over. If you didn't enjoy combat at all and just wanted to use the game as a social medium, you could even do that and still provide a useful function to other players.

  • by danbert8 ( 1024253 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:44AM (#30486294)

    It's not a MMORPG, but it is a MORPG. Fallout 3 is a great game where you can pretty much do whatever you want. All the skills are individual and independent. It does have a multiplayer, nut I would like to see a Fallout MMORPG. It is an interesting universe, with multiple factions that people can side with.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:48AM (#30486350)

    That's quite inaccurate. Tank and Damage Dealer are the same close-range combat class, while ranged combat is missing from the list.

  • by Scutter ( 18425 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:59AM (#30486510) Journal

    For example:
    - Add one more number to push into the negatives (typically, armor and shield) and you'll have the posibility of creating a class that manipulates that other number (a shield healer of some sort) a class that damages said number (An EMP mage) and a class that endures more damage to said number (A shield...tank).

    - Add positional advantage (complex to do in mmorpgs for lag reasons) and you'll have a class that restricts movement, one that gives positional advantage to teammates and one that uses more effectively positional advantage.

    Interesting. You just described EVE Online.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:00AM (#30486520)

    Parent is more relevant than even they know. The "Rock, Paper, Scissors + N" pattern is EXACTLY how most games with multiple classes (not just rpgs, look carefully at class-based FPS and various RTS games) tweak the balance when there are more than three actual classes. Let's say the game starts with archers, infantry, and cavalry. So, maybe infantry kills archers, archers kill cavalry, and cavalry kill infantry. Throw wizards in there. Now, wizards don't just sneak in between a couple of the other classes; they enter another loop, which can be shaped however -- say, wizards kill archers and infantry, bust succumb to cavalry. OK, that's a little unbalanced against infantry and archers, so we'll add in another class...I dunno, summoners. Summoners beat mages and cavalry, but die to infantry and archers. Now, infantry kills archers and summoners, archers kill cavalry and summoners, cavalry kills infantry and wizards, wizards kill archers and infantry, and summoners kill mages and cavalry. Repeat this process until all available classes have their proficiencies.

    In reality, there are also differing odds involved, so that class matchups that make for easy fights are balanced with "close" fights where one side has just a slight advantage. At least traditionally, melee-melee fights (rogue/warrior?) are closer than melee-ranged or melee-caster fights, since either the melee fighter will be able to close the distance easily and end the fight quickly, or will be held at bay, unable to do much of anything. Specifics aside, conceptually resolving this just means assigning representative values to each matchup and balancing out the sums a bit. It's a bit of a combinatorial headache, but a lot of it falls into place rather naturally, thanks to decades of people tinkering with systems like this.

  • Nash equilibrium (Score:3, Insightful)

    by 192939495969798999 ( 58312 ) <info@nOsPAM.devinmoore.com> on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:04AM (#30486580) Homepage Journal

    It's called a nash equilibrium, and what it means in a nutshell is that no one's single strategy can beat anyone else's provided the strategies are fixed (i.e. a fighter cannot take on the attributes of a Mage).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nash_equilibrium [wikipedia.org]

  • by Lord Pillage ( 815466 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:05AM (#30486590)

    Fire, Water, Air...

    Earth! Heart! GOOOOOOO PLANET! "By your powers combined, I AM CAPTAIN PLANET!" ...captain planet, he's a hero, gonna take polution down to zero...

  • Re:Pigeonholding (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Krneki ( 1192201 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:10AM (#30487386)
    Then just create a dumb main story quest and add a gazillion side quests. Like Fallout for example.

    We have class specialization so there is a reason to use tactics, if not, the game turns into a frag galore.
  • Re:Apple vs Linux (Score:2, Insightful)

    by SpacePunk ( 17960 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:24AM (#30487582) Homepage

    Well, all the Apple vs. Linux vs Windows pissing aside...

    Star Wars Galaxies originally had a multitude of classes with 32 different subsets in each class. People could pick and choose according to their play style, and tailor the character to their individual needs. It was fantastic. Up untill they decided to pigeon hole players into archetype classes that resembled the main star wars characters, then the smart player base dried up. That's the whole crux of the matter right there... the smart players vs the dumb players. Unfortunately there are more dumb players than smart players, and every single game will always devolve to suit the dumb players.

  • by Impy the Impiuos Imp ( 442658 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @12:59PM (#30489024) Journal

    "Taunt" is an evil, unrealistic power in a battle scenario.

    It turns the warrior into a low-damage pseudo-controller, which is the exact opposite of the concept of a vicious melee fighter. High armored individuals have to be low damage output to make sure they can't kill things easily while, in turn, being very tough to kill themselves.

    But several games, noticeably City of Heroes, have shown you don't need a taunting tank. They have it, but they show you don't need it. Why? Because there are tons of other powers for crowd control.

    So the solution: Get rid of taunt. Then there is no "tank" per se, just varied melee who can stand up to a few individuals for a limited amount of time, but who also do a lot more damage to compensate.

    The CoH "Scrapper" class is exactly this: melee who can cut things down 1-on-1 very quickly, and actually specialize at being a boss killer (boss being not quite the super-boss normally used as "boss" in other games.)

    And the monsters are weaker, but there are a lot more. This isn't a problem with modern games, where 25 monsters against 6 people might have been a problem in EverQuest for the framerate.

    Death to taunt! >:-( The root of all evil in MMORPG design!

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @01:01PM (#30489058)

    Bard classes (buffers/debuffers/mezzers) face one problem with balancing: Either they're a requirement for a successful group or they are pointless.

    Since group sizes are usually limited in games, this means that every player taking up a slot has to be worth that slot. In a classical trinity game this means that when DD class A dishes out more damage than DD class B, you take two people of DD class A along provided they are available. And with DDs, they usually are since DDs are usually overrepresented in most games (that I know at least).

    A supporter class will now most likely take up one DD slot (again, let's stay in the thought complex of trinity mode games). He has to be "worth" it. His buffs have to increase the damage output to almost the point where taking him along instead of a DD becomes viable. At the same time he will most likely add HP, Mana, speed and some other buffs.

    If it becomes too much, though, boss fights will have to be adjusted accordingly or else they become trivial with a bard in the group (simply because on top of his damage buff he will increase survivability of the group), which essentially means that they become impossible without a bard class because the group will lack those survivability buffs.

    Over time, though, and with balancing, there is one of two possible outcomes: Either the bard is mandatory, because boss fights are impossible to survive, or the bard becomes meaningless because fights go faster without him.

  • by whistlingtony ( 691548 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @03:10PM (#30491314)

    R.I.P. Roleplaying....

    Ok, so yeah, I'm an old D&D player. But dangnabbit, I miss just playing my characters. They had quirks, flaws, personalities...

    I was never just a fighter, I was a poor guardsman, a greedy mercenary, a disgraced nobleman with a drinking problem. I was a farm boy sworn to get rich and bring my family out of poverty. My characters had motivations beyond Epic Loot.

    Danged Min/Maxers! Someone aught'a make a game with only 5 levels, player made content, and let social structures dictate power, just like in real life. Lets face it, even the most badass swordsman WILL get taken down by an angry peasant mob. And he should.

    And permanent character death too!

    Stupid kids don't know what they're missing. Get off my lawn!


    (Oh gods, I'm only 30....)

  • Re:The Trinity (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Jesus_666 ( 702802 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @04:32PM (#30492664)
    Final Fantasy Tactics for the PSX is good at this. Casting takes time during which the caster is almost completely defenseless. The enemies are often smart enough to go after any casters stupid enough to remain in range and a few solid hits will take down a Black Mage. Tanking only works by forcing the enemy to stay too far away to hit the caster. Also, most spells are friend-foe agnostic; if you stand next to a caster targetting you he can end up frying himself with his own attack. If you stand next to their tank, the spell will hit the tank as well.

    Add something like that to an MMORPG. When a caster casts a powerful spell, they can't do anything (movement and the entire interface are locked except for a button that aborts the spell (but still makes you pay the casting cost)). eling spells always need a casting time. If you get hit while casting, there's a chance that your spell gets interrupted. Spells don't distinguish between friend or foe; big-AOE damage spells are something you direct away from your party and big-AOE healing spells are for long-range battle and for between engagements. Casting characters are always priority targets, healers even more so. Enemies who want to use powerful spells also have a casting time.

    Suddenly, things change a bit. Tanks are of limited use as they also need to be able to deal enough damage to interrupt enemy spellcasters quickly. There need to be fast frontline fighters who can quickly run back to protect the casters if enemies make it past them. You need ranged fighters capable of harrassing enemy spellcasters at range but also capable of somehow evading enemy ranged attacks. Your casters also need to make sure they don't accidentally fry the fighters in front and they need small, fast non-AOE spells for self defense; maybe you even have casters specializing on short-range defense.

    Suddenly combat becomes more than managing aggro. You need a tactic and the team needs to be able to respond to a variety of conditions or you find that (for example) while your fighters are holding up most of the enemies, two enemy archers have sneaked past their lines and are laying waste to the casters' concentration. With the attack spells drying up, the fighters need whatever the healers can get through to survive and the offensive casters get shot to pieces before they can dispose of the archers.

    Then again, that would make the MMORPG somewhat cerebral and I can't imagine a game that requires you to think being that successful.
  • Musashi created and perfected a two-sword kenjutsu technique called niten'ichi ("two heavens as one") or nitichi ("two swords as one") or "Ni-Ten Ichi Ryu"

    You mean that wikipedia article?

  • by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @07:06PM (#30494580)

    Not every class needs to be useful all the time. Make it worth the party's time to drag around a character who's a dead weight in certain situations by making him very useful in others.

    This idea isn't even limited to traditional combat classes. How about a class that can raise the drop rate? They might be next to useless in combat but people will still want to have one in the party because it's the fastest way to get some decent gear.

    If you are useless in combat, and the game is all about combat, you're basically going to diddle your thumbs. It's not much fun playing a useless character, since your actions don't matter. So yeah, every character does need to be useful in every situation, because otherwise the situations they're not useful in are quitea drag for their players.

  • Re:Pigeonholding (Score:5, Insightful)

    by UnknownSoldier ( 67820 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @08:54PM (#30495406)

    > So thats what classes are for.

    Classes are training wheels for both:

    a) designers. They are a hack and a kludge because its is easier to "balance" 5 - 10 classes than 500 - 1000 skills.
    b) players. People who don't want to spend the time or effort to specialize their character.

    I hate the lack of flexibility when you are forced to pick only "class specific skills." It leads to a cookie-cutter approach.

    WoW has regressed even further in that you aren't even allowed to pick where to distribute your stats when you level up.

    Ultima and GURPs never had classes, and I am quite thankful that some RPGs just said "NO".

May all your PUSHes be POPped.