Massively Overthinking: Trinities and quaternities in MMORPGs

    
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Work it over.

This week’s Massively Overthinking topic was inspired from Jake, who wrote in to us wondering about roles in MMORPG classes and group content:

“What happened to roles? We used to have more then just tank, DPS, healer. There used to be buffers, debuffers, pullers, porters, kiters, etc. Why can’t we have more then just three these days?”

We touched on this subject a year ago in this very column when we discussed the diminishing importance of crowd control in MMORPGs and the shift of the classic trinity (tank, heals, crowd control) to the modern trinity (tank, heals, DPS). We offered several theories, starting with the growing importance of soloable classes, improvements in AI, and the never-ending quest for PvP parity.

Upcoming MMORPGs made with the classics in mind, however, might just be bringing back old playstyles and group arrangements, whether you’re looking at a sandboxy game like Project Gorgon or an RvR-focused title like Camelot Unchained. At PAX East this week, Brad McQuaid told us about Pantheon’s “quaternity,” which looks a whole lot like the classic trinity in that it includes crowd controllers as a core role.

So let’s talk about trinities and quaternities. Where did support roles go, are they making a comeback, and are you glad if so?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think that, in general, other MMO roles have disappeared to make combat more streamlined. Think about trying to do action or FPS MMOs if you have CC that breaks upon hit or where a player just buffs someone. It doesn’t quite work. It’s not the growing genre styles, but something we’ve seen disappearing since World of Warcraft hit the scene. Short timer buffs have been one of those “unfun” things either taken out or reworked to streamline our experience to involve more killing and combat dancing.

I’ve noticed there’s been some attempts to bring these classes back, like bards and RIFT’s Archon (among other awesome conceptual classes), but one of the other issues is that MMOs have become more solo friendly, making these classes more combat oriented while still often feeling quite weak without a huge group. We do see some of this in smaller games, like Monster Hunter’s Hunting Horn weapon (weapons essentially are classes), but the roles are often still rare. Since development time tends to focus on what’s the most fun for most players, I think these roles are going to stay minority options, but personally (as someone who heavily focused on RIFT’s weirder roles) I enjoy being able to play with roles beyond the traditional trinity.

gw2 03

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): I think it was inevitable that MMOs would streamline down to the minimum number of roles required for group content. It used to be the case that most content would require players to group together in order to stand a chance, and that makes sense because online interaction between hundreds of players was the unique selling point of MMOs. When everyone expects to have to form large groups to take on a dungeon, there’s a lot of different roles that you can put in there and you can build interesting content around their interplay.

As the genre has become more popular, it’s also tried to cast a wider net over prospective players, and MMOs have had to target their content more toward the growing solo player community and tiny groups. I recall even in the early days of EverQuest II there was a survey that showed most people played with one other friend in a group of two, which isn’t surprising as that’s how I played it too. It was inevitable that the number of mandatory roles for content in most games would be streamlined down to the bare minimum, which in many cases is just a tank and healer or tank and DPS roles. Fast-forward a few years and it’s natural that even group content would be built around combinations of the now classic trinity of tank, healer and DPS, with crowd control abilities usually incidental and spread out among the classes.

Support roles such as dedicated crowd control make the most sense in games that focus on group play and PvP, like EVE Online with electronic warfare and tackle ships, Guild Wars with the Mesmer, etc. I’m really interested to see how new games decide to break out of the classic trinity and how that factors into group dynamics, but mostly I’m just happy that devs are starting to focus so heavily on core group play. Large groups of players from around the world coordinating to take on PvE or PvP challenges is something unique to MMOs, and something that’s often overlooked as ancillary to the more common goal of hooking in huge numbers of solo players.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I do think support roles — healing, buffing, debuffing, crowd control, to say nothing of non-combat roles — have fallen by the wayside thanks to the preponderance of solo-friendly games and improving AI. That’s not to say that support roles are incompatible with soloing or smart AI, just that turning everyone into a one-man murderhobo was the easiest design path for patch of time in there between the beginning of WoW and now. We’ve been saddled with a phase of MMO history that has really given up on most non-combat activities to prioritize combat above all else, to the point that a lot of MMO players don’t realize there was ever another way to play besides zerging through every last bit of content on a deeps build in a group with other deeps.

There is another way to play, though, and that’s what’s coming back. It’s not enough to make a themepark with group combat anymore; modern MMOs have to be far smarter than that. They have to create fun combat with lots of things to do and lots of roles to play or people simply get bored and quit, and one way to differentiate a game’s combat in 2016 is by cramming a crapton of wildly different playstyles, classes, and roles into the world. As long as they do it without falling into an old-school group-or-die mentality (and they totally can), they’re golden.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I definitely remember having more roles from my days playing FFXI; back then it never even seemed entirely clear what all of the roles were, especially since many jobs could pull double-duty or even triple-duty depending on the rest of the party. In an abstract sense, it was definitely fun to be assembling a party with a tank, an off-tank, a puller/damage-dealer, a healer, a magical damage dealer, and a support class. In practice, it could frequently be a pain and a half to be searching for the last perfect piece to complete the party puzzle, as it were, because it was never a simple exercise.

You’d start with a Warrior and a Black Mage, say, and then you’d get a Bard and a Red Mage… but you still have no tanks looking. But a Thief is looking, so the Warrior could tank, except the Thief doesn’t have a ranged weapon and thus can’t pull, and you’d need an off-tank to really make the Thief work properly… wait, there’s a Ninja, maybe the Ninja can tank, but then the Warrior would need to pull…

Having classes/specs slot into a very specific and narrow set of roles means that there’s a certain amount of unity of function, but it also makes actually putting a party together that much more straightforward. Each new member does not make the next member more complicated due to the requirements of what that job can fulfill. At the same time, it also feeds upon itself; when all of the existing classes have a very straightforward setup, you’re encouraged to fit more classes into those narrow roles, and it becomes an exercise of balancing classes around that existing setup.

The flip side to it is the same problem that comes up whenever designers discuss why players don’t want to tank or heal: The more complicated roles tend to attract fewer players. Support roles usually involve turning a lot of dials at once, which turns some players off on a conceptual level and leaves others bouncing off just due to a skill cap on playing the classes. So that doesn’t help matters.

While I’m happy to see these roles making a resurgence, I do think all of these issues are things that need to be addressed by designers making this an integral part of gameplay. As many fond memories as I have of the older versions of FFXI’s gameplay and the interlocking roles, I also remember spending extended amounts of time looking for people to fill the roles… or being forced to play one for easy party invitations. The more diverse you make the roles needed to play, the more complicated it can be to find different ways to fill all of those roles, and the more complex those roles are, the more players will bounce off of them.

camelot unchained

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I think part of the problem here can be traced to group/dungeon finders, which are terrific in assembling teams in MMOs for instanced content, yet rigidly define what roles need to be present for a run. I liked that RIFT has (had?) a support role as one of its dungeon slots, but most games simply make it about the DPS/healer/tank trinity.

Hey, I’d be all for more roles in group content, or better yet, more MMOs that mix-and-match skills to let you build your own character the way you’d like. Make dungeons less about strict encounters and more about teams overcoming obstacles in a variety of ways using the toolsets that they bring along. I loved my Bard in DDO who did both buffing and ranged attacks, offering a hybrid role and excelling in it.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Are support roles making a comeback? I don’t know that I can answer that, but I can say that I certainly hope so! Personally, I love having a variety of roles because I enjoy seeing how many unexpected and obscure ways you can complete content other than your standard set up. Different combinations of roles/classes, different rotations of skills — I get great pleasure in doing things differently than the norm, and solving problems in creative new ways. With only three roles, there’s much less opportunity for creativity. That also means less reason to be in the game, and less replayability.

Unfortunately, having a variety of vital roles means having to rely on others for things, and on a whole, it still feels like the industry favors the “less is more” mantra — obliterate as many roles as you can so you can make the game essentially a solo experience. Upcoming games that are encouraging grouping again as an actual mechanic and not just a social chat window will help pull the pendulum back the other way.

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Robert80
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Robert80

SallyBowls1  Probably a very solid part of things for the convenience MMO setup.  The problem is that this is every game, so those of us who do want something different, and are willing to wait rather than take the reductions, are left looking around going ‘Where’s something different?’
As I keep saying, we need different games for different people.  Enough with these carbon copy trends, bring on the rise of developers looking to serve different groups rather than make a lowest common denominator game!

Robert80
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Robert80

breetoplay camelotcrusade  Yeah, see the arguments below, and note that PvP and PvE raiding balance changes are a major headache in many games (and have been) for PvE players who just want to have fun with the cool stuff.
I think the top tier performance is an issue, with balance, in these things.  Which is why I am very weary of the same old systems with nothing to set PvP and PvE apart in a game with classes, levels, gear, etc.  Inevitably something elsewhere is going to rain on my day… and the more complex the setup the less likely things are to be balanced, meaning more rain and less sunny days.

Random User
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Random User

Thanks for replying Bree!
I was just being slightly silly with most of that post. I know you all have given CoX a lot of love snd support, but this topic was about roles and you all kind of hit me right in the feels to not mention it. How could you all forget about the great roles and team synergy?
I happened to miss that top 10 article until after I posted, but I was honestly surprised to see zero mention of the most amazing aspects of CoX… Those were the Archetypes, power designs and combat mechanics that made players feel like a hero, unlike most of the mmo games out there.
I think you all could redeem yourselves by dissecting and highlighting CoX a bit more in another article. :)

Cyberlight
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Cyberlight

ApathyCurve Lol thank you, I thought I was the only one who noticed the (twice-inflicted) atrocity of “more then”. ;)

SallyBowls1
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SallyBowls1

breetoplay camelotcrusade  I am in the “PvP is why we can’t have nice things” camp.
I would say that PvP in the era of “big data” is different than PvP ages ago. Competitive people can quickly google that spec #17 does 2.1% more DPS than #13 and has a 1.6% better w/l. Even for PvE, Ghostcrawler (WoW Dev) said people are expecting/complaining if their spec is more than a couple of % below average.  With 31 specs, that is non-trivial balancing.

SallyBowls1
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SallyBowls1

IMO,

Solo-friendly is getting blamed a bit much.  Along with the rise of solo friendly, is the rise of field respec.  When, against all that is Holy, you are forced to group with others, your role is non-DPS, you can still respec DPS when you are soloing.  I.e., the fact that special snowflake control spec#12A is not optimal for solo is mostly irrelevant if they don’t level/grind/daily in that spec.

I think Justin was closest: it is about time to create a group.  Scenarios (WoW) and Tactical FP (SWTOR) fill so much faster than trinity groups.  Every time I read players wanting better matchmaking, devs are saying time-to-fill is of overriding importance.  With customers used to very quick grouping in WoT/WoWS/LoL/HS/HOTS et al, long group formation feels worse. I realize many of you have a rich fantasy life which includes LFG not being required for a AAA MMO, but IMO back here on Planet Earth it is. :-) tl;dr: More roles complicates and slows down group formation.

Shazanti
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Shazanti

I like having the ability to solo, but I still yearn for the Classic Trinity days. I often have odd, random hours in which to play, so being able to solo makes gameplay simpler for me if I can just hop in and do my thing. However, that’s not what I prefer. I prefer to play a hybrid and/or crowd-control-ish type character, and those aren’t always solo material – if they even exist in any form in whatever game I’m playing! I don’t like playing the ‘pure’ classes of the modern trinity. Being The Tank or The Healer doesn’t appeal to me, since I find that I stress out over my role FAR too much in either of those situations. I despise pure DPS, because I find it bores me to tears if that’s literally my only thing to do. So I find myself attempting to break the mold of my class and turn it into something I would enjoy, which often fails in a most epic fashion, and I wander away from the game looking for a better place. 
Of course, there’s the fact that my brain, even after all these years, fails to see DPS as a proper role. DPS is that thing that, DUH, everyone does  (or at least, contributes to), while they do whatever it is that they’re good at. You get your tank, your healer, maybe your support of some sort, then everyone else contributes whatever they can. So whenever I hear ‘I’m DPS!’ my first thought is, ‘Yeah, of course, but what is it that you can DO?’. Sometimes there’s an answer to that, but far too often it’s just something like ‘Uh, I can do XYZ for more damage?’. I just find that so, so very boring.

Robert80
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Robert80

Rohirrim Dnote  Lotro basically nerfed the group content to pieces, and as a result there is no longer a real need for the support classes in the smaller group content… if you can even find a group for the old content.

Robert80
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Robert80

PurpleCopper  I think Rift might fit, given that they had Tank, Healer, DPS, and a variety of support types including:  Buff/debuff, control/AoE, and support healing/dps hybrid.  It certainly wasn’t always required to have everything, but there were some options for various odd builds.

Hounddog74
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Hounddog74

arktourosx

No it’s a class design issue. The reason the encounters suck and the gameplay is ridiculous in GW2 has nothing to do with “lazy” design and everything to do with your 1 role to rule them all theory.

Things like crowd control, debuffing, healing and tanking aren’t “artificial” mechanics thrown in for no reason, they are things thrown into combat to make it more interesting and varied.