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.
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.
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.