The Foreseeable End of the MMO Trinity

The tank-heals-damage MMO Trinity has been around for a long time now, but its end may be nigh.
The Foreseeable End of the MMO Trinity

The MMO Trinity of tank-healer-damage has been around since the early days of MMOs. This arrangement has had a profound effect on progression-style MMOs, shaping how group content is designed and how it is consumed by players. It is such a powerful arrangement that it has spilled over into non-MMO settings, such as 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, where "Fighter = Tank" is now official. The trinity represents standardization and balance, which makes it easier for game designers to build new group-based content - a developer knows exactly how much power an on-level, balanced group should have, and whether or not such a group can be expected to succeed at a given task.

There's just one problem with the trinity: it's not a lot of fun for a lot of people. The market has changed since this concept first rose to prominence, and the rise of F2P means a lot more "casual" play - players who drop in for an hour or two here and there to kill some monsters and maybe run some group stuff, rather than the hardcore MMO player who subscribes to one game and spends several hours every day in-game.

The current trend in MMOs is to appeal to that casual crowd. The leveling process is mostly solo and can be done in lots of short "shifts," with moderate forays into group content along the road to level cap. By end-game, where the hardcore guys live, the focus shifts mostly to cooperative group content (or PvP, where the trinity has a much less significant role). This may not be true for every single game on the market - certainly there are exceptions to just about every rule - but it seems to be the case in all the big ones. And while some players enjoy leveling tanks or healers precisely because of the challenges these classes represent, that same challenge is what makes these classes rare by the elder game when they are most needed. This is where the trinity fails.

End of the Trinity - Tank and Healer (LotRO)
Tanks and Healers take center stage with flashy effects. That's why their queues pop quicker.

The major issue with the trinity is player balance. Strikers and DPSers are usually the easiest to pick up and play and level the fastest, while healers are more challenging, and the pace for low-DPS tanks is usually kind of slow. As a result, there are usually loads of damage-dealers wanting to run group content, and few healers or tanks. In games with automatic random group-finders (which is most of them nowadays), DPSers sit in the queues forever and tanks and healers find groups right away. Finding groups the old-fashioned way, via regional and global chat channels, is equally unbalanced - consider how many times one sees some version of "need a healer/tank for (Group Content X)".

It's a different story in sandbox-style MMOs where character classes are less restricted. Depending on the game, group play may not be all that different from solo. Character roles are softly-defined and easily-changed, if they are defined at all. There's no need for the trinity here because the restrictions that require it don't really exist. But you don't get that visceral thrill of chasing levels, the incremental accomplishments that essentially define the progression-based game. And it's that chase that appeals more strongly to casual players, because it is a sure mark of measurable progress. Spending a couple of hours in a game and gaining a new level, that's something you can share on facebook.

However, even some modern progression-based games have reduced the reliance on the trinity as a means of enforcing balance. The casual players they are attempting to lure into their games don't want to sit for hours in a queue when they could be spending their limited game-time killing stuff and gaining levels. Progression can be just as fixed and controlled as ever in these newer games, but a host of other options allows players to complete group content without forcing them to adhere to one old-school group arrangement.

Damage Avoidance

Giving all characters a way to avoid taking damage would eliminate or greatly reduce the need for dedicated healers and tanks. This system is in place in Neverwinter - all classes have a damage-avoidance "skill" tied to the Shift key, and it is unique for each class. The defense-based melee class raises his shield and blocks, the stealth class tucks and rolls, the caster class teleports. Each class plays very differently and each is very restricted in terms of build options and gear, but all of them are able to duck out of the way when enemies swing at them. And enemy mobs in Neverwinter "telegraph" their attacks by using long wind-up animations or visible hot spots where their area attacks will land. With this system in place, most serious damage can be avoided by everyone in the group, and having a tank in the group is handy but perhaps not strictly necessary.

End of the Trinity - dynamic damage avoidance (RaiderZ)

The dynamic combat of RaiderZ allows the player to avoid taking damage. Most of the time.

One potential issue with this is enemy aggro - a boss tends to lock on to the one character generating the most threat, either through threat-building skills and taunts or through dealing the most damage. This can be offset by coding that makes the creature switch targets frequently, either randomly or based on some other criteria. Random-aggro boss battles are the bane of healers and support classes in trinity-based games, but in non-trinity games they would fit just fine.

Consumables and Items

Healing potions with short or no cooldowns can eliminate the need for dedicated healers. These potions don't need to be particularly powerful, and they can be as expensive or as affordable as the game economy allows.

Alternately, healing duties could be assigned by tradeable items. Imagine a staff or equippable crystal or some other kind of item, useable by any class, that adds a handful of healing skills to the character's toolbar (or radial menu, or whatever), in addition to all of their regular combat skills. Every character could carry one, enabling any character to serve as the group's healer.

But this is not just limited to healing. Threat moderation could be effectively managed with items or consumables - a clickable item that draws enemy attention, another that drops it. Clickable buff items could add bonuses to damage mitigation or damage output. The standard suite of progression skills wouldn't change, but the clickable buff items would allow any character to fill any role.

Unrestricted Gear

This is coming with the Elder Scrolls Online. Any character can use any kind of weapon. Casters can use melee weapons, melee characters can use ranged weapons, etc. Expanding this idea to armor allows for even more character freedom: armored casters, unencumbered melee fighters, etc. Give any character a shield and he can effectively mitigate damage, allowing him to serve as a "tank." The character would still have a strict progression of skills, feats, talents or whatever, but they would be able to gear out as they saw fit.

This is inherently more "sandbox-y" than the other options, because gear can drastically change how a character performs... unless it doesn't. Removing massive stat bonuses from gear altogether, or balancing bonuses with penalties (for example, heavy plate armor that offers more physical protection but slows movement), making armor more cosmetic than functional, means that characters can pick armor just because it looks cool, rather than because it contributes better to their play-style or to their characters skillset.

The Foreseeable End of the MMO Trinity

Decentralized Healing

This one pops up in a lot of games. Characters have a special attack that gives a self-heal, either a large, instant heal or a heal-over-time buff. Give every character two or three of these skills, mixed in with their usual assortment of combat skills, and the need for a dedicated healer and tank is greatly reduced. Alternately, giving every character one or two heal skills that can be used on any character - self or other - does the same thing. Characters would still have unique skill sets and retain their own individual flavour, and progression would still feel important, but every character has the keys to his own survival, and can contribute to the survival of his group.

End of the Trinity - decentralized healing (Neverwinter)

Standing in the red circle is the reason my guy needs those little green crosses.

Neverwinter has decentralized healing a bit, primarily by having very short cooldowns on heal potions, but also with things like the Life Steal and Regenerate stats on weapons and gear. These are very small heals, but the stats can be stacked up enough to make their healing effect situationally useful.

Pets and Companions

Pets and companions are kind of a two-fold solution. In a trinity-based game, they can be used to train group-play strategies during solo play. Tanks can use healer pets, which draw aggro and require protection from enemy attacks. Healers can use tank pets, which require constant healing attention and allow the development of specific healing rotations early on. Strikers can train up for group content with basically any kind of pet.

On the other hand, pets and companions can make for a solid non-trinity game as well. Healer and tank companions eliminate the need for task-dedicated classes. They may not do as good of a job at these tasks as human-controlled characters in many situations in trinity-based games, but in some situations they do much better. For example, the Barrow-downs Survival skirmish in the Lord of the Rings Online works best when everyone in the the raid brings a Herbalist companion. The whole skirmish can be run without an actual player-controlled healer because the Herbalist skirmish soldiers handle everything. 

Focus On Strategy Rather Than Combat

End of the Trinity - Strategic Fights (LotRO)

A good example of this can be seen in the new LotRO 12-man raid, Fires of Smaug. I tried to run this at level 20 with my level 85 character, and wasn't able to beat it. My Hunter is no slouch in the damage department, and the mobs weren't doing him any serious damage, but there are numerous tasks to complete that require more than one player to participate. There is still some focus on combat - fighting adds that come out at preset times, destroying the contraption in the middle - but success requires a coordinated effort from multiple characters, even when it is attempted at a difficulty sixty-five levels lower than you.

A balanced group would likely have a better chance at success than a group that was, say, all strikers or all tanks, but if the focus is on solving a puzzle or coordinating a team rather than "tank-and-spank" boss fights, it can be done with any sort of group. After a long slog of combat-heavy leveling and questing, it is refreshing to run content that requires thought and planning.

Obviously, there is more to a cooperative, progression-based game than just the trinity, and it looks like a lot of new games are willing to explore these alternate avenues. In a recent reddit "Ask Me Anything" session, Cryptic developer Kevin "cryptic_crucial" Stocker asserts that "The trinity plays a different role in Neverwinter," a decision the design team made during the course of the game's development to give players more of an "action" feel.  Neverwinter's clerics don't heal as much as they do in "more traditional MMOs," and tanks use different methods of enemy control, because it's more fun that way.

That's not to say the tank-healer-striker trinity is inherently bad or fundamentally flawed - it is as ubiquitous as it is for a good reason, and I personally enjoy leveling tank classes. But the evolving MMO market requires greater fluidity than the trinity can provide. Players have evolved in the last 10 years, and our games should evolve with us.

What are your thoughts on the MMO trinity? Let us know in our comments!

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