In another entry that is probably largely redundant, I just wanted to take a quick look at the role that a customizable skill-based character mechanic might have in breaking the stagnant Tank/Healer/Damage Dealer triangle in most modern MMO combat.
Firstly, I see the mechanics of healing, protection/mitigation and damage dealing as being key functions of combat. I don’t dispute that. You need a way to kill the enemy, not be killed in return, and heal up when things go sour. Throughout “real world” history, that has meant a weapon, armor, and some sort of medical support. Notably, the real world doesn’t really have “instant heals” or even “heals over time” that function over the span of a few seconds, but we do get to make concessions to make the game fun. So, ignoring that healing was something usually done after combat was over, and often over the span of days if not longer, we’re back to kill/defend/heal.
Question #1: Why do those functions need to be filled by different people?
The cheap answer is “because it’s an MMO, stoopid, you need other people”. As a staunch solo player, with a strong aversion to forced grouping, I find this rationale to be shallow. Champions Online seems to think along similar lines, with every ability available to every player. The efficiency of abilities will change as the player customizes their hero, but it would be perfectly possible to build a serviceable “jack of all trades” under such a system. Of course such a generalized character wouldn’t be as apt with any of the roles as a specialized character would be, but that tradeoff is the point of making choices. (And why Guild Wars has a great idea in their “respec in any town for free” idea; change for the situation instead of approaching every problem with a hammer.)
To be fair, games like WoW have a bit of this in the “hybrid” classes, the Paladin, Druid and Shaman. I’m a Druid fan, myself, precisely because the gameplay is fairly malleable depending on what I feel like doing. I can tank, DPS or heal. The trouble is that I can’t “respec” to be a Warrior or Rogue. I can fill a similar role (Bear or Cat forms), but I don’t get the same toys as the dedicated classes.
That’s not really bad design. It’s smart to force tradeoffs and make consequences for choices. The trouble I have with the current class-based system is that those choices are made at character creation, and only a grueling grind with altitis can fix them. Respecs are a bandaid, but a Warrior will never be a healer, for instance.
I love that a top notch healer can’t also simultaneously be a super tank. Rewarding specialization is a good thing. I’d just also like to reward generalization, and to my mind, a truly classless system would be the best way to do that. Let players choose their own roles and change their character to match, and let them change over time if htey feel like it, without forcing them to make a new character.
Question #2: Are there other roles in combat?
The easiest example to look at here is the “support” roles in combat. Sometimes that’s intelligence, sometimes that’s distraction, sometimes it’s more tactical, with resource denial, environmental effects, spatial control, and morale manipulation.
Guild Wars has Mesmers, WAR has collision detection and tanks that take advantage of it, and EQ2 apparently has buff/debuff classes. (I’ve not played it, so feel free to correct me.) I’d like to see even more of these tactical roles in games. I’d love to see a “cloaked” character role that provides intel for their team, resulting in map advantages or even bonuses to hit. Yes, a WoW Rogue can go behind enemy lines and get in a backstab or two, but I’m thinking more along the lines of a Protoss Probe; a perpetually cloaked unit that doesn’t really do damage itself, but if it can manage to be in the right place at the right time, would nevertheless be a great boon to its team. It would be largely tactical, but likewise fragile, to balance the advantages it offers. (Maybe a role for ghosts? Dearly departed teammates in a pitched Battleground can either jump back into the fray or take on the Ghost role? These Ghosts would be defeatable, of course, which would then force a traditional “rebirth”. Or something like that.)
Strangely, this question has me going further down the “teamwork” rabbit hole. Just because I personally want to be a jack of all trades, though, it doesn’t mean that I don’t want specialists. I want both, and I want the option to play whatever I feel like at the moment.
To me, that’s the point of customization. Allow me to play my character in an MMO, and allow me to tailor the experience to what I want at the moment. Champions Online has potential, and apparently, Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies did the same thing. My loss; I never played those games. (They are still sub games, which I refuse to play.)
In a fully customizable classless system, characters may still settle into the Tank/Healer/Damage Dealer triangle out of habit or focus, but at least that would be a natural consequence of how players want to play. I’d much rather that be the case than try to artificially shoehorn people into roles according to class, especially if the only way to switch classes is to raise another character through old content. My complaint is less with the Triangle itself, and more with the artificial constraints that arise when creating classes around it.
Speaking of artificial constraints, I should note that is implemented in WoW, the Triangle is largely based on the Threat mechanic. That’s the most artificial part of the whole thing. Stepping beyond that mechanic into truly dangerous and adaptive AI would almost necessitate a level of generalization for everyone, as Tank taunts could no longer be relied upon to save the back row “squishies” from canny foes. Poorly defended healers would have to function further from the front lines, and be able to keep themselves alive in a pinch. The loss of the “main tank” or the primary healer wouldn’t result in a punishing “wipe” because everyone would be more self-sufficient; the team as a whole could absorb changes in combat easier. Perhaps they might not dance through a raid with a surgeon’s precision and speed, but they would be better equipped to handle a more dynamic bit of content.
That team flexibility might just be one key to extending the life of the “raiding endgame” by providing more variable experiences. As it is, one mistake by the main tank or anchor healer can cause an expensive wipe, so raids wind up highly choreographed and puzzle-like. A more “fuzzy” experience would keep players on their toes, making the experience more skill-intensive and interesting. Mistakes would be temporary setbacks allowing for adaptation, rather than a “go to jail” punishing mechanic for the whole team. Each player could pull their weight, rather than play second fiddle in a DPS choir while the main tank goes operatic.
So yes, this is just some thoughts that I wanted to get down. I’m pretty sure little of this is new, but it helps me to get things down in text so that I can focus my thinking. If this offers some insight to those of you who are more knowledegable and/or experienced, that’s a bonus. If some of you have favorite articles to point to regarding a classless combat system or Breaking the Triangle, I’d love to hear of them.