Following up on an intriguing tangent from the Data Mining comments, I wanted to take a look at the notion of Dual Specs and the “Holy Trinity of combat” that we see in World of Warcraft.
It’s caused no small kerfluffle in message boards and blogs, and the inherent flexibility of dual specs is altering the perception of hybrid and “pure” classes. In a nutshell, each class has three “talent trees” that are more or less mutually exclusive when it comes time for character customization. Specialization in one tree means very little ability to adopt elements from another tree, so each tree more or less represents a “play style”. As such, each class has three major playstyles. (Yes, that grossly oversimplifies it in some ways, but I’m trying to keep this relatively “high level” design.
Class identity is derived from these playstyles. The thing is, these three playstyles don’t necessarily map to different combat roles. (Those being the trinity; Tank/Damage Dealer/Healer.) A Rogue, for instance, will pretty much be a damage dealer no matter which tree she specializes in. A Druid, on the other hand, can be a tank, a ranged damage dealer, a melee damage dealer or a healer. (Yes, that’s four roles; the tank and melee damage dealer both fall under the Feral Combat tree.) Druids are inherently more flexible than a Rogue, able to fill more combat roles. As such, a Rogue and a Druid will have different value estimations of the ability to dual spec. The Rogue may well shrug and note that spec doesn’t significantly change their role, while a Druid now has the ability to switch between roles much easier than they once did.
I happen to really like the ability to make that sort of choice, and to have two “main” specs to switch between. That said, it definitely has a way of watering down the roles of pure Damage Dealing classes, as they really don’t gain much flexibility from the dual spec system. Yes, they gain something, but it’s nowhere as significant as what a Druid or Shaman will stand to gain. Where’s the balance in that?
OK, so lots of words to describe a known problem to most of you. Still, I like to give context to try to illustrate what I’m getting at a bit more clearly.
Question: What if those three talent trees were mapped roughly to the trinity of roles (tank/DPS/healer) for each and every class? That would be the ultimate in “bring the player, not the class” design ethos that seeks to make WoW raiding more accessible to more players. Anyone can be anything, and can change mid-stride if necessary via the dual spec system.
The obvious problems are the whole “if everyone’s Super, no one is” concern (the loss of class identity) and the thematic silliness of giving a Warlock of Warrior a healing role. I think the thematic concerns could be handwaved away if there really was a will to make this sort of mechanic reality. It would certainly be an exercise in creativity, but it could be done. Blizzard isn’t one to shy away from bending story and lore to mechanical ends.
Mechanically, though, the greater questions are “should it be done?” and “how would it be done?” Splitting that pair, the “how” would again be fairly easy, comparing the two. Yes, it would likely mean coming up with ways for the classes to still feel different and unique, while still being able to fill different roles (meaning, a Warlock should heal differently from a Priest). That’s a trick, to be sure, but it’s doable. They are still making money with the game, right?
I suspect the larger problem would be selling the playerbase on such a concept. Beside the notion that it would be a relatively huge change from the norm (which is always scary), there are players with huge emotional investment in their characters. Making the classes different on so fundamental a level would probably lead to plenty of crying and quitting that would have to be balanced against the advantages of such a design change. (Greater accessibility and flexibility, unique twists on tired old combat role mechanics, and stronger talent tree identity.) Would new players come in and play with the new tools, in sufficient numbers to replace those who quit? Would those players come back as they realize that their personal ability to play their role in combat isn’t diminished by letting someone else take a crack at it? (Unless player skill really doesn’t mean anything in WoW, that is…)
…and as usual, WoW probably isn’t the best test bed for this sort of thing, since it’s the 800 lb. gorilla stuck in a rut of mud. Change doesn’t come easy to such a beastie. OK, then, what of Runes of Magic? The native ability to dual class there has at least superficial similarities to such a system, where a single player with any “core” class can be plenty flexible given the second class and spec builds. What of Darkfall or Ultima Online, with their skill systems and the ability to “build your own adventurer”? (Of course, those aren’t offering the same flexibility as dual specs in WoW, with the “change on the hoof” ability.) Could a new WoW killer distinguish itself that way?
I’m really not sure how it would all settle out, but it’s at least an intriguing idea. As a designer, I’d want to figure out unique ways for each class to fill each role, yet feel distinct and interesting to maintain “class identity”. Of course, this is built on the assumption that the combat trinity design is firmly lodged in the design DNA. A game with a different approach to combat would do different things. That’s why this is framed in WoW terms in the first place; they do things just a bit differently from an Ultima Online or the like, and like it or not, they are the major example in modern MMO design. (Even if it’s only to the numbercrunchers, who are the ones with the purse strings.)
Still, I can’t shake the mental image of a Dual Wielding Warrior, holding aloft a pair of huge hammers that heal whomever they bop on the head. There’s precedent for that sort of action in the Final Fantasy world, and silly as it may seem, it’s actually a tactical advantage at times, since it doesn’t consume magic (or trigger magic related conditions, so it can slip past Reflect and the like) and can be built on the Warrior’s natural combat efficiency. (Rather than their typically pitiful magic proficiency.) If nothing else, that would give more ways to build itemization, which a gear-centric game will always love.