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Standard MMO Character Roles: The Good and the Bad
by Joshua McDonald on 07/30/10 06:02:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In the modern MMO scene, group dynamics in most games is ruled by predefined roles, most often tank, healer, and DPS (damage dealer). This system gets a lot of criticism, but a look at the industry shows that it works for WoW, if not necessarily for a lot of other games. What I'm going to look at is the benefits, the drawbacks, the flaws in most proposed "solutions", and an idea of what I think good solutions could be.

For the sake of keeping discussion focused, this article specifically addresses semi-traditional MMOs (WoW, Everquest, Aion, etc.). Games like Eve are so different in most ways that discussing them is more likely to just take us off track.


At the core, the main benefit to using this system is to ease PuGs (Pick-up groups. In other words, playing with random strangers online). In an MMO that adheres to strict character roles, you can group with a few random people, and without a word of discussion, everybody knows what they're responsibilities are. You can do a difficult dungeon flawlessly without saying a single word to any other player.

Further, this allows you to roughly present your value to a team in a single number. "I deal 6000 DPS". "I have 5300 Gear Score".

Compare that to a more complex system. "I'm tough enough to take hits from 1-2 enemies, I can keep one enemy turned into a sheep, I set myself up to run faster so I can distract bad guys better, and I can call my Gnomish Battle Chicken when I need some extra power".  Try forming an effective group from random people who describe themselves like this, and you've got a nice challenge cut out for you.


The big, obvious drawback, of course, is that it's shallow, but I want to be more precise than that. Specifically, it elminates decision-making from battles. Even complex battles such as raid bosses do not involve decision making because there's always a definite best solution. It's very rare that you actually strategize during a fight, rather than simply having everybody fulfill the pre-defined set of steps to make it through successfully.

The other major drawback is that this system doesn't support stylized characters. Once you've chosen your role, there are definite best stats, best equipment, etc. Any attempt to make a character that plays differently from others will almost always result in an inferior character.


Weak Solutions: Most conversations I see about this get the same solution offered: Add more roles. People will recommend adding a Crowd Control character or a Buffing character, but there's a reason why WoW moved away from that (Crowd Control used to be important). It's because it provided the worst of both worlds. If there are 5 mandatory roles instead of 3, it's hard to put a good group together. However, there is still no real decision-making during the fight. It's still following routine, but now the routine is harder to follow and getting a group together involves a lot more time hanging out in cities asking people to come.

More Effective Solutions: First off, you have to accept that if you're moving away from standard MMO roles, you're going to lose the benefits mentioned above (which are substantial). You're going for a different audience, and that may or may not be what you want for your game.

If you have decided that it's worth the cost, then the first two steps are to change the aggro system and change the class design. Classes must be created able to accomplish more than one thing and Aggro should have some trade-offs in its manipulation and possibly be more difficult to manipulate. Basically, either it has to be impossible to always keep aggro on the tank and still play effectively or it has to be a better choice to mix up who's being attacked.

 The best example I know of with changing this while still maintaining a traditional fantasy MMO is the Guild Wars series. Guild Wars 1 had an aggro system that is very similar to what you expect from PvP (enemies prefer weak characters and high damage dealers. Healing creates much more aggro but only if they're attacking the person getting healed). Guild Wars 2 is breaking the traditional roles further, though I'd recommend the articles on the official website if you want more info there (too long to explain here).

Consider a "Glass Cannon" character under these rules. Instead of just constantly blasting the enemy as much as they can, they would look for targets of opportunity. They would prefer to attack an enemy who is almost dead, so that by the time they switched targets, they'd be finished. Likewise, if the game didn't have a "Taunt" ability, they would be some of the best at rescuing endangered party members because their damage output would be great for forcing a target switch. You would have to constantly look at the battle and make decisions instead of just firing away.

 Moving to these types of systems is ideal for people who regularly play together, as there's much more room for ingenuity, and you learn to play off of each others' strengths. However, they're pretty harsh for people trying to play with strangers, as everybody will have a different idea of how the group should work, and they'll have a less clear picture of what their allies are capable of.


Too often, people either copy mechanics without considering why they're there or criticize mechanics without fully understanding the benefits or design decisions that brought them about. While I'm all about innovation (and I'm personally bored of routine MMO battles), it's important to understand both sides of each major mechanic before deciding whether you want to use it.

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Hayden Dawson
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Nice to see I am not the only one who sees multi-capable characters as a solution to this ever present issue in MMOs. From my own experiences, I have been lucky enough to run across a few players who tried using such as an individual playstyle; even if the game never really allowed it.

I think FFXI came kind of close with their core mage (blm/whm/rdm) classes. When paired with the opposite, both white mages and black mages were able to nuke, heal, control and debuff while red mages with a DD sub were capable of tanking, doing a measure of melee damage and were one of the few jobs with a chance of doing much soloing towards the endgame. A black mage who knew more than "I just nuke shit" would be a decent representative of the 'glass cannon'.

Chan Chun Phang
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Another example would be WAR, where all classes are generally defined as DPS first, sub-traits second.

Of cause, in my opinion, the main reason why the standard MMO roles still exist, is because the standard MMO situations still exist. Once you get rid of the basic "spank the target" situation, you immediately force a diversification of roles. In Warcraft, you have Crowd Control classes to handle "extra targets" for instance. In City of Heroes you have debuffing classes, simply because without debuffs, opponent class synergy would simply be too hard to handle. In Planetside, you have vehicle specialists, because getting to the target itself is a core factor of gameplay.

Christopher Wragg
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Well Guild Wars mitigates a large quantity of the PuG issues simply by allowing the secondary class/skill changes in town. There's no additional "talent swap" cost, and many characters can be effective in alternate roles. Additionally Guild Wars still makes heavy use of Crowd Control skills, allowing players to approach problems imaginatively as well.

So In truth there's a lot of work that can be done to mitigate the issues involved, and, as good as it sounds on paper, many instances in GWs still have "optimal" solutions (Trap/Pull/Snare/Nuke/Repeat anyone?).

I'm of the opinion that regular roles should exist (In part they're based on logical representation of the character), but be mitigated by clever game mechanics. For instance, warrior types could have a "stance" that doesn't allow enemies to pass them. This means warrior types would still tank, but a lot of gameplay decisions would be made on the fly about positioning, and between which enemy/ally they should get between.

I would also like to do away with the concept of healers as well, healers are entirely unecessary, in fact the pre-requisite for having healing characters, is to have damage incoming at a higher rate than other characters can reasonably recieve. This could, logically, be prevented via the use of physical mechanics like the one described above, and fluid combat roles, in which everyone has methods for survival. Warriors could rely solely on thier armour and thier Health. Rogues could be given a dodge roll (think kingdom hearts-ish), archers can rely on snares and thier distance, mages could alter the battlefield to suit themselves.

Yet paradoxically, players can't be allowed to bring too many skills to the battle, if they do then there's a much greater chance that an optimal path is going to exist, a solution I've been pondering for a while is one of pressure. For instance, a player can only perform X actions in a given time space Y. Now in traditional MMO fare, those actions have lasting consequences, so action A may take affect over mutliple time spaces. This has the effect of reducing pressure on players, examples are maintining aggro, snaring, healing/damaging over time. This gives player more time to work towards an ultimate goal and they spend less time reacting to thier opponents. So, to nullify this, give enemies abilities that remove these advantages at a time cost. Snare an opponent, and he (or an ally) may waste the time to rip himself free. In this way you make a gain for yourself (Occupying two enemy actions for the cost of one), but a limited one. Warriors may be able to prevent enemies passing them, but some enemies may just flank/jump over the warrior, alternatively they might bully him out of the way.

Anyhow, that got long winded, but just a couple of ideas.