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MMO Class Design: Up With Hybrids! An Economic Argument

April 18, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

Hybrids and the economics of specialization

 Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) typically have multiple classes of characters, some of which are specialized for a single role, and some of which are hybrids which can serve in multiple roles. These hybrid characters are a common failure point for MMO design, often ending up much weaker or much more powerful than more specialized characters. 

Fortunately, there are some basic economic models of behavior that can be used to understand the design pressures that can distort the role of hybrids in MMOs. By having a clear concept of why these pressures occur and what conditions enable these pressures, we can systematically create conditions which promote both hybrid and specialist classes simultaneously, creating complex and fun gameplay for our players.



What's a hybrid?


In classic role playing game (RPG) design, there are commonly three primary character archetypes: tank, DPS ("Damage Per Second"), and healer. These archetypes have their roots in old-school pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, and were carried forward into early single player RPGs like Ultima and then into MMOs.


The three primary archetypes are:

  • Tank - a character specialized for survivability in the face of attack
  •  DPS - a character specialized for doing damage to enemies
  •  Healer - a character specialized for healing and supporting their teammates

In the standard model of RPG combat, the tank holds the dragon's attention and takes the brunt of the dragon's damage, while the healer keeps the tank alive and the DPS kills the dragon. Each player is performing a single role using a character specialized for that role. For example, tanks generally do little damage themselves, but maximize their ability to withstand damage for others.

In the nomenclature of MMOs, a "hybrid" is a character that bridges two or even three of these areas. In MMOs set in fantasy worlds, a tank is commonly embodied as an armored medieval knight while a healer takes the form of a priest or cleric. If we create a hybrid between a tank (knight) and a healer (priest), we get a paladin who can wear heavy armor and cast healing spells.

Why are hybrids difficult to design?

At the heart of the hybrid problem is the fact that if a hybrid can perform a given role as well as a specialist while also having other abilities the specialist can never have, playing a specialist becomes pointless.


To put it in terms of our earlier example, if a paladin can tank as well as a knight but can also heal, then there is never a reason to play a knight instead of a paladin. If the hybrid has all of the advantages of its parents plus extras, then the parent class is doomed to extinction.


Conversely, if a hybrid is always inferior to a specialist in any given role, then it's always better to have a specialist fill that role. As game designers, we want to create a vibrant ecology of classes, where players have a wide variety of classes and playstyles available to them.


The standard solution to this problem can be summed up in the phrase "Jack of all trades, master of none". Hybrids are generally made less effective in each area than their parent classes, with the intent that they make up the deficiency with their abilities from other areas. The paladin mentioned above might not be able to survive as much damage as a knight, but they can heal other players and help them survive, something a knight could never do.


Historically, MMOs have had a great deal of difficulty designing hybrids that are powerful and valuable without completely displacing their parent classes. The catchphrase for these overly successful hybrids is "tank-mage". This term comes from the early days of one of the first MMOs, Ultima Online, where some characters could both wear heavy armor and cast powerful damaging spells. A tank-mage could both take and deal a lot of damage, creating a character that was superior to any other type of character in most situations.


Since Ultima Online, other MMOs have tried to avoid this problem, but players inevitably gravitate towards the latest incarnation of the tank-mage whenever possible. This is not a sign that the players are cheating or deliberately trying to abuse the system, it's just the natural result of players trying to find the golden path and "win" the game. A character who can take more damage is better and a character who can dish out more damage is better -- therefore a character that can do both is ideal.


For example, in City of Heroes the Fire/Fire Tanker emerged as an early tank-mage contender because of its high damage resistance and ability to deal lots of damage to multiple enemies at one time.


The discovery/creation of these tank-mages by players is the product of the incredible ingenuity of MMO players and the complex emergent properties of the game systems, rather than any particular failure on the part of the design teams, and they are mostly adjusted or "nerfed" as they become apparent. However, nerfs generate turbulence in the player community, and it is always better to prevent these sorts of issues from arising in the first place.


The hybrid issue is exacerbated by the fact that MMOs are both solo and group games. If people only played MMOs in groups, a character able to soak a lot of damage but deal no damage would be viable because the other people in the group could deal damage for them. The individual character could be one dimensional (a pure tank) because the other group members fill out the other two parts of the trinity (DPS and healing).


However, studies have shown that even in group-focused games, players spend a lot of their playing time doing things on their own. Even if a character is the best healer in the world, if they can't take or dish out at least some damage they won't be able to operate outside of a group. Soloing requires that the character be able to deal damage, plus the ability to absorb, avoid, or heal the damage taken.

Therefore, once the design decision has been made that every character should be able to solo -- a decision that has been made practically mandatory by the successful example of World of Warcraft -- it automatically follows that every character must be a hybrid and therefore subject to the paradoxes of hybrid design. This is a universal problem, not just one that affects certain classes within a game.


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Alex Meade
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Great article, now if only balancing everything had an algorithm to follow.

Tyler Sigman
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I enjoyed this. A lot of your points are captured more specifically by Game Theory (e.g. dominant and dominated strategies--in this case roles), but breaking it down economically was interesting. The concept of "pressures" is very applicable...the mass playing public will follow the market pressures regardless of Designer intent, of course. I guess we're all Ben Bernankes really (!)...cut a rate here, raise something there...hopefully get what we want in the end.

Christian Kulenkampff
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wonderful useful article

Franklin Brown
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Have you ever actually *played* World of Warcraft? It seems like you're leaving out a lot of what Blizzard has already done to solve the hybrid issue.

1. Talent points. Each class has three talent "trees." Let's take your Paladin. He can specialize (or, "spec") Holy, Protection, or Retribution. The Holy paladin is a great single-target healer who can take a punch, and also provide some character buffs you don't get with a priest (not that the priest doesn't have advantages.. but that's another topic). The Protection Paladin is a great tank, especially against multiple enemies, due to his unique ability to "hold threat" over a wide area (while the warrior tank is a better single-target tank; again, another subject). The Retribution Paladin is a good DPS player, and also can buff his party members. You can't be all three at once, and trying to spend talents evenly in all three trees makes your character weaker than if it picked one to specialize in.

2. Gear. Different gear offers different strengths. A Holy Paladin will wear gear that improves his mana pool and healing bonus. A Protection Paladin is going to favor gear that gives him more hit points, armor, and defense rating. If you're a holy specced Paladin in protection gear, you're doing it wrong.

The nice thing about hybrid classes is that, for fee of in-game gold, you can "re-spec" any time. Assuming you have separate sets of gear, your Paladin can spec and gear for whatever role your raid needs at a given time. This is the real advantage of the hybrid class, and why Paladins and Druids are so popular in World of Warcraft.

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Franklin Brown- I think you somewhat missed the point. He wasn't trying to show how WoW is unbalanced or even how to balance things specificly, just how the various parts of balancing in this case effect each other. It's not supposed to focus on WoW as more than an example where such things had to be implemented. All in all I have to say this is one of the more informitive articles I've read here so far.

Ryan Fernandez
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Very well written feature that finally relates some basic economic principles to game design. However, to expand a bit I feel this a topic where game theory can be really useful in. More specifically, finding and understanding the Nash Equilibruim of these different combination of classes can lead to a more balanced gameplay. By ensuring that there is no "golden" combination of classes, then a more diverse and dynamic experience can be had by all. Of course this is easier in theory then in application, it can atleast help guide designers during the development process.

Brian Canary
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I think it might be a tad presumptuous of a Microsoft games employee to write a 6 page diatribe about anything MMO considering the history that company has with the genre.

Franklin Brown
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My point is he cites WoW several times in the article, and the whole subject revolves around an issue that Blizzard has spent years solving. To ignore what Blizzard has done with regards to any study of MMO design would be akin to ignoring what Microsoft has done when studying OS design for PC's.

Hybrid classes are very convenient in WoW. They're fun to play. But they're not overpowered. A Warrior is a better boss tank than a Paladin 95% of the time. A Priest is a better raid healer than a Paladin 95% of the time. But a Paladin and/or healer is invaluable in a raid (personally, I don't like running even a 10 man raid without at least one paladin). This article could have been so much more; a deeper exposition into how other MMO's have handled hybrid classes would have been great, and perhaps a preview of how AoC is going to deal with it.

Roane Beard
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@Brian Canary: I'd hardly call the article a diatribe. There was a thoughtful, articulate article that sought to apply economic theory to a thorny issue of game design. His employer's track record has nothing to do with the validity of the points he's made.

Ryan Fernandez
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Interesting point Franklin, though I admit am not too familiar with WoW's class system. I take it from the article, hear say from friends, and your input that the Paladin class is still the "best of both worlds" class so to speak. Thus going along with the idea of comparative advantage in that the warior class is still the better tanker and priest class is the better healer, what is the hybrid class' true advantage over the other classes? Clearly versatility, but in your 10 man raids would it not be better just to use one of the "traditional" classes in its place? (i.e. pure tanker, dps, or healer)

I think this is good issue though, in order to solve this hybrid class problem designers will have to come up with more innovative ways to present these classes. I think more emphasis should and will be placed on making each class have a clear and definitive advantage over the other classes, including the hybrid ones. Now how to go about it is the million dollar question or should I say multi-million dollar question :)

Jason Swan
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Franklin, he uses WoW several times because it's the best known and most successful example in the genre. It's always better to point to examples your readers have the best chance at being familiar with.

Sure, WoW has made steps towards improving their hybrid classes, but they've far from solved it. Every hybrid class in that game has to specialize in both gear and spec. Yes, a paladin can tank and heal, but one with talents for healing can't expect to tank even with the appropriate gear. A tanking paladin may be able to heal with appropriate gear, but should he be in a fight where his tanking "commodity" is no longer needed, he has the choice of doing next-to-no healing or next-to-no damage. Without being able to make a gear swap mid-fight, hybrids in WoW are locked into one of the three roles in a particular fight (with feral speced Druids being the one exception).

The article is great for what it is: theory. Theory without examples to back it up has little merit, so he provides some. He makes several valid points that are well worth considering when designing a hybrid class, which is what this article set out to do.

Roane Beard
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@Franklin Brown: Sure, the article could have discussed much more. Entire books can be written on the subject. But the author took a narrow topic and discussed it in some depth. The article was six pages as written, as another poster noted. Expanding on these points is the place of another article...or perhaps this forum. Care to tackle it?

Franklin Brown
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@Ryan - Hybrids still have advantages. Paladin tanks can tank multiple enemies at a time better than a Warrior can. Paladins can offer party "buffs" that other classes cannot. Paladin healers can heal a single target better than a Priest or Druid. Druid tanks can't shield block, but have massive armor and hit points. Druid healers can cast "heal over time" spells that are superior to any other healer class. I could go on... but the point is, the hybrids certainly have their advantages. The pally buffs alone are reason enough to bring one on every raid.

@Jason - Why would you want to switch gear/spec mid-fight? That would indeed make the hybrids very overpowered. It's enough that I can ask the paladins and druids to re-spec before a raid, should we have a need. Are we missing an off-tank? Great.. the druid can spec feral and throw on his tank gear. Short a healer? Have the pally throw on his healing gear and spec holy, and we're all set.

Even "specialist" classes have some flexibility in this regard. What if I have too many healers? No problem.. the best priest in my guild would be happy to spec for Shadow any time... he has the gear for that, and in Shadowform, he not only does massive DPS, he casts a vampiric embrace that renews health and mana for the whole party. What if my mage is specced for Fire damage and I'm going to Molten Core? Well, he probably will re-spec for Frost first... again, I could go on... but the point is, there is certainly balance in the classes in World of Warcraft, even the hybrid ones. Some are easier to play and level with, but there's none that can't be foiled in a raid or in Player vs. Player combat.

Javier Arevalo
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WoW has it mostly right, but that doesn't mean it's nor useful to discuss their solutions and other alternatives, and especially (as in this article) a philosophy for finding more solutions. Hopefully the article will inspire other designers to get it right as well, using some of WoW's techniques along with their own.

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This article could of just been summarized as saying: creating "true hybrids" is very difficult because MMo's are designed around role playing, and it's not possible to specialize in one role (healing, DPS, tanking) at a time.

One MMO to attempt to create "true" hybrids is Warhammer Online. In that game, you can be a Paladin (healer) known as a "Warrior Priest." Instead of casting heals, your heals must be charged from attacking other players, thus incentivizing more hybrid gameplay. Sounds good on paper, but in reality the Warrior Priests merely just run into battle, and whack at players in order to charge up their heal spell. Thus, they're playing as a specialized healer with the chore of having to charge up their heal by participating in gameplay they don't really want to participate in.

And there in lies the true problem with hybrids: people choose a class based on their preferred playstyle. Girls notoriously like to heal (who mostly play Druids and Priests in WoW) because they like being support and helping out others, but not really doing the damage and "hurting" other players directly. Some players like being Hunters or Warlocks because they have pets, some like the role of being a tank, etc. So not only is being pigeon holed into a hybrid class not fun, it also alienates and turns off a large portion of the demographic.

Assuming a game was made up of pure hybrids (they can do all, but only one at a time), as in every class was a hybrid, it would be difficult if not impossible to keep them all from deviating from the hybrid gameplay. All it would take is one spell or a few % damage increase or reduction talents to create the "Tank" or "DPS" class out of a hybrid class. Suddenly that hybrid class is known as the "DPS" class.

In WoW, Blizzard kind of gave up trying to create the perfect hybrid and instead just gave hybrids three tree's (basically making a Hybrid three classes) with all unique playstyles. So you can be a Feral Druid and tank and do melee DPS, Balance druid and do ranged spell DPS, or a Resto Druid and be a healer class. The class trainer NPC lets you swap your class for 50G instead of leveling up a completely new character (although you're restricted by your itemization). That said, each of those roles have strengths and weaknesses in comparison with other classes. You can do good sustained damage as a Cat Druid, but a Rogue will still out DPS you and can chain stun. You can tank good as a Bear, but a Prot warrior has shield wall and last stand etc.

All in all, it'd be really cool to see a game that does hybrids to where they'd be optimal but still not as powerful as their primary class counterparts. Almost impossible to do though.

(I'm a class designer for a major MMO)

Lorenzo Wang
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I like the idea of examining class balance against an economic backdrop, and have been wanting to write more extensively about this.

Regarding hybrids, instead of theorycrafting, let's examine actual instances of hybridization versus specialization. An easy place to use as an example is web services:

Tank-mages = Amazon, Google, Ebay

Specialists = Newegg, Gamasutra, Mapquest

Hybrids = Facebook, Digg, Youtube

Now, each of these fulfills a certain role in our internet consumption. Tank-mage sites give us everything under the sun. For games, this is an unbalanced uber-class, and I'm going to ignore them. Specialist sites give us a focused location to obtain paradigm-setting depth of a certain niche of content or service. This is akin to the holy trinity.

Now, let's look at hybrid sites, and see how we can apply their real world success to successful in-game balance. What these sites offer aren't so much depth as versatility, both in what users can access as well as what users can contribute. This is the same as saying hybrid classes offer versatility in class roles and in playstyles.

Now, I'd argue that where hybrid sites succeed is in acting as a gateway to the specialist sites. They help us provide a reliable filter of the content we want by offering tools to customize our experience. Chris Anderson of The Long Tail points out that democratic demand depends heavily on effective filter tools. Hybrid classes, then, should serve as a versatile "service" too, customizing not just the player's experience, but the party's experience.

So balancing hybrids is not so much impossible as irrelevant. I think we should look at hybrids as party additions that let players create or execute new strategies, not just fill roles, which they will never do sufficiently. To that end, hybrids should be more reciprocal with other classes in terms of interaction and synergy. Non-hybrid players should feel that the hybrid augments their specialities, or attuning themselves to the hybrid's current state is a fundamental change to the combat flow.

Let's stop calling them hybrids, which defines their roles by what the specialists do. Instead, I propose calling these walking plan-b's the specialists of flexibility... or simply "strategists."

David Sahlin
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I believe using economic analogies to help with 'class' balancing is very helpful - I for one would be very interested to hear what someone involved with a metrics system would say about it.

Specifically, I'd love for them to talk about how they would use economic models to help display a party's data - damage per second, damage taken per second, damage prevented per second, for instance.

(I'd prefer something along the lines of "injury conditions per second" or "toughness rolls per second")

Mark Andrews
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The only way to balance classes to make them exactly the same. From a PvP standpoint this is paramount. As you have posted here, the most imbalanced "Tank-mage" class allowed for the most balanced fight , simply by pitting a tank-mage versus a tank-mage. This is the only true balance. And it solves the issue of hybrids with ease.

Lorenzo Wang
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Except that you are diluting class roles, and thereby blurring the contribution of a certain player's playstyle choice. Not saying it can't be done, but players aren't showing a great desire for homogeneity.

Steffen Gutzeit
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"One wave could consist of a single enemy that did lots of damage, requiring a single tank and multiple healers to keep the tank alive, while the second wave consists of multiple enemies to be tanked separately, and the third could do damage that cannot be healed until after the enemies are dead. By varying up the requirements between waves, we create a niche for characters which can change their production."

-> Would this not implicit that you need Hybrids to be successful? You know, when you play Warcraft how desperately tanks and healers are needed. Most of the time you therefore are unable to set up a working party for visiting an instance.

"One solution to this monopoly is to add mechanics which require multiple tanks for key enemies. For example, fights where the primary tank is sometimes teleported away from the fight for 10 seconds would reward teams for taking a hybrid character who could tank for at least a very short period."

-> If the Hybrid can easily fulfill that role within seconds, he would probably be able to tank the whole time and therefore being too good in that role. To prevent this I believe a kind of special ability could help, like turning on his tank-ability-I-win-button to gain aggro and to be able geting more hits until he dies. This ability should only last for a specific amount of time and has to have a high cooldown until he can use it again.


Great article though. Furthermore I think all classes are hybrids. I just played WoW, Guild Wars and Conan, so my experience is limited. In WoW a warrior can be an tank & dd, a priest can be dd & healer, a clear dd like mages can specialize into a glass canon or a PVP-monster. In Guild Wars I has a monk. There I was able to decide in advance of every dungeon/instance what spells I take with me and where I spent my skill points that means, how to specialize myself. It was all for free - no limitations there.

In Conan (Beta) the soldier classes are at the same time dd and tanks, and the priests are healer and dd. Of course you can put some of your skill points (feats) into one direction to be a bit better there, but I feel it does not have such high importance of specialization like in WoW. I can imagine it's because of the large PVP aspect of that game. As a clear tank with almost no dps you probably won't have much fun out there.

Aerows Orchid
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Great commentary.

@ Franklin Brown - Blizzard hasn't balance hybrids, with the exception of the Druid. The Druid is the only hybrid class that is truly viable.

Paladins are good single target healers, but that is strictly a niche. They certainly don't heal as well as priests, don't hold a candle to a warrior or a rogue in DPS, either, and are exceptionally vulnerable to lock down. A locked down paladin, unable to cast is useless and it happens frequently with them. They should be able to hold their own in a melee fight since they wear armor, but DPS is dismal (even for Ret Paladins)

The Enhancement Shaman is worthless in a party right now. They can't tank, can't DPS well, and have limited usefulness if against an opponent that can destroy their totems ( even greater liablility in PvP due to pet macros).

If you work for Blizzard, Franklin, and you must if you are claiming that hybrids are balanced in WOW, go visit the class forums for Paladins and Shaman. There are threads that are 100's of posts long explaining the broken mechanics for both classes, and they aren't just QQ-ing.

Paladins and Shaman in WoW need an overhaul because as it stands, their overall suck factor far outweighs the utility they might have as a hybrid.

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I love how people that don't actually play those hybrids say they are balanced.

Currently Blizzard itemizes things for the Hybrids by having a mentally handicapped monkey mash keys on the item generator. Enhancement Shaman are given Hunter Mail with no real Mail equipment designed for them. (1 Mail belt drop in the game with Str, and it is so poorly designed that it is worse than anything else in that slot at the same level) Elemental Shaman have the gear designed for them, but are not allowed to have the raid buffs other casters have for scaling their damage up. Curse of Elements does not work on nature. Other casters have that, shadow spells for priests and warlocks, scorch for mages and warlocks, and a few other buffs that increase their damage by percentages.

Ret paladins finally have gear starting to work for them but still have spells dependent on far too many stats. Protection Paladins have a bloated talent tree and gear with far too much mitigation given up for stats they should be able to get just from a good tanking weapon. They don't have that weapon, their best tanking weapon is a blue. Druids would love some armor with defense on it, They have to go insane with rings, neck, and cloaks to get it and those slots have items much better for tanking now with 0 defense. Balance druids have the same problem elemental shaman have except their gear wasn't even good for years.

The only gear that is designed well for the hybrids is the healing gear. Well, thanks so much for making the specialist healer get a massively important damage role in the raid and not help out the hybrids. Shadow priests get raid synergy for increasing their damage and a massively important role as a raid battery, increasing the casters ability to damage things. Gear that works for warlocks and mages helps them as well. Meanwhile the hybrids are all given poor gear for DPS (Enhancement Shaman are often rolling against Rogues because it is better gear than their Tier items by far), Limited DPS even with the gear, but stellar Healing gear.

DPS hybrids are becoming a rarity in WoW. The best players are giving up and either quitting or re-rolling to a class that isn't forced into a single role after promising otherwise.

Most times people that haven't met a good DPS hybrid tell them to shut up and heal.

This article is pretty dead on. Balancing the Hybrid is difficult. However Blizzard hasn't done this well. If anything they are horrible at it and hate hybrids. (The lead developer is on record saying he hated hybrids when playing in another game prior to getting the job at Blizzard)

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The essential problem is the use of distinct character classes which limit what a player / character can ever learn and do. A skill based system, where characters acquire whatever skills they find useful avoids the whole issue. Players can still create a tank by focusing on tank skills, but having started down the tank role they can always decide down the road that a bit of medic would come in useful and obtain that skill.

Look to the real world and history. The absence of magic aside, flexibility has tended to dominate over specialization. Specialists should be the exception, not the rule.

Lorenzo Wang
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Not sure where you drew that conclusion, but historically specialists are the ones who've dominated. Evolution is flexible, but that's a meta-role. Let's ask the real world and see:


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At a meta-level, humans, top predator species on the planet, are flexible, adaptable generalists.

At the level of grand history, militaries that do one thing very well to the exclusion of others have tended to loose to ones that do many things pretty well unless the situation favors the one thing.

The advantage of flexibility is that you can not generally pick your opponents nor pick the problems you must solve, so the better you can handle a variety of them the more likely you will prosper.

To mangle an old proverb, if all you are is a hammer, you are screwed if you are not facing nails.

Aaron Casillas
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Allow me to plain speak here...having killed Nefarian to what felt like a za-zillion times in WoW; a properly balanced party by class meant everything, period. It is the way the game is designed at its core. The problem here is that casual gamers like doing "a little bit of everything because i only have so much time" but hybrids are shunned in the community, so that only leaves the possibility in WOW of perhaps creating deeper class designs with more vectors as you go down the talent tree chain.

Now there are other reasons why people choose classes, for example the game economy and non-combat specialization. Personally, I think those should be opened up to everyone, I mean having been a Gnome that makes trinkets over and over again just to make a fighting chicken that no one else can use or buy becomes moot after a while. Although I loved busting out my chicken during the heat of battle it was more for laughs that actual gameplay, sans when it accidently pulled that one time.

(Great article) Personally, this article sparked a couple of other ideas, for example, why not balance the game out so any combination of classes that grouped up could complete a raid? I mean how many of us have been denied for being a rogue gnome?

"Sorry we have too many rogues, do you know a healer? No but I can bandage like a mofo"

How much more exciting would it be to hear that a group of rogues with X technique/strategy or a group of healers or all mages or a swarm of tanks rushed and killed Nefarian! That would probably mean more tactical/ strategic flexibility during combat and not at the class creation (as the previous anon poster commented) and he/she is completely right about the history of combat. In other words "This is what we have, let's Rock! uh oh, we have this situation, rogue tank! dodge, dodge"

Just writing out loud here, one way to achieve this would be to open up more talent trees, have more saving throws (it should be entertaining after all), more AOE buffs with a variety of vectors per class, side kicking bonuses (ala COH), to name a few.

Does that mean the game has be more horizontal per class, not necessarily, the deeper the class specialization the design goes, the eventual bonuses would self calibrate the gameplay. The horizontal nature could occur deep in the talent tree or an off branch and or chance rolls during combat "Paladin has healed everyone!" "Tank has gone BERSERK, party bonus!"

Eventually, being able to do anything and everything during combat is going to be what needs to occur, lots of examples in console games, pick up a new weapon and your off to the races. I personally like the "usage over time model" but structured within a class.

Having an mmo where you can log on and play immediately no matter who you are is eventually going to be the best design in my opinion. Too much time is wasted looking for specialized classes and denying casual players before the party can have fun.

(BTW,not taking away from the article, but wouldn't mine hearing from someone at Blizz on the issue of itemization design and class balancing techniques)


Lorenzo Wang
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"At a meta-level, humans, top predator species on the planet, are flexible, adaptable generalists."

Right, at the *meta-level*. At the individual level, however, we are specialist in all aspects of civilization, and in fact see generalists like DaVinci, Bacon, or Chomsky as exceptional geniuses. I have a hard time even naming anymore generalist geniuses...

You need to draw the appropriate analogy here. Let's use the military as you did since it is analgous to an MMORPG party's combat situations. It's not that the military is made up of generalists, but that it adapts its strategy to win. You are confusing strategic adaptation with generalism.

In the military, everyone has a specialized role, be it artillery, calvary, spec ops, infantry, ballistics, intelligence, armor, etc. Successful generals are those that leverage their army's specialties, i.e. the Mongols, the British Navy, the Minutemen, the Viking raiders, the Union, the Greek phalanxes, etc. These were all highly successful in their time, and very specialized. The US military today is made of several distinct branches with specific realms of operation, as are most other militaries.

Since it is the adaptation of specialization to the situation that determines success in war, it follows that hybrid classes should be meta-roles that funnel the specialized classes in ways that make them strategically flexible. This is not the same thing as making all classes flexible.

Your mangled proverb is only true in a world where you have only hammers at your disposal, but in fact we have a multitude of specialized tools. You are only screwed if you don't realize that. Typical MMORPG classes give us a tool for every specific need, and the hybrid class is an attempt satisfy what is usually a minority of more flexible players.

The numbers don't lie:

Despite druids, paladin, and shaman making up 33% of available classes, the census shows only 24% combined player population for them. That makes them almost a third less popular then specialist classes.

Aaron Casillas
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The survivability and winning structure of any civilization is flexibility specifically at the low level/micro loop. We all have some things in common, i.e. pleasure seeking as one example. This diametric paradigm exists as well in the meta loop system. Meaning, every person has the same generalist core abilities to create a winning outcome. There is a reason why every Marine is also a rifleman first and foremost. As Captain Daley Dye (Speilberg's war consultant) "Flexibility is the key ingredient to winning."

This is what we are talking about, the ability for a party to continue playing and winning even after specific class members die off. Is hybridization a design solution, sure, are their other design solutions, yes as I mentioned. Another that comes to mind is a self tuning system which can increase proc party bonuses as the party is put into certain situations. "Tanks die, Paladin becomes infuriated with Holy Might" events more in this line.

Anyone who has really played WOW at the highend realizes a couple of things, a) as specific members die the entire raid will most likely die, i.e. lose your tanks the fight is near impossible to finish. To counter this design, the player should be able to employ flexibable tactical and strategic manuevers both at the party and individual level to increase the survivability of the entire group. Thus my suggestion to employ survivability rolls and vectors deep and then horizontal in the talent tree system (as one solution). This is to counter the need to make a flush hybridization class system of all classes across the board. The survival tactics and strategic occur at the micro combat level and talent tree level (core loop component level), thus keeping the current WOW design intact but adding a new flavor of social and combat interaction.

b) Second, at the high end game level, the game becomes very flat when fighting high end bosses. Each class losses its vectored specialties because more bosses become "immune" to class specific attributes and attacks. Making bosses not immune to specialized deep talent tree attacks and attributes will increase party survivability while also creating more variances within each class.

I believe "anons" hammer proverb was meant to address the situations during high level combat when certain party member are killed, in other words "no tanks, rogues attack Nifarious!" Without a design change which employs group and individual flexibility, currently then we are stuck with a no win situation and party wipe.

jonathan sheets
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@Franklin: I think you're missing the point. Much of the article was about how various forces encourage potential "hybrids" to specialize only in one area. Pointing out that classes only perform roles where they have a comparative advantage only emphasizes that.


"If the Hybrid can easily fulfill that role within seconds, he would probably be able to tank the whole time and therefore being too good in that role."

If the "hybrid" that you are discussing is a superior tank, then he will just become the specialized tank in this situation. However, the fight mechanics still create demand for a secondary tank that is capable of performing other duties for the majority of the fight. As for your solution to this "problem", it is somewhat amusing that something like that already exists in WoW. All Warriors have an ability that reduces damage taken by 75% for a short time with a 30 minute cooldown.

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I do not seem to be expressing myself well enough so let me try again. I am not arguing for hybrids. I am arguing against the very idea of classes if we define classes as a character life choice that then limits what they can learn and do.

Show me any human being who is in a class such that they can not pick up a new skill outside that class. The marines were mentioned by Mr. Casillas and are an excellent example. They are all, every one of them, TRAINED how to be a rifleman. Many are then also TRAINED how to be an artillerist, a driver, an intelligence analyst, a cook, a band member, helicopter pilot, demolition artist, whatever. Later on, some might switch roles and adopt a different specialty, or cross train.

Taken more broadly outside the military to civilian life most of us here are or know many geeks. Ever notice how many of them have really diverse skill sets at which they are pretty good, even if they are paid for one specific skill set? It won't just be in programming either. I know programmers who are also quite talented blacksmiths, pilots, EMT's, marksmen, and electricians, etc. Are they in a class?

The use of character classes is an artifact of the original D&D (RIP G. Gygax) but as with all things we can do better with experience.

On the issue of the casual gamer, it makes sense from a marketing POV that all new players should be able to jump right in and have a good time solo (unless the game is expressly and exclusively a team game) so they will come back, recommend the game, etc. If they design a character they like and then find a "Need not apply" sign on their display, a customer is likely gone for good.

Lorenzo Wang
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They may be *trained* for all abilities, but in application, that does not mean they are desireable for their non-specialized role.

You and Aaron need to understand the context of Cpt. Dale Dye is talking about. First of all, he's a marine, where a wide range of skills is absolutely essential to winning. However, the Marines were developed with the specialized role in amphibious warfare, and as such are the smallest force in our military. In other words, Marines are hybrids with a specialized, minority role.

You may switch specialities, sure, but within a scenario, the vast majority of our armed forces have specific roles to fill, just as classes have during play. Yes they can respec, and yes they have some general/shared abilities, but that is not the same as the *role*.

Specialization is vastly more efficient as long as communication between roles is effective. What this article is asking for is how to bring hybrids into this reality and keep them fun.

Johnathan Sheets is exactly right in that a hybrid specced to tank on par with a dedicated tank is now specialized. Therefore, like a Marine, he is playing his hybrid role in a specialized way, and for purely hybrid players, this is frustrating.

There was a game that sort of let hybirds work ok, and that was DDO, which allowed for a fairly great variety of team compositions. An important factor that allowed this was how there were fewer blanket immunities (as Aaron mentioned) bosses had. Blanket immunities force roles to play maximally efficient, punishing non-optimal teams. For example CC immunities force dps, or kiting immunity forces dedicated tanks.

Aaron is right in that the encounters need to be designed with non-optimal abilities in mind, and currently WOW does not do that.

Lorenzo Wang
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BTW would you hire a lifelong helicopter pilot to fly you around, or a "talented" programmer? ;)

Bart Stewart
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Excellent, thought-provoking article. Some random thoughts:

1. Trying to balance hybrids with specialized classes is not new or unique to MMOs -- AD&D endured it with "multiclassing." (Note that AD&D still hasn't solved the problem of specialization versus hybridization, either.)

2. I don't entirely agree with the article's initial assumption that the tank/DPS/healer trinity is directly analogous to the AD&D Fighter/Mage/Cleric trinity. Although Mages were damage-dealers, they also provided support bonuses; although Fighters soaked up damage, they also did damage; and although Clerics mostly healed, they also waded directly into combat with a balance of damage-absorbing and damage-dealing. So I don't think we can say that the tank/DPS/healer roles were a natural evolution from the Figher/Mage/Cleric classes.

Instead, I believe it's more accurate to say that the tank/DPS/healer roles grew out of the technical limitation of early slow computers running NPCs instead of a human DM. Where a human DM could decide what PC an NPC would choose to attack based on dramatic value, NPCs run by a computer on which expensive collision detection was not implemented would simply run through a physically strong character to quickly kill non-fighers. So the arbitrary notion of "aggro" was invented as an obvious and relatively easy-to-program mechanism by which fighters -- presumably the burliest of combatants -- could keep the attention of attacking NPCs on themselves instead of on their frailer groupmates.

Thus fighters evolved into tanks whose purpose of attracting aggro requires their primary quality to be the ability to be meatshields. At that point, it was perfectly natural to shift all damage-dealing to role #2 and all healing to role #3. In short, it is the concept/mechanism of aggro that has resulted in class specialization on MMOs, and not an evolution from tabletop RPGs in which all classes had ways of soaking up and dealing out damage.

So perhaps what MMOs really need, rather than more special-case coding rules to prop up hybridization, is more realistic collision detection and behavioral simulation of NPCs. This would allow the artificial "aggro" construct to be deleted, which would in turn eliminate the need for tanks, which would free MMOs from needing classes designed to satisfy the highly-specialized tank, DPS, and healer roles.

3. At last report, the in-development MMORPG Hero's Journey (from Simutronics, purveyors of the popular HeroEngine) was slated to offer nine combat-oriented classes, and to allow (perhaps even require) all players to hybridize by selecting two classes -- a primary and a secondary. If the difficulties described in this article are close to accurate, how tough is such an all-hybrids game going to be to balance?

4. Even more pointedly, if designing hybrid classes to be balanced is hard, how much harder must it be to balance character abilities in a skill-based game (such as the pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies)? You could look at a player character in a skill-based game as a kind of super-hybrid, where (except for the templaters) every character is a unique class.

Or would the greater granularity of being able to select individual skills (versus choosing one predefined palette of abilities in a class) make it easier to balance character abilities? Might an economics-driven approach to balancing character abilities actually work better in a fine-grained skill-based system than in a more restrictive class-based game?

5. On the specialization/generalization question (which is an old favorite of mine), specialization is great for solving specific problems in the most efficient way over the short term. Over the long term, however, where the problem environment can change, adaptability confers a greater advantage. Over time, the generalists do better.

So "which is better" depends on your frame of reference. If you're looking at a specific challenge, like making a particular kind of widget or operating a complex weapon in a small military unit, then having specialists can be maximally efficient. But if your frame of reference has a wider field, where the challenge is more diverse or the problem space may change repeatedly over time, then being a generalist is likely to be more valuable.

As Heinlein put it (presumably looking at the big picture of what it means to be a complete human being), "Specialization is for insects."

Steffen Gutzeit
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@ Jonathan: I know, shield slam for warriors and that without the need of specializing in protection. Unfortunately you can only use it once every half hour. That means you can start acting as a secondary tank for 10 seconds. That's it, no more swapping of the tank or aggro in the whole fight. If a wipe occurs and you have to try again 5min later after everybody was resurrected, well you have to wait the 25min till the second warrior can use his shield wall or you have to try without it.

Furthermore, a warrior is no hybrid class in the classical sense ;)

Hybrids instead should not only have their short time I-win-button for being capable of tanking, when the "real" tank is ported away for 10sec (according to the authors example) but also an I-win-button for a burst healing in case the priest is silenced or dead just a moment before the boss will fall.

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"BTW would you hire a lifelong helicopter pilot to fly you around, or a "talented" programmer? ;)"

If I was confident that flying was all that would be required of the pilot, and if the downside of my being wrong was tolerable, then yes, I would rather my pilot be a lifelong (and here I assume you actually mean professional, not just been flying a long time) pilot. OTOH, if every member of my team needs to be useful once we get there, I would rather a pilot who also brought some other skills to the mission as the professional pilot-and-nothing-but-a-pilot is so much dead weight on arrival.

I have not been specifically addressing WOW. I am assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that MMORPG's are not all destined to me munchkin min/max enticing hackfests (not my cup of tea, can you tell? ), but some will explore other forms of adventure and intrigue. Think "Second Life" without protected zones, where most of whom your character will meet will be other players, not NPC's (though hordes of NPC's might exist in the background economics of the world - someone is tilling those fields and few will pay to be that someone).

Even if one is playing a MMORPG military sim, I will stake my money on the long term success of a group of talented generalists over the specialist if you are not picking your battles.

Aaron Casillas
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"BTW would you hire a lifelong helicopter pilot to fly you around, or a "talented" programmer? ;)"

Great question, allow me to recontextualize this question into a game scenerio (just having fun).

We're about to party wipe because a creature from Galaxy X434 has escaped and killed our specialized pilot.

Now we have a couple of game design situations and razors to consider (to name a few)

a) we wipe and rez the pilot

b) pilot leaves for some reason, followed by "LF1M Most be a Pilot +35 to Huey"

c) Everyone looks at each other as the building is burning down, "Shoot, I have a +35 to Luck with Machinery" Screw it! I'll do it.

d) In this game flying uses "WASD" control scheme or similiar or same control scheme as my primary movement.

I personally like situations c and d, keeps the game exciting and entertaining. Especially if it feels like we "barely" made it out of there by the skin of our teeth. Why is that important, because that is what makes you feel like a "Hero." That "oh shit" moment, but "we made it out!"

Followed by "dam I'm good, I feel great!"

The player forgets about his day job and realizes that online he is the man.


Steffen Gutzeit
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Hero yeah!!

Isn't it why we play (RP)games, to feel great in what we do and to get the feedback/reward instantly? In think that is why many players like PVP, because there are often such situations like you described with your oh-shit-moment I made it.

Maybe the player who choose to be a hybrid don't want to be the specialized pilot, they prefer to be the almighty Marine, who can do everything but not at it's best, to be the handyman, the MacGyver of the of the classes.

And I certainly do not have to tell you how he rocks. Same thing for Batman/Superman. It does not matter who is his enemy or in what trap he is, he always finds a solution and he is the man being called when there is trouble in the city. In an MMO the social aspect has a high ranking, so maybe the hybrids want just to be liked and to be the man of the our when nobody else can do the tough job.

Max Haider
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I think the article hints at a good point that, for a hybrid to be viable but not overpowered, a group in an RPG has to be about more than the sum of healing + tank + DPS it can execute in a fight.

Since there's plenty about Blizzard and the great things they've done, I'd like to imagine something akin to Diablo on a grander scale: random dungeons. If players had to put together a team with different possibilities for the tasks they may complete, maybe the classes would be more varied. A dungeon might have a choke point for a super tank to be the hero, or you might get surrounded and be forced to defend from multiple sides, allowing all the guys who could take hits for a few seconds a chance to save the characters that can't. Maybe the group gets stuck in a trap, and whoever's the most mobile has to escape first to save everyone else. Maybe the party actually encounters an attack that requires retreating (back to the choke?), and the guy with the entanglement spells saves the day.

I think it may often come down to something as simple as this: If there's 3 different tasks and 8 players, there's room to specialize. If there's 500 different potential tasks, then even a 100-man raid needs some hybrids.

Regular pen-and-paper often works like this: sure there's tanks (through friendly-fire and human-controlled enemies helps make this job more complex) and DPS and healing, but a group might at any time require a negotiator, or a jury-rigger, or stealth, trap-making, trap-breaking, counter-magic, door-busting, riddle-solving, commanding NPCs, divination, escape artists, trackers, charmers, scouts, scorched-earth tactics, sniping, cover fire, piloting, survival skills, loot hauling, performing, dueling, and 101 uses of the ten-foot-pole.

Tariffs can come in all sorts of ways. If the enemies prioritized the targets with the least damage absorption, out-sourcing that aspect of your character to cause more DPS might be a tough decision. I'm somewhat clueless here because I don't play these things PvP: how would a pure tank fit in? Who wastes time killing the guy that is only good at being attacked?

Economics appear to be a wonderful tool. A game player is much closer to an ideal economic decision-maker than a real consumer anyway. I think the article clearly demonstrated that when the vast majority of challenges come down to a group most efficiently producing 3 commodities that can be freely shared among the group, there isn't much room for non-specialists (or, if you have tank-mages, there's no reason to specialize).

Ståle Tevik
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Max Haider: You make some good points. However, the presence of a magician in heavy armour doesn't mean there's no reason to specialize. It could mean you've dropped the outdated class system, and that there's room for you to specialize in a variety of ways more suitable for your preferred role. Why would a mage resort to wearing armor? If, as you mention, the mobs attack the characters with the lowest damage absorption perhaps? If he rather often takes aggro due to the damage of his nukes? I find it rather interesting to try a MOG without classes.

I've written a small text about my views on this here: