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Rethinking the Trinity of MMO Design
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Rethinking the Trinity of MMO Design

December 17, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Design Analysis of the Trinity

Before replacing the trinity of core classes as a design, a designer's analysis is in order. What is being replaced? What parts should be retained? What parts cause problems for other parts of the design?

The Trinity in Practice

The important part of a design is how the players interact with the system. How does this design work in a live game?

One role is much more popular than the others: DPS. Most quests and experience systems only offer rewards if you defeat an enemy in combat, not necessarily if you're good at mitigating or healing damage; therefore, characters that can defeat enemies faster are easier to advance.

Offensive ability is often prized in direct competition, such as PvP combat, where the person who can do the most damage in the shortest amount of time can win a surprise encounter. These factors influence many players to favor DPS classes.

Healing and tanking, on the other hand, are more specialized roles that generally work best in a group situation. People who prefer these roles will have a poorer experience if most other players prefer solo content. Most players who excel at the group-focused roles will often need to find regular groups to advance, and this means there will be few of these roles available to other characters for pick-up groups or recruiting into guilds.

It's easiest to judge the performance of a character in the DPS role. Savvy players use programs to analyze combat output and figure out relative performance. It's easier to see the result of a small change made to the character.

Judging improvements of a Tank or Healer role is more difficult and extreme because their performance affects the whole group. Performance isn't a matter of degrees for these other roles, but a binary situation; if the Tank or Healer dies in a small group there may not be another character able to take over the tank role and continue the encounter.

Advantages of the Trinity

The reason the trinity design is so popular can be summed up in a single reason: it works. And it works in many different games. But, why does it work so well from a designer's point of view?

The system is well-tested and any problems are well-known. The system is found in many games, so development is faster and easier than trying to come up with an original system. Any flaws in the system will also have other groups working to fix those problems as well.

It is easier to design encounters. The composition of a typical group can be anticipated to some degree, and it is easier to design the encounter with this theoretical party in mind. It is also easier to design challenges to the party; for example, having an encounter where two different opponents must be occupied by a tank, requiring an off-tank or a single tank to keep both occupied.

Players generally understand and identify roles easier. A majority of players will understand their roles in combat easier having played similar games. The roles are very simple to explain briefly, making writing a tutorial or manual easier. Players can represent their roles to other players easily; the phrase "I'm tank spec" gives a lot of information to another player in few words. Players still need to identify subtleties based on other cues: a Cleric healer is going to have a different healer role than a Bard who has a few emergency healing spells.

Playing a different role increases replayability. If a player tires of their main character, they can try out a different role for a change of pace. While some players may identify closely with a single role, many players will want to explore. Playing with a group as a Tank is different than experiencing it as a DPS, even if the player is going through exactly the same content.

Disadvantages of the Trinity

Unfortunately, there are also some problems with the trinity design that can hinder a game. We want to avoid these problems in any new system we design.

Groups seem restricted to limited composition. If every encounter is balanced with the assumption of having a specific group composition, then the players may feel restricted to only having an "optimal" group. Some players may be excluded because their class isn't in favor, or because there are too many others able to fulfill that role. Limited group options can also cause frustration if players cannot get the "necessary" roles to participate; a group will fall apart without a specialized role like the Tank or Healer.

Roles don't translate well to other forms of gameplay. If your game focuses on group content, then the trinity of core classes works well. However, few games focus entirely on a single type of gameplay. Solo players may find some roles harder to play outside of a group. In PvP, the weaknesses of some roles may be exploited freely; for example, a Tank's aggro/hate management abilities mean little when fighting against other players.

Limited roles restrict player choice. If priests are restricted to the Healer role, then a player cannot create a holy character who smites evil as allowed in other games. Hybrid classes with multiple roles are always difficult to implement properly -- players who play a class with a single role will be upset if another class with multiple roles can do their role just as well or better. But, a hybrid character that seems weaker in a role may not be perceived as powerful enough and people playing that character may feel left out.

Systems tend toward complexity, causing confusion. As a game develops, the systems will become more complex. A class that focused on a single role may get abilities that expand into other roles. For example, at the launch of World of Warcraft a warrior was primarily expected to be a Tank because they were the best and other warrior specializations were ignored as inferior. Many years later, a warrior can fill a DPS role and other classes can handle the tanking role just as easily.

The trinity does not make sense in some settings. Why would a game set in space with ships have a Tank or Healer role for the ships? What about a realistic modern infantry warfare? You can make it work, but this can hurt the willing suspension of disbelief. The trinity of core classes does not make sense in many settings outside of fantasy.

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