I admit that I’ve never been much into Guild Wars. When the game launched in spring 2005, I browsed some previews and while it looked visually impressive, things like play style, non-persistent world and the initially very low level cap put me off. Also, there was another very promising MMO title just about to launch: World of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment. The rest is history.
6 years later, I’m looking back on my time in Azeroth with a very fed-up feeling of “been there done that” which is a natural thing, I would think, after playing the same game for such a long period. I had a great time with WoW for as long as it lasted, it’s been a formidable ride – and an eye opener, in more ways than one.
But I’m a gamer; I’ve played games before WoW and will be playing them after WoW, I’m not looking to stick to a company. I want good games. Several times during my ride, I’ve ventured into other realms, sometimes for a week or two, sometimes for months. On the way I’ve fallen in love with aspects of other online games, like the vast and beautiful maps in Age of Conan or the wicked race that are the Arisen in Allods. But MMOs need to be more than a great race or nice world – they need to be a polished package.
So now that WoW is the past, what do I want from the next AAA-MMO? The other day, Tesh asked what themes outside the classic fantasy genre might attract the crowd. I’d certainly be intrigued to see promising Steampunk concepts realised someday, but I’m not all that fussed about a change of setting: I love fantasy RPGs and MMOs. I would play Eve Online in a heartbeat if it wasn’t set in space; I want magic and swords and dragons. I want fairy woods and dark caves.
I’m not even sure I want all that many big changes in this genre; I think I want small changes and innovations. I probably know a lot better what I do not want from my next MMO than what I do want. When I draw my conclusions on World of Warcraft, the most pressing matter that comes to mind is that I want future fantasy MMOs to outgrow some of the genre’s most stale mechanics: I want them to outgrow the holy trinity.
Tired of the Holy Trinity
The Holy Trinity – tanks, healers, damage dealers. The bane of guild recruitment, the disturber of peace in raidguilds, the headache of group setup, the killer of spontaneous cooperative fun. But “players want class identity”, they say…….and playstyle versatility, and group flexibility, and be able to solo, and do well in PVP.
WoW solves the obvious dilemma with hybrids and dualspec, by abandoning key abilities or handing out an even share of everything to everybody – their famed “bring the player, not the class” credo. Yet with that, class identity is down the drain, 10 classes or not.
The saddest part is, that for all their good intentions, the “bring the player not the class” concept couldn’t be further from reality in WoW: raid guilds are still struggling to recruit particular classes for a balanced roster, a DPS still sits in the LFG queue for 20 minutes easily on an average weekday and if your mates want to run a 5man heroic and happen to be a rogue, mage and 3 warriors, they’re out of luck and better have alts. Bring the player? I don’t think so.
The existence of hybrids or dualspecs does not automatically make for versatile gameplay or flexibility. Never has an MMO been more about cookie cutters and min-maxing than World of Warcraft. Never have classes been more about just one thing: healers staring at healthbars, DPS tied to fixed rotations to squeeze out every last bit of damage, tanks playing aggro whack-a-mole. Never have raid guilds been more pressed to make the constant, unhappy choice between good raider vs. friend.
A breath of fresh air
During my 6-months visit to Hyboria, the thing that I enjoyed most about playing a priest, was that healing in Age of Conan is so limited: you have three direct healing spells only: 1 direct heal, 1 AoE, 1 HoT. Some heals come with a CD, most of them are local rather than having you target a specific health bar. None of the heals is strong enough to make healing an essential part of an encounter. That’s why priests in AoC are also main CCers, fulfilling a lot more functions in order to prevent and absorb potential damage. And they add needed extra auto-healing via damage dealing.
Quite a lot of jobs for one class only – quite a refreshing versatility for a healer. Now, you could say that a hybrid in WoW can perform 3-4 roles as well, but that’s the question really: when do they? How many times does a hybrid actually get to play like a hybrid during a 5man run or raid, inside the same encounter (let’s forget for a minute, that you can’t switch specs in combat anyway)? I’ve healed WoW raid bosses for almost 6 years; I know healers get to stare at healthbars, with the odd cleansing on the side and very rare, insignificant CC job. A good old resto druid could be in a raid for 4 hours and never switch out of treeform once.
If you want players to make use of their versatility, you need to design gameplay to require it in a meaningful way. WoW does not require players to play that way: healers are healers, DPS optimize output, tanks tank. And they better all excel at the one thing and be efficient. If you respec from healer to tank, you do this outside an encounter, like relogging to an alt.
“Bring the player, not the class” is an illusion in WoW. Despite featuring 10 classes, it doesn’t provide you with class identity so much as with role identity. This role identity is so strong that it’s limiting players more than ever, despite Blizzard trying to balance the game to bring players, rather than classes. Potential flexibility and versatility both suffer in the process and players and guilds are constantly forced to make decisions between whom they can play with and whom they’d like to play with. How is this what MMO players want?
Not that other MMOs haven’t failed at either or both before; WoW has done a lot more than most here. But what it’s really shown us is that identity is not synonymous with different classes available and having talents and specs is not synonymous with versatile or flexible gameplay. The only thing we know is that players want many things. Maybe the future lies in a different approach.
Why can’t we have fun like the FPS players?
Somewhere down the line it was established that MMORPGS need to be about archetypes in order to allow for class identity and character development. So far, so good. Classes aren’t the same as roles though – where does it say that you need the holy trinity in order to guarantee for identity? And how is it fun to wait on a healer or tank for 30 minutes when you could be playing with friends?
Half of the challenge to raid in World of Warcraft or beat the average encounter, is not actually about mastering the fight itself but about setting up for it. It starts with recruitment and roster headaches and goes right down to raid night preparations and balance checks. Did you bring the right setup? Are there enough tanks/DPS/healers for this or should somebody respec? Are the right classes doing the right thing at the right position? Can’t that hunter squeeze out a little more damage?
What about the boss? Do you remember his name and how he looks like?
Which finally brings me back to Guild Wars, or more precisely to Guild Wars 2 and a fascinating and insightful article on what they intend to do about healing (and death) in their upcoming MMO sequel. Some of it has struck such a chord with me that I want to highlight a few quotes in more detail in the next paragraph.
Spinks recently asked why MMO players cannot have the same cooperative fun like FPS clans do. I’ll ask the same: why can’t we? Fantasy MMOs and online shooters might be different in player character approach, but there’s no reason why MMO gamers cannot develop and be fond of their avatars and have what other gamers enjoy.
Guild Wars 2: The answer to the dilemma?
NC Soft announced the launch of Guild Wars 2 for 2012, planning to dedicate all of this year to intense testing and modifications. Like its first installment, the game art is visually stunning and things like animations and spell effects already look out of this world. The overall concept and races are not everyone’s cup of coffee though – neither is the active combat system which frightens many a classic RPG gamer. Still, if you have any interest in the MMO market and game development as a whole, you will want to risk a second glance and see what the devs there are up to. Here’s what they have to say about the holy trinity and why there won’t be a dedicated healer in Guild Wars 2:
[…]Simple systems like this, along with cross-profession combos, and the dedicated healing skill slot, help free players from the MMORPG shackles, and let us break the mold even more. We’re making players more self sufficient, but are also providing appealing ways for them to effortlessly work together to create a more inspired moment-to-moment experience. That is why Guild Wars 2 does not have a dedicated healing class.
Everyone take a deep breath. It’s going to be OK.
(If you’re already worried, I suggest you follow that advice now. Breathe.)
Support players want to be able to say, “Remember that one time when I saved you from certain death?” They want to stand in the line of fire and block attacks. They want to surround their allies with a swirling dome of air that keeps enemy projectiles from passing through it. It’s not about clicking on a health bar and watching it go up, it’s about being there for your friends when they need you.
Finally somebody said it: Healing is only one aspect of support – the last and most reactive part of it. What about all that time that passes beforehand? Why are healers just standing there, waiting for the inevitable to happen? Why is there an ‘”inevitable”? What about debuffs, interrupts, CC, absorbtion – why are these things not the main focus of support, making a job much more diverse and fun in the process? Why would a supporter only stare at his ally?
Heal: Don’t belittle the SUPPORT role by calling it heal. Healing is the least dynamic kind of support there is. It is reactive instead of proactive. Healing is for when you are already losing. In Guild Wars 2 we prefer that you support your allies before they take a beating. Sure, there are some healing spells in Guild Wars 2, but they make up a small portion of the support lines that are spread throughout the professions. Other kinds of support include buffs, active defense, and cross-profession combinations. […]
We keep hearing other MMO developers espousing the “holy trinity” of DPS/ heal/tank with such reverence, as if this is the most entertaining combat they have ever played. Frankly, we don’t like sitting around spamming “looking for healer” to global chat. That feels an awful lot like preparing to have fun instead of having fun.
A thing that never seizes to baffle me personally, is the strict separation of abilities between roles, in WoW and most other MMOs: You have this powerful caster standing next to you in a 5man party, that magic spellweaver – and all he really does for the group is deal damage, besides few more mob-centric abilities. While his allies fall left and right, while his healer is about to die horribly, he stands there hurling firebolts at the enemy, unable to do anything about much more pressing matters.
As a child of fairytales, sword & sorcery books, tabletops and classic RPGs, I need to ask: in which fantasy setting is this “realistic”? If I hear “mage”, I see Raistlin from the Dragonlance series; I see a magic wielder capable to do many things for his group, from grilling or sleeping foes, to casting shields on his allies and calling them back from the dead. I’m also pretty sure Gandalf didn’t wiggle his finger at the fellowship, saying “sorry guys, arcane spec only”.
Fantasy classes can be defined and still be a lot more dynamic in their roles than what I’ve seen these past few years. MMOs should be about players vs. the encounter, not players battling the boundaries of their individual class or role.
Ultimately, DPS/heal/tank just didn’t cut it in our book…er, game. Our players demand more from Guild Wars 2 and we intend to deliver on that demand instead of delivering more of the same. Not only is the trinity very formulaic, but it leaves out a lot of gameplay elements that make many other games so much fun.
Fun. It seems to me that NC Soft got this one right: games should be about fun. And more than anything, MMOs are about cooperative fun – fantastic settings, classes and personal investment yes, but these things should not restrict one another. You should never have to choose between setup and playing with whom you’d like to play. You should not have to sit around waiting for the game to actually start. You should have to fight bosses, not yourself or each other (PVP aside).
Remember how much fun it was to play a coop game in good old Mario Bros? Or to clear stages together in Metal Slug or Contra? Why should this kind of pick-up play be exclusive to genre or platform?
You can be a mage, a warrior, a hunter, a bard, with clear distinctive mechanisms and abilities and still be flexible enough to party with any combination of other players. You can be self-sufficient and have a variety of skills available that do not only enable you to fulfill a role but react in a smart way to whatever the encounter demands, rather than blindly following one rotation or script. You can be a complete player, rather than a fifth of a whole – and this will force developers to create interesting encounter dynamics that actually challenge the players, not their group setup. It will force them to think about proper cooperative challenges.
You can have all these things if game design does not only allow but require you to. You can have all these things without a holier-than-thou trinity.
The future is change
It’s way too early to judge where Guild Wars 2 will be a year from now; but I am excited and dare say this is good news – possibly the best news I’ve heard in a long time. If you take some time to go through the entire article on their official site, you will see that the developers do not only have plans to change how healing works, but make adjustments to the tanking role too and the significance of death in the game. I’m suprised to hear myself say it, but I’m open to that concept too.
I hope we get to see more developers thinking out of the box, especially in the fantasy MMO genre – looking to keep core values while adopting and improving what makes online and cooperative gaming so much fun for millions of players worldwide. Learning from others is just as important as learning from the past. I welcome the changes ahead and salute those who dare to move forward.