The Holy Trinity is something I’ve been struggling with for a very long time. It feels like one of those game mechanics that we should have outgrown by now and we just don’t. It was cutting edge when first developed for Everquest, though it’s unfair to claim any one group of people invented it. Since those early days of EverQuest and later World of Warcraft, to Wildstar and the subtle variation of it that’s permeated into Overwatch, this design structure still exists and is considered by many to be a solid foundation for an MMO. That’s too bad, because it’s not really that good a tool and using it creates just as many problems as it tries to solve.
An important thing to understand about it is that it’s a system and just like any other system it has it’s strengths and weaknesses. The advantages of using the Trinity gameplay design fall under two areas of game design. Gameplay and social organization. And while I’m talking about these structures from a mostly MMO standpoint, these scenarios apply across multiple types of games that utilize these designs.
Gameplay advantages for using the Trinitiy include:
- Role definition – By defining the roles associated with each player in a team, it makes it very easy for everyone to know what to do. This is actually really important when getting a group of strangers together. When everyone just knows what their job is, it’s much easier to play the content.
- Splits offense and defense between the players – Again by providing focus and splitting the work of these tasks, it allows people to focus on a given job and specialize in that task to a degree that can optimize gameplay.
- It’s easy to understand – There are only 3 jobs. You show up. You know what your role is, you know where to go, and you know who does what. It helps to set expectations of what others are doing and makes it easier to judge when and where failures occur.
- It provides a well understood structure for combat encounters – It makes game design simpler in that all encounters are balanced around these 3 aspects of gameplay. WoW has become a master of this, taking a relatively simple design and pushing the limits of what it can be and what it can do. WoW raid and dungeon encounters are some of the most varied and well designed out there.
Social advanatges of the holy trinity include:
- It makes it easy to form teams and allows for spontaneous teamwork – When everyone is doing their job, it allows for the opportunities for players to create synergy and learn how to work well together. A well oiled steam-rolling team is a thing of beauty to behold.
- It helps to setup a structure for mutual cooperation and social interaction. – It makes it easier for guilds to set up and organize around the various numbers of the Trinity that are needed to complete content. It provides a gameplay mechanic for the social construct to optimize itself around.
These are all very valid and reasonable ways that using the Trinity can be an advantage in a game. But there are drawbacks as well.
Gameplay disadvantages include:
- Unequal contributions to gameplay – Depending on the game/encounter/rules of engagement, certain party members can and will be required to do/commit more than others. If a fight is add heavy, than the tanker must work harder to keep those adds from overwhelming his teammates. If the fight is healing intensive, than healers get the emphasis. Rarely is there a fight where DPS is needed MORE than healing and tanking but certain situations could call for it, depending on gameplay. This is in and of itself not necessarily a bad thing, as variety is the spice of life. The problem is at the extremes where support classes are never called on to shine or are called on to shine so much that one may overshadow the others.
- Lack of alternative styles of gameplay – Buffing, Debuffing, and Crowd Control are not viable models of gameplay in the Trinity. You cannot create a character or a playstyle who’s primary purpose is to do any of those three. They serve no value in the trinity model outside of occasional bonuses.
- Limits choice – As the above examples allude to, if you want to be a contributing member of the group, you better be part of the Trinity. Alternatives are simply sub-optimal. And that’s just for groups. If you want to solo, DPS is your only viable option. Sometimes tankers can solo depending on the game and the goals, but healers can forget it. This is, in my opinion, the worst problem with the Trinity. There are dozens of threads on the WoW forums and across the internet devoted to alternate specs in WoW that break from the traditional mold of the Trinity. From tanking Hunters to Shockadins, some of them are incredibly interesting and would be fun to play. Unfortunately, none of these alternate specs are considered viable at even level content. But even these two specs fall well within the confines of the trinity’s parameters and it forces players to accept this as the only means by which a game may be played.
Social drawbacks to using the trinity include:
- Perfect Attendance. – If you want to advance as a raid group, or in a dungeon, or any kind of group content, Trinity gameplay will require you fill a certain number of roles with the correct compliment of people. Typical WoW loadout for a trinity group is always 3 -1-1. That is 3 DPS, 1 Tanker, and 1 Healer. This means that there’s always a surplus of DPS’ers for groups, but tankers and healers are much more rare. Raid loadouts are even more punishing as even the loss of one support person can kill the raid night for the entire group. This kind of team makeup and attendance requires a level of commitment that some would argue are better suited for a real job. And I don’t play games to work. I play them to play.
- Devalues group mates – When you set up a team structure like this, you’re going to create situations where members of your group are going to feel undervalued. When emphasis is placed on getting enough people to fill the roles you need, those who don’t or can’t get left behind. Sometimes literally. It’s not a good thing when you have to tell someone they can’t play what they want to play because they are needed for some other role.
I’ve always found the social construct created by the Trinity to be particularly insidious. Guilds form raid teams and secondary raid teams and it’s shocking to me, how there are try outs and a hierarchy and structures to sort into. You need to come prepared to interview, and you need to make sure you have the right gear. I’ve seen forms that have to be filled out, all to play a game. I’ve done less work when applying for a job.
But there’s another nasty side effect of all this and it’s the weird secondary status that many support classes get subjected to. There’s varsity (the DPS’ers) and then there’s everybody else. Here’s this quote again from Jeff Kaplan talking about single-player campaigns in Overwatch:
I don’t think we would ever do a single-player campaign, because the way these characters work… they’re cool when you combine them together….Some don’t play well alone, either. Unless we built a campaign around supporting somebody else, a support character like Mercy probably wouldn’t do well.
Question. Why wouldn’t a support character like Mercy do well? Is healing not a gameplay mechanic that can be used in a solo game? If these characters aren’t viable in a gameplay scenario on their own what makes them viable in teams? I get what he’s trying to say with that statement above and I also think it very clearly shows an anti-support bias in his thought processes around how they should work. And that’s a shame too.
Because healing as a game play mechanic can be more than just watching health bars and buffing them back up until you run out of power. Buffing and debuffing are all valid forms of gameplay that are all but completely ignored due to whines about balance and the difficulty in getting it right. Don’t ever let a game developer tell you something can’t be balanced. They’re either lacking the imagination or the math chops to do it and you don’t want one working on your project who doesn’t have both. Crowd control is a form of damage mitigation. But everything is a form of damage mitigation, including dps so why are we settling on just 3 for all our gameplay mechanics?
Ultimately, it’s why I avoid MMO’s that use the Trinity mechanic. Which sadly means that for the most part, I’m avoiding all MMO’s right now. But there is hope. I’ve raved about the people putting together EverQuest Next and I’m hopeful they will be successful with their non-Trinity strategy. But it’s time to expect more from our MMO’s than a 15 year old mechanic that limits choices, creates bad social situations, and fosters a de-valuing of non-trinity game play mechanics. It reinforces itself and as the only mechanic that can or should be used and it’s wrong and limiting. We can and must expect more.