Fixing the MMO Trinity

blowtorchSo I spent some time last week after I posted my little rant on the trinity mechanic doing some additional research, and from this I’ve come to two reasonably important realizations.  One, I really need an editor.  I don’t know how any one can follow the drivel I post out here, it’s so bad.  And two, last week was long on detailing out the problems with the trinity as a gaming mechanic, but short on solutions.  Fortunately, solutions are not in short supply.  Money for editors however, is, so take what you can get and let’s not be ungrateful.

As I was researching for last week’s post, I came across only a tiny number of articles that also discussed the trinity as a gameplay mechanic. One of those articles was by Brian Green at Gamasutra from December 2009.  I find it sad that in all this time the subject hasn’t come up more, but regardless.  Mr. Green took a game designer’s approach (appropriate as that is what he is), and tried to break down how the mechanic works and find alternatives to it.  Those alternatives were a bit on the wishy washy side for my taste, so I filed the article away in my brain and decided to write an original post from scratch.  Looking again however, I realize that much of my own work from last week, mirrored enough of what he said that it could be argued I was being derivative.  He even had his own lists of advantages and disadvantages for the trinity mechanic, some of which were the same as my own.  This frustrates me because I hate repeating what other writers say without credit, and he deserves credit for taking on this idea first (though he’s hardly the only one to talk about it).

That said, one of the reasons I dismissed the article was that Mr. Green, as a game designer, took a very gameplay focused stance on the mechanic and tried to figure out ways to solve only the gameplay problems that the trinity mechanic causes.  He did not look at all at the social elements that are created by it’s use, and thus didn’t address them.  While this was intentional on his part, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss those social constructs.  They’re as much what your game ends up being about as the actual combat mechanics that the trinity is designed to simplify.  And you can’t change one without changing the other.  Regardless, feel free to click the link and check out the original site.  Below are some ideas I’ve seen mixed with my own thoughts on ways to look at improving upon the mechanic and fix some of it’s worst problems.

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Removing a piece of the triangle – One of the suggestions I’ve seen brought up many times is to either remove a piece of the triangle or spread the parts of the triangle around so that different classes can multitask and perform multiple roles.  But there are not many games out there that remove healing/aggro from the game and still “feel like” an MMO.  It’s important to have multiple roles in an MMO, otherwise it becomes much more like an FPS or some other kind of game where you do less role-playing and more embodying a given protagonist.  The other option, of allowing multiple classes to perform multiple roles simultaneously creates added complexity and may make playing the game too hard for some players.  Still either of these options leaves the primary trinity functions intact (aggro table doesn’t get touched), and leaves a social structure in place to allow players to organize around.  There are dozens of examples of games that do this already in one minor way or another, but very few that make it a design priority.  This is likely intentional as the complexity added and the required knowledge to be effective becomes a burden to players.  Still if done well, it could be a viable solution.

De-emphasize DPS – This is just a variation on the above theme of removing a part of the triangle, but it’s important enough to merit discussion on it’s own, as DPS seems to be something of a sacred cow.  When your combat goal is to remove points from a bag until the bag is empty, there is a naturally occurring maximum speed that players are allowed to go to remove those points from that bag.  Whatever that maximum speed is, when you’re designing your game, it must be something that players can never ever reach on their own through gearing, or slotting, or point spending, or however you wish to do advancement.  My rough estimate is that whatever the maximum number is for allowable DPS, players should only ever be able to reach half that maximum through their own power.

Allowing players to reach any higher then that half-way speed or, god forbid, even get to the maximum, essentially makes buffing and debuffing completely useless as a gameplay mechanic.  If you don’t have a lot of buffing/debuffing, then it’s not so much of a problem, but if you ever want to add it in later, it would require a major re-thinking of how DPS is managed to properly gauge it’s full effects on the game.

The speed of (hit) point removal will govern most of the combat elements of your game and it’s effects are far reaching.  High rates of DPS relative to the maximum allowed, affect not just roles that function as DPS, but limits the amount of DPS you can grant.  Your DPS roles end up with a very limited ceiling for advancement, and your other roles can very quickly creep up on the DPS roles and make their specialization essentially meaningless.

That was a bit deeper into game design then we probably wanted to go, but it’s important to understand because you can’t just de-emphasize DPS by adding it to the tanker and healer roles and go job’s done, end of day.  Understanding how closely players can get to the maximum DPS allowed affects all roles in the game.  And while it seems counter-intuitive to limit the amount of DPS that the DPS role can produce, too many game designers set up those DPS roles near the maximum and then hamstring their own ability to alter and improve upon those same (and other) roles as a result.

Make the triangle a square/pentagon/hexagon/n-gon – Another way to alter the trinity mechanic is to take a look at alternate styles of gameplay such as those mentioned last week, and make them viable on teams beyond just situational.  Here we’re adding to the triangle (and thus changing it’s shape) as opposed to taking things away.  I’m specifically thinking of crowd control but if your dps curves are well understood, then buffing and debuffing become functionally possible as well.  Adding those 3 as their own roles (or even in combination with each other) to the existing triangle create additional pillars that functions completely outside of the traditional three and compliment those roles in new and different ways.  By expanding the number of roles you increase gameplay options while still retaining a simple structure for players to latch on to.  This also has the social benefit of turning the question of “who’s best?” into an active debate, where crowd controllers, DPS, debuffers and everyone else gets more of a say into who “really” turns the tide of the battle.  It also allows for greater flexibility in role selection for team tasks and activities.  The primary drawback of this solution is on the developer side, as balancing the new roles can be tricky, though I will get to balance shortly.

Tactical Gameplay – Tactical gameplay elements was something that Mr. Green touched on in his article as being difficult to balance for, shooting from cover, or making your opponent unable to attack you.  I can understand why you might think this was an undesirable gameplay element given that no combat encounter in a game should be without risk, but making your opponent unable to attack you is the entire purpose of crowd control, and I find that tactical combat is really just the flip side of the crowd control coin.  After all, what’s so different with shooting behind cover versus freezing an opponent so that it can’t attack you?  One is environment generated, the other is player generated.  You’re getting the exact same result, just using different means.  Tactical gameplay options could be useful to help break up trinity gameplay, if you are looking at alternate combat mechanics and are perfectly viable as a supplement.  There’s an argument that could be made that some already use them (Don’t stand in the fire!).

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Abandon aggro/threat – You could of course also redesign combat from the ground up and move away from the trinity style of gameplay entirely.  This is what EverQuest Next is currently attempting to do (and one of the reasons for my excitement for the game).  Most Monster AI in trinity games relies on enemy NPC units keeping track of who’s doing the most threat to them and then attacking their highest threat target with whatever pre-programmed series of moves they have.  This gives tankers the ability to generate threat (which is very different from DPS) and simulates the whole taunting bad guys into attacking you, instead of attacking the weak guys who can’t take it scenario in real life.  This tactic was common in pen and paper RPG’s when heavy armor guys realized that making fun of the GM would often goad them into attacking them instead of taking out their mages.  And while this tactic has some functional use in real life, it’s not a tactic that you see a whole lot of outside the playground.  Seal Team 6 is not known for their snappy put downs in the middle of a fire fight.

Not so in MMO’s and trinity gameplay. In games with trinity mechanics, this is the ONLY way to fight.  Emergent AI or AI that learns the patterns of players and forces tactic changes and different skills usage in gameplay can be fun and exciting, but pretty much invalidates the functionality of the trinity model. It also requires a careful balancing of player combat abilities with NPC abilities across the board, which is something I cannot over-emphasize enough.  One of the things that most people don’t realize when designing games is that players don’t want a fair fight.  Ever.  They want to win.  Every time.  No really.  Every time.  And simulating a combat system that lets them win almost every time while also making them think that the fight is fair (rarely is it ever fair), and make them feel good about it, is hard.  HARDHAAAARRRD.

The other problem with building from the ground up is all social norms for how the game works and groups are formed are out the window completely.  Time will be required for players to adjust to the new styles and to build social structures around those styles and what players come up with will be anybody’s guess.

Finally, a note on balance.

I mentioned this last post but I felt it was important enough to bring up again.  Mr. Green comments on how many of these gameplay mechanics are difficult to balance and especially so for new game developers.  But I find the entire argument of “we can’t do that because it’s hard” to be one of the worst, most specious, and flawed arguments that I’ve ever heard from game developers in my life.  Your entire job is to balance the game.  Take a shot at it and if it doesn’t work, take what you’ve learned and try something else.  Telling me you can’t do something because it’s hard is like telling me you can’t hit the toilet with your pee because the hole is too far away.  You’re only 7, you’re not that tall!

Ahem.

I know it’s tough.  I’ve tried figuring some of this stuff out.  Regeneration mechanics alone take some really sharp and serious math skills to accurately model.  Whenever someone mentions the word stochastics to me, my eyeballs roll up into my head and I pray for the instant heat death of the universe.  But saying you can’t/won’t do something because you don’t know what will happen, or you don’t know how to fix it if it breaks, is just lazy thinking, and we have enough of that already.

So there are the ways that I would recommend fixing trinity gameplay in MMO’s.  I would like to point out that aside from redesigning combat entirely, all of the solutions above could be engineered into any exiting MMO today.  It’s not that hard, I promise.  WoW all but completely redesigns their classes with every expansion.  We’ve been playing MMO’s long enough now it’s time to start seeing what new and exciting things can be done. What’s out there that’s better?  How can we build on what we have to make a brighter and better universe tomorrow?  Get on it.  Because cleaning up pee off the floor all the time gets old.  FAST.

The future of MMO's is UV light with a zirconium coating to trigger decomposition

The future of MMO’s is UV light with a zirconium coating to trigger decomposition

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