Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Defense of the Trinity

One of the more maligned attributes of MMOs like World of Warcraft is the ‘trinity’ system of gameplay.  Under this system, each player’s role is divided into one of three categories, namely Healer (keep your pals alive), Tank (absorb the enemies’ damage) or DPS (“Damage Per Second” - blast your enemies to smithereens).  Many players feel that this is a very limiting setup -- they feel pigeonholed into one role and must continue casting a single set of spells or stabbing over and over until any particular encounter is over.  This ‘key-mashing’ can become boring and frustrating to long-time players and can lead to all sorts of complaints.

Many games try to mitigate the boredom that the ‘trinity’ system can cause. World of Warcraft started out with a fixed-role system, but eventually began offering the ability to specialize in two different roles and to swap them easily.  EVE Online is much more open-ended and has so many different facets to explore that one rarely hears about the trinity system, but it exists nonetheless in fleet combat.  Star Wars: The Old Republic appears to be dealing with this potential complaint using ‘companions,’ which are non-player helpers (glorified pets) that can deal extra damage or heal up players.  In spite of the fact that the most popular MMOs try and hide this three-role system, it still exists and thrives.  Why is this?

The trinity system has a number of benefits that frustrated button-mashers seem to miss.  

Playing a single role allows for character role optimization: each player can work to optimize their specific role - DPS players don’t need to worry about maintaining a high level of health, but can instead focus on their pure damage output.  Healers don’t need to worry about getting clobbered by a boss, but rather can enhance their ability to keep their team alive.  This allows a team to be much more powerful than a set of matched players could be -- there’s no need for each player to waste their specialization points on traits that they don’t plan on using.

Playing a particular role in your group allows for more immersive gameplay: most interesting real world activity involves people working together to complete tasks, and MMOs are no exception.  Assume, for example that there were a game where each individual character was equally survivable and had the capability to heal other members of the team.  In some ways this would be very freeing, but on the other hand, now everyone would be in the same boat.  No matter what category you play, you would need to perform the following roles:
1. watch the health of the current target of a boss and heal them if necessary
2. attack the boss
3. avoid taking damage yourself

Instead of 3 roles to choose from, there’s only one.  It transforms a complex group dynamic with some choice as to what role you play into a glorified single-player experience.  No matter how you prefer to play, you’re stuck playing the same game as everyone else.

Simplicty: Like it or not, MMOs are more fun to play in groups where people know their role.  Fitting people into specific roles makes it much clearer what each member of a group should be doing.  Now just to be clear, I’m not advocating simple encounters.  Boss fights that include complex mechanics like AOE damage or positional attacks are great.  There is no reason that players should be able to ‘phone in’ a boss fight, but I don’t believe that there should be any discussion about what any individual players’ role is either.

The trinity style of gameplay is the most interesting and immersive way to structure an MMO that I’ve come across.  The ability to play a single complementary role in concert with others is a cornerstone the MMORPG genre.  It allows true teamwork rather than merely allowing players to play the same game side-by-side with others.