Thursday, December 24, 2009

History lesson

Every so often the issue of the so-called "holy trinity" of MMORPG design makes its way around the place. Everyone's got some idea that if only everybody else would realise the wisdom of, the world would be a better place.

A couple of months ago I had an argument with a random chat person in Aion about the Holy Trinity system. His stance was that it is the simplest way to approach an RPG combat system, including actual design and also programming of the AI. This was apparently evidenced by [insert slew of MMO titles]. I said, no, it's not the simplest, and it's not intuitive. It's also not particularly fun. His retort was something along the lines of "Oh yeah? Name one game that doesn't use that system".

After climbing back onto my seat, I realised that this fellow had fairly much only ever played MMO's. Those of us who like to write about these things we call games are often armchair game designers. But it's pretty difficult to have any meaningful input on game design if you haven't played the important games in the genre.

It seems to me that there were two main parallels of evolution in the online RPG genre. People in the first stream played games like EverQuest, got hooked on WoW, and try the big budget MMO's that come out. These people write articles about how we can tweak the Holy Trinity to be more fun, and/or argue with people in general chat about how awesome it is.

The rest of us played Diablo 2.

Now, I realise that for those of you who never played Diablo 2 on Battle Net (important), it may be a bit late to get into. The thing looks a bit dated, doesn't have as many people playing it anymore, etc. Here is a little refresher course then so that you can see how the other side lived:

1) Enemy AI pretty much just goes for whoever it sees first. Only thing is, the shit is going to be flying from every which way so pretty much everyone has to be able to look after themselves. This is easy to design, easy to program, easy for players to understand, and is quite fun.

2) There are no healers. Everyone heals themselves with potions, but these don't help when you get hit too fast all at once.

3) Except when they do help. You even get potions that instantly restore all your health and mana. These are your get out of jail free cards. But they are hard to come by and you only hold so many. You do need them from time to time because that shit, that flies in so fast? It hits hard.

4) The game consists of 7 different classes, each one of which is useful to have in any group. Each one feels radically different to play. Many of them synergise quite well with each other. You would never sit around in a game waiting for any one class to show up.

However, at the same time, some do better at tanking. Some do better at damage. Some are a compromise between the two. But they are never extremes.

5) Did I mention the shit flying in fast? This isn't a game where you spend a minute grinding down a monster that's 2 levels above you. Your longest spell cooldown is about 1 second, and is often limited by how fast you can get your little sucker to animate each one. As fast as that shit be flyin' in, you are reigning all kinds of death down to take it out.

6) Most games are public games. Anyone can join a public game. Once they do, the enemies in the world get harder to kill. This makes it pretty much beneficial for you to take whoever just joined the game along with you, as it soon becomes quite tough to solo.

7) Unless you're playing in "hardcore" (one life only) mode, making mistakes isn't that big a deal. You don't have to restart the "raid" for mis-clicking a button. If somebody dies, it's usually not going to mess the whole team up.


Diablo 2 has sold millions of copies as a result of its fun, addictive gameplay and easily accessible multiplayer. Clearly the traditional Holy Trinity is not the only way to do things. But WoW was en even bigger hit for Blizzard, surely its gameplay is even more fun?

Well, no. There are many other reasons why WoW is the most financially successful game to date. The extra time and money spent to progress make it harder to stop playing. There are massive social elements available. There's the more immersive, open world to explore. The graphics are better, including the shift to 3D. There were a lot more people with the internet in 2004 than there were in 2000.

But gameplay? Before 'thinking outside the box' to dissect and reassemble the Holy Trinity, it's worth just taking a little history lesson (ironically, it's still a lesson brought to the masses by Blizzard, which should at least make it palatable to those that need it most).


evizaer said...

Why not just bring up any strategy game that actually involves strategic thinking and isn't just mass tanks and win?

It turns out that MMOs are mostly a case of mass tanks and win. It's just converting time into character power. Introduce actual strategic thinking and most of the playerbase flees in terror... not just the casuals, but most of the hardcore players who suck at strategizing and just have 80 hours a week to burn.

Strategy isn't the appeal of MMOs. The holy trinity makes simplifies the strategy enough that random people can understand it quickly, but leaves open enough loopholes to allow high-end raiders to stay entertained. There's no particular reason to change it in a game that doesn't care about strategy, only time invested.

What's the solution?

Don't play mass-market games unless they are exceptional and suit your tastes well. Almost never play MMOs--especially if you care about strategy mattering.

Tesh said...

Of course, the corollary to that, Evizaer, is to note that MMO design doesn't necessarily need to be mass market. There *are* players who are interested in strategy in these MMO things. (Well, assuming that the acronym isn't constrained to the narrow bit of game design that EQ carved out.) The genre really does have more potential than the status quo.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

As evizaer points out, there are a lot of games that don't use the trinity design. You'll notice my article was already 4 pages long, so I didn't go into all the depth I could have. I figured pulling one example from tabletop gaming (D&D) was enough to show that we can look at non-MMOs for inspiration, too.

Funny how Damion mentions Diablo 2 as a negative example, though. I assume you disagree with his opinion?

mbp said...

I have thought about this myself and I think that the best reason for the holy trinity that I can come up with is that it it allows for massive end game raid bosses which are much much stronger than players. If you allow free for all combat without taunting and tanking then the bosses cannot be so much stronger than player characters.

Guild Wars by the way is another good example of a game which shuns the holy trinity - it doesn't have a taunt mechanic. Mind you there is nothing in Guild Wars to compare with a typical WoW raid boss.

Melf_Himself said...

Oh sure, there are plenty of games that don't involve AI based around the trinity. I think Diablo 2 is an especially applicable one to bring to the argument because it has classes, loot, (pseudo) massive online play, etc.

No need to worry Brian, I didn't mean to imply that the history lesson was directed at you. It is more directed at the same audience that your article is directed at - people who don't want to ditch what they see as the only tried and true solution.

I took Damion's use of Diablo 2 as an example to mean that designs that aren't super class dependent are less fun for him. I think that's not true for the majority of people, and Diablo 2 is a good example of how it can be done well.

Thallian said...

well, if we are to believe it, an MMO torchlight is on the way as we speak. Atlantica Online is an MMO strategy game (though I don't know how good).

I'd love a AAA strategy MMO myself. Or even anything different from tank n spank sacks of hitpoints.