There is a little debate on what elements contribute to marking a game out as having a hard or soft trinity. One set claims that the determining factor is the group roles. If the player choices allow for mixed builds, then you automatically have a soft trinity, but if your class choices are strictly healer, tank, and DPS, then it's a hard trinity. Although I can understand that sentiment, I am going to have to disagree with it. I believe the hard or soft trinity is determined by group encounters.
Games focused on the hard trinity require that each group have well-defined class roles. If any of the classes doesn't exist in your group or if someone has a less than ideal build, then that particular group will not be able to complete the quests. RIFT is a game that I consider to be a hard trinity game. Each boss demands that the group understands the role of the trinity in order to defeat that boss. I play a healer a lot, and in hard trinity games, I play a pocket healer most of the time. My job as a pocket healer is to keep the rest of the group alive, and that's it. If I do anything else, it will most likely cost the group the dungeon.
Mob mechanics usually rely on tactics that emphasize each group member playing his role. Pokket from Gamebreaker TV just did a guide on Iron Tombs from RIFT that I think exemplifies what I mean (and also how it can be fun). In the battle, the tank guides the encounter by pulling and moving the boss around the room, and he prevents the more squishy professions from getting hit. This is very controlled, and players can slip into their roles very easily.
Soft trinity mobs tend to be less focused. Bosses tend to be more about DPS tricks, and all members of the group play a hybrid role as well. A common situation I've seen is exemplified in Star Wars Galaxies. The Exar Kun boss fight requires each group member to take on multiple roles at the same time, possibly stepping out of what could be considered traditional.
Galaxies' groups are made up of eight people. There are quasi-traditional roles like tank, healer, and DPS, but these aren't exactly hard and fast builds. Most of the time, I run with a healer/pet class. Although my character does heals, my pet does DPS. One portion of the dungeon requires that our main DPS, a Commando, be the tank. In fact, there is one boss that does not require a tank at all. However, the last boss starts with two mobs being ping-pong tanked between two melee classes and two other bosses being taken down by the DPS with healers running around like nunas with no heads. There are elemental weapon switches and a lot of avoidance techniques used by all classes. The instance breaks many of the conventional rules.
BioWare has shown again and again that it will do what works. The developers wish to create a game that appeals to the most people. Although the devs are really stepping out of the box with the story elements and multiplayer dialogue system, the rest of the game is going to be more traditional, appealing to the masses. I certainly understand this. I have said before that BioWare needs to do what it does best: story.
I believe that, in spite of the fact that we can take on hybrid roles like healer/DPS, we shouldn't do it. A traditional game design means leaning more on the hard trinity when scripting bosses. When designers know exactly which roles players will take, they can more quickly design the dungeons. Unfortunately, this means that anyone who does not fit into the hard trinity group mechanic will be gimped.
This has been hotly debated in many other places, and I know I don't have all the answers. Let me know what you think. I'd like to talk with the intelligent audience here at Massively about how you think these hybrid roles will fit in SWTOR and whether the game will sport a hard or soft trinity.
The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!