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The Soapbox: The trinity isn't so bad

Eliot Lefebvre

The role trinity in MMOs has gotten a pretty hard drubbing over the last two years or so. Ask a lot of people with knee-jerk responses and they'll tell you that it's what's killing MMOs. Well, unless they tell you that tab-targeting is killing MMOs. Or themeparks. Or free-to-play. Or World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic or subscription fees or lack of housing, or...

All right, so there are people quick to announce the death of MMOs based on pretty much any feature that the announcer dislikes. But the trinity has still been falling out of vogue with players. Guild Wars 2 even made a selling point out of the fact that it didn't have a proper trinity, instead having a series of roles that no one seems entirely clear on. There's a very consistent idea floating around that a game based on the standard trifecta is in some way flawed or not trying hard enough.

Except that the trinity isn't a bad thing. Tank, healer, and DPS is not a model that's lacking in some crucial area. And it deserves a bit more appreciation than it gets.

Aside from pioneering a lot of mechanics that would later become almost necessary, WoW did nothing for the genre.Nobody likes you

So why does the trinity get so much hatred in the first place? Partly because it's an element of World of Warcraft, and for a certain portion of the MMO population, anything in World of Warcraft is a cancer to be expunged. So that doesn't help.

But getting away from that, it's got the disadvantage of being a pretty rote element of gameplay at this point. Including the tank-healer-DPS setup in a new game is more or less taken as a given. And for a lot of players, this signals several things: that the game is going to have a surfeit of DPS over healers or tanks, that the game wants players at the level cap to take part in the whole nauseating raid-or-die school of progression, and that these elements are being thrown in without any attempt at creating new systems or expanding the genre.

This isn't to say that none of these statements is true. A lot of the time, that's exactly what's happening. But this is the fault not of the trinity itself but of using the mechanics of the trinity in a game that isn't really trying to break new ground.

What does the trinity do well?

The trinity, like most game systems, did not spring into being overnight. It was something that happened organically over time when developers found that these three roles work well together as a whole.

Part of this is a simple matter of the trinity being intuitive. You understand how the roles work together -- someone takes damage, someone heals damage, someone gets the source of the damage to die. There might be some weirdness inherent in the methodology, but the core is well-baked into several generations of playing games. It's the macro version of what you do when playing games solo, except now there's a bunch of people doing it in concert.

So why is it still so ubiquitous? There are doubtlessly other methods that work, right? Yes, but there's also the fact that a lot of alternate models carry the risk of not working terribly well or at all. If the game is playing well with the model that's established itself as the default, there's no reason to try something completely different that might not actually work unless that was the design goal all along.

Last but not least, the trinity lends itself to designing interesting group challenges partly because it's been around for so long. Certain types of fight are more or less ingrained in the collective memory of players at this point, and as a result designers can start from there and move up rather than having to reinvent the wheel. The nature of the trinity offers ample opportunity for bigger challenges, fights that ask for every member to do something interesting rather than having everyone trying to do the same thing at once.

If you didn't get a chance to experience how CoH handled things, you never will now.  You're the poorer for it, friend.On challenge

Tanks and healers are always the rarer parts of the trinity. If you're picturing the three roles as a stool, it's two tiny legs supporting one enormous beam. Playing DPS is seen as the easy mode, and for a lot of players, the only really fun way to play the game. Healing, meanwhile, gets a reputation as being a game of whack-a-mole with health bars.

None of this is inherently false. But it's also not a problem with the model, just with implementation.

Let's go back to World of Warcraft. The only responsibility that healers are given is that they need to keep health up. At the end of Wrath of the Lich King this was most pronounced, since healing characters had functionally unlimited mana and could just spam healing spells until the end of time. Healing consists just of trying to keep people alive because that's all that helaers are asked to do on a regular basis.

City of Heroes, meanwhile, asks more of its healing characters. Yes, you want to help keep others alive, but you also do that by debuffing enemies, buffing allies, creating safe areas, laying traps, and generally manipulating the environment for everyone. Not coincidentally, there are a lot more players willing to fill that role in City of Heroes, even though the game as a whole still cuts pretty close to the trinity.

Conversely, in many games, not much is asked of DPS characters other than hitting something and possibly hitting an interrupt or two. But once again, that's a problem in design, not structure. Give DPS more interesting things to do, and the role becomes much harder to perform well.

All that the trinity provides is a framework for design, a way to orient abilities and classes. Games can use bog-standard implementation therein, but it's not the trinity's fault any more than it's the fault of your keyboard that your blog entry is boring. It's a tool, and using it to make boring content is a fault of the designers rather than the structure.

Not all the time

Some of you have probably spent this article trawling through the Massively archives and then fishing out my Choose My Adventure series on TERA, in which I sharply criticized the game for its implementation of the trinity. If I've spent all of this time defending it, how could I say it was a bad thing there? Was I wrong then or wrong now?

Possibly both, really. But the point there wasn't the trinity; it was the use thereof.

As I just finished saying, the trinity is a tool. Just like any other part of design, it sometimes works well with other parts of the game and sometimes doesn't. The trinity is not always a good element of the game; neither is it inherently negative. It's just a part of the game, and it's a summation of the other parts that determine whether or not the whole thing is fun to play.

But it's not the trinity's fault. The absence of traditional roles doesn't make a bad game fun, just like their presence won't inherently make a game good or bad. It's all about what else is done with the foundation.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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