Greedy Goblin

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The holy trinity cannot be undone

There are voices III that the age of holy trinity: tank, healer, DD is over. It's not "casual friendly", as it needs you to choose your groupmembers based on talents and not "who is your friend", and lone DDs must wait long queues. They think that a game where everyone is DD and "has fun" is better. I'm not talking about any kind of philosophical idea about "fun". I'm just telling that the above is mathematically impossible.

The fight lasts until the team dies. They die because the monster(s) cause damage. The monsters do Dm*(1-A) DPS, where A is the armor of the player attacked (it's a number between 0 and 1). The healing abilities do H HPS. The attacked player have some HP. So he dies after HP/(Dm*(1-A) - H) seconds. During this time, the team does DPS. So the damage done to the monster is DPS*HP/(Dm*(1-A) - H). If it's more than the HP of the monster, they win.

If you are good at maths, you already see the problem: the damage done scales linearly with DPS, but with 1/x with the other stats. If you increase the armor and healing above monster DPS, the monster can't do any damage. It's obvious that increasing this stat gives more power than increasing DPS.

However there is worse: the armor stat is only relevant to the one character attacked by the monster(s). So the others should increase their DPS while he shall increase his armor and/or HP. Let's assume a 5-man team with absolutely no ways of healing but with 20% armor, 10DPS, 100 HP and 10 monster DPS. The first guy, the "tank" dies after 100/(10*(1-0.2)) = 12.5 seconds. During 12.5 seconds, with 5*10 DPS 625 damage is done to the monster. If they all increase their DPS by 10%, to 11, they will do 687.5 damage. However if just 4 of them increase their DPS by 10% and the first guy increases his HP by 10%, they will do 742.5 damage. If he increases his armor to 30%, they will do 771 damage. If one of them get 1 HPS healing power, they do 771 damage again.

So if there is any meaningful way to increase survivability (armor, dodge, kiting) or do healing, it's always better for the group to do that than more damage. So no matter how much the developers want to create "equal people", there will always be tank, DD and healer among min-maxing players. Just think about 2 mages leveling together in WoW or Diablo II. It's much more effective if one is frost and roots-slows them all, while the other nukes them, than both of them nuking.

What can the developers do against this?
  • Easy game. While the above is true, it's completely not needed. In the WoW leveling game we don't need tanks and healers even in dungeons, 5 equal mages can do everything under lvl 80 dungeons. Of course they are slower than a "proper" team, but who cares? The problem is that the leveling ends. No developers can create endless content. If WoW would only be the leveling game, people would play it for a month then "win" it and quit. You can make easy and fast games, but can't make easy MMOs that last.
  • Easy grindy game. While you can do every step easily, you must do lot of steps. This is a viable strategy, just ask Zynga. However the problem is exactly Zynga: the people who are ready to do lot of easy grinding are not really sophisticated, so they don't care about content quality. So your subscription game can't compete free flash/facebook games. Again the model works, you just can't make subscription money.
  • Skill-based damage reduction: there is no tank and healer in Half life Counterstrike. You mitigate damage by not walking into the gun of the other. You hide, you LoS, you use smoke, flash. No need to say that a skill-based game won't be a mainstream MMO that lure lot of "casuals".
  • No combat healing and damage reduction at all: this is again a possible, but very sloppy game as you can't pick anything but DPS gear and talents, become a stronger glass cannon. Any utility ability that decreases damage taken (teleport, roots, fear) would automatically be a preferred tank talent and necessity in a min-maxer group.
  • Single player game: no group, can't specialize. Works, but by definition not in MMOs
Is it bad enough? Now let me give one more reason:  "morons at Slag gate". Here all the idiots are outside the capture zone, waiting for someone else to go in first and die. So they just stand there giving the defenders time to reinforce. In a "we are all DD" game they would just stand front of the boss arguing who pulls. After all, being killed in 20 secs is "not fun", even if the boss finally dies and you get equal share of the loot. "Fun ppl" want to be the one with the killing blow, and not the one who died first, watching the grey screen for 5 more minutes. In the holy-trinity games it is decided: the tank must do it.

The bottom line is that there will always be at least a tank, and if possible, a healer. If Diablo III inferno level will be any way challenging, the groups will look for a tank. Flexibility may help anyone to fill in the role, but the role and the task will exist. If the group will be just a pair of mages, one will have "glass cannon" passive skill and the other will have "blur". And in case of a pick up group, most of the time will be spent arguing who can have the "fun" of being with the glass cannon.


Steel said...

It will be interesting to see how Guild Wars 2 does it without the holly trinity. Apparently it will be a sort of twitch shooter style… uh-oh. This article is worth a read ( ), has a lot of details about a lot of mechanics that have been tried in MMOs over time.

Andru said...

The analysis is pretty spot-on.

Even in Guild Wars, where is no dedicated tank class(and random moster aggro), the playerbase came up with creative ways of MAKING a tank class. (Perma-sins, terra tanks, stance tanks, invincimonks and countless other in-betweens tailored to specific zones/monsters.)

The post is just a bit misleading though. That is to say, it's not that the game cannot be made without tanks/healers in mind, it's that, for any such grouping, there will be groups who stick to some procedure making the trinity possible.

The game can be made without such in mind, but a structured group will be more efficient.

Esteban said...

Gevlon >> "Skill-based damage reduction: there is no tank and healer in Half life Counterstrike. You mitigate damage by not walking into the gun of the other. You hide, you LoS, you use smoke, flash. No need to say that a skill-based game won't be a mainstream MMO that lure lot of "casuals".

I think that's going to be a big part of doing well in D3 Inferno, to be honest. It is supposed to be difficult, and the folks who don't like skill-based challenges (but instead the storymode of Normal) won't really find it rewarding. To me, that's okay, to you, it isn't. :)

I also think that encounter design (random boss abilities, for example, are common to the Diablo series) is going to take some of the min-maxing out of it. A 'tank' character stacking heavy armour and stamina without much damage might be a liability if there are armour-piercing mobs, percentage-of-health damaging mobs, or certain kinds of gauntlet.

Note also that an important source of healing in D3 will be orbs dropped by adds. So you (sort of) heal by dpssing those down as quickly as possible.

Finally, I'm not convinced that cutthroat/skill-based MMOs are doomed to being niche. EVE takes a lot of research and thinking, but it's quite a successful MMO. Shooter games are extremely popular. Starcraft, which is a tough zero-sum PvP game, is also extremely popular. You might be underestimating the masses.

Squishalot said...

For most intents and purposes, D2 was skill-based, from your list of 'what can developers do'. Kiting, positional awareness, utilising obstacles to your advantage would reduce your damage taken. Casuals can 'faceroll' up to Nightmare mode without requiring the use of such skills, but it's needed to reach end-game.

Wait a sec. Positional awareness, kiting, utilising obstacles - doesn't that sound a lot like dancing? Hmm.

On the face of that, I would argue that skill-based can lure plenty of casuals, as long as the skill bar is something objective and can be practiced, as opposed to CounterStrike where the skill bar is dynamic depending on the quality of your opponents.

The way to allow all to be DD is to ensure that each class has equally effective tanking abilities (heavy armour, mana shield, bone shield etc.), and provide for some aggro randomness or aggro-dropping abilities. For example, mage who gets beaten up who teleports away shouldn't continue to keep aggro, it should pass on to the rogue sitting right next to the target, until the rogue vanishes, then aggro moves on, etc..

This allows for:

a) Skill-based gameplay, where higher skills = reduced damage.

b) All players are DD. In a party of 5 people, 80% of the time they will be able to 'have fun'.

c) All players must tank a bit. No single player has to bear the burden of tanking 100% of the time, since there is no advantage to doing so.

The key to forcing this is to make sure that self-recovery mechanics are stronger than other-recovery mechanics, thereby giving you an advantage when healing yourself, rather than having a pocket-healer. It also ensures that single-player is doable, as long as they use skill-based playstyles that allow you to disengage / kite and heal.

Anonymous said...

Your example totally ignores aoe damage and bosses not caring for aggro which is a artificial mechanic. Mean bosses could aoe and attack the lowest player right afterwards.

Of course a labeling is still possible: According to current skills used. In darkfall you instantly switch between staff for healing. 2hander for dps and shield+sword for blocking when low on hp. This is done by ALL players during the fight. It's not set roles before the fight which for me is the major difference.

Samus said...

The best teams in City of Heroes have no tank.

You are arguing something can't be done when it already has been done.

Andru said...

Oh, I forgot to mention this.

Guild Wars' difficulty level has not changed much through time.

However, about 3 years ago (2008?), Anet found themselves with a game that is 'too easy', thus they were forced to put in Hard mode. (Kinda like Heroic mode in WoW)

What happened? The game had the exact same difficulty, and the power creep from new skills was not sufficient to explain it.

Meta gaming happened. While anyone playing the game 'how it was supposed to' meaning without tanking, without proper frontline/backline management, without target calls and so on found the game exactly as difficult as it was in 2005, there were the min-maxers who did improve the gameplay methods far beyond what the developers originally expected. Hard Mode was built to counter the specific tactics that min-maxers used at the time. (And then the min-maxers further refined their methods so now Hard Mode might as well be called 'Normal Mode', and Normal Mode might as well not exist since no one does it except maybe once.)

Those min-maxers started documenting their way to play, and that was enough for a paradigm shift. The "how it is supposed to" way to play went from lack of tanking and role management to making those mandatory for even pick up groups. The improvement was so dire that 'elite' end-areas like the Fissure of Woe which used to require 2-3 hours and countless deaths went to being cleared in 7-8 MINUTES, mostly by group splits and strict team management.

The Guild Wiki talk pages for dungeons/zones are enlightening in this regard. (I call it wiki archaeology.) The top strata are full of cries, wails and gnashing of teeth about stuff being 'too hard', but scroll to the bottom of the page and you get all kinds of information developed for 'proper play' that make the same 'insanely hard' stuff exceptionally easy.

chewy said...

Very good article, entirely agree with your reasoning.

I'm wondering, if indeed they try and break the holy trinity, will they push towards more self healing and survivability ? Rogues now have healing abilities, albeit fairly useless abilities. Is this indicative of a gradual change towards self healing homogeneous DD classes ?

As for the tankless raid bosses - Perhaps a threatless boss that causes intermittent cleave or spell damage shared by the group, similar to major domo's scorpion form. Everyone engages at the same time to share the damage. Rather boring though.

Anonymous said...

You pose the usual damage equation:
``monsters do Dm*(1-A) DPS''
You solve the system to show that:
``It's obvious that increasing [armor and healing] gives more power than increasing DPS.''

But when you conclude that there must always be tank, healer and dps, you're doing several assumptions.

First, that the damage equation cannot be changed. As much as it's reasonable to assume that it will not change significantly, it's not ``mathematically impossible.''

Second, which is at the same time more of a detail but more relevant, you can have a non linear increase in armor that compensates the non linear increase of overall damage done with respect to armor or healing.
Actually, that's already partially the case: armor itself grows linearly with ilevel but not damage reduction (your A). It's also the same with the avoidance stats for which with have rating that are non linearly converted to effective avoidance.

So it's already implemented: in the current tank/dps/healer setup, a increase of power (ilevel) from one actor translate roughly to the same increase of overall dps for progression (obviously soloing of lower raids shows that this is not true across the range, but Blizzard tune their system around progression for this matter).

It's not mathematically impossible, it just requires game changes: not restricting damage to only 1 character, having a trade-off between dps/damage reudction/healing that makes for a equivalent increase in overall damage dealt for equivalent increase in ``player power.''

As a side note, don't wave mathematics as a ultimate proof that something is impossible for anything else than mathematics. Game design rely on mathematics as a tool, sure, but has a lot of freedom in its choices that can translate to quite different mathematical models.

Anonymous said...

No-trinity game is perfectly possible. The need for tanking exist only because of ridiculous damage numbers done by bosses.

There are non-tanked bosses in WoW already (Shade of Aran). There are bosses with "everybody can be a tank" mechanics (Netherspite, Reliquary of Souls phase 1). Interestingly, all these encounters have "dance" elements.

Take one step ahead, and you can modify most of Firelands encounters slightly to need no tank at all. Remove burn phase and sparks from Ryolith (or make sparks kitable a-la Vashj striders). Remove hatchlings from Alysrazor and make her lay on the ground from 0 to 100 power instead of 0 to 50. Remove melee attacks from Ragnaros and make him chain-casting hammer strikes and knockbacks.

In fact, some of the mechanics from these fights look artifically added to give employment to tanks. Especially hatchlings and Ragnaros tanking debuff.

Then there is, for example, Mass Effect combat model: slow health regen when not taking damage, damage resistance cooldowns and lots of crowd control.

Anonymous said...

I haven't played any MMO, but WoW, so I can't compare it to anything else on the market. However, I believe that it's possible to make a game where everyone is a DD, as that is how the games used to be from the very beginning. Games once required you to learn patterns and "dances", to improve your skill so you can progress further without dying. Why all of a sudden that became not a fun activity?

There are different ways to wipe a group without AoE or direct damage to the tank. Yogg-Saron and Lich King are good examples in my opinion, as there are things like sanity, defile, val'kyr, constrictor tentacles (they do constant damage in game, but for the purposes of this post imagine that they kill a player after some fixed amount of time).

I don't think that a game needs leveling. In my opinion there are other ways to make players follow a certain path and explore the world (Metroid, Legend of Zelda). Of course such games are more action-oriented than WoW, but I'm not a game designer and I have no prototype to play and see if the idea is viable at all.

Anonymous said...

Tanking has always struck me as a dumb mechanic. No self-respecting boss with half a brain should be fooled by taunting. Bosses should attack the greatest and/or most vulnerable threat.

Even Nefarian says, "Fools! Kill the one in the dress!" And then ignores his own advice in later raids.

D&D (before 4th edition) didn't really have tanking as such.

But RPGs have almost always had healing, and it makes sense for there to be healers. And, more importantly, I think healing really attracts a certain kind of player in a way that tanking doesn't so much. I think people are attracted to tanking because it creates a natural leader position, not because they like positioning bosses (everybody has to worry about position now, anyway) and doing less damage. Healing is different.

Anonymous said...

Without a dominating threat mechanic and the possibility for the monsters to attack anyone in the group everyone will need a certain amount of armor so stacking it all on one player would not do any good. So everyone needs to bit a little bit tank-ish.
Without a strict healer role and healing abilities on all characters, the group can succsesfully win even with one particular player down. Everyone being (to a major part) responsible for their own healthbar plus the ability to help ech other out sounds alot more interesting than one playing whack a mole while others have no way of staying alive on their own (even when not standing in the fire).
Control and debuffing are the third major part of a non-trinity environment. Damage is just a side effect.

The Standing Dragon said...

In truth, Gav, I'm with the others here who have pointed out that having a tank is only a requirement because WoW's design is built around absolutely massive, continuous damage from bossmobs.

Going back farther - EQ was the game that inaugurated the "holy trinity" in an MMO, but, even then, it wasn't required. Groups went to tank-healer-DPS because it was easier than the alternative, but there were alternatives due to the depths of skills available to any individual player.

Crowd control abilities can reduce incoming damage by 'breaking up' multipulls - and, if you put enough of 'em in place, they can actually take most of the job of the tank. Kiting, pets, positioning - if they were allowed a larger role, the 'trinity' would be unnecessary.

Imagine, if you will, a boss-type-mob that was actually affected by ALL player abilities. It could be stunned, slowed, knockedback, kited, repositioned - you wouldn't, then, be required to have a tank, if your group could use abilities creatively.

Keep in mind that EQ had /hundreds/ of abilities for each character (especially casters) - and no limit on the number of mobs that could have those abilities used on them at once. You weren't limited, for instance, as an Enchanter, to CCing just /one/ mob. Good enchanters could lock down entire rooms while their mana lasted. Druids and Rangers were kings of kiting, slowing the footspeed of mobs while accellerating their own, and still generating threat at a reasonable degree.

And so on.

WoW has chosen to make the trinity fundamental to gameplay - and it /is/ an easy style. But older games did it differently by small, simple changes to mechanics that WoW intentionally changed to support the tank-healer-dps setup.

Aureon said...

Solution: lifestealing tank, retpaladin-type DPS, something like "X% of your dps heals your focus / whoever as the lowest hp percent in your group" "10% of the damage you do puts a debuff on the boss, reducing his damage by that amount"
it's not too hard.

Anonymous said...

The closest thing to raids in EVE online is Incursions and they require everyone to 'tank' and a few (20%ish) to heal. Why can this not work in a classic MMO like wow? Remove all pure tanking gear and talents and make all classes have some damage reduction abilities and/or require players to gear somewhat for durability. The holy trinity becomes the holy duality. Better but not perfect.

Pheredhel said...

@Gevlon: you should be very careful with claims of things beeing "impossible"

A system that could work and make tanks and healers fully optional:

At the beginning of a dungon you talk to the "Great mage" and pick one of four options:
1. trinity : you go in there the normal way, get some dps buff to do the content at full speed
2. dd only:
the group gets a regenerating absorption shield that has a common amount of absoption for everyone. This makes the encounters a dps race, while still requiring to pay attention to mechanics or it runs out too fast. no personal mitigation works!
3. tank+dd : the tank gets some form of autoheal or life increase or the likes, personal mitigation applies
4. dd+heal: everyone gets a personal shield that can be healed. no personal mitigation applies

if balanced correctly, this makes tanks and healer optional, and this even on a fully scalable manner that can be turned off for certain types of gameplay (say hardmodes or wherever you want to enforce the trinity or any special combination)

Michael said...

You're looking at it backwards. It's impossible in the current model, precisely because the current model is designed around the trinity. There are many other models of fun, skill-based gameplay that your math wouldn't apply to.

Here, I'll make one up, spur of the moment.
- Everyone has 1hp, if the dragon is able to bite you, you die.
- But everyone also has stability or defense, on a scale of 0-100%. Every time the boss hits you, you automatically use up some of your stability to survive.
- If the boss' target still has stability left, he'll continue to attack that target.
- If the boss gets rid of all of the current target's stability, that person gets knocked back and has to stop hitting the boss in order to rebuild his defenses.
- If the current target's stability is shattered, the boss will switch targets to whoever hits it next.
- If anyone attacks without stability, the boss gets an attack of opportunity and kills them immediately.

No healers! People can specialize in maintaining/building stability in order to hold the bosses attention, but everyone has to look out for their own defenses.

Anonymous said...

As others have pointed out, this doesn't really prove anything but that in the current model, there will always be advantages to having a tank. But it's not that hard to change a few things making this viable. One thing you could to to make mages a viable dps-without-tanking class is to give them the following 1 min duration/5 min cooldown skill: "While this skill is active, your armor and resistance is increased by your current DPS (taken to mean 20% of the the damage the mage has done over the last 5 seconds)". With this a group of 5 mages would pass the poss around like a parcel. The exact implementation is not really important, but I think saying that an MMO without tanks is impossible is overly simplistic.

Goodmongo said...

Why can't every class have damage mitigation capabilities (a mage shield, rogue dodge etc), self healing (potions, spells, equipment etc)?

Seems to me you can do this for PvE and use any type of group to raid or quest with. Each person is responsible for themselves. taking damage use your mitiagtion tools, you're hurt then heal yourself etc.

Where it gets messy is PvP but that can still be solved if balanced right.

So impossible? Far from it.

Horpner said...

City of Heroes can get by without Tanks because control, buffs, and debuffs are ridiculously strong in that game. A pair of coordinated Controllers can completely negate a large group for a very long time. Group control was so strong that they reduced its effectiveness by two thirds and it's still overpowered.

And when it comes to buffs and debuffs things are almost as bad, with overpowered, stacking buffs and debuffs that can be minmaxed in combinations that trivialize content very quickly.

A group as skilled as the average Raiders in WoW would find virtually no challange in CoH. It would be an absolute faceroll from a combination of completely controlled or totally debuffed enemies who die very quickly to buffed AoE attacks. Heroes and Arch Villains are the exceptions, since they are mostly immune to control, generally forcing the use of a tank and strong single-target damage.

City of Heroes does prove that strong control and de/buffs are an alternative to tanks and healers, though it's not a good example of challenging mechanics.

Anonymous said...

There are various encounters where there is no such thing as a tank or tank is almost irrelevant. There are also encounters with various mechanics where healing and/or DPS is important.

You could for example have Rhyolith without the tank mechanism. If the DPS don't DPS the adds enough, it is a wipe. If the DPS don't hit the legs enough, it is a wipe. NPCs kan heal, much like the FL dailies (worked fine except world PvP sometimes screwed it up). Or you can have a NPC as tank. Or you can have Alysrazor without the stuff down; only flying up then.

I don't see this problem as a dealbreaker. Merely one to work around with, a fun challenge.

Imakulata said...

The problem is, there are multiple things contested about the holy trinity which; however, not everyone agrees on whether these things are good or okay or bad, even those who think they should be amended do not agree on how to do it and the things might be more complex too. You already mentioned two things that are contested in holy trinity:

First, the group members have to be chosen based on their build/class/role to ensure the group can work together. There are multiple solutions to this, for example to ensure that everyone can change their build/role to suit the group (which comes with a problem that not everyone might want to play a certain build/role or be good at it), doing away with roles and ensuring everyone is able to do everything they might be asked to do, i. e. a true hybrid (again, not everyone might want or be able to play a hybrid) or ensuring the groups might tackle the encounters in any build/class/role composition (which is very vulnerable to min-maxing). Note that getting rid of roles is a way how to solve this problem (one that has its problems but solves this problem nonetheless) but not the only one.

Second, there is a role that is much more popular than the other roles and is considered "more fun" by the majority. I believe that's just a symptom and the causes have to be solved; I think the causes are the fact there are multiple damage dealers in WoW's basic group but only one of the other roles so the DD responsibility is shared between them (and the tank who deals quite a lot of damage too) and the fact that the solo game is made for DD-s (monsters deal little damage and everyone can fill their health bar by eating so there is not much reasons to neutralize the incoming damage). Both of them seem to discourage people from rolling other roles - first, their leveling would be much slower; second, their failures would endanger their group as there's nobody who's able to take their role if they fail at it.

There's one thing you didn't mention - I don't agree with it but some people think it's desirable so I feel I should include it; so-called "identity". As far as I understand it, it's a reason to take player A with build/class X for a certain role even if player B with build/class Y would be taken if he had build/class X. Note that means the exact opposite of first point, it's the "take the class, not the player" - but Blizzard claimed they were opposed to this and some players desire the class identities so I decided to include it. However, it is compatible with second point - for example, you can have melee, ranged and magic DD-s with mobs that are vulnerable to magic or ranged attacks etc. (It would make groups seek one DD of each, make each of them more accountable as they would have to kill different monsters and make leveling slower for DDs because their attacks would be much weaker against 2/3 of monsters.)

The point is, even if you manage to show that one of the points is not viable without reducing the difficulty too much, it doesn't mean that your "trinity of gaps" is the only alternative.

Péter Zoltán said...

World of Tanks does not have healers. It's all DPS, though each of them is different. Maybe heavy tanks can be considered tanks (damage absorbers) but sure there is zero way to heal damage taken by your vehicle HP. It works pretty fine without the holy trinity.
Damage reduction is very skill based. Hiding behind objects, never stopping on open ground, etc will protect you pretty well.
Some group balance is required: self propelled guns are pretty worthless without tanks scouting for them and stuff like that.
I can even see wow working without this trinity, but it sure would need a major overhaul.