MMORPGs have inherited one very basic design principle when it comes to character classes: A "holy trinity" consisting of a healer, a "Tank" who mitigates damage, and a DPS, who primarily focuses on attacks.
As designer Brian "Psychochild" Green explains in today's Gamasutra feature
, the reason the trinity design has remained popular for so many years across so many different games is simple: It works.
But why? From a designer's point of view, the system is well-tested, and its prevalence means implementing it is easier than reinventing from scratch, writes Green. It's also easier to design enemy encounters, since the composition of a typical group is easy to anticipate.
Other benefits, as Green writes:
Players generally understand and identify roles easier. A majority of players will understand their roles in combat easier having played similar games. The roles are very simple to explain briefly, making writing a tutorial or manual easier. Players can represent their roles to other players easily; the phrase "I'm tank spec" gives a lot of information to another player in few words. Players still need to identify subtleties based on other cues: a Cleric healer is going to have a different healer role than a Bard who has a few emergency healing spells.
Playing a different role increases replayability. If a player tires of their main character, they can try out a different role for a change of pace. While some players may identify closely with a single role, many players will want to explore. Playing with a group as a Tank is different than experiencing it as a DPS, even if the player is going through exactly the same content.
What are the disadvantages of the tried-and-true? Some of these inherent problems can hinder the game, Green explains: For one, it's restrictive to players -- they'll quickly figure out the "optimal" party and have few other choices. Other players may be excluded because their class is out of favor or because there are too many other people available to fulfill a similar role.
As Green explains:
Roles don't translate well to other forms of gameplay. If your game focuses on group content, then the trinity of core classes works well. However, few games focus entirely on a single type of gameplay. Solo players may find some roles harder to play outside of a group. In PvP, the weaknesses of some roles may be exploited freely; for example, a Tank's aggro/hate management abilities mean little when fighting against other players.
Limited roles restrict player choice. If priests are restricted to the Healer role, then a player cannot create a holy character who smites evil as allowed in other games. Hybrid classes with multiple roles are always difficult to implement properly -- players who play a class with a single role will be upset if another class with multiple roles can do their role just as well or better. But, a hybrid character that seems weaker in a role may not be perceived as powerful enough and people playing that character may feel left out.
In the full Gamasutra feature
, Green looks at the traditional MMORPG "trinity" design from several angles, offering suggestions for how the designer can rethink the format and offer new and more flexible experiences to players and their characters.