Among the most important changes Guild Wars 2 is attempting to bring to the MMO genre is the abandonment of the holy trinity. For me, this is one of the most important advances in the genre and I'm often nonplussed at the reaction of long time MMO players who feel that no RPG can exist without it. There are a lot of things that I dislike about the holy trinity, and I'll cover them here, but first, for those of you who don't know, here's how the trinity works.
In most MMOs, hard content can only be beaten by using a specific set of predetermined (and to my mind, arbitrary) roles that work together to take down harder foes. The first role is the tank. Usually a warrior, the tank is a character that can take great damage, either by mitigating damage or having exceptionally high armor and health. The most important aspect of the tank is that he can get a creature's attention and hold it. This stops the creature from attacking less well-armored companions, such as spell casters and healers. Tanks hold aggro through a couple of different mechanics, usually known as taunt and threat. It should be noted that years ago, tanks wouldn't be able to hold aggro on large numbers of creatures and you'd need off tanks for the “adds”, the creatures that spawn around the boss to make things more difficult. The class has, for the most part, evolved so that today's tanks are largely AOE tanks, which can hold the aggro of multiple creatures at the same time.
The thing is, as hard as a tank is to kill, the tank can still die, and so you need a second class, a healer. The healer's main job is to keep the tank alive. Ideally the healer should keep everyone alive, but it's particularly important to keep the tank alive because if the tank dies, the party almost always wipes. The same is true of the healer. If the healer dies, the tank will die and the party almost always wipes.
The final cog in the holy trinity gear is the DPS (damge per second). These are the guys that actually do the damage to take down the boss. They pound on him, while he pounds on the tank, who the healer is helping to keep alive. This is the simplified holy trinity you hear about all the time. There are other roles that sometimes come into play as well that people don't talk about a lot. CC or crowd control to keep the spawns busy while you take down a boss, or off-tanks and off healers, in big raids for hard dungeons, but the general idea is that one main guy holds aggro, one main guys heals and everyone else does the killing.
I have a whole lot of problems with this scenario and I'll start with the tank. Much has been made of Guild Wars 2 not having a dedicated healer. Healers in and of themselves have never particularly bothered me. Tanks, however, I hate. Not the people who play tanks. Not tanking itself, since I've done it and it's fun. What I hate is how contrived it is. Let's break it down.
I go into a battle and I start trying to kill a creature that keeps healing. It takes damage really slowly, but doesn't seem to be using a self heal. The first thing I invariably do is look for a healer. It's just smart play. So here I am, in a fantasy world, fighting a dragon, or a really powerful demon, a major boss. This boss, who is a major threat isn't as smart as I am. Why? Because I KNOW to look for a healer, and he/she/it doesn't. This super-intelligent creature that I've spent an entire dungeon or raid getting to, doesn't even know the basics of combat in a fantasy world. Pretty stupid if you ask me.
This is driven home even more strongly when you consider PVP. You can't actually tank in PVP, because you can't force players to attack you. That means that the strategies used in Pve and PVP are completely different. It allows PVPers to say that Pve is much easier, mostly because of that arbitrary dynamic. Of course, PVPers will continue to say that anyway, but why give them ammunition. The fact is, I agree with them. Pve is a lot easier than PVP, in large part, because of the holy trinity, but also the predictability of the AI. You don't ever know what players are going to do, but you pretty much have a good idea of what NPCs will do if you play enough. Though I have to say, without the holy trinity, the AI is going to be a lot harder to predict, particularly if it's well written. We've already seen NPCs in Guild Wars 2 videos swap weapons and kite, so I suspect that the difference between Pve and PVP will be less in Guild Wars 2 than in most other games. In fact, in most games, Pve does almost nothing to prepare you for PVP. I don't believe this will be the case in Guild Wars 2.
Getting back to tanking, real battles don't work that way. You don't have one guy taking all the heat, while everyone else gets ignored. It's not only contrived, it's plainly stupid. How exciting would Lord of the Rings have been if Frodo never got attacked and instead everyone only went after Boromir. The holy trinity reduces each boss to the level of a puzzle, which you have to keep banging your head against until you solve it. Each boss has a mechanic, which you have to figure out. Often these bosses telegraph moves so that you have warning before they use a specific attack. They often say things first and then use that attack. And it's always the same pattern. Once you solve a boss in a dungeon or raid, you can do it again and again, more and more easily, because not only do you get better at it, but your gear gets better as well. That means content becomes trivial faster and faster, and the raid you did last week is useless to you next week. If nothing else, it's bad design.
Another bad design is putting together an elite squad of adventurers with no redundancy. I mean all soldiers, even medics are taught to fight and kill. A guy might be a sniper and still be trained in hand to hand combat. The fact is, having a team that depends on two people that no one can replace is just bad planning. It's amazing these heroes ever save the world. The question, of course, is why. Why has the holy trinity evolved in the first place? There are two bits of information necessary to answer this question.
First, character classes in pen and paper RPGs are centered around a specific roles. Why? Because if mages in D&D could take the same damage as warriors, and do as much weapon damage, why would anyone be a warrior? The class imbalance in D&D and many other pen and paper RPGs which is where computer RPGs originated. All of them had arbitrary class mechanics. Mages could only fight with a dagger and wear cloth armor, clerics couldn't use bladed weapons, etc. Some of these ideas might have made sense, but you know, Gandalf was a wizard and he used a sword. And while come clerics might not like to spill blood, what about clerics of the god of war, or the god of cruelty. The only reason these arbitrary limitations were put into the class structure was to make it so that no one class would be more attractive to players than any other, which made some sort of sense for a game centered around character classes.
Recently, Skyrim came out, and showed us that you can have character development without either experience points or character classes, but Skyrim was not the first RPG to do this, even if it is currently the most well known. Back in the days before computer RPGs, there were other games that did away with character classes and experience points altogether. Runequest was one of them and by far the best pen and paper fantasy RPG I played. When I made my own pen and paper RPG, I based it on a similar system, one without character class or experience. If you wanted to develop a skill, you could, as long as you took the time to do it.
Even some MMOs have gone this route and some MMOs on the horizon are going there. The Secret World by Funcom is an MMO that will be skill based. It has no character classes and no experience points. There are 500 skills in the game and a single character, if he wanted to, could learn them all. The limit for players in TSW is that they can only take 7 active and 7 passive skills at one time, and have to swap them out between battles. But it also means that if your healer dies in a game like TSW, then someone else could become the healer and the same with the tank. In fact, many games that have come out have tried to address the problems posed by the trinity.
Take Rift. Rift decided to allow more classes to be capable of tanking, more classes to be capable of healing and allowed characters to have multiple roles which can be switched out on the fly. Still, if your tank died, your team would still inevitably wipe, because the new tank wouldn't have the time to build threat and thus hold aggro. More likely, the game design was meant to make it so that if you were short a tank or healer for a dungeon, someone who normally plays DPS could fill either of those roles without leveling a second character.
Another important reason that Rift made this change was the problem with finding the right combination of people to do a dungeon. Most players enjoy doing damage. Tanks and healers are harder to find...good tanks and healers even more difficult. This means that you're pretty much stopped in your tracks until you find a tank AND healer to go with you into a dungeon. You can wait for half an hour or an hour till a tank or healer shows up in a random group finder, and then there's no guarantee they're not complete idiots. Of course, you might have ten friends online, none of whom tank or heal, who can't help you at all. You can't play with your friends, because you MUST HAVE a tank and a healer. You can't clear content without it. Again, by allowing people to have multiple roles, Rift tried to use a piece of chewing gum to remedy the problem. Not by making content that any five people could play, but by allowing people to play multiple roles on a single character.
My main Rift character was a cleric. Though I specialized in AOE DPS, I could both tank and heal in a bind. The problem is I can't stand healing, even though I did it in Rift for a while when guildies needed me. So there I was, playing a game role I didn't enjoy to help my friends. Did I mind helping my friends? Nope. Did I get tired of it eventually, when I wanted to do other things and they were begging me to heal? Yep. For a while, it was happening every day. It got to the point where I didn't even want to log in, because I knew people would beg me to heal, and I hated to say no. I should be able to play a game any way I want. Enter Guild Wars 2.
How is Guild Wars 2 changing the game? For one thing, there's no taunt mechanic and no threat meter. In other words, there is no way for a single character to hold aggro. This means that even though a profession can be tankish, like the Guardian, it can't be a true tank as defined by the holy trinity. This makes me smile. I should mention that this was also true in the original Guild Wars. There was no way for a warrior to be a “true” tank, because the enemy AI was smarter. Healers and minion masters would get attacked, except under very specific sets of circumstances.
As for healers, well, Anet did some surgery there too. In Guild Wars 2, there are no skills that directly target an ally. Not one. So instead of watching little green bars going up and down, you'll have to participate in the action. It doesn't mean you can't largely play a support role. It does mean that you'll have to think on your toes a bit more, instead of operating by rote..which is how most MMOs end up being in dungeons and raids. You simply do the same stuff over and over again until you get it right. Very heroic. I'd much rather be immersed in a battle by having to react to what's going on and change what I'm doing.
Another difference in Guild Wars 2, is that everyone can resurrect fallen team members. In most games, once the healer dies, that's it because no one else can resurrect. Sometimes the tank can also but generally if the tank or healer dies, you have a wipe on your hands. It won't be that way in Guild Wars 2. Anyone can rez and anyone can switch to a support role and so you can have some very exciting game play that isn't as contrived or limited. How can it work? Let me give you an example of something that happened to me in Guild Wars 1.
My wife and I were playing in the Underworld, me, her and six heroes (though the heroes could just as easily have been other players). In fact, I was able to control my heroes through flagging and I was able to micromanage the their skills, which is what I ended up doing.
In any event, we were in the Underworld (the one you access in the Tomb of Primeval Kings), when we had a bad experience with some siege wurms in combination with some other foes. It was our first time in there. The entire party died except for Acolyte Jin, a ranger. All by herself. Fortunately, Jin was a ranger/monk and had a rez spell, or we'd have had to start over. But the problem is, our dead bodies were stuck in the heart of the conflict, and I had to flag Jin way back to get our out of harms way, until enemies stopped pursing her. Then came the hard bit. Jin, all by herself, came back. Keeping in mind that every profession in the original Guild Wars had self-heals available, Jin was able to run in, use a long bow to pull a creature or two at a time, run back and eventually take them down with a combination of poison and fire arrows, until she eventually cleared out the remaining creatures, at which point she resurrected our healer who then helped her get the rest of us up. You can't imagine how many times she almost fell herself in her heroic rescue of the party. In almost any other MMO, we'd have been toast.
And lest people remind you that Guild Wars wasn't a true MMO, well that's true, but since all these raids and dungeons that have these bosses are instanced anyway, I don't see a difference. Because most of the people who bash Guild Wars for not being a true MMO spend all their time raiding or in instanced dungeons. I am, however, glad that Guild Wars 2 will be a true MMO, if for no other reason than to silence the rabble.
One brief aside, I've heard almost no one talk about Dungeons and Dragons Online, with regards to it's not being a true MMO, when in fact, it's just as instanced as Guild Wars. You meet up in town or your guild hall, get your party together and go into an instance to do your quests and dungeons. If Guild Wars isn't a true MMO, neither is DDO, but no one ever says it. It goes to show how little most people understand the genre.
Back to the trinity, a lot of people who I've spoken to, long time MMO players, tell me it's not possible to have challenging content without having a holy trinity. This comment, more than any other, annoys the hell out of me. For one thing, most raid content isn't difficult, it's just trial and error and repetitive, until you learn the mechanic. It's puzzle solving and fun on that level, but it's not hard. In fact, the hardest thing about raids is getting 20 people together that know what they're doing, not doing it itself. Many raids have timing guys that sit there and count out what's going to happen. That's their whole job. Okay, 3, 2, 1...everyone behind the pillar. Where the hell is the skill in that?
Once you add gear progression to raids and dungeons, you have what's killed the entire MMO genre. Give a person a reason to do the same dungeon over and over and you don't have to program actual content. You don't have to have an open world. All you need is a dungeon finder and now a raid finder. Stand around in a city, wait for your group to pop (either a dungeon or raid group, or a PVP battle ground), use your flying mounts to fly over the world and skip all the content and get to your dungeon, or teleport directly via the dungeon finder. For a bunch of people who claim Guild Wars isn't a true MMO because it lacks an open world, they have an awful lot of ways to ignore the world they so bang on about.
Most MMOs eventually become lobby games. Most of the world is irrelevant as characters have out-leveled the content, including most of the dungeons and raids. You do the newest raids to get the newest gear, to do the next raid when it comes out. Where is the RPG aspect in that?
It would be like Frodo and Gandalf farming the Mines of Moria over and over and over, until they had enough magical items to go further. It's ridiculous. It's like reading a book with 20 chapters, but you have to read chapters 15-19 twenty times each before you get to chapter 20. And fans of the genre defend it, in spite of the fact that a whole lot of people never get to that end game content or even care about it. Most WoW players don't raid. And they keep making the raids easier and easier, which causes huge outcries from the raiding community. The problem isn't that raids are too hard. It's that they're too dull. Too repetitive. Too boring. I'd much rather have an open world experience. I'd much rather live in a fantasy world, rather than repeat a series of dungeons. This is what Guild Wars 2 is going to offer.
A return to the basics of RPGs. Less focus on having twenty guys running the same content over and over to get gear and more focus on lore and story, and the creation of a living, breathing fantasy world. And the first step in that direction, is to get rid of arbitrary genre tropes, like the holy trinity.
Obviously, if you're using the same basic strategy over and over...approaching each puzzle with the same pattern...you're jumping through hoops put their by programmers to keep you playing. It's easier and cheaper for a developer to come out with a dungeon you have to do dozens of times than it is for them to create actual content. Furthermore, the existence of the trinity hamstrings not only players but developers. Because players have come to expect this arbitrary criteria, every single encounter must be geared toward it. The entire industry is based around it, so how can they change now? Developers might have great ideas for dungeons and bosses and encounters, but they all have to fit the existing mold. And the only way to make something newer and more exciting is to break that mold.
Until now, most developers have been too scared to take a carving knife to World of Warcraft's success...with good reason. Making an MMO costs a whole lot of money...changing something this basic is a major risk and can make or break a game, or even a company.
So let's all be grateful that Arena Net is willing to take on the challenge of questioning the status quo, so the genre can finally move forward.