Thursday, 11 February 2016

Take A Moment: MMOs And The Trinity

That old zombie warhorse The Holy Trinity is up and shambling once again, raised from its fitful slumber by opposing op eds at MMOGames penned by Isarii and Liore. Murph offers up an excellent entry to the Dead Horse Stakes with his click-bait-titled "Your MMORPG Holy Trinity is a crock" to which Jeromai replies, wearily, "Why Are We Even Arguing About The Holy Trinity?"

My feeling is that it's pretty unlikely that anything anyone writes on a blog or a specialist interest site is going to change opinions one way or another. At this stage of the argument we're all indulging in the online equivalent of sitting around the pub table, banging on about our individual hobby-horses, while everyone else flips beermats and waits for their turn to pontificate. And there's nothing wrong with that!

I find myself in an odd position. I would openly advocate a return to the Trinity, yet I've spent the last three and a half years playing the heck out of GW2, one of the MMOs widely considered to have done everything in its power to tear that Trinity down and stamp on the pieces. I frequently denigrate so-called "action rpgs" while tub-thumping on behalf of traditional stand-and-cast tab target gameplay, yet this week alone I've written about playing and enjoying no fewer than three center-reticule oriented mouse-thrashers.

So, what's going on? Well, I think Karinshastha, commenting in Murph's thread, expressed it perfectly. If I did "Quote of the Day" posts this would be a prime contender:

"If one wishes to remove trinity elements or play them down, one would have to accept a somewhat more accelerated and perhaps also competitive pace of play. I suppose you could roughly map it to the recent findings released by Quantic Foundry (“The Growing 35+ Gamer Market”) which essentially correlate competitiveness with youth and strategic play with all ages with the qualification that strategic play is valued by older gamers.".
In other words, I'm making the best of what I'm being given but only because no-one is really giving me what I want. The market is taking time to adjust to the new reality: not all gamers are 15 year old boys any more.

By contrast, Jeromai equates The Trinity with both simplicity and laziness "The “it’s too hard for me to understand anything more complex” “casuals want to just drop in and have mindless fun, and feel comforted and familiar with a system they’ve already learned argument" is how he describes it. I think that's just plain wrong.

Forty tanks, no healer.

There was very little that was "mindless" about clearing through Chardok or Sebilis or Lower Guk, inching through claustrophobic tunnels filled with hostile creatures, any one of which could easily kill any one of your group, or quite possibly all at the same time. As a plate-armored tank ,expected to take the lead, every step was freighted with the stark knowledge that, without healing from your cleric, you wouldn't survive a single fight. What's more, if you fell, your body would lie there in the dust or the damp, all your worldly possessions lost with it, while you awoke miles away, facing the prospect of fighting your way back, in your skivvies, wielding your second-best sword.

Meanwhile, the cleric would be equally painfully aware that his ability to keep the tank up and fighting depended on that tank's skill in turning the mob, positioning it efficiently and holding its attention long enough for the rest of the party to finish it. As for the rest of that party, they had a myriad of tasks to consider as they judged how much they dared to damage the creature without making the tank's job impossible, kept an eye out for any of the creature's allies, assessed their dwindling resources and generally remained fully engaged with and aware of their environment at all times.

MIndless? Simple? I should frickin' coco! It was a thinking person's game back then, not a contest of reflexes and reaction times. A tense, high-stakes game of strategy and tactics. More like a game of three-dimensional chess crossed with Russian roulette than a quick hand of Snap.


It may well be that the Trinity has become debased by the general downgrading of content over the years to fit the imagined short attention span of the wider audience developers wish to attract but if so that's a symptom of a much wider malaise. It's not in itself the problem, or the fault, of the Trinity gameplay. Neither is it a structural or a mechanical shortcoming per se.

No, the issue, and with it the key to meaningful, thoughtful, intelligent Trinity-based gameplay, is pacing. All of those games from the past that built on a platform of Tanking, Healing and Crowd Control were slower than any game you'll play today. Not just a little slower - much slower. For the full flavor of the meat to flood through it needs to be chewed steadily and for a long time.

In true Trinity play there were no such things as "trash mobs". Every fight, every single fight, from the guards at the gate to the final Boss, could lead to a full party wipe. If that happened it could mean, at best, half an hour or more just to get everyone back in place to try again. If the group wasn't well-bonded, more likely it would mean the end of productive play for the session and the fracturing of that group.

Individual fights with what would now be called "trash" might take three, four, five minutes. There would be a constant concern over whether the fight was taking too long. Long enough that a roamer might come around and add, making the outcome even more uncertain. Long enough that mobs already killed might begin to respawn.

Strategy Meeting

The Tank might need to decide mid-fight to move the mob to a safer spot because the ranger, with a better view, spotted a roamer on the move. The cleric might find mana running low and need to judge the merit of sitting to regain a little more against the risk of "sitting agro" pulling the attention of the mob away from the taunting tank and onto himself.

I could go on and on and, yes, on. This is all old ground. I've been over it before so many times. I can only conjure a tiny, tiny handful of the potential outcomes and events that every player under the Trinity would have been considering every time the Monk ran back into the room and flopped down with a slavering monster tight on his bare heels.

I really don't think it's possible to convey to players now, who weren't there then, just how complex the possible range of interactions between players and players, players and mobs and, yes, mobs and mobs, used to be. The level of complexity simply dwarfed anything I've experienced in the genre in a decade and the reason for that is pacing.

Trust me, you don't need an opposable thumb. I'm asking you to tank, not hitchhike.

For that level of complexity to be viable as entertainment requires long, slow combat that gives everyone time to look around, to think and to plan, even while everything still happens in "real time". At any moment, a sudden explosion of action could send the entire movie into fast-forward. From calm reflection to frenzied firefighting in an instant was the transit when bad luck or misjudgment brought potential doom and destruction to the room.

When older players hanker after The Trinity that is what I believe they are yearning for. The chance to have every fight matter, not just the Boss fights. The luxury of being able to make meaningful choices based on coherent, fully-developed chains of thought, not merely on reaction and reflex. The opportunity to play characters with quirks and foibles and preferences, not toons with rotations and optimal strats.

Over the past decade or so there have been trends towards slow food, slow travel, slow living all around. It's about time for some slow gaming. Past time. The Trinity is no magic answer to the genre's problems but it is a sign and it's pointing in a good direction.

7 comments:

  1. I find it a little confusing that you seem to be conflating lack of a trinity with action combat, which are different concepts. There are many action combat MMOs that still have the traditional trinity. I've never seen a tab target game without the trinity, but I imagine such could be possible, as well.

    I wouldn't agree that the trinity is more mindless or easier, though I would make that contention for tab target systems. I'd even grant that the trinity is maybe a little more complex, though I don't think it's a particularly compelling form of complexity.

    My issue with the trinity is simply how stilted and limiting it is. Each role experiences only a fraction of combat. Only tanks directly interact with enemies, only healers get to directly support their allies, and only DPS get to fun the of big crits and impressive kills.

    And to be clear, I don't hate the trinity, and I acknowledge it has many virtues. I wouldn't want to see it disappear entirely. But it is very over-exposed, treated as a be-all and end-all when it's really just one of many potential systems, and I crave greater variety.

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    1. Yes, I'm not entirely sure myself how I've conflated the two concepts but they seem inextricably linked somehow. I don't even like or respect the Holy Trinity as it's understood post-WoW. To me the Trinity is and always will be Aggro Management, Health Regeneration and Crowd Control and there's no particular reason that has to rely on static placement. Indeed, both as a tank and a healer and a cc'er (and I've played all three roles extensively) I used to change position all the time. It's only in the moment of casting that I was compelled to stand still.

      I very much disagree with the idea that the fixed roles limit a player's ability to see and experience all parts of the game. Yes, each role, each character, only sees a portion of the combat but the player sees it all. Firstly by observation, which is made much easier to do the less dodging and rolling there is to do, and secondly and most importantly by playing all the roles. In every MMO I've stuck with for a decent period I've played most of the available roles. I, the player, am not disenfranchised from the experience in the round even though each of my characters may be.

      To choose to play just one character or just one role is to impose those limits on yourself. The game and its mechanisms aren't doing that, the player is.

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    2. Sure, you can play multiple roles, and I do, but you're still only experiencing one sliver of combat at a time (unless you're doing some crazy multi-boxing or something).

      It's like eating a slice of bread, and then some peanut butter, and then another slice of bread. It may be the same meal in the end, but I'd enjoy it a lot more in the form of a peanut butter sandwich.

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    3. Some people like individual vegetable sticks to dip and taste carrot, cucumber, celery all by its lonesome. Me, I'd go for the chopped salad.

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  2. I think you nailed it with the common ground being "we all want every fight to matter". The Trinity only does that in highly-scripted set-pieces, and the alternatives so far to it (e.g. GW2) have ended up unable to find that balance of challenging but achievable. Either there is too much punishment - it's easy to fail and wipe, and the death penalties are significant - or it devolves into the zerg, with or without added graveyard.

    I believe that everyone needs to know that they have a role to play in group content, what that role is, and be expected to be on top of that role. But I don't think the current Trinity is good for that. I mean, it's okay if all you want to do is boss combat. But if you design your game around that Trinity, then you have to design your encounters around it too, and that limits the experience so much.

    First thing to do is make sure there are ways of interacting with the world - including mobs - in a variety of ways that don't necessarily lead to combat. Then make some classes/roles very distinctly noncombat (or very specific combat roles, e.g. kiting?). Then make the world require you to have some of these noncombat roles in your party in order to get to the reward. When was the last time you saw a situation where a thief-type character had to find and disarm traps on a door while their comrades held off enemies, so they could all escape?

    I mean, there are so many ways to bring pen-and-paper adventuring concepts to group play that don't require dialogue, and would open up a myriad of possibilities for character roles beyond the Trinity.

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    1. I think this is pretty close to where I'm coming from, although I have been in that situation where the group can't proceed because no-one can pick a lock (in EverQuest there used to be a few locations where this was the case) and it did not add to the fun one jot.

      The trick would be to share out the specialist abilities sufficiently widely to ensure a very good chance of making groups that had every skill required, while not allowing every character to do everything alone. If that was easy then I guess a lot of MMOs would already have done it but it can't be impossible.

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