Unholy trinity

Guild Wars owns a permanent position in my top three MMOs of all time. It’s group-friendly and solo-friendly; it’s all about lateral advancement; and it’s one of a few MMOs employing my favorite pay model. So of course I’m watching Guild Wars 2’s development with great interest. And yet nearly every GW2 announcement from “high level cap” to “open world” has disappointed me, none so much as the recent devblog on combat mechanics.

ArenaNet’s stated goals for GW2’s combat mechanics are primarily to eliminate the following:

Group LF Healer/Tank; party wipes when you lose the wrong person; watching the interface instead of the world; playing with people because you have to, not because you want to; being stuck in the same combat patterns over and over again.

I don’t want to dwell too long on this since it was discussed to death months ago when ArenaNet first declared anathema on healers, but the reassurance that every class can play a support role doesn’t feel like much assurance at all when I know how very many people really enjoy playing healers and tanks. I certainly don’t want to play a game in which everyone but healers and tanks is paralyzed, left out of groups, and consigned to perpetual soloing (hi, WoW), nor do I want to play a game in which healers and tanks are reliant on those groups, being incapable of soloing themselves. But I am concerned that GW2 is undermining the fun and importance of these sorts of roles, relegating them to the equivalents of emergency off-specs when an encounter goes horribly wrong. I don’t really fancy class homogenization, nor do I fancy yet another game in which hybrids rule the day. True flexibility should include both the hyperactive person who changes specializations every three seconds and the person whose roleplay concept demands he never change his role or style at all.

Besides, I’m not entirely sure why the archaic trinity (tank, healer, cc) or the modern one (swap dps for cc) needed an overhaul. It’s always seemed like a natural evolution of class-based systems (like them or hate them), not an artificial system that demanded renovation. I may poke fun at it, but the modern MMO champion, WoW, seems to be doing just fine with its array of available classes and specs for each role. The class system has its problems, but at least it allows for easier balancing. GW2’s system seems to aim somewhere between a skill system and a class system while solving the developer problems of neither and creating a game in which there will still be A Best Lineup for every encounter. Do people really believe we’ll not get stuck in the same combat patterns over and over again? Players will figure out that four people healing for this boss are best, or that a Guardian tanks this encounter the best, and those are exactly the characters that will be brought along, the specs that will be demanded, never mind that you really prefer to play an Earth Elementalist for every fight and aren’t really interested in doing a very un-Guild-Wars thing by attuning mid-battle to save your group from a wipe.

But those are old fears. Consider also these quotes:

“There are no skills that specifically target allies. Everything must be done using positioning, ground targeting or other unconventional methods. This keeps every profession focused on [its] allies in the world, which adds a tactical complexity to the combat. Instead of watching red bars, we want you [sic] to watch your allies in the world. Making sure you are dropping ground-targeted spells effectively and moving into position to block attacks on allies is how we want players to defend each other [sic]. […] It takes a lot of pressure off of the skill system and puts in back into movement, tactical play, and ground control — the areas where we wanted the game to be focused. Couple that with dodging arrows and double tap dodge rolling and you create a combat system that is more like a first person shooter where finding real cover, flanking and other more realistic fighting techniques find a lot more use.”

People are leaping for joy about this, but hell… I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve seen combat like this fail more than once because the developers have misunderstood why things are done the way things are done by other studios.

Let’s start with the UI, or rather, Anet’s de-emphasis of the UI in combat. The UI in modern MMOs isn’t some annoying accident that needs to be purged by our saviors at Anet. UIs were added after many years and many MMOs failed to provide adequate ones. For years, Ultima Online had no party frames (nor parties nor hotkey bars, for that matter) — after all, why would you need them when you can just cast your heals directly on the player avatar in the world? Wouldn’t that be so much more immersive?? EverQuest’s party frames were about an inch long, and healers had to click on them to heal — there were no convenient macros. Fast-forward to today when in a game like WoW you can make use of thousands of addons to make healing not just a simple matter of one-step mouse-clicking but actually fun. Do I really want to go back to an era when the devs thought “fun” was hunting down and clicking on avatars that are behind you, above you, or on the other side of that mob? No. Those things were added to help players out, not to ruin their day. Don’t reinvent the wheel without good cause. It’s a good wheel, developed over a decade through trial and error. New isn’t better; old isn’t better. Better is better.

What about the ground-targeted spells? Well, these aren’t new either. What’s the most annoying part of City of Heroes’ combat? Ground-targeted spells. There’s no way to macro them to center on you; there’s no way to macro them to center on your target or nearest enemy or tank. They require multiple clicks, and they’re irritating. While combat might look smooth to everyone else, ground-targeted spells break up the flow for the person actually playing the game. From my perspective, Anet are going out of their way to make combat more annoying and twitchy, to make voice chat more essential, to make coordination more difficult. How are these good things?

Focusing on FPS-style tactical combat rather than skill selection has also been done. Age of Conan and Champions Online loudly bragged about their engaging reactive combat systems. They were both pretty dull and twitchy while still being remarkably cumbersome. Pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies did away with common mechanics like taunting and aggro-management while asking the player to dodge and kneel and lie prone to maximize his shot, all of which contributed to a confusing, unwieldy, and unpredictable combat experience. Later in its life, SWG abandoned that system for one much more action-based and FPSy and twitchy and clicky — one hated by actual players. And lest we forget: Even the ancient Asheron’s Call employed a sort of rudimentary reactive combat system that allowed the player to moderate a ratio of power and speed for his attacks. All of these things have been done before. Outside of FPS games, they don’t play well. Latency is a problem. Player reaction time is a problem. Communication is a problem. Buttons and skills help equalize players and smooth over a lot of those rough spots. There’s a reason good and modern MMOs use them: accessibility.

I really want to love GW2. In fact, I suspect that if it’s as good as classic Guild Wars, I might be playing it long after I’ve bored of SWTOR, its only real rival outside of WoW. That’s precisely why I want it to be awesome. The combat might work out just fine in the end. Maybe all the hype is just fluff and promises to get people excited; maybe the devs don’t really mean to sound half again as retrograde as they do progressive. But in the pre-launch haze, I can’t get rid of the unsettling feeling that Anet are missing the point. Blizzard aren’t king of MMOs because they went back to 1997 and repurposed some archaic UI-lite FPS but because they took the best parts of second-gen MMOs and polished them to death. Shouldn’t Anet take third-gen MMOs and do the same?

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12 Comments

  1. Voinescu Marius says:

    Yes i share your concerns Bree, i to want Guild wars 2 to be very fun, but making combat as difficult as it sounds is a very bad idea, and why does Anet have to alienate the trinity i was quite happy playing my healer or tank role. Lets hope it works out in the end :)

  2. Coppertopper says:

    Given that lack of healers/tanks are ALWAYS keeping you from doing advanced content in EQ and every fantasy mmo to follow, there are only 2 solutions to removing this roadblock:
    1) henchman
    2) everyone heals/has damage mitigation
    Even Rift, with 3 of its 4 classes being able to play a healer role in raids/instances, you still have this same issue of trying to fill these roles.

    So I dont see GW2’s lack of a dedicated healer class as meaning no one can play a healer role. Its that anyone can. And I am guessing, just like Rift, its still going to be difficult to find someone to fill this role ungrudgingly.

  3. Istaro says:

    “Besides, I’m not entirely sure why the archaic trinity (tank, healer, cc) or the modern one (swap dps for cc) needed an overhaul. It’s always seemed like a natural evolution of class-based systems […]”

    I think that last part is fundamentally wrong. When it comes to healing, I grant you that, due to the principle of comparative advantage, it would be more efficient for all the party’s healing to be relegated to a dedicated healer in an environment that allows that. But what about tanking? What does tanking really mean? The entire concept assumes that you are fighting enemies so incredibly stupid that they pick targets not based on whom it would be tactically advantageous to attack, but based on a wholly artificial variable that you the players can manipulate to your hearts’ content. This is the precise opposite of “natural”. And where’s the satisfaction in defeating enemies that effectively commit suicide by choosing to attack the lowest-damage hardest-to-kill player?

    There are clearly many MMORPGs that you know a lot more about that I do, but some of your comments seem to me to indicate a lack of understanding about the current state of GW2.

    “[…] four people healing for this boss are best”: in pretty much every encounter everyone will be healing themselves, and the numbers for self-healing dominate those for ally-healing, leaving ally-healing as nothing more than one more way to pitch in.

    “[…] a Guardian tanks this encounter the best”: what does “tanks” mean? How on earth is a player going to force the enemy to attack himself other than simply being as much of a threat as possible (which everyone is trying to do)?

    “[…] you really prefer to play an Earth Elementalist for every fight and aren’t really interested in doing a very un-Guild-Wars thing by attuning mid-battle”: there is no Earth Elementalist class, only elementalist, which is a class whose primary selling point is the ability to “shapeshift”, in a sense, on the fly. Since elementalists are the only class that can’t switch weapons in combat, the entire point of attunements is to have something that can be switched in mid-battle, and choosing not to do so would be the most un-elementalist thing possible, like playing a ranger without using ranged weapons or pets.

    You mention “how very many people really enjoy playing healers and tanks”, but I don’t know anyone who enjoys red-barring per se, not to mention being the decoy who doesn’t actually kill the enemies but rather lets others do so. Note how in the link you attached to “how very many people really enjoy playing healers and tanks”, the only person who even mentioned the word “tank” said the same thing as I did at the beginning of this comment. I do, however, know people who enjoy helping out fellow party members, which is part of the purpose of GW2 skills like the warrior’s banners, the guardian’s wards, the thief’s blinding powder, etc., not to mention the ability of anyone to take a bullet for or rez anyone else.

    GW2 is trying something quite ambitious, so I’m trying to maintain a “well, it remains to be seen how it all works out” attitude. Which means we’re kind of in agreement. I just wanted to try to correct a few points.

  4. ArcherAvatar says:

    I apologize in advance for being so blunt but, I have to point out that nearly all of your complaints / concerns are based on faulty or outdated assumptions. Guardians aren’t going to be identified as the best “Tanks” because there won’t be anything like what most experienced gamers would identify as a “Tank.” No taunts… no “agro control” and the same goes double for healers. Each player will be primarily responsible for keeping themselves alive instead of counting on someone else to be paying attention enough to do it for them.

    You’re not the first person I’ve seen confused or misunderstanding just how big a shift this is. Heck… take one look at any of the demos we’ve seen from the conventions and it’s easy to see that nearly all current MMO players are going to have a bit of a learning curve while getting to know GW2 once it is released. How many folks in those demos do you see standing in place and taking a beating? Quite a few, and this is just one of the most painfully obvious examples that can be given of players stuck in an old paradigm while attempting to play in a new one.

    There will still be dynamic interaction between players in groups, and groups will be still be necessary to tackle some content but, not because they need players to adopt ANY of the old, rigid, holy trinity roles. Each character, and each class will bring their own versatile set of skills to the group and that entire array of skills will be on display if the player is even half-way competent.

    A five player group should (and will) see each of those five members contribute to their own healing as well as much smaller fraction of healing in an AoE fashion for themselves as well as their groupmates… each of the five will deal damage to the mobs, and each of the five will contribute crowd control skills when tactically useful… at some point during the course of combat every single member of that group will come under attack from mobs, and will have to deal with that attention and survive – not just one tank. Everyone will need to function as a complete character, and contributing member of the group – not merely one third of a complete character in a rigid role that is handcuffed to other’s who are likewise incomplete in their own ways.

    It won’t happen instantly, and for many veteran MMO players who are well conditioned in their thinking (*cough* like yourself for example) it may not happen easily but, at some point, each of those players are going to have to make an adjustment in their own thinking, or simply not be able to enjoy the new GW2 game. Trying to make the new paradigm conform to your old rules is only going to lead to frustration.

    Free your mind… and your character’s ass will follow!

    • Bree says:

      Heya Archer, and thanks for the comment! I don’t think I’m confused or stuck in any old paradigm at all. My first MMO was UO in 1997, and lemme tell ya, there was no such thing as a taunt button back then either. If you were lucky, someone would muddle through the cumbersome UI to throw a heal on you, but for the most part, it was every tank mage for himself — you fight your own fights, you heal your own wounds. Pre-NGE SWG (probably my all-time favorite MMO) likewise had no taunt button and no classes at all for that matter. CoH (my current love) hasn’t really got a healer archetype at all and we’re as likely to see a Defender tanking as an actual Tanker. The problem is that those systems are frequently clusterfucks! So really, what I’m arguing here is that GW2 isn’t really doing anything innovative. It’s re-purposing old concepts that have just as many issues or more as whichever flavor of holy trinity you happen to be rejecting. It may work, and it may not. You’re not wrong that the WoW generation might need to return to 1997 and relearn a few things, but I’m not really sure that’s a good step for the genre as a whole.

      Coppertopper – thanks for the comments! I wasn’t saying that no one could play a healer role, rather that The Healing Role is subservient to DPS roles. The healing role in GW2 is something you do in a pinch because you have to, not because you want to take it on as a permanent vocation. I suppose I talked a lot more about this in the RIFT post than this one, but I don’t really like to see characters that can do everything because it makes specialist playstyles worthless.

      And that ties into Istaro’s comment (thank you too!). I for one love playing tanks, healers, and yes even decoys. I get tired of straight-up DPS characters and DPS characters with so much utility that they start to look like… well, everyone else. Some of my examples were meant to be very generic of game design in general, not literal, but what I’m seeing in your objections is that you agree with the lack of choices GW2 will offer. I don’t. Why shouldn’t someone play an Earth-oriented Elementalist who doesn’t shapeshift? Why shouldn’t someone think of herself as a specialist healer or front line tank? Why are we so quick to bash the holy trinity but so eager to jump on a new set of hybrid classes?

      Now, tanking could be a whole post on its own! I submit to you that in any battle there is going to be a front line performing blocking duties. But most MMOs don’t actually allow us to body-block and prevent the enemy from slipping to the backline to massacre our squishies (I can think of a few, though). No matter how much you’d prefer to be taking out that guy in a robe throwing fireballs from a distance, you still can’t ignore the girl in platemail smashing your face in with a mace for very long. So to that extent, a taunting mechanic is a stand-in for something more realistic (but a whole lot more annoying and difficult to code).

  5. Jeromai says:

    I had to blink in disbelief at your statement that ground targetted spells in City of Heroes is really such a pain. I’m curious how your keyboard/mouse setup was for it. Sometimes I find the default setting/keybinds don’t work so well and it takes some tweaking before one finds a setup that works for them.

    I played a dark defender as a main for a good two years or more, and tar patch was something I flung on every single spawn. Sometimes twice, due to hasten. Took one simple bind of tar patch to the ‘X’ key. Hit ‘X’, move the mouse, left click and place. Even simpler when a friendly tank has -positioned- the entire spawn into a nice big roiling clump in front of you.

    Positioning. It’s not just running out of the fire. Or differently colored stuff on the ground. Perhaps my experience is different with CoH as my first MMO, but I first learned about LOS, herding and so on with a horde of 17 obliging fast running mobs and plenty of corners and LOS-blocking scenery, with cheat button worthy invulnerability to boot.

    There’s a lot more mobility in CoH than a standard MMO because of travel powers and stuff like swift, hurdle, combat jumping, etc. I should think it is one of the best precursors to learn where GW2 combat might go with this new stress on positioning.

    CoH powersets with PBAoE damage and heals meant you have to stick yourself into the fray to go boom, or to a nearby player you want to benefit. Plenty of people learnt how to do it in CoH. Even more learned how when CoV came up and /dark masterminds became popular. The twilight grasp heal radius for mms was very small, so if you want your pets (and consequently, your squishy self) to stay alive, you learn to heal them! 

    I have to agree with you that clicking on squirming unpredictably moving avatars is a lousy design. Good thing GW2 states there are no ally targeted heals or something along those lines, if I recall. But moving yourself tactically to a good position, or even, moving mobs tactically to good positions (*gasp* knockback, *hyperventilate now*) well, CoH does it, Spiral Knights does it, but I don’t really believe it’s hit mainstream MMO consciousness yet.

    As for support-minded people, I think there are enough out there. The trick is to make survival of the team not solely on their heads all the dang time. The pressure to perform can crush all but the most saintly (or determined to profit) of wills. Hybrid support allows for everyone to chip in and contribute small amounts, and cover for someone else’s momentary slip up. To err is human. To err should not result in total party wipe every single time.

    • Bree says:

      Oh hey I could surely be the only one — I just loathe ground-targeted spells (in CoH or anywhere… heck, even ancient UO had ’em, firewall anyone?!). Fortunately my main in CoH only has a couple. They’re awkward and clumsy, and sure, it’s not like my arms are broken and I can’t click. It’s a workable mechanic — I just find it irritating and overly clicky from a controls standpoint, so I’m not really enthused when GW2 says it’s “innovating” such things. Then again, so is tossing an AoE on a target only to find lag/etc. has made him run away from all the other mobs! Hehe. CoH is definitely a great game to learn positioning in, I can’t disagree.

      It’s an interesting point you bring up at the end — hybridization as a social blame-spreader (how do you blame the healer for a wipe when everyone is the healer, etc.). I don’t think Anet are designing specifically to that end, but it’s one of the more compelling pros I’ve seen.

      -Bree

  6. Demuse says:

    Is it possible you dislike ground target spells when they force your mouse cursor and your attention to move quickly between your skill bar and the world?

    Depending on the game and my class, I’m either focussed on the world and the action (as when playing a tank or AoE nuker, watching all the enemies and my own position), or my UI (as when playing a healer and watching my group’s health bars and my cooldowns). Of course I try to do both but I find it impossible to do both well and simultaneously. There’s always a 70/30 split of my attention.

    If my focus and mouse cursor are already out in the world, and a ground target spell is keybound, as Jeromai describes, then it’s seemless to plunk it down, and even easier if it’s PBAoE. I believe this is what COH does pretty well, and GW2 is aiming to perfect. They’re systematically and ruthlessly taking away all the reasons your eyes or cursor have to leave the action and go to your UI, even for a split second. More like a FPS.

    On the other hand, when playing a healer and staring at health bars and cooldowns and using hotkeys to target my groupies (I’m thinking of you, LotRO) it’s very awkward to find where my mouse cursor has drifted off to, then look up at the world and action and figure out where all my enemies and allies are, then back down to click on a skill bar icon, then carefully place the spell amidst the chaos, then back to my group’s health bars to see who died while I was distracted.

    • Bree says:

      I think that has a lot to do with it, yep. It’s possible CoH is a special case too. I mean, in most games, I’d easily memorize which buttons did what and never need to look at my tray anyway. But in an altlicious game like CoH, I have something like 30 characters, so for most of them, I have to look to remember which button does what. The same was often true in GW when my build would change practically from mission to mission, so I suspect that might be true in GW2 as well.

      LotRO is really horrific when it comes to healing UI, I totally agree. But that’s more because LotRO doesn’t allow WoW/WAR-style modding. I’d be so content in LotRO if I could have a Grid-style healing mod. True, it’s clicky, but it’s *only* clicky at the point of UI (and it saves you the looking-back-and-forth and target-then-heal problems).

      Overall, I’m still fond of a CoH-style system in which healing has largely been replaced by more proactive support roles. GW2 seems to be going the everyone-does-everything-in-a-different-flavor route, though, and minimizing support altogether.

  7. CellGel says:

    Hi Bree,
    I was referred here by Rubi’s article (http://massively.joystiq.com/2011/06/20/flameseeker-chronicles-of-revolutionary-design-babies-and-bat/2#comments) .

    As a student of game design and programming, I was wondering if you could expand a few of the points you made in your post…

    Firstly, could you be any more specific with how you feel ground targeted spells break the flow for the player? MOBAs in particular seem to be able to incorporate ground-based AOEs seamlessly into the player experience (based on the fact that nobody would play a game with mainly ground-based AOE skills if they weren’t relatively simple and intuitive). Granted 3D environments could potentially cause an issue in terms of judging depth-of-field, but all the evidence from demos seems to suggest that these spells are quite simple and straightforward to use from the user’s perspective.

    Secondly, I felt like the suggestion that FPS style reactionary/twitchy combat would cause GW2 to be clunky and annoying was a bit confusing. From the information they’ve given us, the dodging system (really the only “twitchy” mechanic I can see you referencing here) has been greatly revamped from the original stages of development.
    As far as I can see the combat system now works much like the original, with the emphasis being on constant movement, thoughtful positioning, and not standing in the fire, rather than constantly rolling around the map dodging fireballs.

    Finally, I don’t quite see why forcing non-UI based targeting is a bad thing, given the entire goal of the positioning based combat is to force players to actually be aware of their “physical” surroundings, rather than some numbers stacked to the side of the screen (and also expose the player to more pretty pretty pictures). Personally I have never used too many macros, and perhaps if I did I would agree with you about the targeting mechanics, but it just seems like all ArenaNet is doing is guiding the player towards a style of playing that is ultimately more successful and rewarding (both in terms of visuals and the fact that looking at the actual world = less death).

    Besides those points though, I thought it was really nice to finally find a thoughtful post about GW2 from someone who actually has both tons of MMO knowledge AND has actually read a minimum of GW2 blogs to not throw out random hate about the Holy Trinity.

    • Bree says:

      I think the thing with ground-targeted spells isn’t that they’re not doable or simple or used in lots and lots and lots of games (they are). It’s more of a relative thing. Are they *as* simple as tabbing to a target and pressing a button? Is pressing a button while moving and trying to click that spell on a ground or a moving target in a simulation of a 3-D space *as* intuitive (or efficient)? Maybe the variety is good for games, but that doesn’t stop me from that twitch of annoyance when I have to position another Earthquake spell in CoH. Especially when I lag and all the mobs run past it, wasting my spell. :D Hehe.

      The fact that so little in GW2 is going to require party-targeting at all is at once a blessing and a curse. I generally lean far, far away from the “you’re dumbing everything down” haters, but since I’ve seen ultra-limited UIs go so badly before, I guess I’m just concerned that Anet is making a mistake here to chuck the products of intentional evolution in favor of something more retro. I’m just going to have to physically play it to find out whether my fears are justified. I hope they aren’t! ;)

  8. […] most recent blockbuster, Guild Wars 2, I’d have to redefine the trinity yet again: dps, dps, dps. Guild Wars 2 has deleted tanks, healers, and support classes in one brushstroke. You can throw on […]

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