Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Looking for tank and healer

Age of Conan recently introduced regional chat, a general chat channel spanning several zones in the same region, to which you are subscribed by default. So what are you most likely to hear on that channel? "LFM tank and healer needed". Although the combat system of AoC is much faster and initially appears to be different than that of World of Warcraft, the same holy trinity of tank, healer, damage dealers is ruling group combat. And although you usually need only one tank, one healer, as compared to three damage dealers, it is still always the tanks and healers that are in short supply. Because just like in WoW they are needed for groups, but not quite as good as damage dealers in soloing. Plus ├ža change …

So lets have a look at where this system is coming from. We start with a thought experiment: Imagine you and 4 friends want to go out in the woods to hunt a bear (Disclaimer: This is a *thought* experiment. Do *not* try this!). One of you is wearing his best quarterback armor, one of you has a medical degree and a first aid kit, and the other three are armed with swords and bows. The guy in the armor is telling dirty bear jokes to the bear to taunt him, the guy with the first aid kit heals him, and the other three are trying to deal maximum damage to the bear. If you picture it you'll immediately realize that this would never work in the real world. You can't "taunt" a bear, he'd probably attack the person closest to him trying to stick a sword into him. You can't heal somebody during combat either. The bear will not just hurt one of you after the other, but thrash around and all of you that are close. It'll be difficult enough to use a sword without hitting the others in the group that are close by, and firing an arrow into the melee combat is more likely to hit one of your own guys than the bear. The whole tank, heal, dps system is completely unrealistic.

The system is also not coming from pen and paper roleplaying. I haven't read the 4th edition rules of Dungeon & Dragons yet, but in all the D&D systems up to now there was no "taunt" at all, and healing somebody in combat was difficult, because healing spells in D&D aren't ranged, and you'd need to roll a touch "attack" roll to do it. What D&D has is positioning and control zones, so you can have a warrior standing in front, a rogue sneaking up to the enemy from behind, and a mage or priest hiding behind the back of the warrior. But firing an arrow into melee has a well-defined chance to hit somebody from your group instead of the monster, and a mage can't use his best spells like fireballs without frying his friends.

Many single-player computer RPGs also worked with positioning. In the simplest form you could assign group members to either stand in front or in the back, which modified their changes to get attacked. I've never seen a single-player game using "taunt" abilities, but in-combat healing was often used.

The first game I saw a "taunt" ability in was the original Everquest, and since then pretty much every MMORPG uses that system. If positioning doesn't play a role in a game, there aren't many possibilities left to determine which group member a monster should attack. Either its completely random, or the game determines some sort of threat list, based on dealing damage or healing activity. But if you have some classes in lighter armor dealing more damage and some classes in heavier armor dealing less damage, if you have a threat meter with no taunt ability, the heavily armored guys never get attacked, because they deal less damage than the other group members. Without taunt a tank would be as gimped in group combat as he already is in PvP and solo PvE, two cases where taunt doesn't work.

If we wanted to design a game without the eternal "looking for tank and healer" problem, first of all we would need to make all classes deal the same amount of damage per second, just in different variations. As solo combat and PvP very much depend on damage output, having all classes have the same damage output incidentally solves many class balance problems, there are no more gimped classes that are only good for group support. There could still be classes more heavily armored than others, but that would be balanced by other class abilities for the less armored classes, e.g. stealth, or better ranged combat. In any case the effect of armor would have to be much weaker than in current games. And taunting or other "threat management" abilities simply shouldn't exist. Healing should be done by everyone for himself with potions, and between-combat regeneration methods. Combat healing, if we really wanted it, would be a secondary class feature of a class having the same damage output as anyone else.

In the end we could either have a system with no tanks or healers at all, or an intermediate system where at least tanking and healing classes are as popular as other classes, because they would be equally powerful in solo PvE and in PvP, while being not so extremely mission critical for group PvE. Ideally there would be collision control, and some zone of control system, so positioning would be more important, instead of people spamming abilities that increase or decrease their threat level. Just because players and developers are so used to it doesn't mean that the tank and healer based group combat system is the only one possible. It's disadvantages are abundantly clear by now, and it is time that some game breaks out from that mold.

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