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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Healing away the Symptoms

Just yesterday I was reading a post by Liore at Herding Cats about Guild Wars 2 and it's attempt to eliminate the trinity. Like any avid MMO player I find myself skeptical about anyone who claims they will eliminate the holy trinity; but it got me thinking about just how fragile the trinity is, and how really it is just a few small innovations away from non-existence.

Personally I don't dislike healing in the sense that I do enjoy getting to play a "support" class who's function is to make my group members better. Bard and White Mage were my favorite classes in Final Fantasy 11, and I enjoyed the gleaming self-righteousness out of the Guild Wars 'Paragon' class. I see nothing wrong with classes who's purpose is to bolster their allies. I certainly don't begrudge the players who want to play that role, and to my relief several of the classes in Guild Wars 2 (such as the Guardian) have builds that are very suitable towards more of a "support" or "control" role.

My problem with these classes and how they are implemented in most games is that they become mandatory because they allow fixing of mistakes and often classes feel below-par without that support behind them. This is not so much the fault of developers; we players were just as to blame for creating the mandatory nature of tanks and healers. The healer wants to have as easy a job as possible so they want to heal the toughest ally. The result is that every enemy piles on the Tank and most DPS pile on the main targets...which feels so contrived to me it's not even funny.

Yet this system is dependent on a variety of factors; change them and the trinity begins to fall apart. Among these factors are:
  • Threat systems in which healing generates relatively small threat, or enough that a tank can somewhat easily maintain threat (see WoW)
  • Systems in which there is no collision between characters and limited ability by the characters to affect enemy movements/positions (again see WoW)
  • Heals must be comparable to the incoming levels of damage
  • Heals must always hit their intended target. Imagine healing in WoW if your spells had to be aimed or could be intercepted by monsters.
Now these are not the only factors out there, but imagine removing any of these factors in WoW. The one I am going to focus on mainly is the Threat system which I think is a primary focus.

As it stands in WoW and other games like it, enemies; whether they are the thousand year old Lich or a wolf in the woods, follow a very simple threat mechanic, "Attack whoever hit me the hardest". I understand why these systems were created, but I personally hate them. Watch the Mines of Moria scenes in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring...or for that matter, virtually any Fantasy movie with combat and you'll quickly note that enemies don't just pile on to the "tank" they go for whoever they can. We don't pile on in real battles because it leaves everyone's back open to a stabbing from your target's allies.

I find it an irony, that the video games which were meant to emulate DnD and offer it a new avenue have in some ways been overtaken. The most recent DnD edition, whether you love it or hate it, has more interesting mechanics because you have a person running the monsters. It is up to that Dungeon Master whether the goblins pay attention to your Defender (tank) or whether they take the risks and go after other characters. Good Dungeonmasters will take into account the intelligence of the creature...the wolf might first attack the weakest looking opponent but then turn to whoever attacks him, while the Lich might quickly realize "KILL THE ONE IN THE DRESS!" and order his minions to focus the healer (there's a reason why healers in DnD often got to wear the heaviest armor).

Video games, and especially MMO's have not yet caught up to this, despite how easy it would be to program. This would require some extra work of course; for an MMO to actually go through the effort of programming different (even if still relatively simple) AI's for monsters of various intelligence levels and strategies, but the immersion value would go way up if enemies actually acted as though they had half a brain. This is partly why I am also interested in GW2's WvWvW system, the opposing players may appear as anonymous figures, but at least they will employ some level of strategy (More on this in a future post).

Suffice to say I applaud Arena Net for taking those first steps; innovation won't happen unless someone takes a risk and challenges the system. Those who like the trinity will still find plenty of games to suit them (WoW, SWTOR, and so on) but it would be nice to see a game that asks each player to do a little of each role. While their early AI may be rather simple (and I have no doubt that fights will involve some aggro pinball) it's a step in the right direction.

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