Daily Archives: February 1, 2011

The Commoditization of Roles

In which I meander about looking for a point… again.

Tank.  Healer.  DPS.

It wasn’t always this way.

Tanks.  Well, there have always been tanks.  The brawny, heavily armored warrior type who squares off face to face with a group’s main opponent.

Healers.  They have always been around as well.  The cleric archetype is common enough from D&D, though in my mind they always wear heavy armor, not cloth.

But DPS?  I must admit that the term “DPS” confused me when I first heard it, which might not have been until EverQuest II.  “DPS” stands for “damage per second,” which is a measurement of of effectiveness, not a role, or so I thought.

I Grew Up in the MUD

Back in the day, back in TorilMUD, the holy trinity for an experience group was:


No, not that kind of stoner.  A stoner back then was a enchanter who was high enough level to have the skill stone skin.  This was a buff that, when cast on the tank, absorbed much of the damage the tank was taking for a short period of time.  Any tank worth a damn had a trigger that said “Stone Out!” in group chat when the spell dropped.

The enchanter would also hit the tank with haste to increase the number of attacks the tank got.

So the enchanter was keeping the tank buffed and maybe getting in a damage spell now and again.

The healer, preferably a cleric, likewise would also buff the tank with an armor class improving spell and a spell to boost the total hit points of the tank called vitality.  Then it was healing and maybe once in a while a little damage.

Meanwhile the tank, usually a warrior, and a barbarian warrior at that, would be bashing the target with his shield to knock it down, which kept it from switching to the healer or the stoner, tanking all the hits, and doing the lions share of the damage.  The tank was the DPS.

That was the nucleus of any group.  If you could get those three together, you could grind experience all night long.  You might let other people join, since up to a point that improved your experience gain over time, but you couldn’t run as tank, healer, damage.  That was a non-starter.  Your healer wouldn’t be able to keep up most of the time.

And if you were going after bigger game than individual mobs (this was a time when a soloable mob beyond level 20 was uncommon and one past level 40 was exceedingly rare) you could add on to the group.

Doing a zone, the equivalent of a dungeon or a raid, meant filling up your group to its sixteen player limit with the right mix of roles.  You would need people to off-tank or bash, more people to heal, more buffs, special travel spells, special abilities (like a rogues lock picking), and even damage, though classes without a role beyond damage were exceedingly rare.  I think only monks and rangers fit in the “damage only” slot, and monks got taken out of the game while rangers… we had a joke about rangers.  Their main job was to guard the discussion board that was 1 west of the main fountain in Waterdeep.  Probably not the first abused damage class, and certainly not the last.

So there were quite a few roles to be filled in a group and damage was a minor one, often being the secondary role for most of the group, including the tanks.

The upside of this was that there was a lot of division of labor and a lot of specialization.  A lot of classes were very good a specific things, including dealing out damage.

Norrath Continues The Tradition

Roles beyond the holy three in Blizzard’s definition continued in EverQuest and EverQuest II.  A good, tight experience group in EverQuest always needed somebody who specialized in crowd control.  Bards were there to buff.  Going some place dangerous, you wanted somebody who could evac.

And in EverQuest II, we built groups as much around buffs as we did about other roles.  For example, everybody loves a dirge in the group, but they don’t really fit in that narrow “T/H/D?” spectrum of things.

We Had Roles in Azeroth Too

Or we certainly acted as though we did.

The instance group, which is made up of people with roots in D&D and EverQuest, started out as a group of five in WoW with perhaps one of us defined clearly as DPS.  Bung, the Warlock was more about damage than about his other roles like maker of soul stones and health stones.  Ula, as a mage, was clearly about crowd control (and refreshments).  Blintz the rogue was perhaps more focused on damage, but he was replaced by Vikund the paladin who did off-tank work, as well as healing, secondary crowd control, and damage when he had the time.

And we operated like that through the original 5-person instance content in Azeroth through to about the half way point of the Burning Crusade instances, when we started having a lot of problems.

Eventually, with prompting from the audience, we moved towards the Blizzard Healer/Tank/3DPS view of the world and, once we got used to the roles (somewhere along the line in Wrath), instances stopped being an issue.  We only wiped if there was some special trick or event to an boss fight because we never look up fights before we go into an instance.  We still played other roles, but the three of us in the DPS slots put damage first.

And when we turned around and did a tour of original Azeroth on the Horde side, we formed up a Blizzard spec group and had no troubles at all.  We stopped doing things like crowd control most of the time as simply DPS’ing our way through encounters proved to be the answer to most of life’s issues.

We conformed to Blizzard’s view of the world and were successful.

Trade-offs of the Two Paths

The gut reaction to this, especially if you’ve come from the older school of gaming, is that more roles are always better.  But is that really the case?  There are certainly some give and take on that.

If you have many roles in a game, it allows people to specialize in different things and focus on a particular aspect of the game that they like, it can make the game feel deeper and richer, and it encourages immersion and role play.

On the flip side of that, if you need more roles to fill to create a viable group, that is just another bottle neck to getting on and actually playing the game.  How many nights did we sit around waiting because the only enchanter online in TorilMUD was in another group?  No zone for us.

And if you have chosen a class with a role that is not often needed or which is ill-defined in the current theories of the game, you can find yourself out in the cold.  Pity the poor anti-paladin in TorilMUD (and for a long time paladins were the same way).  And classes whose role was viewed as really secondary, which is to say damage, were also often neglected.  There weren’t many assassins in the game, and monks got taken out of the game, but there were all those rangers hanging around in Waterdeep looking for work.

In WoW now all of those other roles, everything that is not tanking or healing, have been dumped into the bin labeled “DPS.”  You may have rolled a mage to be the master of crowd control or a hunter with the idea of having a pet that can off tank and which you can heal, but you can forget all of that.  You have “DPS” stamped on your forehead and all we care about is that you don’t pull aggro and you are at the top of the DPS meter.  Optimize for anything else, suggest you might do anything else, and you can be easily replaced.

But on the flip side of that, Dungeon Finder only works as well as it does because Blizzard has broken the 5 person instance into three discreet roles, tanking, healing, and damaging at the divine ratio of 1/1/3.  It is Blizzard distilling the dungeon group into this simple formula which has surely made the Dungeon Finder the most successful Looking For Group tool ever in an MMORPG.  I would like to see numbers from Blizzard about how many Dungeon Finder groups have been formed.

Everything Has a Price

Success has made WoW what it is today.  In the world of business growth and market dominance are the harbingers of that success.  Call it an anomaly, good timing, or good execution, WoW is the closest thing to a mass market game the MMORPG genre has.

And the mass market is not made up of people who grew up playing D&D, who cut their online gaming teeth on MUDs, who thought that day one EverQuest was the dawn of a new and glorious age.  It is made up, for WoW, of people who want to play a game, swing a sword, have a little fun, and see the world.

It is the people who don’t visit the forum, who don’t read Elitist Jerks for class info, who don’t know what half their skills do, and who show up in dungeon groups in the DPS role with the protection spec’d warrior with a shield on and the apparent intent of taunting mobs off the tank.

In this, WoW has come to resemble the real world, as anybody who has been forced into a real world random group, something like a jury, can no doubt attest.  It is the ongoing struggle between the amateurs and the professionals.

The professional believes that anything worth doing is worth doing well.

The amateur believes that anything worth doing is worth doing even if done badly.

Amateurs rule the world through sheer numbers because we’re all amateurs in one venue or another.