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.

12 thoughts on “The Commoditization of Roles

  1. Toldain

    I cut my teeth in EQ1 with a monk who was a puller. In an ideal overland group, I would run out and tag something, haul it back to the group, the fighter would tag it and I would FD. Then I’d pop up again, dps for a bit, and then go off to find something else. Part of my job was to gauge the speed at which we could go.

    And then I rolled an enchanter who was a mezzer, was 3000 years old and had fabulous red hair. I loved it when there was a bad pull, and 30 seconds later everyone was wondering why we weren’t dead.

    Are those days gone forever? It seems like it.


  2. Bhagpuss

    The thing about EQ was that there were many roles but they weren’t hardwired onto given classes. Yes, there was some elite content that pretty much demanded the very best-in-class in each role, but day-to-day play for most people was much more flexible than that.

    If you couldn;t get a Warrior to tank you could get a Pally or an SK, of course, but you could also have a mage tanking with his earth pet or a Beastlord with her Warder. When Gates of Discord gave us mobs so ferocious even a warrior with a cleric backing him up couldn’t handle them we even used enchanters sharming those mobs to tank for us.

    We always wanted an Enchanter for crowd control, but when LDoN came along we’d almost prefer a bard and if we went anywhere with undead we’d be happy to delegate CC to the necro. A good necro or bard was worth his weight in platinum anyway, able to perform a multitude of roles, often several at once.

    Clerics were often the main pullers. I did it night after night in LDoN dungeons. Rangers root-parked for additional CC. A versatile player of would have no certainty when she logged in what role she might be called upon to fulfil that night.

    I thought it was much, much more interesting that way. The only people who seemed to be interested in DPS per se were Wizards and Rogues and they were generally the last to get chosen for groups. DPS is the least interesting thing you can do in an MMO to my way of thinking, so I never played either seriously.

    The Everquest Progression server is apparently starting ten days before Rift headstart. I think I might just pay it a visit…


  3. Sören

    The term “DPS” as a role confuses me everytime for I’m also reading “damage per second”. When I remember correctly back in my WoW-days we said “DD” for “damage dealer”.

    As for the group lineup: I cant remember much occasions/instances where CC was the go/no-go point. Warlock-CC “fear” was even dangerous in instances, banning of undead was sometimes necessary. If you had a mage and/or rogue in your group ist was enough CC to get some pressure off the tank.


  4. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    This points out one of the reasons why I really don’t like the “classes are easier to balance” argument. The logical conclusion is that ripping off an existing concept is easier than coming up with something new, so why bother doing anything else than the “holy trinity”?

    There’s a lot of room for interesting roles, and people seem not to know that there was a lot more than “the holy trinity” in the past. To simply limit ourselves, as designers, to only thinking in limited ways perpetuates the current setup. As I’ve said before, while I enjoy some current games, I’d still love to see some new stuff as well.


  5. Ponder

    The thing that really annoys me with the trinity is:

    . in a dungeon, the tank + healer act like intelligent hard-working slaves to the dumb dps (who spam a button or rotation)


    . when the tank/healer encounter a dps while questing or in a battleground, they have no hope of surviving.

    Its like dps are the lazy lords, and tank/healers the yeoman.


  6. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @Ponder – Really? I hate to discourage comments because I get so few, but I write this long post about how roles have changed and how everything we might have done outside of tanking and healing in the past has been crammed into the DPS bucket, never to be heard from again (in WoW at least) and all you have to say is, basically, “DPS sucks?”

    I play a healer in random groups, so I never run into bad healing besides my own, but I have seen my fair share of bad tanking, tanks who cannot pull, or feel the need to pull everything in sight, who cannot hold aggro, or who see no need to wait for the healer who is screaming “OOM!” because it took everything he had to save the group from that last pull.

    Ironically, as I noted above, the only DPS I have consistent issues with is warriors who show up spec’d and equipped for tanking when in the DPS role. Otherwise I find that people in the DPS role mostly work out. We complain about how low their level of responsibility is, but what else would you have them do? That is all that Blizz has left them.

    As for DPS ruling in the solo content, well yes, damage is what counts there. But in WoW, where dual spec costs 10 gold at level 30 now, every class that can tank or heal has a DPS spec they can switch over to. And since Cata, where Blizz seems to have upped damage output, I don’t even bother taking of my healing gear any more with my feral druid.


  7. Happy Wlad

    That was a great post. And explained perfectly the reason i still play Eq2, which I admit has blended the roles quite a bit but its still nowhere near where WoW is. Thanks for writing it up.



  8. bluelinebasher

    Would you like WoW to modify their dungeon finder for 5 mans specifically for a puller, a crowd control, a tank, a damage dealer, and a healer? Would that work?


  9. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @BLB – Nah, the dungeons are already tuned to the 1/1/3 spec, plus the Dungeon Finder only really works as a mass grouping tool because there are only three flavors of player (in its view) and, as people point out, people tend towards the DPS role, so the ratio is about right.

    My view, I guess, is more like Brian’s above where I might like to see another game go down a different path for roles. That, and maybe a little bit less rolling down the path following Blizzard’s lead, even if that is the route of least (thought) resistance.


  10. Ponder

    @Wilhelm, I seem to play a different game to you.

    For one, I play PvP (which you don’t see to do) and as a rule tanks and healers are dps fodder.

    Two, I don’t play only with known people. I encounter the vast array of people who play tank, dps, or healer. I find especially that the game requires tanks to make great sacrifices in dungeons and dps get the real gains.

    Most of the people I actually know who play WoW have a similar opinion. I dont think dps “sucks”, I never said that. I’ve levelled every class to almost max level. The problem lies in game design to reward appropriate effort, not that I dont like a certain role.


  11. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @Ponder – Okay, you said that people who play DPS are dumb and lazy. Go back and read your first comment. That seems to me to be splitting a pretty fine hair if you’re trying to distinguish that from “sucks.”

    I thought, given my constant reference to DF and 1/1/3, that it was clear I was talking about dungeon instance groups. Saying, “but I play PvP” is a bit off topic. I do play some PvP, usually Wintergrasp. Or I did before Cata, after which it totally died. In that, yes, in a one-on-one situation, DPS wins. In a pack of people, the all DPS group tends to lose to the group with some healing. Tanks though… you have to pick up a DPS spec for PvP.

    I play a lot with a static group, but I also play several healers in DF groups, which I have indicated a few times, including in my comment, so my sole perspective isn’t the same five people every week.

    I do not understand this statement at all, “I find especially that the game requires tanks to make great sacrifices in dungeons and dps get the real gains.”

    What “great sacrifices?” And what are the “real gains” that DPS players get that tanks do not? You said dungeons, not PvP. And, because I play a healer, I’m going to ask where they stand relative to the great sacrifices of the tank.

    Finally, I do agree that the efforts required of the three roles are not symmetrical. A large group of players have had all their possible roles removed and replaced with “just do damage.” The paucity of roles is what makes the Dungeon Finder work so well. But there is a lot of DPS hate out there, and it seems to be aimed at the players who play DPS characters. They are, to use your words, dumb and lazy. Tobold has been beating that very drum for a couple of weeks now.

    But if you don’t want to tank or heal, DPS is all you’ve got for a role. It is three out of five slots in a DF group. And if the role isn’t as much work as healing or tanking (though I’d say if you’re really into it and maximizing your DPS it is a lot of work because you end up with an irregular and often situational rotation of spells or attacks) it isn’t necessarily because the people who play DPS are of a lesser moral character than tanks. (That last not directed at you but at DPS hate in general.)


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