Tobold's Blog
Monday, March 21, 2011
Real tanking

One of the subjects that pops up regularly in the MMORPG blogosphere is that of the holy trinity, the combat system based on tanks, healers, and damage dealers. Many people have grown dissatisfied with that system, so frequently there are blog posts with various ideas of improvement, or ideas how MMORPGs could abandon that system. I was playing a turn-based fantasy strategy game this weekend (Fantasy Wars), and that made me think how "tanking" worked in strategy games, in reality, and in MMORPGs. And I think that tells us a lot about the holy trinity.

In Fantasy Wars you have some units you don't want to get hit, like archers, or a healing priest, or a mage. So what you do is to build a wall of heavy infantry units (tanks) in front, and because these units have a zone of control, and enemies can't simply pass through, the enemy is forced to attack the tanks and not the squishy units behind. Your wall needs to be wide enough so that the enemy doesn't have enough movement points to simply run around it. While still a game, and thus not totally realistic, this is a lot more similar to a real battle with infantry in the front and archers in the back than the MMORPG system.

In MMORPGs with the holy trinity system, a tank fulfils the same basic function: Standing in between the enemy and the squishier group members. But he doesn't do that by (virtually-)physically standing between the two. In fact in many MMORPGs characters and monsters can run through each other, there is no collision control, and there is certainly no zone of control hindering enemies movements. Furthermore movement in MMORPGs tends to be unrealistically fast and agile: It is pretty certain that a knight in shining armor would have considerable difficulties to "circle strafe" in real life at the same speed that characters do that in video games. Thus with movement being too fast and unhindered, the tank cannot stop the enemy by positioning himself in front of the healer or mage.

What a MMORPG tank does instead is "taunting". Apparently nearly every enemy in a MMORPG, from a mindless slime to the Lich King himself, will always attack the guy telling the "yo mamma" jokes. Even if he is currently right next to a squishy, high-danger target, while the tank is deals less damage and is harder to hit.

Even if we explain away the "taunting" as some sort of magical mind control, there remains a major difference between tanking in a strategy game or real life and tanking in a MMORPG: The ratio of tanks to squishies. In a MMORPG you can have one tank protecting 3 mages and a priest, even against multiple enemies. That obviously wouldn't work if he had to stand between the enemy and the other group members. For a more realistic tanking situation your group would more likely have 3 tanks, 1 mage, and 1 priest. Or in a larger group 5 tanks, and 2-3 mages and priests each. Unless all your dungeons are narrow corridors, where one or two tanks can completely block the way, you'd need about half of your group as tanks if tanks would work by standing between monsters and the rest of the group.

While this sounds very much like a completely hypothetical and theoretical exercise, there is nevertheless one lesson to be learned here. By having gone from a war or war game situation with multiple tanks to a MMORPG situation with only a single tank, the responsability for tanking has become extremely concentrated onto a single person in groups and even raids (the "main tank"). The tank is held responsible for aggro control, up to the point where in a pickup group some dps unable to reliably target the mob with the skull floating over his head or to use /assist will *still* blame the tank if a mob attacks him. Or blame the healer of course, another case of all the responsability for one function concentrated onto one character in a not very realistic way.

Thus while I am not offering a different system than the holy trinity here, I can very much offer a basic condition for a different system to work better than the current one: Responsability has to be better and clearer shared between the group members. Maybe some multi-tank system with slower movement, collision control, and zones of control would work, but we appear not to be quite there yet from a technical point of view.
FWIW, I remember Warhammer being similar in PVP. There is collision in PVP, and tanks had abilities like "Hold the Line" that would extend their collision space out (in that one, I believe it went out like 6 yards to either side of them, enough to control one of the many battleground chokepoints.)

I would love to see a tanking system where rather than holding aggro, tanks held areas, and bosses had to be kited into bottlenecks for tanks.
It is indeed mostly a technical problem in MMORPGs. It also is a problem with melee dps classes, like rogues.

Of course, it doesn't make any sense in real life, either, but in MMORPGs the guy who can steal, nowadays, is also the guy who can deal a lot of dps. And worse: People exspect it that way.
With this system, if I run between the healer and the tank, can I intercept the heal and wipe the group?

And if I have low hit rating, is it possible that my fireball will hit the tank in the back of the head and, if I crit, will it light his helm on fire and singe his hair off?

Because that would be some hardcore griefing. I'm down for this system.
Guild Wars 2 is apparently removing traditional tanking (as well as healing).

They appear to be moving to a control system like the one you describe, rather than aggro/damage absorption.

Guild Wars has collision detection, and I assume it will be in GW2 too for the system to work.
One useful addition would be increased vulnerability to flanking, rear attacks and other attacks of opportunity. Sure, you could try to go past the tank, but the tank would make you suffer dearly for it.
As Phelps points out WAR had great collision detection ... tanks would physically block the enemy. One of the things I really liked about the game. Alas it only applied in PVP.

I'd play a game with collision detection as you described.

(I might even switch from RIFT!)
Adding collision detection would be huge. You might not want to go whole hog and require MORE tanks than everyone else, but you could get around this in a couple of ways.

The first thing you would need to do is rework how threat is handled. If I were a game designer, I would give each of my monsters some sense of how desirable a target a particular enemy is, before beginning to modify it based on what the target actually does. For example, if I was designing a monster who is very resistant to physical damage, and deals mainly physical damage, then that monster would give warriors a negative threat value, and mages a very high positive threat value. Conversely, a monster who deals high magic damage and is vulnerable to physical damage should work the other way around.

Next, I would aggregate all the threat on the battlefield, and I would make my monster try to attack in the area where the most threat existed. I would include proximity as part of this calculation, and I would include a dampening affect caused by the tanks on the threat for those behind them. My goal would be that if a high threat player ran out of safety, they could not be sure if the monster would turn to attack them, or keep pressing it's current chosen attack.

I would give monsters abilities that would allow them to break phalanxes, and I would give lighter, rogue type melee characters abilities that would counteract some of those and generally keep the monster in place.

I would also need to make sure that my monsters turned in a realistic manner. In general, I would make them agile enough to keep up with a character circling around them, but not so fast that they could catch a rogue or druid using a special ability to tumble out of the way. I would also let my monsters know that rogues and druids can tumble out of the way ever so often, and so they aren't as squishy as they look.
It's also useful to look at historical warfare. Infantry, cavalry, archers and other assorted units functioned differently than we've come to expect from MMO combat. Sure, that's generally larger scale combat, say that of a Total War game, but I'd really like to see that sort of combat swing back into the MMO design space.

I'd also like to see PvE AI that picks targets like smart PvP players (kill the healers and squishies and the dude with the thing!). It won't work for players who love the WoW trinity, but that's OK, I'm angling for a different audience anyway.
Dungeons&Dragons Online does not require a real tank, just enough healing power to keep everyone alive.

What that leads to is guys who know the missions already running through the dungeons at full speed, eventually dying when they meet too much opposition. While slower party members still try to find their way through it, coming to the corpses being then killed themselves.

Everyone runs into the dungeon, two guys leave after flaming the healer.

The tank/healer/dps trinity isn't perfect, but I very much prefer it over the many-DD/few-healer duality of DDO.
I see two main ways for combat in an mmo to work other than the way it currently is.

The first way would be to make combat much slower. That would make it more strategic and you could then use things like several tanks with collision or abilities to control an area.

The second way would be to speed combat up. Making all of the dps able to run faster than the mobs or have the ability to teleport. The tank in heavy armor and using a shield would be much slower and an easier target.
Another problem with the trinity is that tanks do not have a weakness. What is the disadvantage to wearing plate? In traditional rpgs, iPlate was heavy and slow and more vulnerable against magic. But in MMOs, there is zero disadvantage. Clothies have less armor but shouldn't they be MORE protected against caster attacks but less against melee? We lost the plus-minus equation of the different armor types. Mages should be able to tank a magical attack, plate-wearers can tank melee attacks, and Rogue-hunter types can be good against range. Suddenly, all classes would have situations where they are great and others where they are weak (and need others to help) and could all take different roles. Gee, sounds like player choice to me.

Wasn't that how it was supposed to work?
Kobearthus and Tobold, you both seem to have made a fundemental error. In the fog of war humans will and frequently do attack the wrong target (aka friendly fire, blue on blue whatever the military choose to term it). Thus having a tank in your face will cause you to attack it and not the squishy. Go play AB in WoW. Watch how many times a tank will hold the bridge to the blacksmith. There are plenty of squishes behind him, but the majority of players focus on the lone tank on the bridge. It is relatively few (hardened veterans/active PvPers) who will look for the healer or mage behind him. Why do the players who attack the tank do it? Same reason soldiers in real life shoot their ownside. Adrenilin/fear/rage flows and poor decision making ensues. To that extent I would argue the WoW tanking system (contrary to your postings) is a wholly accurate comparision to real life.
I would love to see an MMO where roughly half the population consisted of durable melee types (tanks) and a threat and collision mechanic rather than the usual "taunt" mechanic.

To do that I think you'd mostly need to get rid of the "tank" role, and simply have melee or ranged roles. All melee characters are durable and capable of standing on the front line taking hits to protect the back line.

So you'd have groups of six, or eight or whatever, half melee, half ranged. The only "tank" skills the melee would need is the ability to keep themselves between their target and their ranged groupmates.

Melee classes could be perfectly respectable damage dealers as the balancing would be different.

It'd be fun to see a developer try.
Arthur, a very good observation. To serve the simulation aspect of an MMORPG, one should not make mobs all-omniscient emotionless beings that calculate the enemies' dps and potential resistance to dieing.

There should be penalthies for moving more than a few spaces during a melee encounter. Otherwise, it is enough to have mobs consider whom they are attacking every once in a while. Unless somebody draw their attention, they should attack the nearest guy.

Actually, the holy trinity has the biggest problems with big boss fights that take some 10 minutes and more. All other encounters are relatively easy to take care of with support and control mechanisms. I wrote about it some days ago.
I have commented on this at lenghth on Nils' blog and went as far as calling tanking in MMOs a ridiculous concept, strictly speaking. i'd like to see this kind of theat whack-a-mole gone and replaced by dynamic gameplay where every party-member is equally concerned NOT to tank for too long and rather control mobs or groups of mobs.
Really just a specialization of the fact that there is only a health stat, and a damage stat at work.

1 role for max health
1 role to replenish said health
3 roles to negate enemy health via damage

Can't escape it.

The last paragraph of your post, where you ponder multi-tanking:

From what I saw of the playthrough-writeup in the SWTOR 'flashpoint' played by the Massively guys at PAX, it seems that an off-tank is required even in five-man content.

Could be seeing the start of playing with roles?

There are a few other games out there which make use of different models. EVE is... notoriously complex. It still has tanking, but the types are so varied and have effective counters, that it's entirely possible to win with NO tanks. You'll lose guys, though.

@Bryksom already mentioned the clusterfuck that is a DDO run.
(I think this is more reflective of people going too fast and not taking the D&D attitude. I know in the tabletop I've played, depending on how mean your DM is, you can have players inching their way forward into every dungeon at a rate of a metre a day, terrified of everything around them. Hacking apart statues in case they happen to come to life, or pushing a big rock in front of them in case the next flagstone happens to be a trigger for a trap, poking at walls to see if monsters are waiting behind them.)

It might be useful to put the call out to anyone who has played other MMOs (there are so many, I know I can't have researched them all) to see what different types of non-trinity systems there are out there, and how effective they are?

I would revise your list to be:

1 role to reduce incoming damage
1 role to replenish health
3 roles to deal damage

You have to stop and consider, from a healer's perspective, why do you care that the tank takes the damage rather than the "squishies?" After all, you can cast a heal on a non-tank just as easily as a tank.

Developers use tanks because the balancing is so much easier. The damage reduction a tank does can be calculated exactly, down to a fraction of a percent. The other forms of damage reduction are much harder to balance. Kiting can potentially mean no damage taken at all. Other forms can be stacked on top of each other, compounding their effects.

This can ultimately mean players will be able to take on much harder encounters than the developers intended. In turn, this makes the end game gear treadmill useless. Why grind out heroics if you can just kite a raid boss with questing gear?

The tanking system is what developers feel is required to keep you playing through (at their intended pace) the months of progression they have planned out.
We'd need a lot more tanks. But there is an obvious place to find them: melee DPS. Back in the day melee had higher damage than ranged because they had greater risk of death from cleaves and AoEs. I'd reverse that: give melee lower damage than ranged, but much higher durability so they can stand against mobs and keep the ranged alive.
I think the goal should be to make it unnecessary to have tanks in the group, though advantageous to have some players with better armor. The current system requires that boss mobs be able to one or two-shot non-tanks, to compensate that that same hit will not do nearly as much damage to the "tank". That damage needs to be toned down quite a bit, and the true "tank" be removed from the game by reduction of all the tank-specific abilities that minmize damage such as shield block and avoidance. Then, what you have is boss mobs who can and will hit anybody in your group, and your healers will be able to heal anybody in the group after they get hit a couple of times. Your warriors, paladins, and death knights' main responsibility is doing as much damage as they can, they won't do as much as the hunters and warlocks but they cost less mana per fight to heal so why not bring a few of them. If your group is all-dps then they better kill the boss fast or else the healer will run out of mana. This whole "must have a tank" and "tank must hold aggro" are really stupid, they are just bandages on the wound of "we cant have collision detection".
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My guild used that kinda tank strategy back in Ultima Online. There was no threat model in UO as such and there was collision control. We called it 'the wall'. Heavy melee fighters with shields block the path of the monsters to the mages and archers. It worked quite well.

I found an old screen shot that illustrates this tank line.

I think the "reality" argument is ridiculous anyway. We're talking about characters that can shoot fireballs and have a dragon in their pocket they can summon at any time. It's a game mechanic.

But I don't hate the idea of having more tanks in fights. I still don't know why they are stuck on the idea of 5 people in a dungeon. Why not make that changeable?

I also would like the return of DPS having to actually hold back more to avoid pulling aggro. It rarely happens.

Bring back resists gear too.
@TheDeacon: This might be opposite to the intention, but I'd like to put up a hand to the 'change dungeon sizes' crowd. Except I'd rather have the option for smaller, rather than larger.

I want to run with my two brothers who are in different cities. Maybe grab another if we think they're cool. But to limit things to 4 means if I have 6 folks on, I can't bring them. Variable dungeon sizes please?
I really, really hate the term 'Holy Trinity'. It is nothing more than specialization. Of course specialization is ridiculously powerful--as illustrated by the difficulty of breaking away from a tank/healer/damage paradigm.

Even in tankless fights you can't prevent the emergence of specialist healers--allowing you to have tank/DPS and tank/healer rather than having a horde of generalists who can tank well enough, heal well enough and DPS with the remaining.
Did you like Fantasy Wars?

I played turn-based paper strategy games ages ago and would appreciate any recommendations.
Did you like Fantasy Wars?

Yes, in general. It has however to be remarked that the game is on the bloody difficult side of things, so you end up replaying turns a lot.
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