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8:23pm on Thursday, 19th August, 2010:

The Evolution of the Trinity


I haven't blogged about MMORPGs for a while, so I thought today I'd do so. It's about MMO combat, then and now.

So, combat in MUD1 was pretty much the same as it is in today's MMORPGs. There were basically two ways we could have done it: automatically (you start a fight and then it continues by itself until someone dies or flees) or manually (you type a command, it does a hit, then you type another command and it does another hit, and so on). Roy Trubshaw and I didn't really discuss which method to use — Roy simply implemented the former just before he handed over the program to me. I'm not sure he even considered the latter. I combined the two so that individual commands during combat could be used to mitigate events and add some skill to the proceedings. Fights were a stream of automated events handling the main exchange of blows, but the fun came from doing other things while this was happening so as to increase your chances of winning — casting spells, shouting for help, trying to disarm your opponent or take bits of their kit, that sort of thing.

This is how combat in MMOs still works, albeit with more spells, more buffs/debuffs, larger fights, but perhaps fewer opportunities to interfere with your opponent's ability to fight in creative ways (such as trying to weigh them down, or trying to set fire to things in their inventory). That's at the basic level, though: obviously, modern MMOs are a lot more sophisticated in other ways and there is some variety among them. One major paradigm-level difference from MUD1 is the fact that there are character classes that perform different functions — the first MUDs didn't have character classes.

Now if, back in 1978, you'd told me that there were going to be three main character classes in future MMOs, I would probably have assumed some kind of rock/paper/scissors relationship among them for reasons of balance. Archers beat infantry, cavalry beat archers, infantry beat cavalry — that sort of thing. I don't believe for a moment I'd have gone with what we have, which is the "trinity" of tank, heals and dps. The tank takes all the damage issued by the opponent, the healer reduces this damage, and the dps gives damage (dps is "damage per second", non-players) to the opponent. This doesn't make a great deal of sense in gameplay terms: the healer is redundant (they're basically just armour for the tank), the premiss is unrealistic ("I'll hit the guy in the metal suit who isn't hurting me, rather than the ones in the cloth robes who are burning my skin off"), it doesn't work for player versus player combat (because players don't go for the guy in the metal suit) and it doesn't scale (a battle with 1,000 fighters on either side — how many tanks do you need?). Don't get me wrong, it can be a lot of fun, but it's a dead end in design terms.

So how did this trinity come about?

Well in text MUD days, physical locations were represented as "rooms". These could be any size, from cupboard to mountain (in the same virtual world — scale wasn't constant, it didn't have to be). They were just nodes in a graph. If there were several of you in the same room, then there was no positional relationship between you, you were all just "there", milling around. This worked well enough for one-on-one fights, but if there were lots of players attacking a single enemy it meant that any one (or indeed all) of them could be hit. This meant everyone had to be heavily armoured, which reduced the ability of players to specialise in, say, ranged combat or backstabbing-style melée. The way this specialisation functioned in Dungeons & Dragons, following the convention of miniature wargames, was how it functioned in reality: the guys in the best armour would physically block access to the less well-armoured characters using their own bodies. This couldn't happen in a world that had the kind of room granularity that MUDs had, though, because there was no "space" between characters and opponents in the same room.

The solution, which was popularised (and possibly invented) in DikuMUD, was to have taunting commands act to cause the opponent to attack one character in preference to others. Threat-management became a substitute for access-containment. This worked well enough under the circumstances, and added a lot to the gameplay especially for boss fights, but it was a bit of a hack. Nevertheless, so it was that the tank was born (although the term "tank" back then still referred to the kind of over-powered character you could get in classless systems who could take damage, heal damage and deal damage all at the same time).

With the tank came the trinity.

When the DikuMUD gameplay was adopted by EverQuest, the trinity came with it. It turned out that players used physical blockage to grief one another (standing in doorways and not budging, that kind of thing), so it wasn't something the designers wanted as a major gameplay element. Almost of the MMOs that came after followed EQ's lead (rather than Ultima Online's, which was more hard-core) and that's why we still have the trinity today.

We don't have to have it, though. There have already been some experiments in allowing physical blocking, most notably in Age of Conan, the grief-your-0wn-side aspect of it's having been solved by only performing collision-detection between you and your enemies. However, it wasn't done in concert with any other trinity-busting activities so it hasn't been as effective as it might have been in ploughing a new furrow.

Physical blocking isn't the only way to replace the trinity with something more flexible and interesting, of course; there are many ways to do it. Hit location would be one way (dps the legs and it doesn't move); speed would be another (if it can't catch you, it can't hit you); proximity check would be a third (if you're standing close to someone in armour, they're deemed to be defending you so they take the hits aimed at you). There's lots you can do. I personally like physical blocking, but then I also like area of effect spells to damage friend and foe equally, so I'm probably a bit too traditional for most of today's MMO players.

Anyway, I thought I'd mention this, just so that this generation of players who think their games owe nothing to text MUDs can see evidence of how the latter's legacy continues (albeit, perhaps, incongruously).

Oh, and just so you don't think I'm trying to hark back to the halcyon days of yore, I'm not: I want things to advance, not to go backwards. If you don't know where you've been, though, advancing is that much harder. I'll still get flamed, though...

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Copyright © 2010 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).