MMO Evolution – Life after the Holy Trinity

I have had a few discussions recently involving the usefulness of the Holy Trinity in MMO design, and whether or not a move away from it is the next step in MMO evolution. In this article, I’ll speak of what I refer to as “Traditional MMOs”. MMOs in this category are those including World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic and other similar titles where the Trinity exists. While these titles are certainly successful, they represent old design that makes for static, UI driven combat which brings people together out of co-dependence rather than interdependence.  (More on that later.)

Let’s begin with what exactly the phrase Holy Trinity means.


The Holy Trinity in MMOs refers to three basic and traditional roles that every single character falls into:

1. Tank – A high health, highly damage resistant player who has the sole focus of getting and maintaining the attention of enemies and withstanding the punishment they dish out.  The idea is that the demon/dragon/giant enemy crab would kill anyone else in a single blow, but the Tank survives because his or her gear, class and skills/talents are all focused on mitigating or avoiding enough of it to take a few hits. They’re the masochists of the MMO genre, and pride themselves on being able to take a punch. Every fight revolves around the same concept for tanks… “How can I put myself in harm’s way?”

If you’ve ever watched the original Rocky, then you’ve seen a perfect example of a tank.

Meat Shield

While it may surprise you as to which one in the picture I’ve given the title to, the reason for this is pretty simple: tanks aren’t really good for much other than this one, highly specific job. Dedicated tanks often romanticize their role, (I’ve been guilty of it) and there can be aspects of tanking that are dynamic and require precision and timing. At the end of the day however, the boss is a German Shepard, and the tank is a hotdog stuffed inside a chew toy. In a traditional MMO only 1 or 2 players per group are tanks, depending on group size, for this very reason.

2. DPS – Stands for “Damage Per Second” – a basic measurement for how much pain you can dish out over the course of a fight. The higher the number, the better you are at video games and the more attractive you are to members of the opposite sex. The acronym also stands for the people who will make up the majority of your group in a traditional MMO. They are the sadists of the MMO genre. They can be split into melee or ranged DPS, but generally share common traits of being egotistical, completely self-absorbed and dedicated to one thing and one thing only – their own damage output relative to everyone else around them. And by everything else I mean their own survival, the survival of those around them, or even if the enemy you’re fighting dies or not. All of it is secondary. They may possess some utility abilities as well (like being able to crowd control enemies and prevent them for hurting other players), but since there are no meters to track the numerical significance of such things, they generally don’t do them unless tasked to do so. If they die, someone else is generally to blame. If the group fails, it is because of a weak link elsewhere in the chain (and they have the combat log numbers to prove it). DPS players are the least important members of the Trinity, yet suffer from the deepest delusions of self-importance.  Certainly there are exceptions to this mindset, but not many.

The fact remains, however, that the only reason DPS is important is because (in most traditional MMO boss encounters) there are artificially imposed fail conditions called “enrage timers” that are put into place to prevent groups from stacking enough tanks and healers to slowly defeat the boss without much effort. Unless you have enough DPS in your group, the boss finally has enough of you, gets bored and finally obliterates you for willingly entering its lair. How he is suddenly only now able to do this requires a suspension of disbelief that good encounter designers must stay up all night thinking about, searching for ways to logically weave the reason into the story. Mediocre designers on the other hand, just don’t give a shit.

Need an example of DPS? Say hello to Clubber Lang.

"My Prediction? Pain."

3. Healer – Last, but certainly not least, we have the healer. If tanks are masochists, and DPS are sadists, then healers are the enablers of traditional MMOs. The reason I list them last is because without the other two, they really have no purpose. They only exist to ensure others can live to do their jobs, and their role is to make sure that no one else has to suffer the consequences of standing in front of a boss and intentionally taking damage, or blindly wandering into areas containing fire, acid, poison or any manner of deadly hazards.

"I TOLD him not to fight. I was OOM!"

They are highly specialized players, like tanks, only their specialization is to sit back and essentially play a separate mini-game from everyone else. This game is usually played by mousing over draining health bars and making them fill up again by pressing different buttons depending on how much of the bar they need to fill and how much available time they have to fill it. The skill of this game centers on managing a limited healing resource – like mana – in order to fuel your heals. This game is generally the same, offering only slight variations in the background location it’s played in, and regardless of the complexity of the encounter everyone else is participating in. In fact, I’d wager anyone with some rudimentary programming skills could make a downloadable app for the iOS called “MMO HEALER!” that simulated this easily enough without costing $15 a month to play.

Good healers will be there for you no matter how reckless you are, or how many times you blame them for your own stupid mistakes. If you’re lucky, they won’t even say “I told you so” and remind you how they told you NOT to pull the next pack of mobs until they were at full mana. Typically you only bring the bare minimum number of healers needed to keep everyone alive since they tend to nag a lot and wear silly red hats.

So… what’s the problem? Obviously the Holy Trinity works. Ten million WoW players can’t be wrong.

  • It forces people to depend on each other because no one can survive alone, at least not on challenging and interesting content. Isn’t playing together the whole point of MMOs? In that regard, I’d say the Trinity certainly has a lot going for it. Everyone needs someone else.
  • Everyone knows what their job is. It allows specialization to the point of exclusion of all else. You can excel at one aspect of the Trinity and be hailed as a great and powerful slayer of pixels. People in traditional MMOs are constantly looking for quality tanks and healers to group with. You’re a walking commodity! What’s not cool about that?
  • It reduces loot drama. Hybridization aside, most gear that drops in traditional MMOs is so specific to one of the Trinity’s roles, it all may as well be as color coded as the Mass Effect 3 endings.
  • It makes content easier to design and execute. The existence of the Trinity means that content is formulaic, even in the most complex of encounters. Encounter designers can assume up front that you’ll have x number of tanks, y number of healers and z number of DPS. Then it just becomes a matter of figuring out the correct method to balance the encounter to those numbers. Someone is always supposed to have aggro. Someone else is supposed to heal. Everyone else is supposed to kill the boss. It’s familiar, and it means every fight can be approached in essentially the same way.


Short version: It is stale. It is predictable. It makes content formulaic. It centers on playing the UI and not the game. And it brings people together out of co-dependency instead of interdependency.

Allow me to expand on that a bit.

Familiarity can be a good thing. As my friend Emmet summarized, developers stick with the Trinity because “there is no risk of spending millions of dollars over several years to create a system that is either intrinsically broken or is so unfamiliar to the gamers that you do not succeed”.  But familiarity ofter breeds contempt as well. The Trinity isn’t broken, but we’ll never really push the MMO genre forward unless we’re unafraid to take risks. Status quo design leads to stale gameplay and games that are just new versions of ones we’ve all played before.

The same formulaic content that makes group content easy to approach in Trinity games also makes them boring. We live in an era of gaming where boss strategies can be found as fast as you can alt-tab out to a website. Sure, it takes execution to succeed, but it is still essentially paint by numbers. The top 1% of players will kill a boss, the strategies will find their way online, and the remaining 99% just follow it step by step. The very knowledge that you’ll have a set number of tanks, healers and DPS each and every time means encounters have to fall within certain parameters that are predictable. Furthermore, once you defeat the boss the first time and it gets placed on “farm status”, it just becomes a repetitive task. It is static content. I could still log into WoW right now and defeat content based almost entirely on memory.

As far as the UI differences go between games that are built around the Holy Trinity and those that aren’t, I have an entire article about it already on the site . The short version is that games that are based around the Trinity end up being experiences where you play the UI instead of the game. This is especially true for healers. Your screen is not only cluttered with a myriad of different abilities – most of which are situational but that you need on hand in case that one situation pops up – but you also need meters and bars and mods to support your gameplay. Below is an example of what I mean. Grid is a powerful addon for WoW, but it is often the only thing many healers stare at during encounters. This is your game. Everything else going on around you is just scenery. Sometimes that scenery may kill you if you’re not looking, but that’s what peripheral vision and other mods are for.

Image from Mystic Chicanery

So what is with all the psychological references about dependency?

The idea about this article was rolling around in the back of my head, and I just happened to be listening to the Tales of Tyria podcast on the way to work one morning. (ToT is an excellent Guild Wars 2 podcast! Check your local listings.) During this particular episode, at around the 18:30 mark they began discussing a PC Gamer article in which author Chris Thursten asked developers at ArenaNet about Guild Wars 2 and its departure from using the Holy Trinity. In the article, and during the podcast, questions arose regarding teamwork vs dependency and co-dependence vs interdependence. I realized these kinds of themes really helped me put my ideas into context, and how I see it is this…

Co-dependence is relying on others to provide what we are not providing for ourselves.

In traditional MMOs, this is exactly what the Trinity is designed to do. We can’t fully provide for ourselves. Just sit in any city or population hub in a traditional MMO and look at general chat. Try to find a dungeon group as a DPS player. How long do you typically wait? How many times do you see phrases like “Looking for Tank” or “Need Heals” scroll by your text window? The level of specialization offered by the Trinity comes at a price.

Even in player versus player combat, the team with the best healers generally wins. You can get by without a tank just fine (although depending on the MMO and the type of battleground you’re in, a tank can be a big benefit), but fighting without healers is suicide. It gets to a point that controlling and neutralizing the enemy healers becomes the main objective instead of the actual objective the game expects you to focus on.

In fact, in any traditional MMO, you will reach a point that the game becomes unplayable unless you have the right balance of the Trinity represented. That is co-dependence. The other real downside is that once you fill your needed tanking and healing roles, you don’t really need more. It limits your ability to play with the people you want to play with unless they also happen to fill the appropriate role you happen to need. You may hear phrases like “Bring the player, not the class”, but that only gets you so far in a Trinity game.

Independence is being self-reliant and completely capable of providing for your own needs.

In an MMO setting, this is solo play. It’s just you, and maybe a pet or non-player companion, against the world.

This is also what champions of the Holy Trinity rally against and cite as an example of what threatens to make MMOs who stray from it bland and homogenized. After all, if you can do everything, then why do you need other people? It’s a fair point, and one that needs to be explored as more and more MMOs become more solo-friendly. I consider this fear to be unfounded, however, given the other ways we have to differentiate ourselves from other players in different game genres. I think the article quote from ArenaNet developer Jon Peters says it best when he’s talking about shooters like Team Fortress 2. “No-one would tell you that everyone in Team Fortress just does damage,” he says. “No-one would say a Spy and a Heavy are the same because they both do damage – they’re very different playstyles. They have a very good sense of purpose.”

The incentive to group with people shouldn’t be limited to a cost-benefit analysis of the specific buffs they bring or role they fill inside the Trinity. You can remain independent and fully capable and not have that automatically mean you’re a loner or a carbon copy of everyone else around you. In fact, a group of independent people can still come together and become greater than the sum of their parts. Which brings us to…

Interdependence – The synergistic combination of  multiple self-reliant people who provide for the needs of the whole.

Taking a queue from Jon, and drawing upon my own recent experience with Tribes: Ascend, I can honestly say there is no way I feel a team in Capture The Flag feels homogenized. I can fill every role as a Technician. I can guard our flag, capture the enemy flag, chase down enemy runners, provide support for our runners, and guard and repair our team’s generator and base defenses. I may be better suited towards generator defense, and there are reasons Technicians excel at it, but I can be just as brutally effective in other ways on the battlefield.  On the other hand, I can decide to play a Doombringer or a Pathfinder and have a very different playing experience within the same game even though we’re all similarly equipped with guns and jetpacks. I can choose to do it, but I don’t have to. And even if I stick with my Technician across 20 games in a row, I can end up with 20 different experiences based on what roles my team has covered and what they need most when I join. It is my willingness and ability to adapt to the situation, and that same willingness and ability in others around me, that makes us a team.

That is interdependence, and that is why it is superior to co-dependence.

And that’s why there is not only life after the Holy Trinity, but why better and more dynamic MMO experiences are on the horizon.

Paladins wish they were me


So how can we play in a MMO without dedicated tanks and healers? ArenaNet hopes to answer that question with Guild Wars 2 when it launches later this year.

In Guild Wars 2, each of the eight classes are designed to be interdependent. Everyone has the ability to self-heal, and you can heal others with proximity and ground targeted abilities. The lack of direct target healing means you can play the same game as your friends without the need to stare at health bars. Everyone can tank based upon proximity to the mob you’re fighting, but not for long. Tank swapping is something you’ll work together with everyone to do, like a pack of wolves taking down dangerous prey. To top it off, everyone can put out respectable damage while supporting the group as a whole. The specialization and customization comes from how you want to perform these roles and which you’d prefer to focus on most.

You leave Tank, Healer and DPS behind and you move on to Control, Support and Damage.

CONTROL isn’t a totally new concept to MMOs, but the emphasis placed on it in Guild Wars 2 will be a step forward. Most damage in the game is avoidable. You can dodge out of it or control your opponents in such a way as to negate their ability to harm you. This is something new for people coming from WoW or SW:TOR, and it can seem like a bitter pill to swallow for people who love healing and tanking in those games. The good news for these players is they can still be just as valuable. It just requires a new mindset.

I liken it it to a dilemma I recently had. For an upcoming Pathfinder game, my friends and I were all currently deciding which classes to play. No one wanted to be stuck with the healer. It can be a gratifying role, but it is more of a necessary evil than anything. In researching classes, I discovered an article about playing a Wizard in which the author stated  that dedicated healers aren’t useful in combat because they are reactive instead of proactive.

He states that, “The Wizard will alter reality to prevent damage, a healer will try to do damage control  after the damage has been taken. The mechanics of the game make preventing damage more efficient then healing damage after the fact. That’s not to say a well placed heal never has use in combat – but if you’re doing your job – it should never be required as a primary role.”

In Guild Wars 2, there are all sorts of ways to control your enemies via conditions. You can blind, cripple, fear, bleed, knockdown, daze, immobilize, push, pull and even confuse your enemy – which actually makes your enemy take damage if they use an ability. Tanks and healers can now look to become controllers who prevent damage and dictate what enemies do (and to whom) by use of positioning and conditions. If you want to center your class build around control through liberal use of conditions, you can easily do so.

SUPPORT is the other way you can gain the upper hand on your opponents and boost the effectiveness of your allies. Again, it isn’t a new concept, but it is cranked up to eleven in Guild Wars  2. It isn’t about providing a few class specific buffs before the fight, but rather giving your allies boons they can benefit from in the middle of the action. You can boost their damage output, critical strike rating, health regeneration, movement speed, ability to sustain damage and even make it so enemies take damage if they attack them.

You can also support your allies through interesting skill and talent choices unlike anything I’ve seen in other MMOs. For example, it is possible to build a Thief who every time he uses his Steal ability will poison and weaken his opponent while buffing his nearby allies with increased damage, critical strike rating and movement speed. Furthermore, every time he uses a poison utility skill, the poison will apply to his allies’ weapons as well. It is just one of several ways you can build out a thief, but the fact that you can take a class that isn’t traditionally known for being supportive and have it fill a heavy support role is impressive.

DAMAGE is still very much the same old role, but now everyone can do it. No one has to feel like they need to respec or grab a friend in order to walk around in the open world and be able to hold their own. You can still specialize in damage output, but you have to realize up front that your survival is primarily your own responsibility. Glass cannons won’t have anyone else to blame if they die.

The end result is that combat and content can be much more dynamic. Tanking and spanking won’t cut it. Everyone needs to adapt to situations that can change in a much more fluid way, and no one can afford to get complacent because no one is safe. You can play with your friends regardless of their class and tackle anything the game throws at you as long as you are skilled enough to defeat it.

Only time will tell if ArenaNet’s gamble will pay off, but I have a feeling that its very existence will be enough to bring much needed change to the MMO genre.

If you’d like to delve even deeper into the subject, here are a few resources that can help:

There is an awesome video by WoodenPotatoes that covers the lack of Holy Trinity in Guild Wars 2.

A great article by MesmerPL highlights the transition from Holy Trinity to the Control, Support and Damage model of Guild Wars 2.

Finally, Guild Wars Insider has a page that details all of the conditions and boons present in Guild Wars 2, so you can get a clearer picture of how these all work.


17 responses to “MMO Evolution – Life after the Holy Trinity

  1. I just want to start by saying I tried reading your post as what it is suppose to be, a discussion on how MMO gaming will evolve after the break of the Trinity. The only issue is you have no idea how the Trinity worked in the first place.

    You compare tanks to dog chew toys that are there to do just that, take a chewing from the big bad monster? In top end raiding, something you clearly have no knowledge of, strategies are made with tank dps in mind. For fights with harder enrage timers you find out how much dps everyone would need to accomplish to include realistic damage numbers for healers as well.

    You were pretty correct on the UI watching; however, what a lot of people seem to forget about these Trinity MMOs is the fact that debuffs play such an important role. Most to be dispelled within seconds of being applied which leads to boring game play. We still have yet to see how debuffs(Conditions) will come into effect in the explorable dungeon modes. Since they are suppose to fall in line more with the hardcore raids of Trinity style MMOs I would probably put money that some sort of UI watching will have to be rotated on people with their remove Condition CDs (but that’s just me making stuff up there)

    All in all solid read, but definitively could of been more researched.

    • I actually *do* have years of first hand experience raiding at a high level – from long before tank DPS was a concern at all. You are correct that tank DPS can help with beating enrage timers, but not by much. If they’re putting out damage on par with your DPS members, then you’ve got other issues in your raid. Tanks are, by design, target dummies that hit back just enough to hold aggro. Until WoW got training wheels attached to it, holding threat used to be a challenge. Now with the boosts to both tank damage (since it wasn’t scaling at the same level as what DPSers could dish out), coupled with the buffs to vengeance, it’s pathetically easy. I appreciate your feedback though!

  2. Now wait a second. Leave Tank, Heal, and DPS and move onto Control, Support, and Damage? You do realize those are the exact same things, yes? When your a Tank, you are “Controlling” the battlefield by positioning yourself and controlling the enemy to attack you alone. Not to mention a lot of Tanks have interrupts, knockdowns, stuns, pulls, so on and so forth anyway. And Healing is obviously support.

    But regardless, I’m pretty sure characters in Guild Wars 2 will be able to either do all of these roles, in a minimalistic sense, at once, or specialize here and there in certain roles. Like being half-tank, half-heals; Or half-damage, half-heals. Or be able to change up your role at a moment’s notice by switching your weapon type.

  3. Nice article, though I would say it’s both the old combat model as well as the old questing system that holds back current MMOs.

    By the way, the link to WoodenPotatoes is broken. Seems you forgot a colon after http .

  4. I think individual player skill will really shine with the new system. Players who were previously ‘carried’ through raids in other MMOs will need to support the whole team while also paying attention to their own actions. Being able to avoid all damage by dodging rather than hoping for a lucky dice role means that you should be paying more attention to the fight rather than staring at your cooldowns. I for one will be glad to think of raids as a more go-with-the-flow system than completing a maths exam.

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  6. Nice article, it was a good read. The top commenter is correct about explorable dungeons. At the moment, it’s pretty much learning by dying, but as the players evolve and adapt, people are going to be watching the little boxes under the boss’ name with all the debuffs the team’s applied or the buffs it (or the adds) applies to itself. So there will be lots of UI watching, but it’s just one part each person has to do in order to keep the dps on, as well as keeping each other safe and rezzing when needed. High level players will need to be excellent at multi-tasking and cool under pressure.

    As a long time GW1 player, the funniest thing is that while there’s healing and protection spells (like the wizard you described) tacked onto the monk/rit/necro in most GW groups, when GW players do the highest level dungeons, they don’t resort to doing things with a traditional trinity. Sure they can do the content the way it’s meant to be played, but it’s very difficult and chances of success are iffy. Instead, they’re highly efficient at exploiting game mechanics in order to either guarantee wins or SC or speed clear through the elite areas.

    For example, in a place called the Domain of Anguish, the meta team build used to be a Ritualist with a spirit (or turret) wall for dps and body blocking, a heavy armor guy who buffed the team with adrenaline powered shouts, 2 monks, and 3 dpsers of any class who’s primary role was to run up to a group of enemies and essentially blow themselves up by dropping a bunch of point blank aoe spells until either them or the mob was dead. And as soon as they did die, they’d almost instantly res at the monk, and then run back to do do it again.

    Another example is the current meta build for the Underworld where the players don’t work so much as a team as they have each individual player responsible for a specific part in the dungeon. They don’t even fight together unless someone’s a little slow to clear their zone.

    My point being, is that GW already has a system where the trinity is not the optimal way to clear a zone. It’s the way used by 85% of the game’s players, and works most of the time, but GW was already a strange game to start with.

    I mean, back in 2006 one of the early farming builds where players would make gobs of money would be a single monk at 55hp killing enemies in one of the harder zones of the game. A monk by himself with no one else killing a bunch of warrior enemies with only 55hp and 8 skills on his bar.

    • Thanks for your insight! I only recently started playing GW1 as a lore primer for GW2, so I really appreciate your feedback.

      I’m really looking forward to dungeons, and I love the fact that you can look for unconventional solutions to defeating them. I hope that trend continues in GW2.

      • I’m no pro player at GW1, but if you’d like some tips and pointers in game, my ign is Josef Phaig. Protip: if you want to get through content as soon as possible and you’re starting from the 1st campaign of Prophecies (which GW2 lore is based on), try to hire a runner to Lions Arch. If you’ve got the Eye of the North expansion, do the earthquake quest that will take you to the Far North Shiverpeaks. When you get to the next outpost, you’ll get 2 customizable heroes you can use instead of the lackluster henchmen in the outposts. Then you can go back to Ascalon and continue your journey from there.

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  8. Pingback: Raiding Sucks. Why Guild Wars 2 Doesn’t Need This “Endgame”. | The Surly Gamer

  9. Nice job. Well stated.

    I think the biggest problem with the trinity is the fact that there’s a whole generation of players who can’t even imagine that there’s another way to overcome obstacles outside of this tired mechanic.

    Seriously, the trinity is making a whole generation of kids moderately stupid. I’m convinced they’re taking this method of “problem solving” (and that’s probem singular) out into the rest of their lives. There’s absolutely no creative thinking or critical analysis any more. I cringe when I have to hire a young programmer because I’m about 80% sure he’s going to be a narrow-minded idiot who’s going fail if he can’t google how to do his job. If nobody’s written a blog explaining the ONE AND ONLY SOLUTION to his problem, he’ll fail.

    The most offensive part about the trinity: It doesn’t correspond to anything concrete either in a real life combat simulation or…. wait for it FICTION. There’s no such thing as a “healer” hero in any fiction written prior to the advent of MMOs. And there’s absoltuely no such thing as a target you *must* attack because he’s taunting you, either in real life or in fiction. Why? Because you’d have to be utterly stupid to do it. Perhaps if you’re fighting Republicans or some other kind of lower life form.

    So what is MMO combat modeling exactly? It’s neither fiction or reality. It’s like some kind of weird masturbation that a whole country will not let go of no matter how many times the software industry regurgitates this tired mechanic back at them.

    Anyway, great article. I’m all fired up after being disappointed by The Secret world beta.

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