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Tanking, Healing, Damaging — The Only Way To Play An MMORPG?

Tank, tank, heal, tank
Stab, cast, pwn!
Kill, kill, respawn
Instance zone!
Epic, blue, green
Roll, loot, groan!
Tank, tank, heal, tank
Stab, cast, pwn!

– “Tank Tank Heal Tank,” Oxhorn Brand Music

On any given evening in Order and Chaos Online, you’ll see the calls going out on Global Chat. “Need Healer for SLC, then GTG!” “Tank, 6/6, LFG for ET.” “Anyone need DPS for RKL?” It’s the common call for the three main “roles” in our favorite online role-playing game: Tank, Healer, and DPS. Each is important, and each has its role in the dungeon, raid, or instance.

Tanking in Star Legends.

Tank: The traditional role of fighters and other martial combat types. You’d think that the guy with the biggest weapon was going to be the guy doing the most damage, but no; fighters instead come to rely on their resilience to stand their ground and take a hit. Personally, I’m not a fan of playing tanks. Tanking can be intense, sure; but it’s also one of the least forgiving in terms of build and skill and gear.

DPS: Wizards, rogues, rangers, hunters — if they’re fairly squishy but pack a powerful punch, they’re Damage Per Second. Playing DPS is in many ways the easiest of the three roles, because most of the thinking occurs outside of the dungeon: what gear and skill combo nets me the most damage? The highest crit? The fastest attack rate? Once a DPS reaches the dungeon, they usually just need to prioritize targets and keep firing. Maybe it’s my proclivity as a casual player, but I usually prefer DPS when I play MMORPGs.

Healer: Clerics, monks, even paladins have healing ability, and so it’s their job to make the bars go up. Yes, they carry a weapon, but if they need it, they’ve probably already failed. In fact, if something goes wrong and the party is wiped, the healer, rightly or wrongly, is often the target of blame. Which sucks, because healers are not miracle workers (despite their tendency to wield the power of gods) and just as often it’s the tank’s fault.

A DPS Mage explodes in Order and Chaos.

It’s combat 101, really. Send the tanks in first, fire the big guns from the rear, and keep your army on the field as long as possible. It’s no wonder that it’s so vital to so many MMORPGs. But, is that a good thing? In other words, does the fact that every major MMORPG operates on the assumption of Tank, Healer, DPS mean that the genre has a well-defined persona, or does it simply mean that the genre has stagnated?

It's all your fault, Firiona Vie. (Image from Wikipedia)

Take a look at most every successful MMORPG out there. Most every game on the market is built around some variation on World of Warcraft, which is itself built on the model that Everquest launched: you create a character, you complete quests, you level a character, you team up with others to complete instances or raids or whatever. One game has defined the genre, and now everyone expects it. Ironically, party roles in EQ used to be much more complicated, but things have streamlined over the years as the overall design has become more common and as game designers have built in abilities that play to the main roles.

Even the latest PC and console releases, like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Diablo 3, can be boiled down to the Tank, Healer, DPS dynamic. When your game is built around teaming up to defeat powerful mobs via combat, Tank, Healer, DPS  is the only way to go.There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But when a genre stagnates, it means there’s nothing new to play. So maybe the real issue isn’t Tank, Healer, DPS, but the sameness in design that leads to them.

Ultimately, if we’re ever to break the Tank, Healer, DPS cycle, game designers will have to stop designing for it. Unfortunately, that will mean taking risks with new and potentially risky game builds. The question is, which game design studio will eventually step up to the plate?

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