Syl has a really nice article about this online. Check it out.
You didn't, did you? Well, the basic point is that, while the holy trinity (tank, healer, dd) has its uses, it also has its restrictions. The wider point is that the entire character customization of current MMORPGs is debatable.
The Holy Trinity consists of at least two debatable parts: healing and tanking with threat. The dd part is alright; nothing to fix here. Let's collect a few strange facts:
- Healers can fix broken limbs with spells, while the guy in question is still continuing to fight. Bad enough that we have health bars, but from an immersion PoV, healing is absurd.
- Healers cannot be allowed to do anything else well - otherwise they are overpowered compared to other roles.
- Healers change every PvP battle 100%. Ever had the luck to play some battleground or warfront without healers, or against too many healers? It is pointless.
- Healers spend all their time looking at little green bars, instead of the action. The fact that getting out of the fire is hard is actually a game design problem; that Blizzard made it a symbol for skillful play is quite ironic!
- from an immersion PoV, tanking and aggro are absurd. Full Stop.
- Tanks cannot be allowed to do anything else well - otherwise they are overpowered compared to other roles.
- Tanks are often useless in PvP. If they are useful at all, then for specific tasks that only require a specific amount of tanks.
- Tanks spend all their time looking at one or more toes of their enemies.
The Holy Trinity
- Creating a group inside a game that is built with tanks and healers in mind can be an absolute pain. You either have too many or not enough tanks/healers. Talking about accessibility: Way before you tune the challenge level of your game down, think about this!
And what good comes out of it? Now, this is interesting!
- Assuming proper scripting, a very interesting encounter can be created with the help of the stability that is created by threat mechanic and healing from afar.
To understand this, you need to consider a MMORPG without any threat and without any healing! If you just scrap it, the monster will attack people randomly or, if it is smart, always the guy that does most and can sustain the least damage. If the monster takes into account distance, a rather unpredictable fight emerges. Without healing, the fight will also end in death for a lot of players or be a pushover; possibly both. Can this really be a design intent?
In some way the holy trinity, in combination with the threat mechanic, allows the designer to go wild with scripting. A pure tank and spank encounter is so trivial and static, that the designers do not have to fear any emergent behavior. They know exactly what the situation is like after whatever scripting event they implement. This alone can allow for a great game, like WoW has certainly been.
Bottom line is: There is a really good reason for the threat mechanic and healers. Even though there are so many bad side effects!
There are two ways to solve this. One really tries to solve it, while the other one tries to circumvent it.
1) To solve it, it is useful to replace 'tanking/threat' with 'control' (not only for the player, but also for the game designer!) and 'healing' with 'support'. Assuming enough time to polish the game, it could be possible to pace it in a way that stunning, kiting, collision control, thrusting and (de)buffing can provide enough control and support. The problem really is the polish here. To make such a game would require absurd amounts of iterations. Make the game too fast and the whole thing doesn't work. Make it too slow and people become bored. Moreover, the perceived speed of a game is heavily influenced by the number of combatants. And to make diverse encounters you want this number to vary drastically.
2) However, there is another way: And that is to embed combat in a more meaningful game. In a game with non-instanced PvP/PvE, for example, the individual skill isn't as important as the pure number of players. Combine that with an activity, like venturing into a dungeon to find treasure to buy special stones in the player-driven economy to reinforce your castle and thus prepare for war against your classmates. You can embed combat into so much meaning that the combat itself doesn't necessarily needs to be as deep and challenging as today. The resulting game might be much more fun than four bars full of skills or pre-determined dance scripts.
An easy example are some facebook games. Even a simple, obviously absurd and utterly boring activity can become a billion dollar game, if it is embedded in a context that imbues it with meaning.