Monday, April 25, 2011

Tanks for the Memories!

Welcome heroes! You are about to enter a land of mythical beasts and terrible creatures. The very fabric of the world is at stake, as the vague construction of folk tales, public domain writing, and nearly plagiarized ideas of others come together to create a rich, social gaming experience. That's right, it's an MMORPG!

Well, brave adventurers, I am glad you have decided to play the game as a group! It's always a better idea to have a base of people to play the game with, even if that leads to complications in the end-game scale that I won't go into, because it's not important right now. Now it's time to build a well rounded group. Ok, you need two or three damage dealers, maybe three, but that damage dealer should probably be a support guy, a tank, and a healer. Ok guys, who wants to heal? Oh, cool! We have one semi-interested volunteer and one half-hearted please-don't-agree-to-let-me-heal-I'll-bitch-everytime-we-play-and-then-re-roll-later-on-as-soon-as-I-can-and-demand-aid-in-leveling-my-alt volunteer. Picking the semi-interested volunteer? Excellent choice! Ok, now, who wants to tank? Anyone? Anyone? *sigh*

Tanking. It's a mechanic of just about every MMORPG you can name. The guy or gal that gets smashed in the face by a six story troll wielding an axe that shoots bears on every swing, that the tank has to then taunt to make sure the party doesn't get eaten by axe-bears. While the rest of the group is saving lives, or murdering Garalt of the Murderous Pony Clan, the tank stands there, and sings Bohemian Rhapsody to drown out the beatings. However, what the average tank lacks in e-stardom, he makes up for in Little Punkin' Feelings. The words "Main Tank" leave a film in my mouth not unlike the grey-green mold on the dishes left filthy in the sink over a long vacation by a college kid on break. People that care about the words "Main Tank" and demand that the other tanks be referred to as "Off Tanks" tend to be Prima Donnas. They are one step away from getting a guest spot on Drop Dead Diva. If the game has symbols or numbers you can assign above a monster, they will demand they tank the one that is the most important...all the time. The extremely high demand on one or two well-equiped tanks in every single end-game guild leads to an almost arbitration-like situation where the tank has to be catered to, or he bails, leaving the guild in the lurch. What does this make other people do? They don't like tanks, and are quick to blame the tank, or bash the tank, or otherwise hate the tanks they come across. While it's not necessarily the right thing to do, you can understand the backlash.

This leads to having to personally know one of the tanks to prevent this behavior. In fact, the only way you can be 100% sure of this not occurring is to do it your-damn-self. This means you have to accept the burden of responsibility, and you have to make sure you are on your game all the time. It actually is one of the harder jobs in the games, and this is said by someone who has played just about every role to a fair degree in different games. Does this excuse the douchedom? No, Bobby Massengil needs to sit the fuck down and not be such a bag of saline.

Being the guy that steps up to tank, I have tanked a lot. In a lot of different games. Now that I have a good amount of experience at it, I can say that up until this point the Rift class Riftstalker is the single most fun I have ever had tanking. That doesn't mean much unless you know what else I have played and what else I have experience in.

EQ1 - Paladin tank, in a small guild of world-first guild alts. Tanked just about all content through Planes of Power, when I stopped playing. Other characters played were a druid, rogue, and wizard.

WoW - Paladin tank, in a small guild focusing on 10-man content in WotLK. I ended up tanking a lot for various 25-man guilds too. All content was cleared in the 10-man setting, including hard-modes. Stopped in Cataclysm, but most of the available stuff was cleared before I stopped. Other characters played were roughly a million healers, some melee dps, and some ranged dps. So easy to level and gear, why not?

Warhammer - The elf tank guy. Mostly in groups and in public quests. Played a white lion, shadow hunter and warrior priest besides that.

Rift - Riftstalker spec rogue. Most of the other time spent as an assassin spec rogue, but some as marksman/nightblade. Some low level dudes in the 20-30 range.

So, a smattering of tank classes over various games. A few times clearing most of the content,and a few times just as a mook. I feel I am well-versed in comparison, as well as stating what it is about Riftstalker that makes it the most fun tank class I have played in a game so far.

In EQ1 tanking really was as simple as hitting taunt as often as you could and using a weapon with threat generation on it. You might want to use spells as a paladin, but only ones that had a stun component so that threat could be generated. You stood in a corner and got the monster as close to you as you could. The phrase "stand on his nuts" was coined during this era. Tanks didn't have to do a whole lot of anything besides stand there. You had to have one tank per creature on a raid scale. The idea of holding multiple creatures at a time just wasn't a thing. People like giant creatures in epic encounters, right? Sometimes there were threat wipes, you had to just be quick to save people then. You had to move them around sometimes, but it was rare. Overall, simple, very gear dependent, and not very interactive. Still, necessary.

In WoW tanking was much more complex, and there were many fights where the difference between a bad tank, a normal tank and a good tank were huge. Of course, it was never a showy difference, and it just helped speed up the fights or slow down the mana intake. Originally, it wasn't much different than EQ1, but slowly fights became more complex, and you had to tank swap, first without taunts and then eventually with taunts, tank a lot of adds that would spawn randomly, most out of effects, use line of sight tricks, kite things around while staying out of melee range, and even interact with objects that let you tank through other means. Fights that were just-stand-there-and-take-it-in-the-face were few and far between. As a paladin, you were the master of area threat gen, and you had a lot of spell tricks that were useful. Your cooldowns weren't great, but they eventually got better. You had some ranged tricks, and some interesting taunt methodology. It was easier to tell the difference between bad and decent, but hard to tell the difference between decent and good, unless you were very observant. Dual Spec made tanks more common, but bad tanks were more common too. I call that a wash. Overall, it was more fun to tank in WoW than in EQ1 by orders of magnitude.

In Warhammer it was a mixture of EQ1 and WoW tanking. The difference here is that you had more to manage on your character than things on the monsters, in a lot of cases. This is micro-management that appeals to me. It seemed less complex than WoW, and more like EQ1 tanking for the most part on an encounter basis. Then again, the addition of tanking doing things in PvP was huge. Taunting a player did things. That's worth mentioning for its own merits. The steps in the PvP direction were huge, but the PvE aspect was nothing to sing about.

In Rift, they made the interesting decision to allow three of the four archetypes to tank. Warriors, Clerics and Rogues all get at least one tank soul (read Talent Tree, but you get choice). Warriors get several options, Clerics get one, and Rogues get one. I play the Rogue version, the Riftstalker. While raiders and players are more experienced, making them extremely jaded and selfish, Rift tends to Not Fuck Around with its requirements on tanks. Yes, Rift end-game content was cleared quickly. Yes, people are saying It's Not Hard Enough! I hate to break it to you guys, but MMORPGs have been around for years now. You have seen a lot of mechanics, you have strategy guides available because the competition is more or less gone, and you have communities where things are discussed rather than hoarded (see EQ1 for all this). That doesn't mean the game is easier, or the mechanics are less complex, but that you are better prepared for the game. Rift tends to train its players by having "raid" encounters pop up in every zone. The low level raids have some fairly complex mechanics requiring positions, add killing, avoiding things, running away, etc. This leads to players being more comfortable with mechanics, as they see them all the time, and aren't surprised as the shift in the game meta once they reach max level from a PvE aspect (see WoW, EQ1, Warhammer, etc.). The dungeons reinforce this, with having similar encounters as each dungeon is entered. Having to kill things in a certain order, avoid things, run away from things, watching for buffs/casts/emotes and then reacting, etc. There are several open zone raids for PUGs also, which lets people get even more practice. It's not surprising that people find raids easier with that in mind. I will be interested in how their end game progresses and the feedback they get as a result. Anyway, I am digressing, and I should get back on track.

What makes tanking as a Riftstalker different than the other classes and what makes it more fun? Well, it's nice to have to care about watching pathing, being careful with pulls and using CC sometimes, but not all the time. Riftstalkers are rogues, and like all rogues, they rely on combo points and finishers to use their abilities. This means that starting a fight is extremely interesting. You have to work to get your armor increased, to get up your mitigation, and to maintain threat, all at the same time. You then have to keep the buffs from falling off. You have different cooldowns to work with, one that purges effects and makes you immune for a short time (three seconds), one that is the standard take-less-damage style of cooldown, and a strange one that allows you to delay all damage taken for ten seconds, where you take it all at once. This requires thought to use well, but it can make the difference between a wipe and a win. It's tough to use well, but I appreciate that.

To complicate things more, the Riftstalker has a huge mechanic available for the micromanager. The Plane Shift. Plane Shifts are teleports that work in various ways, but the Riftstalker gains benefits for a short duration after every teleport. This means that the Riftstalker should try and rotate through the teleports to make things easier, and to increase his efficacy. However, two of the teleports change the position of the creature, so using them is harder than just clicking the buttons. With cleaves, breath attacks, etc. it becomes important to communicate and work together to get the best out of the attacks and defenses. Area threat is limited, but it's a good weakness for the class. Working to gather things is difficult, but rewarding once you can do it well. On top of this, the tank really, really has to pay attention. It's everything WoW raiding was for tanks, and then more on top of that. I say this seriously. It's not necessarily harder, but it is more active. The differences aren't any more obvious between decent and good, but healers seem to comment more. Healing and mana throughput are more important in Rift at this stage, so that parallel seems to garner commentary. I love active play, and being able to manage the efficiency of my character through my play. It's nice that if I am having an off-day I won't completely screw my group, but good play does make a huge difference.

It will be interesting to see where tanking goes from here. This has easily been my most enjoyable experience so far, and I look forward to see how other games learn from this. Not to mention to see what I can cannibalize for other mediums.


  1. That sounds promising. Though I couldn't really get into Rift, your synopsis of the tanking (easily my favorite role in MMOs by leagues) made me interested to try it again just to see how those mechanics work in practice.

    A friend of mine made the argument once that the Holy Trinity persists only to justify the existence of the tank. I'm not sure I entirely agree, but if the medium is ever going to bust out of the Trinity, I almost think that the tank would be the first to go.

  2. Of all the roles, tanking is the most artificial construction. However, I think it is one that allows designers freedom. For all intents and purposes, a tank is the clearest example of a MMORPG single point of failure. The presence and requirement of a tank allows for design to develop around that. Without it, you end up with less options, because there is way more randomization. It's a good construct for the game, but it's a construct that only exists inside the game.