Video Games: Design, Development and the Holy Trinity
Tank, Healer, Damage Dealer. These are the three all-encompassing archetypes that can be found in an ever-increasing number of games. From MMOs to shooters to strategy games and even sports games, if you’ve ever played a game that has more than one character running around at once, chances are you’ve become familiar with this dynamic because it’s basically everywhere.
Designers have taken to calling this set of three roles the Holy Trinity, because it doesn’t just underpin the design of some of the biggest and most successful games of all time, but many wouldn’t work at all without these three roles to structure everything from combat to crafting around. In fact, the holy trinity design is so useful and so ubiquitous that a lot of people really hate it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
How it works?
For those who don’t know, here’s how the holy trinity works in the broadest possible terms. In a game that was designed with the holy trinity in mind, as well as some that weren’t, all possible classes, characters and roles fall into one of three distinct archetypes, each with its own jobs and function, are the damage dealer, the tank, and the support – I only said healer earlier because it rhymed.
The Damage dealer
The damage dealer is responsible for, you guessed it, dealing damage, and is responsible for actually defeating the enemy as well as controlling the momentum of any given encounter.
Supports are sort of the opposite, rather than attacking the enemy, support exists to ensure the rest of their team can do their job unhindered.
Finally, we have the somewhat confusingly named tank. Contrary to its name, a tank isn’t a force of destruction, but a force of defense and control, protecting their team, whilst stopping the enemy from achieving their goals.
Have you Seen the Holy Trinity?
You might not have heard of the holy trinity before, but you’ve definitely seen it, the classic RPG party of a thief damage dealer, a warrior tank, and a supporting cleric has been around in RPGs since the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, but the trinity goes back even further than that.
In football, or my preferred alternative, Rocket League, the striker is a damage dealer and scores the goals needed to win, the midfield supports out their allies by setting up plays, and the keeper acts as a tank, preventing the enemy from winning.
By letting people specialize in these three distinct roles, each of which supports each other, not only can teams or groups can act much more effectively than a disorganized bunch of jacks of all trades but newer players can ease themselves into a game by only having to focus on particular elements.
Holy Trinity as a Framework
Not only that, the inherent power of the Holy Trinity allows designers to use it as a framework to build systems around as well as encourage teamwork. Without the help of tanks and supports, damage dealers are just going to get creamed but equally without damage dealers, the other two will be too slow and defensive to get anything done. Each part of the Holy Trinity only works in tandem with the other two, quickly establishing a group dynamic and allowing teams of players to be effective, even with no communication at all. This all makes sense, right, so, how is it that this obviously useful trick to designing group-centric games is despised by a lot of people? You can’t go 5 minutes on the subreddit for an MMO or hero shooter without seeing a bunch of people complaining about how healers suck and are boring, or that tanks are overpowered, or that their particular playstyle isn’t viable anymore and it’s all the holy trinity’s fault.
Consequences of Holy Trinity
Whilst a certain amount of this can be attributed to regular old internet complaining, the trinity does have one major weakness, and it’s a doozy – if anything, the holy trinity is a bit too effective and this can have loads of knock-on consequences, eventually leading to it sucking the fun out of games instead of improving them, but we’ll get to Overwatch later. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the World of Warcraft as an example, because it’s one of the games that really popularized this school of design with talent trees allowing players to dedicate themselves to a single role, and stuff like the at the time incredibly innovative Aggro system that made it much easier to get an enemy to focus on a single player. The Holy Trinity is deeply baked into WoW’s core design, and that’s something that’s still visible today.
Even though there are 12 classes with an average of three specializations a piece, they all slot neatly into a part of the Holy Trinity, with most classes having access to two of the three holy trinity archetypes. However, whilst this dedication to a high-level strategy might’ve served Blizzard well back in the day, untangling the fun parts of the World of Warcraft from the playstyle WoW has been forcing on people for 15 years has now become very difficult.
Every specialization has precisely one job to do, it leads to a lot of homogenization of class and encounter design. Tanks never need to actually do much damage, because they have ten times the threat generation of other classes simply by being a tank. They only need to keep enemies occupied and survive, so their entire toolset is dedicated to damage reduction, stuns, and taunts which are important, but not all that fun to use.
Supports only need to buff and heal so they spend most battles playing health bar whack a mole because they can’t meaningfully contribute in any other way and damage dealers’ only job is to do as much damage as possible as fast as they can, leading to them spamming the same completely optimized rotations through every battle, often without worrying about positioning or survivability because that’s the other guy’s job.
The Holy Trinity is so strictly enforced and encounters are designed around these very narrow roles, it leads to a gradual erasure of individual playstyles, with class toolsets being either very sparse and utilitarian or stuffed with a bunch of irrelevant junk that doesn’t help them do their job and thus feels useless, even if it is fun to use. If some of a damage dealer’s kit takes the form of some weird utility skills that don’t directly increase their damage, then they’re instantly less valuable than one that only does the single job they’re required to do. Over time this leads to all classes of a given archetype feeling more or less the same because they’re judged by a single metric. In effect, if the holy trinity is allowed to become too powerful as a central strategy, it begins to suffocate everything that doesn’t directly support it. The holy trinity’s gravitational pull can also extend to single-player content.
In Outriders, a lot of shooty games with a tank class, a support class, and two flavors of damage dealer, I made the mistake of picking the Technomancer, the support. The game is built around combat that rewards aggression and quick close-quarters skirmishes. Unfortunately, by being a support class, all I had were heals, fire support abilities, and buffs to sniper damage. This lead to some fairly boring gameplay where I just hid behind my summonable turrets waiting for my one direct damage ability to come off cooldown, because my health and damage were too low to play the game as intended and half of my skills weren’t very useful against packs of melee boys who clearly intended to be handled by a tank. Now, you might be saying at this point, well if the holy trinity style of design doesn’t work for a game, then the developers don’t have to use it, right? And if players don’t want to be pigeonholed, then they can come up with their own strategy, with blackjack and hookers.
Escaping the Holy Trinity
Escaping the holy trinity’s gravitational pull can be harder than you’d expect. Guild Wars 2, for example, was designed to explicitly defy the usual class archetypes, giving everyone the ability to heal, and requiring that all players dodge enemy attacks. As far as solo content was concerned, this was a huge success, allowing all players to self-sufficiently progress through the story, regardless of their build.
However, when dungeons and the later raid content were introduced, it was a different story. Despite the Dev’s best efforts, players naturally gravitated into the archetypal roles because having dedicated healers and dedicated tanks were still more efficient because it allowed everyone else to focus on damage, allowing for quicker and more reliable clears. Even if the game lacked an aggro system and in many ways outright resisted this kind of playstyle, the holy trinity still made itself known, and probably not for the better.
This of course begs the question, what can we actually do about this, if the holy trinity is going to be a factor in almost any game that involves multiple roles, and will assert itself whether we want it to or not, how can do designers stop virtually every game feeling the same, and how does this create different gameplay experiences? Well, the easiest step to changing the ways that the holy trinity manifests is to alter the relative power of each of its components, drastically shifting how various strategies and team dynamics form.
In Fire Emblem and many tactics games, enemies have two defensive stats, in this case, armor, which defends against physical damage, and resistance, which blocks magical damage. This is a fairly substantial nerf to damage dealers, as units usually only deal one type of damage, meaning they’ll only be effective against roughly half of the units. Not only does this help to mitigate players relying on a single unkillable mega unit, but it also creates some interesting tactical play where assigning units against appropriate enemies can drastically increase their effectiveness, and countering enemy forces correctly requires you to be constantly cycling your tanks so your big armored boys don’t get obliterated by a few spells.
Altering the power of various parts of the trinity can also work asymmetrically. In the total war Warhammer games, certain factions, like the dwarves, have incredibly well-defended but slow armies that prioritize tanking over dealing damage – meaning that you’ve got to find a way to break their formation or draw them out if you want to win. Similarly, the vampire counts and tomb kings sport powerful support units in the form of their heroes and magic ghost cars giving their units insane buffs. Playing as an undead faction is less about crushing the enemy and more about protecting your leader because if they die, your army crumbles.
Of course, that’s not to say that one character can only ever embody a single role, many games have hybrid classes that can perform more than one job – not only does this give players more to do, but it also encourages more dynamic team interactions as players cooperate and compete organically, rather than just working off a script. In deep rock galactic, for example, no individual class is the tank, the support, or the damage dealer – instead, all of them are capable of outputting decent damage, they all have some sort of defensive crowd control in the form of terrain manipulation, slowing grenades, or deployable shields, and they all possess some form of support, like powerful flares, platforms, or ziplines.
This creates some fantastic team play as players organically shift between different roles depending on the situation, ensuring that encounters always feel fresh, and the group dynamic never stagnates, because clever use of everyone’s entire toolset is needed to win. Of course, this is just stretching and manipulating the holy trinity to get more interesting results, how can games actually try to move beyond it? Well, the key to conquering the holy trinity lies in understanding what it really represents, namely, the three different kinds of interaction that anyone player needs to worry about. Ally to the enemy, enemy to ally, ally to ally. If you’re a super cool professional gamer like me, you’ll have figured out that these three correspond to a damage dealer, tank, and support.
Good Guy vs Bad Guy
Damage dealers are all about interacting with the enemy, tanks are all about control the ways the enemy can interact with your team and supports interact almost exclusively with other members of their team. Therefore, if a game can create a distinct layer of gameplay for characters to interact with that’s neither good guy nor bad guy, the effect of the trinity becomes less pronounced or shifts into a sort of holy square. For example, games with systemic mechanics, or in fact any game that lets players interact with the environment creates an entirely new axis of interaction, distinct from the ally-enemy dichotomy.
In Divinity Original Sin, not only can players do all the classic RPG stuff like dealing with damage, controlling enemies, and supporting your allies, but they can also interact with the environment. This could mean cleansing harmful effects from the ground around your team or creating beneficial ones, allowing you to gain the positional advantage as well as set up combos: with oil that can be set on fire or water which conducts lightning.
A character-focused around terrain manipulation, teleporting objects around, and creating elemental surfaces plays the game in a fundamentally different way to the classical archetypes because their primary vector of interaction is with the environment, rather than enemies or players as they struggle for map control and longer-term tactical advantages. The best example of this is the rain spell, which basically just creates a bunch of water in a huge area, this doesn’t do much of anything on its own, but instead alters and interacts with the game’s other systems, cleansing oil and poison, reducing everyone’s lightning resistance and even changing the properties of some attacks.
It could be argued that this spell serves damage, support, or tanking purpose – but in reality, it’s… kind of its own thing, dealing with a more logistical and strategic side of the game that slowly bleeds into the turn by turn tactical stuff. Adding a fourth axis of interaction is also the reason why games with an economic element can remain interesting even when most of their combat leans heavily on the holy trinity. In real-time strategy games like starcraft, sure you spend most of your time fighting it out with a mix of damage, tanky, and support units, but they are inescapably reliant on the foundation of economic elements like workers, and buildings.
Mastering starcraft isn’t just about mastering individual battles, but how to create an economy capable of producing those armies in the first place. Units like zerg queens might be slow expensive and fairly unthreatening but the fact that they can allow you to spawn units more quickly, makes them one of the most powerful units in the game, even if they rarely actually fight. Aeon of strife ripoff games like DOTA do this as well. The game isn’t just about team fights, you also need to generate money to buy items and destroy the enemy’s base to win.
This opens up the design space to have characters like a specter and he who shall forever be known as skeleton king who starts weak but scales very effectively into the late game with items, favoring a much more economic strategy. In addition, it also allows for heroes like tinker or brood mother, who aren’t much use in a team fight but excel at pushing lanes and killing buildings, threatening a win through the axis of ally versus environment.
Influence of Universal Strategic Principles
The thing to remember though is that no matter how hard developers and players fight it, games will always be influenced by overarching meta-level tactics, and universal strategic principles – even if it were possible to have a team game completely escape from the holy trinity, it probably wouldn’t be for the better: Compare Fortnite, which has no formal trinity, to Apex legends, which has a medium-strength one, with each character and their abilities falling loosely into one of the three roles. As a result, team fights in Fortnite are mostly uncoordinated free-for-alls where everyone just sorts of does their own thing and hopes for the best, but in Apex, characters have clearly defined roles and it leads to much more interesting team play.
Support characters like crypto can scout ahead and help the team plan out an ambush, tanky characters like Gibraltar can lay down covering fire whilst the team advances, and aggressive damage dealers like fuse can lay the smackdown – simply by suggesting roles to players and giving them abilities that require teamwork to make the most of, sophisticated tactics can evolve naturally, and it wouldn’t be possible without considering the holy trinity.
Strategies in Games
Similarly, finding ways to make the restrictions imposed by high-level strategies interesting can lead to some incredibly unique design – in turn-based games, going first is almost always better as it gives you control over the pace of the game. So, rather than give one player an advantage, many tabletop games like five tribes allow you to bid against other players for priority on the turn order, turning a balance problem into an interesting strategic part of play, High level strategies like the holy trinity exist for a very good reason, they’re a fantastic scaffolding for both developers and players to build from, and create something unique rooted in a formula that always works. These sorts of strategies only become a problem when they stop acting as guides and a foundation and instead begin to restrict how games can be designed and played.
Designing the Game Levels
Nintendo might have a rock-solid four-step formula for designing levels, but ones that follow the steps without adding any extra texture are some of the most forgettable, and telltale might’ve stumbled onto a great narrative structure in the form of branching and reconverging paths but once we all figured out that our choices didn’t really matter, the illusion was forever broken.
Playing Agressively and Defensively
Similarly, in the case of Overwatch, yet another Blizzard game with a trinity addiction, the characters were originally sorted into four categories, with damage dealers split into offense and defense, encouraging players to focus more on taking and holding objectives through a combo of the two and less on just murdering each other. However, the pull of the holy trinity was too strong, and players insisted on playing both roles like straight-up aggressive damage dealers, outright ignoring characters who could play more defensively, provide map awareness or use mobility to their advantage. instead of continuing to push their intended playstyle, Blizzard gradually backed down until they merged both roles into a single massive group.
Whilst this is what players wanted, I think the game is less unique for it, with so many interesting characters like the stealthy disabler Sombra, the teleporting symmetry, and my beautiful child bastion permanently relegated to the realms of total uselessness because they were designed for a game that doesn’t really exist anymore.
The games that use the holy trinity best are the ones that add to or mess around with it to give us familiar gameplay in a brand new context, and the ones that use it the worst, copy it wholesale and are shocked to find out that people ignore everything else optimize the fun out of it, or worse yet, sacrifice their interesting gameplay to strengthen the boring tank, support damage dealer dynamic we’ve seen a million times before. I guess what I’m saying kids is that the bible is kind of like the original world of warcraft