Threat-Based PVE is Lame and How I’d Fix It

The traditional model of PVE tanking, which revolves around the “threat” (aggro) mechanic, severely limits the gameplay experience of MMORPGs. I’ll share an alternative model that would provide a much more dynamic combat experience.

PVE tanking and the “holy trinity” (tank/healer/DPS) themselves are not the issue – the problem is that they tend to be implemented with threat-based mechanics. In this article, I’m not going to advocate ditching the “holy trinity” as ArenaNet (AN) did with Guild Wars 2 (GW2) last year.

Here’s what’s wrong with threat-based PVE:

It defies common sense. Why would an intelligent boss and his buddies attack the tank, who is the toughest, most-armored, highest HP target who is also the least capable of inflicting meaningful damage?
It dumbs down PVE encounters. You have threat, boss attacks you. You don’t have threat, you can do whatever you want
It creates an environment where where the focus tends to be on the UI not the combat: watching threat meters, tracking cooldowns, using abilities is optimized rotations, and listening to addons/mods tell you what to do and when – as opposed to having to continually read and react to situations and what your opponents are doing
The last two points combined have severe implications in most games where the vast majority of content and boss fights are simple tank-n-spank:

The majority of PVE content fails to prepare players for much more challenging boss fights later in endgame which require not just threat-management but also high coordination and awareness. The hard boss fights are often referred to as “guild breaking” but the fault here lies IMO not so much with the talent in the guild but rather the lack of an experience provided by the developer to train players to be more skilled and aware
Players are trained to expect predictable opponents – this becomes very problematic for PVE players foraying into PVP, since human opponents are very intelligent and far less predictable than threat-dumb bosses
My Fix for Tanking: Think NFL Offensive Lineman

If we ditch threat-based tanking, what would it look like to have a model where tanking is relevant but that the combat is much more dynamic and based on rich coordination?

Let’s consider how tanking works in the National Football League (NFL), which is American pro football.

In the NFL, the quarterback (QB), who is a squishy RDPS, is protected by five offensive linemen, who are the tanks. An offensive lineman (OL) keep defensive players from reaching his QB; the OL blocks, shoves, knocks down, and holds opponents. An OL is therefore both a protector and a bully.

But here’s the thing. In order for an OL to “tank” effectively, he needs his QB to work with him. Both players have to be on the same page as to what the QB and rest of the team are doing, and the movement and positioning of the QB has to be synchronized with the protection scheme of the OL. Moreover, when things break down in real-time, the QB has to move in such a way that his OL can continue to shield him. An OL also has to adjust his blocking assignments in real-time to counter the defense.

What if PVE combat works like this, where the tank uses abilities to control mobs and protect friendlies, and the trinity is constantly working in real-time to address situations as the boss and mobs fluidly switch targets and tactics, because there is no concept of sticky aggro? Combat shifts from staring at your hotkey bars and UI elements to paying attention to what the boss and mobs are doing and what your friendlies are doing, and taking appropriate action as an individual and group. Tanking becomes a team effort: the healers and DPS have to pay attention and work with the tank.

With such a model, developers could make bosses and mobs smart, and encounters would be much more fluid, challenging, and fun. Combat would keep you on your toes, so to speak. Boss fights could still have stages, if that’s your thing. But the days of boring tank-n-spank would be gone, or the days where you watch TV while raiding as a RDPS, because let’s face it, you don’t need to watch most of the combat these days, and that’s rather sad.

Aside from improving the combat gameplay experience, there are other positive implications of the “Offensive Lineman PVE Tank” model:

Players would have the expectation of working together. I saw this in GW2, where the collaborative nature of the game mechanics encouraged players to help one another
PVE players who foray into PVP would be much better prepared – they’ll have gotten reps in PVE and learned how to pay attention / avoid tunnel vision, counter unpredictable opponents, move properly i.e. not backpedal, etc. Simply put, this model of PVE would make players better
Tanks would have the same role in PVP as they do in PVE (control and protect). Unfortunately in many games, tanks simply have no functional role in PVP
Tanking can be implemented in terms of abilities not numerical factors. With threat-based tanking, tanking successfully is dependent on numerical factors: threat generation, mitigation, avoidance, and HP. With the proposed model, tanking can could be implemented based on weapon selection / abilities (bolas, nets, shield bashes, shield walling, Vulcan death grips, etc) and character customization, which means that any class could play the tanking role. This would allow for more flexibility for group compositions – and no more waiting in Ogrimmar or Ironforge trying to find a tank

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