Has the “tank” concept passed its sell-by date?

by on August 26, 2011

There’s a lot of big thinking going on at the moment. With a number of new games on the horizon, and a certain amount of suprise about how much some of them don’t seem to be breaking the mold (SWTOR – although we shall see…), a lot of people are starting to look at the old, tired WoW/EQ model and asking what really, really big changes we could make to make it work better.

Matthew Rossi is WoW Insider’s warrior columnist, and has been writing about tanks and tanking for years now. He loves tanking, and he makes no bones about it. Which is why he’s such an interesting person to be making today’s Big Suggestion: that maybe the “tank” concept has passed its sell-by date :

“While healing makes a certain amount of sense to people who’ve played other games, the idea of the tanking figure is fairly unique to the MMO genre and has more or less existed in that genre to help make up for the games’ lack of intelligence. The original tank and spank encounters were designed around the idea that the game needed help to decide who the monsters would be hitting. After all, their roots are in pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, but there’s no game master to tell the monsters what to do.

With modern encounter design often varying wildly from this formula, one of the reasons for the tanking role has been changed or removed.”

As expected, Matthew goes through the arguments with some flair and a good deal of thoroughness. His points on tanking essentially being a legacy workaround are particularly good, and the idea of opening up tanking to more classes is very appealing – I used to tank instances with my pet as a hunter in Vanilla, and if there was that option again, I’d go back to it like a shot.

(So to speak).

Personally, I like tanking. Whilst it evolved as a workaround for crappy AI, it’s become a fun and challenging part of the game – and, in some ways, the most PvP element of PvE, which also makes it the fastest-evolving and least predictable, at least in a 5-man environment. (“OK, so I think I’ve got everything – OH GOD, what is the mage doing? And now there are adds on the healer! And the warrior’s just popped Bladestorm” – cue frantic keyspamming). I love it. But it’s clear I’m in a minority.

Maybe what’s needed is a new, optional role for those of us with the wierd personality quirk that makes us like tanking, and a tank-free environment for everyone else?

Do you think it’s time to retire the tank? And can you think of a way to satisfy the wierdos who actually like the role?
Quote taken directly from Matthew Rossi’s column .
Find Matthew Rossi’s writing on WoW Insider at http://wow.joystiq.com/bloggers/matthew-rossi/

If you enjoyed this article, check out our other posts from these categories: General MMO Interest,World of Warcraft

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben Sanders August 27, 2011 at 12:38 pm

The problem with threat, is that it doesnt work thematically.
The monsters try to kill the most threatening player. That makes sense, yes.
But instead, they end up trying to kill the player who is neither causing healing, or the most damage. They end up trying to kill the player who is most resilliant to being killed. Threat has failed – the monsters are now stupid, and are pursuing their worst possible strategy.


Loren August 27, 2011 at 2:49 pm

@Ben Sanders – LoL…….. It’s not that threat has failed its that people dont want to die because they pulled aggro off the tank, and from the point of view of boss’s/monsters attacking the tanks, healers or dps i doubt it really makes any difference at all what they attack, when they can pretty much 1 shot anything they want at anytime and have millions of hp over our 130k atleast for the boss’s, they way your kind of thinking about is like when wotlk came out and everyone who made a dk formed groups of 5 dk’s and ran hellfire ramps without tanks or healers…. do we want a WoW full of op blood dk’s again that tank/heal and dps all at the same time?


Hugh Hancock August 27, 2011 at 2:59 pm

@Loren – There are a number of options for other play styles aside from the ol’ classic “lol we al DPS”. Consider, for example, the classic pen-and-paper dungeon crawl RPG, where there’s no threat per se, but armour-clad warriors get in the way by virtue of movement abilities and strategy.

Indeed, it’s also possible to look to PvP for where PvE might head – lots of smart strategies and counter-strategies on both sides.

You could also look at D&D 4th Ed, which has a very heavily modified threat system – instead of “threat” per se, some classes have abilities which make attacking anyone other than them a very bad idea. Or you could look at their “controller” role – some classes could be theoretically squishy, but practically have the ability to move monsters around and generally stop them from getting to ever hit them.

I agree with Ben to a certain extent – the “tank” class started as a workaround for rubbish AI. The genre’s evolved – much as I personally like the “tank/controller” role, it’s time to look at alternate options.

(Hmm, I think I feel a column coming on.)


Jamin August 28, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Interesting. I’ll link this in my upcoming post about a similar topic.

- Jamin


PopeJamal August 29, 2011 at 7:29 pm

I very much agree with Rossi’s assertion: Tanking as we know it is played out. Looking at it from the opposite perspective, it occurs to me that changing tanking also allows us to change healing. Changing tanking and healing will allow us much more diversity in encounter design.

For example, why do people besides the tank get 1-shot by the boss? Because the boss is designed to hit the tank and the tank is designed to be hit by the boss. There’s only so much you can do with that type of design. And you know what? It doesn’t even work that well.

One of the big drawbacks we’ve seen is that bosses have to hit harder and harder every tier. That then means that gear needs to scale ridiculously higher every tier. THAT then forces the designers to completely reset the way stats scale in-between every expac. I’m sure this isn’t a trivial thing. And you know what’s even more messed up? We still reach the point towards the end of an expac where tanks are almost getting 1-shot by the bosses. That sort of defeats the point of having a tank in the first place. Anybody in the group can take a hit and fall on their face.

If you decouple the boss and the tank, then you can allow the boss to hit for less, which means that the boss can occasionally hit someone else in the raid. I’ve always thought that it was kind of weird that you have a whole group of people taking this boss down, but the only one to ever actually get the privilege of face-to-face interaction the tank.

From a healing perspective, decoupling the tank and the boss also lets you do more besides: voidzone, raidwide damage dot, and pick-up-the-player-and-nom-nom-nom-him. That has gotten a little stale. Healing is sometime monotonous because of the fact that everything is so static and scheduled: 30 seconds until I push the raid heal button. 10 seconds before I throw the big heal on the tank. /snore

If the boss was able to randomly run around and grief different people in the group in different ways, I think it would make for a much more compelling experience for everyone. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.


Gorbag September 10, 2011 at 6:53 pm

I think the origin of tanking is more complex than just a quick and simple AI fix. It’s a somewhat iconic role – the heavily armored knight, shielding his companions from the onslaught of the enemy. A group needs to maximize its damage ouput, minimize its damage intake, and repair the harmful effects of battle. Having specialists handle those tasks instead of spreading them evenly across every member of the party allows differentiation and increases the value of teamwork and cooperation, which in my opinion makes for more complex and interesting gameplay. Diablo II didn’t have specialized roles and the group dynamic was really pretty dull (great game, don’t get me wrong, just not especially compelling in a group setting). From an encounter design perspective, that specialization increases the complexity and variety of encounters as well; grouI, too, enjoy the role and would be sad to see it disappear entirely, although a reimagining or retooling of the specific mechanics might be quite fun.


Gorbag September 10, 2011 at 10:18 pm

I seem to have hit send before I finished, apologies for the missing chunk near the end. @Gorbag -


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