The Support Role

Some of my fondest MMORPG memories came from playing a support role. Today’s MMO’ers can’t fully appreciate what it actually means to be a support class — most probably think it means healing. Today’s MMOs focus squarely on everyone being a DPS class. Even the “holy trinity” is being done away with, and by “holy trinity” I mean the modern version which did away with the original true Tank, Heals, and Crowd Control trinity. Everyone just smacks the mob until it dies and rolls out of the way of telescoping red lines and calls it a ‘group’.

Support classes usually had one role in the group: Make everyone else better. This wasn’t the easiest role to take on for many reasons. It’s difficult to be the class that doesn’t actively do something like do the most damage or ensure no one else gets hit. Often the support role is under-appreciated by ignorant players, and it can be a thankless job — even more so than healing.

Some of my fondest memories are playing an Aug Shaman in Dark Age of Camelot. My buffs were so dang good that people wanted me in their group and were willing to have me take up a slot just to give those buffs and very little else. I felt extremely important, especially when downtime used to be a real thing. What’s downtime? Perhaps that’s best left for a post unto itself, but suffice it to say downtime was when the group had to wait and do nothing to regain mana, stamina, or health.

Support roles could also be a little more dynamic, but that often meant being a ‘jack of all trades’ and doing lots of things decently but nothing good or great. I’m thinking back to my year playing a full-time Druid in EverQuest. They could heal and dps along with others (not great but helpful) but they could also root, snare, debuff, pull decently, and buff.

I’ll even go as far as including the EQ Enchanter as a support role. Although capable of incredible DPS when played by an expert in the right situation, the Enchanter was best known for two things: Crack and Mez. Again, probably meaningless to the modern generation. Crack was a buff called Clarity that would greatly enhance mana regeneration. Mez was a spell that rendered enemies incapable of moving or attacking as long as they were not damaged — essentially allowing your group to fight multiple monsters at once while only technically having one enemy active.

Support roles were done away with over the years because specialization has been done away with and seen as a weakness. Players used to pick a class that was really good at one thing, and that one thing wasn’t just  broad “DPS” or “tanking”.  Classes used to be very, very specific and known for anything from being the class that can mez to the class that can pull (I realize even “pulling” is now a foreign concept).

Now everyone needs to be able to DPS, take a hit, do some sort of self-healing, have a buff that falls into a category of buffs, and wear bitchin’ gear. There’s this idea out there that ‘If I can’t do it all then I’m being gypped and robbed of my fun!’ Lots of entitlement running rampant.


  • I’d put the decline of this style elsewhere – the playerbase wanted to play classes that could solo well or at least weren’t forced to group, and that was the weakness (not soloing, needing help). In turn, encounters were designed and tuned differently, and eventually players noticed that while a support role did help, doing without one didn’t make the fights noticeably tougher or impossible to do so there was even less demand for those classes with their very specific focuses.

    What you call entitlement can also be called customer preference. I’m not saying it is good or bad but this is a situation where the dev/design side evolved based on a changing playerbase.

  • Few issues here, the reason support fell by the wayside is also partially due to the lack of a good feedback mechanic. This made such classes rarely played, yet extremely important. It was common to only have a couple of minstrels for entire battle groups for example.

    This has a lot to do with player empowerment, and clearly has come in tandem with the rise of solo play. Such niche specialization just isn’t as important in this landscape and that means many classes are essentially becoming red mages in order to be self sufficient. Also remember the downside of those supports, entire home keeps filled with buffbots to use that niche specialty as other uses like me could be done better by others who didn’t specialize.

  • I loved playing my Sorcerer in DAoC. In a dungeon whose name escapes me now (some sort of tomb, tons of gangly limbed wights) chain mezzing adds, providing crack to the casters, and always bringing just the right pet to the situation. Some of the caster mobs were obscene for damage and you could find some healing mobs couldn’t be relied on for their heals but they’d alleviate the healer’s job by tossing a heal every now and then when folks in the party dipped too low.

    Juggling all of this while dotting up targets was some of the most fun I’ve had in any MMO since.

    I’ve tried to recapture bits of that since but haven’t found many MMO classes up to snuff. I love playing support and I think that I always will. Sure some of my mentality of late has been I want to support while doing meaningful DPS too… I think the Bloodmage from Vanguard was likely the most interesting support class since my Sorcerer days but I don’t think there will ever be another Sorcerer of that vein.

  • Lack of group play has destroyed the support class as it was originally created, and by lack of group play, I mean lack of grouping requirements to level. Sure people group in dungeons now, but usually that’s just for easy loot or at the end game. There is little need to group when leveling through a theme park.

  • @mmojuggler: “What you call entitlement can also be called customer preference. I’m not saying it is good or bad but this is a situation where the dev/design side evolved based on a changing playerbase.”

    This is true to a degree, but one could also argue that the playerbase evolved as a result of changes in the dev/design side. Essentially, developers started catering to all the players who tried the early MMOs and quit because they just couldn’t get into them, for whatever reason: they were too hard to play solo, it was too hard to find groups, they thought it was too much trouble typing in the chat box to get a quest, et cetera.

    Obviously it was Blizzard who made the biggest strides in this direction: they managed to grow the playerbase by an order of magnitude, at least. But they didn’t do it merely by making a better MMO. They also leveraged their existing fanbase by creating a new kind of MMO that would appeal not only to folks who had been playing EQ and DAoC, but also to players of games such as Diablo and Warcraft. These are games that offer single-player content as well as a strong multiplayer component, and Blizzard was careful to offer the same mix with WoW. As a result, the makeup of the playerbase changed dramatically just as it was starting to grow by leaps and bounds.

    Does this mean that the folks who enjoyed the earlier games’ emphasis on group play and specialized roles have simply disappeared? No, we’re still around; we’ve just gotten lost in the shuffle as developers keep trying to emulate Blizzard’s success. It’s probably a mistake to think of “the playerbase” as a unified, homogenous whole, and of MMORPGs as a single type of game. There are many different kinds of players, and no one game can satisfy them all.

  • Yea I hear you, there is just such homogenization of classes these days its pretty sad.I Just started playing Guildwars wanting to be a healer? boy was I in for a big surprise when I found out how things work.

  • @amiya: “This is true to a degree, but one could also argue that the playerbase evolved as a result of changes in the dev/design side.”

    I’d still put the change as initiating on the playerbase side – all that has to happen is a small portion of the playerbase, typically the mix-max or hardcore theorycrafting types looking to squeeze another 2% efficiency out of their characters, figure out some advantage and boom, their results are copied everywhere.

    It’s like a school of fish, only the handful in front need to turn for everyone else to follow.

    So the content the dev team puts out is “solved” and then tweaked based on the playerbase changes.

    @amiya: “There are many different kinds of players, and no one game can satisfy them all.”

    Yes, which is why when a studio does attempt to satisfy players, they go for the largest sub-group. Which typically is the folks that want to have viable solo characters, not be forced to group, etc… basically not the ones that want very specific support roles.

    @amiya: “Does this mean that the folks who enjoyed the earlier games’ emphasis on group play and specialized roles have simply disappeared? ”

    I enjoy group play and specialized roles, and the last MMO where I could do exactly this and call all the shots was… Guild Wars. Because ANet sidestepped this issue by allowed players to take henchmen and eventually heroes with them (NPC’s, AI helpers you could control, position, and even select the skills for, if you aren’t familiar). I could play a support mesmer or condition ranger and do essentially all the content without the dependency on other players that might prefer grouping with . That was in 2005 and I found it quite interesting that GW2 did away with this mechanic.

  • @Bhagpuss: We’re all WoW rogues now!

    @Damage: Confirmed. I was a buff bot. 😛

    @mmojuggler: Notice how you said the players noticed not having one didn’t make the fights tougher — what game? That right there is the key. The game changed, the design changed, so the players adapted with it. It was the game and the encounter that changed. In DAoC/EQ/etc the support class truly did make the encounters easier, and since the encounters were already so difficult it didn’t make sense to do anything without one.

    @Danath: Agreed. I think a key point where is the rise of solo play. There was a turning point when developers encouraged players to solo more when soloing became faster and more rewarding. Yes, players have always enjoyed soloing and there have always been those opportunities, but not until a game fully embraced the entire gameplay experience until end-game raiding did the soloer have the majority interest.

    @UrbanHound: A good sorcerer in DAoC was an awesome addition to a group. Same with a Bloodmage from Vanguard!

    @JJRobinson: Yep, agreed.

    @Amiya: Yep, you said pretty much what I just replied to mmojuggler. I agree.

    @Misaligned: DAoC Skald was pretty awesome — I had a level 50. I’d also toss the Friar in there as a fun class! EQ Enchanter has always been a class I have admired from a distance. I have a level 24’ish Enchanter on P99 and I love it.

    @Joy-Energiser: Yeah, GW2 as ANY particular class was a disappointment. No true tanking, healing, or dps. Everyone was just sort of this amalgamous blob rolling around on the floor taking pot shots at mobs.

  • What makes no sense, is designing a game around solo play, until the very end. At which point, they expect players to find 20 other people for hours long raids.

    Back when grouping was the norm, players found guilds early because guilds were a great source of groups. People formed bonds and raids were just a natural progression of normal group/guild play. Not the case anymore.

  • I think it’s flawed logic to say that developers wanted players to solo more just because. It was about money, like almost everything is. Someone (WoW) decided that they could make much more money if people could solo the leveling process and they ended up being right. The rest of the chips, including the removal of support classes, fell from there.

    We can blame game developers as much as we want, but developers don’t drive the industry. The people buying the games do. The games with more solo content succeeded because the majority of players want to solo.

    That’s why a crowdfunded game like Camelot Unchained is so interesting. They aren’t beholden to investors or shareholders. They aren’t looking for the next big thing. They know the game they want to make and are telling people to take it or leave it. Whether this turns out to be a successful business model in the long run remains to be seen.

  • Forever the favorite class of any MMO EQ Enchanter. Vanguard Psionist is close. Allods Online version was interesting implementation. But yeah I haven’t had to do any “Support” in a long time.

    Could you imagine the requirement to group up to Level? No soloing allow except for yard trash?


    The original everquest had more developed spheres for Support/Tanking/Dps/CC because some classes almost solely played those roles. Trinity-classes like these needed things to do, so the game makers had to have enough content to keep them busy. Contrast that to today, where classes and roles are more mixed. Even the most trinity-like fighters are able to heal and buff and do some crowd control. Because a single character is utilizing multiple roles (support/dps/tanking/cc), the amount of content in each sphere had to be reduced. This results in shallower spheres.

    Note that shallower spheres does not mean the game, taken together, is shallower. It just means players are playing every role, versus just a single role.

    If this is true, one question which pops up is how did the hybrids in Everquest manage to juggle all of the extra work? How did they tank/dps/support/cc at teh same time?

  • Sorry for the caps. This topic is richly interesting to me.

    I want to add another few thing regarding the reason people prefer soloing over grouping most of the time. First, people SOMETIMES want to group, even if soloing is preferred. You cannot get the social element without it. So even if a game favors soloing, doesn’t mean grouping won’t happen! Second, grouping is (or was) a larger demand on time. For example, in Everquest, if grouped you couldn’t as easily go afk. If you went afk without warning or some planning, you could come back either to a wiped group or to a length corpse run without a group to help you. By soloing, it’s much easier to go afk because nobody else needs you for anything. The only limitation when soloing is to afk safely – which is very easy in Everquest with Feign Death.

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