In Support of Supports

Janna, a support character from League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009)

The damage dealers may get the accolades, but the true unsung heroes of class-based games are the support champions and their designers.

The flashy menaces of multiplayer games get all the love. Their flurry of sword strikes, bestial roars, and shadowy auras give the deadliest avatars an edge in popularity contests. The damage dealers may get the looks, but the true unsung heroes of class-based games are the support champions and their designers. Creating a combat role that specifically stands back from the fray, setting aside offensive prowess for ostensibly subtle benefits, but nevertheless satisfies a sizeable player base, sounds unreasonably difficult. Yet creating a niche in multiplayer gaming for the reserved and tactical group of players who prefer supporting compatriots to devastating their foes adds an incredible level of nuance to a game experience for all players. The support class remains one of the best inventions of modern multiplayer gaming.

We have come a long way from the hectic firefights of Quake. Modern shooters lean more toward tactics than twitch gameplay and advanced rocket jumps. The run-and-gun shooter is all but dead and class-based combat has soundly taken its place. From Battlefield to Borderlands, support characters and load-outs bolster the efforts of offensive warriors. Bestowing health with spells or med kits keep the damage sponges fit and healthy, revive abilities bring back fallen comrades from death, and ammo packs keep the fight moving. Similarly, MMOs are commonly built on the "one tank, one-support, and three-dps" rule, in which heavy hitters unleash damage on foes while the tank corrals enemies and soaks up hits and the healer... Well the healer stands in the background, heals, and tries not to die.

While helpful, none of this sounds outright thrilling. Indeed, I suspect a large swath of players never bother playing support classes at all. In MMOs at least, healers are always in high demand because so many users prefer blasting their foes to bits instead of patching up their foolhardy allies. When players pursue glory, support characters are shunned.

A well designed support character, defying expectations, is an absolute blast to play. However, well designed support characters are, almost by definition, difficult to master and therefore present a large barrier entry to casual players. Take a look at Team Fortress 2's incredibly well designed Medic character. While the medic’s damage output is minimal, his healing powers can be devastating. While healing allies, medics charge up the power to grant temporary invulnerability. The charge speed increases when healing damaged allies, so medics have every incentive to find their hurt allies and top them up. This requires a second level of attentiveness other classes lack. Medics must pay attention to both enemies and allies, while also surveying team composition, battle layout, and current meta-strategy to maximize their effectiveness. Trying to seize a capture point? Try staying with your heavy, the team's mobile tank. Looking to take out enemy turrets? Maybe follow a soldier instead. Alternatively, circle shootouts, healing your allies along the way, right before you time a blast of invulnerability. Mastering the medic class demands a comprehensive understanding of the entire system, not just your single space within it.

Support champions in League of Legends demand a similar level of attentiveness and knowledge of strategy. Warding the map, placing sight-granting beacons to increase visibility of enemy movement, is incredibly important in high level play and almost exclusively falls into the domain of support characters. Counter-warding, finding and destroying enemy wards, can also seperate a great support from a good one. Depending on a support champion’s abilities, support players may also play a coordinating role, granting sight in specific locations on the map or otherwise directing the battlefield. Many support characters can also buff their teammates, increasing their movement speed, for example. While a carry might be searching out weak single targets to quickly eliminate, a support might be searching for openings and weaknesses in their own or their enemy’s defenses.

A support character aids in a battle in TERA (En Masse Entertainment, 2011)

How do you design a good support role that demands players benefit from a mastery over a game system but have significantly less direct influence on that system? Wizards of the Coast earned some criticism when they spiced up their support classes in 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons by giving all their powers some form of offensive effect. Battlefield followed suit in a way by abolishing the Medic and creating the Support and Assault classes, distributing support responsibilities. Both games are perfectly enjoyable but sacrifice pure utility for offensive capabilities.

Most recently, TERA has revived the full support character with a thrilling take on the tired MMO formula. A so-called “action MMO”, TERA requires players actually aim at their targets and this includes healers. Topping off the tank becomes a far more difficult task when a giant beast stands in the way, and cleansing another ally from poison becomes tense when they keep hopping to and fro across the battlefield. Playing a Mystic, I have never before found healing so exhilarating in an MMO. I am dodging attacks with the rest of my team, dropping healing orbs in strategic locations for my allies to pick up on their own later in the match, keeping an eye on the health of my teammates, watching for status effects to remove, all while running around the battlefield, crowd controlling new spawns, and dealing out what little damage I can manage in between the chaos of supporting my team. When done right, being entirely in the background can feel like the most important role in the world.

Joss Whedon, not a game designer but a film and television creator, captures the essence of support characters better than anyone. His “side characters” in Buffy and even The Avengers all get their moment to shine -- however brief -- before fading back into the whole. They freely show vulnerabilities rarely seen in the hero archetype. They back their team up, and they do it with pride, carrying a burden we all too easily ignore. Playing a support can feel like carrying a team without ever expecting gratitude. It can give a better understanding of team dynamics and reveal the most important parts of a game system. A well designed support class is the sign of a well designed game. My hat is off to those who craft the most underappreciated role in modern multiplayer game design.

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