This is a rewrite of the original Roles of Monsters: The Tank article from 2012. I didn’t feel that it was up to quality, there were some factual inaccuracies regarding the Hunter, and there’s one or two different points I want to make in addition. Despite this being rewritten after many of my other articles, I’m still making it read like it’s still 2012, before the others are written.
Over the last year or so, I’ve started becoming more aware of the different roles different monsters play. Most multiplayer games embrace the concept of differing roles, though. In a standard online RPG, the damage-dealers kill everything while the tanks take damage and the healers keep everyone alive. That’s been called the holy trinity of online gaming. There could be other roles as the mechanics in the game allow for it, but those are the main three. Groups of monsters in single-player games could operate the same way. Different classes or roles of monsters can make gameplay more dynamic, as it allows the designer to sculpt encounters that, for example, tax a player a certain way, try to kill him in a way he hasn’t run into before, or provide some other interesting obstacle. I should start out by saying, however, that gameplay design is something very fluid in general, and there is no true correct answer for any of this. That said, “incorrect” is still possible, when something is incredibly frustrating or boring for most players. The purpose of these articles is to give an educated opinion with examples as a good framework to build on, as well as warnings on things that I feel are just not fun to play with.
One of the most basic concepts in an online game is the tank. The tank role in MMORPGs is there to soak enemy attacks and take damage so everyone else in the group doesn’t have to. We can also use a similar concept for monsters: tank-type monsters in an encounter drawing attention away from the others. In a gameplay sense, they’re mostly used for either drawing the player’s weapons fire from others, or for soaking some time, ammo or other resources from the player. Not many games have designs for tank-type monsters specifically, but when they work correctly this role can enable some of the most interesting encounters.
The Mancubus from Doom 3 is a classic example of the basic tank-type. It’s very large, has a lot of health and is usually placed alongside weaker monsters (except for its first encounter.) For an attack, it shoots fireballs quite rapidly from its two arm cannons. They didn’t show up very often in the game, but when they did they were usually used as large artillery pieces with other monsters for support. It usually made the player want to ignore those others and kill the Mancubus first.
So, what makes an effective tank? Just like the role in any online game, the tank has to be able to take damage and should grab the player’s attention to protect other monsters while they do their jobs. The Mancubus does this fairly well since it’s so large, makes so much noise and can build up damage pretty fast if you let it. It’s not the most threatening monster in the game, but it’s just so obvious that the average player just has to shoot at it. In the case that it has taken the player’s attention, the tank should also survive long enough for those other monsters to do those jobs. The Mancubus has enough raw health to survive for a little while against the player, or else draw some ammo from the player’s more powerful weapons. As it stands, it’s a pretty mediocre tank for a number of reasons, but it’s a very basic, meat-and-potatoes example.
Another good example of a tank is the Gladiator from Quake 4. While it’s fairly beefy like the Mancubus, it can also put up an energy shield mounted on its arm. Any attacks that strike this shield don’t damage the Gladiator, but it’s still entirely vulnerable if you strike it anywhere else. For weapons, it had a standard blaster, and a very-damaging railgun. Throughout the game, the Gladiator is found leading a group of weaker monsters.
As I said, the tank has to be able to take punishment somehow. The classic tanks like the Mancubus simply just take a lot of damage before dying. The simple high-health tanks have the problem that it will always take this amount of ammo or takes this amount of time to kill. Tanks with some mitigation ability like the Gladiator, though, are more dynamic. In my opinion, some of the best tanks are the ones that can mitigate incoming damage like the Gladiator. These should be designed very carefully, though, because they can be really annoying in the completely wrong way, especially if discovering how to damage it is harder than actually killing it. The Gladiator works in this way because it’s very obvious that the shield prevents damage (or at least reduces it, from the player’s perspective). The player can still shoot around the shield, and the player has multiple weapons at his disposal (such as the grenade launcher) that can bypass the shield entirely.
One of the most incredible monsters capable of soaking up damage in any game I’ve seen is the Hunter from the Halo series. If the player hasn’t seen it before, the sight of a nine-foot tall wall of metal, a set of long spikes arcing from its back, firing explosive balls of energy is really intimidating and immediately demands the player’s focus. What’s more, they always come in pairs. The Hunter is also mostly immune to small-arms fire if you hit the very-abundant armor plating. However, there are a few gaps in the armor where you can hit the tissue beneath, which takes off a lot more health. They can also be damaged and killed by explosives no matter where you hit them.
Damage mitigation is a strong tool for tanks, but it can be very tricky to balance. In the first Halo game, the gaps in the Hunter’s armor count as the head of the model, and some weapons like the pistol will just kill it outright with just a single shot. It’s tricky to hit these spots unless the Hunter is charging at you, so in order to exploit this, the player has to directly put himself in harm’s way (especially tricky with a second Hunter shooting at him). Like with the Gladiator, a quick, intelligent player can get around that mitigation. In this case, I think the Hunter’s defense mechanic wasn’t designed correctly; it’s almost impossible to kill them with normal weapons (even if you’re shooting the weak points, it takes a lot to kill it), but they die to a single “headshot” from headshot-capable weapons. Either it’s a complete stone-wall without explosives or the right weapons, or they die outright with no challenge. It still does take the player’s focus, though, but it dies a little too quickly to work well as a tank. They changed the Hunter quite a bit in later games: In Halo 3, they take a bit more damage, their weak spots are covered up by armor plates that can be shot off, and they don’t die to single attacks even when those weak spots are exposed.
There are some monsters that would potentially make decent tanks, but for many different reasons don’t quite work. The popular ZDoom mod Knee-Deep in ZDoom (KDiZD) had the Hell Warrior. It’s very similar to Doom’s own Hell Knight but with a large shield and an alternate attack that passes through targets. When damaged, it can sometimes raise its shield and become invulnerable for a few seconds. Fights with the Hell Warrior were more about time management, hitting it with high-damage weapons while the shield is down and waiting until it’s vulnerable again.
There were two things wrong with the Hell Warrior in KDiZD. The first is that while it does have some damage mitigation, there’s no choice for the player and no way to play around it. It becomes invulnerable, and the player just has to wait for it to become vulnerable again. The player could take this time to ignore it and focus on other monsters in the encounter. Which leads me to the second issue: there usually weren’t any other monsters in the encounter. The Hell Warrior was almost always placed alone blocking a hallway, and you had to kill it in order to continue. It wasn’t a threat on its own, but it could have done okay supporting other monsters, so its abilities were completely wasted the way it was used.
The last and probably the most situational and minor role of the tank is to use up some of the player’s time. In the Resurrection of Evil expansion for Doom 3, there was a section where you had limited air in this toxic waste area. Once or twice, a Mancubus comes along and blocks your path, forcing you to deal with it while your air was ticking away. This made the limited oxygen mechanic seem more urgent, though there was still more than enough air for the section. Another example was in the Strogg Medical Labs in Quake 4; in one spot, you go into a dead end to pick up some ammo and a Gladiator comes up behind you. You have a limited amount of time to kill it before it walks up to melee range and starts slapping you around, making it much harder to deal with. These timed scenarios are very situational, however, and often depend on outside mechanics (such as limited oxygen) to work correctly. Without those outside mechanics (and even with them sometimes), it just feels like a waste of time for the player without accomplishing anything if it isn’t done right.
In this article, I’m not only talking about how to make a tank-type monster, I’m also talking about how to use the tank role. Any monster that takes enough punishment and is threatening enough to focus on before other monsters is a tank, and there are things to consider when they’re used. If they’re used alone, then it should have a purpose. When they’re used with a group of other monsters, tanks can help create more interesting encounters for the player, making him decide how to proceed and making him think about what he should prioritize. The only times a dedicated tank fails at this role is if they outright die, or if they don’t take the player’s attention. If you design a dedicated tank-type monster, building in damage mitigation can make them more survivable and can add more choices for the player in how to deal with it. Hopefully, I’ve given a good enough overview and given enough to think about when designing and using this role.