"[T]housands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."
-- John Milton, "On His Blindness"
There's a belief I've seen expressed by a number of developers that can be paraphrased as: "All players want to be The Hero. Every gamer expects to be the all-powerful savior, prime mover of all action, star of the show, center of all attention. Therefore every game that personifies the player as a character in a world must to be designed to allow the player to be the hero. And that goes for multiplayer games, too."
Not to pick on Emily Short, who is a respected creator of Interactive Fiction games, but an example of this perspective can be found in a talk she gave at GDC Online in 2012, as summarized on Gamasutra: Making Everyone Feel Like a Star in a Multiplayer Game. As Gamasutra's Frank Cifaldi summarized it: "Even in a multiplayer game, every player has to feel as if they are playing out their own personal, unique story. They cannot feel as if they are in a supporting role, or their investment in the narrative will fall apart."
It's a nice theory. Is it true?
I'm Ready For My Close-Up
For some gamers, it is true. They do want to be the hero, and they do expect any and every personification game (where you play as a character) to cater to that desire. Character-based games, they feel, are essentially power fantasies where the world is supposed to revolve around them. Although they are unlikely to say it this way, these gamers expect every feature in a game to be about letting them express dominance, either "physical" (as through combat in a three-dimensional game world) or emotional (as in much interactive fiction).
Even if a desire to follow some version of Campbell's "Hero's Journey" isn't baked into people, gamers today have grown up with games in which you are the hero who saves the world. So many games follow this pattern that it would be surprising if many gamers have not come to expect it as a natural, even required, element of all personification games.
The problem is that this expectation of epic centrality is demonstrably not true for all gamers. Despite the pattern, not every gamer wants to be the hero. There's evidence of a meaningful minority of gamers who are happiest when a game gives them ways to help other players succeed. These gamers truly do not want to be the star -- they prefer a supporting role.
The Cleric as Un-Hero
Consider the four archetypal classes: warrior, wizard, rogue, cleric. Warriors deal mêlée damage and are pack mules; wizards cast ranged spells and know lots of lore; rogues backstab, detect traps and steal shiny things. All of these are heroic in their own way -- their gameplay content is about acting for themselves. The actions the game is designed to allow them to take are all focused on their own self-enhancement.
But clerics, while they can sometimes do divinely-inspired damage, are mostly about healing the wounds or diseases of other characters, along with protecting ("buffing") other characters. That's been the traditional functional definition of the cleric role in roleplaying games dating back to Dungeons & Dragons (and probably before that). A modern addition is some form of "crowd-control" feature, but the function is the same: providing support to the actively heroic characters.
That style of play is not about indulging power fantasies. The game actions that a cleric is built to perform aren't centered on the person playing the character, but on other players. So why are cleric roles implemented in games at all? Why do developers even bother implementing a cleric role if character-based games are supposed to be all about letting the player feel like a hero?
The World Needs a Healer
One explanation is that the healer role is included simply as a matter of utility. If a game is pretty much all about killing (as most computer games are), then to make it interesting there needs to be some risk of being injured yourself. If there's no way to heal your own injuries, then you need someone else to do the healing. And in a typical fantasy setting, that character is the cleric. In a modern setting, this role is often called a "medic," as in Valve's Team Fortress 2 multiplayer game, but it's pretty much the same other-focused functionality.
But of course it's not a hard design requirement in any constructed computer game to have some other person heal your character. It's simple enough to provide the healing function through potions or stimpaks that magically undo character damage. And yet game developers keep implementing character class roles whose abilities are focused on helping other characters.
Perhaps developers do this because enough gamers like playing clerics to justify moving those abilities to a separate class role. But that begs the question: if a roleplaying game offers a role whose primary function is to support other players, why are there so many gamers who are happy to fill that role? If everyone really expects to be the star, who are all these people looking to be part of the supporting cast?
The Craft of Helping
In fact, clerics aren't the only source of supportive abilities in roleplaying games, particularly in the massively multiplayer online variety (MMORPGs). A popular alternative activity in these games is "crafting," which involves creating objects that are usable and useful inside the game world.
Although there is pleasure in the crafting of new things (though, from my Explorer perspective, that reason for crafting is almost never emphasized), most crafting in MMORPGs is there to provide useful objects for other players. Often these are specific to combat gameplay -- weapons or ammunition -- but crafting can also be defined as a source of tools such as fishing poles or resource detectors.
Either way, in a game where usable objects can be looted from defeated enemies, implementing crafting gameplay insures that combat players don't have to hope and wait for certain items to drop as loot. Crafting also allows some players to serve a useful role in a game without forcing them to participate in direct combat gameplay. This allows more people to play the game (and pay for the privilege) than would have been the case in a combat-only game.
One of the best-known descriptions of this playstyle preference is the article posted to Stratics in 2001 by Lloyd Sommerer (as "Sie Ming"): I Want to Bake Bread. In this plea for game developer understanding, Lloyd ably points out the kinds of supportive behaviors that some gamers enjoy providing, and wonders why developers don't seem interested in the benefits a game can obtain from including features that attract gamers like these.
It's still a good question.
Supportive Play is Good Gameplay
To sum up: some people enjoy helping other people, but few games reward that playstyle. That's a missed opportunity, both in terms of revenue and of including people in your gaming community who are genuinely helpful. If they don't play the hero, that's OK, and smart developers will create gameplay for them instead of trying to force them into the hero's boots (which won't work).
The people who come to a computer game wanting to play a healer, or a maker of things, are there specifically because they want to play a character-filled game that does not force them into the spotlight. Being able to play a supporting role satisfies a deeply held need of some people to be of service to others. These helpful souls are not only content to let others have the limelight, they actually prefer it that way. Their pleasure comes from helping others succeed.
That kind of character is in direct contradiction to how pretty much every personification game is designed. Whether you like it or not, you're forced to be the star, to make all the big decisions for yourself and maybe others, too.
But by assuming that every game has to be designed that way, developers are telling many would-be gamers that their playstyle interests aren't wanted. That's a shame both artistically and commercially.
Games don't need to be only about support roles. You could create a game where the player can only be a healer or a crafter, and those might be fun -- but it's not necessary to go that far.
A game that offers the option of rewarding players for being supportive, for helping out NPCs or other players in ways that don't involve saving the world or being put on a stage for it, would be one that more people would find enjoyable. It would be more fun for more people, and would bring more cooperative play to gameworlds that are often harshly contentious.
As game design goals go, that's not a bad one.