DPS player: “It’s much easier to be a bad dps than a bad tank, but it’s much harder to be a very good dps that a very good tank.”
Tank player: “No way, it’s much harder to be an excellent tank than an excellent DPS!”
Healer player: “Tanking and dps are both faceroll.”
This is an argument that pops up from time to time. It’s the wow equivalent of a perennial – it sprouts, blooms into a frenzy of froth and rage, and eventually subsides into a long slumber, only to come back again a few months later and do it all again. There are other perennials (hardcore vs. casual anyone?), but this one is one of my favorites.
Why? Because I’m a scientist, so I like to deal with facts. Data. Statistics. And in this argument, there aren’t any. There’s really very little point in making statements like this, because there’s no way to validate them. We don’t have a comprehensive data set that lets us evaluate which role is more difficult. It’s entirely subjective. So the argument always comes across as arguing for the sake of arguing, which is oddly amusing when you’re content to be an observer and not a participant.
However, I do think that there’s a rational way to approach the discussion which, if nothing else, shows why the discussion is so subjective. You can identify a player’s traits, like situational awareness, reactions, planning, an understanding of the core concepts of your class’s mechanics, and so on. Think of these as a vague, numerical representation of a player’s primary stats. That player’s “real-life” character sheet, if you will. There’s a certain threshold for being “very good” at both roles – you obviously need a baseline level of most or all of these traits to be “very good” at either role. And more of any of those things is always better. But the returns on that extra amount of skill will be different for each role.
For example, starting from the “very good” baseline, a player with exceptional reactions and ability to plan ahead might find that they excel at DPS, which rewards responding to procs, ICDs, rotational planning around cooldowns, etc. Their level of situational awareness is “good enough” to not stand in fire and respond properly to boss mechanics. More wouldn’t hurt, but the returns on that extra situational awareness might be relatively low. Do they not stand in fire better? Maybe they take one less tick of damage from a debuff here or there, or might be able to get a raid utility ability off more effectively, but the impact on their primary role is not as apparent as the difference between “good enough” and “not good enough.” And it’s certainly less apparent than the difference due to being “exceptional” rather than “good enough” in their primary stat, reactions. That player would probably find being an awesome DPS easier than being an awesome tank.
A second player who has “very good” baseline reactions and planning but exceptional situational awareness might find tanking “easier” because of their natural ability to keep track of the battle environment (loose mobs, boss positioning, boss buffs/debuffs, encounter-based danger periods, environmental hazards, raid health levels, etc.). Better reactions will always help (faster reactive cooldown usage, taunts, and so forth), but not as much as being excellent at noticing loose adds or the conditions under which they’re likely to lose aggro. They’re still going to be “very good” at DPS simply by virtue of being a very good player, but it might feel more difficult to them than tanking.
I’ve been intentionally vague with regards to these traits for a few reasons. For one thing, I’m guessing a bit with regards to what’s most important to each role. You could probably make similar arguments that come to a slightly different conclusion about which traits make a bigger difference. That’s not really the over-arching point though; the idea is that these traits exist in the first place, and which role you find easy or hard depends on those traits in some direct way. Another way to think of it is that all of the roles get better with each trait, but they have diminishing returns that differ from role to role.
Another reason to stay vague is that I’m sure these traits aren’t entirely innate. Unlike in games, you aren’t born with an unchanging set of primary stats. They’re things you can practice and improve at, in general. And there are ways to artificially improve them as well. One interpretation of in-game addons is that they’re aids to buff your primary stats. Boss mods might be the real-life equivalent of a helm of +10 situational awareness, rotation helpers and proc-watchers are boots of +10 reactions, and ICD/cooldown/debuff timers are shoulders of +10 planning. You could even extend this to interface design and computer hardware; the arrangement of your addons affects your play, as does a larger monitor or optimized mouse/gamepad/keyboard arrangement.
So it’s fairly pointless to try and say that either role is more difficult, because it depends entirely on the individual player’s strengths and weaknesses and how those line up with the skills emphasized in their role. You could try and argue that the population as a whole skews towards being strong in certain areas, but I think that’s rather pointless too – nobody has a robust enough data set to rigorously evaluate that assertion. And every individual has a personal bias (even me), so without such a data set that sort of subjective commentary is sort of worthless.
And in any event, I think that “which role takes more skill” is a red herring here, especially given that the context in which this argument arises (at least this time) is one of dungeon-finder queue times. The disparity between tanks and DPS almost certainly has less to do with the amount of skill or difficulty associated with the roles than several other prominent factors:
Consequences of player skill – it’s easier for a less skilled player to “skate by” in a 5-man as a DPS than as a tank. Again, not because either role is more difficult, but because the consequences of being a bad tank are more severe. If the tank screws up a lot, the group can wipe repeatedly and/or never finish the instance. If a DPS screws up a lot (and isn’t kicked), the bosses just die a little more slowly. It might’ve been a different situation early in the expansion where good DPS was critical to completing the 5-man encounters, or in timed ZA runs nowadays, but most of the early-Cata 5-man bosses can (and often have, in the case of DPS dying shortly after the pull) be 3-manned by a solid tank/healer/dps combo.
Pressure – because of the above, there’s a feeling of pressure associated with tanking. In some sense, you’re being put under the microscope, because any errors you make can manifest themselves in ways that the group notices (low TPS -> losing aggro, poor situational awareness -> standing in fire and dying, etc.). We might not notice it anymore as “career tanks,” because we’ve grown accustomed to it or even enjoy it. But to someone who’s unfamiliar with the role (or just not very self-confident), it can be scary and anxiety-inducing to be the tank. That all by itself is a significant psychological factor that discourages people from trying to tank – there are well-established theories about how we as humans have a tendency to avoid things that make us anxious.
“Big Numbers”– I have a theory regarding this game that I like to call the “big numbers” hypothesis. Basically, big numbers are fun. We like to crit with an ability and see lots of digits pop up on our screen. You could even go as far as to put a Freudian bent on it – big numbers are the in-game way of expressing that your manhood is huge.
And what role gets bigger numbers? DPS, of course. Unless you rig your scrolling combat text mod to show you threat instead of DPS. Then your penis is the size of Godzilla.
Note that I have no idea how (or if) this last argument works for the ladies – I suggest you torment Ana by asking her instead.