I find it interesting that my PvE fleet activities in EVE Online have me gravitating towards piloting logistics ships repairing the rest of the fleet, effectively being a 'healer', because it is not a role that has appealed to me in previous games. Admittedly, my experience with MMORPGs is quite limited, so it perhaps shouldn't be surprising that different games have different approaches to similar situations, but I still find the comparisons noteworthy. My main point of reference is World of Warcraft, where the tank, healer and DPS roles are strongly defined.
My first character incidentally turned out to be DPS and luckily, as a warlock, was self-sustaining. I had little wasted time replenishing resources, as they could be regained during combat, and I had a mobile tank in the form of a pet for solo play. My second character was a tank, although I had no understanding of the archetype for many months, only learning when being able to observe tanks when my DPS character raided actively. Once I understood tanking it became highly appealing. I have tried to play healing characters a couple of times but I never got far with any of them, partly because the necessity of being a somewhat hybrid class—needing some damage spells in order to be functional outside of a group—and partly because the style of gameplay didn't appeal to me.
The strong threat mechanics in World of Warcraft maintain my appeal to be a tank or DPS. Threat is strongly defined, being the basis of the PvE game, and is used heavily in tanking and incidentally in DPS. The task of the tank is to ensure none of the mobs are attacking anyone they shouldn't, nominally by keeping them controlled by maintaining the highest threat of the group. The appeal in tanking for me is its active nature, needing to switch between all of the mobs in combat to ensure they are focussed on my character and using my various abilities to best effect my high threat. The level of success is clearly and dynamically displayed by the reactions of the mobs and lack of damage to the rest of the party. My tank is active and engaged in the fight, with evident results.
DPS appeals to me also. Although it doesn't appear to be as active as tanking, the mechanics of ensuring optimal damage output keeps the fight dynamic. The varied abilities that cause damage, combined with their different cool-down timers, makes finding an efficient 'rotation' of abilities rewarding, which is complicated when fighting multiple mobs where spreading or focussing damage, or switching targets at certain times, adds to the small level of complexity of the fight. Attention needs to be paid to the most vulnerable targets, as well as those most likely to cause most damage in return, whilst taking care not to pull aggro from the tank.
Healing, however, fails to get my attention. It is quite possible that I simply haven't progressed a healer far enough to understand their mechanics, or I fundamentally misunderstand the complications involved in healing. It seems to me, though, that in a group with good DPS and a good tank the healer only needs to keep the tank healed, for the most part. All of the mobs are focussed on the tank so he is the only one taking damage. I'm sure being a good healer isn't that straightforward, as there is resource management to consider, but in a competent group there doesn't seem to be much more to do than heal the tank. Of course, when situations go awry the healing gets much more complex, but the same is true for tanking and I would rather not play in poor groups all the time just to get an interesting experience. Yet I am enjoying being a healer in EVE Online.
The differences between World of Warcraft and EVE Online are likely to be caused by the fundamental PvP nature of the latter game, resulting in a much weaker threat mechanic. It is only relatively recently that a more dynamic threat system has been incorporated, and it was only introduced to the Sleeper ships of w-space and not to the PvE game in general. Even with the new threat mechanics, the general mechanisms remain unchanged. Of course, PvP combat negates any overt threat mechanics, so my observations can be assumed to apply to PvE situations. And as the only dynamic threat mechanism applies to Sleeper combat I can be considered to be discussing these encounters in general.
Tanking in EVE Online is based on being able to absorb the damage you receive. Although this is arguably a part of tanking in World of Warcraft, where large amounts of armour and a big health pool help reduce the difficulty of the healer's task, the threat component is missing from the spaceships. Threat in EVE Online seems to be based mostly on the damage output of a ship, or the ability to disrupt the opponents' systems. There are no systems or skills that expressly increase the threat of a ship. And, because of that, in order to increase the threat of a ship, the addition of extra firepower or disruptive systems comes at the cost of removing armour and other defensive systems that are essential for absorbing damage. Effectively, to increase the amount of damage a ship can absorb means to reduce the amount of threat it can generate, and the converse is also true, which is antithetical to archetypal MMORPG tanking.
DPS and tanking in EVE Online are not separate roles but different points on a continuum. It is quite normal for ships to be fitted with both DPS systems and a tank, compromised more one way or the other depending on the type and amount of resistance expected to be encountered. The more DPS fitted the quicker the hostile ships will be defeated and less tank is required, because of the reduced incoming damage. A bigger tank can handle more ships at the expense of reduced DPS, with the encounters then taking longer as a result. Normally, the compromise is to fit as much DPS as possible that retains a tank that is good enough. But tanking is not just damage absorption, or a 'buffer' tank, as active tanking repairs damage received. This effectively also makes the ships their own healers, as well as tanking and DPS. Piloting a ship is understandably an active process. The mechanics only separate more when flying as part of a fleet.
In a fleet, the healing can be distributed amongst the tank/DPS ships, with remote systems able to provide more resources to individual ships than any one ship could provide for itself. Or the healing can be removed entirely and transferred to a completely separate ship, which is where the role of logistic ships comes in. The logistic ships carry all the remote repair modules and need to monitor the status of the ships in the fleet to ensure their integrity holds. Whilst this is superficially similar to being a healer in World of Warcraft, the lack of strong threat mechanics in EVE Online changes the role considerably.
Because tanking and DPS are points on the same continuum, it is not possible to create a ship that can maintain threat whilst having the greatest damage mitigation, as this would involve outputting the highest DPS and having the biggest tank. If there were such a ship, everyone would be flying one. As such, the ship being shot at is unlikely to be the sturdiest, and will require more concentrated repairs than one with a bigger tank. Meanwhile, the ship with the biggest tank is unlikely to be shot at because it rarely does enough damage to attract attention. As enemies are destroyed and new targets switched to, the incoming fire is directed to competing DPS ships, requiring the repair boats to remain alert and maintain active application of repair modules where needed.
DPS/tanking in EVE Online seems relatively straightforward in general, particularly in a fleet with logistic repair ships. As long as the right target is being shot, all is well. And although I like dealing damage and causing explosions, trying to increase my damage output as much as possible, the generally passive nature of fleet combat doesn't appeal quite so much as being the healer. In my new role, I need to keep all the friendly ships locked, actively monitor their status, watch for changes in incoming fire, and re-allocate my repair modules to where they are most needed. Added complications arise when the ships compromise their capacitor stability for increased damage output, needing me to feed them energy with separate modules whilst maintaining my own energy stability, as well as having to keep both quick and slow moving ships within range of my modules.
The differences in mechanics between World of Warcraft and EVE Online make for some interesting comparisons between established role archetypes. Outside of PvP, the level of activity and involvement required is surprisingly different across similar roles. There is a richness in the two environments that allows me to appreciate different perspectives and adopt unfamiliar roles, whilst keeping me equally engaged. I never knew healing could be as involving and require quite as much awareness of the whole field of combat, and I am glad I have been introduced to it.