Raiding and the Great Healer Problem

Of the three main roles in the ‘holy trinity’, it’s healing which changes the most between small groups and large raids.

In a single group, one healer usually supports the rest of the party. There may be an off-healer along as well who switches between dps and healing as needed. In a raid, there are many more people who may need to be healed, and also a larger healing corps who need to somehow coordinate who is going to heal which characters.

Unlike tanking, which is easy to organise (ie. you tank mob X, I’ll tank mob Y, and that other guy can grab the adds), sorting out the healing is a more complex problem. Healers in raids are often given very specific assignments to make this easier to manage. But it isn’t easy to always get this right. Assignments depend on the encounter, on the strengths and gear of the various players involved, and on the raid group itself.

Healing is also fundamentally different from tanking and dps. With tanking, there’s a set number of mobs who need to be tanked. It’s very easy to predict how many tanks you will need for an encounter and that’s unlikely to vary much. With dps, more is always better. You can always make a kill faster. But with healing, there is a maximum of heals that the raid will ever need. If you can see how much damage is thrown out, then you can figure out how many healers can take care of it. Healers can also ‘snipe’ each other’s heals — if I get a heal in before you and heal a player back to full health, then your heal will be wasted. We talk about overhealing (ie. heals that were wasted because the person they landed on didn’t need them) and it measures how much more time and energy was spent on healing than the encounter really needed.

It would be easy to imagine mechanics which converted overheals into something more useful. Maybe extra damage on the target’s target, or some kind of buff, or even just storing them in a buffer to be used the next time the person takes damage. But that’s not a common feature in MMOs – the skill of healing is to be smart enough not to waste power on overheals that you might need later. (In WoW at the moment, overhealing isn’t a major issue, healers have more than enough mana. But there’s a pass on this next patch.)

There are actually three big healer problems connected with raiding in WoW. At least one of them is common to just about every MMO which has healing classes.

How can we find enough healers?

Healers are often in short supply anyway, it’s not as popular a role as dps or tanking. Raid healers also anecdotally burn out more quickly than any other role. It’s a stressful job with low visibility – people often blame healers for wipes even when it wasn’t their fault. Healers also aren’t usually as involved in the details of an encounter, it’s very easy to spend the whole time staring at a raid interface and frantically trying to keep the green bars from dropping (aka playing whack-a-mole).

It has been a constant struggle to find healers in most MMOs I have played. Oddly enough, we have plenty in WoW at the moment. I think dual specs have invigorated the healing classes (which are all hybrids in Warcraft so can have a dps as well as a healing spec now if they want). But this is also partly because healing requirements drop over time, which is my next point.

I healed myself out of a job!

Jov@World of Snarkcraft covers this better than I ever could.

As a raid gears up, the tanks take less damage, the dps kill the mobs more quickly, and everyone learns to stay out of the fire. So the raid in general needs less healing. If they are tackling hard modes or just want to speed up the farm runs, then it makes a lot of sense to replace an unnecessary healer (who would be bored anyway) with more dps.

Dual specs should have provided an answer to this. Get one of the healers to switch to dps, no problem. But there is a problem. Firstly, what if the player wanted to heal? It’s what they had originally specced and geared for, after all. And second, hard modes can involve highly tuned dps races. So that healer can’t be replaced by an inexperienced dps in offspec gear that’s a tier or so behind the content. They need to be replaced by a main spec dps character to beat the various timers.

Short form: raids need more healers during initial progression than later in the raid instance lifetime. Not only does this mean that it makes sense to drop one or more healers from the group (until the next raid instance comes out), it forces the existing healers to be competitive with each other. If one class turns out to be better suited to healing current raid content than others, then it’s pretty clear who is less likely to be dropped.

What makes this worse is that the rest of the raid group is often very happy about being able to drop healers and make the kill faster. This does nothing to make the remaining healers feel wanted (and a lot of people play support classes because they like feeling wanted), it’s more as if it slows everyone down to have to take the support classes along.

There are solutions to this. Dual spec is one of them, healers being better able to boost raid dps (maybe via buffs or an ability to turn overheals into dps) is another. Not tuning hard modes to be such total dps races is another (ie. so that it’s sufficient to get a healer to switch to their dps offspec).

In any case, it’s hard to escape the feeling that if the healers do a really good job, people will just think: great, we can drop a healer.

Raid healing is boring

This may be a personal thing but I find raid healing terrifically tedious and this is why. In a 5 man group, the healer gets to make a lot of decisions all the time about who to heal and which heal to use. 10 man raids are still small enough that healers need to adapt on the fly.  But once you get into a large raid, it’s very likely that you will be given a fixed assignment. You may get told off later if you drift from your assignment, even if the raid was completely successful and you kept your healing assignments up as well.

Managing a team of healers is a complex job. To make it more tractable, healing leads do use fixed assignments and the tactics require healers to stick to them. So healing in a large raid often means that you lose a lot of the normal fun decision making of healing in groups. You don’t even get to decide who you heal. No wonder people refer to healers as healbots. I’ve never felt so much like a healbot as in a large raid, and I used to be a healing lead in 40 man raids. Not only that but you probably won’t even get to use half the spells you use in 5 man instances.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges in raid healing is how to setup your UI and addons so that you can most easily work out what’s going on. In any discussion about addons, you’ll see the healers weighing in most loudly. This is because a tank mostly just needs to see the boss and any adds. So do dps. But a healer needs to be able to see the mobs AND the entire raid. And because healing is so often reactive, they need everything to be represented in a way that makes it easy to react very quickly.

This would be vastly easier if WoW could steal an idea from WAR and give everyone the ability to have both a friendly and an unfriendly target. What they actually do instead is let you have a focus target (which may be friendly or unfriendly) as well as your main target. It’s workable but not as simple as if heals always went to your friendly target and damage to the unfriendly one.

By comparison, raid tanking IS different from group tanking but it’s not any less interesting.

A lot of this does come down to WoW in general. If healing raids was more similar to healing groups then it wouldn’t be an issue. You could imagine a game where most healing spells are actually group heals. In that game you’d assign one healer per group and focus on positioning so that a group would always be within heal range. You could imagine a game where it actually wasn’t possible for a healer to heal outside their group. That would give them back the flexibility to decide how to keep their group alive.

But in that case, it simply wouldn’t be possible to drop the number of healers in a raid. You’d need one per group. And maybe more than one for the main tank group. It’s not a flexible way to manage the setup.

Being tedious is not necessarily a problem in itself. Some players prefer to have their assignments predetermined. And it’s way less of an issue for healing classes that specialise in single target healing anyway. If you are mostly healing the tank in raids, and mostly healing the tank in instances, then there’s no reason that raid healing will be any duller for you. But if you like cross-healing (ie. healing whoever you like in the raid) then it’s frustrating to be told that you can’t do it.

I always found battleground healing far more fun, for that reason.

WoW Raiding just isn’t kind to healers

I think it’s the highly tuned aspect of WoW raids that makes them so awkward for healers. When you have a fixed number of people in the raid and a lot of pressure to kill bosses as fast as possible, the raid spots which don’t directly add to damage are under more stress.

I don’t mean that I haven’t enjoyed raid healing in WoW on the occasions when I have done it. But they haven’t really nailed yet how to make raid healing fun, and even the encounters that are designed to test healers (like Loatheb) are often dull for everyone else.

For me, the absolute high water mark was healing Zul Aman on my druid. Hex Lord Malacrass was an absolutely awesome fight – busy in lots of ways, lots for everyone to do, and it really did test the healers. I was proud when we got that and I was there. (The low water mark was 40-man Razuvious because I didn’t get to heal at all on my priest and had 38 people shouting at me on Vent whenever the mind control broke.)

If you play a healer, how do you feel about raid healing?

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19 thoughts on “Raiding and the Great Healer Problem

  1. I never healed in a raid environment. You are probably right, smaller instances where you are the only healer are more interesting, you definitely have more things to watch and do.

    I like the alternate take on Healing in Age of Conan.

    Healing was mostly weak Party-HoT based heals, a few (one for my Tempest of Set only) strong direct heals and a CONE heal: Peope standing in the cone before you were healed with a direct heal part and a strong, short HoT. Priests of Mitra have a holy lance spell that heals friendly targets in its line of effect and damages mobs that it hits at the same time.

    Casting Lightning upon enemy mobs, nuking basically, increased the power of my next “Life of Set” cone heal, and reduced mana needed for the heal. Heals cost a lot of mana, while the nukes almost cost nothing in AoC. There were and are lots of balance problems, as the combo of Nuker+Healer is inherently very powerful in both PvE and PvP.

    Tanks are still tanks in this system, and healers still healers, but the rigid trinity roles get lessened and allow for more diversity and fun.

  2. C’thun. It’s not an encounter that a lot of people got to see when it was in all it’s glory, but speaking as a raid healer at the time? Ohmagawd! Not only did we not get to play whackamole watching the raid bars, you had to move. You had to think. You had to DPS too if you ended up in the stomach.

    The reason C’thun took so long for just about everyone? Was because it pretty much broke the mould to all boss encounters before that. And I still love the C’thun fight as it was. It even pains me to go back in and just blat it.

  3. I think part of the lack of popularity of healers is that it’s a high impact yet one that’s also highly reactive. You only get to react to the way encounters evolve, with very little control over the sitution. Unlike say, a Tank who tends to dictate the encounter and thusly is a fairly prestigous part of the raid, or a dps where you’re aggressively reacting to the situation and are mainly focused on yourself, as heals you’re reliant on the skills of 25 other raid members to dictate how the event is going to the point where you’re essentially playing a seperate game from everyone else and a lot of the time, it’s not a terribly exciting game which consists of you dying cause someone else messed up.

  4. See, I actually ENJOY healing in a raid more than healing in an instance. Of course, my position in a raid is raid-healing. Too often in instances, at least once you’re geared up, it’s just mindlessly spamming one spell on the tank unless the DPS is just being dumb. There’s some instances of AOE, and some random secondary targets, but in most of my (admittedly non-pug) instance runs, DPS are either fine or dead.

    But, then again, I don’t like tank healing in raids.

    • I was thinking more of progression type 5 and 10 mans (you can tell that I used to heal more during TBC). Do you think removing downranking affected how fun it was for you?

      • Didn’t really change how fun it was. Flash just became the direct replacement of GHeal 1. (Or, if we’re talking the FIRST downranking nerf, Heal2.)

        At least as far as priests go, I don’t consider the removal of downranking to be a game-killer. We almost never used max-Greater in TBC, because it was too big, and pallies had the tanks 90% covered anyway. Greater 1 healed a good amount while being less expensive mana-wise than most of our regen. In single-target healing situations, it was pretty much your only button.

        Between glyphing and Surge of Light, flash has taken the place of it. Greater STILL usually heals for too much, so it’s a combination of CoH, and using flash to stack serendipity and let loose with a speedy PoH. So, I guess, the removal of downranking changed the typical priests arsenal by adding one more spell.

        So I guess this is my wordy way of saying I consider the removal of downranking to be a non-issue. :)

  5. Encounters like General Vezax are no fun as a healer imo.
    Yes they are different from the norm, and not just whack a mole like so many others, but they are at the same time incredibly frustrating.
    I guess you get into a comfort zone, and those type of encounters take you out of it. Boredom or stress? Which is best?

  6. I occasionally get bored of DPS, so I keep offering to raid heal on my DK, but I always get shouted down by people telling me that Heavy Frostweave Bandage isn’t going to be sufficient for the task. Why do they have to be haters?

    I would have thought that Jov’s point of view would be typical; namely that raid group healing would be a lot more fun and challenging than either five-mans, or being the tank-healer in a raid.

    • Buff bandages!!

      Actually I’d always assumed most people found 10 mans more fun, but it’s always interesting to hear different points of view. Because my assumptions aren’t always right.

  7. I’ve never raided in WoW, so I can’t speak to that, but I’ve raided 2 different healers in EQ2 back when 70 was the level cap. My 1st raid healer was the Inquisitor class — it’s considered a “cleric” in that its main heal is a multi-proc reactive. You put it on the tank, he gets hit, and it heals him. The utility brought to the quizzie’s group is some good hitpoint and melee damage buffs, plus a really nice haste buff for the melee folks as well. They also have some fairly powerful debuffs to pop on the mobs as well, so slapping them into a dps group focused on melee is generally the way to go.

    The raid encounters then were generally uninspiring, with only the MT is really getting hit, and since he’s got 2 or 3 healers in his own group healing him, the other healers really only have to spot heal, or throw a few group heals after an unavoidable AE, and maybe help with some extra healing on the MT during the early part of the fight before the mob has been fully debuffed. The rest of the time, my job was to be up in the fight bashing the mob with the rest of my group (inquisitors have a spec that includes melee damage and a 100% melee crit rate, so they do a lot more damage in melee than using spells).

    I would occasionally be subbed in to the MT group if we didn’t have a templar (the “other” cleric). Both share healing style, and so ca sub for each other in a pinch, but the templar is much more focused on defensive buffs for the tank and the tank tended to be the only melee guy in the MT group, so the quizzie’s buffs were largely wasted… but it still worked. Obviously my job changed to “keep him alive!!!!!” rather than “buff your group and dps along with them, and was much higher stress. Even so, it wasn’t bad — not with another healer or 2 in the group helping.

    My other healer is a Fury — essentially a heal-over-time healer that buffs intelligence and mana (so mages like them) and has rather powerful nukes of his own. My slot with this toon was generally as the “caster dps” group healer. He doesn’t have any appreciable defensive buffs, or offensive debiffs either, for that matter, but the caster buffs were good and for the most part the casters stand out of AE range anyway, so all he has to do is nuke with the mages and spot heal. and I could do it pretty well — I made 3rd of 24 on the dps parse for a while.

    This isn’t to say that I couldn’t heal and heal well. I find it odd that people think that a fury has either a dps or a heal spec — we don’t. We have plenty of points in order to be able to do both. Gear’s another story — there’s definitely heal gear vs dps gear. Anyway…. there’s this one raid zone where there are some trash mobs with a NASTY unavoidable AE — it hits for about 80% of your health and then 2 seconds later has a dot tick which will often kill a squishy. I could cure the dot off, but the group cure takes 2 seconds to cast, so the 1st tick would go off before the cure could be done. But, I could cast a group heal in 1 second which would give the group enough health to survive the dot and then cure it afterward.

    If you only had 1 such mob it wasn’t too bad, but they came in pairs. It was possible to pull only 1, but difficult, so you more often got both. With 2 of those AE’s going off… it got dicey. But I could still keep every one of my squishies alive. Sure, I wasn’t doing any dps at all, only healing, but with my spec set so that if anyone in my group dropped below 15% healt ha group heal would fire, my fast-casting group heal, and the fact that I could keep a group heal-over-time running constantly…I’d be the only healer not to lose anyone in my group.

    But yeah, I burned out. The level cap has been 80 for over a year and a half and those healers are level 73 and 76, and I don’t really have any plans to work on them before the level cap goes up to 90 next February. When I raid now I’m on my coercer (utility/crowd control/dps mage).

    FWIW, I have 5 healers in total, I just don’t play them much anymore. I got really tired of always being the one blamed when there’s a wipe, regardless of whether it was my fault or not.

  8. I think you have a too dark opinion about healing. At first exactly because being reactive, it’s challenging. If you tanked XT once, you tanked him. You can’t heal the same thing twice. Always others get into trouble, always others are in range and there is mostly something to dispel.

    There are always decisions like short heal on the tank, or wild growth/CoH on raid. Compared to that 1-2-1-2-3-1-2-1-2-3 aka DPS is very boring. BTW the “more healer needed for learning phase” is true, but you wrote it the wrong way. Not the healer should go DPS in the late phase, but the DPS to healer. So during the position learning phase there are 6 healers and 3 DPS in healer offspec. When we no longer die before enrage, the DPS go back to DPS and get the kill.

  9. I am in the process of doing just what Gevlon said. I have raided with my Hunter main just since WotLK, but got a bit bored ESPECIALLY with not being able to find PUGs for heroics. Always a healer short.

    So I rolled a priest and should be to 80 by September in time for my raiding season to start again. Of course I’m leveling pure shadow (which is actually pretty fun and powerful IMO), there just aren’t enough alts around to PUG lowbie instances when I’m able to play, which is sporadic. Leveling seems to be going fast.

    Hopefully healing raids will be more interesting like Gevlon thinks it is. DPS is crazy dull and LONELY in lots of fights. I want to feel more part of the “core group” that actually have to communicate and coordinate with each other.

  10. I agree with pretty much everything you said in that post. I guess one more point you could add to healers’ problems is that they have to give up so much soloing power just to heal (assuming no dps dual spec). It’s better than it used to be, sure, but a healer is still at a considerable disadvantage when doing things like dailies. When killing scourge for the Argent Tournament, my paladin tank can just land in the nearest group and aoe-tank them to death while barely losing any health. Try doing that kind of thing as a healer…

    At times I wonder why so many people DO like to heal still. Maybe that’s also something worth thinking about.

  11. If you like healing, you like healing. Its a different kinda gameplay to both DPS and tanking. It might seem like whack-a-mole, but add in how that game of whack-a-mole change with phases/boss abilities and its not as monotome as might intially seem.

    My problem as the one giving out healing assignments in raids, is that its very hard to tell if a healer is good or not.
    If I set healerX on tankY, I wont really know if tankY stayed alive cause healerX was really good – or cause tankY was good at managing her CDs. Perhaps it was a combo.

    Even with the use of logs (such as WWS or World of Logs) its hard to tell if a healer is good or not. A high hps is ofcourse a key sign, so is spells used: but logs wont help you find out if the person actually healed the right people.
    You can roll with 4-5k hps and still have it be mostly useless healing, or you can have 2k hps and every single point of healing is vital. But, it takes a while to see which is which.

    When then trying to decide who goes where and who does what, it gets to be a tricky business. And ofc, if something goes wrong – the healers get some stick for it (x needs more heals), but the healers (as always) will deny that they had anything to do with it…
    Seems healers have gotten so used to igoring random blame, that admitting to mistakes as a healer have become a taboo.

    Still, healing is to me the most enjoyable and challenging part of the game.

  12. I think the whole Holy Trinity thing owes a lot to player convention and that traditions have changed a lot over the last couple of years.

    Raiding has become more about the individual.

    Now for a character role designed to support groups that sucks away some of the fun.

    Healing is still a fun job in and of itself and incredibly satisfying when done well but the advantages of being a team player are less now than they were in 2006.

  13. It’s very rare that healers really get a chance to shine. In a 5 man you can miraculously save someone who stupidly pulled aggro, but not so easily in raids. The only indicator that a healer is good is if the raid is alive when the boss is dead.

    I healed for years, but now I’m a SP who occasionally goes heals. Unfortunately, the nature of dps meters is that only good dps, (and good tanks) are respected. But when I do heal, I still quite enjoy it. It still has more skill than a dps rotation.

    I agree though that healing needs more work to make it more fun.

  14. I find healing fun just as it is. The only time its dull is when we have too many healers (although even then ’cause i’m a disc priest I don’t get as bored as the others).

    If they wanted to make healing more vairable they could continue along the PW:S/Earthshield line and make more buffs which prevent/reduce damage. I came from GuildWars before WoW and playing a protection monk in that game was awesome fun. Very fast (like shielding) with even more focus on damage minimisation.

    Gobble gobble.

  15. This is late but I don’t care :P

    I’m a druid and almost always a raid healer in 10/25 man content. I love it. While I can main tank heal 10-mans (never tried MT healing 25s), I love raid healing because I feel like I’m protecting everyone– even the stupids that stand in the fire.

    This reminds me of a time when we had a paladin, shaman, and druid (me) healers for 10ToC. While the shaman and I could raid heal easily, we ended up having the paladin raid heal because he was pretty terrible and couldn’t keep his MT up on Gormok.

    I think it is definitely more a matter of the person behind the heals than the kind of heals they are giving. As a druid (and my ticky-tock HoTs), I have had no problem MT healing VoA/Naxx/EoE/etc., OR raid healing.

    My guild has alot of paladins, so I am ALWAYS raid healing. And keeping Rejuv up on the tanks. I think I like healing more for people I like, because I prefer boomkin in PuGs.

  16. Pingback: A holiday, a holiday, the first one of the year! Best of 2009. « Welcome to Spinksville!

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