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?

Two’s Company: Duoing in MMOs

Some of the most fun times I’ve had playing MMOs have been when I was playing with one other person who I knew from RL. I’ve levelled characters alongside my partner, I’ve levelled characters alongside my sister, and I’ve played a few sessions levelling alongside a friend or guildie who I came to know in game.

In some ways it’s the perfect blend of single player game and MMO. You’re on your own in a massive world filled with other people … but you’re not really alone. It’s you and your BFF against the world! Your group becomes your own private chat channel. You can almost treat the whole experience as a private game just for the two of you, which happens to have other people wandering around in it also. Although duoing does mean you need to coordinate your playing time with one other person, it’s much easier to do this if you know them (or live with them) in real life.

Having another person along means you can take out a lot of those irritating group quests (you know those questlines that start solo and end with a group quest?), especially if you picked a pair of characters that complement each other mechanically. Plus you can pick complementary trade skills to help each other even more.

So really you can have most of the advantages of soloing (ie. the convenience, not needing to rely on lots of people you don’t know), without the disadvantages of being cut out of so much content. Plus you won’t be feeling lonely. It never surprised me that a lot of people like to play in duos with friends or significant others. If you’re both gamers, duoing in an MMO can be a nice way to share your hobby and get some ‘alone time’ together.

I think most players probably underestimate how many other people play in duos. MMO devs don’t. All these games with special bring-a-friend offers cater to the duo, or specifically to the player who wants to encourage a friend or partner to come and duo with them. And it’s also not surprising that so many ‘group’ quests turn out to be duoable.

In fact, I’d be surprised if we don’t see more games experimenting with adding extra small group instancing or scalable content in future. It may well be the sweet spot for players who’d like a game to play with a partner but don’t want the hassle of MMO endgame, and don’t particularly want to meet new people and get ganked by them.

Problems with Duos

Duos can be terrifically antisocial. I know that when I’m happily levelling with a friend and we’re in ‘the zone’ it’s very unlikely that I’ll invite random people to join the group. Why would I? Part of the reason we are playing in a duo is to have some private time together.

Being in a pair also makes it more difficult to join an existing group. They need to have two spare places, and be agreeable to whichever two classes are being played. If a group needs a healer, will they be able or willing to take the rogue as well? And if you do find an existing group to join, will you bother to talk to them or just keep chatting privately while the group gets on with business?

This is going to be much less of an issue in a game like WAR when you can just rock up and join in a public quest without needing to fumble the various group disband and invite commands. But then again, very few people do talk to each other in WAR public quests. They don’t need to. So it’s sociable in the same way that getting on a packed train and only talking to your partner is sociable. Or working in a call centre. Lots of other people around you doing the same thing, but no real need to communicate with them, so no one does.

So I suspect that people in duos are less likely to act sociably than soloers. They don’t need the social contact, they may not need the assistance for group quests, and it’s more difficult for them to join groups unless they create the groups themselves.

The other big issue with duoing is being so reliant on one other person. What happens if you spend all your time in game duoing and your partner decides that they are bored and wants to quit? What if you have incompatible playing styles or one person is much slower than the other to learn how to play? What if they want to join a hardcore raiding guild and you don’t, or vice versa? What if they got bored with their character and want to reroll but you like your high level alt and want to keep going with it?

I find that the most duo friendly games are often the ones that also scale better in general. So if a third or fourth person does want to come along, it’s easy to switch up to appropriate content. City of Heroes is extremely duo friendly and if one person can’t play as much as the other or someone wants to start a new alt, it’s also very very easy for the duo to keep playing together.

(Shame the gameplay bores me rigid and I don’t find it a very exciting world to explore.)

What would be good duo content?

I’d love to see more small group content in games. We enjoyed the three-man instances in LOTRO, for example. But trouble is, it can’t come at the cost of less solo content or less larger group content. The solo content gives everyone more options – even the ones who don’t bring a friend with them – and the larger group content nudges players out to meet and interact with new people, which small group content doesn’t so much.

As long as MMOs are not shipped with the requirement ‘You will need a friend to play’ then the duo content has to be handled carefully. Because playing with one other person can be such a private experience, even a social player isn’t necessarily going to want to hook up with a stranger for hours of instancing. And forcing players artificially into duos is not really good for the social side of a game.

Really I’d rather see better scaling with numbers on non-progression instances. CoH can manage this and there’s no reason other games can’t also. It’s just that these kinds of instances would necessarily have to be fairly easy given how classes usually work. It just isn’t possible to have an instance not only scale with numbers but also give similar challenge to two players of any class unless the similar challenge is ‘it’s easy’ or ‘it’s impossible.’

Having said that, its easy to imagine crafted duo content. Imagine two switches that need to be pressed at the same time, a boat that takes two people working together to sail, and similar styles of encounter. I’m sure it’d be possible to figure out more interesting boss fights also where you know there will be two players involved.

So I’m torn. I’d enjoy more duo content but I can’t help feeling that a game based on that assumption would end up feeling like a virtual Sandals resort, or a restaurant on Valentine’s Day, or Hatton Garden at the weekends (it’s where half of London goes to check out engagement rings) … It’d be the Stepford Wives couples club. And so help me God, the thought makes me run fleeing to my random PUG where people might be annoying but at least they talk to you.

Save me PUG! I don’t want to be a stereotyped couple!!