Why Do We Need Healers?

The obvious answer to the question is “To keep from dying while fighting difficult mobs.” But that doesn’t actually answer the underlying question: Why healers at all?

The MMO combat system is usually built on two bars, the red one (health) and the other one (energy, mana, rage, endurance, whatever). The healer trades some of bar two, which we’ll call the blue one from now on, in order to restore some of the red one, either for themselves or for others. Most healers classes in modern MMOs also have the option to dump some of an enemy’s red bar to deplete, but that’s not the focus of this post, so we’ll skip that for now.

The question is, why is this a class? The main reason is that, while buffing and debuffing can be used to somewhat supplant the healer, unless the game is designed in such a way that an enemy can be debuffed to always miss or never cause damage, or, alternately, unless a PC can be buffed to never be hit or never take damage, there’s always going to be the unlucky streaks of damage that cause a PC to die even through buffs and debuffs. Most games aren’t designed that way, simply because the players will trivialize any encounter they can by packing in enough buffers/debuffers to do so. Healers are reactive in their playstyle, being, essentially, Bizarro-DPS. “Me am heal you, you am never die!” Even the most Heal Over Time style of healer still needs to pay attention to health bars and react to sudden spikes of damage.

However, what if we simply changed the placement of healing abilities? Let’s assume that it’s a given that damage spikes need to be dealt with, that we don’t want players dying simply because of bad luck. So let’s offload the healing from a specific class to everyone. Maybe with different degrees of skill and effect, but everyone, so long as they can get a brief respite from being wailed on, can at least take a knee in combat to collect themselves then get back into the fight. Maybe one or more of the classes still retains healing spells, but they are strictly post-combat affairs to reduce downtime or absolute emergency in-combat things, like the WoW Paladin’s once-an-hour full heal.

How does this change the party dynamic? Well, it reduces the number of must-have characters, for one. No serious dungeoneering is likely to be done in most current MMOs without a healer along. The tanks can’t heal themselves, which means they can’t keep the DPS safe, hence the trinity. However, if everyone has the ability to heal themselves a bit, enough to survive an averagely-handled encounter, then there’s no reason to need a dedicated healer.

It changes combat dynamics, too. Having two or even three tanks suddenly becomes a good idea, beyond just having them handle main tanking and emergency- or off-tanking. As an idea, let’s say warriors have two heals, one that cycles in half a minute, heals them for half but lets them stay in the fight, and another that takes a minute to recycle, requires them to not get hit during its 5 second cast, and heals them to full. It’s possible to tune the fights so that, most of the time, that one tank can get things done. However, if there’s an emergency, like the warrior pops his half-heal, then immediately takes a heavy crit, the other tank needs to do his best to grab aggro for a bit while the warrior withdraws from any AoE radius, then goes and rests for a few second. On the other hand, if there’s only the one tank, the DPS suddenly needs to step things way up and either briefly act as off tanks, which they’ll be better able to do with heals of their own, or simply burn down the mob before it kills the tank. Lastly, if there’s no tanks at all, the DPS can try to act as a round-robin series of temp tanks, popping their relatively weak/long-recharging self heals or using powers like mana shield, evasion and power word: shield to survive for very short stretches of tanking.

It also helps to end the “rock star tank” problem where there’s 4 healers all firing salvoes of heals off while the tank keeps spamming aggro grabbing abilities. Dangerous encounters become a complicated dance of multiple tanking and DPS instead of its current “airplane pilot” status: solid stretches of boring button pressing, interspersed with sheer terror as one of the DPS dealers suddenly overaggroes. In addition, all of the best warrior/paladin gear goes to one character in the guild, because, well, he’s the main tank and the sole focus of aggro most of the time. There’s already some tank swapping in existing games, particularly some of the more complicated WoW raids, so we know players can handle it.

Credit where credit is due, the new 4th edition D&D design notes are what got me going in this direction. According to their preview stuff, they’re expecting a cleric to make spend one action per combat healing, with the rest fighting and buffing. Clerics in that will still be the masters of post-fight recovery, but by moving around heals so that everyone has at least a limited self-heal, the designers are looking to make it so that everyone is constantly making an interesting choice in combat, an idea that I think MMO designers would do well to borrow.

20 thoughts on “Why Do We Need Healers?”

  1. This is a very interesting concept, and one that I think could work. I do think it would be more accepted in a non-fantasy game, though, since the idea of ‘Clerics/Priests/Healers’ is fairly integrated in fantasy games.

    But it would work very well in a sci-fi or modern setting game, where it makes less sense for a medic or doctor to be out on the front lines, fighting.

    Great post!

  2. I think in analyzing considering how to finely tune combat dynamics, you may be missing a very human element.

    Some people just aren’t interested in killing stuff. They want to stay back, out of harm’s reach, and get patted on the back after the fight for saving the day. They don’t want to be team captains, they want to be goalies.

    Besides, since being a healer is generally considered to be a crappy job, they’re always in high demand. Some people choose to play healers simply because of the possibility to easily get on pick-up groups despite heavy competition.

    Also, the healer plays an important role in forcing human interaction. If you’re building an extremely solo-friendly MMO, it may be a wise decision to distribute some healing capabilities to all classes, but if your goal is for a highly interactive, social MMO you want everyone to have their own niche. Getting rid of healers while still retaining the necessity for collaboration would require a lot of tuning to get right.

    Kudos for challenging the sanctity of the trinity, though. It’s getting pretty darn dull.

  3. I think that this would be a great idea. As the MT for our guild in World of Warcraft, there is a lot of pressure for me to always come to raids due to the “Rockstar tank” scenario described above. The system that you outline would take the emphasis off of individual players and put it back on the group as a whole. Bravo!

  4. Even the original DnD did not have the same trinity of classes so ingrained. Clerics could heal, but they did a lot more: buffed and fought alongside the fighters.

    The Witcher gives a good fantasy model for a warrior with healing, in the form of alchemy. He can buff and increase his regen.

    For Lacheks two points: Rolling a “generally considered crappy” class just to get in a group is not fun. I mean I have fun on my priest or I wouldn’t play it, but also I’d like more viability to do anything else with that character.

    Getting rid of the incentive to do that can do nothing but good. Look at CoV (no traditional classes) compared to CoH (which has the trinity), in CoV you rarely need to wait around for a healer or even a brute, you do what you want. And you don’t have to worry about competition for groups, because everyone is viable, everyone can get in groups almost the minute they log in. So you can still add more healing powers because you want to , not because you think you have to or you can’t get a group.

    As for the niche aspect: Even in such a framework, I think you’d still have min/maxers, and people would still be able to create their “niche” to excel in. Highly competitive people will still always find a way to min/max and compete with each other to be the best. I don’t think having only “hybrid” classes would take away from that. As long as there is still plenty of choice in skills. To go back to CoV, if you roll a Rad/Kin corruptor, people will love to have you in their groups because of that healing and buffing and debuffing you can provide. So there’s still the opportunity to be highly desired.

    I guess I mean a “desired class” is different than a “needed class”

  5. I can’t edit my comment.
    But you know, I was thinking when I thought about “you’d still have min maxers” I tought: how far of a leap is it from there to the community of players enforcing min maxing ?
    For instance in DDO clerics all take the ability to change turn undead slots into mana for the other casters. Maybe they don’t want to but they often feel like it’s part of “their job”. WoW Druids used to be practically forced to take the 41 point resto talent. (well actually everyone pretty much “has” to take the lvl 41 point talent for their tree .. except lightwell :) ).

    So if there is choice, even without the trinity players might try to enforce specs on their own. Any system would have to account for this and if it comes out through gameplay that ability might have to be either removed or given to everyone of that class. (if you have classes)

  6. yunk, I think you mis-read me – being a healer will certainly appear to *most* people to be a “crappy job”, but to some it is a more enjoyable experience than being a tank or DPS, for reasons I listed above. If you also tack on the fact that you tend to get a lot of group play and gratitude, it becomes the obvious choice for some.

    I would agree that if it was an objectively dull class to play, then it should be removed. That is not the case, though – as it is, it is the only “peaceful” class many MMORPG’s possess. While a “peaceful” class will seem unimportant to endgame raiders, to the casual player and Explorer/Socializer types I’d imagine they contribute quite a bit to the draw of the game.

  7. Another issue with non healers now, is that people have spent years playing one, and it has become a popular and favorite archtype. Players have been “trained”, and it will take years to untrain, unfortunately.

    I play a resto druid. I chose druid because of the shapeshifting aspects, I ended up going into a healing role because of what was stated above – I was always needed.

    I have come to a point in my MMO “career” where I loathe healing now. I spend most of my time staring at little healthbars, missing most of the encounter only to ensure our team wins. I have armies of alts, some max level, tanks, dps, and the like. I can never leave my role, because there simply is still a shortage of them, especially at end game level. So I play to help my team, and my friends, but secretly hating it most of the time, because it is such a required component.

    There are so many ways around it, I mentioned it in my dream MMO thread where games become more like the movies (parry, block, dodge, thrust kill) instead of (hit hit (heal) hit (heal) dodge (heal) thrust kill) which would allow for such gameplay. It takes 100 swings to kill a mob? guess what – 90 of those are misses, 10 are damage, instead of the current 90 of those are hits (supplemented with heals), and 10 are misses. Hell, the animations, etc, would even look much better, like a “real” fight.

    I will *sigh* here and believe it is pretty much too late. I read a lot of blogs (comment on very few) and although this is much for another post – I truely believe we are doomed to have healing and the holy trinity in our games, with no forseeable future without them, because the market tells the researchers that this is how the games work – and this is how game companies make money. The main component that makes this so is aggro in the first place – and I have yet to read any good suggestions on how to remove aggro from the game format.

    Remove aggro, and you remove the necessity for 1 or 2 players to take rediculous amounts of damage while protecting the rest of the group, which require 6-8 players to constantly replenish, while 10-15 players do substantial enough damage to a “boss” to make the encounter last 10 or more minutes so it seems satisfying.

    When I read blog such as this with such great ideas, and there are many out there, I still wonder why no developers pick up on them and release a game with actual “innovations.” I am assuming market research, and the VC’s funding these projects, aren’t willing to take that chance.

  8. I agree with Braack here. You don’t need healing at all IN COMBAT. It makes no sense to have the ability to heal yourself while something beats your face in, and it simply makes balancing insanely hard when a dual-healer, dual-dank, dual-dps group is all that’s needed in a holy trinity of “I just buttfucked your raid encounter because I really have 20 more hit bars worth of HP”.

    Take healing into a support role, KEEP the healers, but let them be after combat regeneration and power up supporters. Let them administer antidotes, salves, stim boosters, adrenaline boosters, whatever, AFTER the combat is over. When in combat, make dodges and blocks a LOT more common (if you’ve ever fought someone in paintball or with a real sword and shield, you’d see this). Take away the THOUSANDS of hit points and give them more abilities to block, dodge or shield their allies. Give rogues their goddamn agility back. Let them dodge around like a monkey. Give tanks their shield back, stop pretending they’re “mitigating” the damage with 17 thousand pounds of titanium armor. Give the priest a defensive ward and cool ways to monitor activity from behind the lines, as well as give damage boosters, or speed boosters to the group, just not healing. When the battle is done, make those healer’s feel wanted by allowing them to re-fit the group for fighting again in no time. Give armor and weapons a decay rate and allow healers to fix armor and weapons, making them into almost a crafter/healer class.

    Overall, just make fights more about fighting and less about who has more HP.

  9. We have this now. Any DPSer right now can stop DPSing and as long as they no longer have aggro they can bandage themselves.

    The benefits are two fold: They get health back.. and they drop even further down the threat list making it harder for them to pull aggro. (assumption being that their DPS vastly exceed the HPS of a bandage).

    Normally this doesn’t happen for two reasons. First this would knock them off the top of the DPS meter. Second, once you get beyond the “normal 5-mans” most mobs can one- or two-shot everyone except for the tank.

    So instead we end up with healers flash healing others in the party and using up their mana so that DPSers can stay at the top of the DPS chart … where they need to stay so the raid doesn’t hit the bosses enrage timer.

    It’s a vicious vicious cycle.

  10. I just came out of a City of Heroes Sister Psyche Task Force with four blasters, a Fire/Fire tank (who didn’t have the heal, the idiot) and a Force Field controller. I think we had three defeats, and two were when said tanker decided to go somewhere other than where the rest of us went. The only reason healers aren’t completely dead in City of Heroes is because people obsess over it.

    Hence the problem. People in City of Villains don’t have, nor need, the holy trinity, but you still see a lot of folk asking for teh thermals! In City of Heroes, even Empaths get most of their damage reduction through buffs, but they’re asked more if they heal or have a rez than if they have Fortitude (major defense and damage buff).

  11. I thought you were referring to AoC and were just coming about in a wide arch to introduce their no-direct healing, all-over-time, no-healing-utility-class setup but then you caught me off-guard mentioning D&D, so i guess i have to point it out – yes, there seems to be a MMO adopting this kind of concept, and that’s Age of Conan (for all we know)

  12. One could also look at Guild Wars as an example of having many of the same Trinity classes without actually having the Trinity. Tanks? Sure, you’ll see people asking for “tanks” in GW or claiming they are a “tank” but GW doesn’t use the same type of aggro system. There is no taunting, there is no way to force the mobs to focus on anyone in particular. The mobs will kite you as well. My main in GW is a monk and while often the *healing* is reactive, the *protection* spells are just as often pro-active where I’ll need to get spells up before the mobs even reach us.

    Moving outside the MMO genre, I thought Battlefield 2142 is absolutely brilliant for having the Assault class not only be great at fighting, but also being a combat medic to slowly patch up himself and his teammates. It’s very similar to the true D&D cleric, who while had healing abilities, etc. was also very much an in-your-face melee class as well. None of this “stand in the back and keep the real players alive” crap we see in MMO’s.

    I’m all for evolving beyond the Trinity, just as I’m for leaving levels in the dust. It’s all too limiting, but as has been said, I think we’re going to have a rough time letting go of such staples in the fantasy genre, while other genre’s will see more success trying new group tactics.

    Someday, *someday* rather than “LF Tank/Healer, lvl 65+ only” we just might see “LF 2 more players.”

  13. Bah. You’ve missed the problem entirely. Instead of having a life bar being the only representation of your health, have the damage you take possibly cripple you in interesting ways that forces a *retreat* to regroup and repair. Then you don’t need that kind of healing in the first place.

  14. Hellgate:London has no healer class, every class can heal using items. There were also some healing talents & spells available. I didn’t play H:L for long, so I don’t know all the details, but it seemed that there were no ‘required’ healing classes.

  15. I only have a Marksman in HGL, so I can’t speak for whatever other classes are available, but I pretty much rely on health injectors to keep me alive. HGL’s futuristic version of a healing potion, which is the same as the original single-player RPG’s ala Final Fantasy, and the mechanism used in many/most/all of the Asian F2P MMO’s too.

  16. HG:L has some classes with healing abilities (Guardian’s Aura, and an Engineer Droid ability, for example) but they’re largely ineffective.

    I’d say they’re a pretty bad example to use because they’ve simply replaced healers with a near-endless supply of potions one has to chug on a constant basis. With my engineer or marksman, in hectic situations in the non-street outdoor levels, this happens about as fast as they cool down: about every six seconds.

    The amount of healing needed is still ludicrous, so the problem’s not solved. This is a step in the right direction, but it’s the equivalent of slapping a Perl hack over a larger problem.

  17. As ever, looking forward to how interesting ideas play out in Conan. Let’s hope they are not lost because of reveling in a M rating.

    City of Heroes has already been cited, and City of Villains is even stronger there. It’s the City of Hybrid Damage Dealers. There are relatively few ways to heal others there, but self-heals and damage mitigation are popular. It does help that the best buffing and debuffing classes also have area effect heals. CoX does remain enslaved by the need for healing in the big encounters, notably in archvillain fights for the usual “big boss two-shots everyone” problem, but a steady flow of green inspirations (healing potions) helps reduce that to something manageable with some buffs and debuffs.

  18. If you read how Gygax described hit points in D&D, he actually wrote that they are not actual hits. That real combat is dodges and parries and blocks, and hit points were not you getting hit, but just a way to quantify “wearing down” the opponent. You could only block for so long.

    But at some point game designers forgot this idea, and took the HP idea and ran with it considering each reduction an actual hit. But it doesn’t really make sense, since as was pointed out if you get hit a part of you is hurt, you can’t use your arm, etc.

    Maybe HP was just a bad metaphor to use in the first place. Guy’s idea is interesting. Actually isn’t that another thing AoC is going to do? I know you can target parts of the mob, but not sure how that applies to pcs, just armor? Or would it apply to damage too?

  19. I dunno, yunk – HP was a metaphor, the relative quality of which depends on which is more fun for the particular game you’re designing, right?

    For Gygax’s D&D, HP was a measure of a game token’s current survivability. It was very easy to predict, given some knowledge and experience with the system, how long a given combat unit would last in a fight by glancing at current HP. Sure, there was some luck with the dice involved, but the outcome of most combats was determined by who had the best strategy and managed their luck best, before and during the fight.

    Later games such as GURPS and Rolemaster aimed for a more realistic approach. They still used hit points, but also utilized hit location and special effects tables, as well as rules for bleeding and exhaustion. The end result was intended to be less of a “game” and more of a “reality simulation”. Great, right?

    But in realistic games, you couldn’t predict that the combat monster you rolled up might die instantly after being hit in the head by a ricocheting .44 caliber round. As in real combat situations, gamey strategic plans are rather useless when actual steel cuts through actual flesh in a chaotic dance of blood and mayhem.

    Sure, a more realistic game can be more fun, because we can relate to it better and further suspend our disbelief. But a very unpredictable game where any given swipe of a werewolf’s talons might rip your throat out and kill you instantly – however realistic – doesn’t actually lend itself well at all to an epic combat-focused grindfest like WoW and its dozens of cousins. HP, on the other hand – however unrealistic a measure – works mighty well.

  20. That’s actually a really great idea. I’m not sure I would play it – but I’d try it. As someone mentioned, people who play (and enjoy) healers would hate it. Lots of people would hate it; it’s not perfect. But ya know what? Thats OK! Everyone tries too hard to create a MMO that EVERYONE wants to play. That’s just not going to happen. Not even WOW pulls the full market. I would be happy to see this for the simple fact that it’s different.
    I’ve been playing MMO’s since the early days of Everquest, and to be honest – nothing has changed. I played WOW for a bit, but it’s just Everquest all over again in principle (this can and will be argued, I suspect, but it’s irrelevant, ‘the trinity’ and combat mechanics are basically the same, .which is the important part). Developers (for the most part..) seem to understand that despite the scifi market, it’s likely not going to be a good idea to put lasers and spaceships in your fantasy MMO. Why can’t they see that, despite the market for it – there are other things can and should be left out? The healer may be one of them.

    Personally, what I would like to see in a new MMO is permadeath. I know there’s people already thinking up brilliant replies to my post to tear me up for what a terrible idea this is – and you’ll be right in one sense: it wouldn’t be for everyone. Alot of people would hate it.. but niche games are great for that reason. They tend to fulfill exactly the needs of THEIR playerbase, instead of trying to please everyone and doing a mediocre job (how many people love WOW, but hate certain aspects of it?).
    The best part of permadeath? You can make every character soloable will still maintaining a very strong group incentive. Who’s going to save you and drag your crippled self out of the forest to a healer if you don’t have a group? I once played a Neverwinter Nights persistant world (not the best example for an MMO, true, but..) which had a very strict permadeath rule set. It was interesting. Very few went out of town alone. There were no real uber characters. Even those who made it above the first few levels tended to get more careful as their characters aged. Most of the ‘high’ level characters tended to spent their time in the taverns talking or helping lower level characters, not willing to risk too much. But there’s reward and accomplishment in that. People were valued for their real skill and knowledge of the world, rather than there characters, who for obvious reasons tended to come and go.

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