Saturday, January 17, 2009

Healing overhaul

Blizzard design representative Ghostcrawler has made several comments beginning from around the WotLK beta about overhauling the healing mechanics in some fundamental way similar to how tanking was changed with WotLK.

To help illustrate what I think needs to change with healing, let me describe the following hypothetical encounter:

Your party enters a room with a dragon lying injured in the middle of the room. It is a powerful dragon with near god-like abilities, but near death. When you talk to him, you begin the encounter. Ghouls are raised from corpses lying littered around the entire room. They appear in random places, lots and lots of them. Most of them have very little health and immediately begin consuming the corpses around them to regain health. If any of them reach 100% health, they cast corpse explosion on a single player, instantly killing them. This is the only damage the raid takes. DPS must quickly run around killing them off before any of them gain full health. Occasionally an elite ghoul will also appear among them that starts with more health, regains health faster and also has a larger total health bar, requiring heavy single-target DPS. Meanwhile the dragon in the middle of the room must be healed to regain his powers. He has several million HP though and must be healed to full before 5 minutes or the ghouls begin spawning too fast to deal with. Once the dragon reaches 100% health he casts a powerful spell that destroys all the ghouls, ending the encounter.

Does this encounter sound familiar? It should. Does it sound fun? In particular does the DPS or healing sound fun? (For simplicity's sake, I've left tanking out of it.) Now imagine a variation that involves making some mechanical changes.

All DPS abilities for this encounter become 40-yard omni-directional abilities. Even rogues can target practically any mob they want and 1-1-1-1-1-2 away without moving or turning. Also the Blizzard UI allows any enemy mob to register as a target bar on the UI (sort of like Proximo) something which is currently not possible with the API. This means that the DPS doesn't need to target the mobs from the game screen, but can target them from the UI. To compensate for the ease and speed with which DPS can dish out damage this way, we will also scale up the difficulty, making the ghouls spawn faster and gain health much faster. Now does the DPS sound more or less fun in this variation? Much less in my opinion. I no longer need to move very much or be aware of the game screen.

Now what's the point of this hypothetical encounter? This is actually just a basic tank and spank encounter, similar to countless encounters in many MMOs. All I've done is turned it on its head. Damage is healing and healing is damage. The healers need to heal a single boss mod to 100% rather than DPSing it down to zero. Conversely the DPS need to deal with small and large amounts of health gains on multiple targets, preventing any from reaching 100%. This is exactly what the healers do in a typical encounter, but in reverse. The second variation used mechanics changes to make the DPS role match more exactly what a healer currently does. But the first version actually sounds more fun, zipping around catching ghouls as they spawn, alternating between AoE and single-target damage depending on the situation. It's a bit like the adds in Vashj, commonly cited as one of the best encounters of all time.

Every player that rolls a healer learns pretty early that heals are omni-directional and long range, and that it is much quicker to target using the party or raid interface than to target in the game screen. They might think it's a good thing when they discover this, imagining how frustrating it would be to have to find and manually target people taking damage. But I think this would only be a frustrating mechanic because people take enough damage that healers need to react almost instantly to prevent casualties. If the typical damage received was much smaller it obviously wouldn't be as hard.

I think TBC actually took the healing a bit in the wrong direction. I think the same thinking that led to long-distance, omni-directional as a fun mechanic that eases frustration further led to so-called 'smart' heals that target multiple players and heal based on who needs it the most. The problem is that the UI makes healing so easy that in order to make it challenging the damage needs to be ramped up to ridiculous proportions. Instead of freeing the healer up from his UI, the damage levels require them to be glued to the UI, spamming their beloved smart heals. I think maybe Blizzard is starting to turn around on this issue, as evidenced by the new 6 second cooldown on CoH and WG.

I think it might be interesting to go even further with the changes. Imagine removing and/or heavily nerfing most of the 40-yard omni-directional heals and giving healers some new powerful heals that require specific positioning. Some might require melee range. Some might be PBAoE, like holy nova and tranquility, but with much smaller ranges. Some might be short-range frontal cone heals. Would it be much harder and more frustrating to heal? Sure. But now tone down the damage and on top of that give healers some more ways to zip around like nearly all the DPS classes have and I think you've got an interesting new healing paradigm. Healers would be watching the game more than the UI. Healers would need to move constantly. My favourite fights have been the ones that require me to heal and move a lot (Archimonde might be the best example) and I've seem many people agree. Healers would feel closer to their charges, and less attached to the symbols on a raid frame. It might be a small thing too, but for me less damage feels a bit more realistic. The tank's health bar constantly going up and down from near-full to near-death every second with me magically repairing damage by watching all these bars kinda breaks immersion a little bit for me.

Now there are a few reasons that this would not be a simple change. For example, it's impossible to quickly target a single player on the game screen when many players can overlap each other in space. But it's possible to imagine game design changes to overcome them. It will be interesting to see what new directions the WoW healing overhaul takes us.

1 comment:

  1. That's a really interesting post. I would love to see healing become more immersive and more like a DPS role. Staring at Grid for a whole evening is not nearly the experience that healing could be. If healing was nearly as interesting as the way you just described your ideas, I think there would be many more healers in the game.