Monday, December 29, 2008

The entry barrier to playing a healer

The perennial topic of incentives for healers has crept back up to the top of my blogroll over the last two days.

The steep learning curve
Rohan got tired of not being able to find groups and respecced his Pally for healing, only to be surprized by the learning curve.

The closest I've ever come to serious healer like activity is click-casting decurses with my mage, and, frankly, I found it stressful in group settings. I was asked to join a PUG raid on the Obsidian Sanctum the other day (aside: don't PUG OS unless you're absolutely sure the group doesn't contain multiple players who won't move out of the bleeping wall of fire because it lowers their personal DPS numbers) for the sole purpose of decursing on trash, and I frankly semi-failed that extremely simple role because it didn't occur to me to drag out pet health bars from my UI (and good luck doing that in combat if you don't know where the option is).

Point being, I don't see how you're supposed to learn to heal if you don't already know - heck, Rohan healed raids extensively in TBC, and he sounds like he had a tough time getting back into it. I guess you can always try to heal stuff that's 10 levels below you until you get the hang of it, but that's a fair chunk of patience.

Healing incentives
Syp's got a good summary up on healing incentives and disincentives. It's worth noting that I actually liked Warhammer's Rune Priest, I just hated being the first to die in a flurry of focus fire in every single skirmish. My solution to this problem was to reroll Witch Hunter and go inflict the same punishment on other fledgling healers, so not only did I give up on Warhammer healing, but I might have helped drive others off from it as well (sorry, guys).

If/when I get around to giving Warhammer another shot, I should really try to find some friendly bloggers willing to babysit a new Rune Priest up to a high enough level to see if I like the class better with all its defensive tools.

What if this is NOT an incentive question?
Much as I hate to ask that question, part of me wonders if the problem here isn't the in-game incentives as the out of game ones. Healers face an out-of-game learning curve as they try to adapt to group tactics, which are typically very different from solo ones. Healers face out of game pressures for performance that generally serve to raise their stress level disproportionately compared to other classes. If the tank isn't putting out enough threat, the DPS can slow their damage, and, if the DPS isn't doing enough damge, the tank and healer can try to cover with longevity, but there's no helping it if the healer can't keep up for whatever reason.

What makes this tough is that it isn't something that a dev can solve by throwing achievements, contribution, loot, etc at it. Those are much easier fixes than social pressures that the devs have little control over. Short of designing a game with no healing whatsoever, I'm not sure how to address this one.


Moranin said...

Aaah a topic (formerly) near and dear to my heart.

The social pressure thing is huge. Leveling a mage, you learn the basics of casting timing, spell selection, and all those shiny things doing solo questing. With my priest, the only time I go to practice healing? A rare group member quest, or a "keep the NPC alive" scripted quest event. The developers could make the priest quests far more immersive - while the lvl 60 benediction/anathema quest was a bit stressful (although my memories of it are pretty vague), it is a good example of a scripted event that at least somewhat mimics the process of healing a group or raid. I would love to see every 5-10 levels some sort of healing challenge quest, where the basic bar for quest completion is set low, but the rewards scale up with a higher % healed/saved rate.

I leveled my priest with every expectation of having her specced. for healing at level 60/70. I ended up with a shadow/disc. priest, only willing to heal in PVP that I barely played.

When I tried to swap over to healing, I asked our guild's best healers how they managed to keep the raid group up. While they tried to be helpful, it pretty much boiled down to "I figured out what worked for me." Some of them told me what UIs they had used, but weren’t all that helpful (and understandably so, they shouldn’t spend their free time talking me through what it took them months to figure out) with how to set it up, use it, and adjust it on the fly.

Out of the game, the information on how to heal is rather limited. is about all I see on the official WoW site. The priest forums are filled with leveling info, talent spec discussions, etc. but little targeted at "so you got to the level cap, what next?"

Someone who picked a healer as a secondary character, or leveled one solely to get into groups, probably won’t have the time, interest, or passion for the class to spend hours troubleshooting UI options.

I disagree that it isn’t a dev-fixable problem – it may be my chosen profession speaking out (and I am writing this at work, so…) but Blizz could invest some time and effort in improving their class information and documentation. When I was on my healing information quest, I would have loved to see a blizzard-sponsored page, showing how the UI options should be changed for group healing and explaining in the most basic of terms what spells should be used when. Most players can’t go from “when a bear tries to eat me, I hit PW:S, renew, and a heal” directly to calculating the most efficient mana:time spells for each class.

Maybe if that middle step involved a bit of dev handholding, there wouldn’t be so many former healers, shadow priests, loladins, feral druids, (and whatever folks call enh. shaman these days) desperately explaining why they can’t swap over to healing gear and fill in for a MH raid slot.

Klepsacovic said...

I can't say much about other healers, but at least for paladins, healing completely changed in WotLK. A player might be better off not healing before WotLK just so they don't have any habits. FoL or HL spam is still the standard, but alone they'll lead to terrible results. Now paladins have to keep up beacon (it's more efficient to not heal the tank, wrap your head around that one after 3 years of FoL spam on the tank), sacred shield, and a judgement. Some fights we might have multiple SSs, keeping one for ourselves. It's a lot to take in and it's a lot to relearn.

As for social problems, I think it boils down to one thing: Healing is always the last thing to fail. By that I mean that a tank screws up and gets adds and dies, but a better healer might have kept him up (probably better geared, since once you're spamming HL, skill isn't really a factor). DPS that stand in fires could be saved by healing. Undergeared tanks that take too much damage, undergeared DPS that drag out the fight, these can both be compensated for with healing. PvE revolves around the size of health bars and for the most part, it is healers that add to those.

To make it worse, a healer can't really defend themselves without attacking someone else. They go OOM and what can they say except they were undergeared, the tank was undergeared, or the DPS was slow? Someone always gets stuck with blame, the most obvious one is the healer since they're the last person to fail, and to change that they have to go on the offensive and shift the blame, making them look like jerks or elitists mocking people's gear.

I was a bit saddened by a post by GC responding to someone talking about the healer shortage. GC basically said "healing is staring at health bars and some people enjoy that, so we won't change it." So much has been fixed, major problems addressed, and yet healing remains "staring at health bars" and the result is that a major role is stressful and can't fully see the fights. Hell, when I heal I'd prefer very dull environments; the worst places are Nexus and Oculus because the brightness makes it harder to see the health bars. That seems to indicate a problem. Maybe next expansion.

Anonymous said...

Wiz - I consider the current healing paradigm to be bad game design, although I understand there are a number of players who like it. There are far more players willing to DPS and even tank than there are who are willing to heal, so I conclude that healing is not fun enough.

MMOs are still a developing genre. WoW improved upon a lot of bad game design at release and has improved on its own mistakes by leaps and bounds since then, but there are still many kinks to work out.

It seems to me that we seldom (your blog, and Tobold's, being two exceptions) really look at the devs and consider whether they are doing a good job - maybe because WoW is the best we've seen. If you go to McDonald's and get a burnt burger, you don't have to wonder whether the problem is with their performance or your expectations. I don't think the MMO customer is used to expecting and demanding real quality yet.

Healing design is one example. Tobold just asked his readers to design the healer hero class and at least half the comments described the way Holy Pallies are supposed to work, flavor-wise, but don't - at least they are now suggesting that Holy Pallies cast judgment of light on the boss, but I haven't met one who actually does.

Class design used to be terrible. Paladins were advertised as being able to tank, DPS, or heal. In 1.0, they could only really heal. In BC, they became able to tank (and that's been improved further in 3.0), but still couldn't DPS competitively until towards the end of BC.

When I see an advertisement for a product that promises one thing but delivers another, I know that's false advertising. When Pallies wanted to DPS or tank in the old days, their fellow players found it strange and responded with "lol, stand in back and heal or re-roll, nub." For some reason, players not only accepted bad design, but essentially defended it.

Another bad design that came up recently is getting saved to a raid ID without warning and without having killed a boss, or even trash - this recently locked a lot of people on Blackhand out of Archavon 25 for a week.

For the devs, this is their job, and the players need to be comfortable pointing out that sometimes the execution is far from professional. If healing isn't fun and hasn't been for 4 years, then that's a problem (on the other hand, some people like it - just not enough of them). That's on the devs. If some class/specs can't do what they are supposed to, that's on the devs. That raid ID fiasco is on the devs and could be fixed in a day if they just added a warning.

Enough, I ramble on...clearly I need my own blog. ;) Btw I knew weeks ago that the cooking would be the hardest part of Merrymaker for those who don't cook already - I just hit 300 yesterday, having finished the other achievements days ago.

I do disagree about the Bloodsail thing, though. I really like that there are some niche decisions/activities in the game outside of just running heroics, raids, and dailies. That's one area where a player can decide to do something to really stand out from the crowd, by to some degree parting ways with the mainstream of Azerothian society. It gives flavor to the game and makes it seem more like the real world. And you can work your way out of the problem, but it takes foresight and effort.

Come to think of it, I'm hard pressed to name anything else in the game that actually enforces role-playing to the degree that the Bloodsail faction does. Most of WoW is a video game; you do what you want to get the score/rewards that you want, every defeat or death is temporary, and it's rare that you ever really mess up anything other than one play session.

WoW would be less flavorful if you couldn't decide to become a lawless, bloodthirsty pirate, and it would be ridiculous if you could do so while remaining on good terms with the people you've been slaughtering. Being able to work yourself back into the goblins' good graces is actually unrealistic, but a necessary design because of the fun, video-game nature of the medium.

Okay, I've written two books, I'll hush up now. Still love the blog and the essential PvD premise. =D


Daria said...

The problem with WoW today if you are just beginning a new healer is that you'll be leveling alone.
Had you been able to run all the low level instances as it was designed, you would slowly learn how to heal a group.

I'm not sure there is much that can be done about this problem, except maybe allowing lower levels to "hire" NPCS to run dungeons with them, that could be healed just like regular players.

The incentive to playing a healer is that you have to enjoy the job. Some people, myself included, really like the idea of supporting a group. Without me, they wouldn't get very far and I like being counted on. The other incentive is that you are in high demand.

Green Armadillo said...

Yeah, I think the shift from your solo play style to the group role is most dramatic for healers (tanks still take damage and hit stuff solo). While I do think there's a role for better documentation, now we've left the realm of in-game incentives. If you're not doing any PVP and the devs want you to do some, they can keep throwing rewards at the problem until you're convinced. Having the setup be for players to have to go to an out-of-game site to read a guide (which will most likely advise the use of multiple third party UI mods) only adds to the pile of obstacles between a new 80 and a career as a healer.

@Klep: Exceptional healing really can help in some situations. There are many situations where my DPS as a mage goes up because there's so much healing flying around that I'm not spending global cooldowns and mana on ice barrier. I feel bad for my healer friends who have run dungeons countless times but need to take a DPS alt so they can actually get to see what the place looks like.

@Fed: Way back in the 1.0 day, I used to joke that the biggest problem with the WoW Pally was that they'd named the class Paladin. The class at launch was a lot closer to the Dungeons and Dragons Cleric (a heavily armored healer with limited melee ability) than the DND Paladin (an excelent melee fighter with limited healing abilities), and people who rolled Paladin weren't happy about being asked to act like a Cleric. Turns out that I was wrong - they were able to turn the class into an all-around tank/DPS/healer... it just took them four years. :-/

@Daria: I'd really like to see daily quests geared towards tanking and healing. Throw together an NPC party that's minus either a tank or a healer and let the player practice their group skills on NPC's (perhaps in a solo instance?). It's certainly not an ideal fix, especially for the long leveling run from level 1 til Northrend, but it would be a start.