Of the three standard MMO classes, Healing is the only one that gives me little cause for comment. This is for several reasons. First, unlike the DPS or the Tank, there is no real world equivalent to the MMO Healer. The Healer is a work of pure fiction, developed solely from the fantasy genre. Games demand that characters on the point of death have the ability to quickly recover as if they’d never been injured. This can only be explained through magical or supernatural means. The benefit this gives that no one really expects healing to be practical or based on the laws of science. Not even me. Instead, healing is bound by the specific background of the MMO world. This leads to the second benefit.
Because every game world has its own cosmology and cosmogony, healing can very heavily from game to game. Unlike the DPS and Tank which are becoming more and more similar, varieties of Healers abound. In some games, the Healer doesn’t even need to exist. Take for example, my own introduction to MMOs, Asheron’s Call. That game had a very different focus on classes then most recent MMOs, and one thing it never had was a Healer. When a group got together, each player was responsible for keeping his own character alive. This is probably partially due to the older group mechanics which made health monitoring all but impossible. Principally, however, it is based on AC’s own healing dynamic. Most players carry around large numbers of healing kits which they can activate in or out of combat. In combat the kits are more prone to fail, but the intelligent player knows at what health level to start healing in order to stay alive. While healing kits aren’t some sort of high magical form, the resulting health generation does not comport with real world standards so I would still place it in the magical category. Mage characters have a more “supernatural” method of healing through Life Magic (I say mage characters because melee and ranged warriors don’t use wands in combat despite the prevalence of Life Magic. A healing kit or a Life Magic spell could be applied to another character, but this is rare.
In contrast, Warcraft has a much purer version of the Healer. This model was followed by several earlier games such as EQ and DAoC, but not having played either I won’t give specifics for them. In WoW, healing is a full time job. This is despite the fact that most classes have some ability to magically heal (and every one has access to non-combat First Aid). In solo play, Healers function much like any other class in a manner somewhat akin to AC, though they may have greater problems causing damage. However, in group actions Healers become critical. A group needs to be several levels above a dungeon’s difficulty to operate without a devoted Healer.
Although it is in many ways a mirror to WoW, LOTRO has a different take on the Healer role. In most situations, healing is conducted by individual players for themselves. Unlike WoW, there seems to be an expectation that players will even use it during group combat instead of relying solely on the Healer to keep them alive. In leveling dungeons there is not generally the need for a designated healer. As I grouped for LOTRO, I never heard the clarion cry of WoW “Need Healer!” It was just, “LF1M” (Looking for 1 more) because the specific class didn’t matter. That being said, LOTRO does have a healing class with the Minstrel and a half-way healing class with the Captain. The Moria expansion also added the Rune-Keeper to that list. I understand there is a much greater need for healers in the end-game dungeons which make the rare minstrel highly in demand (I moved on shortly after hitting 40, so never experienced this personally). All three classes are much more than healers, however. They are also skilled at providing long and short term buffs and are viable in combat in their own right as compared with WoW’s Holy Priest, Restoration Druid, or Restoration Shaman.
Warhammer Online took an interesting approach for Healers as well. Some of the classes are similar to WoW Healers, but not all. The Warrior Priest and the Disciple of Khaine must be involved in the actual combat to generate the power to heal. This makes them much more combat capable than WoW’s standard Healers and may encourage more players to become Healers because they can still battle the enemy. I didn’t really care for WAR and so didn’t test this system in group play, but at the very least I will say that it is a clever twist on the Healer idea and both of these classes were viable for solo play.
The third distinction of the Healer in comparison with Tanks and DPS is that the Healing archetype needs the least new innovation because it already has the toughest job in any group. The DPS has the simplest and most common role of all. It is popular because just about everyone has fun dishing out damage and a group generally needs more DPS than anything else (3 DPS, 1 Tank, and 1 Healer being the standard 5 person formula). But it doesn’t take a lot of skill to be adequate at DPS. Certainly, to be truly good takes a deeper awareness, knowledge, and general competence, but pretty much anyone can run with a DPS and do okay. Ironically, I would argue that one of the greatest competencies of a good DPS is aggro control. A Tank is more challenging because, as I alluded to last time, the Tank must be aware of the overall fight. He must control the battleground and maintain aggro, keeping the other players (especially the Healer) from being attacked directly. But the Healer has the greatest challenge because he must keep everyone else alive.
Only recently in my WoW experience have I done a lot of dungeon delving. About a month ago, I finally reached max level where running dungeons and raids becomes much more frequent. A short while before that, I was doing some of the Burning Crusade dungeons with a couple friends. We were high enough that we could survive without a devoted Healer, so I took on the part-time role with my Feral Druid. I quickly became addicted and have since switched over to Restoration and have been healing almost full time (the new dual-spec option makes this much easier to manage than before). My recent experience in healing has solidified my impressions on the role.
Healing is the toughest job in any group. If a DPS slacks off, the battle takes a little longer. Odds are other DPS players in the group can pick up the slack. If a Tank messes up, a battle can go south and the group might wipe, especially if monsters are attacking the Healer. However, a good Healer can keep health running long enough for a competent Tank to regain aggro or one of the DPS to pull the monsters off. When a Healer messes up, however, especially on the Tank or himself, it can quickly escalate to a wipe. Despite this, the Healer is on the sidelines. The only joy they get is in keeping others alive, not in taking down the enemy. Often times they can end up like those who work in the supply field: only noticed when they mess up and never appreciated when they do well.
With that in mind, here are a couple of concluding thoughts. Be nice to your Healer, they can’t get better without practice. If you think you can do it better, give it a try and see how tough it can get (for that matter, give it a try anyway so you understand the Healing dynamic – it will make you a stronger group member regardless of the role you take). If the Healer does well, let them know it (for that matter, commend the Tank when they do well or anyone in the group, or the group as a whole). Finally, don’t get too annoyed. After all, it is just a game (as I was reminded after a particularly gruesome run through the Halls of Lightning).
Three standard archetypes exist in current MMOs, those who deal damage, those who take damage, and those who heal damage. My greater focus for this string of articles has been with the first two because the mechanisms by which damage is given and taken are not compatible with the true human experience. Ironically, MMO Healing is just as unrealistic, but due to its magical justification there is greater room for suspension of disbelief. Unlike the other two archetypes, healing is already highly varied across various MMO games leading me to the conclusion that this class, at least, has not stagnated. Finally, there is less need to push the envelope on Healing mechanisms because the task already presents a strong challenge for gamers.