Monday, September 15, 2014

Healing in Warlords of Draenor and in general

There has been a very nice blue post by Taepsilum yesterday.

(1) Quotes:
[..] Healing in Mists, especially in raids and especially later in the expansion, suffered from three major problems: 1) the power of healing relative to player health pools meant that injured players could be topped off almost instantly; 2) mana became increasingly irrelevant as a constraint, with many healers actively reforging out of Spirit; and 3) "smart heals" accounted for a very large portion of healing done, meaning that for some healers their targeting decisions were almost meaningless.

[..] The problem is that when healing was in that state, the only way we could kill someone in a raid or dungeon was with massive damage, fatal if the healer didn't react instantly; it led to sudden spike deaths, punished latency, and made healing more like whack-a-mole and less like a series of tactical decisions. And in raids, as soon as maximizing throughput becomes all that matters, healing risks turning into a rotation performed irrespective of the encounter or the incoming damage.

[..] We want to slow down the pace a bit, and for the challenge in healing to lie more in making decisions about spell usage and targeting, and less in twitch-reaction and sustaining a DPS-style rotation. This also means that the cost of a mistake is not a dead player, but rather a more injured one, giving you a chance to fix your error. [..]

First, I like most of this post a lot. It makes me hopeful that - at least in the beginning - WoD will have 5-man dungeons that are actually interesting as a healer. This were in stark contrast to most of WoW since the introduction of DungeonFinder in the middle of WotLK.

The exception being healing in Cataclysm dungeons with my druid back then; even the DungeonFinder ones. They were interesting and fun. I had a lot of trouble healing raids in Cataclysm, though. Not because I didn't put out enough healing or was running oom, but because I constantly died due to standing in some kind of fire or not with the group or with the group when I shouldn't have, etc.
Basically I liked the healing minigame - but to also have to be on the move constantly or standing in one specific spot at the right time was a bit too much for me. I raided maybe 5 or 6 times in Cataclysm.

The healing I liked most (of course) was the one in classic WoW. So, let's have a look at what has changed and why.

Healing in classic WoW consisted of slow/fast healing spells (reaction), low/high throughput healing spells, mana-efficient/inefficient healing spells, the need for movement and trying to not be hit by mobs.

Healers were constantly making decisions on several fronts:
  • long-term decisions: Can I spare the mana?
  • short-term decisions: What do I have to do to keep the group from wiping? (reaction time / necessary throughput)
  • single-target or multiple-target heal?
  • need for movement, which prevented efficient usage of most healing spells.
  • need to not being hit by mobs, which not only resulted in the usual amount of group damage, but due to pushback, also resulted in much less healing for everyone.

Classic wasn't perfect. You can imagine combinations, like a spell that is slow and moderately efficient, but can be used during movement and while being hit without pushback. Anyway, classic WoW's healing decision making was interesting enough to be fun.

Now, you might think that the above combinations are obvious, but, in fact, this is not the way healing always worked in WoW.

For long periods of time, whenever the power-creep had set in, during an expansion, healing turned into some kind of hps rotation, where you had to cast spells in some kind of inter-dependent and/or procc-dependent order and without looking at mana. In this case, healers were just like damage dealers, with the irrelevant difference that they dealt healing instead of damage.
With the addition of smart heals, which decide on their own who should be the target of the heal, healers played the same way damage dealers played in dungeons: they spammed their AoE rotation irrespective of what happened.

I am happy the WoD developers recognized that this is not optimal! This is very important. A MMO is better if it offers different play styles. In fact, the more different, the better. Which is, why class homogenization is really a terrible thing and should be done very carefully, especially in the name of something as overhyped on player forums, like 'balance'.

Now, WoD developers once again, try to go back to the mana-limited healing. That's great. Furthermore, they aim to make movement difficult for casters again. This is also great! With the exception of too much push-back protection (healers don't have to try not to be hit by mobs) we are almost there (back in classic). And pushback protection is not relevant, anyway, in modern WoW, because tanking is not about threat anymore as tanks produce massive AoE threat whatever they do. That is another post.

Anyway, healing looks reasonably good in WoD with one more difference remaining to classic:

See, in classic WoW casters only regenerated meaningful amounts of mana if they hadn't cast for the last five seconds. This lead to a play style very, very different from that of damage dealers. Healing was a tactical/strategical challenge. It was not so much about being fast or active, but about trying to do nothing whenever possible. Healers would watch the battlefield, constantly thinking and judging what to do next and when. They may not have pressed buttons all that often. But, mentally, they were often the most active players. I know one healer in classic who was well known on the server to let tanks and players drop to very low amounts of health before healing them up again. He rarely ran oom and since he usually succeeded at keeping the tank alive, even in tight situations, he was very well respected.

With Cataclysm, however, the developers considered this a bad mechanic. Players doing nothing for long periods of time didn't fit into their ever-faster philosohy. ("We don't want to reward inactivity" - as if watching the battle meant being inactive!)
As a consequence they added super-mana-efficient heals that could be cast for forever and removed the extra-fast mana-regeneration after 5 seconds of inactivity. Healers now regenerated a moderate amount of mana irrespective of spell casting.

This ended in catastrophe. Healers were completely overwhelmed by the combination of
  • dungeons that required team work, single-target damage and crowd control instead of AoE (like in late WotLK)
  • players who weren't used to this anymore
  • the new healing philosophy which I just explained
  • all this in combination with the DungeonFinder which must not be used in combination with non-trivial content, as Blizzard has learnt since then.

But what about the Cataclysm healing if done right? It wasn't terrible. In fact, it was pretty neat in 5-man dungeons, if you had a reasonable group, some self-confidence (one of those things many healers don't seem to have) and if you had understood that you had to cast your cheap heal all-the-time.
Players who hadn't understood the difference to healing in prior expansions, however, were screwed.

In Cataclysm you didn't regenerate more mana if you hadn't cast for 5 seconds. Consequently, if you tried to cast as rarely as possible, followed by your most powerful (and most expensive / mana-inefficient) heal, you would run out-of-mana very, very fast. Healers who tried to adjust to the new-found difficulty of Cataclysm dungeons and tried to go back the the mana-efficient healing of pre-Cataclysm times, ran constantly oom - often without understanding why.

The disadvantage of Cataclysm healing was that, constantly spamming your mana-efficient healing spells, while also looking out for mana-saving proccs made healing very stressful. Especially, when combined with raid-like positioning mechanics. For me, the 5-man dungeon stress level was still ok - but raiding was too exhausting to be fun.

In addition, contrary to the design goal, healing in practice didn't go from using the super-cheap heals to the more inefficient ones while content became more difficult. Instead, it went from using the inefficient ones rarely if the content was easy (less work), to using the inefficient ones more often if content became more difficult. The difficulty sweet spot where you had to use the efficient ones all the time and supplemented them with the inefficient ones, was very hard to hit for the designers.

And, last but not least, healers, facing easy content, were lazy and used the inefficient spells rarely, instead of the efficient ones often. Consequently, they felt bad for knowing that they played sub-optimal. But there just wasn't any need to play better if the content was sufficiently easy.
This is in contrast to the old healing philosophy which made healers feel good whenever they didn't have to heal. They were rewarded with mana and short relaxing breaks when they cast as little as possible and, consequently, were happy whenever they could just watch the battle. Of course, damage dealers and tanks not having much self-healing/absorbs back then also prevented healers from ever becoming superfluous, no matter how easy the content; that's another difference to now.

Eventually, and yet again, power creep set in. At that point I had already left my raid group, 5-man dungeons were super-boring as a healer, the open world was made trivial (not least due to pve-pvp separation) and thus, the announcement of a whole expansion about pandas (Pandas!) was quite enough to make me quit.

Healing in WoD looks good so far. Not great, but good. I hope that after the ability pruning, healers will still have lots of heals to choose from. To have just one fast/inefficient/high throughput and one slow/efficient/low throughput heal for single targets and multiple targets makes four heals for all healers. That's boring.

Healers should be different! There should be many more heals for different situations. One shouldn't be afraid of a heal that is moderately efficient, very slow, has moderate throughput, rewards mana if the healer is hit (becomes very efficient), but turns into a high-throughput HoT that costs extra mana over time (turns into inefficient) if the healer starts moving while casting. This kind of ability may add complexity, but it also adds some depth - especially for the game as whole!


  1. They really need to bring back the older style of group play. I remember clearly that as a priest (both heal and dps) or a druid (tbc, dps), taking aggro resulted in insta-death in dungeons of my level.
    That would decrease the total availability of tanks though to a bare minimum (my druid was always a tank even in tbc, even though my guild required me to play dps, so when solo i always tanked and coping with noob dps taking aggro and wiping the group as a result all the damn time was insuferable), no tank would stay around for more than two wipes now.

    Basically cc was needed back then because in dungeons of appropirate level (starting from scarlet and beyond), aggroing more than 3 mobs was certain wipe even with a tank up. Any other than the tank taking aggro from any elite mob resulted also in INSTA-death or two shot at best.

    1. Actually, that is not as I remember it. Tanks wanted CC because it was hard to keep threat on more than two or three mobs without AoE threat generating attacks.

      Tanks wouldn't usually die if attacked by more and nor would healers. The probelm wasn't instant-death (which hadn't been good gameplay), but rather available healer mana.

      Only exception were early heroic TBC dungeons. Those were instant-death difficult. But while I liked to do them once in a while, I wouldn't want to miss normal dungeons.

    2. Well i remember quite clearly running sunken temple and uldaman and whenever my priest got aggro i died in 3 shots max. Dire maul and stratholme/scholomance was a nightmare.
      TBC dungeons especially auchinoun ones i was literaly a glass canon, and threat back then was indeed the most important thing anyone should notice. As for tanks, i as a druid could NEVER complete shattered halls heroic, period. No matter how many tries the part with the 6 elite mobs was just a no-no, even on T5 mixed with T6 gear. Tanks back then did not have aoe except paladins (that were a weird tank though by all accounts).
      Aggroing trash in a raid also resulted in insta-death the whole tbc era (i did not manage to progress further than 5-mans in vanilla due to altoholism).

    3. Well, I also played a feral tank in TBC and I did heroic shattered halls with two warlocks (seduce, fear) and two holy priests (fear, massivs hps). Later with full T4 I could do it heroic shattered halls with any competent group.
      Anyway, it was fun, but brutal. I wouldn't argue to return to this point - at least not for all dungeons. :)

      As for other dungeons/raids I guess it depends on the exact time. Near the end of classic our healers could heal my mage having aggro in Molten Core. They would eventually go oom - but it worked quite often.

      Non-tanks would die quite fast in other dungeons, but I don't remember them to be a one-hit. This was really something completely new with heroic dungeons in TBC. They were much more difficult than any classic dungeon had been.

  2. Healing the T11 (Cata) raids was some of the most fun I've had in WoW. It always felt challenging without being blatantly unfair. It's a shame that most players seem to see challenge itself as unfair.

    The three main healing spells model wasn't a very good one imo. With haste the difference between your big heal and your fast heal ends up being about half a second; and in situations where you expect someone to die within that kind of timeframe, a second and a half is too long to wait to save them.

    Fast heals are only useful in the situation that your target will be dead between a fast heal's cast-time from now and a big heal's cast-time from now, and only if you have no instant CDs to use first.

  3. I don't know why that blue post makes you that hopeful, considering they identified those exact same problems before and tried to fix them in Cata - unsuccessfully. While you make valid criticisms of the healing model of early Cataclysm, I think its main problem was simply that it showed that Blizzard doesn't have the audience for this kind of resource management model anymore. I enjoyed the early Cata healing style too, but the forums were overrun with people who complained that healing was too hard and no fun. Most people who enjoyed tactical gameplay and resource management stopped playing WoW long ago and found something else to do.

    Blizzard may well try to implement a healing model adhering to the tenets that are talked about in that blue post, but given past experiences I see no reason to assume that a) they will succeed at all or b) if they do succeed, that the current player base will actually appreciate it.