MMO Mechanics: Making healing interesting in MMORPGs

I was reading a recent Daily Grind article on the topic of unique healing classes and it prompted me to think about the variety of mechanics on offer for healing in MMOs that go beyond the World of Warcraft model. There are few MMO mechanics that run the risk of being diluted down by mods and add-ons in the way healing mechanics can be, which makes the area a fantastic area for a thought exercise in keeping healing interesting in MMORPGs.  Pair the lack of immersive interaction with the mechanics presented by the existence of click-heal and other ‘easy-heal’ overlays with many people’s general wish to be the more extroverted hero character instead of the less flashy but also very much needed party healer and it’s easy to see the need for more incentives to be presented by development teams.

In this edition of MMO Mechanics, I’ll take a look at some of the class suggestions from the Daily Grind article mentioned and will attempt to summarise what makes those classes so unique and interesting, hopefully in order to find a commonality between some that goes beyond the basic healing mechanics we know from more traditional MMOs.

Tree of Saviour multiclassing min-maxing build

My D&D-obsessed self was thoroughly impressed with the ToS multiclass healing build presented by commenter Ian Wells. Although I’ve not played myself, having a look at the classes list and the wide range of builds and resultant skills makes it clear that there is plenty of scope to create impressively complex synergies that play very nicely together. Ian layered Cleric with Priest, Bokor, and Plague Doctor: When I used the online rank up tool to check out the toolset available to players who choose this uncommon but nevertheless useful combination, it’s clear to see that fun can be had with the combination of utility skills and indirect offensive capabilities offered by the blend.

Ian pointed out some healing and damage prevention synergies offered by his class choices, including the ability to stave off all party damage for 20 seconds via 100% damage resistance, which is then dealt in one blow after the dot runs out and is then effectively negated by the build’s ability to autoressurect the party to 50% health. The indirect offensive skills within this build’s toolset also intrigue me: Blending in the Bokor zombie handling capacity means that the healer using such a build must adeptly manage minions to maximise damage output while also strategically placing healing circles and timing the use of preventative utility skills — such as the aforementioned Mackangdal skill — to facilitate the most efficient use of mass revive and heal waves. Add to this Ian’s choice of direct damage skills such as Hexing for a well-rounded, more-than-a-healer healing build. It has to be an interesting balancing act and I would love to test the build for myself, so thanks for the new summer plans, Ian!

Decrements and increments in Warhammer Online‘s healing

I was reminded by commenter Arktouros of the nature of Disciples of Khaine: The healing mechanics of the class relied heavily on increasing Soul Essence when the character dealt damage and decreasing the same whenever a heal was used instead. The relative strength of healing or damage was tailored via stat choices, with those who wished to focus on healing prioritising Willpower over Strength. Some abilities simultaneously healed while dealing damage, so you can imagine how solo-friendly this class actually was, just as commenter James Mock pointed out. Consume Essence was one such skill, and I particularly appreciated the mechanical layering caused by having a simultaneously damaging and healing ability: This ability would trigger the incrementing of Soul Essence (beyond its base cost) and thus could help this class keep up a continual moderate damage and healing stream wit minimal breaking required.

What was so enjoyable was the combination of traditional healing mechanics such as heal over time skills, cast heals, and group heals with detaunting capability and moderate damage ability that powered healing abilities was that even those who went for a very heal-heavy DoK build would benefit from dealing some damage, meaning that the player needed to stay more focused on the battlefield than the somewhat traditional healing mechanics underpinning the gameplay would have you believe. Knowing when to deal damage and when to take a step back from combat was a vital skill: Staying too long on the frontlines as a DoK was usually a death sentence for your character due to the class’ relatively low armour protections. Likewise, even those who specialised in DPS were widely expected to heal since the damage dealt was incomparable to the damage output of true DPS classes.

Use of a Familiar in Blade and Soul

Rafael12104 pointed out how unique the Summoner’s use of a feline Familiar is in Blade and Soul, especially with its unassuming aesthetic and flexibility in its build. I particularly like how self-sufficient the Summoner can be: The Familiar can act as a soft tank provided the Summoner can adequately employ its control-heavy skills and escape mechanics to correctly maintain the battlefield balance. The defensive mechanics used by the Summoner class are far-reaching and also can apply to party members, meaning that those allies who don’t happen to have a loyal kitty friend as a damage sink can benefit doubly from having a Summoner around. The double act is a perfect choice for those who enjoy soloing since the Familiar is a fantastic defence line that gives the player an extra life of sorts to lose since a Summoner or Familiar can resurrect the other should they fall.

I love that the melee DPS from the Familiar and the control and healing capability of the Summoner possess some degree of separation: Not only does it seem far more impressive when a player strategically employs the use of two characters simultaneously (even if the skill degree is largely the same as it is for any other toon), but it also satisfies the immersive needs of a wide group of playstyles and opens up healing to a much wider pool of players than the role usually attracts. Distracting opponents with a cat is rather clever, especially since it makes what should be a rather squishy back-of-the-line sort of class much more capable of greatness.

The common thread seems to be a lack of healing!

When you give honourable mentions to some of the other commonly mentioned builds in the discussion thread, such as Age of Conan‘s Bear Shaman and Guild Wars‘ Ritualist, a picture of healers that are more than back-line supporters in a world of muscle-bound heroes emerges. It seems to me that the best healing mechanics are those that still allow a character to feel powerful to the player, and I suppose no matter how brilliant raw heal numbers are, there’s a lot to be said for the adrenaline of rushing straight in and clashing directly with an opponent. Mechanics that enrich the experience and elevate the role of the healer beyond that of a lowly field medic don’t have to be fancy to appeal either: Simply linking damage to healing output or delivering some periphery skills that step outside the usual heal toolset is enough to grab interest.

Over to you!

We’ve discussed the most interesting healing classes through a Daily Grind, but I’d love for you to think of all the unique healing mechanics you have found in MMOs and share them with us in the comments below. How did they elevate the healer role, and did this have an impact on the rest of the game? What entices you to play a healer if it isn’t a role that usually appeals to you?

MMOs are composed of many moving parts, but Massively’s Tina Lauro is willing to risk industrial injury so that you can enjoy her mechanical musings. MMO Mechanics explores the various workings behind our beloved MMOs. If there’s a specific topic you’d like to see dissected, drop Tina a comment or send an email to tina@massivelyop.com.
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34 Comments on "MMO Mechanics: Making healing interesting in MMORPGs"

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Joe Pelletier

Best game healing classes were in vanguard saga of heroes both the blood mage and i think other one was a melee character i think disciple which i played and it was wild healing as it as heals came from you doing dmg but both were awesome and way dif then any other healing classes really.

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Mike Davenport

Healing is a utility and no one wants to create a character whose sole function is to be a utility for others. There are no MMOs out there that give you points for helping , there’s no XP in giving buffs or debuffs, just wiping out mobs. When that game happen, then we will have a reason for healing to be interesting.

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Joe Pelletier

You have never played vanguard then now closed but the 2 classes blood mage and disciple had great dps and healing and you had to dmg to heal for the most part although there was a stance or something that made you just a healer for people who liked old school way there main healing was from doing dmg. Best classes ever were from vanguard its to bad it never survived or that other games didn’t make healers like them or similar as they were fun and challenging to play.

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Jeremiah Wagner

Want healing to be interesting? Try making challenging dungeons.

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deekay_plus

i discussed briefly healing with my dev partner since he asked about it and not wanting to give him more design until i see a prototype on my desktop i told him “like wow” (which isn’t far from the truth).

as well one of my few true rage moments in mmo pvp has been up against a shaman in wow that while specced dps had a self heal on his bar and was able to “out dps” me in a stand up nuke fest punch out with his single heal. yes i raged. i yelled. i was not happy. i’m not sure how much wow arena i did after that.

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Robert Mann

For the class system trinity design (or ideally beyond trinity with things like support and control) healing should be a balance between needing to keep people alive, utility, and dealing out some decent damage in turn.

My personal opinion is that not every game needs to go there, and I stand by the idea that if combat is no longer the primary (and only) real focus of the game healing itself as it stands in most MMOs can be left out. When the game is about things other than combat, with combat being a rarity, having a longer healing time and making combat extremely risky are no longer devastating flaws.

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Ben Stone

I only really like healers with damage capabilities. Preferably doing both at once like Vanguards Disciple or EQ2s Fury.

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Fenryr Grey

There are *some* MMO that need to improve healing. I personally don’t like the dps’ing while doing some healing. That was also my main gripe with GW2 and FF14 healers. There is nothing wrong to add a healer class who also does some dps, but give me my pure healers. There’s nothing that is more fun (to me) in a MMO than to adapt and using different spells when they’re best suited for each given situation. Spamming a rotation to do OVER9000 DDDDDPS isn’t very interesting in my books. MMO devs just shouldn’t forget that not everyone plays for the huge (non-green) numbers.

WoW does a pretty good job to give healers a lot of tools. EQ2 Templar was also quite fun to play back in the day, and although I don’t really like Rift (anymore) the healing was very fun and challenging at least the first few months after release.

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Jeremy Barnes

I’ve played healers all the way back to EQ and FF14’s direction of trying to make healers appealing to people who don’t want to play healers by making them DPS who throw out some heals sometimes is a big gripe of mine. Seems like the same thing is going on with tanks in MMOs where tank are becoming big damage dealers in addition to being a tank.

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wonder_llama

As a general rule, every class in an MMO should feel challenging to play, not boring or tedious. This is obviously a bit subjective, but assuming the class is played to its strengths, it should survive reasonably well and progress reasonably well when compared to its peers. An overpowered class is boring. An underpowered class is frustrating. Having a lot of options with no significant effect on game play is just tedious. There should always be interesting choices confronting the player. And there should be enough options to choose from to allow a skilled player to shine.

Viewing healers in this light, I think the problem with a lot of dedicated healing classes is that they tend to be both weak (poor combat survivability) and boring to play (few meaningful choices to make.) I also don’t think that has to be the case. The Monk in Guild Wars is very much a classic healer, but I really enjoyed playing it back in the day. Part of the enjoyment came from the wide variety of skills to choose from (and that’s before you consider dual-classing.) There’s the standard arsenal of direct-healing and heal-over-time skills. But there are also skills that heal more damage if the target is suffering from curses or conditions as well as skills to clear those curses and conditions. There are also skills that reduce, reflect, redirect, and prevent damage. Some skills return energy to the caster, while others are maintained by a constant energy drain, while still others have no energy cost but are slow to recharge. Some skills convert damage to healing for a period of time, while others heal a small amount for every action the target player makes. And each skill works best in a particular situation. Executing the right skill at the right time is (and should be) the mark of a skilled healer just as it’s the mark of any skilled player.

In short, there are a lot of meaningful choices for a Guild Wars Monk to make. If three players in your eight player party are suffering from a damage-over-time condition, do you use a skill that clears conditions from the whole party but takes a while to recharge, or keep it in reserve and instead hit the three with a heal-over-time so they can ride out the damage, even though it costs more energy? If your DPS is dying, but your tank is fine, do you apply your best heal even though it uses a lot of energy and has a long cool-down? Yes, you’re still basically playing whack-a-mole. But it’s an interesting game of whack-a-mole. I often played the Monk on “Fissure of Woe” and “Tomb of the Primeval Kings” runs. These are not friendly places. Successful completion was a real group effort, and by the end of these runs I was often pretty exhausted. But there was also an sense of satisfaction knowing that my contributions were as essential to our success as anyone in the party.

I’ve also noticed that in MMOs with an alt-healer class, the alt-healer is often more well rounded and more fun to play. Some examples of what I’d consider alt-healers are the Guild Wars Ritualists, Aion Chanters, Guild Wars 2 Guardians and Engineers, and TERA Mystics.* It’s not just that they’re more capable damage dealers, it’s that they’re more imaginative classes all-around, with more options available to them. The healing mechanics themselves are often more interesting as well, relying on auras, totems, or deployable medi-packs. Compare these classes to the classic dedicated healer who’s sole job is to be squishy, stand in back away from the excitement, and make health bars go up instead of down. Full stop.

*Note: I consider Guild Wars Monks and Aion Clerics to be solid classes to play, but I still find the alt-healers to be a bit more fun. In TERA, the original Mystic was underpowered while the modern Mystic feels about right. By comparison, the Priests in TERA still feel weak and a bit tedious to play.

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Sally Bowls

But “An overpowered class is boring. ” is for you; it is not universal. If I think of why I play a MMO, I doubt combat would make the top 5 reasons. An overpowered class would bother me far less that you. If someone plays a MMO for crafting or economy/AuctionHouse or exploring or socializing or housing or clothing or for a chat system with friends or ERP or because a past/future sexual conquest is in the game, then why would they be that upset at an overpowered class? In fact, isn’t making the uninteresting-to-them parts quicker desirable to them?

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Taemys

I really enjoyed my Bard soul in Rift. Sorry if like the mechanic from Warhammer, you had to juggle damages and healing. And I got to play a lute!

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Modrain

I can add two and a half mechanics:

– The first one is sort of a “life balancer” mechanic, from a class that exchange its life to either damage opponents or heal allies, and recover its own life with self-heals or by stealing some HPs from allies. Ratios when healing are not 1:1, so it’s efficient in its main healer role. Compared to a usual healer that only heals, there’s that extra layer of life management to take into account. Removing life from allies is oddly satisfying, by the way, especially when there’s a scaredy cat in the party. I have yet to play the class with people I don’t know (i.e. potentially hostile people), but I presume that you’d better not let someone die after having grabbed some life from them.
The class is less efficient as a DPS since opponents usually have more HP than allies, but it’s still more than decent with some buffs on, I’m especially thinking of one that increases inflicted damage at the cost of healing efficiency.

Two reasons I like that life trading mechanic: healing can be optimized (OCD triggered). Example: in many games, when using group healing, it’s not always useful because there are people already full life. Being able to steal life from them to equalize life levels, then heal people feels satisfying, and requires more thinking than just pushing buttons when cooldowns are up. Reason number two is simply that you’re able to properly DPS out of parties, even in the early “levels” (it’s more skill gathering/gearing up than levelling), it’s rarely the case for healers.

– I’m a bit surprised, but the other class has its core mechanic pretty close to that of Warhammer Online’s DoK (hence the “half” mechanic): the class stacks Essences (no joke, that’s the name) by using DPS skills, and consumes those by either healing or using more powerful DPS skills. It’s somewhat tanky-ish against opponents with a steady DPS, as it relies on lifesteal and a huge HP pool, but overall, it’s more a jack of all trades that serves as an off-heal/off-DPS in a party.
It’s mostly the essence management that I find interesting. You can’t just consumes your stack without thinking to what’s ahead. And it also gives the choice to the player to either DPS or heal. Similarly to the previous mechanic soloing/”levelling” isn’t a pain.

– And last but not least is a mechanic from the same class than above, it’s simply that a huge amount of Essences are granted upon an ally death, what usually happens only when the main healer is in panic mode. It’s pretty simple, as all it does is to allow you to heal like crazy for a few seconds, but it’s quite funny to serve as a backup when needed, makes you feel like you’re saving the day. If you’ve ever played Overwatch and been boosted by Ana on a tense situation, the feel is the same.

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Veldan

Guild Wars (the original) had an ability that was somewhat like your first point. It was a quick high heal and the game’s main counter to spike damage, so everyone used it in the serious PvP modes. It made the healer lose 50% of his health, and the target got healed for something like 130% of the health lost. Fun ability. Player takes spike damage –> healer catches it but loses half health –> other healer(s) need to quickly heal him back up before the enemy takes advantage.

https://wiki.guildwars.com/wiki/Infuse_Health

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BP Wolfe

I like your concept of life stealing to heal. I think it could be a pretty awesome and unique healing style. I still like my pure healers and the UI life bar juggle, but I think this could help bring some uniqueness to the class.

PurpleCopper
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PurpleCopper

Surgeon Simulator mini-game when healing!

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rondstat

I think the most unique healer class I’ve ever played is the Mystic in Tera. Unlike other healers, you spend very little time looking at the UI and much more engaging with the battle and its mechanics. It’s your duty to provide the means for buffing and healing in the right locations, but it’s up to the players themselves to get the heals. With a talented group, it’s unstoppable.

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Sally Bowls

I like healing, but think this warrants asking the meta question: should there be healers? If people greatly prefer buying blue shirts instead of lime green shirts, then instead of existential ruminations on how to better market/make lime green shirts, you could just make more blue shirts. If the customers are always going to prefer DPS, then at what point do all but the largest devs (WoW can afford to be an everything MMO; CU et al can not), after much “pearls before swine” and “back in my day” rants while drinking, decide their resources are more effectively spent trying elsewhere than trying to get their customers to not DPS?

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Arktouros

While I immensely enjoyed the lack of roles in GW2’s first take on group PvE content (IE: Giving everyone a dedicated heal slot) it was pretty far from popular unfortunately. So to use your analogy it’s like people mostly want to wear blue shirts but they still expect that there will be lime shirts.

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Ian Wells

Ha ha, was not expecting that. You are welcome, though. I have to tell you though, in PvE you WILL feel the grind with that build. Until you hit rank 2 bokor (about 140-50 character levels), you will be dealing damage by smacking things around with a mace and letting your buffs do most of the work. Hexxing starts off only landing on one target and lands on an additional target every odd level, meaning that by the time you will be taking it it will be pretty much useless until its maxxed out. You can reverse the bokor and priest levels, if you want, but get ready for auto-match dungeon parties to complain about getting “zombie healer”, as thoughtless bokors have given a bad name to the class by dropping healing circles in spots where their zombies end up taking them.

Zombies seem to have gotten a bit of a buff from the massive balancing patch that hit a week or so back (haven’t played in months), but they move VERY slowly which makes them kind of unreliable damage dealers. You will need to use Bwa Kayiman to position them. On the plus side, anything small to medium in size touched by Bwa Kayiman is flinched for 1 second, which is also the interval between hits. This effectively turns Bokor into a very reliable CC class in come dungeons and situations. Pick the right place to grind, and you can effectively level up by running in circles.

Finally, let me stress this: Bokors will NEVER do damage in PvP. Organized group PvP parties never leave home without a Plague Doctor, meaning Hexxing will never land, meaning that Effigy can’t be used. Getting zombies up in PvP is nigh impossible, and unless you are a spirit build they will die almost immediately when you do. You will need an organized party that knows how to defend and is skilled enough to use their limited immortality to push their opponents to the brink of defeat while effectively fighting 4v5.

This is not a build to go into lightly, but is incredibly rewarding when backed by a competent and well organized team. Nothing is ever so satisfying as watching your enemies lament as they are picked off one by one as your team fails to take damage. There are a few counters to this strategy, but the only one I have found insurmountable is a paladin with a high level in Barrier, which can effectively put the fight on hold for its duration.

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zoward

I never felt the need to be a front line combatant – I was always valued as a “must-have ” class. It seemed (seems?) like nobody wanted to tank or heal, just dps, dps, dps. I enjoyed healing. I found I almost always got preferential treatment when it was time to hand out spellcasting goodies at the end of the fight – as a general rule, healers are harder to replace than mages. All this changed, of course, when dungeon finders become commonplace and your party mates knew they’d likely never see you again after the run.

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TomTurtle

I honestly prefer focusing on the triage gameplay of healing alone rather than mixing in something like having to DPS as well.
Also, I’ve encountered heavy positional healing in games like Tera and GW2 and that only reinforces my preference for the more traditional healing role. Having to aim heals at allies who tend to be in near constant motion is frustrating.

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Veldan

I agree, I generally like healing but I hated it in Tera and GW2. The last thing I want is for people to die even though I cast my heals in time, because the heals missed. I’d prefer HP bars to click any time.

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The general problem with ‘healing’ as a function in an MMO is simple: It purely relies on someone else doing the ‘fun’ stuff for you. Simply put, DPS is considered ‘fun’. It’s the guy with all the flashy flips and slashes and attacks and gets to see the enemy’s health taken off by chunks directly from their actions. Tanks are in a sort of hybrid situation, they can do the same, but rely more on outlasting their opponent rather than taking off huge chunks of health. The 3rd member of the trinity has no self reliance. They’re mostly (not %100, of course, even they can smack things with their staff in a pinch) reliant on others to do the heavy lifting for them. They don’t get to even see what they do directly affect the enemy, they had to help someone ELSE do that! As such, healers are stuck with the idea of playing whack-a-mole with teammate health, and either it’s boring or total chaos because all hell is breaking loose (and inevitably get blamed for getting overwhelmed).

The short version? The other 2 pillars of the holy trinity are self reliant, a healer cannot be, by the way they are designed. You can’t make healing itself fun, so giving the healer options to do other things is a necessity to encourage players to be a healer…

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Veldan

You are wrong about that. Your main point is just an opinion, that not everyone holds. There are lots of people that do like to heal and consider it fun, including me. It does not need to be boring. As a healer you often see stuff that was actually very threatening even though other people are oblivious to it. They didn’t notice, because they didn’t die, because you did your job.

Also, in a raid, no single person is really affecting the enemy anyway. Try getting a 20+ man raid boss down with just a single DPS alive… its attacks won’t even make the boss HP bar move a pixel. Raiding is all about the group effort, and only the group effort can make meaningful impact. Healing and supporting are just as much a part of that as DPS.

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Serrenity

I don’t think there’s a problem with healing in MMOs, per se. I think healing is fun. I like the healer playstyle and the healer mindset.

I disagree with the idea that healing is boring. It’s rarely a ‘wack-a-mole’ situation anymore as you have to know the mechanics of any given fight. You can’t just stand in on place and spam clicks on your HealBot. That’s an easy way to get dead. With everyone else running around avoiding mechanics, you can’t just run totally out of the way, because then you run into range issues, line of sight, etc.

Healing nowadays is very different than what it was, and it’s much more involved and active. I also don’t think the other two pillars are really that self-reliant. They can be flashier, but without support, everyone goes down pretty quick. In fact, I’ve flexed my power as a healer before by refusing to heal DPS that keeps doing stupid things, or the tank who pathologically overpulls.

While I like the WoW Disc priest now with the DPS component, I really liked it a lot better as a bubble machine. To me, that was more fun that spamming smite until I had atonement or whatever then spamming a heal. That was dynamic, but it wasn’t really fun in my book. I want my sole job as a healer is to keep you alive (or teach you the error of yours ways through some strategic ‘tough love’).

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thalendor

I’ve flexed my power as a healer before by refusing to heal DPS that keeps doing stupid things, or the tank who pathologically overpulls.

Ah yes, the instant change in someone’s actions when they realize you didn’t heal them on purpose… priceless!

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BP Wolfe

Tooootally agree. I like pure healers. It’s fun for me. Yeah, you depend on others to do the “heavy lifting”, but they also can’t do that heavy lifting without you. I find a lack of pure healers these days where every class can self-heal in some way. Hopefully Camelot Unchained brings back some cool and unique healing. I loved my healing Druid in DAoC with its AoE Root ability. It definitely helped turn the tide of some battles and gave me something to do other than healing. There’s nothing like coming out of a PvP/PvE raid and receiving /tells from a lot of the raid thanking you for your heals and then receiving constant invites to run raids upon logging in. While I can appreciate the appeal of a hybrid healer or a front line healer, there should always be room for pure healers.

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zuldar

My biggest issue with healing is you spend more time looking at the ui then the combat. I’d like to see at least one healer become a bit weaker dps with healing as a side affect of doing damage. Every damaging move should then either have a varying level of heal or buff attached to it.

Then they could do something cool like giving multiple ways to rotate through skills, so in order to successfully heal the encounter you have to match the tempo of the fight. Use a big heal when you only needed a small one and you might not have it ready to deal with spike damage.

Then they could even tie it into the music, with the rhythm giving a hint as to what type of heal or buff would be best to use next.

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Jerry Maples

The Chloromancer* soul (in the mage class) in Rift healed by using its damage based spells and it had two options (controlled by which buff you used) for single target healing or party healing. It was a fun mechanic because the healing was proportional to damage so you wanted to up your dps to make your healing better.

*This was true in version 1 of Rift, I haven’t played it for many years and don’t know how things have changed.

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zuldar

Chloro was ok, but you still spent a majority of your time watching the raid health bars and ui for when your procs went off. It pretty much played the same as the other healers.

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Veldan

Well, looking at UI is not going to change. As a healer, your purpose is to fill people’s health bars. Regardless of whether direct or indirect, you still need to know the status of people’s HP. Chloro really did not play the same as other healers though.

@Jerry Maples It’s still somewhat like that, but chloro healing hasn’t scaled off damage for a long time.

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James Mock

Fun to randomly read your own name in an article! MMOs could definitely use some innovative healing mechanics to breathe life into the genre (no pun intended, I swear).

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Jack Kerras

I loved Warhammer Online, if that is not obvious from the Witch Hunter icon, drawn by mine own hand. :)

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