Wisdom of Nym: Final Fantasy XIV’s healer problem and how it’s kind of unsolvable


I quite like Final Fantasy XIV’s healers. I really enjoy both Scholar and White Mage, and considering that this expansion is one in which I’d really prefer doing anything other than playing Summoner, the former is saying something. While there were some roadbumps early on, healing has settled into its groove for the expansion, and aside from the people still salty over Dancer not being a healer it’s mostly a non-issue beyond the fact that, well, the game works like it does.

Conventional wisdom at this point is that the next expansion will include a new healer, since we haven’t had one since Heavensward at this point. But this also seems like a fine time to bring up the overarching issue that healers do have in FFXIV, one that sometimes still crops up when you discuss healers (especially among progression-minded players), and one that’s not altogether an issue you can solve so much as one you can approach differently. Because, well… yeah, there’s a healer issue. It’s just part of the game.

First and foremost, let’s establish a basic rule for the game as it exists now: healers heal damage and throw in supplemental DPS. This is not really up for debate. Outside of Savage progression, no one is going to criticize exactly how much damage a healer does, but every single healer has DPS spells and space to use them in an average dungeon run. Damage is not your primary focus, but it is there, and you are meant to make use of it.

This is entirely true to other games in the franchise, wherein every single healer has other things to do because otherwise a quarter of your party (or a third of your party) has nothing to do if no one is hurt. This is foundational. Healers heal first and deal damage second, but there is always a point when the healing is done.

The thing is, though… well, there’s a problem with that. See, while the acquisition of gear and power makes every job better at its role, healing becomes better at the same rate it becomes less necessary.

Half man. Half beard. Another half beard.

Let’s use an entirely made-up example. Assume you have a static party that always does the current end tier of normal raiding together. At the start of the tier, the boss takes X time to kill and deals Y damage to the tanks, you kill it, you get your rewards.

Flash forward to the end of the tier, with your entire party decked out in the current top-end gear. As a result of all this work, each DPS player deals 10% more damage, each tank takes 5% less damage and deals 5% more, and each healer deals 5% more damage and heals for 5% more. From the standpoint of a power increase, everyone’s getting better at about the same rate.

But let’s think about this for a second. Based on all of these changes, your party-wide DPS has increased by 60%. That means a pretty significant reduction in time to kill the boss, meaning that the boss has less chance to deal damage… which is also reduced by 5%. So you’re quite easily looking at a fight that takes half as long and doesn’t hurt as much, meaning that you’d have an easier time healing even if healing hadn’t gotten stronger, too.

If all you were supposed to do, this would be a problem. Fortunately for the game’s design, this is a problem with a built-in solution, allowing you to now push your damage further by spending less time healing and more time doing damage. Except… that mostly comes down to meaning that you can now more consistently spam your one damage spell on the boss. And therein lies the actual healer problem.

See, on the one hand… healers are not DPS. They contribute very meaningfully to the overall damage dealt, but their primary function is always to heal rather than deal damage. For that matter, many boss fights have phases in which healers are explicitly being pushed to maximize healing, like the phase transition at the end of Orbonne Monastery or the Absolute Zero spam portion of the Shiva fight. You don’t want to make White Mage worry about maintaining Enochian along the way there a la Black Mage.

On the other hand… there are portions of these fights, often large ones, in which healers wind up with a paucity of things to do. Spamming Broil isn’t inherently more interesting than spamming Physick, to use an obvious example, and healer toolkits are very easy to set up to give you good chunks of time in which you can devote yourself to doing damage.

You do actually need to cast a heal.

This problem is compounded by the fact that… well, there are lots of healers who are not very good as healers. You don’t really want to encourage the “I’m green DPS” dude to not pay any attention to actually healing the tank, especially when his assumption is that the tank will last just fine into three-digit HP based on nothing more than thinking it’ll probably work. Better to lean too hard on healing over dealing damage, then.

Except… there are also people who can absolutely do that just fine. I personally know many healers who routinely let my health drop to half as a tank, and I’m in no real danger along the way. It’s like the difference between watching a parkour video and acknowledging that a human being can do that or assuming you can do that.

Thus, the healer problem. Healers do not need to be healing all the time for a variety of reasons, which means that they can make use of their damage spells… but those spells are generally rather flat and utilitarian, which makes things boring once again. But giving healers more damage or more elaborate rotations causes more friction on the other end of gameplay.

The reason I noted this was kind of unsolvable is that… you can move the needle, but the same problems are still there. Increasing incoming damage more to force healers to heal more is not permanent; creating more elaborate DPS rotations takes the focus off of healing and encourages worse healers to cause larger problems. You nudge things, but you always are nudging things.

We were told at the start of Shadowbringers that, functionally, healer changes were aiming at healers being meant to heal. That makes sense because it helps bring all three of the healers into the same basic space in terms of how they are designed. Before diversifying further, you want to bring basic efficiency into a comprehensible baseline and get everyone accustomed to what the “core” toolkit is meant to be.

I’m hopeful that the next expansion and our new healer does expand things a little. The Blood Lily mechanic itself seems like a test run for how this could work, giving more damage options for focusing on healing; the inverse would work well also, making your heals bigger the more you invest in damage up to a point. It’s a space to explore more.

But to a certain extent, there’s just always going to be a trace of this issue in the game. Healers have stretches wherein they are mostly DPS, but they can never actually be DPS. All you can do is nudge the direction of where the proper balance lies.

Feedback, as always, is welcomed via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com or in the comments down below. Next week, I’d like to talk about mining the past of the franchise and how this expansion has set us up for a more novel followup.

The Nymian civilization hosted an immense amount of knowledge and learning, but so much of it has been lost to the people of Eorzea. That doesn’t stop Eliot Lefebvre from scrutinizing Final Fantasy XIV each week in Wisdom of Nym, hosting guides, discussion, and opinions without so much as a trace of rancor.
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