The Future of the Healer in MMORPGs

Somehow, I fell into MMO healing when I was first leveling my Druid on World of Warcraft back in ’04. I was going through Uldaman, and the group needed a healer, so I said I could do it. After a successful run, the group told me that I was a fantastic healer, and they had yet to be in a group that ran so smoothly. I won’t lie that their comments fed my ego and made me continue my WoW career as a healer for the next four and a half years. However, if being a healer had not been equally as fun as DPSing or tanking, I would have gone another route. MMOs all have different takes on healing systems, some work and some really don’t. I hope that future games learn from the games which do things right and avoid those who place an undue complications on the playstyle.

I had tried healing classes before WoW with varying degrees of success. In Star Wars Galaxies one of the most popular pre-NGE class templates was Doctor/Swordsman. The template got both incredibly high damage as well as incredibly high survivability—as long as the player carried crafted medicine to heal with. You see, the Doctor profession in SWG required players to use consumable, crafted medicine in order to heal. This in turn forced a limited number of heals on a player based on their inventory quantity, as well as placing an artificial barrier on character progression based on quality of those consumables. A Master Doctor had the potential to craft/use the highest quality medicine, but did not necessarily mean that he or she would be able to do so at all times.

In turn, SWG’s primary healing class turned out, to me at least, to be more of a mini-game than actual healer. There were too many caveats on which my utility hinged. I like having my character progress because of the things I do with him, not because I can find high quality bird meat or a really cheap vendor selling meds. Luckily, Doctor was just one of the professions I temporarily played on my way to unlocking my Jedi.

In Ultima Online, every player of equal Magery and Evaluating Intelligence skill could cast the same quality of heals or damage spells. All magic users were hybrids; my particular joy came from hiding while my friends got into fights and then coming out of nowhere to drop a Greater Heal on them and throw Flamestrikes at their opponents. There we reagents required for casting in UO, but they were static and had no bearing at all on the power behind one’s spells like a Doctor’s medicine. I liked this system better than SWG, but even having to carry certain reagents meant a level of micromanagement that I just don’t entirely enjoy.

Then came WoW healing, and I found the playstyle that really took me for the long-haul. I like being able to stand behind people and throw out whatever heals I want to, only worrying about my mana pool. I don’t want to worry about what will happen if I run out of my best medicine, nor do I want to worry about if I have enough Mandrake Root left from the last night to make it through the newest ambush. Since I PvP often, I know that scenario rarely happens, but I make sure that I play a healer that is relatively resilient, and I learn how to survive having people focus their fire on me. It’s the same concept as standing back and healing, just applied to myself.

WoW also further refined what I knew to be healing in giving each class a distinct healing style. Paladins were the throughput healers; they were able to keep a single target alive indefinitely with their mana pools never wavering. Druids rolled Heals-Over-Time (HoTs), thus taking a proactive role in regard to healing; they had some burst, but they specialized in being able to keep a steady stream on a few chosen targets. Shamans relied Chain Heal which jumped to allies in close proximity of one another, solidifying them as the top Area-of-Effect (AoE) healer in the game. Priests were the healers who had a tool for every situation. If they needed to hit an AoE heal, they could. If they required a HoT, they had one. They had decent burst and good-enough throughput. Depending on how a player wanted to heal, there was a class that most likely specialized in that area. I liked this aspect because it allowed me to play the game in the way I wanted (as a healer) while still giving me the variety of not being stuck to a single avatar all the time. Other MMOs I had played offered nowhere near the variety in healing WoW did.

With every new MMO coming out trying something new and supposedly revitalizing to the genre (and WoW developers themselves saying they need to redesign the healing game), I doubt many new games will stick to the standard “stand back and cast” healers. Even Warhammer Online’s stand-back healers are equipped to repel attackers with far more offensive capabilities than in most other MMOs. Of the 6 healing classes in WAR, only two of them do not have their healing capabilities directly linked to their offensive arsenal. Warrior Priests must melee and do damage in order to continue building up Righteous Fury so they can keep throwing out heals (the Destruction-only class Disciple of Khaine works the same way). Shamans and Archmages lose efficiency if they don’t throw offensive spells at least every 5 or 6 casts because they build up power to fuel them every time they cast a healing spell (and vice versa). In WAR, it is almost impossible to stand behind the tanks and just throw heals like it is in WoW. Everyone eventually has to mix it up.

And that led me to begin thinking about Star Wars: The Old Republic and how I would like to see in this game handle healing. My mind immediately went back to the SWG Doctor. I wouldn’t mind a similar class as long as Bioware makes it non-consumable based. If the Doctor (or Medic or Combat Medic or whatever they decide to call it) were to get different levels of injections and medications and vaccinations that worked off of equipment or tools (egad, did I just say that?) and base-line abilities, I might actually give it a legitimate shot.

What I really want is for The Old Republic to have a healing Jedi. A Doctor or Medic would be cool if done right (and I would likely play one if it were the only healing option), but a Jedi using the Force for knitting together his or her group’s wounds and whippin’ ass with a lightsaber at the same time just sounds like so much fun. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a unique way to do it. Every time I try to think of a new perspective on it, I realize that I am simply basing it off of a WoW Paladin or a WAR Warrior Priest. I really hope that Bioware is more creative than I am.

I thought about having a Jedi whose power came from lightsaber crystals geared toward healing, threw out Force heals on those around, and only ran into melee when some lovin’ needed to be dished out to the opponent, but I realized that was just a sword-and-board Holy Paladin from World of Warcraft. Just replace healing lightsaber crystals with “spellpower mace and shield” and running into melee to dish out lovin’ with “running into melee to refresh a Judgment,” and I’m practically talking about the same thing.

So then I started thinking about Jedi who consistently mixed it up in melee, but had abilities tuned to where they might do less damage, but the damage they do is almost directly translated into healing themselves or their party members. They would have to melee to keep a consistent stream of healing going to their group, and they could use the Force to burst heal when that wasn’t enough. I then realized this was exactly how the Warrior Priest and Disciple of Khaine in Warhammer Online play and realized that my career in MMO development stands dead in the water.

So I don’t know where Bioware is going to take healing in The Old Republic, but I hope it’s somewhere new and exciting. Even if it’s not, I have enough faith in them as developers to take what works well for the other MMOs on the market and add their own spin to those mechanics. It wouldn’t be bad to make a class that plays like a Paladin or Warrior Priest because those classes are incredibly fun to play. Blizzard was notorious for taking MMO staples with WoW and polishing them to where they felt new and exciting. Maybe Bioware will do the same thing with how they handle healing in TOR. They might not reinvent the wheel with their mechanics, but there’s a good bet they’ll learn from what might not have worked in other games (varying qualities of consumables, for example) or implement a refinement of an already solid system (WoW’s individualized healing roles based on class).

Syp at Bio Break has an interesting post talking about how the healer archetype (as well as the standard tank and the damage dealer—the holy trinity of RPGs) might be going out of style with The Old Republic. One of the ways that TOR might revitalize healing is to not have dedicated healers in the game at all by simply making the ability readily available for everyone (by having medpacks and other items be useable by all classes, for example). If everyone had the same capability to heal, the main aspect of what I enjoy in MMO gaming would disappear; however, there is always the possibility in such an all-inclusive example of healing that I would find a much more enjoyable role as a Smuggler or a Bounty Hunter being able to toss spot-heals on people than I ever would if my role stayed the same as it currently is in WoW. An approach to healing like this could only work with the game system being explicitly built for it; a typical raid or PvP environment in any standard MMO would never be functional without dedicated healers. Perhaps that is where the next revolution in MMO design will come from—the dissolution of the holy trinity.

Either way, there are two things that will dictate whether or not I stay in any new MMO: a compelling PvP atmosphere and a compelling healing system. If one (or possibly both) of those is lacking, then I don’t see how I could spend a lengthy amount of time in the game. While I would love a game to take an entirely new approach to healing and do something I’ve never seen (such as dissolving the holy trinity and the healer archetype), if the new game itself is as stellar as WoW was when it debuted, I’ll be okay with just a few tweaks to a standard healing system. I just want to be immersed and have fun, in the end. But a surprise every now and then never hurt anybody, and only new approaches to the genre will prevent it from eventually stagnating and losing players who feel they have been playing the same game for eleven years, despite hopping between multiple titles.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. I would actually love that. One of the classes I want to experiment with in WoW right now is a Discipline Priest because it's as close as I can come to that.

    I would really love nothing more than for the MMO genre to move closer to what D&D did with Clerics (making casting heals while actually fighting a tactical decision about which one weighed pros and cons). Current MMO design is far too fast-paced for that, even for DDO.

    I don't think the spam healing is the best way to do it, but of the MMOs I've played, I think that it's the most fun and easiest to balance. I'm not saying it's the best in the long run, though. I'd love to have a next gen MMO blow me out of the water with its healing system. I was really looking forward to WAR for its hybridity involved in healing, but it wasn't nearly as pronounced as PR made it out to be, though I think it was a step in the right direction.

  2. I roleplayed a Cleric in Everquest for a while but it wasn't until I invested a significant amount of time into my WoW Priest that I realised how much I dislike healing! 🙂 I'm definitely a tank guy 🙂

    Still, healing is kinda curious to me. It's why I've started a Paladin in WoW. I like the idea of being able to spec as a healer AND a tank. Gives me lots of playstyles to try out and I won't lose all my playtime if I don't want to tank full time.

    I'm all for trying out something new and moving away from the holy trinity style playstyle of MMORPGs. Just because it's the only thing that's worked so far, doesn't mean it's the only thing that will work. Sci-fi MMORPGs are great opportunities to try new things out.

    Oh, have you had a problem with your RSS feed? Your last 2 articles only appeared in my RSS Reader today…

  3. What about making healing passive? In the Jedi example, it can be assumed that healing takes a certain amount of Force focus. A Jedi might be able to wade into battle with his Force usage set to 50% Healing and 50% Combat, not unlike the balance between weapon and shield usage in a Tie Fighter. That balance can be tuned on the fly to react to different tactical situations.

    The Healing Force usage, then, would be an Area of Effect Healing Aura centered on the Jedi that could be boosted across the board (by tuning the balance, dropping Combat to boost Healing) for AOE spike situations, or if the spike is on a single target, the "Force field" could be manipulated by an activated ability that shunts all Force usage to healing for a quick heal (with concurrent tactically relevant combat weakness).

    That's your tactically relevant pro/con decision; keep the Jedi on the front lines where they can be crucial with a blade, but let the player decide their own comfort level in the balance between Healing and Combat. The trick there is making the Jedi relevant enough to both to want to split their attention, and to make full Combat or full Healing interesting on their own, should the player choose that route.

  4. Oh, and there would be an interesting tension between a Combat-heavy Jedi on the front lines, deflecting blaster bolts, or that same Jedi dialing back their Combat (thereby missing more bolts) to heal (while letting more bolts through that would require more healing). Finding the sweet spot between Combat and Healing could be a fun, dynamic experience, different for each skirmish.

  5. That sounds fantastic, Tesh. I think that would allow for customizable gameplay that could appeal to hybrid lovers and pure-class players alike.

    I really just want something new to make healing more interactive, or if I can't have that, a really really really really really polished version of a system I already like.

  6. @Beej

    'I would really love nothing more than for the MMO genre to move closer to what D&D did with Clerics (making casting heals while actually fighting a tactical decision about which one weighed pros and cons).'

    Maybe give Guild Wars a try? It's my current graphical multiplayer game love, and FWIW in my 3 years of WoW play, my first love was healing.

    Guild Wars healing does actually fulfill what you asked for in the sentence I quoted though. (At least to me!)

  7. I always played DPS classes in almost every MMORPG I played. So I tried playing a healer in WoW (priest), but after a while, I learned how difficult it was to heal/buff/debuff during raids and I switched over to DPS again =/

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