Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blizz healing spell design philosophy.

New theories incoming, this time about heals.

Basically, I believe all healing spells fit more or less into these three categories:

Baseline aka Bread & Butter: Spells that have a clear defined purpose and are straight forward.

circumstantial: Spells that are better than the bread and butter spells for various special purposes. Most group heals fit in this category.

Cooldowns: Spells that are so powerful and good that Blizz gives them a cooldown to prevent only using them.

Blizzard tries to make every healer use as much as possible of their reportoire. Some spells are much better fit for either PVE or PVP, but they often try to buff the spell for the least used aspect. The baseline spells will be almost garantueed to always have a use. The cooldowns can pretty safely be buffed straight, as the cooldown will limit just how powerful they become.

For the circumstantial spells, though, they follow a different strategy. It can potentially be very dangerous to straight buff a circumstantial spell (as in more healing throughput without adding to mana cost), because you might end up it being completely superior to other tools at disposal for the same purposes. That's what happened to Circle of Healing. They can't balance it by giving it a high mana cost, because the players still will use the spell and then complain about mana. The way they end up buffing these spells are usually by adding secondary effects to them, or give them additional situations in which they might be useful. Adding another situation where the spell shines makes it less circumstantial, as the circuimstances in question show up more often.

Let's take an example, Binding Heal. When it was first introduced in Burning Crusade, pretty much every PVE priest shunned it. While it could outshine Flash Heal in throughput (healing per second), it had no significant advantage in healing per mana (especially compared to Greater Heal) and risked overhealing twice. In serious arena, it was much more common for the enemy team to focus one player rather than split the damage, and it offered no additional benefit to focused damage. Of course, there were occassions where it would shine, but it was very circumstantial. Blizz couldn't straight buff the throughput, as that would've made it put out more single-target healing than Flash Heal. They tried lowering the mana cost, which helped both in PVP and PVE. But since it still was too circumstantial in PVE, they gave it very low threat. That helped. Suddenly priests used it in heroic on threat-sensitive fights, or early in pulls before the tank had proper threat on all mobs.

Fast forward to WotLK. Blizz is talking about changing how healing works. At the same time, they can't mess up too much the existing healing style, as there is no way to garantuee that a new healing style will be better than the old. Read: More entertaining. It's hard to please most of the crowd, impossible to please all.

From the 3.1 preview, it said that holy priests now will have a faster Greater Heal after casting Flash Heal. Fairly unoriginal as it's basically the same idea that they used with both Discipline and shaman Resto end-talents, but it works. It changes Flash Heal so that instead of being a pure bread'n'butter spell (discounting Surge of Light procs), it will also be a circumstantial spell. At the moment, you get the highest throughput of healing as a holy priest by spamming Greater Heal. In 3.1, you will do better alternating Flash Heal and Greater Heal, perhaps Greater Heal several times if a single flash heal will give a stack of buffs (like Tidal Waves gives two faster Lesser Healing Waves/Healing Waves, not only one). In addition, you can also throw in a flash heal early so that you'll already have the buff ready when you need it.

What they do is give spells additional circuimstances in which they'll be better than (other) baseline spells. I offer two observations to Blizz approach in making spell more interesting.

First observation: By adding circuimstances such as the above, Blizz tries to reward planning and foresight. While combat in WoW always will have random elements, most of what happens can be anticipated. At the very least, it's easy to anticipate that the tank will take damage. Then you might also anticipate that he or she's going to take spikes, and that the rest of the group will take AoE damage from the spell the boss mob is just casting. While I think it is a good thing to reward anticipation, it leads to one of two problems. First case, fights might be tuned so hard that the healer is required to be very familiar with the fight in order to keep everyone alive. Second case, fights will be tuned so that it still is possible to improvise and catch up, in which case they might be too trivial for a healer familiar with it. Of the two evils, the second is the lesser and the most likely Blizz will follow.

Second observation: There might be problems at the horizon if you keep adding stuff to existing spells. Specifically, you will "need" to press your cooldown-heals at every possible cooldown to be an optimal healer. That, in turn, makes the healing game feels very spammy, and less dependant on good decisionmaking. Let's take an example, Riptide. For the moment, this spell has all of the following functions:

  • A direct instant heal.

  • A HoT that lasts 15 seconds.

  • A buff to your next Chain Heal with the Riptide target as a primary target which removes the HoT.

  • A self-buff to the caster, Tidal Waves, reducing the casttime of the next two combinations of Lesser Healing Wave and Healing Wave.

  • A chance to proc Earthliving Weapon, a second HoT that lasts X seconds.

  • A chance to crit, thus proccing Ancestral Healing.

  • A chance to crit, thus proccing Improved Water Shield.

  • A chance to crit, thus proccing Ancestral Awakening.

Pretty hefty list for a single spell. Why is it so long? Blizz has more or less stated that they considered it a problem that every resto shaman in a raid did nothing but spam Chain Heal all day. They wanted to buff Riptide so that it was worth the GCD to cast it for a resto shaman. In the process of buffing it (which also included buffing it's direct throughput), they added a lot of circumstantial reasons to use it. Now it is almost at the point where I feel that I need to cast it as often as I can while healing 5-man heroics, provided anyone in the group have taken damage. Holy Shock is very similar in the regard that it also has a lot of circumstantial effects attached to it.

The bottom line, I think we'll see even more of the circumstantial stuff for healers in the future. Consider the healer abilities in the Aces High daily, same as the last phase of Malygos.

(By the way, sorry for the lack of posts. Like WoW, a blog's priority is well behind both job and private life)

1 comment:

  1. That's interesting. I, for one, wonder how they're going to juggle even MORE spells in the next xpac. With more levels come more spells, more talents, etc. Can Blizz really make it so that ALL those spells, new and old, are viable? I mean obviously a new xpac is a ways away, for sure. Just a thought =)