Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Time for Fun

One of the bosses I loved to hate back in the Burning Crusade era was Blackheart the Inciter, second boss in Shadow Labyrinth. One thing I loved about him was that he was an ogre, and ogres are always so good-natured when they decide to kill you that it's almost charming. I also hated him because he was, at the time, damn hard to kill, in what was one of the most annoying and difficult instances of its day.

Blackheart has a little ability that he casts once each minute called 'Incite Chaos'. When he casts this you lose all control of your character and run around madly for 15 seconds, beating on your party members, healing, blowing cooldowns, all while Blackheart stands in the room laughing his ass off at you. You then spend the next forty seconds trying to undo the damage you did to each other while under his control, hoping you can mange to damage him in those forty seconds before the next time he starts Incite Chaos, with his signature call: 'Time for Fun!'

‘Fun’ has been getting quite a workout in a number of WoW-related places lately, particularly as it relates to the healing game. A poster by the name of Carbonic started a thread on Plus Heal that expressed concern about healing -- especially the changes coming down the pike for Holy Paladins. This discussion spilled into a second thread in which Carbonic asked ‘is it fun?’ And this also spilled further into Kurn’s Corner a few days later. Before we get into that, let’s take a look at the healing game in Wrath for just a second.

For most of Wrath (i.e., the part we don’t outgear) healing has been like a white-knuckled ride on an amusement park thrill ride. We basically need to cast as much as we can, almost constantly using our biggest heals, knowing that a single missed GCD can cause a wipe. I shudder to think of the number of times I lost a tank because I tossed what I thought was a spare Flash of Light or even Holy Shock on someone not named 'tank' or 'off-tank', or because I let Beacon fall off during the ‘now we run around and scream a lot’ phase. At this point nobody’s really sure whether Big Boss Damage came before Bottomless Mana Pools or vice versa, and it doesn’t really matter. The two have been chasing each other around and around, getting bigger and bigger with each tier.

If you look at people on a roller coater, most of them don’t actually look like they’re having fun, do they? They look and sound pretty damn terrified, in fact. The fun of a roller coaster is often found when it stops, and everyone gets off on wobbly legs, laughing – with more than a touch of hysteria – and staggering off to the next ride. THAT’S when they talk about how fun it is. I think this applies pretty well to healing in a raid, except that much of the terror comes from not wanting to let your raid team down.

Is it fun? Ghostcrawler and the Blizzard development team don’t seem to think so. Our favorite crab spends a lot of his time on the forums talking about fun, and what he thinks fun is. I wish I had some direct quotes to throw in here, as this would give me a bit more credibility, but here’s where I paraphrase what I’ve learned from GC over the last two years of his forum involvement:

- Passive abilities are not fun. So, things like Divine Intellect and Holy Guidance are not really fun. We’ve seen a lot of passives swept away in the Cataclysm trees.
- Stacking one stat to the exclusion of all others is not fun. Holy Paladins loading on Intellect gems, this is aimed right at you.
- Mindlessly spamming one spell almost exclusively -- whether it’s because you can or because you have to – is not fun. Wrath for Paladins has been a bit of both at times.

The last two items in particular relate to choice. Ghostcrawler wants us to have to choose more than we do now. Most Holy Paladins in Wrath will choose to stack up on Intellect; many will choose to spam one spell, be it Holy Light or Flash of Light, as a playstyle (I personally stack Int, but I’ve always been a multi-spell guy). This philosophy is leading to the following changes in Cataclysm healing:

- Mana will matter, as will its management.
- Damage will continue to be big, but will be less spiky
- All healers will have more spells to use but, given the first two points, will need to choose heals more carefully than we’ve had to in Wrath.
- Due to the first two items on the list, people will have to get used to life with an only partly-full health bar.

‘Choice is fun’ says Ghostcrawler. So we have reforging to allow us to screw around a bit with our gear to get it to work ‘just so’. Holy Paladins will essentially have four direct, single-target heals available at any given time: two big hitters that cost a metric ton of mana, and two lightweights that are pretty cheap but borderline ineffective. I believe this is roughly similar to what other healers are getting.

The problem for this vision is that Wrath has taught many of us to be roller coaster riding adrenaline junkies. Telling people that the pace of healing is going to be slower, that our heals are going to be smaller (right now on the PTR this is definitely the case) is a bitter pill for many to swallow. It doesn’t jibe with their sense of fun. Consider Carbonic (remember him from the first paragraph?) and what he had to say:

[DPS and tanks] have enough health that you as a healer make much less of a difference.

Lets face facts, someone that has little chance of death for a healer is not very nerve racking.

Fun is not being weak and slow.

I play games to feel heroic or super or god like. If I wanted to feel normal I would play SIMS.

I want to make a difference everytime I cast a spell and feel like it.

Despite his claims elsewhere in that thread to the contrary, I think it’s pretty clear that Carbonic WANTS to be overpowered. And why not? It’s fun to be OP once in a while. Who doesn’t like to pull all of Scarlet Monastery once in a while, or lay waste to the murloc village on the edge of Eastvale Logging Camp (those little bastards made my life miserable at level 9! DIE!)? As a Paladin healer, I often feel overpowered. Yet at the same time, bludgeoning every encounter with a sledgehammer can be unsatisfying. It might be time for finesse.

The new healing model often draws comparisons to vanilla or BC era healing. What I remember about 25 man healing in BC was the often very complicated instructions for healers (‘these guys are on the tanks’, ‘heal your group’, ‘so and so is on melee’); I can’t remember the last time I got anything more complicated than ‘Paladins work out your Beacon targets, Disco priest shield, everyone else is on raid.’ And it works! Is it fun? Carbonic doesn’t think so. He wants to heal, dammit! He doesn’t want to talk about it, or have to think about it:

My idea of fun is fast paced with little time to think
I really hated Vanilla healing, it was like chess. You talked for more time doing nothing but planning[sic]

In the end, there’s no way for the developers to win, and I don't envy Ghostcrawler. What’s fun for Carbonic is not necessarily fun for me, or you. I’ve greatly enjoyed Wrath healing for the most part (and I really don’t like roller coasters in general!), yet I also look forward to a return to the more strategic, team-oriented style that the changes might force us to adopt (one thing I think Wrath has done is erode the team ideal to a great extent). As much as I will be sad to be knocked off the throne of King of the Tank Healers, I think the changes will breathe new life into the class, the role, and the game as a whole. Unless Blizzard has missed the mark completely, it should be fun learning to play a Paladin all over again. And really, isn’t that what it’s all about?

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