What is best in games? To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and get cool weapon upgrades? Sadly, the alternative answer—"to heal the sick, bring people together, and make everyone happy"—never really took off.
This is the heart of most games. As designers, we spend hours upon hours designing unique weapons and devious traps, but when it comes to healing, we mostly just say, "Oh, and we'll throw in some health packs." Healing isn't cool.
But why does it have to be like this? Why is it that no one ever wants to be the healer? Is it even possible to make healing fun? Lets look a bit more into how healing works, and examine why things are like this.
What Is Health?
First, we need to understand the purpose health serves in a game.
The most fundamental purpose of health is to provide a win/lose system for the player. In almost any game with combat, be it roleplaying games, beat-em-ups, or even card games, the goal is simple: make their health hit zero first.
Generally speaking, health is an all-or-nothing attribute—it has no impact on the game until you run out. Some games do try to make health a bit more nuanced by implementing "pain", where your crosshair wobbles a bit or you limp, but generally, these are minor inconveniences at best.
But because health is something the player can control to an extent, it's also a resource. Players will often make decisions based on the amount of health they have left, and will often be willing to "trade" health for other benefits.
At a basic level, this includes things like rocket jumping or running through heavy fire to secure an objective, but also includes more complex concepts like using low health to bait enemies into an ambush.
You might ask, "What about health in other games, like Surgeon Simulator or Trauma Centre?" Yes, there is a sort of health system, but these games are puzzle games, and the health concept is really just a thematic way of giving the player a timer. Conversely, there are games which use "health in disguise", such as shields, hunger, or fatigue. As a general rule, if you die when it hits zero, it's health.
So Why Do We Heal?
Why is it important to heal? Simply, because healing allows us to progress through the game. A traditional RPG might have the players encounter several groups of goblins before a big boss fight. If the player wasn't allowed to heal, then minor wounds sustained during the adventure might make the boss fight impossible.
Healing allows the players to treat each fight as a separate combat, and means that the final boss fight can feel like a properly epic clash, rather than forcing the players to use cheap tactics because everyone arrived on 1 hitpoint. Most combat games follow the same idea, allowing players a brief respite and a chance to heal between skirmishes.
For most fighting games, healing is less important. In a game like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, the player only has one fight. In a campaign/story mode, the player starts each fight on full health, negating the need for healing (although some characters might have special moves which restore a minor amount of health). We don't really need a healing mechanic because our health is automatically reset each fight.
The resetting of health is a massively important concept to keeping the player engaged in the game. We've talked before about frustrating the player, and how important it is to keep the player engaged. Imagine playing a game where you finish a large combat, only to stroll into the next room and be instantly killed by the weakest enemy in the game.
Worse, imagine finishing that fight and knowing that the next room will kill you. What do you do? In order to progress the game, your only option is to walk forward into certain death? Locking a player into an unwinnable situation is massively frustrating.
Then Why Is Healing Bad?
The problem we have is that when a player is healing, they're not really taking part in the game. Wandering around looking for healthpacks isn't exciting, and if there are no healthpacks available then the player might find themselves stuck in an unwinnable situation. This is one of the reasons the original Halo did so well, being arguably the first mainstream FPS to utilise a regenerating health.
The existence of healthpacks also pose another problem: sudden health spikes. Because health bars act as a sort of "goal", players can use enemy health as a progress bar. It can be frustrating for you to reduce an enemy to 3 hitpoints, only to have them run over a healthpack and be restored to full health. Healing potions are often guilty of this as well, as players can stock up before battle, ensuring victory is given to the player who simply brought the most potions to the fight.
The solution to all this is reasonably simple: allow players to heal as much as they want, once combat has finished. There are a few ways do go about this:
- Regenerating health (or shields), used in games like Halo.
- Food and drink, as used in games like World of Warcraft, which is really just a slightly fancier out-of-combat regeneration health option. Players must take a few moments to sit down and replenish their health and mana reserves. The benefit with food and drink is that it feels slightly more "sensible" than health magically regenerating, and forcing the player to sit down while they heal can be considered a good way to set a calm, resting feeling.
- Return to base: popular with MOBAs like League of Legends, where returning to your home fountain will very rapidly heal you up.
- Potions which slowly regenerate health, rather than ones which cause health spikes.
- Healing points: special map points which heal players inside. These healing stations can be put as objectives for players to fight over, or simply deployed as "forward bases" for wounded players to retreat to.
So What About the Medic?
The existence of healers provides a whole new range of problems for most games. The healer is one of the "holy trinity" of class design (tank-damage-healer), so most games with some sort of role selection have at least one healer.
The biggest issue is that if a game has healer, then self-healing players render the healer redundant. Some games have decided that only the healer can restore health—which then means that the healer is, ultimately, the only class which is 100% mandatory.
Sadly, the healer is also frequently the least interesting class to play, meaning that the healer role becomes something that players need to play (in order to win), rather than something they want to play. In Team Fortress 2, the medic is by far and away the least popular class, as can be seen in this graph.
This isn't unique to Team Fortress 2, however, as pretty much any game which features a "support" role will struggle to find players who want to play that role. There are several reasons for this:
- Support classes tend to have less of a visible impact on the game, which feels unrewarding.
- They tend not to be the ones to score kills and objectives (which, once again, feels less rewarding).
- Games tend to verbally/visually reward players for killstreaks and multi-kills, but very rarely for a "heal streak" or "well-timed shield"—once again, less rewarding.
- Playing a support class is effectively sacrificing personal power for team power, which rewards those playing non-support classes.
- Playing a healer often means following other players around, effectively putting the player on a leash, removing their agency.
- And, for many online games, being a healer means being blamed by other players.
For the most part, there is an obvious theme here. A large part of the problem comes from the fact that while a player is supporting, they're not really playing the game. A healer needs to spend all their time healing, not hitting objectives and shooting bombs. The choices a player makes are minimal, and they don't get the same level of satisfaction from doing well. For most players, being the healer means sacrificing fun to win.
Keeping Healers Involved
Most of these problems come from traditional views of how a healer should be designed. There's nothing necessarily wrong with the idea of a healer class, but the "pure healer" approach to design is often flawed. As we mentioned earlier, in many games, having a healer in the team is necessary for success. Because of this, healers are often kept out of danger—and out of the action.
One option for this is to remove the healer class and allow players to deal with healing themselves. If everyone has access to regenerating health, for example, then the use of a healer becomes more of a choice. Healers can still exist, but their skillset can be geared towards combat healing and allowing them to participate in the action.
It's also possible to make combat-capable healers—or, at least, make healers that don't have to focus exclusively on healing. Here are some examples of games that tried to make healing a little more interesting:
In the now defunct Warhammer Online, there were six different healer classes, with a variety of abilities. Most notably, the human and dark elf healers gained healing power for being in melee combat, making them effective front-line healers and rewarding them for getting into combat. Similarly, goblin shamans had a sort of yin/yang design for damage and healing, which meant that casting a spell of one type would give a boost to the other. Effective play meant that the player had to cast a mix of healing and damage spells.
In Paladins, classes are given specific roles, but all roles are expected to be engaged in combat. The healer classes are all capable combatants, and healing is often a "fire and forget" affair.
As an example, Grohk can simply drop a totem which has an ongoing AOE heal effect, and Pip can throw a "healing bomb" which heals everyone within a short area. Grover, a tanky frontline healer, has a passive healing aura—everyone near him will slowly regenerate health, meaning his presence is all that's required for a healing boost.
Finally, in Dystopia, players can choose one of three classes: light, medium, or heavy. Each class can be outfitted with a variety of abilities (implants), such as stealth, leg boosters, or thermal vision.
The light and medium classes can be equipped with a mediplant, which passively uses energy to heal nearby wounded allies. This ability can be turned off to save energy, but the fact that the healing is automatic means the healer is free to concentrate on combat rather than wounded teammates.
All three of these games utilise a similar approach to the healer—namely, that the healer should be engaged in gameplay, and not hiding in the back lines babysitting allies who find themselves caught out of position. Players are still expected to participate in objective pushes and combat, and players who do attempt to sit back and heal people will not be a great asset to the team.
Making Healing Fun
But what if we want to make a traditional healing class? There's nothing wrong with that, but it's important to understand why healing roles traditionally fail.
The biggest issue is the idea of choice. As we've talked about in previous articles, choice is one of the most fundamental aspects of game design. Since the role of the healer is largely limited to "follow me and keep healing", the options they have tend to be very limited. In order to fix this, we simply need to give the player more options.
World of Warcraft manages this to a degree: healing classes have a range of spells, and balancing these spells is essential to maximising combat effectiveness. These spells will generally include:
- a general purpose healing spell
- a mana-intensive fast heal for emergencies
- a slow but efficient heal-over-time spell
- an area-of-effect heal for groups
- a "one-use" extra powerful heal with a significant cooldown
By giving the healer a variety of heals, it allows them a lot more variation than simply clicking the same "heal" button over and over. Healing requires a balance of using heal spells effectively as well as making sure they don't draw aggro from the tank.
An alternative to this is giving the player a mixture of defensive spells, and letting them figure out which is the best. While this might not be suitable for all games, it's an option which can be considered. Imagine, for example, the following spells:
- Heal: Heals for 10% of health.
- Rewind: Heal all damage from last attack.
- Shield: Provides a health bonus equal to 20% for five seconds.
- Resist: Halves all damage for three seconds.
- Vampirism: Buff which gives health back for attacking enemies.
A variety of spells means the player needs to be able to react to specific situations better, rather than simply hitting the heal button over and over. There are a multitude of ways to make spells more interesting than simply "heal someone", and these are just some basic ideas.
On top of this, if players are able to self-heal, then a healer doesn't even need to heal—they can throw buffs and debuffs around, protecting allies with shields and slowing enemies with curses. The core gameplay element is the same, but the player now has different options.
Rewarding the Healer
This is a small point, but worth bringing up again. Because game objectives traditionally revolve around scoring kills and securing objectives, healing can often feel unrewarding. To make matters worse, some games reward players that score kills with points, experience, or gold, whereas the healer might only get a fraction of that reward.
Make sure your healers feel as if they're contributing. If a healer does well, reward them. If your game has a scoreboard, make sure your healers and supports earn points for doing their job. If your only metric for success is having a positive kill:death ratio, then of course the healers are going to feel undervalued.
If your healer throws up that shield at the right time, or gives you a speed boost so you can catch the wounded enemy, then they deserve the kill as much as you do. Statistics like lives saved, wards placed,
Additionally, ensure that the healer feels rewarding to play. Many players don't notice healing—they only notice when they die—so the effect of healing can go unnoticed. Psychologically, players tend to favour big, splashy effects over subtle ones, even if the subtle effect is better. Compare a skill which continually heals all teammates nearby for a small amount, vs. a skill which provides an invulnerability shield for a few seconds.
Even though constant healing is much better in any sort of extended fight, the invulnerability shield allows for clutch moments where a player is saved with a sliver of health. Team Fortress 2 allows medics to heal with the ubercharge, a powerful shield which provides eight seconds of invulnerability to the medic and a friend. It can be argued that the medics' true power lies in the ubercharge, which can be used to break stalemates or push important objectives.
As a word of warning, however, be aware that powerful healers can create very stagnant gameplay, which is why many games shy away from the idea. This was common in the early days of World of Warcraft, where druids generally had low damage, but high defence and healing power—meaning a duel between two druids would literally last forever, as they could simply outheal everything thrown at them.
Its not unreasonable for a healer to desire the same sort of game-changing power that a mage or warrior might have, but if the healer is able to "lock the game down", then it's unlikely to be much fun for the opposing side.
Putting It All Together
At the end of the day, all of this depends on the type of game you're trying to make. Regenerating health isn't some sort of instant fix that automatically makes games good—in fact, sometimes it's important to not let the players heal. In an RPG setting, the players might have to go through several fights without being allowed to heal.
This can increase tension, allow pacing to be maintained, and force the players to either retreat or approach combat in a more tactical way than "kill everything that moves".
Similarly, restricting access to healing can provide additional challenge. In a fighting game, the player might find be good at fighting 1v1, but what if they weren't allowed to heal between fights? Suddenly, combat changes—the player needs to be more aware of their environment, and combat becomes more of a risk. This concept is often used in survival games, where running away from enemies is as important as engaging.
It's also worth noting that many of these ideas are simple to apply to other concepts in game design as well. Ammo, mana, and even gold coins are limited resources. If the player finds themselves stuck in an unwinnable situation, then you need to look at giving them ways to get back into the game.
Ultimately, your game is your game, and there is no right and wrong way to do healing. What matters is making the game fun and keeping your players entertained. Like many other aspects of game design, these concepts are to be used or discarded at your leisure.
If your gameplay revolves around pressing the same button over and over, then it's not likely to be very engaging. But if you can give your players a variety of choices and keep them on their toes, then it's much more likely that they'll have a good time.