“Can somebody go healer?”
If you’ve spent any amount of time in Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch, you’ve probably heard those words from a fellow teammate at least once before. In a cast of 20+ heroes that boast diversity and unique mechanics, Blizzard has made it a point to make the experience of playing a healer, which historically often feels like a chore, seem fun and important.
Unfortunately, their plans backfired.
Blizzard’s approach to making healers more fun is to make them very good at healing. Healing rates across the board in Overwatch are through the roof, and having at least one healer (often two) is just about mandatory for players attempting a balanced team composition. This seems good on the surface, doesn’t it? Healers are very important to the team and very good at what they do. Surely the appeal of such an important, capable class of heroes would be hard to resist, right?
Sadly, the increased healing rates in Overwatch produce the opposite effect. For one, such an emphasis on healing rates restricts healers to being “healbots,” with all their value placed in their ability to restore HP. This limits the design space for existing and future support heroes since any support will have to be a strong healer to be commonly picked. A quick look at existing non-healer support heroes in the game, like Torbjorn and Symmetra, proves that a non-healing support can only expect to be niche at best.
This also creates a binary gameplay experience, not just for the support player, but for the rest of the players in the game. Because they are so valuable, a support player’s job typically boils down to “stay alive and run away from the enemy team.” The flip side is equally uninteresting, as enemy damage dealers almost always have to prioritize killing the healers early on in the fight. The result is a cumbersome game of Hide-and-Seek, a ritual that players have to get out of the way before proceeding to the actual gameplay of team-fighting and objectives.
An overabundance of healing produces even more subtle effects on gameplay as well. The only reliable way to secure kills usually falls to combining Ultimates or utilizing focus fire (everyone on a team shooting at the same target, instead of everyone taking a separate target to shoot at). The resulting gameplay strips a player of their sense of individual impact. Relying on ultimates feels cheap, as the player feels weak when their ultimate is not available. Relying on teammates is no fun either, as a player will feel at the mercy of their teammate’s whims. Knowing you won’t be able to secure a kill unless a teammate decides to wander over and lend a hand is a helpless feeling, and ironically is one of the reasons players have never liked playing support heroes in other games.
This also makes the game feel unfair when the player is on the receiving end of damage. Whether dying to ultimates or focus fire, TTK (time to kill) is so rapid in order to outpace bloated healing rates that players often die feeling like they had no option to save themselves, since they died so quickly. Ever noticed that there’s usually a Widowmaker and a Hanzo in almost every Quickplay match, often even on both teams? This is because both Widow and Hanzo are one-shot heroes that can kill instantly. This means that they don’t have to worry about healing rates or rely on their teammates to help secure kills. In a Quickplay environment, where players don’t expect or don’t want help from their teammates, these heroes are overwhelmingly popular because they provide a way around Overwatch’s tremendous healing output.
This is why Blizzard released Doomfist, another one-shot hero, so soon after nerfing Roadhog’s one-shot combo. This is why D.Va’s rework granted her significant burst damage in the form of her new Micro-Missiles ability. This is why even Soldier 76, whose gun shoots a stream of bullets rather than a single instance of high-powered damage, is given burst damage in the form of his Helix Rockets. Balance in Overwatch will continue to homogenize towards burst damage as long as healers are able to restore health points so quickly.
So what’s the solution? A massive nerf across the board for healing rates? Well possibly, but that doesn’t mean Blizzard has to leave the healers in the lurch either. Luckily, they already have models for good healing rates in the form of their off-healers, Lucio and Zenyatta. These heroes impact the tide of battle less through their raw healing power, and more through the utility of their other abilities, namely Speedboost and Discord Orb. If Blizzard wished to address the healing problem in Overwatch, they would be wise to follow the example they’ve already set with Lucio and Zenyatta, and look to give their current and future heroes an emphasis on support play through utility focused skills, rather than an excess of healing.