Patch 3.3 is a huge paradigm change for World of Warcraft, reversing a long trend away from groups. By making groups easier to find and more rewarding, without diminishing the attractiveness of solo content, the developers made WoW better for all play style preferences. One consequence of this change is that the roles of healers and tanks are made more popular, and given a huge boost. Healers and tanks being inherently disadvantaged in solo content, as many of their spells and abilities for healing and aggro management are useless there, automatically profit more from a rise in popularity of group content. But part of the boost to healers and tanks comes from particular details of the current situation of WoW and the new LFG system.
One important aspect is simple statistics. With solo content having been so predominant and dps classes doing so much better there, the demographics of World of Warcraft have shifted towards dps. Thus if the average player joins a pickup group with the new LFG system and hovers his mouse over the little icon next to the mini-map, he’ll most likely see an incomplete group, with the three dps slots being taken, but waiting for either a healer, a tank, or both. A healer or tank using the same LFG system is more likely to take the last slot, and instantly find a group without having to wait around. This already should increase the popularity of playing a healer or tank role. Many of the current dps players actually have a hybrid class, and with the help of dual spec could change roles to healer or tank. Or they might have an alt. It has often been said that the only real currency in a MMORPG is time, and avoiding waiting queues could be a powerful motivator of moving towards a healing or tanking role.
The other big advantage of a healer or tank in a pickup group is a lot trickier, because it is based on trust. People inherently mistrust pickup groups, for obvious reasons: The rewards of doing a random heroic with random strangers are very much concentrated at the end; you get your emblems and the best loot from killing the last boss. If your pickup group wipes due to the incompetence of another player, it is likely to disintegrate, and you’ll have wasted your time without ever getting the big reward. A pickup group requires trust, but the tricky part is that the trust requirement isn’t equal for all participants: A tank or a healer who is inattentive for 5 seconds is far more likely to cause a wipe than a dps player. The healer and tank each have a unique role, which makes them carry more individual responsibility, while the dps players have a shared responsibility between the three of them to provide the required damage output. A single underequipped or slacking dps player is less of a risk to a pickup group than an underequipped or slacking tank or healer. Now most players are confident in them not messing up, but have trust issues with the other 4 players in a pickup group, particularly the tank and healer, due to those roles higher risk as explained above. So if you play a dps, you need to trust two players very much; but if you play a tank or healer, you only need to trust one other player very much, as you have the other important role covered.
The way the new LFG system works is important here. Previously dps players were able to get around trust issues by only inviting other players which were overgeared and already had the achievement for beating the dungeon, proving they knew the place and could do it. The new system doesn’t allow for such cherry-picking. This is great for let’s say the tank who wants to do a heroic for the first time, and needs some gear from there, because previously he simply wouldn’t have been invited, even if he was perfectly capable of doing the job. But for the dps player it requires a bigger leap of faith, because he now needs to trust a stranger, potentially even from a different server, without being able to check his gear and achievements first. If that dps player has an alt, or plays a hybrid class, he has the option to overcome half of his trust problem by taking over the role of tank or healer himself, which is another reason why more people might be willing to do so now.
I have a mental image of a significant number of my readers suffering from such trust issues and now making a distinctly unhappy face at the thought of pickup groups playing a larger role in World of Warcraft in the future. But in reality the reputation of pickup groups suffers from selective memory: If you do 10 pickup groups, you’ll remember the one which went horribly wrong, and forget the 9 who succeeded. And of course pickup groups in the past also suffered from being mostly endgame heroics groups, with some players trying them having soloed all the way to the level cap, and simply not proficient in group play. By making lower level groups easier to find and more rewarding, in the future it will be more likely that a freshly minted level 80 player will already have some group experience, and perform less badly. WoW players all tend to think of themselves as being good players, and everybody else outside their circle of friends being incompetent slackers and idiots. A quick reality check should allow you see that this simply can’t be true, and that you are statistically most likely to be an average player, with most random strangers being similarly skilled as you are. If you keep an open mind, pickup groups offer you the possibility to see how other people really play, potentially learn from them, and even make new friends.
I think the new patch 3.3 system is well designed to entice people into groups, and overcome these trust issues, and both the reputation and success rate of pickup groups will improve with time. And by doing so the popularity of healer and tank roles will improve, so that one day we might overcome the long-standing shortage of healers and tanks.