Opinion, WoW

Oculus: worst best instance ever

If you followed the various info releases relating to planned features for Wrath of the Lich King during its development, you may remember when Oculus was first mentioned and the sorts of things that were said about it.

  • For the first time ever in a dungeon, players would be able to FLY.
  • And not just fly, but fly on DRAGONS.  There’d be genuine dragon vs. dragon combat!
  • Any party member would be able to take on any role regardless of gear or spec via the dragon they chose to ride.  Healers could DPS, tanks could heal, DPS could fly loop-de-loops around Malygos’ minions!  This was, remember, in the days before dual-spec.
  • Importantly after some infamous TBC bombing quests (which to be fair were pretty fun when they were toned down a bit), the dragon mounts would not be “on rails” – players would be able to freely explore the instance and fly anywhere at any time.
  • And equally importantly, we were assured that it wouldn’t be a gimmick” instance – we’d have time spent doing normal dungeon clearing as well as time spent on the dragons; also, there wouldn’t just be a “dragon phase”.

Given all that, a lot of players were very excited.  Read that list again and don’t think about Oculus as you’ve experienced it: doesn’t it sound like a pretty good instance?  Something that should be a lot of fun and quite refreshing after normal heroic grinding?

So why do most people hate it so much?

(This is where I remind folks about Miss Medicina’s several Oculus posts which address a totally different set of issues that are still very important.)

I want to think a bit about how we go from the list above -which is, by the way, technically entirely true of the Oculus – to the reviled and dreaded pariah instance of this expansion.


We’d never been able to actually fly in dungeons before.  We’d been able to ride our ground mounts in several places like Zul’Gurub, Ahn’Qiraj and the Caverns of Time, but that was purely for expediting travel through the instance.  Naturally the prospect of being able to use our hard-won flying abilities in a dungeon was quite exciting.

Except… we couldn’t actually use our own flying mounts in Oculus.  Silly as it sounds, I think this is really important.  Instead of feeling free when you enter the instance, you feel tramlined more than ever: there are great big massive drops on either side of you and you’re obliged to go through the annoying dragon trash on foot even though, were you outside in the same scenery, you could just fly from place to place on your favourite proto-drake or whatever.  The ridiculous thing is that you can ride your normal ground mount the moment you enter.

Directing people through the instance could be accomplished in far better ways than removing their ability to fly in an instance which is all about flying.  Remember the hated but wonderful Monstrous Kaliris or Legion Flak Cannons, or even the stealth dragons with dismounting breaths of doom?

I also wonder if it detracts from the flying-feel that we start off way above the ground instead of being able to fly up there in the first place and get some sense of the height.  You get a great sense of the height of Oculus in Coldarra; you don’t when actually in the instance.


Next problem!  You don’t get your ability to ride dragons at first.  Well fair enough, you have to rescue them.  That’s fine.  But the moment you summon your dragon you learn to hate it.  You have to talk to an NPC and figure out which dragonflight it represents while clicking through a rather obscure series of dialogue options (I dunno about you, but I have to read the text three times before I figure out where to click the polite equivalent of “just gimme my damned drake already!”).  Then you have to find an item in your inventory and click it.  Then you throw up a flare.  Then the dragon flaps down to you and then you make an exaggerated hop-float onto its back and then you are finally mounted.

All this takes seven or eight ages of the World.  Civilisations rise and fall, mountains collapse into the sea and glaciers cover the land in a series of ice ages before you are actually astride your mythical beast-o’-flyin’.

And now – bear with me here – suddenly you don’t have any of your class abilities anymore and your dragon mount appears to have just hit “Create” at the character selection screen because he knows about two spells, one of which is useless.  The dragons don’t have “roles” at all, because the tank dragon can’t actually do anything to stop other dragons getting aggro or taking damage, the healer dragon can’t actually heal anything except itself (and its main nuke does so much ridiculous self-harm that it can’t really be used on the single target drake fights) and the DPS dragon is the only one with any actually useful abilities.

You only get your dragons’ key abilities just before the last bossWhen most of the instance is over.  Until then it’s the equivalent of running through Durotar on your level 2 hunter entreating the gods for your next rank of Raptor Strike.

Of course, there is a reason for this: the design team realise that not everyone can handle swapping to an entirely new set of abilities that well and want to give players time to learn.  The NPCs explain the drakes’ abilities and you get the most “complicated” ones only after having a lot of time to spam the more boring ones.  But the pacing is just all wrong and the dragons aren’t actually any fun to fly without their role-defining abilities… because until that point you’re essentially just five guys mindlessly mashing your damage buttons instead of an actual, genuine team like you signed up for.

Dragon on Dragon action

That neatly brings me to the next sub-point: fighting the dragon trash on your dragon mounts isn’t actually any fun.  There are MILLIONS of the damn things and they are ALL IDENTICAL.  And they have vast aggro radii and sit there spamming something that isn’t but actually is Frost Bolt and you have to mow through vast swathes of them to get to the parts of the instance that matter.

They are, in fact, the worst possible kind of trash.  They serve no purpose except to get in your way and make moving through the instance slow.  Well, that and to train you in the use of your dragons’ one ability that’s actually worthwhile against them.

Later on you meet “many whelps” but by then you’re so jaded by the whole experience that you can’t see the funny side.

So fighting dragons while riding on other dragons is, in fact, amazingly rendered rather boring and annoying.

In the interests of being constructive, how could this be better?  Well, I like Malygos’ phase 2 hoverdisks, where you can fly about at great speed while still using your class abilities.  And I do actually like the Oculus drakes’ abilities and synergy when they all unlock, so one obvious solution would be to unlock them much sooner.  But then the trash would need to be more diverse and more strategically arranged to benefit from these abilities and make them worth using.  Trash might actually be fun if we did something other than mash the nuke button until everything’s dead.

Role freedom

…except, until you actually reach Eregos, roles are limited to:

  • Ruby: low damage nuke, can stop taking damage for a while after taking damage for a while.
  • Emerald: low damage DoT and high damage nuke that nearly kills you.
  • Amber: big meaty nuke that hits for insane amounts when paired with Time Stop.  Oh, did we mention that Time Stop is an amazing CC/damage reduction ability too.


(Cue five-amber groups mowing through the pointless dragon trash until they reach Eregos.)

…upon which time suddenly the tank-rider has to learn to tank and the healer-rider has to learn to heal, for the first time, on the final boss fight.


Freedom to explore

Except the instance is filled with a sea of identical and pointless dragon trash mobs which will either:

  1. frost bolt spam you to death or
  2. slow you down to the point that you don’t want to explore anymore.

Also if, despite this, you foolishly try to actually fly anywhere you either:

  1. hit an invisible wall and can’t fly any further while your drake mount makes irritated wheezing noises or
  2. hit an invisible barrier between the sky and the ground that says “OK you die now” and instantly drop dead beyond all hope of resurrection, forcing you to corpse-run back into the instance while your team mocks you.

I think it’s hilarious, considering point 2, that when you dismount mid-air you are oh-so-helpfully provided with a parachute 😀

No “dragon phase”

There are two problems here.  Firstly, the process of mounting and using dragons is so time-consuming, irritating, unrewarding and grindy that you stop wanting to use them in the first place – but they’re an integral and inescapable part of the instance.  Secondly, the non-dragon bits are hard.  Or, they were hard when we all reached level 80 for the first time.

Let me elaborate a bit on point two.  Oculus plays like a TBC-style heroic instance – pulls where there were a lot of mobs which are difficult to control and which do a lot of damage.  In TBC, we would’ve made excellent use of the very helpful Line-of-Sight obstructions on the lower level inner ring and the wonderful choke point which allows crowd-control to operate before the tank wades in to get aggro without risk of breaking the CC.  Unfortunately for Oculus, WotLK instance running philosophy dispenses with crowd control, sensible LoS pulling and waiting for tanks to get mobs under control and just wades in and AoEs everything in sight.  Naturally, this rendered these trash pulls even harder than they were supposed to be.  Furthermore, as all the trash made heavy use of magical damage and AoE, it especially emphasised raw health pools and raw AoE healing power at a time when most players were still gearing up and getting used to new ways of healing and gearing.

So the dragon-riding trash is boring, and the non-dragon-riding trash is freakishly hard.  Then the final boss is extra specially hard because you’ve only just got your drakes’ final abilities and it turns out they don’t scale with gear.

The latter issue has of course been changed, rendering the instance much easier even before all the nerfs.  But the fact remains that the difficulty of the instance and the weird balance of the dragon-ridey-bits meant that nobody cared that there was no “dragon phase” – they just didn’t want to go there period.

Could it have worked?

It’s easy to say stuff like this in hindsight, isn’t it?  I remember fighting Teron Gorefiend in Black Temple back in TBC, and feeling very upset with the encounter designers for demanding that every member of your 25-man raid group had to be able to, basically, competently play a frost mage kiting four mobs: a handful of our raiders just could not do it and it seemed unfair to expect them to after they reached level 70 on, say, a melee DPS class.  Oculus’ drake design seems to have been made with that lesson in mind, giving players a chance to get used to their basic abilities before giving them new ones, and making sure that the initial encounters in the dragon-vehicles were relatively easy.  It’s only with hindsight that we can say that the precise implementation of this learned lesson didn’t actually work – though whether this could have been discovered before release is another matter entirely.

But yes, I think it could have worked – and I think if Blizzard were to design a new Oculus-style dungeon for Cataclysm, it could be really fun.  If you look at the list of problems I’ve highlighted (though they’re not the only problems), there are solutions to all of them.  Whether those solutions would work or not we wouldn’t know until we tried: the point is that there are avenues for improvement; it’s not a hopeless case.

I really enjoyed the Flame Leviathan boss fight in Ulduar, and the way it catered to different levels of ability and offered varying degrees of challenge.  Flame Leviathan also gave us the ability to mix vehicle fighting with normal fighting, as demolisher gunners got launched onto the top of the Leviathan to manually take out its turrets.  Putricide in ICC has a similar interaction, with the Mutated Abomination performing a crucial role in a “vehicle” while the rest of the raid works with it using their normal abilities.

So these kinds of encounters and designs can work and can be a lot of fun.  We can already see where Blizzard’s learned from there mistakes – as well as where they’ve made new mistakes to learn from (hello, Trial of the Champion jousting).  I’d actually be kind of sad if we don’t see more vehicle use and “free-flight” style instance design in Cataclysm.  But perhaps, to the developers’ minds, the risk of getting it wrong outweighs the benefits of getting it right?

What do you think?



8 thoughts on “Oculus: worst best instance ever

  1. Very good points.

    You’re right about the drakes not actually allowing us to use our class abilities being a problem, and it’s actually a problem that’s been extended to TotC. When I imagined mounted combat, I always thought of something reminiscent to, as you said, flying disks at Malygos. In other words: still being able to use your actual abilities while not being as limited by your movement and opening up entirely new possibilities (VERTICAL movement :o). The way they actually ended up doing it is far less exciting, but naturally far less of a hassle to implement and balance.

    What they could’ve done to improve it in my mind:
    1) Get rid of the arbitrary non-linearity. It adds absolutely nothing when you surround your instance with invisible walls and don’t give your players any options for exploration anyway. Limiting your freedom of flight to a linear path (with some options for deviation) would’ve worked better, I think. Something like a tunnelish section (as with most other instances) where the ground is filled with LAVA, who knows.

    2) The challenge is mostly borked because of what you implied in the article: there’s no gradual difficulty curve. What they could do, following on 1), is have some trash at the start similar to the stuff that’s now EVERYWHERE in Oculus, but make those the first packs. Just to get you familiar with the abilities of the drakes. After that, add some really distinctive abilities to the drakes and give the additional trash and bosses quirks you need to handle through those abilities. Although you’ve already mentioned most of this, including the requirement of more clearly defined roles (if they can’t pull off what I’d call “true” mounted combat with our actual class abilities).

    3) The architecture is indeed great from the outside and when looked at as a whole, but it’s dull platform after dull platform in practice. If they want to do another instance like this and follow the idea of linearity more, they can make sure that every area’s got a distinct feel and is actually nice to look at. Add some environmental hazards to spice up things too, that accentuates how different your movement is on the flying mounts and makes things more fun than just trash-boss-trash-boss. We all really liked that icicle tunnel in Pit of Saron, didn’t we?!

    I’m actually wondering, have Blizzard ever mentioned themselves that they don’t like how Oculus turned out? That they think the instance is CRAP? Because the entire instance really just feels like some great ideas they had, but didn’t have the time to execute properly. I think it’s not so much that they created Oculus and thought “wow, we did a pretty good job with this”, but in fact had to rush it out of the door and ended up with something a little shit.

    Although I do admit, I don’t think the instance is all that terrible :P. From a design perspective it’s the most horrible thing in WotLK for the reasons you (and others) have detailed, but for some reason I don’t mind it that much. Probably because it’s quick.

    Posted by Razz | January 25, 2010, 12:18 am
  2. Oh man, I was with you up to the:

    “I’d actually be kind of sad if we don’t see more vehicle use and “free-flight” style instance design in Cataclysm.”

    I just want to say that I would be “love you long time” happy if we got rid of all of these vehicle fights. I hate them all. The Leviathan fight is long and boring. It isn’t exciting in the least since the mobs there don’t do anything to really hurt you until you actually get to the boss. I don’t know if just don’t find it fun to kill buildings.

    Let’s not forget that flying in WoW is just “noclip” mode. It’s hard to target things and look around when you’re flying. Almost every time I go into Occulus we end up pulling drakes and not realizing it until we get to the next destination and have dismounted.

    Another thing that sucks about vehicle fights is not just that I have to learn the new abilities, but the M&S have to learn the new abilities. I’m OK learning them, but that guy that still has heirlooms on in heroic Occulus has to learn them. The guy who can’t/won’t follow directions has to learn them. The guy who doesn’t really know how to tank has to learn them. All the sucky players I’ve had to run into in the randoms, the ones that couldn’t use Time Stop when I asked them to use it also have to learn these new drake abilities. I just don’t have the patience to teach people in randoms how to use the vehicles nor do I want to.

    Lastly, I want to play my character. The character I spent so long leveling up to 80 (and 60 and 70 before hand). The character I’ve had to work hard on and fight to get raid spots to see the content and to get the gear so I could see the next content. There has to be a way to make encounters and dungeons fun without having to use vehicles.

    Posted by Mih | January 25, 2010, 2:04 am
    • Flame Leviathan trash was indeed boring, but it was also a chance to learn the abilities of your vehicles if you wanted to (or goof off in /raid if you didn’t). More importantly, the boss could be really challenging and fun if you chose to activate the towers. Obviously not everyone would be able to master the vehicles, but then not everyone has to fight him on hard (or at all) – which is rather unlike Oculus as you can’t really avoid it.

      I also really enjoy flying in WoW – I loved the Netherwing racing quests and the TBC bombing quests in Skettis and BEM – but (especially after reading Miss Medicina’s articles) I can understand how some people wouldn’t.

      I also accept that there are some parts of the game that I don’t like but others do. PvP being the obvious example here. Blizzard can’t design a game every aspect of which will be loved by all 11 million subscribers, but they’ve shown that they can cater to various opposing preferences to a degree. (But I think that if Oculus had been done properly then many of the issues you describe wouldn’t be concerns in the first place.)

      Perhaps it’s not appropriate to have a vehicle-style fight in a PUG instance (though Malygos phase 2 discs would be a lot easier for people to get the hang of), but the PUG argument only goes so far – eventually the game becomes about grouping together with people you trust and respect to take on genuinely difficult challenges. Gorefiend was deeply flawed both because it was unprecedented and because you couldn’t control who got “ghosted”, but it was still a genuinely fun and challenging fight. I’d never dream of trying to PUG it, but then I’d never dream of trying to PUG heroic Anub’arak or Professor Putricide.

      So I think my perspective is, rather than “there has to be a way to make encounters fun without having to use vehicles”, more like “vehicles are a great idea, there has to be a way to make them fun and accessible to use”. Oculus is one stage in that experiment which I think we can safely say has mostly been a failure. I agree with Razz that it feels rushed and sloppy.

      Posted by Charles | January 25, 2010, 2:17 pm
  3. Ah, Occulus…the bane of so many players. I remember when WOTLK was new and we were first running heroics, the guild group I was running those with (we were among the first on the server to 80) absolutely tore through it without any issues. I think we dabbled with all the abilities before engaging Eregos so that we knew exactly how the abilities worked. We also got all of the achievements done there little over a year ago (yesterday was the 1 year anniversary of my Glory of The Hero achievement, rawr!)

    I never though Occ was hard…until my first pug of it. Yeouch…

    It’s the bad memories of that first pug that I can see translating into the stigma the dungeon has to this day. Even now, with the instance rewarding 8 badges in total PLUS a chance to win a nifty-looking blue drake mount, people still duck out of it as soon as they zone/load in.

    I believe I ended up in Occ 3 times yesterday, and one of those had us go through 5-6 folks at the entrance before we finally got folks that stayed. Since 3.3, I have yet to join a pug that didn’t finish the dungeon; most one shot everything in the process.

    I do agree that the “Oh hey, here’s some new abilities just in time for the last boss” was pretty dumb, just as having all the abilities on the vehicles for Flame Leviathan that weren’t even needed until the boss itself was unintuitive. “Interrupt flame jets? With wha-oh, nevermind”.

    Posted by Kazgrel | January 25, 2010, 3:37 pm
    • Yeah, my problem with Oculus at first wasn’t its difficulty so much as the fact that it just wasn’t fun (for the reasons above). My first ever run through was also with a guild group and was also wipe-free, though I was the only person in the group who hadn’t done Oculus before. But doing some of the achievements after they fixed the ability to kite Eregos round with emeralds was crazy (and reasonably fun, I have to say).

      Weirdly, I’ve gotten Oculus several times in the LFD interface, and haven’t once wiped or had anyone drop group. I dunno if I’m just lucky or if it’s something about the attitude/etiquette on my battlegroup.

      Posted by Charles | January 25, 2010, 3:51 pm
  4. I never get bored of hearing people bitch about Oculus – in fact, it even does wonders for LFG PUGs. If you randomly zone in there, suddenly the silent group o’doom is gone and you’ve got a bunch of human beings bonding against the cruelty of Lady RNG, telling stories about the time they tried to do with a pug and everybody took an emerald dragon (true story) or the time somebody got it four times in a row (also true story), and talking sixteen to the dozen about how much they hate this damn place. Weirdly, its unintentional role as a social lubricant or The Enemy Hated By All is starting to warm me up on it.

    I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here – I like fights with novel mechanics and I’m, in principle, no opposed to *gasp* vehicle fights (even though I generally suck at them). The trash pre Flame Lev (aka Golf Caddy) is dull but I quite enjoy the fight itself. Even though it’s a pathetic excuse for a tank, it’s nice to be able to blow shit up for a change, and zoom around on a chopper. I like the fact that they totally dispensed with any sort of tank / healer / dps roles for that fight, and just gave people an interesting array of ways to go fast and go boom.

    I think the problem with the dragonback fights is that they’re … *enough* of anything. It doesn’t feel epic, it doesn’t feel grandiose and it’s simply not alien enough to be interesting. If you’re going to take away a player’s core and defining abilities, then you’d damn well better give them something worthwhile to replace them – not tedious variations on the same deal, and epic tooltip text.

    Sorry, rambling priest is rambling…

    Posted by Tamarind | January 27, 2010, 4:25 pm
    • Tamarind! Posting a comment on my blog! /swoon. OK, OK… just play it cool and try to look natural. Oh come on who are you kidding and anyway anything you write is going to look humourless and bland compared to–

      Dammit inner monologue 😦

      I guess I do find that Oculus helps break the “silent pug” phenomenon a bit, even if just because people are more inclined to say something or emote at the start than normal. And the more people that break that initial silence, the more willing they are to talk during the rest of the run – especially if there’s a perceived common gripe to whinge about friendlily (that’s totally a word. My spellchecker says it is, so there.). I’ve also found that people are generally more forgiving of and friendly about screw-ups on Eregos than on most heroic bosses.

      Changing tacks a bit, my fear is that Blizzard will interpret the “Oculus failure” as a reason to stop experimenting with potentially fun new mechanics, and that us players will reject all future vehicle-type encounters based on the bad experience in Oc and maybe kinda ToC without really giving them a chance.

      Of course, Blizzard being who they are, I doubt they’d give up so easily. After all we’ve already seen not only Flame Leviathan and jousting, but some really fun boss fights like Kologarn, Gunship Battle, Saurfang and Blood Princes actually use the vehicle mechanics to make them work (even though only one of those fights actually has any players use a “vehicle”).

      Posted by Charles | January 28, 2010, 1:00 am
  5. The only thing I really dislike about Oculus is how easy it is to aggro enemy drakes, and then the fact that they don’t drop any loot.

    Posted by Bergg | January 28, 2010, 3:37 pm

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