In yesterday’s post I ambled vaguely around the idea of binary difficulty settings as they were translated from TBC 5-man instances to WotLK raids. My argument was that, with the way raid instances were staggered in WotLK, what this did was create a situation where you had to do a raid on difficulty level 1 and then, when you were finished, do exactly the same fights in almost exactly the same way (with some minor exceptions) at difficulty level 2. For some of us, this seems to lead to a situation where normal mode is a snorefest and hard mode feels equivalent to a sort of vicarious flagellation of the virtual self.
The big exception to this simple and somewhat repetitive normal/hard division was found in Ulduar, the sophomore raid of this expansion and the place where the idea of raiding “hard modes” were really explored and brought to maturity. But Ulduar wasn’t just about hard modes, even though that seems to be the big lesson that was taken from it. Rather, Ulduar managed to get a whole bunch of really clever and fun design elements to converge in one place. Here’s what I think those are.
Ulduar was beautiful. I admit it wasn’t that impressive when you stepped in and found a glorified car park surrounded by a purple shell, but once you busted out of that into the swarms of dwarves, golems, giants, tanks, towers and whatnot the sense of scale and of really being involved in a massive coordinated assault was astonishing. The area where Ignis the furnace master was placed was so pretty I actually used a kill shot as my desktop background for a while:
Moving deeper in, the hall patrolled by Auriaya was amazingly light, colourful, ethereal, foreboding and awesome-looking for a place meant to be a prison:
Then there were the four Keeper bosses, broadly themed around Life (earth), Lightning (air), Frost (water) and Invention (fire, oh God, the FIRE), each with their own lovingly-crafted and totally distinctive arenas. Hodir’s was claustrophobic and cold, Freya’s was tangled and lush, Thorim’s was austere and functional and Mimiron’s was utterly, utterly nuts. Defeating all four allowed the raid to descend a broken, creepy corridor to General Vezax’s lair and then finally into the prison itself – the pit where Yogg-Saron dwelt.
The Vezax room wasn’t that visually impressive but it was still pretty well done (you’re really not in Kansas anymore), and Yogg’s area was almost mundane but featured the three different “brain room” areas as well as the big ol’ beastie himself bobbing around in the middle, so we’ll overlook that. Algalon’s area was just a big circular room – but boy, what a big circular room it was. It even totally changed when you actually engaged him. There’s a reason it’s the header image for this blog:
So despite being a Titan prison complex intended to hold a giant continent-spanning monster with a head like a toad (with teeth substituted for – well, for everything), Ulduar was amazingly visually varied, often colourful and bright, never overly oppressive, often changing from massive chamber to intimate corridor, and totally immersive from a lore point of view (even the occasional NPCs running around roleplaying seem more natural and less intrusive than those in Icecrown). Even the mobs, despite being largely re-used models, seemed sumptuous in this setting.
This is really a sub-category of the above, but it’s worth mentioning that in Ulduar there was a quite amazingly real sense of progression. Starting in the massive, open “siege” area (with 3 massive, open alcoves for 3 massive bosses), you moved into the intimate confines of the antechamber (branching off into two fairly small rooms for Iron Council and Algalon respectively), then over the Kologarn-bridge into another quite wide and open area, and then into the various Keeper enclosures and the Maw of Madness itself. Icecrown and Naxxramas are both actually pretty good at giving you a sense of moving through a massive enclosure – and ICC even manages to take you outside for the gunship battle – but they don’t do it so well as Ulduar. (Also, the teleport to the Frozen Throne leaves you feeling utterly abstracted compared to, say, the train to Mimiron’s lab.)
OK, this is something Ulduar didn’t get right, at least from the perspective of a 10-man raider. It really made you feel sidelined to be getting the last tier’s emblems which couldn’t even purchase gear of the same ilevel as you were getting in drops, as well as drops themselves being often very poorly itemised (being an elemental shaman in ulduar-10 gave me a real feeling of being abandoned by the item designers) and barely worth taking over the puggable Naxx-25 gear. Crafting recipes and the materials required to craft them dropped like candy from 25-man normal modes, but 10-man raiders had to complete “hard modes” to even have a chance at them. However this was a big motivation to push for those “hard modes” and did help create a sense of (albeit grudging) reward to keep killing those bosses on the harder difficulties.
The other thing about Ulduar loot which is worth noting is that by and large it was pretty great looking (mage pants not withstanding). Tier 7 items were often really nicely designed and special looking, and tier 8 took that a notch further. I can’t describe how much I hated having to trade in my gorgeous tier 8 for the abomination that was tier 9.
Edit: And I totally forgot the whole ilevel thing. Ulduar’s 10/25 difficulties and normal/hard modes were separated by only a half a tier of item level, which meant there was way less gear inflation than we had with ToC and ICC. Hard mode rewards were essentially new, bonus items of a higher ilevel which supplemented your normal mode rewards rather than entirely replacing them. This meant that you’d probably want several hard mode items but wouldn’t have to farm the entire instance all over again on hard for an entirely new set of gear.
This was another big “oops” of Ulduar’s launch – the majority of 10-man content and some of the 25-man stuff was impossibly overtuned on release day and had to be swiftly scaled back. However, after this, the tuning of each basic boss fight felt about “right” (whatever that means) and as the content began to age, nerfs began to arrive so that some of the really seriously hard stuff like Firefighter became slightly more accessible – but it’s still hard enough that guys in full 264 gear can wipe on it even in 10-man mode. Icecrown attempted to circumvent this process of gradual nerfing by introducing the idea of a stacking zone-wide buff, but that’s sort of outwith the purview of this post.
And this is the part I was really driving at with yesterday’s waffles and, as I opined above, the real “lesson” that seems to have been learned with Ulduar. Upon the release of Wrath of the Lich King, one solitary encounter – the Obsidian Sanctum – allowed players to make the boss fight progressively more difficult by deliberately not killing mini-bosses before engaging the main boss. Doing so rewarded progressively better loot. The grading wasn’t particularly linear – 2 drakes was almost as hard as 3 and 1 drake didn’t really prepare you for leaving more up – but it was an interesting idea (albeit set in possibly the most ugly and vile instance since Molten Core). Simultaneously, with the addition of “achievements” to the game, a “meta achievement” had been implemented which required players to do unusual or difficult things during boss fights in the three raids (Naxxramas, Obsidian Sanctum and Eye of Eternity) to earn a vanity reward – the Plagued/Black Proto Drake.
Ulduar evolved and further experimented with both these ideas, with more creative achievements and a wider variety of so-called “hard modes”. The concern expressed by developers was that there wasn’t really any way for the average raider to tell what was “hard mode” (and would thus reward better loot) and what was simply ‘gimmick mode’ (and would thus simply award achievement points), let alone how to start a “hard mode” in the first place. I don’t deny the validity of this perspective, but I still think that Ulduar’s design was utterly brilliant.
Not all bosses had hard modes. Of the 14 bosses, 9 had optional hard modes and one was hard mode.
Not all bosses were mandatory. 4 of the bosses were entirely optional and could be ignored if desired, and the four Keepers could be attempted in any order.
Not all hard modes were equal. The hardest possible version of each fight that had some kind of “harder mode” varied considerably in difficulty, so that raids could “train up” on easier hard modes before attempting the really tough ones. They weren’t all entirely linear either – some of the easier hard modes were quite deep into the instance.
Not all “hard modes” were hard. What I mean is, there were ways of doing each fight which were different and rewarded achievements (e.g. the Ignis achievement), but weren’t considered “hard modes” for the purposes of loot. That means they were doable once or twice for fun or expediency but there was no requirement to “farm” them.
Every single hard mode was genuinely, tangibly a different fight. This is, I imagine, where the strain would really start to be put on the developers. Activating a hard mode in Ulduar means doing the fight differently because some old mechanics may go, some new mechanics will definitely come, and the whole premise of a fight can shift. More on this in a moment, but as Andy said, “the added aspects made logical sense”.
Some bosses had multiple “hard modes” which were broadly graded in difficulty. Flame Leviathan, Freya, Yogg-Saron and Iron Council all offered various ‘intermediate’ difficulties that marginally increased both reward and difficulty, providing a series of stepping-stones by which raids could move towards the ‘hardest’ mode, as well as allowing less hardcore raiders to feel the thrill of achieving something more within their reach. Again, this required the developers to basically code a whole bunch of different and workable encounters out of the same ‘stuff’, but it really paid off in terms of creating content that was fun, original, scalable and even repeatable.
Every hard mode was organically activated in-world. This seems trivial until you experience the ICC/ToC menu toggle, but as Hexlol mentioned, being able to determine what manner of encounter you experience by doing something in the game world itself felt streets ahead of flicking a UI option over. Some of the activation techniques were challenges in their own right, such as killing XT-002’s heart or reaching Thorim’s platform in under 3 minutes. Even reaching a hard mode could feel like an achievement (or was actually an achievement!). Killing the Lich King to access Icecrown’s heroic modes is less analogous than it may first seem, because that represents the completion of one complete tier of content on the “easy mode” rather than excellence in any particular part of any particular encounter. Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that Ulduar hard modes were theoretically accessible to anyone from day one, whereas for ToC and ICC you have to jump through the “hoop” of completing the instance on normal first.
So what about the encounters themselves?
Flame Leviathan: Vehicle fights have had a bad rap, but this one serves as the standard for all the rest to try and attain. From day one the vehicles scaled with gear item level, which added a sense of progression to the encounter as well as making it easier over time as with all other boss fights. The real genius of this encounter was in the diverse roles it gave to each raid member – way beyond the normal tank/healer/DPS divides – and the opportunity to use your character’s regular abilities at times. It was also blessed with no fewer than 4 different difficulty tiers, whereby you could choose which combination of towers to have active and thus which extra abilities to deal with. Practising for four towers was as simple as choosing which abilities you wanted to practise and then leaving those towers up. It was a source of great entertainment to my raid group once we started to get really good at the vehicle abilities, at co-ordinating our roles, and then finally at figuring out that last little bit of strategic insight to get us to victory over four towers.
Razorscale: One of the less interesting fights of Ulduar, but an optional boss with good loot (that never ever dropped) and an odd little achievement. No hard mode and entirely optional, though we ended up doing it far more than we’d have liked for a chance at the sodding imaginary caster trinket.
Ignis: A really interesting and unique fight to us at the time, though his trash was really crazy at first! Sadly the achievement mode was basically about ignoring the encounter mechanics and nuking him down ASAP, but at least it wasn’t a true hard mode and could be skipped or steamrolled as desired.
XT-002: Totally different on normal and hard modes, with an interesting and challenging activation mechanic. Became a real endurance test on hard yet lacked the sort of one-shot abilities we associate with ICC endurance fights. This was before healers had infinite mana, so the careful balance of raid-wide damage phase and steady but high tank damage was good fun to heal: along with Ignis, this fight served as the introduction to the Ulduar healing design philosophy.
Iron Council: Tough little optional encounter tucked into one of the side-chambers, where each member of the council gained extra abilities when one of their number died. This meant that you could kill them in any order and experience totally different fights after that first death. The ‘medium’ difficulty actually seemed a bit overly finicky to us (‘hard’ was way more straightforward) and didn’t really help towards the harder, most rewarding setting. Completing this fight opened up the quest which provided the key necessary to fight Algalon.
Kologarn: A surprisingly cute and unexpected little fight, not too hard but a lot of fun and with a fair bit to watch out for. The achievements didn’t award extra loot but did require the fight to be done extra carefully (rather than simply ignoring the mechanics entirely ala Ignis). Especially unique for the way he opened up the rest of the instance.
Auriaya: Entirely pedestrian (lol pun) boss wherein most of the challenge was contained in the pull itself. Achievement again required the fight to be handled considerably more carefully. No hard mode, just a simple little fight to reward you for getting this far and perhaps cheer you up if you were struggling with Iron Council.
Hodir: Again, the “hard mode” for this fight was simply demonstrating that you were so good at the mechanics that you could kill him within 3 minutes. This was wonderfully simple and accessible and obvious yet also pretty challenging. It was a great target for a raid’s first hardmode for these reasons, and also because the fight didn’t actually change between normal and hard – rather, your raid changed to make it possible to kill him fast enough. Quite brilliant, spellsteal abuse aside.
Thorim: This fight had an activation component akin to Hodir’s – do what you normally do only faster – and then was, astonishingly, pretty much the same fight but harder. More health to burn through, more damage to avoid. Sif’s extra abilities didn’t really change the fight but did mean that you had to handle the basic mechanics more precisely, as well as giving an extra thing not to stand in. In this sense it was very similar to later hard mode design, but without the same level of extreme “extra” abilities which tend to get tacked on.
Freya: Another mini-boss activation leading to Flame-Leviathan style grading in difficulty. It was quite possible to start at 0 elders, move up to 1 elder, then try a different elder, then the final elder, then try two, then a different two, then try all three alive, and experience a genuine and natural increase in difficulty and reward. The final, all-3-elders hard mode was just short of total pandemonium – but with the opportunity to practise everything separately, it felt fine.
Mimiron: The infamous Firefighter boss, wherein hardmode was activated by pushing the giant red button. Arguably one of the hardest fights ever, pre-nerf, and still very difficult post-nerfs. Pressing that red button had a Thorim-esque “same fight but BIGGER NUMBERS!!!” effect as well as a Freya-esque “add a bunch of new and dangerous abilities to cope with” effect. Probably the closest analogue to ICC heroics but still felt like a totally different fight when you pushed that red button.
General Vezax: This guy was a pain in the ass on both modes. Hard mode was about choosing to ignore the crutch mana-regen option available in normal modes, surviving the equivalent of a mini-enrage at the end of it all, and then still managing to burn him down before everyone died. Completing his hard mode required us to adopt a totally different strategy to what we used on normal, but we were able to practice for the hard mode by adapting a hard mode strategy for use on the normal mode. So it was another tangibly different fight between the two difficulties, even if it was a crazy tough one.
Yogg-Saron: A lot of people will disagree with me here: I did not like the Yogg-Saron fight. On 10-man at least, it felt overly long, overly filled with annoying mechanics (YAY DEBUFF SPAM), and horribly chaotic – but then, I guess that’s what a lot of people enjoyed about it. I enjoyed the one-light hard mode considerably more than having all four keepers help the raid because it enforced a measure of order, careful deliberation and strategy into affairs. Again it offered the opportunity to grade up towards the hardest mode, and the Alone in the Darkness achievement is I think still considered one of the hardest hard modes around. (We never tried it because it wasn’t required for the meta.)
Combined with the instance’s amazing aesthetics and sense of progression, the variety of different ways of doing these same encounters meant that for most of us Ulduar still felt interesting, fresh and desirable even after months of farming the place. I’d quite happily go back and do Ulduar again for achievements and nostalgia on alts, whereas I avoid Naxxramas and ToC like the plague and am well and truly sick of Icecrown.
Yet I keep going back to Icecrown, even on alts and in PUGs, because that’s what there is if you want to progress your character, and we’ve not finished it yet (and I’ve still got alts who want gear/frost emblems from it). This is part of the triumph of Icecrown, that it is so accessible and necessary to pugs in a way which Ulduar certainly wasn’t at first – but then, for most of Ulduar, people were still pugging Naxxramas for decent and worthwhile gear, so it seems hard to lament the inaccessibility of the place.
I still find it amazing that the raid which followed Ulduar was Room of the Crusader. It blows my mind that such a universally hated raid design could follow one which was so widely beloved. There’s always an element where something really good is going to eclipse something that’s just quite good, but ToC wasn’t even “quite good” – it just had way too many issues (though oddly not many were to do with the encounters themselves). And the weirdest part is that ToC seemed to be rushed out so that raiders wouldn’t get bored, I guess? Maybe burn out and boredom was a big problem for hardcore guilds at the time? But for those of us still plugging away on our last few Ulduar achievements we’d have been quite happy to wait several more months for another tier of raid content.
Counting the months
Ironically, we’ve now had Icecrown for 9 months, and I was getting sick of it at about the 4 month mark. We only had Ulduar for 5 months and I still wanted more – we kept raiding it until December, which is 9 months, and would’ve gone for longer had ICC not arrived. ToC was also 5 months, albeit five months of loathing and hatred and clawing at the dust with our fingers while cursing the sky in vain. Naxxramas and tier 7 was also 5 months and I don’t remember having any strong feelings about it either way.
I guess 5 months is what the developers feel is the ideal lifetime of a raid, which would explain why Ruby Sanctum was opened about 5 months after Icecrown, as well as why ToC was pushed out for that August 2009 release. But Ruby Sanctum isn’t really much of a distraction and has enough problems of its own, and, well, I’ve already said enough nasty things about ToC so I’ll not say any more.
A quick word on healing design
I mentioned healing as a problem in the last post, so I want to just briefly comment on Ulduar’s healing design in a bit more depth. Ulduar was explicitly designed to feature healing “phases”. For example, the tank might take normal damage for a while then face a sudden (but predictable) spike which the healers had to handle, then could relax again. Raid-wide damage would generally come in waves at predictable intervals or with sufficient warning that the healers could prepare for it. Each fight was carefully choreographed to give the healers something to do or something to prepare for doing at any given time, without overloading them with too much. Firefighter was unique precisely because it strained the healers so hard by sometimes slightly and sometimes significantly transgressing these boundaries (e.g. Napalm shell + Plasma Burst + ohgodfire).
At the same time, Ulduar doled out much harsher consequences than previous raids for getting it wrong as a healer or for non-healers who ignored or were slow to react to fight mechanics. There were definite “twitch” elements to Ulduar healing, but by and large it felt carefully balanced on a knife-edge of “fun” rather than being shoved over into the abyss of “obnoxiously overloaded”. My feeling is that Icecrown heroics (and Halion) veer too far into “overload” territory, making healing stressful and success at encounters more about coping with RNG than anything else. I don’t imagine this is quite the same problem on 25-man where you have so much more redundancy, but then you also have more health bars to keep track of. (Remembering that in a 10-man raid losing one person is almost always catastrophic and each healer has far less support to keep themselves alive, let alone the raid, I wonder to what extent this colours my perceptions.)
This design has been broadly carried through raids since then, but perhaps with a steady decline in the integrity of the underlying orderly principle – more and more encounters have made healing difficult by piling a whole bunch of stuff up together to generate maximum chaos that’s rather different from the orchestrated feel of most of Ulduar. Again, I think this is something which has been acknowledged as a way of coping with the inflation of healer and tank power since tier 8.
Binary vs Options, or whatever the issue is
So while this is what got me thinking about Ulduar again, I really feel that the reason Ulduar was so great was because it was a great package including the variable and interesting encounter options. Likewise, Icecrown’s problems are not solely attributable to its less imaginative normal/heroic setting or even to the “healer problem”. I have a lot of respect for Icecrown’s design, but overall I feel the instance is one I’ll be happy to see the back of.
In a comment on yesterday’s post, Zuzum says that he sees hard modes as being what the instances were really designed for and balanced around, in the same way as all old raids were designed and balanced to be accessible only to a very small group of players. That’s an interesting perspective and one I’d not really considered. I’m not sure to what extent I agree. To me it seems more like most of the “normal modes” are the carefully designed encounters and most of the “hard modes” are “normal ++”, rather than the “hard modes” being carefully designed and then elements removed to make normal “hard –“. There are exceptions – Lady Deathwhisper in particular seems designed around her hard mode – but unless the designers themselves were to give an answer it remains a tricky question of perception.
I did raid at a fairly hardcore level in TBC. My group, despite being excessively and deliberately “casual core” made it into the server’s top 12 or so for a good while during tiers 5 and 6; we won our attunement to BT before it was removed and comfortably killed Illidan and Archimonde before the big nerfs (and with a totally crazy raid balance). I still remember things like tanking flames during Illidan phase 2, or watching some of our raiders struggle with ghosts on Teron Gorefiend because they just could not play a frost mage. I still feel nervous when I think of the focus phase of Gurtogg Bloodboil or hoping nobody missed an interrupt on phase 2 of Reliquary. Raiding’s come a really long way, because I basically didn’t enjoy Black Temple at all, and had absolutely no desire to go to Sunwell in patch 2.4. It’s hard to separate out how much of that was due to the stress of administering the group itself, but I’m sure a lot of it was just how punishing it felt to raid.
In WotLK, raiding has managed to feel rewarding and fun surprisingly often, and it’s even been accessible and relatively open to new players. I guess that makes the parts that still adhere to that old paradigm feel even more uncomfortably punishing and arbitrary. Maybe stuff like LK-25-hard is what the hardcore guys really want. I dunno. But it’s not even remotely what I want, not at all, not one bit, no thank you. With normal modes so often feeling too easy and hard modes feeling like no fun, I guess that leaves me in an odd sort of place as a WoW player.
But, it leaves me remembering Ulduar, and how thoroughly I enjoyed the place despite a few issues, and wondering if maybe, just maybe, raiding in Cataclysm will be fun in a similar way. Or, perhaps views like the above represent a minority that simply won’t be catered for.