Game design, Opinion, WoW

Fighting the good fight

I did it all by myself, ma.

This post is by Razzmatazz.A couple weeks ago I talked about my dislike for trash, and the strong phrasing of that post along with a call to arms to all trash-loving readers prompted some reaction here and there. Which was great! I’d like to elaborate a bit on the subject now by moving off into a related tangent. Instead of having another big whinge about what raids do wrong I’ll take a more positive stance this time, more specifically to what raids do very RIGHT from my point of view (not that this is the only thing they do right): boss design. I’ll go into how Blizzard is overcoming all odds and delivering boss encounters which are really more entertaining than you’d expect them to be, all things considered.

Full disclosure: as a WoW player, I consider myself a raider first and foremost. I love a lot of things about the game and have spent ages questing, exploring, grinding reputations, running dungeons, etc. But when it comes down to it, the primary reason I keep playing WoW and have played it for so long is the raids. I often find myself losing interest in alts because I know that at the end of the day they won’t be my main raiding character anyway, which to me is as good as feeling entirely useless. I want my character to be there when the content is still challenging, when it still feels like I’m making a difference. Not when everything is on farm and I’m just there to hoard loot.

I don't even know what's going on in this picture. This must be what a non-WoW player feels like when he looks at a screen of a WoW boss fight.

A big reason for that is just how much I love the boss design. I consider it probably the pinnacle of cooperative gaming. Considering I’m not much of a PvPer (not just in WoW, I always seem to enjoy playing with others far more than playing against them), few cooperative gaming experiences are more satisfying for me than raiding. Few things require as much high-level strategising, coordination, cooperation, while still making each individual feel like he’s playing an important role, and making sure he or she doesn’t feel bored because everything is happening in the ether somewhere.

Blizzard does have the benefit of a playerbase that’s accepted this particular school of boss design (I mean accepted in the broadest sense, as obviously there’s still quite a bit of protesting going on about things like difficulty). It’s largely based on trial and error, which is quite contrary to both much of the rest of the game and gaming’s current trends in general. I’m assuming my raid group’s not alone in having to attempt most new bosses – generally speaking, not just in this tier – at least five or so times on average (and often much more) before getting them down. Compare this to standard questing, or even heroic dungeons at their most extreme with a decent group, and there’s just a huge gap noteable. Which is fine by me, I’m just saying we, the playerbase, have afforded Blizzard quite some freedom in terms of challenge and mechanical complexity by accepting this school of boss design.

I didn't have a lot of actual mid-fight screens, so you can have a screen of a pretty boss room instead.

Regardless, the mere fact that Blizzard still manages to surprise and challenge us with new encounters after all these years is quite a remarkable thing, I’d say. Consider for a moment the challenges they needs to overcome when designing a boss fight. First there’s the inherent difficulty of designing encounters for a number of people this great.

I’ve already pointed out how incredibly difficult it must be to come up with mechanics (and a basic combat system, but much of that’s in place) which challenge players both at a meta/raid-wide level, and on an individual level. Everyone needs to have enough buttons to press to not get bored, while fitting into an overarching strategy which far exceeds the personal level. That in itself seems hard enough to do for 10 or 25 people (I’m going to disregard 40 here, but there’s an interesting related discussion in that as well: personally I don’t think Blizzard would have been able to design bosses of increasing complexity as they have if they stuck with the 40-player model). Hell, singleplayer RPG designers seem to have a lot more trouble coming up with interesting mechanics for THEIR boss fights, so that’s saying something.

But there are other things to keep in mind. There’s a humongous number of boss encounters, both in-and outside of raids, most of those in several different difficulty “modes”, implemented in the game already. Coming up with fresh mechanics at this stage of the game seems like a cause for tremendous headaches. Couple that with some pretty rough technological constraints: WoW is old. By technology and gaming standards, it’s prehistoric. The engine is massively dated despite continuous tweaking, the combat system imposes some arbitrary constraints the devs simply can’t get rid of at this point. And on top of that there’s standard MMO technology issues to consider, such as lag. There’s only so much any designer’s able to do within a framework with boundaries that tight.

I tried to solo this guy. Bad idea. Should have been an outdoor raid boss imo tbh.

And in addition to all of that, they’ve worked themselves into another corner by giving us players the freedom to develop and use tools of our own. Teamspeak, Deadly Boss Mods, countless websites sharing strategies – really handy stuff for us, more things to consider when designing boss fights for them. So yeah, in the end it frankly sort of baffles me that somehow, considering all of the above, we’re still challenged and surprised by boss fights. So kudos to Blizzard on that one.

Of course, it’d be TOTALLY unfair of me to not criticise them at all. Blizzard gets a lot of flak about their boss design, both from the more hardcore end of the playerbase and the more casual one (sorry for perpetuating false dichotomies here). Bosses are often derivative, reuse earlier mechanics, new mechanics are just gimmicks like the meter extravaganza in this tier or the vehicles back in WotLK. Or it’s all just too easy/hard, take your pick. But honestly, keeping in mind everything they need to take into account, I think they’re doing a pretty fine job keeping us entertained in raids. Let’s just hope they won’t run out of ideas soon. I’m honestly surprised they haven’t yet.

Often raid bosses are truly nightmarish creatures straight from the very depths of HELL.

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