Weekly Warcraft Wednesday: Talking Raid Design.

So last week

I started raiding with a guild again, something I haven’t done for quite some time.  When last I left you we were struggling to get past Ko’Ragh.  I’m happy to report that we have indeed slain the beast and collected his phat lootz.  We were then able to move on to the final boss of the Highmaul raid, Imperator Mar’gok.  As much as there is to manage on Ko’Ragh, I was stunned by the sheer amount of mechanics to deal with on Mar’gok.  In practice, the fight isn’t quite as intense as the videos make it seem, but here is the raid explanation video, courtesy of FatBossTV.

Note that the video is almost 20 minutes long.  That’s right, it takes 20 minutes just to explain what this guy does.  Watching the video, and subsequently getting squashed by him over and over got me to thinking about WoW’s raid system in general, and what an interesting predicament the design team is in.  Let me explain.

It’s a matter of time.

WoW has been around for a long time.  Ten years, to be exact.  In that time there have been many dungeons and many raids and within them, many different bosses.  There must be well over 100 raid bosses alone, not even considering the 5-man dungeon bosses.  This matters because over time I would imagine that it becomes more and more difficult to create a new experience for players.  Every six months or so the WoW team has to come up with a complete fresh set of ideas for typically 6+ boss encounters.  If a boss is too much like a previous boss players are mad because it’s boring; too much new stuff going on and players are mad because it’s too hard.  It’s a tough job and one that I’m not envious of (ok, I am a little envious).

Remember when we thought this guy was complicated?

What’s more, there’s only so many mechanics that a boss can do in WoW, or in any game really.  Every game has a set of rules, and bosses are meant to challenge those rules by bending or occasionally breaking them.  Eventually though, when you’ve created over 100 bosses you start running into a problem; you’ve broken every rule there is.  The only way to up the ante now is to start breaking multiple rules at once.  So where a boss might have made parts of the floor fall away (a challenging mechanic), he might now make the floor fall away AND turn invisible.  Once you’ve burned through all of those permutations you start having to add a third tier of mechanics.  All of this is done to keep things challenging for players who very quickly adapt to whatever you throw at them.

Over time, WoW’s raid encounters become more and more difficult to design, and the balancing act between too easy and too hard gets really tough.  Above is a video explain a WoW boss encounter that is 20 MINUTES LONG.  Compared to the boss strategy videos from, say, the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, this seems ludicrous.  But that’s where we are now.  It’s not enough for the boss to do one or two interesting things, they now have to do four or five.

The net effect.

The net effect of this is mostly negative, as far as I can tell.  First off, for us veterans it’s creeping into ‘jumping the shark’ territory.  I mean, how many ridiculous things can one boss throw at us?  It’s tiresome to have to manage so many details, all the time.  It also has the effect of scaring possible new players.  If I were trying to sell Chris on playing WoW with me and I showed him the video above, I’m pretty sure he’d tell me to take a long walk off a short pier, and how could I blame him?  It’s so intimidating to try and understand, let alone manage all of that stuff.  Plus, as WoW continues to lose steam over the years (yes I know the subscription numbers rose a bit again), the player base gets smaller, so there are less and less people actually running these raids so discouraging new players isn’t a great strategy.  That said, Mar’gok is the last boss in the raid, with the others being considerably simpler than him.  Having a helpful, encouraging group makes the learning process a lot easier as well.

I’m not saying that the raid design is bad, per se’.  I think the boss encounters are challenging.  In the end though, WoW is on a train that it can’t stop now, and eventually they’re going to up the ante so high that no one will want to attempt these bosses.  I’m not sure that I have an answer for that, as the only recourse would be to go back to ultra-simple boss design which I think would upset players as well.  It will definitely be interesting to see where the boss encounter design goes from here though.  I’m a bit scared for my sanity.