Thursday, October 25, 2012

2.13. A Single Point of Failure

"Pit Lord: Magtheridon",
Artwork by MARKCW

An End to Tackling

Imagine for a moment, a world where no touchdown could be considered fair unless every single member of the offensive team remained untackled. Not just the person running the football into the end-zone, I mean each and every member of the offensive line. The center, guards, and tackles all remain upright. None of these players can be knocked down to the turf. Ever. If the quarterback opts to throw, he may not be tackled. Ever. Not before the ball leaves his hands, not after. Every single member of the backfield must stay up. All halfback and fullback positions can never be tackled during the play...whether they have the ball or not. No wide receiver, no tight end...nobody. Not a single player on the offensive line can be knocked down during the play.

It makes for an incredibly brutal game of Football. I expect it would be frustrating to play, torture to coach, and boring to watch.

This is what Football would be like if it were played like a linchpin boss encounter in World of Warcraft, a very specific style of encounter that we experienced as a repeating theme throughout The Burning Crusade. Individual boss strategy aside, the success of a linchpin boss encounter rests solely on the shoulders of an individual player. Now, whether this player is chosen at random, cycled through during the course of the boss-fight, or is a specific person that the raid can control, the result is the same. If the person currently responsible does not live up to his task, the proverbial linchpin not only fails himself, but causes the raid to wipe in the process.

Linchpin boss encounters are quite common in WoW. Looking back over the history of the game, there are a good number of bosses that stand out in my mind as linchpins. Archimonde and the horrific Doomfire mechanic. Teron Gorefiend, with his cursed Shadow of Death. Even as far back as Baron Geddon, igniting players at random into a Living Bomb, the linchpin encounter leaves raiders with a single, solitary truth:

Death to you means death to all.

Hear me when I state for the record that I am not opposed to the linchpin encounter. It is important for us as seasoned raiders to experience a multitude of encounters, to identify and adapt as necessary, to be challenged in different ways, and ultimately forced to conquer our own inner spatial awareness demons. But in designing these encounters for a game such as World of Warcraft, a game played over the internet, fraught with latency and subject to the performance of many individuals and their respective computers, a careful note must always be observed which takes these many factors into account:

An encounter in which the survival of the entire raid rests solely upon the shoulders of an individual that cannot be planned around is a terrible, terrible mistake.

In order to learn this undeniable truth, Ater would have to pull a prank on his guild leader.

"Baron Geddon"
Artwork by Brandon Kitkouski

The Living Bomb Prank

"...and Kerulak, you're going to stand right here."

Ater motioned me over to a portion of Garr's expansive cave; now empty, save that of a small pile of Earthen Elemental rubble in the corner. Eager, and still bursting with excitement that my guild had successfully entered 40-Man raiding, I moved to the position he directed me to, far on the south end of the room. While I was a bit concerned about the positioning, I trusted that Ater knew exactly what he was doing. By putting me in the role of main tank healer, I was in a safe spot to heal him and avoid any bad decisions that a Living Bomb might choose to make.

When the encounter began, all seemed well. Ater wailed on Baron Geddon while the raid slowly picked away at him. I whack-a-moled my Greater Healing Wave button whenever Ater took a spike of fire damage from one severely pissed-off Fire Elemental. A few minutes into the fight, something caught my attention. In the blink of an eye, one of the mages had teleported directly to me. It happened in a flash; there was no time at all to react. The mage burst apart at the seams, exploding in a gush of fire and flames -- taking my Shaman with him -- to a burning grave. When the laughter in TeamSpeak filled my headphones, it became painfully obvious that the joke was on me. I'd been set up, the target for whichever mage happened to be lucky enough to gain Geddon's awful debuff.

It is a tale of woe and despair that continues to amuse guildies and strangers alike, but while many focus on the funniest part of the story -- the death of the cow named Kerulak -- the story has a darker, more serious underpinning. Ater was never truly in control of the prank. Geddon applied Living Bomb to members of the raid in such a way as to ensure no one individual knew who would be next. There was no amount of positioning, no management of damage or threat, no single one mechanic that any player could latch on to that would shift the control of the encounter to them and them only. Even though Ater had set aside a very specific spot for a soon-to-be-BBQ'd cow that was away from raid's harm, a false sense of control lingered. The prank's success would ultimately rely on the mage that happened to be randomly chosen for Living Bomb, and whom happened to be let in on Ater's secret.

The prank may never have happened at all, had the Living Bomb not randomly made it around to the mage Ater had let in on the gag. The Blink spell had a habit of being buggy in Vanilla, so the prank's success had technical implications as well -- the mage could have just as easily misblinked into a crowd of unsuspecting raiders. Latency was also an issue, the Mage could have lagged at the time they were to move toward Kerulak, a very real possibility that had dire implications. But of all these possible points of failure, the worst possible scenario is the scariest: Had Ater chosen someone less adept, there might be far fewer DoDers today that remember this story as a hilarious.

A Hellfire Channeler monitors one of the puzzle
cubes keeping the pit lord shacked,
Magtheridon's Lair

Lynching the Pit Lord

The boss was situated in the center of the room. Surrounding him were five boxes that could be clicked on by any player in the raid. The strategy involved sending five players, at a specific moment in time, to go and stand by those five boxes. When Magtheridon was about to unleash a massive amount of fire damage on the entire raid, the five players were to "click" their respective box, which would cause five purple beams to shoot out towards Magtheridon, partially de-materializing him, and preventing him from unleashing hell onto the raid. Simple, right? Wait for the call, click the box, repeat. It was a very simplistic mechanic. 

Unfortunately, what should be straightforward in theory often does not translate well into practice within a raid environment.

Right from the start, players couldn't get it straight when they were supposed to click. Even with a raid leader coordinating by voice over Ventrilo, players still couldn't get into position consistently. Or they clicked their cube too late. Or too early. Or they thought they clicked their cube, but didn't. And the beauty of this encounter was, as soon as you successfully made it past one round of cube clicks, you could no longer rely on those same five people, because now they had a magical debuff that prevented them from clicking again. So even though you had a reasonable amount of control to decide who clicked what and when, eventually, nearly everyone in the raid was going to have to handle the clicks. Now you had the luxury of teaching the mechanic to five new people. And another five. And another five.

And this is about the time you start thinking about putting a gun in your mouth.

Let's face it, everyone makes mistakes; every single member of the 25-Man raid team most certainly fucked up their own cube clicking at one point or another. Others...struggled. We would do our very best to try to keep them from having that responsibility so they could stay focused on the boss, but that was a fairy tale where everyone lived happily ever after in the end, as a rainbow sprouted from Magtheridon's lifeless corpse. The cold, brutal reality of Magtheridon's Lair is that players died mid-attempt. With limited battle resurrections as a crutch, eventually, you are going to have to put those struggling players into cube-clicking responsibility. A truly gifted group of raiders are dynamic and can bend at will to the needs of the raid. So you spend 15 minutes on Magtheridon, you get him low on health, and someone takes a bad fireball to the face, doesn't quite get healed up in time, and is killed...and you are forced to make that horrible, horrible judgement call. The one where you call out the name of that not-so-great player in Vent, say you need help, and tell him he's next on cube-clicking duty, and he runs over and clicks...

...the wrong cube.

And the entire attempt is a wash.

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