Thursday, January 31, 2013

2.31. Resurrection via Apology

"Diablo Loot Piñata"
Artwork by Mark Gibbons
Copyright © 2007 Blizzard Entertainment

Viva Piñata

As far back as I can remember, video games have followed a very traditional design pattern in which the earliest obstacles a player must overcome are the easiest. As the player treks further into the game, learning new abilities and refining their skill, the game gradually increases in difficulty. Near the end of the game, the player must pull together all they have learned for the final, big battle, the apex of difficulty where the player is challenged to prove they have mastered all the techniques they've learned along their journey. This gradual increase in difficulty looks like an inverse arc; a skateboarder's quarter-pipe that plots difficulty over time. Some games have a flatter, more linear increase, but scaling the challenge along with the player's time invested is typically the same from game to game.

Blizzard's design approach for raid bosses had never followed this arc.

Instead, the path a raider must walk looks less like a bicycle ramp and more like a bolt of lightning, as it zig-zags back and forth from difficult to easy, then back to difficult again. Blizzard stated on multiple occasions that the reason for this is simple: difficult bosses at the start of an encounter are yet another means at implicitly gating content. Thinking back to how much of a roadblock Razorgore the Untamed was, it's easy to see their point. The appeal of not having any starting trash could have confused players into thinking Blackwing Lair was intended to be a pushover -- intentions that Razorgore very quickly put his boot down on. Because of this intentional top-heavy path of difficulty that Blizzard adheres to, a pleasant side effect is produced. To the resilient raider that perseveres, their reward comes in the form of one or more bosses strewn throughout the current tier...bosses that provide little-to-no challenge whatsoever. They grant a mental reprieve from the suffering a raid crew has already been subjected to.

We call these bosses "Loot Piñatas."

If you're an old-school raider, pressing the rewind button on your own personal story should make it easy to pick out the names of bosses that became synonymous with the term. Icecrown Citadel evokes memories of the Gunship Battle and Saurfang, while Black Temple had Shade of Akama bursting with candy. Although our story paints The Lurker Below as a nightmarish creature that blocked our progression, make no mistake -- he was the definitive piñata in SSC. And as for The Eye, well...there were two piñatas. One was already dead by our hand: Void Reaver. The other came to be known as High Astromancer Solarian. Solarian, however, boasted a paradoxical feature which challenged her position in the distinguished Hall of Loot Piñatas...

...for Solarian was also a linchpin.

Geddon v2.0

Solarian moved back and forth between two phases. In phase one, she was tanked-and-spanked where she stood, in the center of the remote east wing of Tempest Keep: The Eye. During this phase, the High Astromancer would target people at random, unleashing a can of arcane whoop-ass upon the unsuspecting victim. Only the healers with the fastest reflexes (and possibly a targeting macro) would be able to respond in enough time to keep these targets alive.

Phase two caused Solarian to disappear, spawning three portals in her absence. From these portals came blood elves of varying roles. Tanks would rush in and pick up these groups while players executed them in order, prioritizing priests, due to their AoE silences and their tendency to undo the damage we'd dug out of our enemies' health-bars. As the Astromancer approached defeat, she would transform into a giant voidwalker, the world-wide indicator that you were about to wrap up the fight. Solarian was almost entirely inconsequential...if it weren't for one remaining ability that added to my male pattern baldness.

Wrath of the Astromancer was a DoT that she placed on a target at random. While the DoT ticked away, the afflicted player would produce arcane AoE damage to everyone in the vicinity. After six seconds, the DoT would detonate in a flash of arcane energy, catapulting the player up into the air, and very possibly killing any nearby players that happened to eat the blast. The player, therefore, had to be spatially aware, quick on their feet, and run from their group as quickly as possible -- so that the detonation had no chance of striking another player.

It was Baron Geddon all over again.

Descendants of Draenor
defeats High Astromancer Solarian,
The Eye

A Fine is a Price

I wanted very much to fine people for not paying attention. Initially, we did exactly that: 100g donated to the guild vault if you blow the raid up. If you were a failure of a player, if your reflexes stunk, if you liked to blame your router or latency a lot -- go right ahead. Just be sure your pockets were lined with cash when you took your raid invite. The officers agreed instinctively, wanting desperately to put an end to the mouth-breathers that were constantly impeding our chances at progressing toward Kael'thas.

Ater stood alone, disagreeing with the tactic.

"Negative reinforcement is a bad idea."

"We have to do something", I replied, "I can't take the ineptness any longer. People need to be held accountable for their position in the raid."

He didn't push back. Playing the loyal soldier, he accepted my arbitrary, anger-fueled decree, continuing to lead in silence. And since Ater had such an impact on the guild, he didn't even have to name names -- players began to voluntarily step up and accept responsibility when they blew up the raid, calling out their name and confirming the 100g deposit. Ater was so well liked and admired by the raid in this regard that I can't help feel like our raiders felt guilty for these mistakes, possibly the first time since we set foot in the Core a year earlier. Like they were somehow inconveniencing him. I was amazed that anyone at all would step up to the plate. Imagine! A raid accepting responsibility for their actions! This was unheard of!

Yet Solarian wasn't dying. What was happening, however, is that the raid was continuing to explode in a blast of arcane death. It was as if players were paying for the convenience of failing. In an attempt to increase accountability, the fine was a convenient way to be absolved of it. Players in the raid thought they were being accountable by stepping up, waving their arm and going, "Yep, that was me. Here's your 100g", but weren't encouraged in any way to fix their mistake. That isn't accountability -- that's the absence of accountability. That's telling a murder victim you're sorry after the gun has already been fired. Much appreciated, but "sorry" isn't going to resurrect the dead.

Paying to fail had to come to a halt -- so we ended it. By banishing sales from the excuse factory, players had no other recourse but to get their shit straightened out, and move away from the raid as was their job. Just like it was when we expected them to click a cube. Or move away from one another during Shatter. Likewise, the onus was just as equally pushed back to leadership, to ensure we were training raiders appropriately, rather than assuming they knew how all the variables fell into place. This, in turn, led to leadership choosing raid rotations with greater judiciousness, plucking out the rotten, mold-covered fruit from a basket that was otherwise still edible.

Solarian wouldn't be the last of the linchpin encounters...not by a long shot. The quest to choose raiders with great care, therefore, continued in earnest. More would be left behind, more would throw tantrums, and more new faces would continue to breach the walls. As we closed in on Kael'thas Sunstrider, the roster would suffer a series of blows that left me bloodied and broken, and the completion of Tier 5 -- along with any chance we had to progress towards Illidan -- hung in the balance.


Anonymous said...

Loving the series. This particular line resonated with me:

"I honestly don’t think Blizzard takes into account the social impact their boss design has on a group of players."

As someone who's come back to WoW after a 18 month break, I've really loved the freedom that LFR offers over formalised raiding.
But my joy in raiding has been healing. To a point.
Alas, the design of encounters, from a healing perspective, means you *REALLY* start to despise those raiding with you. "Oh, I don't need to move from the fire, you can just heal thru it...."

It could get bad enough being a healer in a dedicated raid team. That attitude of heal thru it, is a $diety given right in LFR.

And weakest link in LFR is appalling. :-(

Anyways, keep up the fantastic reminiscing. Loving it!

- Steve

Shawn Holmes said...


What sucks about LFR is that it is truly a noble effort, on the part of Blizzard, to get more people in front of content. But by making a few (seemingly) subtle decision decisions in the *wrong* direction to appeal to a larger crowd, they've set forth a chain of events that has ultimately led the game to where it is today, and that is a real shame. You've pointed out one such decision here.

For example, if more effort had been put into an in-game failure identification system (ie. Players X Y and Z have died due to failing to avoid the boss's FIRE which cannot be healed through), rather than the stacking buff which continually makes things easier, Blizzard could have actually started to educate players into correctly performing their tasks.

Alas, no such luck. Stacking power buff it is.