Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Re: Rise of the Leet King

Tobold threw down the gauntlet and asked for posts concerning his Rise of the Leet King challenge. Obviously, I’ll oblige. Tobold wants to know what exactly people mean when they say that World of Warcraft should be harder and gives some pretty bad examples of how that could be achieved. For this post I’ll focus simply on what constitutes difficulty in a raid boss encounter, ignoring all other aspects of WoW that may or may not be too easy. I do this to preserve your sanity and mine.

I can identify five areas of expertise that are relevant to beating a raid boss encounter – there may be more that I missed. Please comment away if you know of any.

(image: learningthings.com)

Twitch / Motor Skills

If you believe some people, raiding is all about moving out of fires quickly. If you have to react quickly to events, that’s twitch. Obviously, this is not limited to just moving out of things, but occurs in pretty much every aspect of raiding. If you’ve ever healed Anub’Arak hard mode you will know that you have to heal certain people with a debuff within a very small timeframe or they will die. Twitch doesn’t include any mental processing; it is just about reacting fast to some sort of trigger. Personally, I don’t really enjoy fights that require very short reaction times. Not only is it unfair to older people, I also find twitch very uninteresting as a skill. Nevertheless, many players enjoy twitch-based game play and reducing reaction times is a legitimate way of increasing the difficulty of a fight.

Focus

Focus has certain similarities to twitch in so far as it deals with your ability to recognize changed circumstances and react to them. If you have to run out of a fire within 1.5 seconds or die, that’s a question of twitch. If you have five seconds to react it’s more a question of focus – do you realize that you are standing in a fire or are your thoughts elsewhere? A fight like Patchwerk for example requires very little focus as nothing changes throughout the fight. Once in position, Patchwerk can pretty much be killed without even looking at the 3D world or bossmod announcements. Compare that, on the other hand, to fighting hard mode Twin Valkyr in Crusader’s Coliseum. Players need to perform their duty (i.e. heal) while dodging wrongly colored orbs, watching boss mod timers, watching out for special abilities, and reacting to them appropriately. If the player isn’t fully focused on the game, she will likely fail. The more such elements that require a reaction the fight has, the harder it becomes.

Class Knowledge / Experience

Tobold dismisses knowledge as problematic in his follow-up post because it is so easy to get information from outside sources (i.e. the internet) these days. That doesn’t mean that knowledge is a given, however, or we would meet far less people in games that don’t know how to play their class. Whether you acquire knowledge on how to optimally play your class through experimentation and experience or through reading on Elitist Jerks doesn’t matter much – the more you know about your class, given that you have internalized1 that knowledge, the better you will perform in a fight. Most fights include certain performance barriers, such as an amount of damage per second that is needed to beat the encounter, and raising these barriers makes the fight harder. The higher the performance barrier, the more class knowledge or experience a player needs to be successful.

Encounter Knowledge / Experience

Tank'n'Spank? (image: watchtheguild.com)

Encounter knowledge is very similar to class knowledge, but deals with the details of the fight. WoW boss fights are scripted and can be learned. Some bosses can be beaten without learning any strategies beforehand which makes them quite easy. You’ve all heard the term “Tank’n’Spank” as a description for a fight that requires no special strategies at all. Higher complexity of fights increases the need for focus – a requirement to realize that an event has happened – but also the need for encounter knowledge. The player needs to know how to react to events. The more complicated a boss fight is, the more difficult it is to internalize the details of the fight. Even if you can look up strategies on the internet and get them modified by your raid leader to fit your individual needs, you’ll still need to memorize them and be able to apply them. I’ve complained in the past that it often feels like Blizzard is making us jump through hoops and a high requirement of encounter knowledge is probably the reason for that feeling. Increasing that requirement can make fights harder, but it is not a difficulty I’m very fond of. The ability to memorize complex patterns is not one that I personally enjoy training in a game, not even if that game is called Simon Says.

Gear

Gear is the oddball in my list because it’s the only requirement that is not directly connected to the player. That said, gear requirements can be used to make a fight harder to beat and even impossible for certain lower levels of gear. If your tank just hit level eighty, she probably won’t have enough health to survive hits from Icecrown Citadel bosses.  Personally, I quite like the concept of having a gear progression, meaning that you get gear in one instance that allows you to start working on the next instance. That has been the way in World of Warcraft in the past, but really isn’t anymore. Nowadays there are ways in the game that allow everyone to acquire gear that is good enough to raid the latest tier of raids without even entering the previous ones.  The reason why I mention gear in this list is that gear can often make up for any of the other above requirements, which is problematic. If an encounter’s difficulty is tuned for people with gear level X, but many players already have gear level X+1, the other requirements will be less harsh and a fight can seem too easy. By allowing a broader spectrum of gear levels to succeed in the fight, you take away parts of the twitch, focus, and knowledge required for players with higher levels of gear.

The Heigan Dance

Conclusion

So you read a thousand words and I still haven’t started to answer Tobold’s question. Anyway, if it were up to me, fights in Wrath of the Lich King should have had stricter gear requirements in order to even allow decent tuning of the other requirements. Once that is accomplished, I would like to see a bigger emphasis on what I call focus and on class knowledge, maybe even a bit less of a twitch requirement. Increasing the need for focus is quite simple; all one needs to do is to increase the penalties for failing to focus. If you fight Heigan, the Unclean in Naxxramas, for example, fire spouts out of the ground in a pattern that you have to understand and follow. Right now, it doesn’t matter much if players get hit by it, as you can take multiple hits before you die. If the fire was deadly, it would be much more relevant to focus on correct positioning. In short, make people die when they make mistakes and you will get a higher focus requirement.

Tests of class knowledge differ for the different class archetypes (healer, tank, damage dealer) but are quite possible to do. The classic example are DPS check encounters – bosses that have to die within a certain timeframe, shields that need to be brought down before a spell cast is complete, or additional mobs that have to be killed quickly in order not to overwhelm the raid. At a given gear level (see above), players that understand their class better will be able to put out more damage per second and therefore be more likely to actually succeed in the fight. Healer class knowledge can be tested by either requiring the right choice of spells for certain situations or a good allocation of mana, cooldowns, or other resources. Wrath of the Lich King has left many healers in a situation in which mana was irrelevant and only one spell a viable choice – greatly reducing the difficulty of healing such boss encounters.

I think encounter knowledge requirements are fine the way they are in Wrath of the Lich King, one just has to make sure not to trivialize interesting elements of fights by not punishing failure to comply. You can have the most complex system of hoops to jump through – if you don’t get punished for not doing it, the hoops might as well not be there. In the end, it’s all about meaning. If you can kill the boss no matter what you do, your actions are meaningless and therefore not fun.

1 Internalization is part of the SECI model for knowledge creation by Nonaka and Takeuchi. You can find a description here or get the book if you are really interested.