Thursday, March 11, 2010

Kologarn's little prank and other musings over surprises

I'll never forget the first time I saw Kologarn, appearing out of nowhere, saying "Boo!" Or rather I don't know if he actually said it, but it was the sense of it. He scared the shit out of me. And I loved it. Like most players I love to be surprised, and that's the topic I'd like to rant a bit about today.

I don't know if you noticed it, but a couple of weeks ago Ciderhelm at Tankspot wrote a huge wall of text, far worse than anything you've ever seen at The Pink Pigtail Inn. In case you missed it, go back and check it out. It's just too good to be passed on.

Ciderhelm has already gotten quite a bit of attention from the community, judging from the comments. There are 175 of them now, many equally well thought out as the post itself, and there are still more incoming. As a fellow blogger I'm stunned with pure admiration.

Ciderhelm's concerns
So what's the deal in this post? Well, basically this Tankspot guru expresses his concerns about the current state of World of Warcraft and the future of the community. What makes it so interesting and worth listening to is that he doesn't fall into the normal traps. He doesn't go on and on about how the epic raids in vanilla WoW were better and he doesn't threaten to quit the game anytime soon. He doesn't fall into the general “the game is dying” whine serenade, which we couldn't care less about since we've heard it before and it doesn't take the discussion one step further.

No, on the contrary: Ciderhelm talks in a soft, reasoning, intelligent, every so polite voice, which is a pleasure to listen to. His introduction of the article sets the tone:

"I am concerned about World of Warcraft raiding and the future of the Warcraft gaming community. I believe that there are fundamental issues that can be handled better."
After this Ciderhelm talks into some depth about the fundaments of what we want from a game, according to the current knowledge in game theory, and he also reasons about how WoW caters to those needs: Surprise, Risk, Reward, Challenge and Discovery. He discusses the raid encounter mechanics from the early days until today and the tension between the best 1% players and the 99 % not-quite-so-awesome players. What could the developers do to make everyone decently happy and entertained? The levels of skill vary drastically between players. Is there any way you can design encounters so that the top players can play together with their not-quite-so-awesome friends, and get a challenge and a kick out of it, rather than frustration or boredom?

Thoughts on surprises
When I've been thinking about how to comment on Ciderhelm's ponderings, I found it quite hard to make up my mind which perspective to pick. There are so many threads, so many things to elaborate on, which each one could qualify for a blog post of their own. It feels plain wrong just to take idea and disregard of the rest. But I guess I can always come back to it – the post is a treasure chest for any blogger who wants something to write about.

So let's stick to one of the perspectives, the one about the element of surprise. In my opinion surprises and randomness are major sources of enjoyment in the game. It certainly also is a source of frustration of course, when THAT drop just never ever will come, but without it, the game would be about as predictable exciting as a child’s pounding bench. (In case you don't know what it is, it's a toy where you knock down little wooden pegs in a row with a hammer. Once you're done you turn it upside down and do it over again.)

This is why it doesn't matter if a badge gear item has imba stats and even is best-in-slot - it still can't compete in any way with loot drops, since it's completely predictable. You can calculate to the very day, hour and second when you've grinded enough emblems to get it. This makes it boring, soulless and not so easy to love as that rare and magic drop.

However, apart from gear, surprises are quite far and between these days, at least in a raiding context, if you’re not into the bleeding cutting edge and down all the bosses before there is any guide available. It’s ironic, to say the least, that Ciderhelm, who is responsible for providing with all those detailed instruction how-to-do-movies, is the one to bring up this as a problem.

Same old mechanics
The fact that the players know “too much” about the encounters on beforehand isn’t the only reason why we’re rarely surprised. There’s also the issue that most mechanics used in the encounters have been used before. Unless you’re completely new into raiding you will see the pattern soon enough. Even a fairly new and inexperienced gamer like me will notice.

It’s the same ingredients that are used over and over again, just put together in a slightly different order. You deal with the bone spikes in ICC just like you dealt with the spikes in BT, you take cover behind avatars frozen into iceblocks in ICC, almost identically to how you did in Naxx. We move out of crap - be it green, blue or orange, we sheep the mc:d players, we interrupt nasty spells they cast. It’s mostly the graphical design of the bosses and their environment that vary – not so much the encounters as such.

Actually there's a paradox in this. While most players probably would say that they love surprises and variation in their gameplay, in reality, there are only very few who mind - or even notice - that the mechanics in ICC have been around since vanilla.

As a matter of fact I'd dare say that they’re quite happy if they can grasp the basic idea about a fight quick and easy since they recognize the pattern. Whenever Blizzard has tried to introduce elements that go outside of the normal patterns, such as 3d fights, vehicles or the Faction Champions, randomly running about, the reaction from the community has been quite thoroughly negative.

The Opera Event
So. We want to be a little bit surprised, but not entirely lost. What's the solution? Personally I'm a fan of randomization of the encounters. You don't know exactly which boss you'll get, only that it will be one of several possible. Like Opera in Karazhan. Dear old Opera. I suppose I'm not the only one who get a nostalgic glimpse in my eyes thinking about it.

There were only so many possible scenarios - three to be more exact, but this little stroke of randomness and variation was enough to add something extra. Some players preferred one or the other of them - either based on the fights themselves or because they wanted certain drops. There was no way you could go through the strategies in detail and assign people for all three encounters on beforehand "just in case" they'd turn up. The normal procedure was improvise it every so quickly behind the curtain, as soon we could see from the dialogue what play would be set up this night.

I always cringed when it was Big Bad Wolf since I inevitably would get the Little Red Riding Hood, and most likely die. Yet: I loved the surprise element in it, just as I love the variation in Violet Hold and ToC 5-man. Hey, I even approve of the different setups week after week with Faction Champions. Even though I'm torn about the PvP aspect of it, I like the fact that it varies and that you have to adjust to the situation, thinking: how do we make it THIS week, not just repeating exactly what you did the week before.

Wishing freely
But in the end: a certain amount of variation and randomness can only surprise me every so much. Nothing can compare to the fresh meeting with new content. Nothing. For all the instruction videos I had seen, Kologarn still made me jump high with his little prank, because the movies never included that part.

If I could wish freely without considering that development resources is a limited resource, I'd love to see many, many more surprises in game. Not just the big, new things, such as entire raid instances to explore, but also unexpected little features added to the current content.

You don't have to give Marrowgar completely new abilities and a generally unpredictable behaviour. That would sadly enough probably only render complaints. But why not let him switch skin and suddenly appear turned into a murloc one day, without any previous warning? Not in every raid, but maybe sometimes. You never knew what he would look like.

Shock us. Shake us up. Say: "Boo!" You know we want it.


Klepsacovic said...

I liked Opera, but I don't remember wanting any loot from it. Whatever came out was only surprise, no disappointment. In contrast VH was and endless "wrong boss, right boss, wrong drops."

Is loot fun? I think only if we don't actually care about it until it drops. Expectations are the killer of fun.

Angelya said...

The first time I went to ulduar was on an alt run, long after the others had stopped raiding it. When we got to the door before kologarn the raid leader said, "Ang, could you just go and stand the other side of that door please?" when kologarn popped up, well, my language doesn't bare repeating :)
I love surprise bosses but I like less the idea of giving them seperate loot tables. There are drops from Eadric I'd love but I always seem to end up with Paletress.

Tanelor said...

Interesting the psychology of people who say they like surprises or challenges, but then complain when they get them.

I often interview people for programming roles for my RL job, and every single one, bar none, says that the love to learn new things. Scratch a bit at the surface, however, and most of them actually like to be experts in the things they already know and learn little incremental differences. The descent into noobness involved in learning something completely new is generally very uncomfortable for these people and they hate it.

I think the same applies to raiding - people like things to be a little bit new/surprising (apply the same skills you already have in an every-so-slightly new way), but not completely new (learn some completely new skills). People like it, so Blizz serves it up.

Anonymous said...

After reading his and your small walls of text i have but a few observations... Everyone and i mean everyone commenting on the degrade of the wow content starts with how they have played since god knows when and it is now boring because there is nothing new for them they know it all. Thats fantastic, your the worlds greatest tank!!! how far have you progressed as a healer? can you average in the top 4 of a 25-man for dps??? what i am putting across is you have been doing the same job through different senarios for so long you have lost your motivation. I bet if you all rotated to a new group role and took that to the ends of the earth sorting out the best means possible to do their job their is a whole new game for them!!!

Dwism said...

There is a grumpy part of me that remembers the most recent surprise fight in Wrath - the champions fight- and just how well that was recieved. From both hardcores and casuals alike.

Having said that, I can see myself agreeing with everything he said. And luckily i'm fairly certain that the people in Blizzard have or will read this.

mentalshaman said...

I think raiding culture has changed so much from Vanilla, and some of the fundamental concepts are so entrenched in raiding communities, that it is a different creature than it was back in Vanilla. Cinderhelm is completely right to post this way.

I think Tanelor raises the extra point - we generally love expanding on our existing knowledge, rather than floundering in a completely new field. While dragon riding was fun and 'surprising' the first time you did it, there was no way to apply your existing knowledge (aside from move out of bad stuff.)

Any moves at making something unique, I feel, will conflict with the philosophy of 'Player not class' and 'play what you enjoy' that blizz is keen to promote.

Jb said...

I agree on so many points of your post and on Ciderhelms, but there is one thing missing ( or I missed it ). The strange feeling i get when entering a dungeon or raid instance and mobs/bosses. Why are they just standing there looking at us ? Seems a litle stupid and Im loosing alitle of the much needed ingame feeling. Why couldent it be scripted a bit more natural. When mobs see you ( or a not stationary boss for that matter ) they will come for your. So you have to be careful, use invis potions, stealth, warlock eye etc. Think that could bring back some ingame feeling. And ofc ... plz bring back some need of cc. All those abilies just for pvp is a real shame. Are the new players really so lazy that they would hate to have to use cc ? I hope not.

Herbcrusher said...

I liked the more complicated endboss fights in TBC a lot, especially Kael'Thas and Vashj.

Each had multi-stage encounters that differed a lot from the other stages of the fight and required small groups of players to perform to their best. Vashj has kiters and throwing things and disabling doodads, and dps'ing things and offtanking things and moving out of green stuff while kiting the boss around. Kale'Thas had even more going on with seperate and combined adds, weapons, floating around in 3D space avoiding others and lightning. None of the endbosses I've seen so far in Wrath come even remotely close to this complexity (haven't seen Arthas yet).

I have done Yogg with 3 keepers for the legendary mace and that came close to the complexity of Vashj but even then it fell short as phase 3 is basically phase 1 again, only with different positions and the trick in phase 2 is always the same trick, massive dps in the brainroom.

More variety and surprises, I would like it!

Hatch said...

I agree overall with the post. I like surprises, and I miss the Kara opera event. But I do have to disagree a little bit about icecrown citadel: there truly are a lot of recycled mechanics, but there's also a lot of cool new stuff in there: the vampire bites, the grab-orbs-to-shield-yourself, riding an abomination, healing the boss instead of killing it, the blood charges on saurfang, the fun of gunship. But again, there are also a ton of recycled mechanics.

Blizz could definitely stand to take raiding in a different direction, because I think they are starting to run out of new permutations of the old paradigm (how you like those $10 words!)

Larísa said...

@Klepsacovic: Oh I have some vague memories of people hoping for specific drops from Opera.... but so long ago... Indeed: memories of loot really vanishes into oblivion after a while. It's the encounters that lasts longest. and the surprises.

@Angelya: hm... I'm not so sure about that. I kind of think it's a bit boring with shared loot tables. It's got a touch of the emblem-problem. The lack of excitement.

@Tanelor: Oh yes: a lot of people claim that they want to get out of their comfort zone, but in reality they clinge to it like scared puppies.

@Anonymous: yeah, indeed, seeing the content from a different role definitely adds a bit of challenge and variation to it. personally I don't have the time available to gear up and make more than one toon good enough to be raid ready. But for those who can I bet it adds a lot of enjoyment.

@Dwism: yeah, i never quite understood the hatred for champions. Surely, I suck at it, it doesn't fit my play style at all, but you can't be on top for every encounter. There are always those that are easier or worse for you.

@Mentalshaman: It' a pity we're so reluctant to increase the field. Sure, there is a resistance to begin with, but at some point we'll get just as comfortable as we were with the old mechanics. and then it's time to take another jump.

@Jb: I agree wholeheartedly. There are a few bosses though that aren't glued to the ground. XT comes to my mind. I always giggled at seeing him doing his excercise!

@Herbcrusher: I'm afraid I never did those endbosses in T5 much. I jumped right into BT. But I can imagine they were fantastic at the right gear level. I never thought of Yogg p1 and 3 being the same actually. Now that you mention it... hm... As a whole I really really loved Yogg as a fight. So veried and complex. just wonderful.

@Hatch: you're absolutely right about ICC, I was a bit too quick to dismiss it. Even though there IS a lot of recycled stuff, there are some new mechanics as well. Especially the healing dragon and the vampire biteing. I should give Blizzard credit for that. Cheers!

Vulpina said...

My main is a rogue, and I have to say that having traps randomly in ICC has greatly increased my fun factor for raids, even now that I've been in there every week since ICC opened.

I have no clue how Blizz could do it, but giving every class a small shiny role so they could go oohh! I'm important! goes a long way. A long long way.

Also I wish he could have answered the italicized question in his post - How do we engage the serious gamers who are in the lower 99%? How do we let them feel discovery and challenge without forcing them to sacrifice their friendships in search of better guilds?

I feel that frustration all the time. I don't think there's a real answer available. Perhaps let people be in more than one guild at once. Dual specs, dual guilds. I'm not really sure that would solve the problem though.

WIshart said...

I missed out on vanilla wow, I started raiding tbc and cut my teeth on kara I stopped playing after wotlk was released. Everything seemed well for want of a better word magical (Epics included). I can't really improve on any of the posts here I agree a little with each. But how do you fix wow if at all, well for me you would have to bring back balance in difficulty and maybe increase raid sizes & as larisa stated maybe rotate bosses more in newer raids. I stopped enjoying wow (To be brutally honest) because yes I was a raider I went from enjoying the raids to being angry at people who I felt rightly or wrongly weren't up to it and got us all killed. That and the fact you can sneeze and you get a title and epics....Knowledge is fine but when you tell your raid leader you don't know this fight they generally aren't happy we've become button mashers......Maybe ignorance is bliss?

Josh said...

Nefarian is the answer.

Nefarian, the last boss in Blackwing Lair (vanilla 40-man raid) had a "class call" ability on which he chose a class represented in the raid and then did a twisted version of one of their abilities back at the raid. For example, for the mage class call, he would start polymorphing random raid members several at a time. For priests, he'd make any direct healing on the tank leave a stacking DoT on the tank (I think, memory is getting fuzzy). You never knew which class he'd choose, and I'm not sure that the class calls were at regular intervals either, so the timing was unpredictable.

Twin Val'kyr use this idea to a lesser extent doing their 4 abilities (Light/Dark versions of the heal and vortex) on a timer.

The issue remains that the abilities used are probably going to be something the raid has seen before, but randomizing the timing and opening up the bag of tricks for bosses a little wider might provide a little more surprise, or at least lengthen the amount of time that an encounter provides surprise.

tyra said...

Were new mechanics so hated because they were new, or just the mechanics they picked just 'bad'?

3D movement in an endless void with a repetitive background is a very bad mix. No depth perception in any direction makes it impossible to orient yourself. And the 2D screen does not lend itself to stacking a group. 1-5 people is fine, but when you have 20 in a cluster****, you won't notice that your 20yds in front of the group, amid all the swirling tails/wings.

Faction champs I liked, apart from the inevitable wipefest it was for us. I'm not sure why people hate it. Most of the people who don't tell me "Oh it's pvp" and sneer. They don't bother to listen to any explanation of the fight i try to give, their eyes glaze over and they sneer. To this day, i can't get our casters to realize that the warrior or ret pally running at you with the big bad sword is BAD. RUN. They never do, I've watched them stand there, and then tell me either they ran, or they didn't see it.

In both cases, every person i met who fails on these types of fights, still does today. They never improve, for some reason. You'd think by now they would be able to do it, but i can't recall having either fight 'click' for people.

Copernicus said...

Encounter mechanics have never been an issue for me. I take each as they come, and enjoy them for what they are.

My bigger concern is boss loot. There is no bigger let down for me than having an awesome mail piece drop, but not having a shaman or hunter in the raid.

I'd rather see something along the lines of some treasure hunter, archeologist or other (aka vendor) is looking for certain pieces of lore related loot. For example, if you bring him "Kologarn's Right Hand" (token) you can choose from one of these four fine pieces of epic equipment as a reward.

Basically taking the Tier tokens and apply the concept to the regular loot drops as well. So the boss drops 2-3 of 6 possible tokens, which lets you choose from a much wider selection from the loot table.

While you still may run into situation where nobody needs the loot you can get from a particular token, occasions of sharded purples should diminish.

Arceopteryx said...

I started with World of Warcraft, in a little over a year ago. Dinged 80 the day patch 3.1 was released with Ulduar and dualspec.

I was a noob, scared and afraid of the raiders. A little simple Holypaladin that wasn't capable of healing the simplest heroic like Nexus or Utgarde Keep.

My friend started to help me learn how the game mechanics worked. (Well it was more like a yell at me because I was such big a noob, that he got sick of watching me >_>)

Got into raiding, heard stories, started reading blogs. Slowly I began to see, by exploring the older content in WoW that they just reused the old encounters.

I'm not a WoW veteran, but I can see that this is for sure a cheap way. I admit that some of the encounters are fun, and I am still in "love" with Ulduar, but I would like a new approach to the things. Cinderhelms post is great, and he shows how it actually is. Tons of my irl friends aswel as ingame friends, are getting burned out one after one, especially the ones that played pre-tbc.

I'm not even a veteran, and it's really obvious to me that they are reusing the same encounters :(

So now I am socializing instead, and seriously considering taking up RP.

Larísa said...

@Vulpina: I also liked the part about special assignments. Might rant a bit about that too. About having dual guilds… not too sure about that. No matter how many guild s you’re in, I think it’s hard to dual guild spec your loyalty. There will always be one group of players that you’ll prioritize over others. Your tribe.

@Wishart: Yeah, probably ignorance is a blizz. I don’t consider myself a super-competent raider, and maybe I should be grateful about that. If I was godlike, it would probably be more annoying.

@Josh: actually one of the bosses in ZA did that too! Don’t quite remember the name, but it was pretty fun and had a bit of surprise factor (including what adds you would get – that varied a bit if I remember correctly.)

@Tyra: It’s true. The 3d vehicle movement never clicked for me. Champion factions I’ve only seen a couple of times in hardmode, so I basically can’t tell. It hasn’t clicked yet, but maybe one day it will, if I was given the chance. I hope so.

@copernicus: Hm… yeah… maybe. But some sort of randomization is necessery. Only badge loot would be plain boring.

@Arceopteryx: oh, that was quite a short and quick career in raiding! I’m a TBC baby myself, and even though I recognize the mechanics I’m not burned out with them or done. However I see it more and more with vanilla players. And I guess it’s understandable.

Kurnak said...

Tat was Hex-Lord Malacrass. Back in the days a bastard harder than last boss, Zul'Jin.
The problem I see it's the game itself contains limitations. You can add new things via patches/expansions, but in the end even the surprise factors get somewhat predictable. Still bosses that took random actions are a good way of adding some fun. Black Temple is the place with more "random action" bosses:
Naj'entus and his impale spikes, Supremus chasing random people, Teron Gorefiend (my favourite) and the stop-the-wraiths minigame, Gurtogg Bloodboil making random players MTs... almost every boss had some random action. Still after your 5th or 6th run it won't surprise you anymore, even if you haven't been turned into a ghost by Teron.
I think Blizz should take into account bosses that can be defeated in seeral ways, rather than throwing lots of randomness into them. Usually bosses are downed following a unique strat/positoning. Would be nice to have other ways to defeat them, like some players performing other actions involving interacting with the scenario, or a different positioning, etc.

Anonymous said...

My favourite fight so far in WotLK is Argent Confessor Paletress. If you look at her achievement, she has such a huge selection of former bosses that she can summon that it's exciting enough just to go in and see if you'll face a different old face.

We got Herod a few times this weekend. My friends and I had a blast seeing him again.

I just wish she had been picked for the ToC raid alongwith the Faction Champions. Even though she's recycling old bosses, the nostalgia of it all is quite awesome.

Faction Champs wasn't really that new of a fight. They had already used it for Priestess Delrissa and her goons.

Kurnak said...

The problem with Paletress is that all memories do the same, there's no big difference between them. If at least each memory had different skills/spells would be more fun. It's a pity they didn't do it that way.

Perdissa said...

Opera. I remember how we'd all wonder which one it'd be, taking bets and stuff. Then we'd get the hunter to start the encounter and FD so we'd know which one it was.

I think that says quite a lot about how players manage surprise. ;-)