I’ve been discussing this whole Zor’lok “not being dead for 14 minutes, omg it must be so monstrously hard” thing the other day with Starym and it got me thinking about boss difficulty in general, not only in WoW or in MMO’s, but in all genres of gaming. What does make an encounter difficult, and what are the criteria for it? How did WoW handle boss opener challenge in the past and is it even prudent to have such bosses in the first place? And if they do happen to be harder than planned, should they be nerfed immediately? I’m really interested as to what people think about this specific situation, so much has changed in the WoW landscape since I stopped raiding, let’s just say I don’t have a finger on the pulse of the WoW raiding scene anymore, if I ever had.
Player quality factor
Before we talk about any encounter difficulty examples, it’s important to note that the level of absolutely any challenge put into a game is firstly dependent on a player’s skill and his willingness to commit to a problem. Place a hard multi-layered puzzle in a simple adventure game or even a slightly non-basic boss in an MMO in front of a few dozen morons and you’re not going to have the greatest results. And even though I might or might not have called the WoW player base worse things than semi-organized groups of morons in the past, they are not all completely incompetent when it comes to killing stuff. I also might or might not be tempted to place a Method joke around here somewhere. So, if you want to discuss challenge and difficulty of any encounter you have to have in mind the demographic for which the encounter was designed originally. And cut the bulls**t “everyone should do the content”, it’s very obvious that Zor’lok, Firefighter or Vael weren’t designed with St. Mary’s school for disabled children and head trauma survivors in mind (after a few nerfs though, St. Mary’s got that s**t handled easy…). That’s why a group of players that encounters a fight that is theoretically on their skill level and totally in their reach of killing always has to cover for the less competent in a herd. This is the player factor when it comes to beating content. There’s always a group of people more skilled and knowledgeable about the task at hand than the others. In other words, there’s good player’s and there’s s**tters. Inherent difficulty of a task in a game is so much harder when facing it with more chromosomes than a normal group would have, this is what becomes very apparent to anyone that joined a better guild or a clan in his gaming career and noticed how suddenly everything is easier and how content just flies by, without any hitches your more horrible of co-players would provide. The quality of a guild is something that developers can’t influence, but the leadership can, so obviously improving the quality of players is the easiest way of making stuff easier for you.
New mechanics and approaches
But when the guild is decent and it should be beating content quite easily, the biggest enemy in the past was unseen new mechanics and innovation in a gameplay sense. My knowledge of bosses doesn’t extend past Cataclysm, so feel free to add any examples of new mechanics that were added thus making a boss difficult to beat for an average guild. For the era I’m more familiar with, pretty much every instance offered something new when it came to mechanics and styles required to beat it. Molten Core was a pretty straightforward decurse / tank’n’spank / control adds kind of an instance, but already with the next wave of content raiders of all skill levels got their lesson in humility, for apart from the few select top guilds, pretty much everyone ate serious feces on the first two encounters at least, if not more. Razorgore and Vaelstrazs, the latter also popularly (and quite truthfully) dubbed “The guild destroyer” offered so many new things that for a lot of players it was so overwhelming that they rather ran back to Molten Core instead of even trying them. I’ve had my share of failures on these fellows; both individual and group, since we spent months on them – I even progressed through them twice – and the sheer amount of tasks (yes, even up to two) most players had to handle on Razorgore was too much for many. The whole jist of the fight is that you get overwhelmed by adds that you can’t really kill, but you need to control them by kiting and such, while getting even more adds that you do have to kill and there’s this boss and – just watch the damn movie if you don’t know it, this isn’t bosskillers.
It's a bad video, but it's ours!
My point is that most of the players had to learn how to multitask, how to do stuff they’d never done before and there was the pressure, oh yes the pressure. The whole fight when done almost properly is designed in a way that you never have a feeling everything is under control, so it adds additional pressure on the chokers, they start screwing things up and suddenly not everything is under control.
Vaelstrazs was an extremely fun and also frustrating fight that I’d love to see rehashed in a modern way. The new mechanics added there were the need to change main tanks mid fight that lasted not more than a minute, so the pressure was on, any f**kup by pretty much anyone would lead to an instant wipe, and the overall difficulty was such that many guilds never got past this boss. It was surely the pinnacle of encounter design in WoW, even though I liked some other fights more, I FEARED Vael. Nowadays with all the mods it would be a breeze if nothing new was added, but back then, Vael deserved its name and a big part of its difficulty were my two points: player factor and new mechanics. We’ve never had to change tanks on the fly like this, nor was it ever before so important for no one to f**k up, just sheer brilliance by anyone that designed that boss, all kudos and Thai prostitutes for you my friend.
Looks exciting, doesn't it?!
There are many more cases like that where new mechanics helped the fight reach its legendary status, no-tank C’thun being one of the best, again often touted as one of the best encounters in MMO history, deserved this praise because of the level of team play you needed in addition to the overall ingenuity of the encounter, just perfect.
One thing I always loved in boss fights was the level of intentional chaos certain encounters provided. Any boss, and it doesn’t matter how many new abilities it has, will eventually be beaten through repetition, unless there’s many abilities that players can’t always count on coming at set times, aka the random events. This provides for me the sweetest of all tunes, whine how someone can’t handle it. Bosses I’d give an honorable mention here would naturally be Kael’thas, Kil’Jaeden, Yogg’saron 0 guardians and more bosses with apostrophes in their names whose spelling I can’t be assed checking. As for the non-apostrophe bosses, there’s Mimiron. These bosses were difficult mainly because of all the things that would be happening at the same time. Add to that a few new mechanics here or there that people are not used to, a baddie in a group and you have the perfect recipe for disaster, or a really difficult encounter, whichever one you prefer.
This is in my eyes is the perfect style of boss design, throwing in a bunch of abilities and events that appear, if not at random times, at least they’re overlapping each other and the goal of the whole team is to try to stay on top of things for the whole duration of the fight. Nothing beats the feeling of achievement when you finally get the strategy down and execute it perfectly. These bosses proved to be very difficult for even the hardiest of guilds with the least baddies in the raid, proving practically impossible for the rest, at least until the Oblivion nerfage™.
Race to win
Another concept that makes the fights much harder is the enrage timer. Be it soft or hard or fiery or voidzoney, I’ve always loved it when we’d reach the enrage timer, check the boss health… “Ok, so how the f**k is the boss still at 89%?” Optimization and tightening down of roster in order to shave down those seconds is a very important aspect of a good team, and something average guilds have struggled with through the years. Nowadays, and for some time, most of the bosses have an enrage timer of sorts, but there are fights where the timer is the only difficult part, not the getting boss down to zero part, but killing it inside the enrage timer. I’ve never really enjoyed such gimmicky fights; there's a reason why Hodir was always my least favorite fight in Ulduar, next to the vehicle s**tboss, of course.
Bugs that influence difficulty
Not every feature on a boss is intended, and if anyone knows that, it’s WoW players – not unlike other games which are equally or even buggier than your average Blizzard product. Be it a bug or not, I personally welcome (almost) anything that makes a fight more challenging, as long as it’s not game breaking and the boss is still doable. Hell, some of the most memorable encounters were made difficult by the bugs and even though at the time I might have wished extremely bloody vengeance by a Mexican drug cartel upon a developer or two, in retrospect I wouldn’t even think of the fights as difficult if there weren’t for the bugs.
The Lurker below being one of my favorites when it comes to utter failure in design and yet being super fun to remember. A boss that would randomly despawn, whose adds would randomly despawn and who’s hitbox and boss area was so broken even Dark Souls (Starym made me throw this reference inside) developers couldn’t fix it. Sadly most of the bugs that actually benefit encounter challenge get swiftly removed, usually before the nerfbat hits the first time, so the majority of players never get to discover the brokenness of certain fights and the added fun and difficulty this provides.
Random number generator, enemy of fun and the killer or babies
I hate RNG in games. There’s obviously a healthy dose of randomness that I feel every fight needs, but for your success being dependent solely on the “roll” is idiotic, a bad design and more than a reason to employ the Mexican drug cartels dismemberment regiment on any developer that ever comes with an idea to add RNG as a make it or break it factor in a fight. But it is also often a developer’s go-to when they want to make a fight harder. You know a fight is designed badly when a team of players attempting it is holding hands in prayer, hoping their tank doesn’t get oneshot again and that seven overlapping events don’t happen at the same time because they have for the last twenty five tries. I’ve always understood when RNG kills one player, maybe wipes out a group because they were really unlucky and not able to fight off whatever killed them because they got overwhelmed, but for the whole team to be dependent on that one roll that might wipe all of them… there is no reason or purpose of that, it’s just bad design.
Zor’Lok and what makes a good boss
This Zor’lok thing has been discussed left and right for the past few days, so does this boss qualify for being good, or is he just a fail encounter that had to be nerfed for its broken nature? I honestly don’t know and I don’t really feel comfortable commenting on it because I’ve never attempted him, forums are filled with people with all kinds of opinions and have exactly the same experience on Zor’Lok as I do - none. I’ve heard RNG is a big reason why it was un-killable for so long (oh noes, DAYS without a kill), but that’s not what really matters here. What matters is the outrage by some and exhilaration by others about how this is unprecedented in so long and how incredible it is that a boss stayed alive for more than 17 seconds from release of the instance. Is the fact all bosses die so fast a testament to how good guilds are at the moment, to how uninspired Blizzard developers are, or is it intended and new content is meant to be killed and not meant to be a challenge anymore?
This was another instance cleared in only a few days, with just one boss taking the majority of the time required, and he was admittedly broken and later fixed. It’s more than obvious that the demographic for the new generation heroic modes are not top guilds, I mean they are plowing through content with no problem, unless of course the boss is broken – which back in the day meant challenging, now it just means… broken. Sadly.
The closest I’ve seen from the stuff past Cataclysm and my quitting raiding in terms of quality design was Ragnaros 2.0. One of the few regrets I have about leaving the game is never experiencing it in progress and if I had to describe the perfect boss, it would look mighty close to C’thun and Mimiron. Both added something new to the mix, both had enough chaos and RNG to keep it fresh every time around - for the gazillion tries you needed to down them – they required a good team, but you could live with a mongoloid or three (I promised to myself I wouldn’t reference Diomache this time around and here we go beating the same ol’ dead horse again) and both were just broken enough to make it extra hard, but not broken enough to make it annoying or impossible. I wonder if anything since Cataclysm (minus Rag 2.0) has ever reached this level of awesomeness and if it ever will.
Well, did it?