The Predictability Problem in Raiding

I’ve been pretty busy lately. I could say that my job has intruded into my blogging and playing time, but it’s more accurate to say that my free time simply dried up due to an influx of extra work. I apologize to anyone that was consistently reading my talent tier posts, and I’ll be continuing them as soon as time allows. Today’s post is something completely different though. I’ve been playing a lot of Starcraft 2 lately, and it has me thinking long and hard about World of Warcraft.

Before recently SC2 was a casual gaming activity for me as I worked through the “Wings of Liberty” campaign (SC2 is a RTS game with multiple game modes) first on Normal difficulty, and then on Hard. Around this time I decided to try its Multiplayer Mode, and all hell broke loose. As of yesterday I’ve played 16 bronze ladder (lowest 20% of players based on mathematical model, starting position for new players) matches with a very modest record of 7-9. From my perspective as a moderately experienced PvP participant (2v2, 3v3, BGs) in WoW, SC2 multiplayer is an immensely better PvP experience. RTS and MMORPG are completely different gaming experiences. But that’s not to say we can’t learn something from the tremendous success of Starcraft 2, and I think we can apply it to raiding.

Predictability

World of Warcraft raiding is a game design built around experience, failure, learning, and mastery (I knew my Master of Science in Education degree would come in handy someday. Totally worth the $23,000. I need a drink). The better your raid team is, the faster you reach the mastery level. It is a simple system, and if the encounter is too simple then mastery is easily attainable (‘sup Morchok). Create too much randomness, and mastery becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible (Fuck you Rhyolith). I emphasized randomness in order to differentiate from unpredictability. They are not the same, despite their similarity.

What makes SC2 great in multiplayer mode is the nature of its predictability. In a 1v1 matchup you could get a 2 base map or a 4 base map. You could be playing against 1 of 3 races (each with their own strengths and weaknesses). That map could have easily defensible positions, or maybe not. After all of this is established you still have to scout your opponent, because each race has tons of builds (strategies) that you have to be able to identify and counter. If all of this sounds like too much work, think about how much effort goes into establishing stat weights, BiS lists, favorable raid compositions, raid boss strategies, and spell priorities. It isn’t more work, it’s just a different approach to game design.

The difference is that SC2 thrives on the inability of the player to predict what their opponent will do, whereas WoW thrives on the ability of its player base to predict and react to boss mechanics. However, the same raid encounter design in WoW also causes players to become bored with content once they’ve reached mastery. The boss does the exact same thing at the exact same time over and over and over again.

The Success of Tier 11

Halfus Wyrmbreaker was one of my favorite encounters in Cataclysm. In fact, Bastion of Twilight and Blackwing Descent were my favorite raids of the expansion. There are encounters in every raid that introduce unpredictable components (Fading Light, Ice Lance, Face Rage, Roaring Flame Breath, etc.) but these are, in my opinion, poor substitutes for unpredictability and better described as randomness. And remember, a little randomness is good. It keeps players on their feet, and forces them to react. But they are still predictable. You know Ultraxion is going to cast Fading Light, you just don’t know who it is going to hit.

Let get back to Halfus. This was the entry encounter in Bastion of Twilight, and it was an encounter that changed every week. On normal mode there were 3 active drakes each week, but the combination of drakes available were not the same every week, forcing your raid to adapt and communicate your strategy before the pull. I always liked the encounter for this reason, but never really explored why until now. It was the anticipation that I enjoyed. Was I going to be tanking the boss or the drakes? Was it going to be a relatively easy combination, or a difficult one? I realize now that I loved running through these thoughts as we cleared trash and prepared ourselves for Halfus. This was a fight that was both predictable (through consistent mechanics and timing) and unpredictable (through different mechanics based on encounter composition). For example, the Nether Scion had a predictable mechanic that you could react to, but you didn’t know each week if you would have to. I really believe that this is an exceptional encounter design compared to a fight like Shannox, which is a completely predictable encounter with elements of randomness built-in. And it really is disappointing to see the Heroic version of Halfus removed that by having all 5 drakes active. Sure, it made the encounter more difficult by forcing the raid to deal with more abilities, but it made it more predictable, and in my mind, less compelling.

I might surprise some people with my second choice of a good raid design with a nod to unpredictable. The Omnotron Defense System (ODS) encounter was very enjoyable from this perspective. Each encounter started with one of four members of the ODS active, and while one unit was active, you would be notified which unit was next. Each pull created a different sequence of the four members of the ODS, making it unpredictable but allowing for mastery of each member’s mechanics. This is exceptional raid design.

The Fine Line Between Random and Unpredictable

Yor’sahj the Unsleeping is a great example of exploring the line between random and unpredictable. In fact, I would argue that it is very similar to ODS, and was my favorite encounter of the Dragon Soul raid. Yor’sahj summons 3 slimes (4 on heroic), and the raid can only kill one. Your raid decides which slime to kill, and deals with the mechanics of the other 2 (3) that are allowed to survive. This makes the encounter different on every pull, introducing a desirable amount of unpredictability that your raid team has to react to. It also has an appropriate mastery level. Until you over-gear the content, you must master the combined mechanics that you can see, and once you do the success rate increases.

Yor’sahj’s counterpart Warlord Zon’ozz in a good example of a terrible encounter. Despite the originality of the void sphere, it is a horrible mechanic that is completely random. The members of the raid have very little real control over where the sphere floats, and it doesn’t behave the way you would expect it. This isn’t unpredictable, it’s random and stupid and frustrating. There is no mastery of the void sphere mechanic here, either it works as intended on the pull, or it doesn’t, and that is not a good design.

Randomness and Loss of Control

No discussion on this topic would be complete without mentioning Lord Rhyolith. This Firelands encounter was terrible on normal and heroic mode. From Wowhead’s comment section:

40

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By Rygol (2,255 – 3·26on 2011/07/17 (Patch 4.2.0) Report
Worst designed heroic fight by far, this boss is completely governed by how well RNG praises your guild.

Last edited by Rygol on 2011/08/17 (Patch 4.2.0)
upvote11downvote GullaDaPwna on 2011/08/13 (Patch 4.2.0)I agree even on normal mode RNG has a lot to do with it..We oneshotted him last week because active volcanoes spawned right in the path we were already taking and now this week they spawn directly opposite of the one we’re going after…very lame

I’m not going to go into depth about how some nights it felt like the boss was NEVER going to turn, or the times when you missed the volcano by one pixel, or when volcanoes seemed to spawn practically IN THE FUCKING LAVA (which the boss couldn’t touch), or how much fun it was when a volcano activated right BEHIND the boss assuring you wouldn’t be getting to it anytime soon. I also won’t lament the fact the a guild working through phase 2 of Ragnaros could still wipe on Rhyolith if you got unlucky, or that there were nights that ended with Rhyolith because we ran out of time waiting for the RNG gods. The unofficial stats show that I consumed approximately 137.9% more alcohol on Rhyolith nights that any other raid boss since I started tanking in Wrath. Rhyolith is a good example of complete and utter failure in compelling raid design.

Players do not like – and for good reason – when they have reached a level of mastery with an encounter, but still fail due to something outside of their control. This is why Rhyolith was failure despite an admirable attempt at an original design. Here’s hoping that raid designs lean more towards Halfus and less towards Rhyolith as we head to Pandaria.

11 thoughts on “The Predictability Problem in Raiding”

  1. I could not agree more, seriously. You’ve explained why I hate Warlord and Rhyolith both, they aren’t difficult encounters, if RNG doesn’t basically screw you over. But if RNG has it out for you, it can make the most dedicated raiders want to just stop for the night, and we have. We’ve just called it there some nights to start over fresh the next raid night rather than continuing to fight the RNG.

    1. Yeah, I don’t thinking I’m breaking ground with the “RNG bosses suck” thing. I think the thing I really came around to while thinking about and writing this post, was what the right combination of elements that made a great raid encounter were. After I finished this post, I realized immediately what was wrong with Madness of Deathwing.

      – No random element (Hemorrhage, Blistering Tentacles, Elementium Bolt, Impale)
      – No unpredictable element
      – Repeating encounter

      It has none of the elements of a terrible fight, but also contains none of the elements of an excellent boss. It was utterly forgettable.

      I hate Rhyolith
      I love Halfus
      I nothing Madness

      1. True, Madness is boring. It was ok the first couple of times, but now, it’s just boring and if someone does something stupid near the end it’s a 20 minute wipe.

  2. Infernal placement on Prince Malchezaar. ‘Nuff said.

    Some randomness is fine. Not knowing who a debuff will hit, or where a debuff will spawn… that’s fine. Grobbulus was a GREAT boss, because the injection target was random, but so long as everyone was paying attention and knew what to do, it wasn’t a problem – and the fact that you didn’t know (and everyone had to be on their toes and move properly) was what made it challenging.

    1. Exactly. It became really clear that the most memorable and enjoyable encounters had consistent elements. And that random element seems critical, but its also extremely important that it has some ability of the player base to react to it.

      You shouldn’t be punished as a raid for the randomness, only punished for reacting poorly (slowly, wrong abilities, etc.). That way you can learn, and do a better job of reacting in the future.

    1. I let flow a string of obscenities one night that I was actually felt bad about afterwards, and I never feel ashamed of cursing normally. At 40% on a perfect pull he spawned a volcano away from our current turn and inches from the lava, but by the time we got to it 2 more had spawned and we wiped. There was so much rage that night.

  3. Love this post. You managed to explain what I’m trying to get across when I talk to people about what sort of raid encounters I enjoy. I’ve been writing a post comparing ICC to DS and why I found the former to be more satisfying. I think a lot of it is that the majority of fights in DS just feel far too predictable to me. I hope we see more fights like we did in T11, which despite the difficulty my raid team had with it, was probably my favorite tier of this expansion.

    1. Thanks for the feedback!

      Without needing to go into too much detail, Dragon Soul (from a design perspective) was a complete swing and a miss. Now, from the perspective of accessibility, that’s something else entirely. I don’t want to rehash it all, but I did a post a while back on doing heroic modes as a casual raider. Awesome job on progressive nerds and accessibility, not so much on compelling encounter design.

  4. Excellent write-up. A bit of randomness is fun, especially when it is in a fixed element that changes week-to-week. Too much randomness just pisses people off, and there’s nothing fun about that. Back in the Vanilla days, Gurgthock once said that “there is no such thing as bad luck”, referring to the fact that raids who complained of continued wipes simply weren’t planning to the degree that they needed to, in order to make up for random events that could take players out. Back then, it made more sense, and with heightened discipline, raids could overcome randomness and win, because design in those days never took it to the level it does now.

    Now…it just seems like a cop-out as they run out of ideas.

    1. Yeah. The room for error is rather thin with restricted battle rez and such (at both 10 and 25 man). Its more important that people fail from execution than luck, otherwise the motivation for improvement vanishes.

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