Sunday, November 2, 2014

Post-Mortem 8: Netherspite

I've had more people ask me to do this post-mortem than any other in the history of every project I worked on at Blizzard.  What is it about this encounter that struck people so poignantly that 7 years later, I still hear about it?

Well, it all started with a drawing.

Nether Dragons

Scott: Good morning gentlemen.
Joe/Me: *mumbles/grunts*
Scott: Chipper, today.
Me: *sleepy 9 am glare*

Scott: I have just the thing to wake you up. TADA

Scott showed us a drawing of a very badass serpentine creature with energy flowing out in every direction.

Me: Oooh, cool!
Scott: Yessss.  And this is the creature Metzen and I think we should use in Medivh's Observatory.

We had left the room empty for a little while now, as one of the optional encounters, it was less important to be filled out early on in production. 

Joe: What do you want it do to?
Scott: I'm not sure yet. Let's discuss at the next meeting.

At the meeting the next day...

Geoff: Nether dragons look pretty cool. If the story goes that they existed in Outland though, how on earth did they get here.

Scott: Well, the current story is that the empty space outside of Karazhan is open to the Twisting Nether - which means these creatures just wander the empty space and fly in there.

Geoff: That's still a little weird. What if it could open portals and it came in through one of those tears instead.
Me: Oh that's interesting, maybe we could use it in the actual fight abilities.

Geoff: Ooh,  yeah, like portal open up and blast him with energy. Then spin around the room.
Me: Uh sure.... who's working on this one again?

Scott: Hmmm... Geoff, you seem pretty excited. Do you want to take it on?
Geoff: Sure, but that would mean giving up the demon prince at the end.

Scott: Erm, no, nevermind then. I really want you to finish that one first. Joe?
Joe: I'm still working on the sacrifice mechanic for the Satyr.

Scott: Well, Alex, how's Shade?
Me: Done.

Scott: *skeptical* Done?
Me: Well... I have to have more QA playtests... but I mean yeah, he works.

Scott: Alright, I guess the design for that fight was pretty tight. Go ahead and work with Geoff to come up with the kit for this one.
Me: Okay!

Nether Planning

Art by the talented John Polidora
Geoff: Yeah, so I am pretty busy. What do you think about those portals? 
Me:  It's a cool idea. Maybe the beams could come out and infuse you with power. 

Geoff: Oh yeah! What if when the beams hit him he powers up and you step into the beams you steal the power for yourself. 
Me: That sound awesome!

Geoff: Go ahead and be crazy with this one. Make the players like veritable gods when they have the beam on, hahaha.
Me: Alright!!

I hurriedly rushed off to create the kit. 

Netherspite Version 1:

I spent the majority of the next week crafting the scripts that made the portals "work".  At this point in WoW's development, the one gameplay programmer, Sam Lantinga, was in high demand... and it was nearly impossible to get new game features.  

Thus all of the new features were generally forcibly scripted into the game with gratuitous amounts of Lua.  This one was no exception. After a week:

Creature Model
  • Melee - 50% harder than anything else in the game
  • Shadow Damage - unavoidable shadow damage to everyone in the room.

Blue Beam - Target deals 100% more damage.
Red Beam - Target takes 50% damage.
Green Beam - Target gains 50% healing and
 restores 10% of max hp. 

This boss was surely intense! Just look at those numbers! Such power, so amaze!

First testing attempt:

Jeff Kaplan: Okay! here I go!
*dies instantly*

Jeff: Ha! Okay, I just need to shield wall on the pull. Revive, I got this.
*dies 10 seconds later* 

Jeff: Uhm, okay. Maybe this is overtuned. I'm going to double my health.
*30 seconds into the fight, someone misses the green beam and netherspite instantly reheals* 

Jeff: Uh... that sucks.
*1 min into the fight, someone with the blue beam pulls aggro and instantly dies* 

Jeff: Hahah, Joe! Learn to hit evade.
*2 min into the fight, someone misses the red beam and Netherspite instantly one shots him* 

Scott: I thought I was standing in the beam.

Joe: I thought the same thing too... but I couldn't be sure, the dragon was right in my face.
Alex: It was really hard to tell.... because it shot over your head.

Scott: Why does it do that?
Alex: Well, what are my other options? The bloody wyrms are floating 10 feet above you at that scale.

Scott: Ugh. I'll go talk to the animators. 

An hour later... 

Scott: Uh, guys.  I have some bad news....
Alex:  They couldn't fix the animation?

Scott: Uh... worse. All of our animators quit...
Joe: ...

Alex:  So ...
Scott: Just make the beams snap to the ground and replace the model with that transparent green dragon model Roman Kenney made for now. We'll replace it with something better before ship.

Alex:  Got it.

Life Lesson:
Unpredictable shit happens. When it does, you need to make the best of it. 
Joe: Oh yeah, and Alex, these beams should be fun for the people who use them. Can you do something to make them a little bit more
Jeff: Also... if I'm in this beam, I want to be like the god of tanks.
Alex: Okay...
Joe: But Jeff, if you're the god of tanks... why would anyone else ever want to use it?

Geoff: Oh yeah... that's a good point. It really seems like you should want to switch around who is using each beam.
Alex: How would I go about doing that?

Geoff: I don't know... force them to switch who is on the beam... just kill them or something.
Alex: Alright....

Netherspite Version 2: 

"Temp" Dragon Model

  • Empowerment - Gains 100% additional damage 15 seconds after being aggroed.
  • Shadow Damage - unavoidable shadow damage to everyone in the room.

Blue Beam - Target deals 100% more damage.
Dies if in the beam for 20 seconds.
Red Beam - Target takes 50%
damage gains bonus health.
Dies if in the beam for 20 seconds.
Green Beam - Target gains 50% healing
 and restores 10% of max hp.
Dies if in the beam for 20 seconds.

Mindset:  I'll do exactly what I'm told. That's totally going to work, right?

Life Lesson:
Listening is good. Blindly obeying is bad. 
2nd Playtest:

Jeff: Okay! here I go!

*10 seconds later*

Jeff: Sweet! I'm alive.

*15 seconds*

Me: Jeff. Give someone else the beam.
Jeff: What? No way, this is awesome. 

*20 seconds*

Jeff: Shit! What killed me? Did I get crit?
Me: You didn't give anyone the beam...
Jeff: Why would that kill me?
Me: Because if you keep it for 20 seconds... you die. 

Jeff: *facepalms then starts laughing* Oh god. 

Next attempt:

Everything goes smoothly. Joe and Jeff swap the beams.  Repeat for 5 minutes.

Joe:  Hm...
Geoff: Yeah...
Jeff: Well, it worked...
Me: Great!

Geoff: Not exactly... well... its kinda...
Joe: Boring. It's boring. 
Me: But I worked so hard to get those beams working. 
Geoff: Yeah... that impresses us... but the players don't really care. Ya know?

Life Lesson:
It doesn't matter how hard you worked on something if the end experience isn't great. 
Joe: There's a couple things here... one... there needs to be more going on. More tension... and well... anything else to break up the fight.
Jeff: Go ask some other designers for their thoughts.

Life Lesson:
Farming other people for opinions is a great way to get new, raw ideas. 

Wyatt: Movement? You know, I got a lot of movement by using those void zones in Naxxramas.
Kevin: Huh... I noticed everything is percent max health, damage, whatever... wouldn't it be better if some of this stuff scaled with gear?
Stephen: Its really hard to SEE changes like percent reduction... like buff the crap out of them in a way they can notice.
Eric: Instantly dying is bullshit. You need to give them some sort of warning. UI can communicate this perhaps if you do it right.
Jeff: Tedious fights that do the same thing over and over again get boring. Please mix it up somehow.
Scott: Keep in mind there might not be two tanks in this group. Make this fight work with like one tank and a melee shaman or rogue please.
Joe:  I keep running out of energy on my rogue. This means I'm way worse in this fight than everyone else. That's not cool.
Alex A: These names are really placeholder. Can you spice them up a bit?

Life Lesson:
Raw ideas are great. However, getting overwhelmed by all of those ideas... not so great.

Me: Augh! This is way too much. Fuck it. I'll just do all of this stuff at once. Also, I'm going to make it way easier to tank this.
Me: In fact, why should I even make the tank worry about aggro? I'll just give it to him. What makes tanking work? Defense? Fine. MORE DEFENSE FOR ALL.
Me: I also don't think its cool that the healers get to have all of the fun. Know what? No energy costs in the green beam.
Me: Hell, fuck those DPS guys who just stand in the blue beam. They should want to get out of that beam.
Me: Names? I can DO names.... oh yeah! Get Thesaurus'd, baby!
Me: Crazy? A break? Fine. Uhm... crap... all of that work just took a very long time. I have less than a week to finish this instance up. Ugh, I'll slap on a mode where he does knockback on random people for a while.
Me: Shit. This is really hard to tune. I'm going to make separate versions of the beam effects for Netherspite and players.
Me: Predictable? PAH. I'll show them unpredictable. What if you can't predict where the portals will be. SITUATIONAL AWARENESS. Oh yeahhhh!
Life Lesson:
You really, really need to stop when you get on a roll.

Netherspite Version 3: 

"Temp" Dragon Model

  • Empowerment - Gains 100% additional damage 15 seconds after being aggroed.
  • Void Zones - Opens a massive void portal that lasts 25 seconds. 
  • Shadow Damage - unavoidable shadow damage to everyone in the room.
  • Every 90 sec, Netherspite banishes the portals and randomly cast Netherbreath on all targets.
  • Netherbreath: Knocks back an enemy, dealing damage. 
  • Portal Resummoning: Portals randomize their positions after each Netherbreath cycle.

Dominance - Gain 1 stack per second.
Netherspite: +1% magic damage per stack.
Player: +5% damage dealt per stack.
Player: -1% healing received per stack.
Player: damage taken by spells increased by 8% per stack.
Perseverence - Gain 1 stack per second.
Netherspite: -1% damage taken per stack.
Player: Netherspite will attack you.
Player: -1% damage taken per stack.
Player: +5 defense per stack.
Player: +32,000 health.
Player: -1,000 health per stack.

Serenity - Gain 1 stack per second.
Netherspite: +4000 health per second per stack.
Player: Healing done increased by 5% per stack.
Player: Spell and ability cost reduced by 1% per stack.
Player: Maximum mana reduced by 200 per stack.

Me: Huff... huff... WHEW. Good deal. I got all of that shit in.  Boom! Play this game my way. Bwahaahaha.
Scott: What the hell... Brazie, those tooltips are a paragraph long each.
Me: So...?
Joe: Uh... does this even work?
Me: Well... QA managed to beat it... Once.
Geoff: ...
Joe: ...
Scott: ...

Ship it. 

At a certain point, you run out of time.  When we playtested Netherspite, he worked and with some iteration, we found he was consistently beatable, took a unique strategy to beat and was highly memorable. 

Players adapted. They shared their strategies, in the form of webpages, wiki entries and images. 

The encounter seemed fine to many... but I could never shake the feeling that something was wrong.  

Even minor errors were punished. Few situations were recoverable. As Steve Burke would later say: "It was a dance. You had to take exactly the proper steps or you failed."

Looking back many years later, with more design experience under my belt, I understood. It was such a highly "plotted" experience... you were completely forced to play it exactly the way I built it. 

That was what was wrong. It wasn't really a game. It was a physical execution and coordination check. There were few windows for unique success, personal glory or even sacrifice for the team. You just did your job, collected your loot and wandered on.

It showed in the long-term play results. Players skipped Netherspite, regularly heading to the Chess event. Later, when better geared, some groups would beat it for their resto shaman. But few felt the effort was worth the price. 


Looking back, I see a million places to simplify and improve this encounter.  Telegraph abilities that require moments of protection from the beams.  Simplify the beam mechanics. Simplify the spell layering.  

But most of all... create situations that allow the players to use their own tools, not just yours.

What did you think of Netherspite? Share in the comments! I'll post the best ones here.

Brett Hundley - Machinama: "looking forward to some good stories in the comments, whatever guild I was with in BC was certainly not attempting him and his scary magic, haha"

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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Guest Post: Letting the players (w)in, or how encounter design is like operating a roller coaster.

Today's article is by Joe Shely. Joe and I worked together  at Blizzard Entertainment for many years, developing raid bosses in Kharazhan, Mount Hyjal and far, far beyond.

Letting the players (w)in

How encounter design is like operating a roller coaster

“You must prove yourself to me by completing these sixteen devilish challenges,” Impossibos bellows, generating a tiny line of text in the chat log and charging headfirst toward the group of players waiting to fight him.

Only it isn't Impossibos shouting that, not really. It's the eight-year-old kid turned junior designer who finally has an audience for his Hero Quest campaign. The fifteen intervening years have given him plenty of time to come up with the most complicated, overwrought challenge ever. He knows it's perfect because it's passed the point where even he can beat it.

Our designer loves video games, loves to play, loves to create. This is his dream. He's an expert player, probably ranked 4th on some low-population shooter or arcade title, and he's finally made the most challenging boss fight of all time. Unconsciously, he believes earlier designers haven't made a boss this tough because they don't know how. They probably weren't as skilled as he is.

Hopefully the players about to be mauled by our designer's boss are testers, people paid to play unpolished and untuned encounters to look for bugs and provide feedback. If we're lucky, someone stepped in before Impossibos went live and the people about to be crushed beneath his titanium spiked boots aren't logging on after a long day to check out the new content patch with their friends.

It's easy to blame our junior designer. After all, he has no idea what he's doing. He hasn't yet learned one of the core tenets of game design: the point of a boss is to be defeated. The players are the heroes of the story, and they get to win in the end. Yes, there can be heroic sacrifices. Yes, there can be struggle and challenge. But a theme park where you're not tall enough to go on any of the rides is no fun at all.

Players do want to earn their victories, but each player has their own definition of what 'earn' means, and it varies from “three tries while watching TV” to “months beating heads against brick walls.”

And it isn't enough for the encounter to be technically possible; the best encounters are the ones where every player believes they can win. This turns out to be quite a challenge, because every single player in the game has a different skill level and learns at a different rate. And most games have only three difficulties.


Maybe some players can contribute in different ways, or opt into specific roles that they enjoy. Maybe it's okay if not every player is challenged equally. Maybe the sign that reads “you must be this tall to enter” doesn't have to be the same height for everyone. But how could a single encounter work on so many levels? It can't be too complex for the player watching TV, but it needs enough depth to appeal to the brick wall crowd.

Sounds like a perfect challenge for our junior designer.

My advice?

Tell him the boss can only have two abilities.

Oh, and don't be too hard on him when one of the abilities has sixteen parts. He's going to need some help with that one.

You can see more of Joe's work over here (

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Postmortem 7: The Big, Bad, Wolf

Alternate Title: How I learned that making manly men scream like little girls is fun for everyone.

Scott: I am SO VERY EXCITED about what we're going to work on today. 

Imagine Scott raising his hands in the air like the popular "It's happening!!!" GIF. 

Scott: We are *finally* getting to the Opera House. 

Me: The what?  

Scott: The oper... *looks at me to see if I'm serious* oh, hush, you.  

Scott had been excited about this encounter for weeks. The core concept of the Opera House was that we were going to have a cycling encounter which changed from week to week. 

Scott: So, here's the three encounter concepts that got approved between Metzen and Legal: 
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Romero and Julianne
  • The Big Bad Wolf
Joe: Sweet. Are you sure that's enough though? Maybe we can rip off more of Brazie's childhood heroes in the future. 

Me: Har, har. How are we breaking this up?

Scott: I'm going to focus on working on the cross-week scripting and setting up the voice overs. Joe, you or Geoff take Romulo and Julianne. I'll start working on the Wizard of Oz and Brazie.... uh, figure out something for the Big, Bad Wolf. 

Me: Oooooh. What kind of fight should it be?

When dividing up fights in the same area, you want to make sure the pacing between the different fights is dramatically different, such that they feel more distinctive than other fights. If every fight  in a dungeon in an AoE swarm add-in-monsters fight, then AoE classes will dominate that raid tier. 

Scott: Well, Romulo and Julianne should be a controlled timing/ability usage fight.  The Wizard of Oz will be about proper crowd control spell usage and tanking.  So, it makes sense if it's a single-target tank & spank with a cool gimmick. 

Me: Hmm.... We should definitely do something involving little red. 

Scott: Yeah, but I'd rather avoid having you deal with a friendly NPC in the fight. Those kinds of encounters are really difficult to setup and this is only your second raid boss. 

Joe: Maybe we could dress Alex up as little red riding hood and include a copy of him in every box. 

Me: pfft. (I wasn't very good at snappy comebacks in those days.)   

Me: Maybe he could just scare you the way that Onyxia scared Joe's Shaman into the lava on our raid last week. 

Joe: At least I wasn't tanking half the time on my Warlock screaming "Heal the Voidwalker" over Ventrilo. 

Joe and I were co-leading a molten core/onyxia raid group in the evenings. I often pulled aggro on Onyxia by dropping tons of DoT spells on her.  Joe regularly complained about how inconsistent grounding totem's fear removal effect was.

Scott: *AHEM* Alright kids, that's enough.  Those aren't terribly bad ideas though. They certainly sound wolfy. Tank and spanks get boring after a while, what can we do to break them up?

Me: If one of the players turned into Little Red once in a while, then the boss chased her, that would be pretty sweet.  It's actually really thrilling when you pull aggro on the boss and the whole team needs you to react quickly to survive. 

Joe:  Yeah, but most casters don't have the tools to survive if they get hit. 

Scott: Hmmm... it would also really suck if you were a rogue and got insta gibbed because he turned to fight you. 

Me: What if we tuned the boss such that a caster wouldn't just blow up. 

Joe: Tanks would just sit there and tank the whole time and just ignore the mechanic entirely. That would be pointless.

Brainstorming is a tough thing to do. You need to make it safe for everyone to contribute and you also want to eventually throw out bad ideas.  In my experience, its best if everyone just shares their ideas without shooting holes in them. The exception to that rule is that this type of critical analysis is best done when you have ideas that resonate strongly with people and you need to double-check before moving forward. 

Scott: What if you simply had *no* armor when you turn into Little Red?

Joe: And we could make you run faster. But you'd still just sit there and use shield wall.

Me: Fine, we'll just disable all of your abilities and make it really clear that running away is the right thing to do. 

Joe: Yeah, and he can fear everyone once in a while to reset threat on the fight. 

Scott: I'll even get some VO where the wolf scares you off and tells you to run away. 

Me: I'll go get it done.  Uh, is there anything else to discuss?

Scott: No... I actually think we've got it. Be sure to stick something else on the fight that shows off the cool "swipe" animation those wolves have though.  You can just copy a spell from the outdoor zone. 

Joe: I'm just glad we finally have a fight that will make Bjorn (our main tank) run around like a little girl. 

I nodded in agreement. Nobody liked Bjorn*

Scott: I think I know what that voice-over line is going to be...

*This is a lie, everyone loved Bjorn. We equally loved making fun of his obsession with getting the best gear first.


So what's the important story here?

Well, the first point is that your team is your first source of inspiration. You'll often get great ideas from a little bit of discussion and an open environment that encourages strong growth. Once you hit upon a theme that resonates with all of you strongly (In this case, running away) it becomes safe to break the creative build-up to critique the idea a bit.  

You can see here how we each inspired an idea from the other - Scott recognized the opportunity of accusing players of running like a little girl. Joe recognized the need to fear people to keep them spread out before transforming someone into the little girl.  ... and so on. 

However, there was an element we didn't discuss that we really should have:

  • How could players who were NOT little red help her survive?
As it turned out, the players figured this out on their own. This was a huge opportunity to make players feel better about each other as a team by helping keep Little Red alive. We actually stumbled into it by the sheer virtues of our class design:
  • Paladins – Blessing of Protection cast on Little Red Riding Hood will prevent the target from receiving any damage from the Wolf. Make sure to not use this buff too early to get the maximum benefit of this spell.
  • Mages – If you happen to have an arcane mage, Slow (Mage spell) is effective against the Big Bad Wolf (Confirmed 09/09/2008). Amplify Magic helps with healing as there is no magic damage during the fight.
  • Warriors – Thunderclap slows his damage output when chasing. You can Intervene to whomever receives the Riding Hood debuff to provide a bit of extra protection. Demoralizing Shout can also reduce the damage.
However, this might have been possible to engineer into the encounter more ways for classes to help. Maybe they could trip the Big Bad, or perhaps debuff him in ways that bought you more time to kite. There could have been traps around the room that allies could setup while fighting.

But, hey, you don't see every opportunity. 

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Postmortem 6: The Black Stalker

The Black Stalker

Alternate title: How I learned that fun for designers doesn't guarantee fun for players.

Me: The Black Stalker is ... what?

Metzen: She's the mother. The mother of all spore walkers in Zangarmarsh. Think psychic power meets fungus meets those tripods from War of the Worlds. 

Me: So what kind of things should she do?

Metzen: Shit. I have no idea, that's what you're here to do right. Maybe she could grab people, shoot lasers out of her eyes, sporify people. 

Chris then walked away. 

Me: Hmmm... okay, well that sounds kind of cool. She has lots of arms. Let me ask Geoff for some ideas too. 

Geoff: sup?

Me: I'm trying to come up with ideas for the Black Stalker. Chris said she should be psychic... but this isn't exactly pokemon, we don't really have a psychic kit.  

Sidebar: A "kit" is a standard ability package, often used to capture either a gameplay pattern or theme and develop a standard response to a creature type. 

Geoff: Damn... did he like want you to have a brain battle with her or something? 

Me: Hahah, perhaps one of those Dragonball sequences where the two beams of power go surging back and forth?

Banter, jokes and terrible ideas are all a standard part of the creative process. In fact, bad ideas often hold the seeds of good ideas, so long as you're willing to use them as a stepping stone. The worst thing you can do for creativity is to focus on rejecting bad ideas while brain storming instead of letting them lead to stronger ones. 

Geoff: Well, I'm not sure exactly what you should do, but the Spore Walkers I'm using in the Lady Vash'j fight cast Chain Lightning. It would be cool if we pre-taught that idea somewhere else. Maybe we do lightning instead of psychic kit. 

Me: Sure, that's no problem. 

Geoff: It would be really cool if we had grapple tech too - imagine if she could juggle the players in her hands then toss them somewhere. 

Me: Oooooooh.  Lets just do that. 

Geoff: Wait, what? 

Me: Yeah! I'll just juggle them. This sounds like a great idea, Geoff!

*runs off*

Geoff: Wait... what? I didn't... mean...  well, okay, I guess. I hope I didn't just create a monster. 


I went back to my lair, a small closet-sized office that I shared with Stuart Massie, a QA Liason and began working.  I slapped some chain lightning on the Black Stalker, along with a channeled beam which nuked the target with even more electricity. 

Then I had the Black Stalker electrify all of the players, making them deal damage to each other if they stood too close. More electricity! More power! Ruh ruh ruh ruh ruh!

Then I added an ability that pulled players up into the air, bouncing them up and down, flipping and bouncing around erratically! This seemed like a great idea to me! How realistic!  

(Cuz what's more realistic than a Psychic Mushroom Tripod with Lightning powers, amrite??)

So I proudly slapped the Black Stalker into the dungeon and we did a designer-only playtest. The first few bosses went pretty well, some comments about needing better debuff icons, so-on.  Then we got to the Black Stalker.  I was super proud when I watched the Black Stalker fling Jeff Kaplan into the air, merrily bouncing around my screen in the air, well out of sight of anyone else on the team. 

It was about 10 seconds before I heard a girlish scream, "AAAAAUUUGGGGH!!!!"  And Jeff tumbled out of his office into the hallway, rubbing his eyes in agony. 

"Oh god! What happened?! Oh god," as he stumbled into my office. 

Me: "You okay??"

Jeff: "You will NEVER believe the bug that just happened. I suddenly went flying, my camera went spinning and I couldn't do ANYTHING."

Me: "Oh. Yeah. That's intentional. Pretty cool, right??"

Jeff: "WHAT?!! Dude, you just made me motion sick! Holy shit! You can't just DO that."

Me: "... wha?"

Once he realized I was totally clueless, he sat down. 

Me: "I'm sorry, I really didn't mean to make you sick."

Jeff: "It's okay. But let's talk about this. What were your goals?"

Me: "Well, I wanted to sell a psychic squish shrimp mushroom thing and create an experience no player has seen before."

Jeff: "Okay, so that's good, but can we do that without making them fly all over the place?"

Me: "Probably... but why not."

Jeff: "Well, let's look again at what's going on here as a player experience instead of a designer experience. Instead of focusing on what's cool for you, what's cool to THEM?"

Me: "Well... uhm, flying through the air is cool."

Jeff: "The first time, yes. Doesn't it get pretty repetitive though?"

Me: "That's true. Maybe it could be toned down a bit..."

Jeff: "What happens if the healer or tank gets lifted into the air...?"

Me: "Er... well... I guess the party has a rough time... probably dies."

Jeff: "So, lets fix it."

A New Focus

So with a new mindset, I went in an made a few small tweaks:

  • The Black Stalker only lifted one person into the air
    • Someone who wasn't the tank
  • The person lifted could cast spells 
    • This let the healer keep doing their job
    • This let the party move closer to the healer if grabbed
  • The person lifted would stop after being yanked up
  • The Static Charge could be dispelled
    • This gave the players an additional form of agency over the situation
  • Only one person could be the "Static Charged" target
    • This made it better for melee characters too

The result was an encounter much more playable, still a bit annoying, but gave players the ability to use tools to improve their situation. 

The important part though was the change in focus - an encounter is meant for the players, not the designer.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Touch of Values

I've recently been inspired by the words of a highly observant man to reflect upon myself and what I do what I do.  His name is Simon Sinek and if you haven't seen his TED talk, if you are person who believes in deeply understanding what connects you to your players, it will be worth the 10 minutes of your time to see his free talk at the end of this post.

My Values


I believe that life experiences are meant to be shared, if humanity is to grow. 
I believe that the best games to be created have yet to be crafted. 
I believe that to have a future rich in experiences I can enjoy, I need to share the lessons that have gotten me this far. 
I believe that you are a person of patience, insight and reflection who can grow faster if you reflect on my mistakes. 


By openly accepting my mistakes and by expressing my feelings - be them proud, humble or erratic, I will become better at sharing who I am with the many people who've intersected with my life. 

By breaking down and reflecting upon past lessons, I will more thoroughly understand what I've actually done. 

By praising the others who've taught me lessons, I will remember how vital the little guiding nudges of a good working environment can transform a life. 

By discussing the stories that helped me become who I am, I will help shatter the myth that good game design is a product of magic, not hard work and forgiven mistakes.


I happen to be writing blog posts and making video games. Care to check them out?

Simon Sinek

What are your own values?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Postmortem 5: Gha'zan and Swamplord Musel'ik

Have you ever heard of the Blizzard secret sauce?  Well here it is:

Metzen uses apostrophes when naming everything.

Now with that out of the way, let's break down a couple sub-bosses.


Daelo: You did what?

Me: I stuck a hydra in the water tank. You know... it's like swimming down there. 

Daelo: No, no, not that part. The next part. 

Me: Oh, I made entire thing a timed event. If you make it to the end before the Hydra. 

Daelo: And how are players going to figure this out? 

Me: Well... it runs up the pipe and kills the NPC. That won't happen if you're faster. 

Daelo: *facepalm*   

Me: What?

Qualities of a Good Event

Rob Pardo used to say:  "Events are hard. But few people realize what the hardest thing about an event is. "

What is that, Rob? What's the hardest thing about an event. Is it the itemization? Periodic reward structures? Resources? 

"No. No and sort-of.  Actually, the hardest thing about an event is getting people to recognize that they are there."

When you stop and think about it - it seems obvious. If nobody notices an event is going on... there was no point in creating it in the first place. So when you are going to put the time and effort into creating a scripted experience - you want people to notice it. 

In fact, this art of the "sell" is where most of the time and resources go when you're setting up an event. It's easy - no, trivial, to spend a day setting up a comedian who tells in-jokes and silly references in Shattrath.  It's a whole other matter to teach players that he's only there from 8-9 pm on Tuesdays.  

Take a look at Wildstar and some of the more recent MMOs in the past five years. These games are saturated with creative spawning and unique events. They also go out of their way to ensure you see all of the major events - there's even a little introduction to each zone when you first arrive. (In my personal opinion, the timing of this zone-intro is poor, literally the same time as a million other UI elemnents, but the idea is great!) Check it out:

Furthermore, you can see how much effort is put into drawing player attention to the important areas of the game. While overwhelming, the initial starter events in many WoW zones draw your eye and use quests to pull you to the most dramatic and well-constructed areas. 

Important events sometimes even use UI, like this challenge event I'm about to fail because I'm too busy writing this post to pick up fat bird eggs. 

The importance of selling an event cannot be understated. The more important the event, the more time spend developing it, the more important it is that players notice. This doesn't mean you can't do subtle hits or little touches that add life and flavor - it just means that you should be judicious about making smart choices in general about what you invest a lot of energy into. 

Back to the Overgrown Snake Fish

So what was the issue with Ghaz'an? 
  1. The event wasn't sold
  2. Player fixation on what's ahead of them meant no-one noticed the fight going on in the background
  3. Addition of VO would have required recruiting another voice actor (pricey back in those days...)
  4. Addition of the event would drive rewards, doubling up the work for the item dude
I could go into mechanics, but this was the real lesson of Ghaz'an - there's no point in crafting a timed event for its own sake. I kept the mechanic around, but basically all you got out of it was a sense of pride and the ability for your healer to have  an even smaller mana pool. 

Swamplord Musel'ek

You know, sometimes you just have to own up to what you've done. In this case, I totally phoned this guy in. He's a hunter with deterrence, enrage pet and an aimed shot. 

Now, he's not *completely* devoid of gameplay. You can swap targets when he's got deterrence up... but yeah, not really. If I were do to him again, I'd made his aimed shot deal super high damage, but someone else can jump in the way to split the damage in half with you.  

However, this guy existed for a reason.... what was that reason, you might ask?

Well, a quest designer wanted to stick a quest NPC in here to be rescued. So I slapped in an above-average toughness NPC to guard the Druid in bear form... who forgot he was a bear. (They're druids, they've been sleeping forever, sometimes you have to overlook these things.)  

Anyways, when Travis ran through the dungeon, he just assumed it was a boss by the name and slapped boss loot on him. So I cranked up his stats a tad bit and Musel'ek the Swamplord came to be.  I'm not sure what he was lording over exactly... but he's not exactly dressed to be a king. 

Sometimes in development it's best to roll with the punches. An unexpected thing happen? Don't sweat it. Maybe its OK to have an extra boss in this one.  As it turns out, the Underbog was extremely long and the extra loot didn't hurt. 


Do you guys have any questions? I'm mixing up the formula a bit here with this one. What kind of posts would you like to see more of? 


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Postmortem 4: Hungarfen the Mushroom Dancer

There are times when you mess things up in a huge way, everyone knows and you can talk about it. Then there are times where you do something well, but messed it up in a subtle way that no one ever recognized.

Today, I want to talk about Hungarfen.

Qualities of a Good Dungeon Boss

There are certain principles which should be present in a good dungeon boss. It shouldn't take too long to fight, its abilities should be recognizable, explaining to your party what to do should be brief and the mechanics should be reasonably forgiving but not allow you to simply ignore them. 

Hungarfen hit all of these criteria.  The best part? Hungarfen hit all of these criteria with 3 abilities. 

Courtesy of WoWPedia:
    • Underbog Mushroom — Hungarfen summons Underbog Mushrooms at a random location that explode in a cloud of spores after 20 seconds.
      • Spell nature dryaddispelmagic.png  Spore Cloud — Spore Clouds blanket an area, inflicting 1080 to 1320 Nature damage and an additional 360 to 540 Nature damage every 2 sec. for 20 sec.
    • Spell nature stranglevines.png  Foul Spores — When Hungarfen reaches 20% health remaining he releases foul spores, leeching 400 to 600 health from all players within 20 yards every second for 11 sec.

You might look at this list and say, "What a simple boss - he must be boring."   However, most who have done Hungarfen at an appropriate difficulty level can tell you the fight is surprisingly engaging.  Why?

The Principle of Player Focus

When I started working on Hungarfen I expected him to be a throwaway piece of work, a simple meat-sack to pace-out the length of the Underbog.  Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about game design. 

Geoff Goodman and I were talking about cool ideas for mushroom monster boss and the idea came up of creating Mushroom land mines that you dodged.  However, we found that they resulted in a very binary feel - either you stepped on a mine or you didn't - meaning the fight was incredibly swingy. 

So I set about to fix that.  In order to increase the clarity of the fight, I decided the mushrooms should spawn in small and slowly grow over time to give a warning that the mushrooms are about to burst. Secondly, once they did burst, they dealt damage as a unique DoT which became increasingly punishing the more mushroom explosions you missed. 

Then we tested the fight as a pair - I faux tanked while Geoff ran around healing. We very quickly discovered the fight became trivial, as we could just stand directly on top of the boss and kite it around the room in a circle. 

So I set about fixing that. My first thought was to add some gravity pull effects the boss. But instead, these became very frustrating to deal with - you had no agency over the situation and it would punish pre-emptive dodging behaviour.  

Next I tried a stacking AoE that burned people who stood next to each other. This worked great... unless you were melee. Then you all just burned to death unless someone else sat to the side crying, wishing they could DPS.  (I noted that this "personal sacrifice" mechanic was a worthy one, much like being the bomb on Baron Geddon, but felt inappropriate for a dungeon fight.)

Finally, after some experimentation, I came upon the following goals:
  1. Discourage swarm stacking. 
    • Why? I wanted people to think independantly
  2. Encourage coordination. 
    • Why? Team work is important.
  3. Have non-binary results.
    • Why? Someone who acts faster should be rewarded appropriate. 
The resulting tweaks were:

  • The Underbog mushrooms prefer locations in front of your camera
    • Players have a better chance of seeing mushrooms as they grow.
  • The Underbog mushrooms dealt extra damage up front
    • Stacked players will be severely punished if they are clumped up. 
  • The Underbog mushrooms leave an AoE cloud that reduces usable space over time
    • Players who generally move as a group have more time to defeat the boss
  • The Underbog mushrooms apply a stacking DoT
    • Chain failures are punished more than sporadic ones
  • Hungarfen does a short-range AoE lifesteal on everyone at low HP
    • The entire party standing on top of the tank will extend the fight a lot. 
    • The tank and a single dps getting caught in the drain will be mild

The result was a fast-paced fight that was simple to understand, can be learned and improved on-the-fly and finally makes players who dodge all of the mushrooms feel like a badass and teams who coordinate have more time to defeat the boss. 

Wow, and all of that one with just three abilities. This was when I learned a pivotal lesson:

The most important part about a boss fight is quite simple: How do the players relate to it?

More abilities is NOT better.

Wait, so what was the big mistake?

This mistake was quite subtle - and also the unfortunate side-effect of the production plan to have each designer working on a dungeon in parallel.  Hungarfen was the first boss, instead of the last. 

Why? Well, Paul C. had already planned to do another Fungal Giant at the end of Slave Pens. Secondarily, I didn't recognize until the end of development that Hungarfen was a higher quality boss experience than The Black Stalker.  We didn't want to have two dungeons end with the same creature type... and we had already decorated the Black Stalker's area to match his art kit. 

We'll go into more of this in two blog posts, when I discuss The Black Stalker - or How I Learned Motion Sickness Sucks.