Monday, January 20, 2014

Autopsy & Analysis: All My Post-Mortems


This is an index of all of my potential post-mortem talks and is basically an index of all of the major visible work I did back on World of Warcraft.

The List

  1. Attumen the Huntsman - Karazhan
  2. The Orc and His Dragon - Hellfire Ramparts
  3. Underbog
    1. Let's do the Mushroom Dance - Hungarfen
    2. Swamplord Musel'ik 
    3. The Black Stalker
  4. Run Away! The Big Bad Wolf - Karazhan
  5. Stone Cold Steve Dragon, Nightbane - Karazhan
  6. I'm No Simple Jester! Shade of Aran - Karazhan
  7. Dance, dance, portal solution. Netherspite - Karazhan
  8. Wolf to Bishop, The Chess Event - Karazhan
  9. Spawning the Outlands
  10. The Ring of Blood
  11. The Druid Questline & Anzu
  12. Helping Out - High Astromancer Solarian
  13. The Illidari Council
  14. Death Knights, Talents and Timing
  15. Northrend - World Events
  16. Wintergrasp - Aka, Where Not to Stick It
  17. The Amphitheatre of Anguish
  18. Northrend Battleground - What was it called again?
  19. Vehicle Technology - Unifying Fractured Ideas
  20. Flame Leviathan & The Gauntlet
  21. XT-002 Deconstructor
  22. Lord Marrowgar
  23. Trick, Traps and Tape - Spawning Icecrown
  24. The Crucible of Carnage
  25. Murozond - End Time
  26. Mage Legendary Quest - Return to the Nexus
  27. Lord Rhyolith
  28. Morchok
  29. Hagara the Stormbinder
  30. Mists of Pandaria
  31. Overhauling Warlocks 
  32. Priming Pet Battles

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Requested Topics?


  1. Interested to hear your thoughts on differences between enemy(boss) design and player design(Warlock/LoL champs)
  2. I'd personally really enjoy hearing about the transition from boss designer to whatever it is exactly you do at Riot (as far as Game Systems Designer goes it leaves a lot to be explained, more so when you consider that Riot has a track record that lets their employees help in other areas)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

It's been a while...

For anyone still following this Blog, I'm now employed as the Game Systems Designer for Riot Games, currently working on the Summoner's Rift updates.

This has eaten away most of my educational time. What topic would you like to hear about if I can buy the time to do it?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Post Mortem 2: The Orc and His Dragon

A few days after finishing Attumen the Huntsmen, level design wrapped up the first dungeon of the Burning Crusade. Called Hellfire Ramparts, it was our first attempt in a dungeon that was closely integrated with the shape of the dungeon outside of the raid.

Scott went ahead and spawned the dungeon, deciding on the density of the packs, the pathing speed of the patrollers and then came into my office.

Scott: Alright, Mr. Brazie (he always called me Mr. and I still have no idea why), I've got a big task for you.
Me: Oh sweet, do you need me to test pull all of the bats in Karazhan again?
Scott: Ha. No. I want you to sit with Joe Shely and design all of the abilities in Ramparts.
Me: Whoa, really?
Scott: Yeah, just work together. Then when you finish, I've got a boss for each of you.

Joe and I worked together pretty quickly to knock out the ability design for the dungeon, including my favorite part, a little wolf ambush that triggered halfway down the halls. Then we spoke with Scott the next day.

Scott: Alrighty, this next dungeon is a double-header. There's two bosses at the end and there's two of you. Joe, you've been here longer. There's a demon boss and an orc with a pet dragon. Which one would you rather do?
Joe: I'll do the demon.
Scott: Sweet. Then, Mr. Brazie, you have the orc and his dragon. Basically just make fight "Reverse Rend and Gyth" and you're good. Maybe have the boss flying around before the fight begins. Let me know when you're ready to review.

Now, I don't know what your impression of me is, readers, but I love doing the exotic and difficult to implement.

"Why do Rend and Gyth... when I can do *flying* Rend and Gyth!"

... and thus triggered the most painful boss development I had ever done. (ok, ok, it was only my second boss, take it easy on me!)

Development Dollars are Expensive

Choosing where you decide to spend your time as a developer is a very difficult skill to develop. Do you invest a lot in a risky, potentially game-changing design or do you invest in a highly polished, basic experience?  Early on, eager to prove myself, I pushed myself too frequently into the high risk category. 

Some of that's okay - you're new, nobody expects anything and readily forgives you if you fail. This is an extremely important aspect of any game design culture. If it's not safe to fail, you will never push yourself to grow.  However, I recklessly pushed forward in every aspect of my designs. 

So what was the risky, low-payoff decision I made with this fight?  

If your thought was either "oh, it's because the dragon flies" or "oh, it's because the dragon lands", you are close, but not quite. Let's review his design!

Sometimes You Do OK on the First Try

Rend Vazruden: 

Revenge - Deals cleave damage to the target and two nearby enemies when the target dodges.


When Vazruden reaches 50% health, he calls Nazan down from the sky to assist him.

Gyth Nazan:

Flies around in the air, bombarding enemies, until Nazan calls him to the ground.



Fireball - Deals Fire damage to a random enemy. Only used while flying.



Liquid Flame - Leaves a burning spot on the ground that causes damage to enemies within it for 10 sec.


Flame Breath - Deals Fire damage in a cone in front of Nazan. Only used when he lands.



Dragon Roar - Fears all enemies nearby for 3 seconds, except the tank. [Heroic Only]



Analysis: 

What's the state of this design? 

Let's consider the goals:

  • Gameplay: Pick abilities that players understand and enjoy handling.
  • Simple: There were 34 dungeon bosses in Burning Crusade. Dungeon bosses need to be simple, understandible and quick to build.
  • Nostalgia: Remind players of a familar, but underplayed encounter from classic wow.
  • Aesthetics: Make use of the open vertical space. 
  • Training: Give a new designer experience recreating a familiar experience.
Do your own analysis and reply in the comments. I will respond, then update this post afterwards... and tell you about the horrible mistake I made.


Initial Analysis:

Gameplay: 
  • Vazruden is boring. For a heroic, scary orc, he does almost nothing. Furthermore, aside from the random damage from Nazan's fireballs, nothing is really going on here.
  • Vazruden's dodge proccing revenge is not a fun mechanic. Furthermore, the cleave plus AoE fire stacking punishes melee groups heavier than ranged groups.
  • Flame Breath is fine on its own, from a pure concept. However, as mentioned by several commenters, the execution was lacking. 
    • Specifically, the fact that he didn't have a cooldown when he landed meant players randomly died. 
Simple:
  • This encounter is quite simple, right?
  • Actually, no. "Flying" creatures at this point during WoW's development had to be hand pathed. 
    • This was not only a difficult process, but also hard to modify, due to poor tooling.
  • Furthermore, the presence of two creatures, who can be killed in any order, creates a number of difficulties. For example, which one drops loot? What happens if one creature leaves combat, while another is still alive?
  • These kinds of contingencies make a simple surface encounter hard to implement.
Nostalgia:
  • Success. Subtle, but effective
Aesthetics:
  • This was a huge win... until the fight started. Seeing the dragon fly around was awesome pre-fight.
  • Within the fight, it was a huge dragon... who you never saw because he was above you all of the time.
  • Furthermore, the aesthetics of a flying dragon played against the mechanic of having an attackable add flying around in the air. 
Training:
  • This worked out. However, I ended up going further down the deep end than I expected... because of...

The Huge Mistake

So what was the huge mistake that I made...?

Well, I decided that if the master died and the dragon lived, the dragon would wake up the orc and go back to flying around. 

"What?" you may have said. 

Yes. That single decision ended up taking over a week of my time to implement, fix, refix, fix, find another bug, fix that bug. Patch over the patch. It was a ton of time wasted on a very minor polish point. 

Eventually, Scott came into my office and said, "You know, usually I just despawn and respawn everything." ... and in 20 minutes, the encounter reset and respawned just fine.  


There are times where you'll just try too hard to make something work that just doesn't add any value. 

Can we make it Better?

I think the easy answer to this is yes. So let's take the framework and think through it:

How can we:

1) Make it clearer what Vazruden and Nazan do?
2) Make players care about the mechanics in an appropriate way?
3) Create opportunities for responses that make players feel good?
4) Make the experience more satisfying?
5) Make the boss abilities and theme fit better into his role of a Herald of Illidan?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Postmortem 1: Attumen the Huntsman

It was a warm day in May when I walked in the doors of the unlabeled entrance to Blizzard HQ, hidden deep in the heart of a school campus.  After the usual couple hours of HR paperwork and contract signing, I was brought upstairs to the WoW team floor and deposited in the middle of the hallway/meeting room where the other game designers were sitting.

They were excitedly discussing the plans they had in store for the final boss of Karazhan, a 10-man raid instance - the first of its kind for the team. 

Afterwards, I was introduced to the future lead encounter designer, Scott Mercer. Scott had worked on Starcraft as a level designer and was responsible for a ton of the itemization work that had been done in classic WoW.  (See Shard of the Flame ala Ragnaros)

Recently replaced as item designer by the notoriously handsome Travis Day, Scott was now responsible for the newly formed encounter design team, which would focus on raid and dungeon bosses, as well as providing support to the quest team for outdoor spawning. 

Scott didn't expect to see me. To be honest, almost no one did - I'd been hired after a long lunch interview with the Gang of Three design leads (Pardo, Chilton and Kaplan) about a week before. 

The second day, someone in IT brought up a computer for me from the QA dept and set me up inside a small office next to one of the production QA members, a friendly guy named Stuart Massie, who was responsible for collecting testing requests and writing the patch notes. Stuart helped me setup my machine, taught me how to use the internal wiki tools and introduced me to Alex Tsang who helped me setup WoW Editor.  

Then, I was off!

... but what on earth was I supposed to do? I stumbled over this question for a bit when a voice interrupted me.  

"Well, hello Mr. Brazie. Let's get you started."


I spun around to see Scott wander in. A warm and friendly, if occasionally sardonic, guy, Scott shared my love of the Japanese language and was an expert on all things k-pop.  

"So, I'll be honest, I wasn't really expecting you already, but I'm glad to have the extra manpower. We've a got a lot ahead of us." 

Scott sketched a rough layout of Karazhan on the whiteboard behind me. It read as follows:

[Demon Island] 
 - CUT

[Tower Top]
Demon Boss - Geoff
Nether Wyrm - ??
Chess Game - Pat

[Library]
Archmage - ??
Golem - ??
Satyr Summoner - ??
Bone Dragon - ??

[Opera House]
Little Red Riding Hood - ??
Romeo and Juliet - ??
Wizard of Oz - ??

[Entry Hall]
Maiden - Joe
Butler - Joe
Horseman - Scott
Animal Bosses - ??

"We need to get all of these bosses done by the end of summer. The good news is we've got plenty of time to pull it off. Since you're new, I want you to focus on learning the tool. It's old, its weird and it takes a long time to master.  So, I'm giving you a boss I've already designed and want you to focus on implementation."

Me: "So what's his name?"

Scott: "Attumen the Huntsman"

... and so began my life as a raid boss designer. 

The Plan

I grabbed a yellow notepad and jotted down the notes Scott provided as requirements:

  • Starts out attacking the horse
  • Attumen runs in when his horse is hurt.
  • Mounts the horse when either one of them is low.
  • Horse should charge other people randomly.
  • Attumen is a ghost so he should be hard to hit sometimes. 
  • Attumen should be faced away from the group, has a shadowy cleave attack.
  • Attumen should get pissed off when you disarm him. 

Starting Out

Looking back, it's a great idea to start out by implementing someone else's idea. It lets you focus on learning the execution, rather than fretting heavily of "what" to do.  I gleefully ran around the tool, mostly confused, attempting to copy and paste various pieces of existing monsters to create Attumen.  


Version 1:

Midnight was spawned as a static spawn inside of the livery.  
Midnight had two abilities - charge and hoof


  Charge - rushes to the target
  Hoof - a short stun on the target.

Attumen has three abilities - shadow cleave, enrage and ghost form.  
  Shadow cleave - 3 target shadow damage chain attack, jumps to 2 nearby targets.
  Enrage - when disarmed, Attumen gains bonus attack speed, bonus damage and turns red!
  Ghost form - reduces Attumen's chance to be hit by 50%.

When one reaches 50%, both despawn and a new Attumen + Midnight creature spawns at 100% health.

Analysis:

So what's the state of this design? 

At first glance, this seems to satisfy the requirements of the design. However, it has a number of issues. Which ones can you spot?

Answers:

Midnight's design doesn't quite work. Charge rushes to a target, which means you want to pull Midnight off an enemy. However, the primary target stun means it is difficult for the tank to build an hold aggro on the boss.  

Attumen's design is incredibly frustrating.  The chain attack means the tank + 2 melee characters will always be hit by the Shadow cleave. This means there's nothing your melee characters can do to avoid it. When Ghost form is activated, you cannot do anything to stop it.  Furthermore, Disarm, which should help the player instead penalizes them. 

Finally, there's no reason to attack both Attumen and Midnight. When either one reaches half, a new creature spawns. This means all threat is lost and all damage done is lost. 

Iteration

Iteration is the process of improving a design to achieve a goal. In the case of games, the goal is to make the experience more satisfying.  

Version 2: 

Midnight was spawned as a static spawn inside of the livery.  
Midnight has one ability - charge and knockdown
  Charge - rushes to one of the three most distant targets and fixates on them for a couple seconds.
  Knockdown - knocks down the tank temporarily

Attumen has three abilities - shadow cleave, enrage and ghost form.  
  Shadow cleave - cone shadow damage attack
  Uppercut - when disarmed, Attumen gains begins knocking up the target.
  Intangible Presence - curses all nearby enemies, reducing their chance to hit for a few seconds.

When one reaches 50%, the highest health of the two transforms into the fused creature. Preserving damage dealt and gaining the abilities of both.

What changed?

At first glance, these abilities look identical, but each one has changed its mechanics in subtle ways that allow players to iteract with them. 

Charge - the choice of only a distant target means you can choose which 3 of your allies will be struck by the attack. 
Charge - the addition of a fixate guarantees a certain amount of damage is dealt before the horse runs back. 
Knockdown - the duration of the knockdown is much shorter than a stun, allowing for a more rapid response.

Shadow Cleave - now a cone attack, melee dps can avoid being hit by standing behind Attumen.
Uppercut - now an appropriate flavor attack, this has no actual bearing on most tanks, but retains the feeling of change when Attumen is disarmed. 
Intangible Presence - now a curse, it can be removed by Mage or Druid players. 

Merge - the fact that it preserves the damage taken from the other incarnation means multi-target DPS'ers such as Warlocks or Rogues now have their bonus damage preserved. 

Can we do better?

Yes, yes we can.  There's a lot of issues that remain with this design (which is the one that went live).  At the time, I didn't have a process to use to analyse and detect these issues.  However, I really want you, the reader to understand this. 

Take my process and apply it to these two mechanics: Charge and Intangible Presence.

Midnight's Charge:
1. Is this ability clear?
2. Does the player care?
3. Does the player have a response?
4. Is this response satisfying?
5. Does this make sense in this situation and fit the theme?

Attumen's Intangible Presence: 
1. Is this ability clear?
2. Does the player care?
3. Does the player have a response?
4. Is this response satisfying?
5. Does this make sense in this situation and fit the theme?

Copy and paste your answers into the comments and I'll evaluate them. 

Monday, December 31, 2012

Learning From My Past

  1. Preface - "Why is Game Design a Black Box?"
  2. Introduction - "Theft vs. Innovation"
  3. My Story - "The Simplest Thing First"
  4. Lessons
    1. Clarity - "Make it Clear"
    2. Care - "Make it Important"
      1. How? - "Tuning"
      2. How? - "Emotion"
    3. Response - "Give Players a Response"
      1. What Types? - "Reactions"
      2. What Types? - "Preparations"
      3. What Types? - "Recovery"
    4. Satisfaction - "Make the Response Satisfying"
      1. Why? - "Reward Good Behaviour"
      2. Why? - "Punish Bad Behaviour"
      3. Why? - "Pacing"
      4. Why? - "Ennui - How Repetition Reduces Satisfaction"
      5. How? - "Alternate Ways to Satisfy"
    5. Fit - "Make it Appropriate for your Game"
      1. When? - "Fit the Theme - Don't put Aliens in Hamlet
      2. When? - "Fit the Audience - Don't Arm Wrestle during Chess"
      3. When? - "Fit the Game - Internal Consistency"
  5. Conclusion - "What was the point?"
  6. About Me
    1. "Who am I?"
    2. "Who were my teachers?"
    3. "How do you become a master?"
(I am updating every Saturday evening. Feel free to comment liberally.)

What was the point?

If you've been following my blog for any amount of time, you may be wondering why on earth I decided to share these stories.

The answer is that there's a method within my words.  A series of tools that when repeatedly applied dramatically increase quality of a game design with each iteration. The terrible truth is that these lessons are so simple, so basic, that they are easily forgotten.


  1. Design for clarity
  2. Evoke player care
  3. Give your player a response
  4. Make the player's response satisfying
  5. Fit it all within the context of your game

These 5 tools are the self-feedback tools you can apply to anything you are personally working on. Don't move on to the next step until the previous has been satisfied. 

Then do it - again and again - until you've achieved the quality level necessary to create your game. If you can deeply ingrain into your psyche these five concepts, you can consistently nail basic game design, which opens up a world of opportunities. 

Next Year

In 2013, I intend to turn this lens back upon myself and review every major piece of design work I've done. Think of it as a post-mortem if you will, full of the lessons I learned in my own life. 

Stay tuned for adventure!
-Alex