Friday, June 4, 2010

Near Misses: Bosses that could have been great

I was looking at a list of the best bosses in Wrath of the Lich King today. I expect that since we are in pre-expansion season people will be compiling lots of lists of their favourite and least favourite parts of this expansion. There were some very good bosses in the expansion as well as some pretty mediocre ones, but I don't want to dwell on the good or the bad. Instead, when I looked at the list, I found myself thinking about the bosses that could have, or should have, been great but that weren't. I don't want to force anything in this list that doesn't belong, so I've only got four of them, but that's not to say I necessarily got them all. There are plenty of fights that didn't work out, but these are the fights where them not working out is a significant let down.

Ignis the Furnace Master: It might be a bit of an exaggeration to suggest that this fight could have been great but it at least could have been pretty good. It turned out, though, that the easiest way to win was to completely ignore the fight mechanics, have your tank stand in the water and tank the boss and all the adds, and just kill him before you got enough adds to be a problem. When we were doing this fight the "right" way it seemed pretty interesting. When we decided not to bother with all the fancy stuff and just burn him out it became a simple tank and spank. To fix this they really needed to make shattering the golems a more important part of the fight. Rather than shattering golems purely for the sake of getting golems off your back, if golem shatters actually advanced your cause in terms of winning the fight (for example, shattered golems drop an item that can be used to do massive damage to Ignis) then people would do this fight by shattering golems and we'd get a fairly good fight.

Twin Val'kyr: Importing Ikaruga to an MMO was a great idea, but unfortunately I feel like it just didn't work. Ultimately our successful strategy was for most of the raid to spend most of the time standing in a pile right behind the boss. It was a tank and spank where every 90 seconds there was a 50% chance they had to do something other than keep attacking. For the healers playing goalie with the white orbs it was a little more interesting, but it was still mostly just spamming raid heals. I truly wish this fight would have been awesome, but the black and white switching mechanic was kind of clumsy and the clumsiness of it meant that they didn't make you switch very much. This fight would need quite a significant redesign to live up to its promise, but a starting point would be to find a good technical way to let us switch colours on the fly. That would have opened a world of possibilities of encounter design they had to ignore.

Sindragosa: This fight seems like a lot of fun and is in many ways well executed, but it has two rather awful problems. The first is Chilled to the Bone, the mechanic that punishes auto-attacking characters. She punishes casters as well with Unchained Magic, but no matter how many casters you bring, she only punishes one of them. Each caster past the first is a full time dpser. Each auto-attacker, no matter how many you bring, is affected by Chilled to the Bone. That means stacking melee is bad. But much worse than this is the way the debuff is applied. The faster you attack the faster you get stacks, so rogues barely get to play. If you look at the top dps on World of Logs, rogues are very visibly absent from Sindragosa's charts. There hasn't been a fight in recent memory that so badly punished a particular class.

The second reason this fight didn't work out is because the initial phase of the fight is long and relatively easy and then it becomes very hard. After a few tries to get the hang of it, you rapidly get into a mode where you spend the majority of your boss fighting time doing boring stuff you have proved you can do dozens of times and a small minority of your time actually practicing the part you need to beat.

Why do I say Sindragosa was close to being a great fight? They could have made this fight a lot more fun to learn by doing a few simple things. Rearrange the Chilled to the Bone mechanic to make it apply more evenly to all auto-attacking dps. Reduce her health, enrage timer, and the length of ground phases, but leave the transition point to the end phase at the same amount of health. Basically by tweaking just a few numbers this fight could have been great instead of boring and frustrating (especially for our rogue who we refused to bring while we were trying to get our first kill).

Anub'arak: This fight is the grandfather of disappointments. Basically I think this fight is brilliantly designed and really unique but that it is effectively spoiled by three things, and also harmed by a missed opportunity on the developers' part.

The first is the limited attempt mechanic and the fact that you basically only got one attempt per week. This is really the fault of limited attempts not of Anub, but Anub had the misfortune of being the final boss of the one attempt instance, and that will forever mar my memory of this fight.

The second is the fact that a 50% healing debuff was mandatory for this fight. There are three classes that can provide this debuff (and warriors can't do it while tanking, which they might need to do), so in 25-player this was presumably never a problem. In 10-player it could be a big problem. This wasn't a case where it was really hard to win or one class was over-emphasized. When we attempted this fight without a mortal strike debuff we simply weren't doing any damage to Anub once the swarm was out. We'd hurt him, but he'd heal back up while we were killing adds. You may be nuts if your raid without the 13% spell damage debuff, but it isn't literally mandatory for any fight. This requirement was way out of line.

The third fatal flaw with this encounter is the need for a shield tank. Since the damage multiplier applied by the adds applied *after* blocking effects, a well geared block tank could take no damage at all while tanking them, where a similarly geared bear or death knight would be taking nearly 14k dps. We had the good fortune to be using a paladin and a warrior for our main tanks though ToC, but if we had been using a DK and a druid as we were in Naxx we basically wouldn't have been able to win.

Finally, this fight was a missed opportunity. The developers decided in ToC to drop the concept of multi-step hardmodes. In the future we won't have a fight like Yogg, Sartharion or Flame Leviathan, where you get to choose how hard a hardmode you want to do. It will just be hard or easy. Anub was a great chance for a multi-step hardmode. His hardmode was harder in three very different ways that could have been separated out: 1) Frost Patches don't respawn, 2) Adds spawn during the swarm phase and get shadow strike and 3) Swarm deals 20% instead of 10% health per second. I love multi-step hardmodes and the opportunity to practice at one level before moving on to the next. I have to assume they were abandoned because it was felt they took too much developer time, but it's a real shame. Especially on a fight where it would have been so easy to implement one.

And what about Anub's problems? All are extremely simple to solve. Get rid of the concept of limited attempts, reduce the healing of his swarm by half and make him immune to healing reduction effects (at least on 10-player), and change the way the stacking debuff works from the adds so that there isn't a 14k dps difference in the damage taken by shield and non-shield tanks.

I can't really blame them for trying limited attempts once to see how it worked out1, but the other two are so glaring as to seem unforgivable. This fight should be something I remember with awe the same way I think of KT, Yogg and Lich King. Instead it just seems like a nuisance.

1. I can't forgive them for using limited attempts again in ICC. It was terrible, terrible, terrible.

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