Bosses and Gimmicks and Nostalgia

Last week’s post about the instance group covered our first attempt at the Exodus of the Storm Queen instance in Rift.  The title of the post was A Journey of One Hundred Deaths, which alluded rather accurately to how many times individuals in the group died in total.  There were five of us, so 100 deaths works out to about 20 for each of us.

Another picture of death

Dead on the floor again

Sounds like we did not do very well, doesn’t it?

We didn’t bring down the final boss, that is true.  But I would estimate that more than half of our deaths happened before that point.

What happened was that each of the four bosses in the instance had their own special behavior… their own gimmick… which we stubbornly insisted on learning on our own.  We have a general rule about giving a boss at least three runs before we turn to the web.

That can cost you in wipes.  On the other hand, we are there to play the game, not to win the game as fast as possible.  There is a balance to be achieved between making some progress and being engaged with the game.  Getting to either the “no progress” or “no engagement” ends of the spectrum means we lose.

The post lead to a Bhagpuss mini-rant about gimmicks and expectations, which I will quote in part:

That’s all I ever wanted. My character has spells/skills. The NPC has spells/skills. I use mine as I see fit, he uses his according to his AI. To counter my ability to improvise he gets a much bigger HP/Mana pool.

And I am sympathetic to what he is saying.

Like many old hands at the MMORPG thing, I do recall with fondness some simpler times.  SynCaine has a piece on simple elegance of combat in Ultima Online.  I have raged against talent trees and and the proliferation of skills in games like EverQuest II and Rift.

At times I do pine for the way things were in the days of MUDs or early EverQuest where you took a class that got a pretty limited set of skills and spells by today’s standards, and you played it in the role it was designed to play.  If you were a cleric, you were going to heal.  If you were an enchanter you were going to crowd control.  If you were a warrior you were going to tank and damage.  And if you were a ranger you were going to sit around in town hoping for a desperate group while cursing the fact that you didn’t make a druid instead.

Now a days, if I tell people I am a cleric in Rift, it doesn’t tell them anything about what I do at all.

Of course, the flip side of Bhagpuss’s rantage is that 99% of the mobs in Rift and just about every other fantasy MMORPG behave just as he describes.  They are just a stand up fights, no tricks, no gimmicks, which the player probably wins more than 90% of the time.

Plus, the whole five player dungeon routine is something you have to actively seek as opposed to something being forced upon the player base.

And while the stand up boss fight is the exception as opposed to the rule these days, you do still run into them.  They get labeled as “simple tank and spank” and generally pose no issue to any group that is within the range and equipment parameters of the dungeon.

And that is the problem, really.  They offer little or no challenge, unless your group isn’t up to par.  I actually think that the first boss in every instance ought to be a hit point heavy tank and spank that tests the group’s ability to perform their basic roles, if only to act as a “you must be this powerful to hope for success in this dungeon” gate.

Fight gimmicks are in boss fights to make things interesting, to change things up, and to keep things from getting boring.  And such things have been in for a long time.  Dragons back in the MUD days always had special attacks and breath weapons had special effects.  I recall one that would cause your bag to be destroyed if you did not have protection from cold on you.  There would go all your extra gear and loot!

Granted, the gimmicks in boss fights used to be less subtle at times, and I am not sure I want instance level bosses to start becoming like the elaborate dance routines that raid level boss fights have evolved into.

But in some ways, the gimmick is part of the fun of facing a new boss.

Like, oh my gawd!

What have you got for us big guy?

There is a reason, beyond simple pride, that our group doesn’t look up boss fights in advance.  Figuring things out is part of the experience.  We do have our limits.  We are not as young or as talented or as patient as we used to be I suppose.  So after a few tries we start looking for hints or help online.  But it is always satisfying when we figure out the gimmick successfully.

I think, in the end, a boss fight… or at least the final boss fight… in any instance is defined by the gimmicks and surprises it brings.  And if the gimmick doesn’t pan out… it can be a bit of a let down.  I remember our last boss fight in Wrath of the Lich King against King Ymiron.  After our struggles, it seemed like a bit of a let down that we were able to simply pile on and take him down.

Victory over King Ymiron

Hey, the King’s dead!

So I think I am pro-boss gimmicks.  They can make boss fights stand out, though I recognize that they can also turn a fight into a rote learning experience as well.  There is a line there somewhere.

And let’s face it, boss fights with gimmicks have been around at least since Mario started facing off against Bowser.

What do you think?

Boss fight gimmicks, good or bad or somewhere in between?

12 thoughts on “Bosses and Gimmicks and Nostalgia

  1. Matt

    Special boss abilities are fine, but it can be annoying when the abilities are so opaque or the margin of error is so tight that the only reasonable way to win is to read up in advance. Pretty much every WoW raid boss falls into this description.

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  2. SynCaine

    Somewhat along the same line as Matt; if the ability ‘fits’, its fine. Red Dragon has a fire breath AoE? Yup, makes sense. Same dragon shoots lasers and the ground in his chamber randomly shifts around? Not so much.

    And of course, all of this still falls into the ‘one and done’ category. Once you know the boss, all that is left is seeing how fast you can clear the instance going forward (if ever). With 40 people involved, that’s still interesting. With 5? Not so much.

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  3. bhagpuss

    Always nice to be quoted :P

    Special abilities are absolutely fine. Bosses (Nameds as I still prefer call them, somewhat inelegantly) should be able to do things their subordinates can’t. Learning what special abilities a Named has and how to avoid being killed by it (or having your backpack melted!) is part and parcel of invading the lair or stronghold of anything powerful enough to have a lair or stronghold in the first place.

    That’s very different, though, from following a dance card. Knowing the dragon can breathe fire so hot you’ll be cooked inside your armor in seconds is very different from knowing exactly when he’s going to do it. The tension, thrill, excitement should come from the situation and the situation should vary according to what you are doing to try to arrange it in your favor.

    Fighting into Chardok, Lower Guk or Sebilis through tight, low-ceilinged corridors and underwater tunnels where you could drown or get turned around and find yourself separated from your group, surrounded by creatures much more powerful than you provided all the adrenalin rush I ever needed (and quite a bit more). Especially with the ever-present knowledge that if I died I might be coming back there from Freeport in my underwear.

    But no, I wouldn’t want to go all the way back to that, either. I’m too old for it, as if I wasn’t to old even then. What I would like to see is much more emphasis put on providing tricky set-ups with unpredictable variations that have to be overcome by good tactics and innovation. Dungeons that are hard to fathom, difficult to penetrate and explore, that resist easy mapping and need to be explored carefully each time with proper scouting, intelligence-gathering, preparation and planning. Perhaps with walls that move so the layout isn’t always the same, with creatures that move about so you encounter them in different places on different runs, with a range of special abilities that they use with a degree of variety and unpredictability.

    Enough of that and there should be plenty to hold the interest of anyone who comes for simulated adventure, not just to pick up the loot after a dance-off. It’s a dream, I know, and if it ever happened I’d probably find it had turned into a nightmare. It works fine in my imagination, though.

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  4. tithian

    After having read both Syncain’s post and your, I stand in the middle ground.

    Personally, I’d get bored out of my skull in the UO Syncaine describes, or even the early EQ. I’ve played classes that had 2 cooldowns and autoattcks (and that’s it) and I wanted to stab myself in the eye. On the other hand the raiding endgame in Themeparks nowdays strives for the complete opposite: 4-stage boss encounters each with 3-5 unique abilities that you need to master. And the whole thing is tuned so tightly, that 1 player death means a botched attempt.

    It wasn’t always the case, but people now expect complicated boss fights and GW2 got a lot of flack for the way the dungeons worked, mostly because for 8-15 minutes you’d just be doing the same two things: dodge and attack. IMO Onyxia in vanilla WoW is a pretty good example of what a challenging boss fight should be like: multiple mechanics that require team effort but aren’t penalizing the group for the failures of 1 or 2 members.

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  5. Talarian

    I stand in the middle on this as well. Tank and spanks are boring. I don’t want to see a lot of those, because all those test are throughput. How well do I know my damage rotation? How much healing throughput do I need to keep the raid/team alive? How much health/mitigation do I need as a tank?

    A couple of those an expansion are fine, but any more than that and things get dull because there’s nothing to differentiate the fights. Sure, Boss A has a pulsing frost AoE, and Boss B has a pulsing fire AoE, but they’re the same monster in effect. Tactically, there’s no difference.

    Dance fights I’m okay with. Heigan in Naxxramus in WoW is the ultimate example of a dance fight, and while a little reptititve, was okay to me. Do I want all bosses to have that much movement? Hell no, but again, variety is key.

    So then there’s the question of variety and just how far do the developers go to provide that variety, and how far is too far? Firelands to me provides excellent examples of absolutely rediculous encounters as far as mechancis go. Rhyolith, having to “drive” him to stomp volcanos, was honestly a bit much. Unique, yes, tedious, yes, and super freaking touchy. There was almost no margin of error for that unique mechanic. Alysrazor was another that was just insane on the sheer number of mechanics that had pretty close to zero margin of error.

    One person’s “unique” is another person’s “gimmick”. In my mind, the more unique an encounter, the greater margin for error it needs to be enjoyable. If given the opportunity to practice the encounter outside the encounter, then you can make it tighter (or if you’re doing heroic mode raiding, which go as freaking crazy as you like, developers, make it stupid hard!). Heigan was a good dance fight because if you screwed up once, you’d likely survive, but if you screwed up twice in quick succession, then you’d die. Margin of error allows for learning as the encounter goes.

    (And yet, I’m primarily a healer who gleefully enjoys insta-kill mechanics because then nobody can blame me for their own failure, so I have no idea how I’m managing THAT cognative dissonance).

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  6. Vatec

    Most gimmicks are simply implemented poorly, or test “skills” that are often more dependent on the quality of computer and Internet connection than anything else. Furthermore, I truly dislike gimmicks that are completely arbitrary and cannot be countered unless you know about them in advance. In short, I like my fights to actually be winnable the first time through, if the players are sufficiently skilled and knowledgeable about their classes and the game world. I simply loathe silly cues like “Xyz the Incomprehensible glares malevolently” when they’re followed by insta-death mechanics that bear no logical relation to the cue. Trion has been pretty good about keeping that sort of silliness out of Rift’s dungeons (though not raids), fortunately.

    Also, like others above, I’m not all that fond of scripted fights. Let boss mechanics derive from the flow of the fight. Let there be many triggers, not just % health and time….

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  7. bernardparsnip

    I’m happy with a model that includes various difficulties with different reward levels.

    The easiest mode is tank ‘n’ spank with perhaps 1 or 2 mechanics that require you to look at the environment.
    The heroic mode requires high levels of coordination, communication, class mastery and (a little) luck.

    I know that the blogosphere is largely burned out on ‘the dance’, but I do think as a tool it fits the bill of providing fun in the sense of learning something new.

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  8. kiantremayne

    My irritation isn’t so much with boss fights having gimmicks, it’s the “one true way” method of game design where the devs have an intended way of doing the fight and only that is allowed to work, rather than having the boss present a problem and let the players come up with whatever tactics they can to counter it. My early raiding experiences were DAoC’s dragon fights and vanilla WoW’s Molten Core and Blackwing Lair, where each guild had their own strategies for the fights. WoW started locking things down from AQ onwards, with the introduction of enrage timers (so there was no longer a choice of taking it slow but steady) and then more and more specific fight mechanics where if players DID find their own way of countering boss mechanics you just knew it would be ‘fixed’ in the next patch. That was really where I started to lose interest in raiding – I like figuring out how to solve problems, and Blizzard made it clear I wasn’t supposed to think, I was being graded on my ability to follow a set script.

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  9. Telwyn

    The last commenter beat me to it. I’m not against learning boss fights, my old WoW guild used to enjoy wiping on dungeon bosses as part of the process of figuring out what to do and not do. Failure wasn’t wiping X times, failure was having to look up the solution on the Web!

    But since games are designing away from unique class abilities because class-balance is king and “bring the player not the class” rules you have very little room for unique tactics anymore.

    Temple Guardian Anhuur in Cataclysm’s Uldum zone dungeon Halls of Origination was a good example. Even after all the nerfing in Cataclysm we still learned a way with only four players of defeating him during the “run around and pull levers while hordes of snakes attack you” phase. We used the Warlock’s short-range return-teleport ability to avoid most of the fighting!

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  10. Besse

    I think what bugs me more than anything else is specific counter-abilities that must be executed by a specific role. I know you’re not playing WoW at the moment, but the first two bosses in Mogushan Vaults are hellish for this – they both require tanks to execute particularly tricky swaps or snatch abilities they’re not used to – all these gimmicks would be fine, but it’s annoying for 8/10 of the raid to be dependent on whether 2/10 can master the gimmick.

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  11. Imakulata

    @kiantremayne, Telwyn, that has been something actually enforced by the players rather than the game developers and used to exist before WoW too. What Blizzard did was setting minimal difficulty; it was often possible for players to find a gimmick that enabled them to defeat the boss easily which is (as kiantremayne said) usually patched in WoW. (As a former Ragnarok Online player, Icewall + Magnetic Earth comes to mind.) And it quickly became the endorsed strategy by the players.

    The conclusion is, it’s not Blizzard that doesn’t want you to think – it’s most of the player groups. There have always been groups which discover the strategies and this hasn’t changed with WoW but most of the players figured following strategies was easier per se and the gap was made even larger by the fact the chance to come with a better tactics without spending more time than the “discoverers” was low.

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  12. milliebii

    So what happens when someone finds a place to stand that avoids one of these mechanics? Or discovers if you jump at the right time it resets the counter?

    Everyone laughs at them and calls them a cheat right?

    Or do we all use the trick to avoid the mechanic until we are so geared up we can ignore it totally?

    If these gimicky mechanics were so much fun we would not be looking for ways of gaming the fight to totally avoid them.

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