It is the flip side to progression, the logical stepping stone to the next instance, and the means by which your raid team prepares for the challenges that lie ahead. It is equal parts entertaining and taxing, alternating between being a light bit of fun and something that you try to avoid, and it’s been known to be the trigger for more cases of “burnout” than drag racing. I’m talking, of course, about … farm content. And whether you consider it the ultimate time sink or simply downtime, it’s something that is part-and-parcel of the raiding way of life.
As much as it embarrasses me to admit, it didn’t really sink in until very recently—as a top-end progression raider I spend more of my time farming instances than I actually do working on fights that I’ve yet to kill. A quick glance at my Armory page and you’ll see some of the following statistics (to just point out a few):
- 50 HM Anub’Arak kills (all pre-Cata)
- 45 HM Sindargosa kills (all pre-Cata)
- 25 HM LK kills (24 pre-Cata)
- 16 HM Nefarian kills (and still counting)
- 15 HM Cho’gall kills (and still counting)
Clearly, I’ve spent a good deal of my time in instances, clearing content that had previously constituted progression. Boss mechanics, which caused me to frown in frustration and mash my keys, soon became effects that I could dodge and avoid with barely an effort. Coordination fights which seemed chaotic and messy soon settled into a calm choreographed sequence. And memories of those bosses that I had to work my ass off to kill (I’m looking at you, Alone in the Darkness) are mixed in with memories of the farm content that lay between them.
So in thinking about that transition, from progression to farm encounter, I found myself wondering—how do you [as a designer] design an encounter that’s just as fun on the twenty-third kill as it was on the first? Can you? Or more importantly, should you?
The question of “could you”
So let’s look at the easy question first—could a designer fashion a fight where the “wow” factor (which sometimes becomes the “groan” factor, so labeled by players who look forward to facerolling farm bosses) endured no matter how many times you killed that boss? I think so. In fact, I think if you look back at previous tiers and previous expansions, the fights that maintained that “wow” factor through players’ memories tend to be those that didn’t cut you any slack, no matter how geared you were. In that list for me: Lady Vashj, Illidan, Mimiron HM, Faction Champs HM, Gunship (kidding), the big bad Lich King, and most recently in this tier, Ascendant Council and Al’Akir. To me, these fights are all similar in that they’re ones I can look back on and recall wiping on, even when the boss was on farm.
Interestingly enough, this encounter list seems to have common thematic elements:
- Personal accountability: Bob needs to interrupt or we lose
- RNG: Bob needs to respond to something that could be A, B, or C
- Insta-death mechanics (to some extent): Bob will be squashed like bug if he stands right there
- Snowball mechanics (where each mistake compounds the impact): Bob’s mistake makes it harder for Joe to do his job, so Joe’s performance depends on Bob
- Small team tasks: Bob and Joe need to collaborate to make something happen
Interestingly enough, while most of the “wow factor” fights incorporated DPS and HPS thresholds, I don’t believe those qualities are what endured in making the fight consistently difficult. Going back into SSC as a Level 80, to get my nerd points (because I never completed the Vial of Eternity Quest), we still wiped for an hour before we finally killed Vashj. This was on a fight that was 10 levels lower and with 25 players in raid, a fight that is nigh impossible to zerg because its mechanics dictate that performance matters. You have to deal with the Cores and the Striders and there’s no way around it.
But I think what’s additionally interesting to note about enduring encounter design is that when any of the above factors are isolated and let to stand on their own, the fight simply doesn’t present the same level of difficultly nor does it command the same level of respect/disdain from raiders. Gorefiend was legendary for being the source of endless frustration for guilds—WHO THE F- LET CONSTRUCTS INTO THE F-RAID?!—but it was a one-trick pony in that regard. Its gimmick proved frustrating and despite the fact that it was an incredibly unique encounter, it left you every week hoping and praying that one of your “experienced” players would get marked for death, instead of the guy who had never even looked at the mini Gorefiend flash game.
The question of “should you”
Now this is the more interesting of the two questions to me, because the great deal of faith I place in Blizzard’s design team means the “could you” question really becomes one of “how” and not “if”. But whether or not you should design an encounter that makes raiders stand up and take notice week after week—that seems the far more meaty topic. Suffice to say, I understand that there are multiple sides to this issue, multiple shades of grey between the two extremes—one side advocating that encounters maintain progression-level difficulty every week and the other side advocating loot-and-scoot farm instances that have you in and out in the least amount of time possible.
Looking at the benefits of enduring, challenging content, I see several:
- Engaging content makes for better raiders. Each tier that’s released trains us to deal with new mechanics. At one point, players considered dispelling hard; now we laugh, point, and call them noobs for being consumed by such a mundane task. That’s because, as a raiding community, we’ve grown and gotten better at solving the puzzles that Blizzard throws at us. And so, handing us a Rubik’s Cube one week (a tough progression encounter) and a dead fish the next week (a farm boss with known gimmicks) is doing a disservice to raiders, by breaking some continuity of “training”. I think this is one of the things that made Ulduar so fun/engaging/interesting for guilds that got into the whole “achievement” part of it—those achievements changed the way you did encounters, challenged your team to do something other than zerg a boss down for the umpteenth time, and ultimately made farm content a less farm and a little more interesting.
- Challenging content shrinks the differential between “progression” and “farm” raids. If there’s one thing that I’ll be critical about when it comes to ICC, it’s that by the end of the expansion we were clearing an entire 12/12 HM in less than two hours, three if we were having a rough night. Contrast this to the beginning of Cata, where progression guilds were pushing over 30 hours a week raiding and performing support activities (valor/rep farming, leveling primary alts, crafting/leveling professions, dailies, etc.) and clearly you’re talking about a significant difference in the magnitude of time commitment. I’d actually go so far as to posture that one of the reasons we saw the collapse of so many top end guilds in Tier 11 (that I can recall: Dues Vox, Cuties Only, Forlorn Legacy, Fusion, Spike Flail, Might, Tasty Beverage) is because of this large differential between the effort needed at the end of ICC and the effort needed to advance in BoT/BWD/TotFW. Granted, raid difficulty wasn’t the reason cited by many of these guilds during their collapse, but there’s no doubt that tensions have been high in this tier, as noted by players of all rankings. Compound this with the disparity that existed in the encounters themselves—compare the personal responsibility requisite to HM Putricide to the personal responsibility needed for HM Tron Council—and I think it’s clear that the expansion ushered in a huge mindset change. However, by narrowing this difference, by increasing the time that it takes to farm content and maybe dropping the time it takes to progress, I’d argue that you can limit the stress/system shock that’s associated with the transition into a new tier.
- Difficult content rewards effort and reinforces a feeling of “earning” loot. If the snide look that so many players make when they mention “Welfare epics” is any indication, a good portion of the WoW community actually does appreciate feeling like they’ve earned their keep. We work our way through Honor Points, Justice Points, Valor Points, Reputation, Conquest Points, and revisit instances week after week, all working towards a goal which we know can only be achieved through continued effort. So, the boss that makes this task easy on raiders (ohai, Tol Barad loot machines) are ones that generally garner the least amount of effort. Conversely, some of the toughest encounters in game at present (HM Ascendant Council and HM Al’Akir, imo) reinforce that feeling of having earned your way, even when the loot is no longer relevant.
But should you … really?
Like I said above, I do acknowledge that there is a downside to an instance or a tier filled entirely with encounters that are built to be challenging on multiple levels:
- Demanding encounters don’t mesh with a difficulty incline. I think we as a community oftentimes forget the large range of skill levels, not to mention approaches to raiding, that exist these days in 10 and 25-man raiding. And in between the most casual Pugger and the most dedicated member of Paragon lie many shades of grey. So it makes sense that the first bosses in an instance shouldn’t be the hardest and most complex—a raid team shouldn’t be cock-blocked on fight #1. But, by designing encounters like the ones mentioned in this and the preceding section, Blizzard would be creating a barrier to entrants into the raiding world, asking them to exercise the same level of execution and precision as required by encounters far more complex and demanding, and thus excluding them from further progression.
- Demanding encounters restrict players who have limited time in game. Although I’m typically of the opinion that it’s completely fair that someone who only has 8 hours a week to spend on content experience less of the raiding game than I do, (yes, really—your time is yours to manage) I understand that putting time-consuming content into game means that less players will venture into it. If I recall correctly, this is one of the reasons that Blizzard cited that raids in Cataclysm would be smaller and more digestable, so that the mountain you needed to climb to the “end boss” need not be as steep.
- Some players prefer content that lets them disconnect. While I’m a person who’s not happy unless I’m locked in competition, I readily concede that not all WoW players share my disposition for stressful environments. And make no mistake, the qualities of challenging bosses that I listed in the previous section, come with a heaping amount of anxiety if your raid team is struggling with them during “farm content”. So while I appreciate being held to the same level of rigor from kill to kill, the stress that comes with it isn’t something that I think most players would be willing or eager to sign up for.
- Greater stress leads to faster burnout. Although I was quick to point out that reducing the time disparity between “farm” raiding and “progression” raiding is important in maintaining conscious (and subconscious) expectations about how much time raiding takes, I readily concede that players benefit from having schedules that fluctuate. There is definite value to be had in raid weeks that are slightly shorter, in which more is accomplished, in which raids are called early because there’s nothing left to kill. As superficial as it sounds, there’s a happiness to be gained from the relatively minor accomplishment of clearing the week’s raiding content, an ego boost that would otherwise be deprived to players by “farm” content that always acts like “progression” content.
A recipe for future design
In the end, I’m quite sure that the philosophy behind encounter design is a moving target, influenced by the experiences of players and developers alike, adapting to lessons from all the previous tiers. And, if anything, ToGC demonstrated that Blizzard isn’t adverse to the idea of breaking the mold of “typical” instance design in favor of trying something new. So while I strongly believe that minimum clear times should be something that designers strive for, to eliminate the sometimes roller-coaster feel of raiding, and that you should never be able to carry the player who can’t be bothered to put forth a minimum effort, that’s not to say that things haven’t evolved since the days of (original) Patchwerk. I think it’s clear that the demands on player multi-tasking and responsiveness have increased significantly since then (due, in part, to the proliferation of boss-mods, but that’s a topic for another day). And some of the personal responsibility factors that we saw crop up in BC and in Wrath made great comebacks in Tier 11 normal and hard modes.
But ultimately, after this entire post of musings I’m struck by two thoughts. First, that players shouldn’t be reliant on Blizzard for challenging content. Despite the fact that the preceding sections focused heavily on how encounters can be designed to be seen and experienced a certain way, it would be negligent to omit any mention of the group that has the single greatest impact on encounter enjoyment—us. Like children in a room of toys complaining that “there’s nothing to do!” I oftentimes think that we players look to Blizzard to script the challenges that we should be creating for ourselves. When I was young, I didn’t need anyone to tell me to climb the tree in my yard, and I certainly didn’t get anything other than some scrapes for my efforts, but darn it if I didn’t climb that tree anyways, just to prove I could.
And I think that same mentality applies to the challenges in WoW. I remember the first time my little guild used a Blueberry tank in Sarth 3D—we didn’t get any nerd points for it, and the loot was the same—but it was one hell of a thing to see through. Point being: nerd points and rewards shouldn’t be a pre-requisite to our play time and we shouldn’t expect designers to all the time be dangling shiny keys in front of us to keep us occupied and interested; we need to make some challenges for ourselves.
The second thought is one that I don’t have an answer to, but one I think it’s important to ask given everything I talked about thus far. Should Blizzard design encounters to be great on the 23rd kill or should they only worry about your first time through? I don’t know the answer to that one, but I certainly wonder just how it would change the raiding game if they did.