Ghaz’an & Swamplord Musel’ik : Adding “Clarity” to My Game Design Toolbox

Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

Game: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade
Game Elements: Ghaz’an & Swamplord Musel’ik, the second and third bosses of The Underbog
Discipline: Content Design

Today, let’s talk about my first secret event in World of Warcraft.

Unfortunately, it was so secret… no one ever found it.

At least, the lessons are easy to spot, if that counts, lol.

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 pardoRob 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:

wildstar intro

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.

365053He’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.


I really am inspired by looking back at my old work and seeing the creativity that went into a lot of these moments.

Sadly, I didn’t structure the dungeon in a way that communicated to the players that something special was happening. Furthermore, there was no reward for interrupting the event.

However, when you put something into the game, players won’t realize it’s an important thing, unless you communicate it to them.

Leaving breadcrumbs and guidance toward the desired action is key.

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3 Responses

  1. Honestly Alex, I’m just enjoying you talking about things. I mean, however weird it sounds, I’d just like to have an archive of the things you worked on at Blizzard/Riot, with a breakdown of the things you learned from it, mistakes, or successes, and the general philosophies behind the content. I think I mentioned this on FB, I really enjoy talking and reading about the philosophies behind decisions made in games. It gives me a better understanding when I’m playing a game like Wildstar to see what they might have done better.

  2. +1. I’m enjoying the stories, as well as the lessons learned. As I venture into game development myself, it’s super interesting to see the method behind the madness from the UI cues to boss abilities.

    Musel’ek is an interesting story in particular, as his origin was apparently modest, and whelp, now he’s a dungeon boss! Makes me wonder how many other bosses were happy accidents (or unhappy accidents, in some cases where mechanics went awry).

    Glad to see you posting again!

  3. Eh, I consider Swamplord Musel’ek the best boss in the instance.

    The pet requires kiting (or CC in normal mode) so one DPS gets to do something they don’t normally do (or hadn’t done since Drakkisath). The hunter is fun because he acts like a hunter, and it’s interesting to see your favorite abilities turned against you.

    Finally, the fact that he has tamed a druid automatically makes him a king among hunters. That would often spark conversation in groups, with some chatter and gentle teasing between the hunters and the druids. This made it the most memorable fight in the instance by far.

    The lesson I would take from Swamplord Musel’ek is that a mechanically simpler boss with a strong, interesting theme can be more fun than a technically complex boss.

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[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
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  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
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    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
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  • Mists of Pandaria: 
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    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
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  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
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[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

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(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
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  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

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