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The Black Stalker: Fun for Designers Doesn’t Guarantee Fun for Players

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 Element: The Black Stalker, the final boss of The Underbog
Discipline: Content Design

Now, let’s discuss a deeply seated problem every designer must overcome on their journey to professionalism and a successful career.

Specifically, the challenge of making things that are fun for you as a designer but might not be so fun for the player

Let’s see how I learned this lesson.

The Black Stalker

The black stalkerMe: The Black Stalker is … what?

Metzen: She’s the mother. The mother of all spore walkers in Zangarmarsh.

Think psychic power meets fungus meets those tripods from War of the Worlds.

Me: So what kind of things should she do?

Metzen: Shit. I have no idea, that’s what you’re here to do right.

Maybe she could grab people, shoot lasers out of her eyes, sporify people.

Chris then walked away.  

Me: Hmmm… okay, well that sounds kind of cool. She has lots of arms.

Let me ask Geoff for some ideas too.

Geoff: sup?

Me: I’m trying to come up with ideas for the Black Stalker.

Chris said she should be psychic… but this isn’t exactly pokemon, we don’t really have a psychic kit.

Sidebar: A “kit” is a standard ability package, often used to capture either a gameplay pattern or theme and develop a standard response to a creature type.  

Geoff: Damn… did he like want you to have a brain battle with her or something?

Me: Hahah, perhaps one of those Dragonball sequences where the two beams of power go surging back and forth?

Banter, jokes and terrible ideas are all a standard part of the creative process.

In fact, bad ideas often hold the seeds of good ideas, so long as you’re willing to use them as a stepping stone.

The worst thing you can do for creativity is to focus on rejecting bad ideas while brain storming instead of letting them lead to stronger ones. 

Geoff: Well, I’m not sure exactly what you should do, but the Spore Walkers I’m using in the Lady Vash’j fight cast Chain Lightning.

It would be cool if we pre-taught that idea somewhere else.

Maybe we do lightning instead of psychic kit.

Me: Sure, that’s no problem.

Geoff: It would be really cool if we had grapple tech too – imagine if she could juggle the players in her hands then toss them somewhere.

Me: Oooooooh.  Lets just do that.

Geoff: Wait, what?

Me: Yeah! I’ll just juggle them. This sounds like a great idea, Geoff! *runs off*

Geoff: Wait… what? I didn’t… mean…  well, okay, I guess. I hope I didn’t just create a monster.

Implementation

I went back to my lair, a small closet-sized office that I shared with Stuart Massie, a QA Liason and began working.

I slapped some chain lightning on the Black Stalker, along with a channeled beam which nuked the target with even more electricity.ta

Then I had the Black Stalker electrify all of the players, making them deal damage to each other if they stood too close.

More electricity! More power! Ruh ruh ruh ruh ruh!

Then I added an ability that pulled players up into the air, bouncing them up and down, flipping and bouncing around erratically!

This seemed like a great idea to me!

How realistic! (Cuz what’s more realistic than a Psychic Mushroom Tripod with Lightning powers, amrite??) 

So I proudly slapped the Black Stalker into the dungeon and we did a designer-only playtest.

The first few bosses went pretty well, some comments about needing better debuff icons, so-on.

Then we got to the Black Stalker.

I was super proud when I watched the Black Stalker fling Jeff Kaplan into the air, merrily bouncing around my screen in the air, well out of sight of anyone else on the team.

JeffKaplanIt was about 10 seconds before I heard a girlish scream, “AAAAAUUUGGGGH!!!!”

And Jeff tumbled out of his office into the hallway, rubbing his eyes in agony. “Oh god! What happened?! Oh god,” as he stumbled into my office.

Me: “You okay??”

Jeff: “You will NEVER believe the bug that just happened. I suddenly went flying, my camera went spinning and I couldn’t do ANYTHING.”

Me: “Oh. Yeah. That’s intentional. Pretty cool, right??”

Jeff: “WHAT?!! Dude, you just made me motion sick! Holy shit! You can’t just DO that.”

Me: “… wha?” Once he realized I was totally clueless, he sat down.

Me: “I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to make you sick.”

Jeff: “It’s okay.

But let’s talk about this.

What were your goals?”

Me: “Well, I wanted to sell a psychic squish shrimp mushroom thing and create an experience no player has seen before.”

Jeff: “Okay, so that’s good, but can we do that without making them fly all over the place?”

Me: “Probably… but why not.”

Jeff: “Well, let’s look again at what’s going on here as a player experience instead of a designer experience.

Instead of focusing on what’s cool for you, what’s cool to THEM?”

Me: “Well… uhm, flying through the air is cool.”

Jeff: “The first time, yes. Doesn’t it get pretty repetitive though?”

Me: “That’s true. Maybe it could be toned down a bit…”

Jeff: “What happens if the healer or tank gets lifted into the air…?”

Me: “Er… well… I guess the party has a rough time… probably dies.”

Jeff: “So, lets fix it.”

A New Focus

So with a new mindset, I went in an made a few small tweaks:

  • The Black Stalker only lifted one person into the air
    • Someone who wasn’t the tank
  • The person lifted could cast spells
    • This let the healer keep doing their job
    • This let the party move closer to the healer if grabbed
  • The Static Charge could be dispelled
    • This gave the players an additional form of agency over the situation
  • Only one person could be the “Static Charged” target
    • This made it better for melee characters too
  • The person lifted would stop after being yanked up

The result was an encounter much more playable, still a bit annoying, but gave players the ability to use tools to improve their situation. The important part though was the change in focus – an encounter is meant for the players, not the designer.

Lessons

I created a very technically cool boss around a very weird concept – a psychic alien mushroom stalker.

Unfortunately, I was pushing so hard to make that pet concept work technically, that the end result ended up ringing very hollow for the players.

So whenever you take a risk by putting too much effort into making your idea work, it needs to either make it easier for you to create future features or pay off in novel experiences for the players.

Before investing significant effort into your pet ideas, make sure to consider whether they will facilitate future features or provide players with engaging and novel experiences.

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6 Responses

  1. For some reason I never remember doing the Black Stalker. I probably Underbog maybe a handful of times, but compared to how many times I ran Slave Pens and Steamvault it was miniscule. That said, I loved Hungarfen and the look of the Underbog. I think it’s probably one of the few BC dungeons I still get that “Wow!” feeling from, simply because of how little I saw it during relevancy.

  2. Did Metzen really give you the initial idea for the Black Stalker? I’d always thought he was involved in higher company level stuff, not things like the bosses in 5-man dungeons.

  3. Black stalker was brutal back in the day. Very memorable. I’ve been a part of a few groups that cleared the Underbog no problemo save for the 5+ wipes on the Stalker. Loved that boss and the feeling that you are dealing with something you’ve never met before (electric telepathic tripod!) was very strong.

    Also, have you ever worked on the TK dungeons? The Arcatraz was really unique, anything you can share about it?

  4. Jeff: “What happens if the healer or tank gets lifted into the air…?”

    Me: “Er… well… I guess the party has a rough time… probably dies.”

    Jeff: “So, lets fix it.”

    _________________

    I laughed.

    Talking about old stuff, you give me an idea – they should make these experiences playable “lvl cap”. I’ll share it after create a blog. But first I need to learn how to create. Damn.

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

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[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.

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