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Nightbane: The Dynamics of Collaboration & Designing for External Stakeholders

alex brazie pos mortem-world of warcraft nightbane
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: Nightbane, the final boss in Return to Karazhan
Discipline: Content Design

Side note: There are references to design conversations with an individual who has been accused of inexcusable acts.

However, the lessons told by those stories are worth sharing with those who didn’t have access to this information.

Some names have been redacted where appropriate, but the lesson is preserved for everyone to learn from freely.

In this journey, we’ll explore the unique challenges faced when working on a boss encounter assigned by individuals outside the core boss team.

As a combat designer, I was tasked with creating a formidable and unforgiving fight, and I embraced the challenge with enthusiasm.

Join me as we delve into the intricacies of designing a challenging encounter that tests the limits of players’ skill and determination.

Questionable Origins

A. A.: Yes, yes, come in to my office, Mr. Brazie.

Me: Hey dude, Scott said you needed me to make a quest boss for you?

A. A.: A quest boss? No sir, what I need from you is excellence!!

Me: Uhm… okay?

A. A.: This is no mere quest boss, this will be a secret, unlockable raid boss, the likes of which can only be obtained by the most powerful of heroic dungeon runners?

Me: Oh, alright, well, let me get…

A.: No! There is no time for that.

For not only will you need to make a raid boss, you will also need to script a bit of an event for my assistant, Luis.

Me: Right, so let me get Lui…

A.: Yes, yes, you can figure that all out afterwards. But first let me make sure you understand – this boss must be TOUGH.

I want the players hearts CRUSHED as they vie for the phat lewts contained within!

Me: I’ll make sure Travis puts some good stuff on there.

A. A.: Excellent! Now, be gone! *dramatic swing of the cape*

Me: … all you did was turn around in your chair.

A. A.: Scram.

I shrugged and wandered over to the quest pit.

Luis Barriga, a warm and friendly, if heavily tattoo’d and ripped, vegan sat docilely behind his monitor.

Me: Heeeey, Luis! Alex said you needed a quest boss… but in a raid zone?

Luis: Oh hey, dude. Ya, let me walk you through the story.

Slowly rippling flashback blurs fill the room.

Luis: Once upon a time,  a powerful man named Medivh explored the dark powers of the twisting nether from his grand tower, Karazhan.

Flashback rips.

Me: Yeah…. I know about Medivh.

Luis: Well, shush and I’ll tell you for a second what’s up.

medivh spellcasting by tircassia d7a910w
A powerful man named Medivh

Clouds reform. 

Luis: Medivh, possessed by Sargeras, began to tamper with the ancient layline magics, feeding additional power into Karazhan – so much that it drew the attention of the Blue Dragonflight.

Charged with the eternal protection of magic on Azeroth, Malygos, leader of the blue flight, sent his second eldest son, Arcanagos, to draw Medivh from his tower and warn him of the impending danger!

Me: *yawns a bit*

Luis: Finding the tower impenetrable by normal means, Arcanagos set fire to the village outside of Karazhan, drawing the Guardian out of his tower.

Arcanagos attempts to stop Medivh, but Sargeras corrupts the magic Arcangos flings at him, burning him from within.

Me: I’m still not hearing any gameplay here.

Luis:  *exasperated* Fine. Look, the players recover Medivh’s journal, read it on the balcony of Karazhan and get an extra boss.

If they beat him, they get access to Tempest Keep.

Me: Oh. Okay, so you basically need a gear check boss.

NightbaneLuis: Yes.

Me: Got it.

I moved to leave the office. 

Luis: He’s also a BONE dragon. Burning from the inside.

Me: Oooooooohhhh.

Mechanical Mandates

I wandered over to talk with Scott. 

Me: Okay, I have a pretty good grasp of what Luis and A.A. want for this boss.

Scott: Oh yeah? Typical one-off?

Me: Nah, they want a gear check repeatable raid boss.

Scott: Hrmmm…

Me: They also want him to be very tough.

Scott: Well, alright, I’ll go talk to Roman about a unique model.

What are you thinking for gameplay?

Me: Well, as much as I’d love to do something crazy, we’re kind of short on time here.

Scott: *nodded with more relief than I realized at the time*

Me: So I’m thinking we take the standard dragon kit – cleaves, cone flame breath, an aoe fear, then add some cinematic moments – say, a few fly-by strafing breath attacks and mostly cosmetic excitement.

Scott: Hrmm…. yeah, that sounds pretty doable.

Joe: Seems a little bit like a waste of a good view. Maybe he should stay in the air a little bit?

Me: Well, I did JUST do that with Nazan and Vazruden.

Scott: Yeah, but it will have been like 30-40 hours of gameplay since they saw him. I think you can get away with it.

Me: Erm, I mean that more in terms of I’m familiar with how to do this.

Okay, cool, I’ll go get started on this.

How hard can it be?

Lessons:

In retrospect, I realized that my personal preferences and biases towards the shaman character had clouded my judgment during the design process.

It was a humbling experience to understand that the game rules and the expectations of players do not align with personal desires.

So surprising, huh?

The valuable lesson I learned from this journey is that, as a designer, it is crucial to set aside personal biases and approach each task objectively.

By focusing on the broader game balance and player experience, we can create content that resonates with a wider audience and ensures a more enjoyable and fair gameplay experience for all.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that the success of a game lies in meeting the needs and expectations of the players, not solely catering to individual preferences.

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4 Responses

    1. We didn’t have a dwarf priest, so we mostly skipped him. I only did this boss in PUGs near the end of the expansion that were lucky enough to have a dwarf priest in the raid.

      My memories are honestly about the boss being annoying. Nothing hugely and exasperatingly annoying like Rhyolith, I didn’t _hate_ doing Nightbane, but certainly not something I enjoyed at all. I always voted to skip him. Sorry.

  1. I’ll copy what I wrote at the time:

    Ahh, Nightbane. Hmm, I thought Blizzard said that Fear was going to be less important in TBC. Quite honestly, I don’t really understand Blizzard and Fear. As far as I know, you need a warrior tank, or a dwarf/draenai priest, or two shaman to even have a reasonable chance of beating this fight. I just don’t understand that logic. Sometimes I wonder if there’s some other way of dealing with Fear that Blizzard thinks we should use.

    Personally, I think boss Fears should work more like Intimidation: everyone except the main tank gets feared. That would make Fear-based fights much easier to deal with without raid-stacking, and make non-warrior tanks/non-dwarf priests more viable.

    Aside from that, Nightbane is an okay fight. There’s nothing really interesting in the fight, it’s all about the tank breaking Fears, picking up Nightbane when he lands, and being topped off before Fear. In many ways, it’s a very tank-healer-centric, old-school fight.

    Final Grade – Nightbane: C+

  2. Ooh, this is going to be good. I tanked Nightbane in a horde guild without warrior tanks and with 1 unreliable shaman. I believe I did survive one of the fears with the old bubble-taunt-cancelaura trick and we got the kill. I always liked Nightbane because badass dragons with tons of tank damage just felt like ‘real raiding’.

    Also, the “the players recover Medivh’s journal, read it on the balcony of Karazhan and get an extra boss. If they beat him, they get access to Tempest Keep” bit is so good. This is how the raid progression is supposed to be in the ideal world.

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EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[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:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • 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
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • 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
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

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

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(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
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • 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)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan