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Shade of Aran: The Power of Playtesting for Iterative Game Design

Picture of 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: Shades of Aran, a boss in Karazhan
Discipline: Content Design

This is part 3 of my 3 part series on the Shade of Aran. You can find part 1 (here) and part 2 (here).

Today, let’s talk about the power of fast iteration with the help of QA.

Playtesting and QAing your concepts is the difference between players’ awe and wrath.

Last time, I had just completed the core abilities and three super abilities for Shade of Aran.

Let’s see how Shade of Aran changed after the QA sessions.

The Benefits of Working Fast

Because the core theme for the Shade of Aran was figured out early on, the raid team knew what his major themes were going to be very quickly.

As a result, it was possible to get voice over lines written to perfectly fit the encounter.

WarCraft Samwise038c
Medivh with Atiesh

Scott had asked me how many unique lines I thought we needed, I told him six should be enough.

He chuckled and asked why I needed so many. Grinning sheepishly, I insisted we needed a couple variations for each super ability.

Placatingly, he agreed, so long as I roughed out the lines myself.

He raised an eyebrow when he saw the line for Atiesh.

Me: A.A. told me you’d object and he told me to say the following.

I unfurled a note from my pocket and read it flatly.

Me: When (not if) Scott objects, just tell him I told you it would be the greatest thing in the game ever and that it will be remembered by anyone with the staff for generations.

Legendaries are not meant to be so easily forgotten.

Scott: *exasperated* Fine. It’s just a line anyways.

Little things like this are the benefit of being ahead of the schedule on the job – you have room to add a little extra.

Quality Assured – Let the Iteration Begin!

Version 1)

Arcane:

  • DD: Arcane Missiles:
  • Super: Explosion
  • CC: Polymorph

Fire:

imgres-4

  • DD: Fireball
  • Super: Flame Wreathe
  • CC: Dragon’s Breath

Frost:

  • DD: Frost Bolt
  • Super: Circular Blizzard
  • CC: Chains of Ice

With the above ability layout, I contacted the QA team about starting playtesting.

The fight was far from finished, but it wasn’t clear to me what problems needed to be solved most.

Fortunately, the QA night lead at the time  was able to pull together 9 other folks (I’ve forgotten your names, if you read this and you were anyone on the Shade of Aran testing team, let me know so I can credit you here! 🙂 to hop on my server, make gear and try out the Shade of Aran.

This was back before the days of hot-loading – any time I found a bug or had a tweak to make to the fight, it required me to shut down the server and reboot it – an agonizing 10-minute long process that wouldn’t even guarantee the updates would work.

After about 10 pulls, they congregated together downstairs and sat on the ping-pong tables in the kitchen.

I walked in and was greeted warmly – a shock, considering they had just spent the last hour dying on my behalf.

Their notes were as follows:

  • Fight is very flat and predictable.
  • Very frustrating when the same super ability is used back to back
  • Frustrating to have two forms of CC in Arcane Phase

Wait… two?

… that’s right. I slowed the enemy team so it would create a greater moment of tension to escape the explosion – and allow dispellers to save a sluggish ally if paying attention.

  • (continued)
  • Being Polymorphed before the explosion sucks – you end up disoriented
  • Dragon’s Breath sucks – you often wander out of the Flame Wreath against your control.
  • Chasing Aran as he blinks constantly around the room is annoying.
  • Too much damage from the constant barrages of Magic.

I removed the polymorph from the Arcane Phase.

Then did a little extra work to add a phase-switcher that ensured the same super would never be used back to back and that all three phases would complete before the cycle reset.

Ice -> Fire | Arcane -> The one not picked.

The next step was to remove the blinking around. After two pulls, I could see the melee were running around more than they were dealing damage.

It was utterly repetitious. I needed a pace break… or two… badly.

  • Shade of Aran runs out of mana.

That’s when I thought back to Geoff’s laughter, I decided we needed a touch of humor.

Having just removed Polymorph from Shade, it seemed fitting to put it back in for a homage to the players.

I added Mass Polymorph.

Mass Polymorph: Upon reaching 20% mana, Aran polymorphs the entire raid group, then sits down to take a nice relaxing drink.

While polymorphed, all players regenerate their health to full. Upon completion, casts Pyroblast.

Pyroblast: Deals 80% of the player’s current health as fire damage.

This sequence was just the break the fight needed. It added a little humor, a pace break, a huge tension moment and plenty of warning beforehand.

  • Off-tanks are bored during the fight and it feels strange there are no adds.

Thinking back, I probably should have stopped here, but I remembered Scott’s comment about Water Elementals and felt guilty.

I spawned two water elementals when Shade reached 20% health.

Version 2)

It’s not really accurate to say that all of these things happened at once.

There were probably 20 or 30 different playtests on Shade, but these were the big iterations.

For reference, Shade of Aran looked like this now:

Arcane:

  • DD: Arcane Missiles:
  • Super: Explosion
  • CC: Polymorph

Fire:

  • DD: Fireball
  • Super: Flame Wreathe
  • CC: Dragon’s Breath

Frost:

  • DD: Frost Bolt
  • Super: Circular Blizzard
  • CC: Chains of Ice

40% health – Spawns 2 Water Elementals for 45 seconds.

20% mana – Cast Mass Polymorph, followed by Empowered Pyroblast

imgres-5It was then that the raid group just started standing in the middle of the circular blizzard, completely avoiding the attack.

Calling to mind Joe Shely’s suggestion, I attached the AoE counterspell to Shade.

During one of these playtests, Scott came in and watched.

Scott: Wait, you added Water Elementals? Really?

Me: Er… yeah?

Scott: Don’t you think that fight has enough going on?

Me: I do, but the guys playing it insist the danger moment is needed.

Scott: Well, you’re not really getting much out of it. The tank just taunts the two elementals and they get ignored until they despawn.

Me: Yeah… what would you do?

Scott: Well, I would make them ranged and force someone to actually get aggro on them.

That would mean the same person tanking Shade’s attacks can’t just pick them up and ignore them.

Finally, make them last until killed.

Me: Okay, I’ll do it.

Version 3)

Updated.

Arcane:

  • DD: Arcane Missiles:
  • Super: Explosion
  • CC: Polymorph

Fire:

  • DD: Fireball
  • Super: Flame Wreathe
  • CC: Dragon’s Breath

Frost:

  • DD: Frost Bolt
  • Super: Circular Blizzard
  • CC: Chains of Ice

40% health – Spawns 4 Ranged Water Elementals until killed.

20% mana – Cast Mass Polymorph, followed by Empowered Pyroblast

imagesimagesimagesimages

This version went over very well and I decided it was time to add some polish.

Listening to feedback, changing quickly in response to feedback and sticking to a strong theme go far on any fight.

Team Spirit

Me: Hey Scott, now that I’ve added a couple more important abilities to this fight… Can we get more lines?

Scott: Uhm, maybe… how important is it?

Often in your life, when people ask you how important something is, they will ask you this needing a clear answer of priorities.

Other times, they just want to be assured their effort is going to be appreciated.

This was the latter case.

Me: Important.

Scott: Well, we had to delay VO by a week or two anyways.

Realizing I had no idea how Voice-Overs worked, I figured I should ask.

Me: Do we just grab someone from the office at random… or is there a process here?

Scott: Oh, yeah, well, its pretty simple, you fill out a sheet with each line and a hired actor reads it.

Often picked from four or five different voice actors who sent a sample into our VO guy.

Me: That’s it?

Scott: Pretty much.  Its a lot more process than it used to be back when we grabbed random people from the office to record lines.

Note that the process now is dramatically different. 

imgres-3
Enter Micky Neilson

Scott: Well, we’re in luck, this time we’ve got Micky helping us out.

You should go downstairs and meet him.

Maybe if you ask really nicely, he’ll add in the lines you need.

I wandered down to the audio department (a fancy term for the two rooms with sound-proofed closet-sized offices where most of the audio processing was done at Blizzard at the time) and through a set of double doors to Micky’s office. 
 
Walking in, a warm, smiling man behind the desk turned and greeted me warmly.  
 
Micky: You must be Alexander!
 
Me: I am! How did you know?

Micky: Scott sent me an email. Hahah, how can I help you?

I went through a quick explanation of the situation and how I needed  more lines to handle the situation where Shade of Aran sits to drink and summons the water elementals. 

Micky: Well, you have great timing! We’re not recording that for another week and I’m actually going to finish the lines in a couple of days.

Do you mind explaining the situation to me?

Some of these situations don’t make sense.

We looked at the lines together, they were brilliant. 

Thankfully, the quotes I wrote for the two variations of each super ability went the way of the dinosaurs (with the exception of “Burn you hellish fiends!”).

However, it was then that I realized that the writing team had no idea how the fights played out so they generally made very generic lines that could fit anywhere into an encounter. 

Me: Did anyone sit down and explain to you the encounter?

Micky: No! But I would love to!

Together, we ran through the abilities, talked about the funny things that had happened during the QA testing and generally laughed about how players would feel when turned into sheep. 

Micky: Thank you! I am really excited to work on this now.

I promise some of these lines… well, I’ll make sure they’re alright and the actor does ’em justice.

He gave a wry grin as I left the office. 

It was then that I realized just how important knowing your writers can be.

When connected and aware of the situation, they are ready, willing and excited to do the best work possible to suit their characters.

“Exciting and inspiring the people you work with directly dramatically improves the quality of their work.”

I had a similar experience working with artists and the other designers. Scott helped me get some strong “cast” VFX to make it clearer when Shade was swapping between super abilities.

Rob Foote helped find an environmental artist to fix a collision issue in the ceiling.

Shipping It

I worked with the raid team, testing the fight over and over again until we got it tuned just right.

The mana costs and health thresholds raced against each other in a tight fashion. The raid seemed to be in a great place.

I will always remember fondly those afternoons of watching the QA team patiently rehearsing Shade while I figured out the right damage and health amounts to pace the fight out correctly.

It was a huge testament to their patience and tenacity that the fight turned out as well as it did.

Unfortunately, it came with a cost I didn’t realize.

Scott: Hey, when is Shade going to be finished?

WoWScrnShot_062708_224231Me: He’s pretty close… why do you ask?

Scott: Well, apparently, you’ve used more than four times the QA time of any other designer in the last month… and they’re starting to believe that you don’t have a clue of what you’re doing.

Me: What?!? Well, I mean this is my first boss.

Scott: Yeah… Look, this doesn’t have to be perfect. Finish up what you’re doing today, I want you to help me spawn the trash in the rest of the dungeon.

Me: Well, crap, the last thing I need to do is come up with a game over-timer.

They’ve found a way to drag the fight out for 20 minutes by bringing six healers to avoid risk in the fight.

Scott: Well, hurry up. Reuse something or just death touch them. I dunno, but be quick about it.

I rushed and brought back the old Volley spells – spawning four Mirror Images of Aran, if the fight went on past 12 minutes.

It was simple, dirty and got the job done.

Sometimes simple is the best way to handle exploits.

Finally, almost a year after working on Shade, he went live.

Delighted, I got my raid group together and we ran Karazhan, chipping away at the bosses, week after week, until we finally got to Aran.

Once there, we were about to pull when my raid leading buddy, “Bloodywolf” whispered me.

[Bloodywolf] whispers: You should really link them to the chant video.

You whisper: Chant video?

… horrified, I realized my mistake.

Flame Wreathe targeted 3 raid members at random, the intention being that those three people would not leave their circles… but I forgot to add a check to confirm that the person leaving the “flame wreathe” was the one who was targeted by it.

I rushed into work to fix it…

Scott: What are you doing?

Me: I NEED to fix Flame Wreath.

Scott: What? Why?

Me:  They aren’t playing it the way it’s supposed to go… they’re making everyone stop moving.

Scott: Well, whatever you do, those changes won’t get in until 2.2, when the next raid zone goes out, at which point it won’t matter as much.

So… no, you’re not changing anything.

Players will have spent months learning this strategy, and I don’t think you should change it on them.

Me: What?!

Scott: Yes. Don’t change it. Next time, make better use of your QA time and keep something like this from slipping through.

I will confess, I was aghast. I knew there was a core of truth to what he was saying… but it still bothers me to this day that the mechanic was never fixed.

I also can’t deny that I still feel bitter about that call. It’s a long, unsightly, if meme-creating blemish on my work. 

I considered going back to every expansion and quietly patching it in.  

But sometimes, a mistake is twice as memorable as a victory. 

I will admit, after that point, I was far more fearful of asking for QA time on my future raids – something that stuck and nagged at me for years.

Me: Hey Scott, now that you’ve played it. What is the one thing that you would have changed about the fight?

Scott: *turned back* I get the whole tension thing, but I still don’t think you ever needed those Water Elementals.

Me: … Yeah. Perhaps not.

“Nothing you create can be perfect. But by straining to try, you achieve something better than “just good enough”.

When you reflect, it’s easy to be distracted by the negatives. It’s easy to forget in a moment all of the hard work and effort that goes into crafting even the simplest raid boss.”

This one goes out to Jeff, Scott, Kevin, Joe, Stephen, Geoff, Rob P, J. A. B., Alex Tsang, Terrie D., Micky, Morgan and Whitney Day, the numerous QA testers I spoke with behind 1132 on fall day, the artists I never met and the particle artists who scaled up Shade’s arcane explosion at the last minute before launch day.

Finally, a huge thank you to the readers who made the Shade meme and built up the craziness that is the WoW community.

Lessons:

It was my first raid boss that I designed from scratch on my own. So I ensured that the challenging fight was well-tested and tuned.

I used up a lot of QA resources without understanding how much was normal and reasonable for designers to use.

It’s important to know how many people are competing for the time and energy of a resource and make sure it was applied well.

You don’t want to increase costs and potentially delay someone’s project by overusing team resources.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series.

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10 Responses

  1. Love the story. Kara was the only instance I raided almost every week for an entire xpac, and shade was iconic. As a tank, I HATED those water elementals, but I would not change anything about that fight.

    Oh yea, whoever added the holy novas to the skeletons in nightbane was an asshole!

  2. Just wanted to let you know that this was easily my most favorite fight in all of Kara… and I think that the water elementals were the icing on the cake.

  3. Hi, enjoyable read about one of my favorite fights, it was such a great and unique time in the game, vanilla through the first expansion hold some of my fondest memories.

    I’ve had this screenshot for a very long time, and it was something I always wondered about – http://i.imgur.com/x82jX0N.jpg – it shows Aran holding an axe, rather than his usual staff (after murdering us all, I assume from the ss); am I mistaken and he switches weapon occasionally based on spawn, is it random, was it a rare bug or something? I thought it was cool anyway, thanks for the great fight.

  4. Hello there! First of all, this was an amazing story into the making of a very beloved game. It was nice to see how the sausage was made.

    Would you mind updating the Shade of Aran chant to the original author BrewGuy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2GPY-P2we4 (he was also a WoW Idol!). He originally uploaded it to YTMND http://shadeofaranchant.ytmnd.com/ and I guess the other guy wanted it on youtube to make it easier for people to find.

    He is way too nice to ask or care himself 🙂

    Love surgio

    [Edit by Xelnath]:
    This has been done.
    URL updated to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2GPY-P2we4

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