Shade of Aran: Unveiling the Ingredients of a Well-Crafted Boss Encounter

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, boss in Karazhan
Discipline: Content Design

Today, let’s talk about my very first big success – the Shade of Aran.

My groove was becoming stronger, and the design methodology I created started to yield rewarding outcomes.

There are few fights I am personally prouder of than Shade of Aran.

He was the perfect mix of qualities: Clear, Motivating, Responsive, Satisfying and Cohesive.

However, he did not get that way through my ingenuity alone. It was the effort and contribution of many others.

Here is the story of how Shade came to pass.

The Shade of Aran

Scott: Alright, I have two bosses left in the middle section of Karazhan. A mage and a demon.

Who wants which.

Moment of silence as Joe and I looked at each other.aran

Me: I’d actually like to do the mage.

Scott:  Really? I would have expected you to want to do the sacrificial demon boss, Mr. Ebonlocke.

Me: Nah, I need to start with something a bit simpler.

Scott: Alright, well, the tl;dr is that this is the ghost of Medivh’s father.

Basically, he’s a super mage, so take a bunch of player abilities and crank them up to 11.

It would also be good if you talked with the other designers about your ideas before implementing them.

Me: I think I can handle that.

Pre-Kickoff Meeting

I was sitting in my office, thinking about raid bosses.

This was the first one I got to design myself, so I wanted it to be impressive.

But I also knew that impressive means different things to different people.

For me, impressive meant not graphically amazing, nor intellectually baffling, but instead, something that any player could experience, respond to and enjoy.


This has always been the driving force behind my natural game design philosophy.

Make sure the pieces are individually clear, with clear outcomes of success and failure.

So I wanted this boss to reflect that!

I also believed that so long as it benefitted the player, no amount of pain inflicted upon myself was too great.

I would gladly work harder to sheer off the rough edges that would make a fight feel difficult or wrong.

Now, up to this point, all bosses I’d played had been about very strictly defined roles.

The tank holds the mob. The healer spams Greater Heal on the tank. The DPS push their rotations.

That’s fine.

But it’s not a common ground… in fact what on earth did all classes have in common in WoW?

The ability to move.

So I based the heart of the fight around just that: Movement.

I then asked myself, which abilities made the player move on a mage?

Blizzard? Yes. Arcane explosion? Yes.  Blast nova or Frost nova? No, that took away or diminished your movement heavily.

I could use just those two, but I really wanted a strong ability from each school of magic. I threw up my hands… so far, I couldn’t see a great fire idea.

Switching to my sketch book, I started off by thinking about the reaction to an Arcane Explosion – easy! Run away!

I could suck the players into the middle of the room, then they run out before the explosion goes off.

Then a Blizzard… normally, you just walk out of a Blizzard, but that’s the exact same response as players would have to Arcane Explosion.

How could I make it better?

imgres-1 Well, the Blizzard could chase you… but how would you know who is being chased? Blizzards don’t exactly have a well-defined outline.

That would be unclear, frustrating and annoying.

What could I do to reduce that uncertainty?

Make it a predictable pattern.  I elected for a circle that moved around the room clockwise.

Finally, Shade needed something else to do.

Super abilities alone weren’t enough – furthermore, they could ALL be avoided, keeping the healers very bored.

So I decided he should Blink around the room and shoot volleys of Fire/Frost/Arcane attacks to deal even damage across the group.

Step22I drew a sketch for each attack…. circle growing outward, a pie slice rotating around a clock, cone shots…what was missing.

Then it dawned upon me… if I couldn’t think of another way to make players run away, maybe instead I could encourage them to stand still. AHA!!

“Illustrations go far to help organize your own thoughts.

Idea Iteration

My first thought was to put a fire debuff on you that detonated when you moved.

That seemed cool… but how on earth would you know when to stop moving? That didn’t seem like the right kind of warning.

Debuffs icons are subtle and noticing a fire state on you is really, really hard to do.

I needed something more granular.

The DotA Invoker had an ability that punished you increasing amounts the more you moved.

This idea seemed like it had potential… but it was very poorly sold in the game, underminded the experience of moving and generally didn’t seem like the right fit.

How to merge the two ideas?

Flame Wreath

I went rummaging through all of the art in the game. I happened to find an effect called “ZulGurubLightFire.m2”.

When I scaled it up, I realized it was a perfect ring of flame. Snatching the effect, I had my solution! Eureka! Scavenging for the win!

Instead of instantly blowing up when they moved, the target would detonate when they crossed the line of fire, thus giving PLENTY of time for them to realize they needed to stop moving.

Knowing that this would mean creating an ability that had never existed in the game before, I figured it would be wise to check-in with someone more mechanically wise than me.

Opened up an email to Rob Pardo.

I didn’t have many chances to get in touch with Rob since I’d started on WoW, so I figured this would give a good chance to check in.

Writing a tightly bulleted list of points, I scribbled:

Making a new ability. Wanted to run it past you.

  • Wraps 3 players in circles of fire.
  • Crossing the circle of fire causes them to explode.
  • Explosions deal damage to nearby allies.
  • To ensure allies know who crossed the line and hurt them, the victim is knocked up into the air.
    • No one else is knocked up

Any concerns?

Nervous, I was relieved a few minutes later when I got a reply:

Seems tight, cohesive and well-sold. Good job on this.

A few minutes later, a nervous Jeff Kaplan walked into my office.

Jeff Kaplan: Hey, so I just heard you’re working on a raid boss already?

It had only been my third day at Blizzard when Scott had asked me to do Attumen the Huntsman. That was over a week ago!

Me: My 2nd, actually, I did a horse boss for Scott.

Jeff: But this is the first one you’re planning on your own? Right? *was wringing his hands anxiously*

Me:  Yes.

Jeff: Okay, well, we always do kick-off meetings before starting work on a boss. You should hold off on building anything until we’ve had that meeting.

I was panic’d – my ideas were good and I knew it… and now they might just all go away. Oh no. 

Me: Oh, well… I’ve only got a few ideas so far… When can we have this meeting, I would like to get started.

Jeff: Tell you what, let me grab Scott and we’ll talk it out right now.

Jeff walked out and I started to sweat… 

Continue to Part 2


This fight really pulled together epic mechanics and some great inspirations around how players could respond to mechanics at a universal level.

This resonated with my colleagues and the players and also solidified my design thinking around clarity.

However, I didn’t understand how much work it would take.

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4 Responses

  1. Next time, I’ll talk more about collaboration, where many of the ideas came from… and eventually.. what happened with Flame Wreath.

    What was your best memory of Aran?

  2. Sadly, Karazhan was current content back when I was only in middle school so any first-impressions I had then I can’t really recall and if I could I doubt they’d have any weight in terms of game/boss design.

    All that being said, what really struck a cord with me was Aran’s overall kit. He was, as Scott instructed, a super-mage and used a lot of spells close to the players own spellbook. It’s always kind of cool to see your class ‘on steroids’ so to speak, kind of like meeting a higher level Archmage in Dungeons and Dragons. You have this sense of pride/respect for that character almost instantly because you can identify with that character through a common class.

    In terms of mechanics, I remember elementals. Elementals everywhere. When I played my warlock I was usually tasked with banishment duty. I always enjoy mechanics that exist outside the realm of DPS-races, like the flame wreath you put together and something akin to the elementals. It’s a nice break away from constantly using your rotation and instead looking at the environment around you.

    Thanks so much for posting this, Blizzard constantly inspires me and I hope someday to be there with you all!

  3. It’s amazing how far you can ride the idea of game clarity and garner results out of it. It’s a strange thing, you know – not long ago we had cryptic jungle stacking mechanics as the ‘norm, now we’re rocking things like Baron telegraphing avoidable moves and bosses projecting bad zones onto the ground that you shouldn’t stand in.

    Shade of Aran was always a groaner. Not that the fight was bad or anything, but Karazhan being casual by nature (intro raid) and 10mans often having an open arms policy meant that many a Flame Wreath was wiping you halfway through the raid.

    Solid fight, though. I loved what you did with Arcane Explosion – Arcane spells have always kind of lacked that raw power that they are thematically about, so incorporating a vacuum effect adds a nice level of depth to an otherwise bland spike of damage.

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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:
    • 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)
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  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
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  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan