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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
I 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.
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?
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
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*
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…
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.