For a massive online experience like Wold of Warcraft the raid, which is a large-scale group dungeon that requires coordination, scheduling, a high-degree of skill, is often seen as the most epic, hardcore, or grand bit of adventuring to be found in Azeroth.
“The philosophy of raiding in World of Warcraft is a big part of the game for us,” Lead Encounter Designer at Blizzard, Morgan Day, tells me. “Oftentimes it's where a lot of our stories lead up to and end, you've got this big epic bad guy that you're pursuing throughout the expansion, so how do you take him down. Obviously, it would take place in a raid, where the full force of our allies with all of us together, we can bring this villain down.”
Bosses, which vary in number across the different raids, often serve as the centrepieces where tactics and strategies vary, and victory requires patience and learning and working as a team. Which when tackling higher difficulties becomes fundamental. “We have boss brainstorming where we discuss what the boss is and what the fantasy of a boss might be,” Morgan explains. “When you come up to a creature in World of Warcraft in a dungeon or raid, you have an expectation of what that thing would do. And if we can hit that expectation or exceed it as designers, that's like jobs done, thumbs up. We've fulfilled the fantasy.”
"You've got this big epic bad guy that you're pursuing throughout the expansion, so how do you take him down. Obviously, it would take place in a raid, where the full force of our allies with all of us together, we can bring this villain down."
At a glance and looking at the concept of a videogame boss battles one might guess that there’s a pattern to learn, a specific weak spot, and a singular strategy. “We never want to make a boss encounter and say, ‘We expect you to do this, this, and then this’,” Morgan details. “If we design the encounter that way, then that doesn't really provide the player with any agency. They don't feel like they're solving a puzzle, and we always look for those fun stories where you hear people talk about how they encountered a boss and how that's different from how we might do it. We love when we can achieve something like that, and that is definitely a sign of success.”
“I think Mimiron and Patchwerk are good examples of areas where they pulled that off really well,” Morgan adds in references to classic WoW raid boss encounters found the Wrath of the Lich King’s Ulduar and Naxxramas raid dungeons.
"We never want to make a boss encounter and say, ‘We expect you to do this, this, and then this’. If we design the encounter that way, then that doesn't really provide the player with any agency."
Once the initial design of a boss battle is set, the team then iterates and focuses on the encounter from the perspective of each of the four current raid difficulties – LFR (raids joined and completed using the Raid Finder tool), Normal, Heroic, and Mythic. Fine tuning difficulty is a long process that continues right up until and possibly after release. “We have a tonne of awesome technology that lets us continue to iterate and make new changes even after things have gone live,” Morgan adds. “We'll look at the data that we get and check to see if it aligns with the tuning we were shooting for, and sometimes find out that things might be too hard or too easy. We come up with a course of action from there.”
With World of Warcraft celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, where in that time the story and the underlying game has grown over the span of several major expansions, the raid has also seen similar evolution. During the earliest days of WoW raids were 40-player affairs often taking several hours to schedule, setup, and then experience. “The only way you could raid was with 40 people, and it's really hard to organise that many players to show up,” Morgan recalls. “One key change that evolved over the years was going down to 25 players from 40.” And from there offer scaling where exact numbers greater than 10 players was no longer a requirement.
The other major change related to the concept of the raid itself and changing the perception that it was for the hardcore, a challenging multi-hour experience that required a large group of coordinated players. As Blizzard refined and expanded the various difficulty settings this was done to ensure that all players could enjoy both the story and spectacle. “How do we increase engagement across a bunch of different audiences?” Morgan adds. “A raid has four difficulties now. I would say each time where we've added one of those difficulties it was because World of Warcraft has a very broad audience. There are all kinds of different players, and people who enjoy different elements of the game, and every time we make a change to raids often it comes from looking at those different audiences and how can we serve them best.”
"The only way you could raid was with 40 people, and it's really hard to organise that many players to show up. One key change that evolved over the years was going down to 25 players from 40."
The challenge though comes in retaining the core feel of the raid, how it differs from a regular dungeon and to give LFG players a taste of these special encounters. “When we're talking about designing LFR, we think of it as, this is an opportunity to teach players very specific things,” Morgan tells me. “It's really a spectrum, so with LFR we might expect you to learn only a handful of mechanics. So, one or two things. I often ask the group, what is that you want me to learn coming out of this LFR encounter, if I learned one thing, what do you want it to be?”
“That scale goes all the way up to mythic,” Morgan continues. “Where you have to have complete mastery over the entire encounter. And when we're talking about some of the later bosses in the zone, like the end boss for example, if you make a single mistake on one of those mechanics, it could potentially be lethal or fatal for you, or even wipe the raid in some cases.”
Before bosses and fine-tuning difficulty, comes story. The latest expansion, Battle for Azeroth brings back the classic Horde versus Alliance dynamic between the two major Warcraft factions, now engaged in all out war. “For Crucible of Storms this is a space which we wanted to exist within the Shrine of the Storm story line,” Morgan says in reference to the most recent raid added to the World of Warcraft as part of the Tides of Vengeance update. “We wanted to really dig deeper and advance that idea that there's a deep, dark presence that is really manipulating the people. So, what is that, and what's going on there?”
"There are all kinds of different players, and people who enjoy different elements of the game, and every time we make a change to raids often it comes from looking at those different audiences and how can we serve them best."
These are the sorts of questions raised during the initial moments and meetings and gatherings that kick off the creation of a new raid. For Morgan Day and the team, it boils down to figuring out the location, its story, the reasons for going there, and what antagonist and threats lurk within. “There are so many cool things in Crucible of Storms where the fantasy and the art really combine together to tell this really interesting story,” Morgan continues. “At one point in the fight, there's a big giant eyeball on the side of the wall. And when you walk into that room, you’re left wondering what it might do, and we have to pay that off. A large part of doing that comes from the artists selling the vision that players might have in their head. The art and the environment and the story really have to play into all the elements.”
It’s a philosophy that then extends to the shiny stuff - the loot, treasures, items and rewards that players will find when exploring and conquering new raid content. For Crucible of Storms this involved looking at the aquatic race of the Naga, their return and how they fit into the lore and current war taking place in Azeroth. “A big part of the motivation for Crucible of Storms was that we've got all this Naga and Old God influence, and so we had to figure out what the Old Gods are about,” Morgan explains. “You're sacrificing yourself to gain power, so can we really play into that. This is an item that's going to give you a lot of power, but it might literally hurt you. It might do damage and it could even kill. That was one of the ideas that we were playing with.”
“The puzzles that we're creating, these encounters, and presenting them to the player to solve,” Morgan concludes. “When those mechanics tie into the fantasy, when those two things are married, that works really well.”