What Makes a “Good” Raid?
Last week, Alas explained why she is dissatisfied with the nerfs to Firelands, and went on to describe what exactly she wants out of a raid instance. Alas includes several of Elfi’s screenshots of Karazhan, and contrasts them with the relatively few screenshots she has taken of the Firelands instance. It got me wondering what exactly it is about Firelands that has been a let-down for so many of us, and why some instances seem to be almost universally adored. A few days ago, I also wrote about the Firelands nerfs and mentioned in passing that I would simply be happy to get out of this raiding tier because I hadn’t found it very enjoyable. I didn’t elaborate much on that at the time, as I figured it might grow into a mega-post if I did.
… and this is that mega-post.
(Caveat: I realize that much of what I say below will be subjective. I’ve tried, when I get all misty-eyed about how much I enjoyed a particular raid instance, to express it in as objective a way as I could. I’ve probably failed more than succeeded.)
In the course of gathering my thoughts to write this, I had several extended conversations with the Pink Kitty about our favorite raids. I also managed to talk my guild into doing a quick questionnaire so I could pick their brains on the subject, and they provided me with some incredible responses. It was amazing what a wealth of answers I got, and how varied they were. I asked for people’s opinions as an open-ended question, because I didn’t want to just end up with a poll where people voted for their favorite thing. I was so stunned by how little agreement there was between everyone I spoke to, and how different the reasoning was behind each and every opinion. There were, however, a few ideas that tended to be important to most of the people who responded.
A raid should feel like what it is.
Whether a designer is tasked with creating a raid instance that’s a haunted castle, an elemental plane, a horrifying zombie factory, or the seat of the world’s creators, the raid must feel like it could really be that place. Karazhan is an oft-cited example of this, and one that would have been difficult for its designers to screw up. The idea of a haunted castle isn’t exactly a new concept in fantasy, and so Kara’s designers had plenty of common mythology to use in its creation. A terrifying dungeon complete with a dead horseman, followed by hallways full of the ghosts of former guests, a dinner party gone wrong, a haunted opera, a living chess set, and a castle whose foothold in reality and our dimension slowly slips away as we rise higher and higher – while these are all things that may have been done before, they are perfectly executed in Karazhan.
Ulduar, for me, is the ultimate example of Blizzard’s design team being given a concept that could be extremely daunting and just hitting it completely out of the park. Imagine, at the beginning of Wrath, if you were one of the designers assigned to help figure out what the Titan architecture in the Storm Peaks would look like. The Titans were known of prior to Wrath, but we had seen only minimal examples of their structures in the form of the ruins of Uldaman. Instead of going in a predictable route and referencing Greek or Norse ideas of what the temple of the gods would look like, the Ulduar designers created something extremely unique. Ulduar blends “Titan technology” with classical columns, delicate stained glass, and the unique realms of each of the Keepers. My guildmates used terms like “atmospheric,” “grandiose,” and “whimsical” to describe Ulduar in several of their posts:
“[Ulduar is] a very pretty instance, particularly with all the varied areas. Even at 85, Algalon is worth seeing because… it’s worth seeing. If you haven’t seen that fight, you owe it to yourself to go do it. The descent in to Yogg-Saron’s lair – with the shattered windows and the friezes alluding to what’s imprisoned down there – is very atmospheric, and was an instant favourite the first time I saw it.” – Imenja
“Just the overall style of this place is fantastic — it’s grandiose from start to finish. The fights were well designed, with hard modes actually interesting, activated in interesting ways, and we were free to pick and choose which hard modes we wanted to do. Then everything culminates in the Yogg-Saron fight – it is the icing on the cake of awesome that is Ulduar. And Algalon is the candles, or something.” – Rozzeg
“Favorite by far Ulduar. If CC hadn’t come out so quickly, we would have had Yoggy when he was current (though not Valanyr, probably), but even without the satisfaction of a final boss down I still love its encounter design, art direction, the whole shebang. Even the voice acting was decent, c.f. Algalon and the aforementioned Yogg. The transition from Sara to “BOW DOWN BEFORE THE GOD OF DEATH!” still gives me chills.” – Squelchy
“The place was overflowing with cool ideas. Level design was fantastic – going from Hodir’s frost-covered tunnels to Freya’s jungle to the explosion of whimsy that is Mimiron was quite a treat. Mimiron, and his Firefighter hard mode are still among my favorite encounters in the game, just activating Thorim’s hard-mode was a challenge in itself early on, Yogg-Saron was a suitably tough end-boss, and Algalon proved a challenge even for groups that were downing Arthas.” – Turion
A raid should feel like what it is, and still be surprising.
Ulduar and Kara are fantastic examples of raid instances that both make sense for the environment that their lore calls for, but also manage not to be overly predictable. WoW is a fantasy game; at its best, it manages to instill a sense of wonder in us when we see something new for the first time.
The elemental planes are possibly the best case of raid instances that could easily fall into a trap of being appropriate for their required setting, but being terribly predictable. The Throne of the Four Winds and the Firelands each ran the risk of not being particularly visually stimulating to players because we assume there are only so many ways to convey the throne of a lord of air or fire. Yet despite this, Throne of the Four Winds manages to be one of the most beautiful and unusual raid instances we have seen to date. TotFW is completely believable as Al’Akir’s seat of power; everything in the raid – from the bosses’ abilities, to their names, to the flying mechanics – make it apparent that you’re in a very airy place. Despite this, TotFW isn’t predictable. There aren’t just tornadoes and blues and grays – Al’Akir’s palace is incredibly colorful and vibrant. And the music – I cannot say enough about the music. I could listen to that music forever, and I loved that it was such a departure from all the dark and foreboding soundtracks we usually hear in raid instances. It was playful, and energetic – just as you’d expect for a lord of wind. It’s a huge shame that so many raiders spent so little time here simply because the loot table was completely undesirable.
Compare this to the Firelands. When I zone into a new raid instance, seeing it for the very first time, I want to be awestruck. I want to have a sense of how dangerous and magnificent the place is, and be amazed at the time that has gone into its design. The first time I went into the Firelands, I looked around, mounted up, and thought, “Hmm. Well, this is about what I figured.” Fire, lava, and scorched earth. Reds, yellows, and oranges. Yes, Firelands is completely believable as the elemental plane of fire. It’s the first kind of thing that would have come to my mind if I were asked to design a place called the Firelands … and that’s not good enough. What, in the entirety of the Firelands instance, is surprising? What is unpredictable and wonderful? What about its design is new and unusual?
A raid should have fun and challenging boss mechanics.
The answer? Some of the boss mechanics. Despite how much I generally dislike tier 12, I have to say that Ryolith is one of the most creative and truly new ideas for a raid encounter we have seen in a long time. I realize that, in practice, Ryolith doesn’t often get chosen as anyone’s favorite fight – particularly if you play a melee class – but the idea behind it is something much different than we’ve seen before in WoW. Easily, my favorite boss fight from Cataclysm has been Atramedes in Blackwing Descent for similar reasons. The idea of a blind dragon who fights us using sound was an incredibly cool concept, and one that was well-executed. Most raiders would agree that the pre-nerf fights in Firelands were challenging, but were they fun?
Sometimes, “fun” and “challenging” don’t necessarily need to happen in the same fight. I was really surprised, as I read over my guildmates’ answers, to see just how many of them loved the Gunship Battle in ICC. Gunship – a fight so easy that most people referred to it as “Lootship” – was by no means a challenging fight. Despite that, a handful of guild members mentioned it because of the “fun factor:”
“Gunship was not hard at all, but it was fun; I play to have fun. Leaping across to an enemy airship using an engineered rocket pack was cool.” – Milric
Conversely, one of the only things my guild members seemed to agree upon was that they loved the original Zul’Aman raid instance because it was difficult. Zul’Aman, they said, was both fun and challenging. The encounters were difficult to master, particularly if your group was shooting for a bear run, but were not so difficult as to be demoralizing:
“Zul’Aman, though, was special. It had a very set goal. The speed run was more or less one gigantic, really long boss fight because in order to do it there was no stopping. Everyone had to be coordinated and we had to make it all fall together in a really special way. It took weeks of practice and refining, not weeks of arbitrary phase one wipes.” – Thrym
“Attempted bear runs – the two successes and many, many, many failures – were stressful and exhilarating in ways that many raids that followed haven’t been. The despair of wiping in the last phase of a long encounter, magnified as if the boss had taken 45 minutes – and the incredible rush when you do, finally manage it. It was perfect.” – Imenja
Finding that ideal balance between challenge and rate of success is undeniably one of the most difficult problems Blizzard’s designers face. When the balance is off, as we see it was in Firelands, we end up with encounters that may be interesting and new as well as challenging, but which are also so difficult to complete that players become tempted to give up. Raiding requires us to win (eventually) in order to feel that we are not wasting our time. When too few raid teams actually do win, we start to question whether we’re actually having fun.
There is one issue, however, which has bothered me even more throughout Cataclysm’s raid content.
A raid should include a villain we WANT to kill.
When I finished questing through Northrend for the first time, there was no doubt in my mind … I wanted to kill Arthas. Because of this, running the Wrath version of Naxx at the beginning of the expansion was an especially potent experience for me, because it was the closest I could come at the time to taking down the Lich King.
Much later, when Icecrown Citadel finally was released, that drive returned. I was so removed from the quests and lore that had first made me see how evil the Scourge was, but the “ICC 5 mans” helped to remind me what was at stake. Throughout the Northrend quests and dungeons, you are told over and over again, “Arthas is EVIL. The Scourge is EVIL.” Even before the WotLK expansion, we knew this to be the case. Anyone who quested through the Plaguelands, or who rolled a Forsaken understood what was at stake. For me, Arthas had to die so I could avenge the Mosswalkers, and for everything my poor death knight had seen in her journey through the Scarlet Enclave starting area. For others, it was to honor the “true heroes” we lost along the way. If there was any doubt in my mind that Arthas was a complete bastard, that had been chased away long before ICC was released. I was itching for a fight with WotLK’s big baddie, and I wasn’t the only one:
“I typically play RPG’s for the story and the immersiveness of the worlds, with that in mind my favourite raid has been ICC, it really did feel like a climax to the story of WotLK it did feel like we were storming a citadel together as group of heroes. The Gunship and [Saurfang] were very cinematic I felt. The Lich King was also very atmospheric even it it was a frustrating fight.” – Volan
“ICC is also among my favorites because of how well they told the story of it in general, of leading up to the raid, the 5 man heroics, the story told in the raid, etc. That and Killing the Lich King with everyone was another very satisfying moment of raiding.” – Laerith
“I remember downing Arthas for that first time. It just felt awesome to see him die. It was quite an ending to an awesome storyline, thus making it my favorite raid.” – Chrixus
Will Dragon Soul be a “good” raid?
The thing is, I … I don’t think I actually care if we kill Deathwing.
As a raider, I want my guild to complete tier 13’s content, obviously. But Cataclysm will remain a disappointment to me as a raider not because the boss fights weren’t interesting, unique, and challenging. For the most part, I enjoyed the mechanics of the boss fights in both tier 11 and tier 12, and I’ll probably enjoy the Dragon Soul as well.
What is not unique or interesting in this expansion is the design of the instances themselves, the lack of personality in the bosses, and the broken feeling of the overall narrative. Buglamp discusses this problem in detail in his blog post asking, “Death-who,” an article that should probably be required reading for every Blizzard designer and writer FOREVER. Deathwing tore the world apart, but it never happened to us, in game. We didn’t see the people who died, or the hundreds more who probably lost their homes and loved ones (the closest any of us can get is to read The Shattering). Since then, we’ve adapted to how Azeroth is now and we’ve moved on. Deathwing has spent the majority of this expansion as an absantee villain. Who has he wronged that we’ve felt an emotional connection to? Rhea? The other aspects? Every time we’ve dealt with them, the dragon aspects have been so lofty that it’s difficult to imagine us fighting for them, rather than them swooping down to save the day and doing the lesser races the favor of sparing us a painful demise in the process. (Except, obviously, for Chromie. I’d totally fight for her, though she’s not an aspect.) With all the help we’ll be getting from the aspects in the final showdown with Deathwing, it’s a hard argument to claim that we are the ones saving them this time.
I can’t say I’ve had much of a reason to care that we killed any of the raid bosses in Cataclysm. Cho’gall is evil and clearly had to be defeated, but we have seen disappointingly little of the Twilight Hammer’s infamous talents for corruption and infiltration in this expansion. We tracked down cultist recruiters who were hiding out in Stormwind and Orgrimmar at the end of WotLK, but then the plot was dropped. Nefarian has been one of our nemeses for years, but we had so little context to explain why he had reappeared to cause more trouble. And Ragnaros? Ragnaros has easily been the least compelling raid boss I’ve faced in WoW to date. The elemental lord of fire is nothing but senseless rage, which is appropriate for the element that embraces anger but not at all interesting as a basis for a multifaceted villain. What did Ragnaros do to us or to our allies? He tried to burn down the World Tree because … that’s what he does, but we had already helped the druids fight back against him and heal the area. I cared more about defeating Fandral Staghelm because he’s had it coming for years than I did about defeating the final boss of the instance.
What I learned, in the course of writing this post, was that my favorite raids are the ones that have the most emotional impact on me. Sometimes that emotion comes because the scenery is so breathtaking, and other times it’s from the knowledge of how important it is that we win the fight against that raid’s villains.
So, I can only hope, that in the quests and the new 5 man dungeons leading up to the Dragon Soul, and perhaps even in the raid itself, we will learn why Deathwing must die. I hope that this reason is something beyond “because he’s chaos,” or “because he’s caused so much destruction.” I hope that we will be given the sort of emotional experience that drove us to face the Lich King. I hope we learn who it is that we’re fighting for.