Wednesday, January 1, 2014

WoW: A Gimmick By Any Other Name

In the context of World of Warcraft, the term “gimmick” gets thrown around a lot in reference to boss fights, and often in a derogatory manner. I find it a lot like Ghostcrawler would find the term “clunky”. What the general populace defined as “clunky” was often not the more precise definition the developers would use in their own posts. defines "Gimmick" as follows:
1. An ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, especially one designed to attract attention or increase appeal.
2. A concealed, usually devious aspect or feature of something, as a plan or deal: An offer that good must have a gimmick in it somewhere.
3. A hidden mechanical device by which a magician works a trick or a gambler controls a game of chance.
So what is a “gimmick” in a WoW boss fight? Are they bad, good, neither, or both? Kurn over on her blog Kurn’s Corner talks about gimmicks in boss fights today, and comes with a fresh perspective having taken the expansion off from raiding. Her major complaint is that gimmicks seem to be increasing, and implies that’s largely a negative thing:
“The question is, of course, what kind of interesting and new boss fights can you have without resorting to gimmicks like Rhyolith’s steering or Zon’ozz’s bouncing? It’s not that all gimmick fights are bad, but Yor’sahj, for example, was (IMHO) an inventive fight that wasn’t really based on some new-fangled gimmick.”
However, like any discussion, you want to be sure of what is a gimmick, and what isn’t. And oddly enough, that seems to be subjective. If someone were to ask me what I thought was the best example of a gimmick fight, two come to mind: Flame Leviathan in Ulduar, and Malygos. When asked to define what she thought a gimmick was, Kurn actually came up with the same couple of examples independently, so at least it seems that there’s some consensus as to what the most egregious gimmicks are: vehicle battles that take control away from your character. I rather enjoyed Flame Leviathan, however. It was a great example of what vehicle combat in WoW should be, rather than say, jousting *shudder*.

She also brings up the idea of a secondary resource being gimmicky. So the sound bar on Atramedes, or Immerseus’ secondary health bar, the Pride Bar on Sha of Fear are examples. Another thing is the Extra Action Button, so Ultraxion’s push the button or die, the Opportunistic Strike in Will of the Emperor, or kicking shells on Tortos. Getting thrown into a different realm is another she mentioned, a la Gara’jal or Halion. Or if she had to fly, like Valithria or Kael’thas. Splitting up the raid, like on Thorim, or Spoils of Pandaria also falls under gimmicky to her.

But dealing with damage, adds, getting out of the bad, tank swaps, interrupts all are mentioned as not gimmicky.

Then there’s the gray areas, the things she doesn’t mention. Where do the electric pools on Jin’rokh the Breaker fall, where you stand in them to get a damage buff, but take extra damage? Do the healing absorb debuffs on Spine of Deathwing or Jarraxus count as a gimmick? How about the Mind Control requirements of Instructor Razuvious (A Vanilla boss originally, I might add)?

I don’t necessarily agree with Kurn’s list entirely. Splitting the raid, for example, doesn’t seem to be a gimmick to me at all, either via keeping the parties apart, or using something like a secondary realm to divide the party. It’s not really novel nor ingenious (though many raids split the raid artificially to deal with the sheer madness that are the Dark Shaman). Galakras, Spoils of Pandaria, Siegecrafter Blackfuse, Ji-Kun, Sha of Fear, Will of the Emperor, Elegon, Gara’jal the Spiritbinder, Morchok (Heroic), Rhyolith, Alysrazor, Shannox, Beth’tilac, Conclave of Wind, Nefarian, Halion, Gunship, Lady Deathwhisper, Onyxia, Yogg-Saron, Thorim, The Four Horsemen, and Thaddius all require splitting the raid either for the entire fight or parts of it. And I stopped at Wrath, let alone TBC and Vanilla. That hardly seems gimmicky, rather it’s just another raid encounter tool.

Secondary resources are an interesting thing, because though on the surface they feel gimmicky. They really come in two flavors: they either affect the boss, or affect the player. Examples of where they affect the player would be the Pride bar for Sha of Pride, or the Corruption bar for Cho’gall. Sanity is a bit of the reverse for Yogg-Saron as you start with a finite amount, and rather than an explicit bar you get a debuff with stacks, but it all has the same effect in the end. Where they affect the boss would be General Nazgrim’s Rage, or the Pillars on Lei Shen. I think we can discount secondary resources where they’re nothing but a glorified timer (Empress Shek’Zeer’s mana bar, or the bar that pops up for the Stone Guard).

Sha of Pride Pride Bar. Get that baby to 100, and you're pretty much dead.

But are secondary resources gimmicky? Most player-affecting resources just enforce better play. Stay out of the bad, or bad things will compound. Sha of Pride, if no one is hit by any of the major Pride inducing attacks, the secondary resource is largely ignorable outside the healers’ dispelling. Same for Cho’gall up until the rush at the end (and now that I think about it, the two fights really are very similar), which to me doesn’t feel like that big of a stressor or a terrible thing. So perhaps it is gimmicky, but it doesn’t feel bad.

For bosses, Nazgrim’s Rage really just enforces kill order and enforces folks to be smart about staying out of the bad (sound familiar?). Defensive Stance is different (and annoying), but overall it doesn’t really feel much different from the player effects. Lei Shen, however, is very interesting. With the pillars, the players get to choose what order they do things, what abilities to activate and level up, and generally how the fight goes. Basically, it’s just a variation on Yor’sahj. But it is a hidden mechanical device of sorts, or a novel device, so I’d definitely agree that it falls under gimmick.

Opportunistic Strike! Dance, and then BAM!

Almost anything that involves the Extra Action Button feels gimmicky to me for sure, as suddenly you have a new rule to learn about your character that only applies in this one situation. Ultraxion, being the first/worst offender here, but Opportunistic Strike on Will, or the tank abilities on Feng the Accursed. The Magnetic Core from Mimiron could have easily been an Extra Action Button if it existed back then, so while not new, we have better UI to handle it. But what about getting targeted by the Mark of Arrogance on Fallen Protectors? It’s really just a way to pass aggro to someone else. Rather than the EAB, they could’ve done some convoluted aggro table system (like the Faction Champions), but does that count as a gimmick, being lazy, or making it transparent to the raiders?

So after all of that, what counts as a gimmick? I think most folks definitely agree that anything that requires you to be in “vehicle combat” is a gimmick, some or most secondary resources count, and extra action button things count usually, as well. But is there a better way to describe this? I posit the following:

gim·mick [gim-ik]
4. In the context of a video game boss, anything that changes the default rules of the game, either by granting a new contextual ability (or abilities), redefining what it means for a boss or player to be defeated, or defining a player-induced trigger that alters the currently established rules of combat.

My new definition covers pretty well all vehicle combat, and Extra Action Buttons with the first clause. The second clause allows us to cover fights like Immerseus, where reducing him to 0 health doesn’t defeat him (you need to reduce his secondary bar to 0), or Sha of Pride/Cho’Gall where if you hit full Pride/Corruption, you’re effectively defeated and removed from the fight. The third clause covers fights like Lei Shen, Twin Consorts, Yor’sahj, Zon’ozz, Siegecrafter Blackfuse. Heck, you could stretch the third clause to include General Nazgrim, and the player-induced triggers are people getting hit by abilities.

It, however, does not do a good job of covering a fight like Malkorok with his Ancient Miasma, which definitely feels gimmicky. There are also still some gray areas, like Primordius (who also feels gimmicky), or Jin’rokh’s pools (which don’t really feel like gimmicks so much to me), so it needs a bit more massaging to find something a little more precise, but at the same time it feels like a good start to me.

I’ve let this blog post get on long enough, so next time I’ll follow up about comments, and talk about whether gimmicks are good or bad, and what other design tools could developers use for their fights.


  1. Then there’s the gray areas, the things she doesn’t mention.

    Honestly, I had no idea about pools on Jin'rokh, but that doesn't seem too gimmicky to me. Healing absorb debuffs, not a gimmick on SPINE, but a gimmick on Jaraxxus, IMHO. Why not on Spine? Because the raid didn't blow up if you failed. I mean, you weren't going to really finish the encounter easily if you didn't manage to heal up the people with Searing Plasma, but Jaraxxus' similar mechanic was gimmicky because the raid would essentially blow up and you'd wipe pretty much instantly if you didn't get rid of Incinerate Flesh. (Burning Inferno inflicts 3900 to 4100 Fire damage every 1 sec for 5 sec to the entire raid. The Burning Inferno is caused by Incinerate Flesh not being removed before the duration expires.)

    Raz is an outstanding example of a gimmick. That required two PRIESTS (no getting around it, it had to be priests, but in the days of 40m raids, that wasn't really a problem, per say) to play as the students to tank Razuvious himself. What kind of nonsense is that? The priests aren't tanks, they're not even using their own abilities (outside of mind control). They have to use these new abilities that have nothing to do with their class. That's gimmicky to the extreme, IMHO, since priests *can't* tank. (Well, outside of a shadow priest tanking level 60 Ony... but I digress.) A priest's roles are limited to healing or damage-dealing. Not tanking. So not only did it force you to have two priests NOT healing (because what else did priests DO in Vanilla?), but it forced those players to do something completely outside of what their class normally requires.

    The Wrath version was, thankfully, a little better, by virtue of having the MC thingies so your TANKS could tank, but that's still pretty gimmicky.

    My dislike of the mechanics in the encounter is, however, tempered by the Karate Kid reference.

    As to splitting the raid, I think there's a difference between, say, Four Horseman and Spoils. In Four Horseman (and many other fights you listed), the raid team members can move across to the other sides if something happens with a lot more ease than in Spoils. IMHO. (Come on, those hooks take forever, unless I'm truly missing something, and maybe I am!) (Also, don't get me started on stupid Conclave.)

    Secondary resources... I guess I see them as gimmicky because, well, I don't tend to make a habit of standing in bad stuff (unless I'm lagging at 4fps). If the purpose of secondary resources is to help ensure good play (not taking excessive damage etc), why not just make the damaging abilities lethal? I don't want a little bar to tell me "hey, dumbshit, you ate six sound bombs" or "haha, your corruption is creeping towards 100!". Just kill me. THAT will teach me not to stand in bad.

    I think the thing with the secondaries is that the more of that resource you gain, the worse stuff hurts later on. If you had more sound on Atramedes than a buddy, things would hurt you more than them. That's gimmicky, to me. Yes, it encourages better play, but it's sort of lulling you into a false sense of security, allowing you to say something like "oh, I have less than 50 corruption, I'm fine, I can stand in that" versus "must not stand in anything, lest I die".

    I'm okay with the rage bar and the various stances on Nazgrim, strangely. I think it's because I've always liked it when a boss actually acts like a player. While I didn't love the Blackhorn encounter, I loved that he cast Shockwave, like a warrior does.

    I think you've done a great job in trying to define "gimmick", Talarian. :) And thanks for letting me ramble here. :D

    1. Why not on Spine? Because the raid didn't blow up if you failed.
      ~ Good point, and I guess that would be covered in my definition of "redefining what it means for a boss or player to be defeated" if the explosion is big enough to wipe the raid outright.

      The priests aren't tanks, they're not even using their own abilities (outside of mind control). They have to use these new abilities that have nothing to do with their class.
      ~ Ah, but Mind Control is part of the Priest kit. Why have that ability if you're never going to get to use it?

      the raid team members can move across to the other sides if something happens with a lot more ease than in Spoils.
      ~ So for raid splitting, for you, the only difference between how long it takes to reunite the groups is what determines if it's gimmicky or not? That seems awfully arbitrary to me (granted, the entire concept of gimmick is, so far, pretty arbitrary).

      If the purpose of secondary resources is to help ensure good play (not taking excessive damage etc), why not just make the damaging abilities lethal?
      ~ In my opinion, allowing some wiggle room is goodness here, from both a progression standpoint as well as expanding the developers' toolkit for creating raid encounters. If all they had to choose from was instant death or not, why have healers? We have a whole possible spectrum of mechanics here available, why limit it to either death or cake?

      Some good points, thanks for the discussion :)