Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Treatise on Occulus, Part 2: "The New Heroic" & "Like a Different Game"

Back to Part 1

Now that Blizzard has put another Band-Aid on the Occulus problem, one that I believe will stick, I’ll redirect the thrust of this thesis towards discussing what actually went wrong here and how Blizzard can avoid it when designing Cataclysm without giving up on trying novel ideas for dungeons.

When the “3.3 PuG-o-matic Deluxe” (thanks Ixo) was impending on the PTR, the Blizzard developers recognized that Occulus was the least popular – and in fact, the most reviled – of the heroic dungeons. They nerfed it, adding gear scaling to the player drakes and nerfing every enemy in the instance. As evidenced by the many continuing problems with the dungeon, their gesture was insufficient. That’s because the problem with Occulus is not that it’s “hard”. Let me illustrate with two quotes from my guildies.

Soon after 3.3 hit, one of my guildies noted that change to the landscape of max-level 5-mans. She described it as “The New Heroic: push the lever, get a pellet.” To a certain degree, WoW – and most MMOs – have always been about performing a task for a reward, like the quintessential lab rat pushing a lever for a food pellet. But never before have heroic dungeons, the pinnacle of 5-man content, been so blankly lever-like. The New Heroic is all about blowing mindlessly through easy dungeons as quickly as possible, disenchanting every useless item along the way as you grind out Emblems. Anything that gets in the way of the pellet – any added complexity to the lever, if you will – is viewed with disdain. Bosses in HoL and DTK were “fixed” to accommodate the new status quo of bursting bosses down in 30 seconds (changes I support).

But, every time one speed bump is removed, the next most delaying boss mechanic becomes the new evil. Your massive overgearing of the content won’t help you get through the HoS computer event any faster, and Anub’arak and King Ymiron will still prevent you from attacking them to an annoying degree.

Occulus is pretty much made of speed bumps, and that’s one of the core reasons it is so undesirable in the Dungeon-o-matic environment. Back when all of the heroics were reasonably challenging, Occulus wasn’t quite so different. But now that the goal is to blast through as quickly as possible, the differences between Occulus and every other dungeon become more grievous.

No matter how many flat nerfs you apply, Occulus still won’t be comparable to other dungeons in the new environment.

The other quote from another of my guildies illustrates what’s really wrong with Occulus: “It’s like a different game”.

As I observed in the last installment, the game you played leveling to 80, and all of the other dungeons you do, share certain characteristics that Occulus does not. Let’s go through the list:

Abilities: Throughout the game, players learn to handle abilities based on their class. When put on a drake, they are robbed of every one of those abilities, and instead given 2-3 new abilities. This in itself wouldn’t be so difficult to manage, except each of these abilities tries to do too much at once, all while including effects that are not found elsewhere in the game. For instance, not only does the red drake’s attack chain to multiple targets, but contrary to every other chaining ability in the game, it does more damage to the secondary targets. The red drake shield and the bronze drake focusing beam are other clear examples of abilities with no analogue in the player’s normal arsenal and way too many simultaneous effects.

In a way, the abilities constitute a puzzle for the dungeon-crawler to solve. Unfortunately, players are looking for WoW’s gameplay, not a puzzle that involves reading ability tooltips and considering them in light of enemy abilities. The bottom line is that these abilities are difficult to figure out and constitute a massive roadblock to the expected “faceroll normal rotation for badges” that players expect in the New Heroic.

3-dimensional combat: Players spend the vast majority of the game locked down to the ground, limited to 2-dimensional movement. When they get flying mounts, they are explicitly prevented from engaging in any mounted combat. There are almost never dangers to avoid while flying, and certainly no dangers that cannot be escaped by continuing to fly away until the pursuer gives up. Players are simply never prepared for flying enemies who could come from any direction while they themselves are trying to navigate 3-D space on a 2-D screen.

Linearity: Most instances are sets of hallways, or otherwise quite linear. Occulus is a giant open space with very little clarity about where you are supposed to go next, especially considering how graphically same-y the whole place is. It’s very easy to get confused or lost, and even easier to lose track of where your group is.

Monster “Pulls”: All of the other dungeons in the game offer groups of stationary or patrolling enemies that you pull in a small group, dealing with each “pull” one at a time. Occulus fills the air with drakes who can spot you from above, below or to the sides, and rather than being pullable in groups, they stand individually, but literally fill the sky. This is very counter-intuitive for the player who is used to a normal enemy loadout in a dungeon.

Dismounting: In no other dungeon, as part of the normal, intended game mechanics, can you be rendered nearly unable to attack an enemy who is killing your party. Almost everyone has had an experience in Occulus where a flying drake pulled after your party had dismounted, forcing you to awkwardly kill the drake, if you were able to at all. The drakes are much harder to kill without your own mount, and if you don’t have a DK to death grip or are short on ranged dps, they can be a massive pain to deal with once you’ve dismounted.

Blunted gear scaling: People in tier 9 and 10 will mow over any other heroic. In Occulus, they will do a tiny bit more damage on a drake mount. No comparison.

Coordination Requirement: No other dungeon requires the coordination Occulus does. Aside from the difficulty of staying together without guiding hallways, and the dangers of straying an inch from your group and pulling 2 more adds, there is also the functionality of the bronze drakes. To maximize their dps, your group must work together in a way that requires either ventrillo, ESP, or unusually skilled and attentive play (which is not required anywhere else).

That’s a lot of differences, many of them drastically changing the core of the game and/or requiring a totally different set of skills.

One lesson Blizzard can take from Occulus is that when they get creative, they shouldn’t change too much all at once. We’ve seen many of the differences above in other dungeons, with much greater success. And that’s because only one or two of the above aspects are integrated, rather than all of them flying at your face trying to kill you at once.

The difference between Occulus and other dungeons is not simple “difficulty”. It’s the mix of changes to the gameplay that vastly increase the potential for disasters, as well as the potential that the players simply will not enjoy the dungeon.

Next, we’ll take a quick look at the Dungeon Finder itself, and its relationship to Occulus and consider whether or not it is working as intended. When is random not random?

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