Raid Encounter Difficulty: Why is “Hard Mode” Harder?

Welcome to December! Today's post serves as an introduction to an idea that I'll be expanding on in the future.

One of the fundamental properties of games is that they don’t exist until someone makes them. I realize that this may seem like a “no duh” kind of moment, but one of the things that I tend to forget is that game creators must make tough choices: about how difficult encounters should be, about how many of what type of creatures to include, about how many hit points the big boss should take from you every time he hits you. All of this development moves in cycles. First ideas are proposed, then they get fleshed out, built, play tested, tweaked, tested again, and then implemented or sent back to the drawing board. The end product should propose a challenge for players, but not so much of a challenge that they cannot over come. What happens when a game, like World of Warcraft, has a large player base with varying skill levels? Should they release only easy content that players can beat quickly, with little effort? No – they would lose the player base that desires a challenge. On the other hand, they cannot release content that is too difficult to play through for most of their customers, or the others would get frustrated and leave.

One of the solutions that Blizzard (WoW’s parent company) has come up with is a multi-tiered content system. In this system there are “easy” versions of content, and “hard” versions of the same content. Here, I’m speaking specifically of raiding, which I touched on in my last post and will do my best to explain briefly as I go. They have structured a lot of game content to be “repeatable” with varying difficulty. But what I’m trying to set you up for is the “how” of how they make the encounters more difficult, and why that is important for our theoretical thinking.

Lets look at one specific example of a recent encounter that has a particularly difficult hard-mode: The Lich King encounter. [For those of you who play, any references I make here will be in regard to the 10 player normal/hard modes.] The Lich King (LK) stands as the final encounter or “boss” of Icecrown Citadel, a towering behemoth of an evil stronghold, reminiscent of the evil parts of Lord of the Rings. Icecrown Citadel is a raid instance, which means that to enter, players must form a special group, flagged in the game’s programming as a “raid”, and then gather either 10 or 25 players together. Before encountering the LK, the group must defeat 11 other encounters. To “unlock” the ability to encounter the LK in hard mode, players must defeat 3 of those 11 encounters (specific ones, not by player choice) in hard mode. So the road to getting to the encounter requires some base level of skill. In theory, unlocking the ability to attempt the encounter in hard mode requires some higher amount of skill.

What is the difference between the two versions? In the most basic sense, hard modes are harder because the creatures you encounter are stronger, have more hitpoints, and do more damage. On top of these sort of “basic” features, however, there are many different things that game designers add as additional obstacles. The Lich King fight changes over time. For the first part of the fight (these parts are called phases, and I will refer to them as such), in normal mode, the lich king attacks you, and every so often calls up from the ground one of two types of undead servants to also attack. He has other abilities but for my purposes today, I’ll only mention these. By the time a group encounters the LK, these additional creatures hurt, but are not devastating. In the hard mode, however, they become an increased concern – deadly, if you will. While the first phase of the normal fight is very stationary, the first phase of the hard version requires complicated movement and quick reactions on the part of the whole team. This is because the LK gains the ability to throw “shadow traps” at players, and he does every time he’s able. These shadow traps form a dark circle on the ground underneath a certain player. If that person or anyone around them is caught in the circle when it is fully formed, it will explode and send them to their death, essentially ending that attempt to defeat the encounter. This requires that you split your group up into multiple teams to try to spread the shadow traps out around the room – there is limited space in which to stand. At the same time, your teams must be within a certain distance of each other, so that the players trying to keep everyone alive can still “reach” everyone with their beneficial abilities. In this example, one new ability takes phase 1 from a stationary “tank and spank” fight with little to pay attention to, to an intricate precision-movement style encounter requiring a lot of attention.

So what we’ve got with this one example is an instance in which the game designers have implemented a time-tested difficulty increasing game feature (a “movement” element, if you will). From a cognitive processing standpoint, this one feature is actually more complicated than it might be getting credit for. It requires paying extra attention to where one’s character is standing at any one point such that they don’t stand in, or run through a shadow trap. It requires movement in response to both shadow traps near you, and all of the others (remember where I mentioned that the groups have to stay somewhat coordinated?). And finally it requires a special awareness of the room, such that you do not run out of space to put new shadow traps, and your groups do not get too close together, thus increasing the chances that a shadow trap will overlap too many players, and cause catastrophe.

On its own, this one element might not seem like a big deal – sure, it changes the fight, but “this is supposed to be a new, more difficult way to perform the encounter!” you could say. The issue is that every phase has one or two ability changes like this – meaning that the fight goes from complicated, to hyper complicated, and this is a 5 phase encounter. Now, I really enjoy the challenge of the Lich King hard mode fight, but in all, it remains one of the more difficult barriers to pass in the game, and many are still unable to accomplish it. To account for this, Blizzard has given players an increase in their own power over time, but even that has not been enough to make the encounter accessible to the general population in hard mode. I’m not advocating that the designers eventually make it so easy that everyone can do it, I’m just pointing out that these design choices have a very significant effect on who can, and cannot complete certain content.

In the near future, Travis and I are going to be looking at the impact of the kinds of additional fight elements that exist on player’s ability to complete the encounters in normal and hard modes. When theorizing from a fixed cognitive resource pool standpoint, we can make some predictions about what level of difficulty the hard modes actually possess. I will talk more about what we find as we get into the data, but for now I wanted to simply introduce the idea that raid encounters are complex, and the difference between “easy” and “hard” is made up not only of a linear increase in encounter power (boss hitpoints, damage dealt), but also from an increase in required attentional capacity which appears to vary and be non-linear in nature.


Raid Encounter Difficulty: Why is “Hard Mode” Harder? by Matt Falk, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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