The psychology of boss design part 1: Information overload

The design of PvE raid bosses in World of Warcraft is a complicated process. Each person on the boss design team gets to create their own encounter(s) in a raid dungeon, sometimes with collaboration on some of the trickier bosses. Over the course of the game’s development, the fights have become more and more complicated. The bosses have more abilities, requiring more movement, and more coordination as a group. These bosses are requiring greater memory demands, greater multi-tasking, and faster reactions to things happening in the environment. These actions all happen while we also complete a complicated series of button presses or mouse-clicks related to filling a specific role in the raid (tanking, healing, or damage dealing).

Over this series of posts, I will talk about how the Mists of Pandaria raid encounters are pushing the limits of human memory, reaction speed limitations, and visual perception abilities (for good or bad!). In this blog series, I’m going to talk about several problems that plague boss encounters, where the fight mechanics are breaking several core psychology principles (related to memory, reaction speed, and visual perception abilities). I will also explain how these principles matter for being able to learn boss encounters in WOW, especially  as it impacts LFR versions of these encounters (where we can expect players to have spent less time researching the encounters in advance).

Can you remember all the mechanics?

First, we are going to talk about Memory abilities and how it impacts our ability to learn how to kill bosses in WOW.

  • Short-term Memory: Your ability to remember items over a short period of time (Wikipedia definition). Science cites 5 to 9 items (7 + 2) as the range for the maximum numbers of unrelated words or digits you can hold in mind. In the cases of WOW, you could think of this as the maximum number of unrelated boss mechanics that a player in the raid could remember if your raid leader listed off boss mechanics and you didn’t spend time to memorize them before the fight. Once we pass around 7 boss mechanics, you probably couldn’t actually recite all the mechanics back to your raid leader (and most people wouldn’t even get all 7 right). In addition, you naturally tend to remember the first and last numbers from the list better than ones in the middle. Basically, your ability to remember new information is limited.
  • Working Memory: Your ability to both briefly store information and use that information to achieve a goal (Wikipedia definition). In this case, not only remembering those boss mechanics, but responding to them appropriately during the fight (actually flying to nests, 1, 2, and 5 while also healing your party members, rather than just remembering that you need to fly to nests 1, 2, and 5). The ability to both remember the mechanics and use that information to perform the fight correctly is using a system with very constrained and limited resources.
  • Long-term Memory: Your long-term memory ability is much less limited than short-term or working memory abilities. You can remember thousands of vocabulary words, math, physics, what to do at your job, etc. If the boss strategy requires too many elements, your goal prior to arriving in the boss room is to study and memorize all the boss mechanics and strategies. Also, with practice (many, many wipes on the boss), you can learn to remember an almost unlimited number of boss mechanics, ability lists, or whatever.

The problem of increasingly more complex fights in WOW:

  • It has become apparent quickly to me in Mists of Pandaria that the boss encounters in raids are quickly passing the “sweet spot” in our short-term and working memory capacity. Thus, most boss fights, especially for normal and heroic modes, involves simply memorizing a choreographed “dance” for each fight (committing the boss strategy details to long-term memory in advance by reading boss strategy guides and videos), and then practicing that “dance” with other people in the encounter until you have fully learned the fight “dance”.
  • Many people doing fights in LFR don’t spend the time outside of the game learning the “dance,” and the fight mechanics can’t be done with only using short-term memory and working memory abilities when you first encounter the fights. This is why Blizzard has to either totally trivialize the encounters (so you don’t have to remember any of the strategy involved at all), or players generally have a miserable LFR experience. This also applies to more “casual” guilds that may not have the time to commit to serious advanced studying of fights ahead of time. My own guild makes people read and sign threads before arriving, and several of the TOT raid encounters have exceeded our own memory capacities based on the need to really spend an hour or more memorizing the boss details to understand the fight in advance.

Average number of boss mechanics by raid dungeon

I pulled up the Wowpedia boss mechanic page for each boss of each raid dungeon described below. I counted the number of boss abilities and computed an average “memory score” per dungeon. I have also included the minimum and maximum memory score. In the case of Patchwerk from the original Naxxramas being the lowest memory score, he ranked as a 3: Hateful Strike threat/health requirements, range requirements to prevent kiting, and the frenzy/enrage mechanic that caused most of the wipes.

Table of average, minimum, and maximum memory scores by raid dungeon (in previous tiers, some were combined, such as BOT and BWD into one mean for the two major dungeons in that tier. I left individual scores for MV/HOF/TOES):

Molten Core5.547
Original Naxx6.333333333310
SSC and TK7.9317
Mount Hyjal4.846
Black Temple8.666666667314
BWD and BOT11.4717
Throne of Thunder12.91666667919

and as a graph for easy viewing:

Conclusions and recommendations:

There is a fairly consistent trend for increases in memory demands over time since Molten Core. In addition, the type of overly complicated fight, which used to be the “end” boss of each tier, is now being placed early in the raid dungeon, causing roadblocks for new guilds trying to get some early progress through normal modes.

Throne of Thunder is really an outlier in terms of the memory demands placed upon average raiders. What is actually more concerning, however, is the huge jump in memory requirements between the previous raid tier (MV, HOF, and TOES) having fairly straightforward mechanics, and Throne of Thunder’s huge list of conditional requirements that need to be remembered. Even the first TOT boss, Jin’rokh, which is the least memory intensive has huge conditional requirements on every mechanic: run out when you get the ball, but not over another spark or you will wipe the raid, and not through the water or you will wipe the raid, and also not where the water will later spawn or you may cause deaths later in the fight. Even for average raiders, this starts to be information overload when the raid leader tries to explain the fight.

Suggestions for LFR design and the Dungeon Journal: For the LFR version of Jin’rokh, you still have 14 bullet points in the dungeon journal (though under my memory scoring strategy, this fight had a memory score of 9 – since earlier raid tiers didn’t have a dungeon journal). The LFR journal just makes it possible to ignore some of those mechanics and still live (though there is absolutely no clear indication of which points will still kill your raid members or not). If someone read you all the names of all the points and asked you to repeat just the names of them back to you, you couldn’t actually do it after only hearing the list once.

For LFR versions of fights, rather than keeping approximately the same number of mechanics to remember and just making mistakes less deadly, it may be necessary to remove a greater number of mechanics from the LFR versions of fights. In general, I’d recommend to keep the number of points on the dungeon journal for LFR fights below 10. Then, the people without raiding addons or watching fights in advance would have an easier time learning the scaled down version of the fights. The raid designers do this some, but as the number of boss mechanics increases, the memory demands for LFR versions of fights needs to stay in a range that people can handle. However, if you look at the dungeon journal, it is pretty much uninterpretable for people running LFR OR normal-mode encouters, and this is not really either a helpful or informative tool. In the case of Durumu, I gave him a memory score around 17, but realistically, his raid finder page has 28 different key terms with descriptions.

Posted in Mists of Pandaria, Research on video games, Written By Lissanna

18 comments on “The psychology of boss design part 1: Information overload
  1. Aaron A says:

    Very interesting read Liss, hopefully a higher up from Blizz will give this the once over.

  2. Xsinthis says:

    Wow, very interesting. Definitely sharing this with my guild to encourage them to read up on fights before hand.

  3. A lot of mechanics are role specific, have you thought about this?

    • Lissanna says:

      Yes, but that’s impossible to map out by raid tier, and the boss strategy videos, guides, and dungeon journals cover everything. They are still points of failure that could cause your raid to wipe, even if all 25 people in a 25-man raid aren’t directly impacted by every mechanic. Even if there are some mechanics people consciously make decisions to choose to ignore, that doesn’t mean Blizzard hasn’t been consistently increasing the bar over time.

      In Molten Core, I knew every single boss mechanic, whether it impacted my role or not. In TOT, I can’t do that just because learning it all isn’t within my resources to do. That doesn’t mean the fights have gotten less complex or easier. In most cases, I didn’t include counts for things where the mechanic was redundant or if no one needed to attend to it. Basically, it’s a count of what the raid leader of your casual raiding guild would need to know to do strategy assignments for your guild, and what they may need to explain over vent before the fight started. At the point where our raid members are tuning out, how do you sort out what you should be attending to or not? I can’t count strategy points, because different guilds will have problems with different aspects of the strategy. Also, healers I would argue need to know what the tanks are going to die from, what the melee are going to die from, what the ranged are going to die from, and what they’re going to die from.

      However, the common assumption that raiding is getting easier doesn’t hold true when we look at what total mechanics you would need to remember if you tried to remember all the mechanics. There are plenty of memory strategies to make learning the fights easier (such as ignoring entire mechanics), but that’s outside the point of the thread.

      If I had endless amounts of time, I could look at what abilities everyone had to attend to, break it up by role, and also count each specialization’s rotational abilities, different strategies people used, etc – but I’m not sure that would give anything I haven’t already covered. 🙂

  4. @TheKrushinator says:

    My initial conclusion on this subject of increasingly complex bosses before reading your post was that bosses were indeed becoming more complex, but they were being effectively trivialized for LFR raiders. Throne of Thunder is definitely an outlier for mechanics per boss, but they nerfed the vast majority of those mechanics. Since the number of deadly mechanics remained low, I figured that an LFR raider who attended at least semi-regularly would be able to pick out the deadly mechanics and simply remember them.

    After reading your post, I think you’re right that the sheer number of mechanics, however trivialized, are too much to handle. It has been the case since the introduction of LFR that you have to fight a boss a couple times to see which mechanics are important and which aren’t, but as you’ve laid out, back in Dragon Soul you only had to pick through approximately 9 mechanics per boss. With ToT’s average of nearly 13 and a top end of 19, LFR raiders may have to put several weeks of attempts into a boss before they can really pick out the mechanics to focus on. Having a 3+ week learning curve for an LFR boss is not going to be attractive to casual raiders.

    I also agree that the discrepancy between the mechanic mean trend of previous MoP raids and the mechanic mean of ToT has contributed to the shock. Perhaps if that mean number rose from the first raid and then jumped up, raiders would not be caught so off guard.

    As for the rest of the trend line going backwards, the gradual increase of mechanics per boss seems fairly natural. As the game ages, top end raiders are storing more and more mechanics in their long term memories. Since the standard WoW boss recycles a lot of mechanics at least partially from old bosses, it is getting harder and harder to surprise a seasoned raider. One path for the boss developers is to create a higher percentage of completely new boss mechanics, but that path can only go so far. The path that has been chosen is to just add more mechanics, and as you’ve shown, that path is coming to an end as well.

    What can the devs do in the future to avoid mechanic overload? I really don’t know. All I can say is that I enjoyed your post. =)

    • Lissanna says:

      the sheer number of mechanics is what (in the end) causes them to have to be trivialized, and then the forums complain about how easy/trivial things are. I’m arguing that fewer, but more meaningful and obvious/learnable, mechanics is a better way to design most fights for LFR and normal-modes. Then, heroic can have as many things as they want to throw at it.

      So, for example, if a heroic mode boss has 18 boss mechanics, then normal would have 14 and LFR would have 10. That lets the heroic be pretty complex without overloading LFR – those eight mechanics you could remove might keep it relatively trackable for the LFR. Though, likely if the right 8 mechanics were removed.

      If there are spell effects on the ground and standing in them doesn’t have a noticeable impact, it just teaches you to ignore stuff standing on the ground, and then later you can’t learn to move out of it. There’s no point in having huge lists of spells that do basically nothing – as it taxes people’s memory abilities and attention with needless data – and thus the best strategy in that case is just to not learn anything.

  5. Tiga says:

    Very good post. I found this on the US Raids & Dungeons forum. Similar concerns have been raised about normal mode difficulty on the EU forums as well. Here’s one topic:

    I’m a long time WoW player. My first years were in a casual guild, but I was in a realm top 3 guild during the late Wrath period. In those years, I have seen a lot of players come and go, so I’m well aware of the wide spectrum of skill levels. I think guild raiding is something that maybe one third or half of the active players should be able to enjoy. My guess is that at the moment only the top 20% players (or possibly fewer than that) can progress through current tier normal encounters.

    I don’t currently work in the game industry, but I have a master’s degree in interactive media and game design + some professional background as a game designer and developer. From that point of view, WoW is extremely interesting to me. Looking at the encounters from a complexity point of view is a very good approach in my opinion.

    Another way to look at encounter difficulty is to look at critical failure points. It seems the encounter enrage timers are a bit more lenient for this tier, but there are smaller cycles with performance requirements all over the fights now:

    – Elegon: killing adds fast enough to have time to DPS Elegon (the adds were eventually nerfed).
    – Horridon: killing adds before they have a chance to apply too many debuffs to overwhelm the raid.
    – Council of Elders: 25% damage on a boss before it reaches 100 energy and still have enough time to damage the other bosses too. Also: 25% damage on Kazra’jin while he reflects 50% of that damage back most of the time.
    – Tortos: DPS on spin turtles and bats to actually do some of the boss.

    In other words, a very common recurring theme is that there’s an entity with a fixed amount of health that you need to DPS in a fixed time window. Any time left over from that time window can be spent on DPS on the actual boss, which then counts as progress through the encounter.

    Say, the window is 1 minute and the target has 15M health. If your raid DPS is 250K dps, you break even and you have zero time available for DPS on the boss. If you increase DPS to 275K, you have 5.5 seconds left over to do damage on the boss, which is equivalent to 1.5M damage or 25K dps over the full one minute period. If your raid DPS is 300K, you have 10 seconds left over, which is 3M damage, which is 50K dps over the full one minute period.

    What just happened there? At 250K raid DPS your boss DPS is zero because of the adds. At 275K it’s 25K, so you might get the boss killed, but it’s going to take a very long time. At 300K you are doing 50K on the boss, which is twice as much for a 10% overall increase. At some point your raid DPS is high enough to make the encounter go very fast and at that point it often becomes very easy. This is why you get a lot of “LOL, it’s fine” comments from top raiders: their output easily beats the base requirement by a huge margin (thanks to good gear and great players).

    To some extent, gear will fix it, but I would much rather gear up doing normal mode raiding than by farming valor and buying valor items + getting a few items from LFR and a few from the first few bosses which you can do every week. Given the length of ToT and the ability to switch to heroic on a boss per boss basis, it would be better if guilds were able to access most of the bosses relatively early on on normal difficulty and then start working on heroic encounters in the order which the guild finds most approachable. With the high “normal” difficulty that we are currently seeing, guilds have no choice but to tackle the bosses in the order in which they come (you can’t skip a boss you are having difficulty with, which is something you can do once you are clearing normal and working on heroic kills).

    Here’s a recent tweet from Ghostcrawler:

    What it says is that by designing the game for non-casuals, they are trying to keep their most profitable customers from defecting. I’m currently reading up on CRM (Customer Relationship Marketing) and the principles there state that you invest heavily on good customers and pretty much let the less valuable ones do whatever.

    One problem with the encounter complexity is that there’s a huge gap now between easy content and normal difficulty raiding. Even though LFR has become more complicated over time, it doesn’t really teach the skills very well. Very few people can step up from leveling 1-90 to raiding normal modes in a meaningful amount of time. My point is that while Blizzard may be trying to keep the non-casual raiders, they have killed their source of new non-casual raiders.

    • Lissanna says:

      They leave most of the mechanics in LFR (except ones that require obvious group coordination above what a PUG can do), but just make nothing at all punishing. However, they still throw in some random punishing mechanics (say, maze phase on LFR Durumu) where you can’t predict what has or hasn’t been trivialized. Rather than taking out mechanics for LFR, they just keep all the mechanics but make 90% of them possible to totally ignore and zerg the boss. Being able to ignore LFR mechanics and zerg the boss means that no one is developing skills transferable to normal-mode raiding. At some point, if the barrier to kill normal mode bosses is set higher than average-skilled raiders can do, there is absolutely no point in having normal-mode or LFR raids at all and they should just go back to catering only to hardcore raiders, instead of making LFR and normal-modes that are catered to the hardcore raiders and advertized otherwise, but still have hardcore raiders complain about the mechanics being watered down by not being threatening enough.

      What is the point of having fires on the ground that just tickle a little bit and you can still stand in without risk?

  6. none says:

    Tiga, you hit the nail on the head… The raid design is deeply flawed because the game is far too easy for extremely skilled played and far too difficult when you have even just 1 person in the raid who is “average”. Since raids average about 90% wipe rates, you need 10 players performing in the 10% of all raiders to even have moderate success in normal modes (which I call “wannabe-heroic mode”).

    Blizzard needs to punish super high DPS by adding an aura that reflects all damage done back onto the tanks – this will make it harder on the healers and require balancing raid DPS against healer capability. It should scale exponentially so that when you have DPS cheese their numbers, it directly hurts the raid. Oh, the whining you’ll hear…

    Also, gear scales exponentially at cubic factor – every ilvl point gives you increased dmg, increased dmg reduction and increased healing power. So if you are even slightly undergeared, the raid is exponentially harder and when you are even slightly overgeared, the raid is exponentially easier. This worked in the previous 2 expansions because Blizzard could be sure that everyone’s gear was relatively similar due to gear in catch-up dungeons. Now you have heroic raiders going in with an ilvl close to 100 higher than groups who were stuck on nonsense roadblock bosses like Garalon – preventing them from getting ANY decent tier gear and ANY weapons.

    So how do you balance a TOT raid boss for a group stuck in 489 gear with no tier gear and no weapons (other than 483 crap) versus a group in fully upgraded 2/2 heroic gear of about 516? Never mind that the normal mode players have about 80% efficiency on their toons while the heroic players have 99% efficiency. And Blizzard has such an inexperienced (or intentionally obtuse) lead encounter designer who has no clue what he is doing and listens to the world first guilds for normal mode tuning.

    So that leaves us with the mess we have today. Unsatisfying normal mode raids, a dwindling raid population and a completely dead recruiting environment since the only raids new players do are LFR and they don’t give a crap about organization, structure or team-first raiding.

    • Lissanna says:

      Yes. I believe that it’s possible to make heroic mode raiding truly difficult and catered to the top 1% while not making LFR have to put puddles on the ground that do almost zero damage (but are still on the ground teaching people to ignore puddles on the ground!).

  7. Herr Drache says:

    Quite an interesting read, thank you for your research! I haven’t tanked an LFR in Mists at all, because I felt that the tanking mechanics in the first three raids were quite punishing – and that the only thing that could cause a wipe would be a tank who did something – anything, really – wrong. DPS and heals could pretty much run on autopilot as long as it wasn’t more than half of the raid not knowing the mechanics.

    Throne is the first time where I’m considering queueing as tank – at least the first six bosses seem to follow more in the “standard” tanking mechanics.

    I think what I’m trying to get at is that often DPS gets away with “don’t stand in things and go pew-pew-pew”, healers may need to know about 2-3 “Big Pain Now”, but tanks are overloaded with “taunt at X stacks (X variable by boss) of (unknown debuff icon) debuff, while running in circles, hopping on one leg and taking care of (variety of adds, some more important than others, not necessarily by size). Raid wipe if you mess up once, DKs can ignore mechanics”

    As much as I hate LFR wipes, I do enjoy some of the fights in Throne *because* DPS has to be somehwat awake as well.

  8. Brutux says:

    Great post.

    I think the fact that it becomes more complex is that we’re starting to see a lot of addons that are helping get us through the bosses. You can’t beat a boss these days without a DBM addon. Something that wasn’t necessarily used by everyone back in Molten Core. So, Blizz ramped up the diffuculty, in my opinion, due to the fact that DBM and others help us win the fights.

    But still, I think the raids have become too difficult for average guilds. They should lower the difficulty of normal raids and raise up the difficult for Heroics. So, average guilds could still have fun raiding.

    Personnally, I consider we have a good raid playing once a week and we’re now at Tortos ….. which is not very far IMO. I miss the ICC days of Naxx, Ulduar, ToC, …

    • Lissanna says:

      For hard-mode encounters, you can fully expect people to have addons, done tons of strategy preparation before launch day, and even potentially practice time on the PTR before the encounters went live. However, those same expectations are not going to hold true for people running LFR, and LFR is considerably much more difficult for people who don’t use addons or read strategy guides in advance. In terms of normal-mode raiding, they often fall somewhere inbetween – often not enough time for prep before raids, often have addons but may not use them to their full advantage, etc. Understanding and respecting the full range of tools people are using is important for designing multiple levels of content – each level of content should come with different expectations about tools they are likely to use.

  9. Kylis says:

    I would guess the reason that ToT has a lot more mechanics than most dungeons is that the fights were designed as mechanic based rather than dps checks which a dps check in and of itself is a sort of passive mechanic.

    • Lissanna says:

      but mechanic checks for LFR and normal-modes still have to be done with enough care and restraint that they don’t either blow past their target audience or have lots of mechanics you can just ignore, that are pointlessly taking up your attention and memory resources.

  10. billy says:

    Except not all people have to pay attention to all the mechanics, if you don’t know your rotation by now and have committed it to muscle memory, go find a game that is “less demanding”

    If every person had to pay attention to every mechanic i could see your point, most fights are broken down into “hey tanks watch out for these 3-4 things, Healers AoE heal when this happens, or pop a CD, DPS don’t stand in anything. Most of this doesn’t need to happen instantly and there are quite a few visual queues to remind you. Nothing kills you instantly in any LFR ToT fight except Durumus beam, even the maze lets you take a few ticks.

    Don’t stand in the bad, something shiny on the ground? 9 times out of 10 you don’t want to be in it. Adds pop up? oh you forgot about them, but now they’re on your screen are you just not paying attention?

  11. billy says:

    @Herr Drache

    More often than not your tanks are your best players, they lead the raids. You might have a raid leader that is not a tank, but I’ll bet you anything that raid leader consulted with the tanks about a strategy, I’ll also bet tanks know most, if not all of the mechanics because they are directing the groups actions either directly or indirectly.

  12. Tonyiommi says:

    As a healer in a 10 man progression raiding guild I can definetly say on some fights (ilke this week on Tortos) I am simply overwhelmed. Not only by mechanics but just snap decision making. I’ve raided in pretty much every level of raiding this game has had to offer and I’ve never had my balls busted or my confidence as a player shattered like this. It’s pretty rough.


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