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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):

RaidMeanMinMax
Molten Core5.547
BWL6.75313
AQ407.111111111414
Original Naxx6.333333333310
Karazhan6.909090909311
SSC and TK7.9317
Mount Hyjal4.846
Black Temple8.666666667314
Sunwell9.666666667419
Ulduar9.285714286317
ICC9.5416
BWD and BOT11.4717
Firelands10.85714286618
Dragonsoul8.714285714514
MV8.5512
HOF8.333333333613
TOES7.5413
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


The 5.2 Mage PVE raiding survey

Now that 5.2 is here, there is a lot of angst and worry happening in the mage forum. For me to be able to go to the community managers with mage problems, I need data. I’ve done this type of thing before when I was raiding on a druid, but now that I’m raiding as a frost mage, I have a great deal invested in mages being viable now.

To be able to take data to the community managers & developers, I need actual World of Log data from your raids. So, I’m collecting log data and general feedback from the community. I think that collecting context for the logs is actually more important than just the log rankings alone. The original post is available on the US forums here. You can post responses directly on the forum posts or leave a comment on the blog (which is especially helpful for EU readers). There is also someone who cross-posted on the EU forums, so EU players can post there.

Specifically, it would be helpful if you filled out the answers to the following questions and posted it here:

Part 1: Show me the Mage numbers:
1) What is your current 5.2 specialization?
2) What type of content have you run in 5.2 (5-mans, solo, LFR, 10-normal, 25-normal, etc)?
3) Link(s) to 5.2 raid logs on your mage (even LFR logs are useful):
4) Did you change specializations for 5.2? If you changed specs for 5.2, what spec were you before?
5) Is your ilevel generally around the same range as your other raid members from the logs you posted? If not, are you over-geared or under-geared compared to the other members of your raid?

Part 2: How are you feeling about your mage?

6) What is your average ilevel?
7) What quality of life problems are you seeing with your current specialization?
8) If you changed specializations, why did you change?
9) Overall, how do you feel about your current spec’s movement damage?
10) Overall, how do you feel about your current spec’s stand-still damage?
11) Overall, how do you feel about your current spec’s utility in raids?
12) If you could change one thing to improve your current spec, what would it be?

Posted in 5.2, Mage, Mists of Pandaria, Research on video games, Written By Lissanna


Video game research!

Our crowdfunding for science campaign has now ended! Thank you everyone!

There was a great TED talk in November about the importance of making better educational video games. Video game researcher, Daphne Bavelier, from the University of Geneva, talked about research on how playing video games can change cognitive abilities and brain development (for the better!). Dr. Bavelier’s scientific work has been a hugely inspirational to me. I was able to attend a talk she gave at Penn State in 2010 about her video game research. The end of the video is particularly inspiring where she talks about the need for gamers and scientists to come together to improve the quality of games with educational goals. My goal as both a gamer and a scientist is to make educational interventions that tap into the motivational aspects of being fun! In honor of my last day of crowdfunding for my very own new video game research project, I thought I would share my inspiration with all of you:

We will soon be returning to our regularly scheduled WOW-related posting. Starting next week, I hope to have more WOW-related content to share with all of you about mages and druids. Thank you all for supporting me and my research!

Posted in Research on video games, Written By Lissanna


Last week of crowdfunding for autism video game research

Hi everyone! We have now hit the last week of the crowdfunding campaign for my research lab’s autism video game intervention project (it ends on Friday, December 14th!). These last few weeks of sharing my autism intervention research with all of you has really been incredible! I have had so much support that I can’t express in words how awesome this community is. As of this morning, we have reached $3,785 towards our goal (38%). The last week of the crowdfunding campaign is always the most important, so please take some time to support my research and spread the word to your social networks!

Lissanna’s druid leveling live stream on Monday, December 10th.

  • The mighty druid Lissanna fought for nearly eight to defend Azeroth from great evils. After slaying the mighty Deathwing, she laid down her staff for the last time and went to slumber in the Emerald Dream.  What could wake this mighty druid from her slumber? On Monday, December 10th, Lissanna the druid will dawn her fighting clothes and resume the battle in Mists of Pandaria once more. This time, she fights for improving Autism Intervention Research! Come watch Lissanna and Martiean level up from 85 together!

To celebrate and promote the last week of my research lab’s crowdfuning project, I have teamed with Martiean from the WoWMartiean youtube channel.   Martiean and I will be inviting some friends to join us and live streaming our leveling party  on Monday, the 10th, from 8 to 11 PM eastern (5 to 8 Pacific). I will be bringing my druid (who is still currently level 85) out of retirement for the night to level during the live stream in support of my autism research project! What better way to support video game research than with playing video games? You can watch the stream live on Monday at the WoWMartiean Youtube Channel.

Other news: Lissanna’s Horde House podcast guest appearance

  • Earlier this week, I joined the Horde House podcast for an interview about my gaming experience, my research project, and more! You can listen to the Horde House episode recording here. The guys are a little silly, but overall I had a lot of fun doing the interview. The interview part is in the first half of the episode.

One more week to go! Thank you all for helping to make this research on autism video game interventions possible, and for showing how amazing the video game community can be! Together, we are truly showing the world the positive side of video games!

Here is the video recording of last night’s stream. You can fast forward through some of the laggy bits. Youtube isn’t the best streaming platform some days. Most of it recorded fine!

Posted in Leveling, podcast, Research on video games, Written By Lissanna


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