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Matt Miller: Designing for the Theme

Column By Matthew Miller on November 12, 2013

In the end, making City of Heroes was really easy. We had 9 years of established lore, locations, and characters that it was simply a matter of picking which one we wanted to center the story around next. Once that was done, creating challenges and missions for the players to interact with was a whole heck of a lot easier.

Boss battles and raid encounters can sometimes feel intimidating to design. You are always being pushed to come up with the next big thing in innovation when designing the encounter. You’ve played so many other games that you have sort of built up a repitoire of “moves” that have proven successful in the past, so going to that well becomes an easy out for a lot of designers. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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Some of the most memorable battles you have played in MMOs have been ones where the lore and story have tied directly into the game mechanics. When you start with a solid story, have established motivations, and know what characters famous for, then designing your encounter becomes a matter of how to translate that into game mechanics that the player will encounter.

For Going Rogue, we introduced the concept of Incarnate Trials. Of this the “Behavioral Adjustment Facility” was to be our first one. This was, for all intents and purposes, a prison, so the idea of a prison breakout was foremost on our minds. I then recalled a (very) old Activision game for the Atari 2600 called Stampede. In this game you were playing a cowboy stopping cows from running past you and off the side of the screen. I translated that into what a modern MMO would do in this situation and had groups of prisoners run from predetermined spawn points to various exit points, forcing the group to split up to deal with them all.

In our first playtest things went awry quickly as all the Tankers just mass taunted all the escapees and there was zero challenge. So we iterated and made them immune to taunt and aggro. They just wanted to run to the exits, not fight. Then the Controllers ruined the day by laying down massive slows and holds. Of course, that’s what Controllers do so we couldn’t remove that strategy, but we had to do something to give the DPS a reason to show up to this phase of the fight.

We then decided that one out of every 6 to 10 of the prisoners would be immune to control as well. This gave the Controllers their power over most of the entities, but the DPS would need to burn down these special runners before they could reach the exit.

At first, like all systems that require coordination, the players were rabidly against this stage of the battle. Eventually some leaders came out of the community, and they had readily sharable maps of the routes and where each character could stand to maximize their efficiency. Within just under a week, the players were succeeding in beating the B.A.F. Trial, and within a month they were regularly getting the badge for “No prisoners escaped” and the extra rewards that went along with that. I really liked how the theme dictated the mechanics of the fight.

A fight many of you may be more familiar with that plays on this same idea is the Arthas fight at the end of World of Warcraft’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Arthas’ sword has always had the ability to capture souls within it, and I was pleased to learn that this was an actual mechanic in the fight. It showed that the designers really looked at the historical background of the character when designing the mechanics.

So what are some of your favorite boss-fight mechanics, and how do they tie into the theme of the encounter? Do they take into account the nature of the boss, or even tug at some obscure bit of trivia about the lore that most people would never know? I’d love to hear some examples from games I haven’t had a chance to play. Boss fight mechanics are extremely interesting to me on a professional level, they always ride the fine line between being simple enough for casual players to understand, yet complex enough to keep the hardcore raiders satisfied with your game until you can deliver them new content.

Matt Miller / Matt Miller is a 22 year veteran of the computer game industry and columnist for MMORPG.com. He was Lead Designer for City of Heroes over five years, and has "seen it all" when it comes to MMOs (but still learns something new every day). You can always reach him on twitter @MMODesigner.

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Matt Miller
In this bi-weekly column, Matt "Formerly Known as Positron" Miller of City of Heroes fame seeks to clue MMO gamers in on the minds of developers, their decisions, and what it's like to craft these massive games.
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