Don’t Reverse Your Conventions After Six Years

I’ve been fascinated with Cataclysm, the latest World of Warcraft expansion, since I first heard about it. In many ways this expansion is a live team’s dream: an opportunity to fix the whole goddamned mess that the previous teams have left for you. Watching what the WoW team decided to fix – and watching what players think about those fixes – has served as a main source of entertainment for me this year.

Since Cataclysm launch, I have played through three of the new 80+ zones in their entirety on my newly undead hunter. (I also played through a lot of quests in beta, but this post comes from my post-launch experiences since content may have changed since then.) Overall I’d say that the Blizzard Cataclysm team did a good job working out a lot of the kinks in content design, especially quests and zone flow.

But in the process, the designers subverted two long-running WoW conventions and the results have left me puzzled and sometimes downright angry.

Elite? No More!

Elite enemies in WoW are more difficult to kill than regular enemies. They are usually found in dungeons and sometimes at the end of long quest chains. Elite enemies are indicated two ways: with a golden dragon around their portrait and with the word Elite in their tooltip.

In original Classic WoW and in the Burning Crusade expansion, a quest that involved an elite enemy was usually intended as a group quest (even if a knowledgeable player could solo it without any trouble).

Starting with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, two things happened. First, the quest text for a group quest changed to indicated how many players Blizzard thought you might need. (Unfortunately they missed some quests so this was a little inconsistent.)

Secondly, the designers added a number of fake-out elites to the end of quest chains. The fake-out elite enemies looked elite and had elite stats – until you used the special magic powder that the quest-giver provided to shrink them down to non-elite size so you could kill them solo.

So the convention evolved from ‘Elites need a group’ to ‘Elites probably need a group unless the quest doesn’t mention it and the quest-giver gives you some magical doodad to de-elite the enemy’. A little more complicated, but still understandable.

In the Cataclysm expansion, however, the designers threw this convention out the window. Solo quests constantly pit players against elite enemies that are elite in name (and dragon portrait) only. “Go kill this amazingly powerful boss that you might think takes a bunch of people but whom you can defeat all by your lonesome!”

Why? I assume because it feels more epic. (*shudder* I’m having flashbacks to AC2 development as I type this.)

But epic or not, it means that I as a player have no idea which quests require a group and which don’t. Presumably the quest text should still tell me … except that the couple of group quests I’ve encountered so far in Cataclysm haven’t.

Color me confused. Epic, but confused.

Tag – You’re It!

The other broken convention in Cataclysm involves tagging, also known as tapping. This is a familiar convention used in a lot of multi-player games. In WoW, the health bar of an enemy turns grey (instead of red) when another player or another group attacks the enemy before you do. Once that happens, you won’t get any experience, loot, or quest credit by killing that enemy.

There are some minor exceptions to this convention, mostly enemies who spawn quest objects when they die. In that case, the enemy tags as normal but everyone in the area can usually use the quest object.

Tagging has two very useful effects. First, it lets you know when you aren’t going to get anything from a kill. But more than that, it lets you know when you can safely step in and help without stealing a kill from someone else. Despite common belief, most players don’t actually want to be asses and steal quest credit. Most of them just want to hurry up your kill so the enemy respawns faster and they can get to their own kill.

Anyway. Tagging, well known convention, subverted in Cataclysm. Yes, there are several different fights I can name off the top of my head, including at least two daily quests, where the health bar of the enemy doesn’t turn grey when someone else attacks the enemy first – even though only one person or group can get quest credit.

Why? This one is harder for me to figure out. I suspect it has something to do with the mechanics behind these fights, since at least some of them seem to hinge on triggering little mini-events. But these quests are causing so much confusion among the players that I can’t imagine why Blizzard left them this way.


I’ve outlined a couple of long-standing conventions that Blizzard subverted in the Cataclysm expansion not just because I wanted to rant about them, but to start a discussion on when breaking your conventions is appropriate.

To compare, other content traditions that Cataclysm broke include: quests to collect items with a 10% drop rate, sending players across three continents to finish one FedEx quest, and NPCs who start quests in one dungeon scattered across six cities.

So how do you tell the good conventions from the bad traditions? It’s not that hard. Just ask: Is this something that will make life easier for the players? Or is this something that the content designers are really excited about because it let’s them do something more exciting for them, regardless of how it affects the players?

Contest designers are fine people. But the stuff they get excited about? Often not the best thing for your players.

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11 Responses to Don’t Reverse Your Conventions After Six Years

  1. Jason says:

    “I assume because it feels more epic.”

    To me, that would be less epic. Uber (I hate that word), perhaps, because I’m totally soloing super tough guys! But Epic would mean gathering a band of people to go show the big bad who is boss… but that’s just me.

  2. matt says:

    I’ll agree with your first example, but I’m pretty sure the second is just a bug. I doubt content designers got excited about breaking tagging. :)

    The elite thing confused the hell out of me. Can I solo all elite mobs? Which ones are really elite, and which are fake elite? Ugh. They had no problem making non-elite mobs look awesome, with unique names and abilities, pre-Cataclysm.

  3. Wyrmrider says:

    So far I’ve only experienced the tagging bug (and it does feel like a bug) in a good way: the health bar was gray, I helped kill it anyway to speed things along, and ended up getting credit for the quest. I hope I didn’t steal anyone else’s credit in the process!

    Regarding elites, I think the new convention is that questing can be done solo, period. I don’t remember encountering a single group quest while leveling from 80-85. All the elites I fought either made use of some gimmick (use this to shrink the giant down to size, mount this drake for some “vehicle” combat, just stay alive for 10 seconds until friendly NPCs appear to finish the job, etc.), OR they were simply not much tougher than normal mobs to begin with.

    In general I think that there’s a bizarre shortage of fair fights during WoW questing. When was the last time you thought “Hm, this mob seems about as strong as me. I don’t need a group, but I’d better pop my cooldowns / interrupt his casts / do some kiting / have a potion ready to ensure the win.” Of course, I tend to roll strong solo classes (Druid, Death Knight, Hunter) and enjoy taking on group quest mobs as a solo challenge, so take that with a grain of salt. :)

  4. Sandra says:

    The tagging thing may be a bug, but – and I don’t think I conveyed this very well – if it is I think it’s related to the complexity of the quests that cause it. In which case I think they should have reduced the complexity of the quests.

    The first unmarked group quest that comes to mind is Pit of Scales in Uldum – mostly because it kicked my ass multiples times last night. Again, this may be mechanics: you are supposed to drag the guy through the eggs to slow him down, but the slightest bit of lag makes that impossible.

    The other group quests I am thinking of occurred mostly in Deepholm. I completed them solo only because the two Alliance characters behind me helped. (And then I hung out and helped them, of course.) But I wouldn’t have managed without help. Mind you, I have often been told that I make a miserable power player.

    Hmm … it occurs to me that I might better have written this about how weird new mechanics can really be a step backwards unless they are intuitive and well tested.

    Maybe I’ll do that next and shock our three readers by posting more than once in a year. *grin*

  5. Adam says:

    I agree with Wyrmrider. Blizzard has redesigned the levelling process so that it can be completed as a solo player. Not only that, but with the extensive phasing and rail-roading of quests you can only level with another player if you stay together and complete the same steps at exactly the same time. The only time you ever need to group with other players is for a 5 man instance and then the dungeon finder does that for you, so no need to interact of converse there. In fact, the only reason that I have any interaction with other players is because I am in a guild. And here we have an interesting situation: with guild levelling and the benefits that they provide, joining a guild will become a necessity. Blizzard has redesigned the entire game to play as a single player game experience but then forced players into joining guilds, thus retaining the games “MMO” status.

    If it is now a single player game then it is the most expensive one in history. Blizzard have completely taken away the one element that seperates an MMO from single player games; the element of choice.

  6. Indy says:

    I’m not sure offhand about the specific mobs you mentioned breaking tagging, but… there’s a new category of mob type in Cataclysm, a quest-type – that shows a yellow ! in the portrait. Anybody who deals damage to him gets kill credit for the quest, regardless of tagging. A welcome (and reasonable) change, IMO.

  7. Honestly, I don’t remember having to have anyone else around for any quest in Deepholm. I do remember a couple where I cursed the nerfing of shadowpriest aoe. Also, one where I cursed the inability of a mob to follow me properly. Stupid Pebble, follow me, don’t get eaten by the huge worm, please?

    As someone who likes to quest alone, I’m actually really happy about the lack of group quests. The tapping vs not needing to tap thing is certainly confusing, and there’s at least one quest in Twilight Highlands where you may get quest credit by helping someone else kill the big bad, but you can’t trigger the event to get down from the area until you kill them yourself. Not having group quests means I can actually get Loremaster for all the Cataclysm zones, which is great. As a squishy clothie who only hit 80 last December, getting groups for the quests in Icecrown was, well, not really possible.

    The elite thing kind of bothers me, simply because I like the thrill of victory if I manage to take it down by myself. I remember being really proud of myself when I managed to take down an elite spider my own level in Outlands.

    I’m really interested to see how the changes Blizz has introduced play out in the long run and how the player base will adapt to them. And hopefully the tagging thing will get fixed soon.

  8. Bronte says:

    I am no longer playing WoW, so take this with a grain of salt. The group quests and elite changes don’t really affect your experience too much. if anything, finding a decent group for a tougher elite mob was more of a hassle, especially in leveling gear at the launch of an expansion, so good riddance.

    The tagging bit is very disconcerting though. You say, “I suspect it has something to do with the mechanics behind these fights, since at least some of them seem to hinge on triggering little mini-events.” But without context it makes little sense to me. Think it could actually be a bug?

  9. Azaroth says:

    What a fantastic blog. ;)

    Keep posting, youse!

  10. Uthuros says:

    Couple of things to mention. About the tagging issue, There is at least one quest I have done (mainly in the Worgen starting area) where the elite cannot be tagged for ownership. Once the character is down and whoever is there has hit it at least once everyone seems to get credit for the kill. I think one of the reasons for this mechanic was to cut down on mob lines that seem to form in some areas. Not to mention that snarky people who want to tag a mob and keep tagging it to keep others from completing the quest.

    As far as the elites go, some of those quests end up giving you a companion of sorts that either fights with you, heals you or whatever. I think this is actually an idea that the devs have gotten from some of the private server structures out there that have bots that can be hired by players. Not to even mention what guild wars does with this. So I think some of those are just the devs testing ideas and watching what the players do with them.

    Now, the question I have for the author of the blog and other posters that maybe reading this is, how do you feel about the way WoW has turned the game further away from being able to play the way YOU wish to play and becoming even more strict on roles? If you look at the cataclysm guide, read the blue posts and so on, you can see a definite change in attitude with the devs. It feels to me that they are taking the folks who played outside of the box with the classes (like I did at times) and further saying “no you don’t, get back into this box and stay there. We want you in this box”. Am I the only one who feels that way?

    Me personally, after being around for Cataclysm and checking things out, I don’t think I am gonna resub for the long term. I don’t enjoy being told how I am allowed to play. As a roleplayer and solo player, the game seems to be further marketed for the raiders and guilds. I know that’s where their money comes from and such. Ultimate theme park and all that. I’m just kinda looking for more of a sandbox that does have FFA pvp. Haven’t found it yet.

    Anyway, I look forward to replies.

  11. Uthuros says:

    BTW slight edit, that was supposed to say DOES NOT have FFA pvp. There are a few sandboxs that do have that. Eve and Darkfall both come to mind. Anyway again, thanks for reading.