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Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Trouble with End-World Bosses


Empyrea brings with it one of the toughest fights in the game, but that's not a new trend with bosses that bring a world's storyline to an epic conclusion. But are these bosses really working as intended? Let's assess how end-world bosses used to work, how they work now, and what effects the changes are having. Note: this post contains story spoilers, including about Empyrea's final boss.

The Magic of End-World Bosses

Throughout Wizard101's story, we've fought a ton of bosses and countless mobs. However, most of those bosses, without unique loot or mechanics, are lost on us... it's a character we've never heard of until now that we defeat and move on from. All of this is leading to the main attraction: the end-world boss. The big bad guy. The man behind the curtain. That's the draw.

End-world bosses have always been popular farming spots. Think about how often you may have farmed Lord Nightside for seasonal gear, or the Jade Oni, or Malistaire. How many battles have you done in Mirror Lake, or with Morganthe in Khrysalis? If you're like me, the answer is probably a lot. There are drops that most of us have wanted from those fights, and while some have been more tedious than others, none are impossible, even if you don't necessarily have a full group.

Now ask yourself how many times you've fought The Rat. How about Old Cob? Medulla? The Storm Titan? I'm guessing very few people can answer more than one. As someone who tends to farm end-world bosses myself, I'm disappointed to say that one is also my answer in these cases.


A Great Early Start

Most of the bosses in the first and second arc at the end of worlds were great. Malistaire had the toughest requirements: two mob battles and two boss battles (unless you triggered the pull effect and went around as we often did), then three crystals to be activated simultaneously and two battles to be completed at the same time before another battle and the showdown with Malistaire. None of these fights were overly difficult or involved excessive cheating, but they were all some of the most fun we had in Wizard101. Malistaire's dungeon was massive, with something like five different zones that were woven together in interesting ways. It was great. Still, Wizard101 realized that as fewer players were running this dungeon and the game continued to progress, it might be too tough for a group, so most of the mechanics that involved timing were removed. 

Increasing Complexity

The Waterworks was Wizard101's first real test of a dungeon with increased difficulty and better rewards. I would argue that the gear was and is too good, and tends to remain on most wizards until level 100 (impeding any chance at gear diversity or play styles that require different setups), but that's another article for another day. 

After Celestia and the Waterworks, Wizard101 started introducing more cheating bosses into the main storyline. These were a great change of pace. Some of the toughest bosses I can recall off the top of my head are from Khrysalis. The Galleries combined two cheating bosses per battle, and is generally regarded as being tougher than the Morganthe fight (which, from a story perspective, makes no sense).

Morganthe, however, is a fantastic example of how to do an end-world boss. Here's what works so well with the last fight in Khrysalis:

  • In the story, she's tough to reach: Getting there isn't easy. The Galleries and some of the earlier bosses are a serious challenge leading up to that final showdown.
  • She's accessible: Once they've completed the story, players don't need to complete ten different fights to reach the only boss they really care about defeating.
  • You can go in blind: It is perfectly possible to defeat Morganthe without reading any of her cheats or spoiling yourself on the fight before you experience it. You can walk in and have a reasonable chance of winning the first time.
  • She's a great team-up boss: Because it's a single fight that doesn't require planning every round, she's easy to do with team up, and I have done it many, many times. 
  • She drops good loot: Morganthe has a few really popular items that are great for max-level wizards.
  • She's a no-stress kind of fight: Don't get me wrong, Morganthe is tough. But if your team has a bad round or doesn't remember every cheat, she's not going to kill you in one round or punish you with an instant kill. There's no time limit or number of rounds where you automatically lose, and you can learn and adapt as you play.


Cookie-Cutter World Endings

Starting in Azteca, KingsIsle decided to stack up some other major fights before the final boss battle. This continue with the Galleries in Khrysalis, the Jeweled Slopes in Polaris, the Sands of Time in Mirage, and Primordial Groves in Empyrea. They've essentially given away the format of every world ending starting with the second arc and working their way up. 

I miss Celestia, where three Astral forms were the final bosses in the Trial of Spheres, or returning to the Jade Palace to do the solo battle with the Jade Oni, or the encounter with Malistaire. Empyrea does work on changing things up a little bit with a sort of story-based fight at the very end which is definitely cool. However, the same format is used leading up to that.

Where We Went Wrong

You might think I'm making a case for changing up how worlds ends. That's part of it, but the larger problem lies in the difficulty of the bosses. This is where the discussion can get off-track, as people who've for some reason come to Wizard101 expecting a hardcore game experience complain that there's nothing challenging enough for them. 

Starting in Polaris, end-world bosses began to get really tough. The Rat was really one of the first story-required battles that became a big turn-off for some community members. It was the first time a boss with that many cheats at that level of difficulty was introduced beyond side content. That started a long chain of issues with these fights that we're seeing reflected in the final battle of Empyrea today. I'll address some of these concerns as we go, and then suggest some solutions. Let's look specifically at the Storm Titan in Empyrea.


The Storm Titan

You know the story is getting more predictable when Swordroll, with his crazy theories, starts to get a bunch of it correct. The Storm Titan was one such prediction. He is summoned by Grandmother Raven to break the last Paradox chain so that she can destroy the Chaos Heart. Fun.

But for all the magical beings in the Spiral that have a distinct interest in its survival, you get to be the one to fix everybody's problems. The Storm Titan has 1,000,000 health (which again, makes no sense from a story perspective compared to other bosses and our ability or inability to defeat them). You only have to deal a total of 120,000 damage in three 40,000 chunks. That's not so bad. That, to me, is a perfectly acceptable challenge, even if it does lean a little on the tough side. I could still potentially team up with other people and manage to do that. But that's only the beginning.

How the Battle Works

The Storm Titan can't be as simple as dealing damage to "dispel" him. Final Bastion has a great guide on all of his cheats HERE. Beyond several more "normal" cheats, he also has at least three different attacks, one of which make him unable to be targeted, and another which deals 5,000-8,000 damage to all wizards. Boom. Battle over. Now if you somehow get lucky and survive that, he may end up using multiple attacks in a short time span. There is always the possibility in this battle that no matter how much you prepare and how perfectly you play, you'll just lose anyway. That's not a fun mechanic.

Here's the Trouble

Okay, so what's wrong with that? It's a big boss so it's a tough fight. Makes sense, right? Well, when you look at the checklist of what made Morganthe such a great boss, suddenly you lose some of those aspects:

  • In the story, she's tough to reach.
  • She's accessible.
  • You can go in blind.
  • She's a great team-up boss
  • She drops good loot.
  • She's a no-stress kind of fight.

Instead, you can add these:

  • In order to be successful, you're required to read ahead on cheats instead of experiencing them yourself.
  • Team up? Not likely.
  • Even if you play perfectly, you might randomly lose anyway. 
  • Creative approaches? Ha. Follow this exact turn-by-turn spell casting guide if you want to win.
  • Major streamers who assist viewers have stated they explicitly won't help you with this (who can blame them?).
  • No one wants to repeat this, and even major assistance services are still determining if they'll ever assist with "this mess."

These sort of differences don't just apply to Empyrea's Storm Titan, they also apply to Medulla, a 100,000 health boss that follows one with more like 4,000 health. Or Old Cob, who's not as bad, but not great, either. Or The Rat.


Making a Big Impact

The problem is that part of what makes end-world bosses exciting is that they're a challenge. However, I think KingsIsle has gone overboard a little bit. Lately, we've seen promo events that require spending $550-$700 worth of crowns in THREE DAYS for a new mount, we've seen a sale on their mobile game Animal Cove for $20 cosmetic outfits or $169 outfit sets (meanwhile we haven't had a story update in some time). Now we've got this titan which is the equivalent of some ultra-difficult side content, except no one wants to farm or repeat this guy. It seems like KingsIsle suddenly thinks we've transitioned into an ultra-hardcore gaming group with money growing on trees.

Don't get me wrong, end-world bosses should be a challenge. But they shouldn't be so crazy that no one wants to battle them again or dreads the battle. Wizard101 is supposed to be fun. It doesn't mean you'll never be frustrated or challenged, but there are lots of challenging fights that are actually enjoyable. I know there's a certain portion of the Wizard101 community that believes content should be super difficult and challenging for upper-level players. We have that in side content. 

The problem when you introduce it into the story is that people get stuck and don't want to play any more. I saw, for the first time, some major community members still stuck on Medulla from last year, so they didn't take part in the test realm for Empyrea Part 2. Where's the fun in that? This creates another issue where the very ending of a world is not well-tested in the test realm because the final boss tends to be released a few days or a week before the test realm goes live. That's not really enough time to test, and it'd be preferable if we simply waited until the content for a new world was completed instead of getting it in three different chunks or semi-finished formats.

Target Audience

We need to remember Wizard101's target audience: 10 and up. The game is rated E10+. This led me to ask myself... If a well-coordinated team of adults has trouble with some of these battles, how does an uncoordinated team of young players manage them? Well, they don't. And given how fast one can run through the story, especially with some help or experience, it's not unreasonable to think that a young player could reach that point in the story and be unable to complete it.

This puts KingsIsle in a really tricky spot because they're trying to design a game where the beginning has one audience and the end has another. This means that if a more hardcore audience is interested, the colors and ease of Wizard City aren't going to keep them around long enough to experience the power of the Storm Titan, but if someone is looking for something easier or more relaxing, the power of the Storm Titan might kill it for them. It's not a great plan.


An Arduous Task

At the end of the day, most people log on to de-stress and enjoy themselves. Some of these end-world bosses are not enjoyable. As I've outlined, they go so far as to scare away assistance groups from helping. But it's not just their difficulty, it's also how they fit into the story. The overall power of so many of these bosses does not match the story in the least. Take the Morganthe example from earlier. She is well-balanced and powerful, with the health totals to match. However, the Galleries battles were given so many collective cheats that two random Khrysalis bosses become more powerful than Morganthe. That doesn't work.

Take Grandfather Spider (Old Cob), who's suppose to be unbeatable for a mere wizard. Why does he only have 99,999 health in Mirage, even if he is just toying with us? Should there really be ANY scenario where a First World being is 1/10 the power of a titan? Then consider Medulla. Most boss fights have between 5,000 and 20,000 health throughout the world, then there's suddenly one boss with 100,000 (125,000 previously) health with three minions at six-digit health totals as well? Uh, what?

I understand, it's a game - things get more difficult. But these don't add up even in their own worlds. They don't make sense. The comparison doesn't work. A boss's difficulty and functionality should be as much a part of the story as the dialogue they say.

Potential Solutions

I didn't just come to outline the issues we're seeing with these bosses. I have some ideas on how to improve them. In this last test realm, we witnessed KingsIsle listening to player feedback in a number of areas more than ever before, which is highly encouraging. And, they have a history of extensive balance changes based on feedback and their own internal numbers when it comes to where people get hung up. That's a positive sign that change is possible.

Decreased Difficulty Over Time

One solution that KingsIsle is already using is decreased difficulty over time. Early on, the boss is tougher for players who enjoy the challenge and want to finish early. After awhile, they decrease the difficulty for other players who are having trouble. I believe this has happened with The Rat and Medulla already. 

I definitely welcome balance changes, but I'm not a huge fan of this strategy as a solution because it ultimately doesn't cater well to either the hardcore players or the more relaxed crowd. Hardcore players who don't get to content quick enough or who want to repeat it after a balance change experience an easier boss, and players who want to finish at a decent pace or continue on in the story can get stuck until balance changes.


Challenge Modes

Last year, I introduced the idea of "Challenge Modes," which has been suggested by various players in different formats for a long time. Read about them HERE. You would have the option to select a challenge mode on a custom screen at the sigil, and you'd get rewarded for successful completion. I like this as a potential solution for a number of reasons:

  • Bosses are less likely to require balance changes and KingsIsle can work on other content.
  • Casual players can complete the story with an appropriate level of difficulty, and can come back to choose to branch out and try different challenges.
  • Players looking for a challenge not only have that opportunity forever, but they can choose a challenge that they find most exciting.
  • Players of any skill or experience level are incentivized by worthwhile rewards.
  • KingsIsle could make maybe nine challenge modes, where three are applies randomly to every boss as options, with special options for bigger story bosses. Not every boss needs to have unique challenges.

Keeping it Reasonable

Rather than have any form of adjustable solution as they are currently using or as has been suggested, KingsIsle could simply start out at an appropriate power level for their target audience. We've still got side content for players who want to be challenged, and it's not like anyone thinks end-world bosses should be a walk in the park. But if could keep from pulling our hair out to begin with... that'd be great.

A lot of it has to do with the cheats. You can have a challenging boss with only one or two cheats where the challenge is doing enough damage while staying alive. That's a fun battle. You get to adapt and learn as you go, instead of losing over and over until you're no longer interested in doing the fight. When a boss can kill you in one turn, instantly, that's not enjoyable.

What do you think of the end-world bosses in the third arc?

Thanks for reading and see you in the Spiral!

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