As a game designer, it is generally accepted that at least 30% of my job is getting the player to do what I want. (Some would say even 90%.) Want the player to slow down and be cautious, make the area dark and play some kind of sound off to his side. If I want the player to move, I drop something nasty where his feet are. So on and so forth.
Blizzard generally does this very well. They want people questing instead of just grinding on kills. So they make it more worthwhile to do a large number of close quests instead of just killing mobs. They want the player to limit their playtime, so they add in the rest bonus to “reward” the player for switching to an alt, or not playing for a while.
Mechanics are used to alter play style. If a player is rewarded for doing something, they are going to continue to do it. This is especially true when the rewarded play style is the path of least resistance. Players will always find the path of least resistance. Period.
So what this brings me to is raid boss design in World of Warcraft.
Blizzard seems to have forgotten that their game is about playing with your friends. And sadly, not everyone is friends with players who are awesome at WoW. In previous raid expansions there was the “dead weight” slots. These were raid slots that needed nothing more than a warm body in it. A decent raid team could “carry” several players without too much problem. This number changed based on the size and skill of the rest of the raid. It was generally accepted to be 2 slots for 10 man and 4-5 for 25 man. There were even achievements to support this “play style.”
Why was this so important?
Because it meant that even if you were friends with a really nice, but completely brain dead guy, you could still raid with him and do well. No, you wouldn’t be bleeding progression. No you wouldn’t be getting every achievement or even hard modes. But you could fight and see the raid.
But someone at Blizzard decided he was sick and tired of carrying his brain dead buddies. So the raid boss design stopped being about play style and started being about mechanics. (Either that or was just really annoyed at Sarth 3D zergs.)
Sartharion with 3 Drakes:
This fight perfectly explains the mechanics vs. play style debate I feel is very important to WoW raid boss design.
Mechanics: The players clear out the trash, then pull the main boss, with all 3 mini bosses still alive. As the fight progresses, the three mini bosses join the fight and the players have to deal with added fire, void zones, damage, etc etc.
Sarth 3D as it was dubbed was very difficult for 10 mans. It required 3 tanks, which is too much for a 10 man raid. It caused a great deal of raid damage, which required 3 healers. Now, more than half the raid is just there keeping the raid alive, meaning that without 4 amazing dps, the fight would be un-winable for most 10 man guilds. (To be fair it was done, just by a bleeding edge guilds.
Then some enterprising raiders discovered something very interesting.
Play Style: If instead of focusing down each of the mini-bosses as they joined the fight, the players could just focus Sarth and as long as they could burn him in the 90 seconds before the second mini-boss spawned, they would kill him before he became invulnerable.
So they ignored the mechanic of the fight and brute forced it. They made the game about they way they like to play. Burn hard and fast and win, or not quite hard enough and die to purple fire. Even with a decent group, this strat was not easy. My guild at the time would always wipe 4 or 5 times before pulling it off. But we could do it. And it was fun for us. It was still a challenge because pulling that much dps that quickly was not easy.
Of course, once this strat hit the internet, everyone did it this way. It was much easier, if less consistent than the normal strat. Does that make it inherently bad? I say no.
As a game designer it is my job to get the player to kill the boss. Not to jump through hoops until the boss dies. It is supposed to be fun and challenging. Sarth Zerg was still challenging, it just stripped away all the excess “fluff” of the fight and made it what it should have been. A toe to toe battle to the death between us and this huge dragon. It also made us feel like we were playing the game on our own terms. We were playing the game the way we wanted to.
Now, in Firelands the fights are tightly tuned. No more “dead weight” spots. Not only that, if even one person fails, the entire attempt fails. Brain deads need not apply.
Even more so, the fights are very very mechanics based. There is no edge for play style changes to strats. Trying to alter the strat even the smallest bit leads to an insta wipe.
The correct answer is somewhere in between the two ideas. Where people can try to do things their way or strictly stick to the intended way. It makes it feel more like a conversation between the designer and the player.
Blizzard says “Bring the Player, not the Class” but what if the player I want to bring is not awesome? What if the player I want to bring is a good friend but only a mediocre dps? Should I replace my friend with some douche bag who can pull 20k?
The big thing to be worried about when trying to force a mechanic instead of play style is that the path of least resistance might be right out of the door and never playing your game. A bad thing for any social game.