Practice makes perfect

Tobold has a post today that talks about the elements of skill involved in fighting a boss monster in an MMO, and it got me to thinking.  One of the elements he lists is what he calls “practice skill”, which refers to the knowledge gained by reading up on the elements of the boss fight, as well as practicing that fight over and over until there are no surprises.

Frankly, this seems pretty tedious to me.  I know, I know, I’m beating a dead horse here, but bear with me.

Why is this design element accepted as the norm?  Boss fights are designed to be challenging encounters, and they’re (largely) completely static.  I can understand the thought process… in order to make a fight challenging, special elements are introduced into the encounter, such as special moves or allies appearing at various stages.  In order to make certain that the boss fight is finely tuned, the fight is designed one way and one way only, and it’s precisely the same every time someone faces said boss.  Correspondingly, players practice fighting the same boss until they know every special move, every appearance of an ally, and the fight is completely predictable.  Or they read about the details of the fight online.  Or members of the raid explain, step by step, what’s going to happen next.

When I think about how pervasive this design choice is, I cry a little inside.  I’d personally prefer to see players practicing their character’s skills, mastering theorycraft and tactics and learning how to work well with others, rather than memorizing the 7 steps to killing Boss #31.  I’d like to see some variety in fights, so people don’t farm the bosses via rote memorization, but instead develop a general and transferable skillset that they can use against any and all bosses, as well as normal fights.

In short, I’m arguing for the abolition of “practice skill” as Tobold refers to it, and for the implementation of dynamic boss fights that lack predictability.  How much more exciting is it when you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen?  How much more fun is it to beat a boss because everybody knew their characters and their group role… and not because it was all memorized in advance?  I’ve done it both ways many times… fought bosses where nobody in the group knew what to expect, and fought bosses where everybody knew precisely what to expect at every step of the way… and I can tell you firsthand that there’s a huge difference.

Some would say, “So just don’t seek to learn about the fights in advance” but this isn’t really a solution.  First, a lot of people would continue to rely on “practice skill” instead of character skill or tactical skill, so the community as a whole wouldn’t shift focus to developing more flexible approaches.  Second, designers often plan for practice skill to be an element of boss fights, tuning encounters so that the only way to succeed is to memorize the precise steps needed.  Third, once I’ve fought a boss, the surprise is forever ruined for me… so anytime I return I’ll know the steps to take.  So it’s not a personal choice that I can reasonably make… instead it’s a choice on the part of the designers.  Let’s just hope that someday it’s a choice they feel free to make differently.

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