WoW: Big Bosses

Bosses in WoW dungeons are generally easy to spot, even if you’re mainly concentrating on healing your party. They generally take two forms: the big boss, and the talky boss.

Talky bosses are people. They’re humans or undead or whatever, just with high class levels and one or two unique skills or spells. As such, they don’t necessarily look all that imposing. If the grunt forces of the dungeon are all members of the same army, the boss will probably look more or less like his underlings, just with more swagger in his bearing, and a slightly more impressive uniform with bigger epaulets. (WoW is very big on epaulets.) So they identify themselves as bosses by means of pre-fight monologue and/or continuing banter throughout combat, possibly including cries of disbelief at their defeat.

Big bosses, on the other hand, need no such verbal reminders. They’re just big. Many of the monsters in the game are substantially larger than the player, but whatever has been established as the usual scale for the dungeon, the big bosses will be something like three times their height (or length, or other appropriate linear measure). They’re appropriately impressive, and often take the form of horned demons or dragons or something of the sort, as appropriate to the dungeon’s theme. The game is saying to the player, “You are now facing something ultimate, something apocalyptic. Fear it.”

The problem is, it starts saying this somewhere around level 25. And the fiction supports it: you’re already starting to challenge gods at that point (even though you continue to also get routinely defeated by mortals). Bosses of higher-level dungeons are no more impressive than earlier dungeons. You know they’re more powerful, but only because the UI tells you so. It’s all just a numbers game.

It’s easy to blame this effect on the expansions: originally, the level cap was lower, and each expansion has raised it somewhat, so that the enemies that previously were in fact ultimate, the toughest monsters around, no longer hold that title. But this explanation would be wrong. The maximum player character level was originally 60, and the effect I’m describing takes hold long before that. No, this is simply a matter of the designers not leaving themselves room to scale, and also of the utter arbitrariness of power levels endemic to CRPGs.

There is one boss that stands out, though: Deathwing, the massive dragon released by the Cataclysm, as depicted on the game’s launch screen. I’ve had one run-in with Deathwing so far. Apparently every once in a while it just flies through a zone and kills everyone. It doesn’t even seem fightable; it manifests more like a weather pattern, or a sunset. You get a certain amount of warning about this — possibly enough to hightail it out of the zone if you know what’s coming, which you certainly don’t the first time it happens to you. That’s how you make an enemy feel epic: you make it completely beyond the normal rules.

4 Comments so far

  1. malkav11 on 6 Apr 2011

    Deathwing can’t currently be battled. In theory, there should be some sort of massive, crazy-hard fight against Deathwing as the final boss encounter of the final, most challenging raid dungeon they introduce in the Cataclysm expansion block (and that dungeon isn’t in the game yet and probably won’t be for another two or three major content patches.) But you never know, Blizzard might have something else up their sleeve.

  2. matt w on 7 Apr 2011

    Have you played Where We Remain, a flash game by Twofold Secret? I really can’t say why I’m asking you on this post, but Twofold Secret is half Chris Klimas of “Blue Chairs” — that’s a motivator, right?

  3. Carl Muckenhoupt on 8 Apr 2011

    I have. I’m not sure I ever finished it, but I know why you bring it up in this context.

  4. matt w on 11 Apr 2011

    I didn’t finish finish it either — I got to an ending on easy mode, but you’re really supposed to do several different things, and I wound up finding it hard to get into caves quickly — just that one pixel off. (BTW, I had an insight about one reason so many indie games use retro pixel graphics; if you have pixel-precise gameplay, it helps to have big pixels.) But it was very effective at that thing we’re talking about.

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