Puzzles have a long and proud tradition in single-player computer games. Quality has varied dramatically, but then Sturgeon’s Law applies. (Feel free to commiserate in the comments about your favorite horrible guesswork “puzzles.”) Puzzle bosses are a classic implementation, although these are often a thin candy coating over the BIG RED GLOWING EYE that you shoot.
We seem to want to replicate this in MMOs, and I do not think it has gone well. Problems are both because you expect to fight the bosses multiple times and because you will not be bringing the same people.
Puzzles are fun the first time you solve them. I suppose they can be fun again if your memory is poor, but you either remember how the puzzle boss works or muddle through in about the same way you did before. If your game has the detestable “he’s randomly behind one of these 5 doors” type of puzzle, hey, it won’t be any worse the eighth time you brute-force “solve” it.
Most of us are familiar with MMO bosses in this fashion. They have set scripts, maybe with some random elements, ready go. Many of you have watched videos about raid bosses before meeting them in-game. The fight is the same, and the developers expect people to fight them several times, so it just becomes synchronized dancing at best. We will come back to the “watch a video” issue in a moment.
The best games use a puzzle template rather than a single puzzle. For example, Kingdom of Loathing requires a code to get through a door to the final boss; it is not a set code, or even a perfectly fixed template, but you can figure it out through roughly the same process each time. It is like solving sudoku: same structure, different details. Making a fun, re-usable template is harder than making a single puzzle; doing that with a puzzle rather than a puzzle boss is easier, too.
Repetition also re-creates a problem we have with scaling content. Do you assume that the players have X? It is not a certain gear score in this case, rather whether they know how the fight mechanics work. The fight might give you all the information you need each time but not nearly enough time to process it unless you already know all the pieces. You have heard rage against LotRO icons; those few pixels can stand for several sentences of game rules, and you need to know what they say and how they impact the game in five seconds or less while doing your normal role in a boss fight, and you need everyone in the group to know because some of them are “detonate and kill your group” icons.
This is why we watch videos: to get that information ahead of time, rather than wiping because there was no way to figure out at the time that you needed to have people with certain items run to certain spots when the boss used various phrases, and not knowing each phrase meant a group wipe (and possible dungeon reset). (This is an actual LotRO boss fight.)
And again there is the balancing of whether the fight is impossible without knowing the trick, trivial once you do, etc. There are too many bosses where the trick is to know one or two spots on the floor to stand.
And all that is just the difficulty from the perspective of a single player. What happens when we add a group?
Do you like puzzles? If so, you might want to puzzle out the answer. Tough, the group wants to get through this fight, and we don’t want to wipe five times while you read icons. Just stand over there, shoot it, and use the water bottle when we tell you to. Or, if it is not life-or-death, sure, why not have half the group stand around while the other half re-figures it out. That sounds like fun. Whenever we go to LotRO’s Hall of Mirrors, we can ask: do you want to puzzle this out, new guy, or do you want us to pull the levers so we can move on? No pressure, but on the last set of levers, enemies re-spawn while you work on that.
If you play with a static group, great, you can all work it out at once. Assuming this is the first time any of you have done this content. When our static group hit content that I had run four times, we eventually leashed me so that I did not immediately head to the solution. It is kind of like playing with the game guide next to you, opened to the right page just in case, but unread.
Actually figuring it out for yourself seems to be a minority position. We rely on someone who has run the dungeon before, we Google it, we watch the video. Someone must suffer through learning possibly absurd gyrations, but it will not be you unless you are Hardcore Brother. Even if you wanted to, you are not going to ask a 25-person raid to wipe a few times so you can have the thrill of learning Arthas’s phases on your own. Not that they would invite you or ever have you back. Heck, you might get guild-kicked just for asking in some places.
With single-group content, this might be sane. I can get together a group of people who have never run this dungeon before. If I am the only one who has run it, I can let them learn it apart from warning them about anything that is instant death (“don’t touch the green water”). Finding a full raid willing to run anything while completely ignorant is an organizational miracle if the content has been out a few weeks.
Millions and millions of players. A few hundred work out most of the dance steps. It seems like a lot of design work for a puzzle that 99.x% of your players will not have a reasonable opportunity to solve for themselves. But your players also seem to be content with the notion of telling everyone to hit YouTube before raid time.
Oh, and there is always someone new or who needs a refresher, so you must explain it every time. They’re annoyed about being led by the nose, you’re annoyed about the need to explain the dungeon for the third time that week, but you both know the entire group wipes if we let the new guy bumble through. Those of you in raid guilds will have seen less of that; those of us who PUG frequently see a lot more.