Telegraphing 101: A Lesson in Boss Design with Prof. Diablo

oo scarryyy

Warning: This article details the Act 1 boss encounter of Diablo 3. If you haven’t played the game yet and you’re spoilerphobic, you may not wish to read this.

So now that the second GW2 beta weekend is behind us and we’ve had a chance to process everything and settle down, most people have gone back to killing time in other, less exciting, games until the third beta starts. And since the majority of gamers are more or less done with Guild Wars 1 and/or World of Wacraft, that leaves us with the newest Blizzard behemoth to spend some time with: Diablo 3. After finishing off a few acts in Hell difficulty during my last play session, something stuck out in my mind with regards to how boss fights are played out. Diablo 3’s implementation of boss mechanics (and how it conveys the abilities which might one-shot you) are done exceptionally well, while on the other hand.. GW2 has somewhat dropped the ball so far. Or if you’re on the receiving end of a champion’s attention, it would be more accurate to say they’ve dropped the health globe. ..Instantly.

But wait, don’t roll your eyes, cry scrub, and scroll past just yet. Hear me out.

If only I had Lifecall! :(

Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!

How many times throughout the weekend did you run up to a boss, ready to smash its face in, only to have your face the one that was instantly smashed in? Now, this isn’t to say that I have a problem with being killed in one hit – quite the contrary actually – I find it to be a very effective way to ensure a certain level of difficulty, while promoting proper character control and battlefield awareness. The problem, and the main point of this entire article, is that bosses do not accurately convey their one-shotting attacks. To emphasize the problem, here’s a dramatic reinactment of my encounter with the champion Sons of Svanir shaman event found in Wayfarer Foothills:

Shaman: K

Me: ..Uh, what in the seven hells just killed me?

The shaman didn’t slowly raise his weapon, ready to deliver a massive blow, there were no red circles of death nearby, I just seemed to drop dead. And that’s not the only boss who does it; I also remember it happening with the earth elementalist in Queensdale, Issormir in the Norn tutorial, as well as various other bosses throughout the world such as that shaman and the wasp in Queensdale. **Update: some Reddit comments have mentioned that there’s an intentional downed state which occurs during the tutorial. If this is the case, there’s currently nothing that shows an instantly-downing attack is on the way. Additionally, there (unintentionally) may be ways to somehow avoid this phase, because I’ve had tutorial boss fights on other characters in which I didn’t die.)

But hey, I’m not really the world’s biggest pver when it comes to GW. Maybe all that high level gvg experience accounts for nothing in pveland. So to make sure, I asked around to see if anyone else had similar experiences: everyone else – except for one person – encountered the same thing at least once throughout their beta playtime. And that one exception said they were playing on an ele and would stand back as far as was possible the entire fight, spending time running away and ressing people instead of fighting the bosses toe-to-toe.

hop hop smash

"It's clobberin' time!"

So, clearly there’s some sort of instant player squishing problem happening here, but what can be done? Well, that’s where Blizzard comes in: there should never be anything that is capable of killing you instantly without it being blatantly obvious that such an attack is coming. Bosses should telegraph. Just ask any WoW Wrath raider if “BONE STORM!!” means anything to them, or what they think of when they hear “Arise, and exult in your pure form!” Almost every WoW boss  has a telegraph for their abilities and phases, with the exception of gear check tank and spank encounters (such as Patchwerk), and this mechanic has been incorporated into Diablo 3 as well. Although to be clear, this is just a focus on the design of the boss encounters, not the difficulty. Unfortunately, the D3 bosses can easily be defeated with one hand behind your back – except on Inferno.

“Fresh meat!”

The Act 1 endboss fight of Diablo 3 is The Butcher, and there are five things to watch out for during the fight. First off, there are two things to watch out for which do not one-shot: sections of the floor will periodically ignite causing significant damage if you stand in it, and The Butcher will occasionally throw out some spears in a cone-shaped area directly in front of him, dealing a small amount of damage.

The other three mechanics are telegraphed:

roar roar charge

"I charge in your general direction!"

  1. While in melee range, The Butcher will hop up and down, then slam his cleaver on the ground in front of him, dealing a large chunk of damage to anyone still standing there.
  2. The Butcher shouts, and a blast of fire shoots across the screen. About a second later, he’ll charge across the screen, following the path of the fire blast, knocking back and damaging anyone in the way. If he doesn’t run into anyone, he’ll smash into the wall of the arena, giving a few seconds to attack him while he’s stunned and harmless.
  3. The Butcher points his cleaver in the direction of a player, and then throws out his glowing hook to grab them and bring them to him, smashing them for a massive amount of damage. This is arguably one of the worst attacks, since if you get snagged you’re unable to cast spells, and if the attack doesn’t kill you in one shot, you may very well die if he’s dragged you onto a section of the floor which is ignited.

Similar mechanics can be seen throughout the other bosses in the game (and even on the hordes of general monsters you encounteer throughout the acts), but no matter where you encounter them and what kind of foe it is, it should always be explicitly obvious that you’re about to be instantly smushed if you don’t move right now, because that enemy is raising its gigantic glowing club far above his head.

point toss yoink

"Get over here!"

Unfortunately, this is not the case in GW2.. yet. Is it a deal breaker, however? Well… not exactly. It certainly adds a level of “cheapness” to the fights, and is an additional frustration which could be – and should be – avoided, but in the end it’s primarily a quality of life change. And as Alaris’s signature says on our forums: “You can tell the quality of life of people by what they complain about.” If this is the best we can come up with after two betas, I’d say we don’t have much to worry about.

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  • Great read! I also found that sometimes bosses would just drop me. I however figured that it had to do with my poor battle awareness. Thank you for making me think otherwise – it’s not me, it’s them! :D

  • Beren Iluthiel

    for i=1:1228367128326549

  • Great read, and I agree with you 100%. Whether one-shots should be allowed or not, certainly they should be telegraphed.

    I know some monsters do this (I saw some regular foes telling me what they’re about to do, like raising their shield or casting a meteor shower). But bosses should too, especially bosses with strong attacks.

  • The King of Dust

    Another related issue is that while some bosses do telegraph their attacks, it’s sometime almost impossible to tell when you’re in melee, either because there’s too much stuff going on or the boss is simply huge and you can’t zoom out far enough to get a good view of what its doing.

  • About the instant death issue:

    The tutorial bosses will one-shot you at the begining of the fight if you’re close to them because it’s scripted (basically Anet version of “Hey, this is what happens when you lose all HP.” Scumbag mode of course) but it’s only a one time event.

    The svanir shaman is definitely a concern. This is due to poor event scaling that places no cap on the damage of auto-attacks (which is why people instantly die for no reason). The simple attacks should also scale in dmg, but not to the point it instantly kills you (maybe a third of someone’s max hp).

  • This issue is tied in with dynamic event scaling – the more players, the tougher the boss in hit points and damage so the more likely it is that you get one shot downed but the more players to revive you. I don’t like dynamic events because players are effectively mindless zerg mobs and there’s no skill involved which ties in with your point – if there’s a tell then there’s an element of player skill to avoid and not just luck. Additionally it is more of a problem for melee than ranged in terms of being picked on and players risking themselves to revive you based on proximity to the boss …

  • I agree that part of the problem with Champions in GW2 is that some of them do not telegraph their attacks and 1-shot melee players who doesn’t trait for vitality or toughness. But I’d call the telegraphing issue only half of the story. The other half consists of players who have learned the Tank & Spank system from WoW. Big boss, you just stand there and trade blows.. your team mates will keep you alive and if they don’t.. they suck. This just doesn’t work in GW2. You have that dodge button for a reason. Every class has a wide variety of ways to CC and cause Conditions for a reason.

    I think folks will find that these big champion fights go MUCH more smoothly with a group that knows what they are doing. Got a big champ that one-shots the melee guys, you CC them as much as you can (I know, nobody CC’s in WoW because it’s all facerolling). Any melee folks, switch out to range as needed (it’s why you warriors can use guns and own with them). Melee hits hardest so roll in and use your big hit and roll out. Have the Ele in the back use a big KD, you run in and thousand blade before getting back out and switching to a bow or gun.

    The point is, far to few people have yet really ‘learned’ how to fight the bosses in GW2. It’s action-based combat. Anyone who sits there and trades blows and then cries fowl isn’t playing right. I’m sure a number of folks, like me have been in groups (or hell, even random fights with folks you don’t know) but were lucky enough to have a bunch of folks around you who knew what they were doing in this fight. These fights are fast and furious, very challenging and dynamic. But they are also extremely enjoyable. There’s no feeling like it in any other MMOG, at least not in my 13+ years of MMOG experience.

    • I forgot to add that I think D3 is a bad example of how Telegraphing should be done. D3 has mobs telegraph far to much, it makes the big bosses (besides perhaps Azmodan) far to simple and easy. Even in Hell fighting say the Butcher is extremely easy because he gives you often a full second warning when he is about to attack. Any class that can bubble, or teleport.. can very easily avoid the fights.

      It’s why there is a lot of consensus that in Hell and Inferno, the random Elites are far more difficult than the bosses because they have random abilities and don’t telegraph their attack. There is a reason you can find dozens of videos on youtube of people beating Diablo in Hell or Inferno with ease, because you can see ‘her’ attacks coming a mile away.

      • Fion: While it’s true that the act bosses are painfully easy, my attention was more focused on the design rather than the difficulty. Although even with boss packs there are some ability warnings.. most obviously the nodes that spawn while fighting frozen and arcane bosses.

        ..Of course those aren’t needed when you can just hover over the boss and read what its mods are.

    • Your solution to melee being unplayable is for everyone to switch to range. While the game mechanics make that possible (and preferable, the way the game is balanced right now), its hardly good design.

  • I hope they change this to. Getting squished for no apparent reason at all is pretty lame.

  • If D3 bosses telegraph too much, GW2 bosses telegraph not enough.

    Good point about CC. Though rolling in and out kinda requires you to see yourself getting damaged, and rolling out as a response. If you get 1-hit, you could get 1-hit right after rolling in, it would still be annoying.

  • Nice article Shawn, and I agree completely. I believe I made the same complaint on these forums after the first BWE. Dodging and being mobile is supposedly so important in GW2 yet the game basically says “Well, you can dodge some attacks.” If a player has the skill level to be able to avoid/dodge everything, then they should be able to do so.

    This is also the reason melee feels so inferior compared to ranged. When I was playing ranged I was basically facerolling everything without any fear of death, but my experience with melee was the exact opposite.

    • Guided Daggers

      That is so true. I never entered downed state on my ranger, yet counless times on my Warrior and Guardian. You’re way up close and can’t see what’s happening, plus you’re in range of the bosses’s instant-kill attacks.

  • /signed

    I think part of the problem is the scaling. When there are a ton of players around, those powerful attacks become SUPER powerful, and you get one-shotted.

    I definitely agree, though, that ALL bosses in GW 2 need some kind of tell. The frost wurm in the Norn tutorial area winds up before it lashes out (its big attack), but that’s the only one I saw for sure. And even that is hard to see with all the particle effects…

  • “Diablo 3?s implementation of boss mechanics…are done exceptionally well,”

    D3 boss battles are the most boring, dull, shallow part of a boring, dull, shallow game.

  • I’ll agree as well about this. As a warrior, I’ve had more than a few deaths just happen out of nowhere. Heck, fighting Issomer there were several times where I, up close and personal hacking away, got instantly thrown into the downed state. No real clue why, I didn’t see any wind-up or warning, and its not like there was a ton of us there at the moment.
    And yes, I’ve also experienced that Shaman and his one-shotting ways.

    As for telegraphing, it’s not just Diablo 3. A majority of action-oriented games will have this. Monster Hunter, Ninja Gaiden, heck anything that puts an emphasis on reacting in combat! TERA even has it for its normal mobs.

    Heck, its why I end up using my rifle a little more than my beloved great sword, about 60-40 I’d say in favor of standing back and going bang bang at them. If I can’t get the important signals I need to survive as melee, I’m hanging back.
    Melee in general just feels like it has some survival issues, even using dodge.

  • indeed, Tera is another good example.