Encounter Design and the Deaf: Computational Addons Are NOT the Problem

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WoW Community Council
#1 - May 15, 2022, 9:09 p.m.
Blizzard Post

This is a post I have been working on for a while. Ion’s interview with Asmongold, in which he stated that certain WeakAuras and addons are viewed as problematic, has spurred me to finish it. I raid with Undaunted, the world’s largest deaf guild. It should go without saying that we raid without voice chat, which makes us more reliant than most on interface addons.

While we’re used to the fact that the lack of voice chat means just about every boss encounter is going to be more difficult for us, there are certain designs that can prove to be almost insurmountable for us without the work of WeakAura and addon authors who give us the means to overcome inaccessible boss mechanics.

The chief issues that I would like to highlight are: collaborative randomness and the hiding of visual data.

Collaborative Randomness

Collaborative randomness refers to mechanics that have random components which require coordination from random people in the raid. Almost all boss encounters these days have an element of randomness to at least one of their mechanics, but there are more than a few that have single mechanics that involve multiple elements of randomness. Examples of this would include Fatescribe Roh-Kalo’s “Loom of Fates,” High Tinker Mekkatorque’s “Spark Bots” and Lady Inerva Darkvein’s “Sins and Suffering.”

Using Fatescribe’s “Loom of Fates” as an example, random players in the group must stand on randomly placed runes on the floor in order to move them into position and deactivate them. Depending on your raid size, there may be a third layer of randomness in which rings on the floor activate. In order to overcome the extreme randomness of this mechanic, we used a “computational WeakAura” that read a list of our raiders on Exorsus Raid Tool’s note feature, then automatically assigned players with Runic Affinity to each ring. Since we cannot use voice chat to call things out and typing often results in death with the prevalence of one-shot mechanics making their way into Heroic and even Normal difficulties, we’re at the mercy of addon authors to provide accessibility to us.

Contrary to what Ion says in his interview with Asmongold, computational WeakAuras and addons aren’t the problem; they’re the solution to inaccessible game design. Blizzard’s commitment to the customizability of WoW’s UI is a double edged sword. It makes the game one of the most accessible MMOs for the deaf and players with other disabilities, but it’s also resulted in encounter designers getting stuck in an endless arms race with addon authors because they’re trying to dream up impossibly complex mechanics to outsmart the addons.

The solution is simple: Stop designing single mechanics that have multiple elements of randomness to them. If these types of mechanics exist, able bodied players will always seek to bypass or trivialize these mechanics with addons. Threatening to break their functionality constantly leaves those of us who cannot use voice chat wondering if we’re ever going to reach a point where we simply won’t have the tools we need to overcome the challenges presented to us.

This doesn’t mean that you cannot design amazing and challenging boss encounters. Mythic Painsmith was lauded by top end raiders as being Sanctum of Domination’s best boss and it was that tier’s “wall,” yet it doesn’t rely on oodles of randomness to generate that challenge. Mythic N’zoth is probably my favorite Mythic boss and it was an incredible challenge for Undaunted’s raid team, but the fight was mostly linear from start to finish and relied only on perfect execution by all 20 raiders.

Hiding of Visual Data

Mechanics that don’t show all of the necessary data to overcome said mechanics are frustrating to deal with, because deaf raiders cannot communicate on the fly like our hearing counterparts who use voice chat. Stopping to type in chat often results in death and there’s no guarantee that other raiders will notice what you’ve said through all the screen and chat based spam that our addons produce.

High Tinker Mekkatorque in Battle of Dazar’alor is probably the best example of a boss that hides essential data from players and this encounter is universally reviled among the deaf WoW community because of it. In addition to having two layers of randomness (random players with random sequences of buttons), which I covered above, Spark Bots are even worse in that players cannot see their own sequence to deactivate the bot they are in. This entire mechanic was created with the assumption that everybody is (or should be) using voice chat to communicate. WeakAuras were made to allow people inside the bots to communicate, but having used those WeakAuras and seeing it done on streams, it’s incredibly clear that voice chat is the simpler solution.

Hiding visual data itself isn’t necessarily problematic. For example, Hylbrande (Tazavesh: Gambit’s first boss) and Mythic Skitra both have mechanics that hide visual data. They both differ from High Tinker’s mechanic in that they can be overcome without the need for WeakAuras, because the tools provided by the base UI make them accessible. When fighting Hylbrande, one player can use the main console and drop world markers on the floor at the 4 other consoles to show the rest of the group the correct locations. Mythic Skitra’s Illusionary Projections can be solved by having one tank place world markers at every Projection they see, then having the second tank compare those markers to the ones they can see and direct the raid to the correct one. (For Undaunted, it was even simpler at the time, since our tanks for Ny’alotha played while sitting next to each other, so they could simply look at each others’ screens to find the real Projection.)

The accessibility solution here is also simple: Don’t assume that all players are using voice chat. Ask, “How would we beat this encounter without voice chat?” If that isn’t possible, then perhaps the UI tools need to be utilized better or improved in order to make that possible.

The current tier has one boss where visual data is hidden from some players: Lords of Dread. WeakAuras have been created to implement the ability to “vote” on which players are the impostors, but if the encounter designers had asked themselves the above question, perhaps they would have realized that they should have implemented that themselves. The functionality for it is already there with the Extra Action Button. Using it to put some type of mark or buff on players we want to claim are the impostors not only solves the accessibility issue with the fight, but it brings the encounter closer to the mechanic in the game that inspired it.

Improving User Interface Tools

The primary barrier for raiders who cannot utilize voice chat is that the increasing complexity of encounter designs often leaves us with seconds to communicate in order to avoid a wipe, but the base user interface doesn’t provide us with the tools needed for that coordination. This is why we turn to WeakAuras and other addons and it’s why they should be viewed as an accessibility feature, not as a challenge for the encounter designers to work around.

The interface overhaul in Dragonflight provides a great opportunity to expand the tools available to all raiders in order to make the game more accessible by default and to provide encounter designers with more interactions that can be used to create unique mechanics.

One small thing I would like to see is the expansion of the raid markers. (We do have another post from a deaf Council member that talks about this, but it bears repeating.) We always mark our raid tanks to help coordinate movement and make them more visible, but this frequently conflicts with the automatic target marking done by DeadlyBossMods and BigWigs on some of the more convoluted fights. It would be great if we could get some player specific marks, such as a shield or some kind of “stack here” mark to put on players who are coordinating the movement in our raids. The use of these target markers could also be improved visually by allowing them to operate the same way that waypoint markers do in the open world. If a target with the “skull” mark is behind you, you should see that marker at the edge of your screen with an arrow showing which way it is.

A “ping” system similar to the ones in Overwatch, Apex Legends or League of Legends would also be extremely helpful in overcoming the communication barrier. Generic pings like “I’m going here!,” coupled with an arrow marker and the player’s name, could be used to coordinate different elements of a mechanic like Fatescribe’s Loom of Fates and would make computational addons less necessary for those types of encounters. Pings could also be added with boss-specific contexts, giving the encounter designers a new tool to use in designing new boss mechanics.

Final Thoughts

While I’ve framed my entire argument here as an accessibility issue for deaf players like me, it’s important to note that we aren’t the only ones who do not use voice chat. There are many players who have play in environments where they cannot use voice chat, have anxiety, are women who don’t feel comfortable revealing that fact, etc that benefit from addons that remove the need for voice chat, too. Language barriers also exist, given that World of Warcraft is a global game and these addons help overcome that, as well.

My hope is that I’ve illustrated that these addons are not the problem and that their functionality cannot and should not be broken. Instead, the encounter designers should put more consideration into how accessible the mechanics they design are and seek changes to the base interface if their mechanic designs prove to be inaccessible without voice chat.

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Lead Encounter Designer
#4 - May 23, 2022, 9:08 p.m.
Blizzard Post


First up I’d like to thank you for taking the time to write up really excellent feedback here. Our team fully supports the sentiment that accessibility is not just a concern for those with disabilities, and that efforts to improve accessibility make the game better for everyone. Posts like this do a great job of helping us gain insight into ways we can level up as developers.

While I can’t provide a definitive answer to all of your points, I’d like to share some insight into how we think about and approach these problems, as well as some things we’ve either already done or are considering that may help.

Collaborative Randomness

This is a cool term and I like it, but I want to expand a bit and talk about even more factors that we think about when determining if a mechanic is appropriate to ask players to do at a given difficulty, such as:
• How complex is the mechanic?
• How much affordance does the mechanic have? (basically a function of how clear it is + how much time you’re given to react)
• How severe is the punishment for failure, and is it binary or granular?

To use a few Shadowlands mechanics as examples:

Smoldering Ire (Denathrius)
• Low complexity
• High affordance
• Outright ignoring it is an instant wipe, but failure is granular (if you only miss 20% the damage is likely survivable)

Spiked Floor (Painsmith)
• Low complexity
• Medium affordance
• Failure is binary (die if you get hit), but it only affects one person so a few mistakes can be OK

Loom of Fates (Fatescribe)
• High complexity
• High affordance
• Failure is binary and instantly wipes the raid.

Note that this is simplifying a bit and doesn’t account for “what else is competing for your attention while this mechanic is happening?”, but it’s still a useful model to help evaluate the impact a mechanic has on a fight.

When it comes to Loom of Fates, I wonder if you’d feel less like addons are a requirement if one or both of the following were true:
• Fewer things competing for your attention during the mechanic (avoidable elements, adds, etc)
• More granular penalty for failure (ex: a single mistake resulted in a “survivable with all your raid CDs” level of damage, as opposed to a wipe)

Ultimately what I’m getting at here is that “high complexity” is a design space that allows us to do some pretty cool and thematic stuff, and I’d like to find ways for us to continue doing things in this space while keeping them accessible. To be clear: We make “high complexity” mechanics not because we feel pressure to keep up with addons, but because doing so allows us to create more unique bosses.

Hiding of Visual Information

Spark Bots on Mekkatorque were a lesson for us on the experiences of players who don’t have the option of using voice chat. Since then any time we make a mechanic with “hidden information” or other puzzle elements that require players to communicate on the fly, one of our requirements is to confirm through playtesting that it can be reasonably completed without using addons or voice chat. In Shadowlands this requirement has been applied for fights like Mistcaller, Hylbrande, Fatescribe, and Lords of Dread.

That said we understand that even if a fight “can be done” without advanced addons or voice chat, it’s still possible for players without those tools to experience a frustratingly large disadvantage relative to a fight’s intended difficulty. We still have room to improve here, and hope to continue learning from and applying feedback like this as we make new bosses in the future.

Even if we can’t achieve complete parity, I think it’s totally fair to ask for designs to be considerate of players who can’t use voice and to provide reasonable in-game tools to bridge the gap. This of course brings us to…

User Interface Improvements

In-game communication tools are a big opportunity for improvement, and there’s been a lot of discussion on the team around the topic of how our interface can be used to enhance communication. The interface updates coming in 10.0 are largely focused on improving how the game provides information to players, but we agree that in the future something like a “ping system” would be great for enhancing communication and would be very much worth exploring.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts here, and for helping us make our game more accessible for everyone.