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

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.

86 Likes

Great post!

I would love to see improvements on the base UI to improve communications without necessarily needing complex WeakAuras or other addons. I didn’t know I needed this until you mentioned it:

And as you said, not only these solutions could benefit people with accessibility issues, it could be used by anyone, including people who aren’t comfortable with voice, PUGs or even by a regular raid group that may prefer Vanilla solutions rather than forcing people to use and tweak addons.

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I would like to add that selecting the correct player is nearly impossible for me. Considering on the average heroic raid I’m with 25 people, I have severe issues even selecting the player to see the name of who has the dreadlord appearance.

One of the major problems I have at the moment is finding the right target. This is an issue in anything that shows more than say 8 nameplates. This is worsened by weeks in M+ with explosive and the current affix. In order for me (as a melee) to be able to see the nameplates and keep them on screen, I need to have stacked nameplates, but even then they kinda just clutch together on the same spot or start tripping out and “teleport” over my screen in a vertical line.

The WoW UI needs an accessibility overhaul in general, and I hope they take these things into account with 10.0. We need a proper interface to deal with mechanics in dungeons an raids that isn’t one of the extra boss buttons. I can’t even properly do the Tazavesh music boss event without binding this extra button to my mouse, because I have to hold the RMB to aim my character, and then push a button somewhere on my screen. I simply do not have the accuracy to properly do this and will cause pain in my arm.

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Greetings!

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.

20 Likes

I think this would be a fantastic addition for all types of grouped content in the game. Raiding, M+, PvP, and outside world content. We do already see a similar system in the game with the “Pin Map Location” feature. But if a ping system were to be implemented I would like it to be a keybindable action, as it could be very beneficial even for guilds that can use voice communication.

4 Likes

With Loom of Fates, I don’t think there’s too much competing for our attention. Half the raid is assigned to the runes, while the other half is focused on killing the adds. We had our Paladins (and other classes with heavy defensive cooldowns/immunities) clear the Fate Fragments to keep the room clear and make it even simpler.

I think it would have been more accessible if the penalty for failing Loom of Fates had been more granular in that the “explosion” was amplified for each ring failed, rather than being a binary pass/fail for the entire thing. If we could have used all of our raid cooldowns to survive messing up one or two of the rings, it would have proved less of a hassle.

But the primary problem is still the fact that the amount of inherent randomness in the mechanic creates a huge probability of failure compared to other bosses. To put this into perspective with an extreme example, our Mythic raid team killed Mythic Ra-den in 32 pulls in Ny’alotha, yet it took us over 100 to kill Heroic Fatescribe. Heroic Fatescribe also took us more pulls to kill than Heroic Sylvanas did.

Up to ten random players being marked to run up to 6 randomly placed runes opens a lot more possibilities for failure than many other mechanics. Lady Darkvein’s “Sins and Suffering” also forces random players to solve a random mechanic, but that’s 3 players collaborating to cover 3 randomly placed orbs. The possibility for failure is far lower there. Ideally, I would like to see a complete removal of mechanics that require random players to solve randomized mechanics, but if they have to be included, I think 3-5 players at a time being assigned to that mechanic is going to be the sweet spot to keep the affordance from going beyond what is reasonably possible for us to complete without voice chat.

Another issue is that “enrage” timers on bosses encourage raiders to complete the mechanics as fast as possible, which further incentivizes us to use addons. Taking Lords of Dread for example, if a guild using voice chat can solve it in 5 seconds, but it takes us 29 to do it without voice chat, then we’re at a further disadvantage. (And Undaunted did hit the enrage timer on our first Heroic Lords of Dread kill.) The presence of the enrage timer requires us to complete the mechanic as fast as possible, which ends up actively encouraging us to use an addon to complete it as fast as possible.

Loom of Fates is a unique mechanic and it’s cool thematically, just like the Among Us mechanic is on Lords of Dread.

However, I think it could have been designed in a more accessible way without relying on collaborative randomness. If, for example, players were marked with a specific Domination Rune rather than a generic “Rune Affinity” debuff, had to match the rune on their head with one on the rings and run that specific rune to the lock, the theme of the mechanic would have been maintained without making it so much of a headache for those of us who don’t use voice chat.

12 Likes

Sorry I went MIA on you guys. Real life has knocked me flat over the past couple months. But I’m finally able to take a breather!

And I really wanted to discuss THIS point (Sao, I’m not talking to you, but using your comment to jumpstart my post):

I think that this is probably one of the best possible philosophical changes Blizzard could take regarding raid design going forward.

I vaguely alluded to this in my thread (about accessibility for Deaf players), but the point of accessibility is not to enable players like us to “cheat” or get an “unfair advantage,” but rather to provide us with equitable alternatives that would allow us to access the same content in a game that we are paying for as well.

(Those few people using the WoW tokens aside.)

It’s clear that Blizzard wants to be able to keep on using every tool in its raids — including sounds — and I don’t begrudge them that at all! The same applies to their visual effects (see that one thread by a fellow Community Council player who is blind. He wrote a post about all the visual clutter in encounters and how it’s hard for blind players like him).

I’m not saying “You can’t use those effects!” I’m saying “Those effects are OK, we just need to be given an alternative method and/or a fair chance to deal with those effects.”

If there’s only a binary system of “success and failure,” and then an encounter literally depends on a spilt-second reaction that depends on teammates warning each other through voice chat OR depends on a specific sound, then deaf players are almost always going to fail that encounter.

(Notice I said “almost.” It’s not impossible, but the effort and the barrier is greatly increased — note Sao’s comment about how some encounters requiring 100+ attempts to overcome due to design like this.)

A binary pass/fail which almost instantly kills players is very, very frustrating. All players can relate to this. However, I want to point out another aspect — Blizzard cares about its players having fun, after all! But a design like this? NOT fun at all for deaf players and other disabled players.

Hearing players can learn and improve by using their voices and hearing to pass encounters like this. Thus, they’re often elated and thrilled when they succeed. “Guys, that was FUN! I loved this fight!”

Deaf players literally can NOT do this. Because it’s a literal inability for us, it becomes a very frustrating experience which sours the encounter for us. When we finally succeed, often through repeated wipes and attempts and sheer memorization and near perfection from every single member, we’re more often relieved: “Oh man, we FINALLY did it. That was an awful fight! I hope we never get a fight like that again!”

(My sister is a deaf raider. She still talks exactly like that about the High Tinker fight in BFA. It was literally years ago. She still grimaces in horror over it.)

The bright side is that the majority of raid and dungeon encounters are not like this. But for those few… well, it again goes back to my original point: If Blizzard truly wants the game to be accessible to all of its paying customers, then we need to be given tools and/or a fair chance to succeed.

Designing a raid encounter — or the game — to be doable in only one way is not it.

I like the suggestions on this thread. The “ping” system, the waypoint marker (which I also mentioned in my own thread), for one.

But again, I want point to the raid-design philosophy. A binary pass/fail approach which happens in mere seconds… that needs to go. A granular approach which allows players to rebound from one or two errors is much more equitable.

(Notice I said “one or two.” A few errors should be allowed, because deaf players literally cannot hear sound-based warnings and will get hit flat-footed. But if they’re allowed to use defensives and recovery abilities to survive the phase, then they’ll be able to rebound. But it doesn’t mean “many errors” — if deaf raiders stand in the fire, let them die. :wink:)

Oh, one more thing: Addons aren’t a bad thing. Due to the raids being designed around addons, Blizzard has made addons necessary (and even more so for deaf players). You’ll notice that my post keeps going back to this point:

We NEED tools to help equalize the experience for us. If Blizzard wants to take them away (addons), then they’re going to need to give us equitable tools in return (encounter design, for one. New UI features, for another).

Deaf players are paying customers too, after all. :slightly_smiling_face:

2 Likes

This is a bit of a tangent into encounter design in general, but I think the prevalence of binary pass/fail mechanics needs to be completely rethought.

It might be recency bias, but it feels like we see more and more of these types of penalties for failing mechanics creeping into the lower difficulty levels. The way I remember it, binary pass/fail used to mostly be confined to Mythic difficulty in raids, with the penalties for failure on Heroic and Normal being survivable with quick counterplay (defensive or healing cooldowns).

While I understand that new encounters need to be challenging for players who have experience raiding in the previous tiers, binary pass/fail penalties contribute to a steep learning curve for new players and often discourage them from continuing to raid. Mechanics like Anduin’s Blasphemy shouldn’t one shot players for failure on Normal. Reserve those kinds of penalties for the last few Heroic bosses and Mythic.

5 Likes

It’s not even just the fact it one-shots. It’s the fact if one person makes a mistake (or even simply coincidentally runs the same way as someone else running out of melee), unless them and 3 others use defensives, that one person’s mistake will kill 4 people - which is a raid wipe in most cases. (And I imagine in a guild that can’t access voice chat - there’s no way to quickly inform the other 2 people that they need to use defensives because their potential pair exploded)

If they insist on keeping it a one-shot, there’s a simple solution that will help make it less punishing and in a way help people learn: If 2 black circles collide, remove 2 yellow circles from other players in the raid at random. And vice versa. This way one explosion won’t kill 4 people, it will kill at most 2 people, which isn’t a guaranteed wipe, though still possibly a wipe, but in turn it’ll be less punishing.

Anduin’s Normal Difficulty is very out of touch for most normal bosses. I’ve yet to attend a raid night with my guild where Anduin was downed (though they do down him regularly, I just haven’t been attending regularly as I’ve been sick/the heat is getting to me/etc.) - I even asked how the other bosses are for them on Normal and they said they don’t have any trouble with them, just Anduin lol.

Just seems like a weird disconnect with difficulty. Blasphemy in Normal right now has the punishment level one would expect from Heroic.

*Just to clarify, I’m strictly speaking for Normal difficulty. Blasphemy is fine in Heroic/Mythic as a one-shot mechanic.

2 Likes

Yep. It’s a guaranteed wipe for us if even a single person messes Blasphemy up.

What we ended up doing for it is what we did for Mythic N’zoth’s Evoke Anguish: Every single person in the raid has an assigned spot where they stand for it to ensure no overlaps. Only the purple players are allowed to move initially. Once most of the raid is clear, the remaining people run to Anduin to clear theirs’.

1 Like

I remember that strategy! I watched my sister run that raid with you guys. You took forever to set up your positions! Like, seriously half an hour in between pulls to make sure every single raider is in the right position… and yelling at that one raider who keeps ending up an inch outside of his position. :sweat_smile:

I felt so bad for your poor raid leader, lol.

(Name withdrawn to protect privacy.)