The Hylbrande Hotfix and Accessibility in Encounter Design
Along with a number of hotfixes targeting Sanctum of Domination and Sepulcher of the First Ones, the hotfixes applied with server restarts on September 20, 2022 contained an interesting change to the Hylbrande encounter along with a somewhat cryptic note:
September 20, 2022
Dungeons and Raids
Tazavesh: Soleah’s Gambit
Added an extra action button for depositing or dropping Bypass Codes in addition to manually interacting with the Security Panel.
Developers’ note: Blind players are reporting difficulties with Bypass Codes because they are unable to drop them and they are unable to complete the mechanic using just /follow. We have implemented this alternative method to give players an opportunity to drop Bypass Codes so other players can grab them.
Whilst this change has very little to no impact for players pushing keys or players in coordinated groups doing So'leah's Gambit, it has a very large impact for players first discovering the dungeon, or who may unable to complete this binary pass-fail mechanic. As this dungeon is also available when queueing for a random heroic dungeon, this should also be noticeable along a much bigger group of players.
One of the players affected was James (
we interviewed as part of a series of articles on accessibility in gaming
two years ago). As you can see on the clip below, one of his fellow teammates dropped the wrong orb in one of the consoles while James was following him. As he clicked the console again to release an incorrectly-placed orb orb, it defaulted to being automatically picked up by James as both him and his teammate were stacked on the same spot.
Similar events caused them to wipe multiple times in content that should not have extreme pass-fail mechanics, and where the only solution would've been for James to let his character die in order for the orb to be "released".
The change made by the World of Warcraft developers solves this in two neat ways:
Any player picking up an orb now has access to an extra action button allowing them to drop this orb
A dropped orb has a ~3 second "grace period" preventing the player that dropped it from picking it up again
It is a simple, clean and player-centric solution to the problem, by granting players the ability to decide to drop the orb if they feel they need to, for any reason:
As an added bonus, the orbs that are dropped as much brighter than the sigils that spawn in order to pick them up, making them much easier to notice!
The Need for Accessibility in Encounter Design
Hylbrande has been widely considered as one of the bigger accessibility bottlenecks in Shadowlands, at least when it comes to encounter design. The hard requirement to have your entire team communicate a set of partially invisible information between themselves under a very strict time constraint has been a limiting factor for groups without the ability to coordinate effectively on-the-fly, and this was adjusted in two different ways just before the release of Mythic+ Tazavesh in 9.2:
The delay after which the
created by Hylbrande starts spreading was increased from 10 seconds to ~25 seconds (this was not communicated in hotfixes)
The console player was previously unable to move and had to channel to see the symbols. This was changed to be a one-click operation with a hidden debuff lasting 15 seconds. There are still some issues with this, such as
permanently breaking the encounter if it is applied to the person clicking the console, but it in itself was a fantastic change, particularly if somebody dropped fire on the console prior to having to click it!
Both of these changes solved some of the biggest hurdles in the encounter. The first addressed the requirement placed on the console player to furnish his team with a weakaura, voice chat, or to type
extremely fast and clearly
. In many ways, this was reminiscent of the teething pain Mekkatorque gave, particularly as in the case of Hylbrande, the symbols themselves were not easy to describe by shape and certain colorblind players would struggle to distinguish between two of them (the yellow and orange runes, and the purple and blue runes, are impossible to distinguish for a player with deuteranopia or protanopia - 2.25% of male human beings).
With the old 10 second timer before
started to spread, a fast typing player with no weakauras to help him would get
to convey the correct information. With 25 seconds on the clock, this is much more lenient.
Thoughts and Discussion
In many ways, I think this is reminiscent of a deeper theme in encounter design. Depending on factors such as how the mechanic chooses its targets and the impact of failing, mechanics such as Purifying Cycle on Hylbrande, or bots on Mekkatorque can be overly punishing towards certain people. They're punitive for a wide range of players (Mekkatorque in particular punished colorblind players, mute players, deaf players, and required very precise communication due to the timer on the mechanic), they're clunky, and very often they add very little depth to the encounter. On top of this, these mechanics forcing a double random choice of players to perform mechanics on the spot almost systematically get broken by add-ons or weakauras.
Contrast this to encounters like Sire Denathrius, Sludgefist or Rygelon - fights that are either complex or punishing, but where the entire encounter can be reliably planned ahead of time. No surprises, no gimmicks, and an environment where communication is
, and where players can choose to communicate on their terms to solve the problem at hand, using tools they are familiar with. And, sure enough, on these fights, while you
optimize or assign things on the fly or coordinate via sender/receiver weakauras, the gains tend to be marginal unless a critical element of your planned strategy just died.
Building mechanics without a way to choose or prioritize who gets to engage with them, or a way to have a fallback of some sort, very quickly ends up being detrimental to accessibility. This is particularly true for Mekkatorque, where on top of players being chosen at random in the
number required to disable the bots (except during the intermission), the timer to resolve the mechanic and clear the bots was often extremely tight, encouraging those players to just drop everything and get in - or wipe if it picked an unfortunate target who happened to be unable to quickly convey colors across a voice chat cluttered with other calls. Even just having the ability to
who would hack the bots would have allowed the formation of "hack squads", greatly reducing the barrier to accessibility without reducing the challenge.
When designing mechanics, it is probably worthwhile to remember a core tenet of accessibility in game design, and one which both Mekkatorque and Hylbrande failed at:
Ensure no essential information is conveyed by a fixed color alone
. As a more general point, and particularly in lower difficulties, those challenges, if they exist at all, should feature alternative ways to complete. Take, for example, Lords of Dread, another encounter with a strict communication requirement and an encounter immediately broken by weakauras. Suppose the dreadlord "confirmation" wasn't just visual, but also auditory - as you went closer to the replaced player, you would hear louder voices, or something. Suddenly, this mechanic has two possible distinct conditions, up from one.
A lot of this can also be caught ahead of time thanks to the help of the community, with feedback. For accessibility-related issues specifically, an entire team at Blizzard manages the
email and triages reports about all games, including World of Warcraft. Their work both in making sure that content is accessible to as many players as possible, and in solving cases where they fall short, is absolutely astounding.
That said, less Hylbrandes, more Denathriuses, please :-)
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