WoW Factor: Story Difficulty is a bad idea and a good idea all rolled into one

All over again.

Back during Wrath of the Lich King, I remember people asking for a story difficulty for raids in World of Warcraft because if the developers were going to keep cramming every major storyline wrapup inside of a raid, then it’d be nice if the majority non-raiding population got to actually see them. This produced widespread mockery and derision, of course, because if there’s one thing the WoW community hates, it’s the idea that someone might not feel the need to prove his worth in the arena of video games but just wants to have fun.

Now, many years later, it is apparently actually happening.

You might think that I’d be happy about this based on the assumption that I must have been one of the people who had been saying we should have a story difficulty for raids back in the day… but you’d actually be less right than you think. Regardless, having it announced now is something of a mixed blessing. It’s a good thing! Also not a great thing. Also indicative of an ongoing problem that Blizzard doesn’t know how to fix, but it is at least aware of it… so, you know. Complicated!

First and foremost, let’s take on what I think is one of the big formative ideas here: It is a huge, ongoing problem that Blizzard writes all of its stories to culminate in raids. This is a problem in a way, but it’s more of an abstract problem in the way that Blizzard looks at raids as the most important part of its game, as it always has.

The idea that your story is written to end up with the players beating up a big end boss is not in and of itself all that stunning. Lots of video games do this because, well… it’s a video game. It’s not that you have to do that, but as a general rule players do expect it by the very nature of games. So the problem is not really that we wind up getting funneled into a raid as the culmination so much as stories wind up always being the same setup to facilitate funneling into a raid, and several character fates are addressed only by their showing up in that raid.

That said, it must then be a good thing that players will have access to a story difficulty. And let’s start with the positives. People who really dislike having a full raid group even if you queue up for it will now have an answer, presumably one that requires no gear farming. That is, ostensibly, a good thing.

But… what story are they getting to see?

But... but we even got cold again for you.

One of the things I mentioned before about how Dragonflight kind of fumbled its story as a whole is that it started off playing things ambiguous about whether the Primalists had some legitimate points before ultimately settling on the ax-crazy Fyrakk as our final big bad. The problem isn’t that one or the other is wrong. It is a valid story to tell to ask if maybe the Titans are not the good guys; it is a valid story to have a bunch of evil elemental jerks who like being jerks and don’t want us to stop them from being jerks.

What you cannot do is start telling the former story and then tell the latter because it makes the plot look stupid. “Do the villains have a valid point? No! They’re jerks. Kill them. The end, no moral!”

It’s really easy to clock out of the plot of WoW at this point because it’s such a headless creature thrashing about in random directions, and I don’t feel that adding a story mode difficulty specifically for players to see how the story wraps up really addresses this problem. If anything, it shines a brighter light on it.

However, let’s just assume that the writing in The War Within improves in leaps and bounds. (This isn’t how I’d bet, but consider it for argument’s sake.) You still have to deal with the fact that story difficulty presents yet another raid difficulty on top of the four in the game… and it kind of puts the lie to a lot of other elements.

At this point, the division is not really between “raid” and “non-raid” as an activity. People claiming that “raid or GTFO” is over are either uninformed, motivated to support the game’s current structure, or both, but it’s definitely true that there is a degree to which raiding has been supplanted by Mythic+ as an activity. It’s still all about very structured group play with aggressive social dependency, though, and story difficulty is kind of the ultimate statement of support in that philosophy.

Remember, it’s clear that the difficulty can be scaled down to a five-person party the same way it can be scaled up for larger groups. The real deciding factor of difficulty is just how much grind and social dependency you’re willing to engage with. And making a mode easier than the raid finder means you may as well be watching a playthrough on YouTube.

Oh, to pretend to believe.

But that’s not to say that the people who have been asking for some version of this for more than a decade now are doing so with a lack of awareness or somehow don’t realize they got what they wanted. Even with all of these caveats, the fact is that having a version of the game where you are able to just engage with the story on your own is a good thing. The time-gating is still bad, so we’re warping back around, but what I said earlier about clocking out of the story can come into play chiefly if you’re already tapped out from the start because you have to engage with something you don’t want to.

This is not an idea without merit, and when taken in concert with the addition of Delves, it creates the ability for people to play together in fixed groups that aren’t gated by player skill. Frankly, that is so unusual for WoW on a whole that the developers who said “let’s do a story mode” deserve a free ice cream for that alone.

The problem here is, as is so often the case, not that the idea is bad from first principles and should never have even made it to the planning stage. You can see the roots of a good idea here. Rather, the problem is that this good idea is being contorted to fit into the mode of designers who have already determined that “seeing the story” is inherently a lesser desire, and thus everything must be bent to that.

It’s a good choice that has potential to help with the game’s story delivery, but it could be handled a heck of a lot better than it appears to be aimed toward. And there is that… y’know… more than a decade thing. Same as it finally acknowledged that players liked actual talent trees after years of people whining about missing them, Blizzard appears to still be playing the “we’re listening” game on significant transmission delay. That doesn’t fill me with confidence.

Which, to be fair, is the least “not filling me with confidence” element that’s been bouncing in my brain for a while now. (That’s foreshadowing for later.)

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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