A History of Story Mode Ops Difficulty

One of the downsides of playing the same MMO for a really, really long time is that you're likely to see certain bad ideas get repeated after a while. I'm guessing this happens because by a certain point you've probably been playing longer than some devs have been working on the game, so that they don't have the same context and experiences with the whole of the game's history as you do.

If you're a content creator like me, you also have the "bonus" of having receipts, meaning you can refer back to old blog posts and go "yep, this was already a bad idea back in 2012, and we said so at the time too". This might sound like it should be satisfying, but in practice it's honestly just deflating to constantly have to repeat yourself and wrestle with the same issues over and over again.

The specific subject that has made me think about this in the past two weeks is the difficulty of story mode operations. When SWTOR came out back in 2011, many people burned through the available raid content really quickly, complaining that it was both too easy and that there was too little of it. This was not my own experience, since I took my time levelling and didn't step foot into an operation until February 2012. And when I did, I loved it. We didn't kill Soa on our first night because everything was so new to us, but even then I noted that he was "still not too bad" and two weeks later I reported that my guild had cleared both EV and KP on story mode.

Explosive Conflict released in April, and I didn't write about clearing it on story mode until the beginning of June, noting that "story mode feels considerably overtuned". For people who weren't around back then this might sound a bit weird if you only know the operation in its current iteration, but back then, a lot of the mechanics that now only exist in veteran and master mode were also part of story mode, plus the gear requirements were pretty tight. Still, I didn't mind too much at the time and I had fun. It was a different time, and we were all still figuring things out - including Bioware. (I'll just say that my complaint from that post that "with 1.3 not containing any new raid content, PvE endgame will be a bit dry for the next couple of months" seems hilariously quaint in hindsight.)

My first experience with Terror from Beyond was a bit messy since it came out around the time that my first guild fell apart, meaning that my first visit there was a semi-pug and we only got two bosses down, but even then I noted, "the people who had told me that Terror from Beyond was a return to easier story modes were not wrong."

When I got to run Scum and Villainy for the first time in April 2013, I once again loved it. We only killed five out of the seven bosses during my first night, but that seemed to be down to the unusual length of the ops more than anything else.

When the two Oricon operations were released in October 2013, my first runs of them, into which we mostly went blind to allow ourselves to be surprised, were amazingly fun. I wrote about my first trip to story mode Dread Fortress (which we cleared in one evening) in this post and commemorated my first trip to Dread Palace with a short video called "Dread Palace in less than 100 seconds" which mostly involves a lot of giggling and squealing and finishes with one of my guildies going "best op ever".

It was as if Bioware was incapable of creating an operation that I didn't love at first sight - until the Shadow of Revan expansion that is. My post about Ravagers and Temple of Sacrifice was called "New Ops: Good Stuff, Needs Some Work" and primarily for one reason: the difficulty. "Sword Squad and the Underlurker in Temple of Sacrifice were probably the worst in terms of requiring both a high damage output as well as flawless coordination. These are not bad things... for a hardmode. But for story mode, which is meant to be the easy way of seeing the content, easy enough that you can do it in a moderately competent pug, this is an absolute killer."

I also still recall my first night in Temple of Sacrifice very vividly, because I still remembered the fun we'd had clearing the Dread ops for the first time and started recording our run initially... However, after several wipes on Sword Squadron I turned the recording off because fun levels were plummeting through the floor and I didn't really want to create any lasting negative memories of that night (as it turns out, that didn't entirely work). Underlurker was eventually nerfed, and significantly at that, though Sword Squadron can remain a bit of a pain in terms of damage output.

This is when the dark times of no new group content additions for several years began, and I later wondered whether it was a coincidence that this came about after these two operations. When we finally got our first new operations boss in the form of Tyth in April 2017, I noted while looking back: "I still think less of Ravagers and Temple of Sacrifice to this day due to their awful initial tuning, which hasn't actually been adjusted all that much even now, not to mention their propensity for pointless red circle syndrome. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if those two operations were at least partially to blame for Bioware's decision to not add any more of that type of content for a long time - raids that unfriendly towards both casual players and mid-level guilds can't have boasted particularly high participation numbers."

As for Tyth himself though, I was once again in love, and why? "When I first went in with my guildies to kill him on story mode, he absolutely melted. [...] "That was way too easy," I heard some guildies mutter, but I was wide-eyed with delight. That's exactly how story mode should be to an over-geared, organised and well-practiced group, or else it will be a killer to pugs. In fact, I'm sure there are pug groups wiping on him even now. And that's okay, because this game isn't about always succeeding at everything on the first attempt. But he should be well within reach of even casual players sticking their noses into a story mode for the first time, and that's how it should be."

The piecemeal releases of later bosses in the same operation had me a bit more sceptical in terms of their difficulty tuning, but Izax was pretty cool. I particularly gave Bioware credit for managing to create a fight that was both very involved but still casual-friendly by employing a little trick: "My favourite part of Bioware trying to make this ridiculously long and initially somewhat complicated fight more casual-friendly without neutering the basic mechanics is that while the encounter is active, the cooldown of all combat resurrections - which is usually five minutes - is reduced to thirty seconds. What this means is that the devs could allow certain mechanics to kill people without frustrating the whole group by enforcing a wipe. As long as you still have control of the fight overall and your healers/res-capable damage dealers are on the ball, you can allow people to fall over and get them up again a ridiculous amount of times. The death still teaches a lesson, leaving the victim with another repair bill and probably feeling slightly sheepish, but things keep rolling and remain fun for the group as a whole." Sadly this mechanic broke at some point and has remained unfixed for years as far as I'm aware, which has made the fight considerably less casual-friendly in later patches.

With the release of Onslaught we got the Nature of Progress operation, for which I had a lot of praise again, though there were a few criticisms too... one of them once again - surprise, surprise - the story mode tuning: "Story mode is no Gods of the Machine for sure (thankfully!), but fights like the two gauntlet bosses still require an amount of co-ordination that I wouldn't expect to find in your average pug. This strikes me as a shame as it once again means that the content will remain inaccessible to many more casual players even on what's supposed to be the easiest difficulty, which is particularly sad considering what a fun operation this is."

There is a very clear theme in all of this: I like my story mode operations to be easy. I think the name story mode more than implies that it should be easy, with its primary purpose being to allow people to see the story. It's okay to have some mechanics that can kill people, and there's nothing wrong with some wiping while you're still figuring out basic mechanics and/or if you're in a pug, but a co-ordinated group of guildies on voice chat should surely be able to breeze through without any major issues and while having a good laugh.

I understand there are incentives for devs to make even story mode somewhat more difficult, for example to prevent people from rushing through the content too quickly, or because it's much easier to sell people on the idea of nerfing something that's initially too hard than the other way round. Though honestly, I've never ever felt bad about an operation supposedly being too easy on story mode. Easy is fun and inclusive and allows for a bit of silliness.

Also, first impressions are important, and if an operation gets a bad reputation early on, it can put people off for a looong time. Ravagers and Temple of Sacrifice aren't viewed as particularly tough after some nerfs and almost eight years after their introduction, but Gods and Dxun are still places that people avoid due to them feeling like too much of a hassle even on story mode. Dxun story mode was actually nerfed pretty considerably with the launch of 7.0, but it took months until people even started to notice because they just reflexively didn't even want to spend as much time there.

Why am I telling you all this? Because by this point, ten days after 7.1, I would have expected to give a brief summary post of what the new operation "R-4 Anomaly" is like, but my regular ops team - used to raiding veteran and master modes - still hasn't been able to kill the last boss on story mode after five nights. We obviously get the mechanics by this point, but we just can't meet the dps check and get overwhelmed by adds at the end. As the fight takes about ten minutes, it's particularly "fun" to go through all that over and over again, just to then wipe with the boss at 0.3% health. It simply overshadows everything else I might have had to say about this new operation.

I'm sure we'll get there eventually, even if it's by sheer luck, but either way it hasn't been something I would call a fun experience. Plus for me it's extra frustrating that I've basically been telling Bioware to not make freaking story mode ops so hard for a freaking decade, and yet here they are doing it again, worse than ever. I just don't understand.


  1. Considering that they waxed lyrical about how cutting 16-man meant they could create tailor-made experiences for 8-man groups, I don't think I am as tolerant of their decision as I once was if fights like Dominique are going to be the resulting norm even in SM...

  2. MMO developers often lose sight of the fact that most of their players are probably pretty casual. The worst case of that I have ever seen was in Wildstar where they apparently killed an entire game that way. But in most MMOs you will find some stretches of content that are way overturned for an average player or an average PUG even on "easy" mode.

    I think it's because the players of these games that seem to have the most direct line to the developers tend to pretty pretty hardcore, and also because the developers of these games themselves tend to be pretty hardcore (the latter perhaps explaining the former).

    More on topic, I completely agree that story mode needs to be what the name implies.

    1. I don't know for sure, but based on hearsay it does seem to be the most hardcore raiders that give the most feedback on new ops when they are being tested and yeah, it definitely feels like the tuning is being done around that, never mind that this makes the content hard to impossible to do for 99% of the player base.


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