Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Artificial versus designed difficulty: a critique on SWTOR's master mode story design

I'm usually not your typical "armchair game designer", as some bloggers jokingly call themselves: I like (or don't like) games as they are and don't have any pretensions of coming up with an original design of my own. However, a discussion I had the other day with Conrad about the newly released master mode (in addition to the available story and veteran mode) for the Knights of the Fallen Empire and Knights of the Eternal Throne story in Star Wars: the Old Republic made me think about difficulty design in MMOs.

If you've been listening to Corellian Run Radio last Saturday (and if you're a SWTOR player who is interested in the latest content, I totally recommend the show), you have already heard some critique on the way the difficulty of story chapters is increased between veteran and master mode.* Let me be clear: I'm not saying that master mode is too difficult; what I'm saying is that it's a shame the difficulty is not increased by adding new mechanics, but by simply increasing stats. In other words: by increasing the artificial difficulty.

I didn't have much time to explore this game design term much in CRR's podcast episode, so I am taking the opportunity to do so here, as well as sharing some ideas to improve the experience of master mode chapters. I will try to do so in a way that makes this article relevant for MMO gamers that don't play SWTOR as well, but feel free to ask me anything in the comment section if things aren't clear. Disclaimer: the amount of nerd is strong with this one, so I won't blame you if you happen to fall asleep halfway (though I appreciate it if you wouldn't snore in the comment section).

Issues with master mode story

There are three issues that surface when playing through the story on master mode.

1) The companion AI is inadequate
Companions** in SWTOR are incapable of avoiding telegraphed damage by themselves, so it is down to the player to keep them from standing in stupid, for instance by putting them on passive. However, the available tools in the game are not sufficient to reliably keep them from harm.

An example is the last boss of chapter 2 of the Eternal Throne story. He goes up in the air and summons fire mines. Because your companion (Acina) is melee, she will try to reach the boss by standing beneath him in the middle; however, when the boss comes down, he one-shots anything that's in the middle. The player has to put Acina on passive so she follows you; however, because she always trails a bit behind, she still gets hit by the mines from time to time, even if you do it perfectly as a player. Also noteworthy is that Acina cannot heal you (or do anything else) while she is on passive. Effectively, this results in fights in which you get unlucky and your companion dies from damage that you could not prevent, shortly followed by your own death because you do need that companion in order to complete the fight. This isn't fun: just like people dislike RNG in gaining gear, they dislike RNG in gameplay. It feels good when you down a boss because you figured out and executed a strategy correctly; it does not when you do because, say, your companion for once happened to take the right path towards you rather than running through the fire mines behind you.

Unfortunately, chapter 2 is no exception: you will run into this problem all the time when running master mode stories, particularly during boss fights. Naturally, the issue existed also in veteran mode, but in master mode the damage is such that some encounters start to feel completely random rather than a result of skillful gameplay.

A solution would be to improve companion commands, for instance by allowing companions to be active while following (so they can hopefully outheal any stupid they stand in), or - even better - to assign companions to a specific spot in the room, much like companions in other Bioware games.

2) Trash is often harder than boss fights
On master mode, everything deals insane amounts of damage, even critters that die with a few hits. Effectively, this often makes some trash harder than boss fights, especially for classes that have no good burst AoE skills or defensive skills that can deal with the insane initial hits (see 3).

In my opinion, large mobs of glasscanony trash should be slightly nerfed. It just doesn't make sense that they are harder to deal with than boss fights and some classes simply don't have the tools to deal with them, no matter how skillfully they play. This leads us to the following point.

3) Class inequality
Classes aren't equally equipped to deal with the challenges faced with in master (and veteran) mode stories. The reviews I've read in the blogosphere thus far of veteran & master mode don't provide a good overview, because the writer usually only played through it on one class and draws conclusions based on that, while the difficulty experience is in fact entirely different on other classes.

For instance, interrupts, crowd control and defensive skills are vital in order to deal with the many one-shot mechanics present. Classes that have (or can spec for) a shorter cooldown on their interrupt skill or have multiple defensive skills are at a clear advantage. If a mob with a one-shot mechanic is immune to crowd control, a sage will have a hard time dealing with it: they can interrupt the first induction, force barrier the second, if lucky interrupt the third again, and for the fourth time either the mob or the sage will be dead. In these cases, it's "get better gear or go home" for the sage, while some other classes (say commando) can easily deal with these kind of mechanics assuming they know how to rotate through their defensive skills.

Another example is encounters in which players need to deal a ton of AoE damage in order to get rid of an overwhelming amount of adds. Some classes (like scoundrel) don't have this capability.

It's hard to come up with a solution to this problem. On the one hand, it's fun that playing through the harder difficulty modes rewards with a different experience depending on your class: it strengthens the replayability of story chapters. On the other hand, some classes are completely shafted compared to others and have to compensate with better gear for mechanics they cannot deal with. While Conrad played through KOTFE and KOTET up until chapter 4 on master mode with his undergeared commando in tier 1 gear and below (crafted 228 gear with 198 set bonus armorings)***, I will probably have to wait until I'm in tier 3 gear on my sage to get a go at it.

What makes master mode "unfun"?

In my Spoiler-free Eternal Throne Impressions, I was very enthusiastic about the veteran mode that came with SWTOR's latest expansion. All of a sudden, the storyline wasn't the only reason to play: now there also was a genuine gameplay challenge attached to it. Veteran mode introduced additional mechanics that needed to be explored and bested. Why then, am I not similarly excited about master mode?

I have touched upon three aspects (inadequate companions, trash harder than boss fights, class inequality) that feel 'unfun' when attempting to play through master mode. These issues were also apparent in veteran mode, but you got less punished for them. I would argue that the root of the problem lies in the way the difficulty between veteran mode and master mode is increased: entirely through adding artificial difficulty.

In the research I did on game design, I stumbled upon the incredibly helpful article Hard mode: good difficulty versus bad difficulty by Paul Suddaby. I wholeheartedly agree with his definition of difficulty: "Difficulty refers to the amount of skill required by the player to progress through a game experience, with higher difficulty obviously meaning more skill is required."

According to Suddaby, adding artificial difficulty to a game means changing the statistics of certain elements, for instance by increasing enemy health and damage, shortening an enrage timer and reducing resources. The core of the experience (level design, enemy behaviour etc.) does not change. This is exactly the case with master mode story chapters in SWTOR. No new mechanics (designed difficulty) have been added; everything just hits a lot harder.

Suddaby: "At its core, artificial difficulty is shallow, providing a level of difficulty that is neither satisfying nor enjoyable for the player, often feeling cheap and unfair. In contrast, designed difficulty typically offers the player great satisfaction once conquered because the challenge presented felt organic and fair."

I would add to this that beating something of designed difficulty gives a higher satisfaction because you made it because of something you have done, while beating something of artificial difficulty often feels like you made it either because you had the stats or because of lucky circumstances after having smashed your head against the wall for a while.

The difference between SWTOR's story and veteran mode is added artificial and designed difficulty; the difference between veteran mode and master mode is only artificial in nature. In simpler words: in order to beat master mode you don't need to play more intelligently, you just need more gear.

I will probably give master mode completion a serious try at the end of the year, when I have tier 3 gear. Not so much because it will be fun (after all, from a gameplay perspective the experience will be the same as veteran mode), but because it will be good to get those achievements out of the way.

This article is based on research by Conrad and Rav, who have combined played through veteran mode of both expansions on sage, shadow, guardian, sentinel, gunslinger and commando. We would have loved to play through master mode on anything other than commando, but haven't gotten around to it yet.

Extra info for non SWTOR players:
* In the fall of 2016, veteran mode was released for SWTOR's last two expansions: Knights of the Fallen Empire (KOTFE) and Knights of the Eternal Throne (KOTET). Two weeks ago, master mode was released. SWTOR has a difficulty system of three tiers (from easy to hard): storymode, veteran mode and master mode.
** In SWTOR, players are accompanied (if they so wish) by an NPC, the so called companion. This companion can be set to three stances (if out of combat): damage, tanking or healing. Each stance has a specific set of skills that can be activated, set to auto fire, or turned off. In addition to this, companions can be set to active or passive: in the latter case they will follow the player around, but they will not use any skills.
*** SWTOR's master mode story is designed to be played with galactic command tier 3 gear (rating 240) and companions with influence level 50. Conrad was playing it with (sub) tier 1 gear and most companions around influence level 5 (Acina automatically gets buffed to rank 45 on master mode, though). Influence increases the damage & healing output and maximum health of companions.


  1. I can't really comment on the actual content of this post much, seeing how I haven't tried any of the master mode chapters... but I do love that screenshot of Lana standing there very calmly and staring at you while on fire. :P

    1. Well, now at least you know not to expect any new mechanics and mostly just a gear check. I do love that screenshot as well! It reminds me of all the times I'm like "nooooo, [insert companion name here]" when doing story on veteran or master mode.

  2. I know this doesn't have much to do, but your screenshots are the best! :)

    1. Glad you enjoy them. It was fun to come up with creative ways to show how companions fail the player from time to time.

  3. I thought if I should comment on this or not since my experiences and circunstances in Everquest 2 don't exactly match these but given that others are just commenting on the screenshots... :p

    So, in EQ2 since a few expansions ago we have mercenaries which, mechanically speaking, are similar to the companions in SWTOR. Another thing that started from a few expansions ago has been the addition of solo versions to most dungeons. They are intended for two players or one-player plus mercenary (hence the term solo) are easier than the regular versions and rewards equivalent to its difficulty. They are nice for people like me who prefers to solo and just wants to see the dungeons and whatever story it has (like me) or that have no friends playing the game *coughs*alsolikeme*coughs*.

    The named (how we call the "bosses" there) fights tend to be very scripted too. So the experience can vary widely depending of the combination of the player class and the mercenary class. Usually my experience has been that tank players plus a healer mercenaries have an easier time. Healer players with tank mercenaries are bit trickier and another class with any other combination of mercenaries can vary widely. This isn't always true though. There are encounters I had an easier time with my healer character than my tank one, for example.

    Most of the difficulty depends on what the fight script asks. For example, if the enemy announces he will do something and you need to get away from him. Or a debuff that needs to be cured or you will die. It also used to be worse but they changed things slightly to make it better, like making mercenaries immune to AOEs and some other stuff I forgot about.

    I am sure the developers could make the AIs behave much better but then there is the danger of players choosing a companion or mercenary instead of another player in normal group dungeons. In EQ2 you can do that as mercenaries count as another player as far as group content goes. Unless it changed since release, I believe SWTOR can also allow you to bring companions for normal group content?

    As for artificial difficulty, I agree completely. I always hated it hence why I never bother with changing the difficulty setting to anything above normal in games.

    Oh, just to keep with the theme of the other comments (and because it is true), your screenshots are awesome as always. :)

    1. Thanks for the heroic attempt, Rakuno! It took me hours of research to write this article, and although I'm happy to hear people enjoy my screenies...

      Making companions immune to AoE damage would be the easy solution. The situation would be better than it is right know, but the better option (in my opinion) is to improve the companion management. Sending your companion to specific locations out of harm's way would be an extra thing to keep track of during an already busy fight, which would be a nice extra challenge for master mode. If it's easier to implement, the developers could also add a button that does that just in master mode story, so they don't have to be afraid of anything breaking outside that context.

      Not that I think it would. Even though companions recently received an massive buff due to the new influence system (see ***), they will never be better than a player, simply because they cannot react to unpredictable situations. Players are also way more versatile, having 30-40 skills, while companions only have 7.

      A difference between the two games is that SWTOR has always had companions; the game is built around it. If you don't have enough people to run a dungeon (or flashpoint, as they are called), it is intended to bring a companion to help you out instead. However, if you want to use the group finder system to instantly port to a flashpoint or other instance, it will only count players when looking for participants. If you want to use a companion instead of a player, you have to actively seek out the entrance of the flashpoint, so in that sense it's not stimulated, but the option is there.

      Companions are, however, disabled in raids.

      Overall, I believe better micromanagement will not make companions too strong (even the insane influence buff didn't do that); if anything, it will result in less frustration when attempting to complete the recent storylines on harder difficulty settings.

    2. I just realized after I posted that giant wall of text I could have cut the explanation about how mercenaries in EQ2 and just got to the point of AIs. /sigh

      Anyway, this is one of those cases where not having experience with SWTOR makes it hard to discuss as I need to keep it to generalities and assumptions.

      I am not sure it is that easy to implement a companion management system like you suggested. The way I imagine it would have to change the mouse cursor of the player so they can tell where they want the companion to move. The companion then would have to stop whatever they were doing and go to where they were told to do. But then what should they do next? Just stay put in there until they receive new orders? Try to attack from range (assuming they can?). What if adds come and start attacking the companion? Should they stay put too, without attacking back or defend themselves? What if the boss has a ranged attack that targets the companion? There is a lot of different situations you would have to consider in a system like this.

      As far as companiones being weaker and having much less skills than players it is pretty much the same with mercenaries in EQ2. Mercenaries also have an hourly payment and I think they take a bit of your XP. But those costs are usually insignificant. Just adding this as something like interesting similarities.

  4. I love SWTOR but I honestly think it would have done better as a single player game. I know the game can be played solo but still.


You can insert links, images and videos to your comment using these tricks.