Blizzard confirms it's working on a 1-5 player 'story difficulty' for its big raids in World of Warcraft: The War Within, and it's honestly about time

The War Within's Xal'Atath character standing in front of a dark background with a smug expression
(Image credit: Blizzard)

World of Warcraft's always had an issue with its storytelling—I mean, it's historically had a lot of issues if you tally them all up—but first and foremost is the problem that, if you want to cap off the expansion story, then you'll need to get your raiding boots on.

That's nothing too unusual for the expansions of WoW's yesteryear, where being invested in the game's story was more of an optional thing for lore enthusiasts. Still important, which was why it was all there, but by no means the central draw. Times, however, and tastes have changed.

To keep up with said times, WoW's really shifting how it handles its storytelling in some big ways. Follower dungeons were a huge step forward, letting players experience Dragonflight's story beats without Killzmornn the Death Knight spamming "gogogo" in party chat. Later, I confirmed with both associate design director Maria Hamilton and Ion Hazzikostas that these dungeons (and delves) would be used as story vehicles for the aspiring solo player in the upcoming expansion, The War Within. 

It looks like raids will also be getting the same treatment. Initially datamined by WoWHead, a new "story" difficulty was found to be added to Nerub'ar Palace, the first major raid of the expansions. This, the data suggested, would allow players to queue up for raids—historically requiring dozens of players—completely on their own, or with up to five party members.

This was then confirmed via a blue post on the WoW forums by developer Limestone, who reveals: "We’ve been working on a new raid experience for The War Within called Story difficulty.

"Throughout World of Warcraft’s history, many of the most epic moments in our stories have been told in dungeons and raids … With Story difficulty in Nerub-ar Palace, our goal is to offer players a way to see the epic conclusion of Azj-Kahet’s story who may not see the end to that story otherwise. This difficulty is intended for a private party of 1-5 players and will allow players to face off against Queen Ansurek without the assistance of other players or Followers."

Not only will damage numbers and the like be tuned, letting these lone wolves go about experiencing the main story on their own, but the raid's mechanics will also be simplified: "This encounter features reduced combat complexity and difficulty, instead focusing on the narrative elements of the encounter. Story difficulty is intended to be experienced as a one-time chapter in the game’s story, but is repeatable for players who want to revisit that part of the adventure."

This feature won't be in The War Within at launch (which I feel is a misstep, more on that in a moment) but will instead be released "alongside the final wing of Looking For Raid difficulty", which usually slinks behind the harder difficulties of a raid by a month or so.

Now I know what you're thinking, reader I'm about to invent: "Raids used to mean something, gosh darn it!" And I think you're right, but 'used' is the operative word here.

I hate to kill anyone's buzz, and the hardcore MMOs of yesteryear were great, but there's been a general drift away from them for years. That's because of changing tastes, but it's also because (and this is just me hypothesising) those MMORPGs weren't actually super hard to begin with, they just required more prior knowledge and a boatload more of your time.

Vanilla WoW functioned mainly on a pre-optimised internet, and there's no bigger proof of that than how quickly Ragnaros, perhaps the game's most recognisable big bad, died when WoW: Classic rolled around. During Molten Core's initial release in 2004, Ragnaros was first felled 154 days after he hit the live servers—when players got their mitts on him in WoW: Classic 15 years later, players killed him in six. Six days. Not even a full week.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Basically, part of that exclusive club you belonged to—where you got to experience the story of a raid before anyone else did, because of your leet gamer skills—it can't really exist anymore. Even if the unique set of circumstances and lack of available information were to be replicated, we live in an era of data mining and unprecedented sharing. Your just reward for beating the raid would be shared on YouTube moments after a world first guild achieved it.

I do, however, think that the plan to release this Story difficulty after the final wing is a mistake. If I were a solo player coming to The War Within right after its launch, enjoying its shiny new cinematic direction and plotline, I'd be bummed out if I ramped up to the climax of its story only to hit a wall of "sorry, you need to wait another month to wrap things up. Here's some world quests to do." 

It feels like WoW's taken a leaf out of FF14's book—where raids and boss fights are a required part of the main quest, and have very easy versions to compensate—but skipped a few pages. Still, it's the debut of a feature, and there's no reason Blizzard won't change its tune in the patches to come.

Harvey Randall
Staff Writer

Harvey's history with games started when he first begged his parents for a World of Warcraft subscription aged 12, though he's since been cursed with Final Fantasy 14-brain and a huge crush on G'raha Tia. He made his start as a freelancer, writing for websites like Techradar, The Escapist, Dicebreaker, The Gamer, Into the Spine—and of course, PC Gamer. He'll sink his teeth into anything that looks interesting, though he has a soft spot for RPGs, soulslikes, roguelikes, deckbuilders, MMOs, and weird indie titles. He also plays a shelf load of TTRPGs in his offline time. Don't ask him what his favourite system is, he has too many.