The Case for PvE Hard Mode (2024)

Back in April 2007, ArenaNet released Hard Mode for Guild Wars 1, revamping dozens of monsters, every area, and adding a slew of cool titles to boot. More importantly, it brought new life to what had been easy, repetitive areas. And many, many deaths at the hands of mobs we suddenly couldn’t handle with our existing builds. (Most embarrassing moment in my GW1 time: dropping dead to Level 22 Devourers in The Great Northern Wall HM)

I firmly believe that it would be worth ArenaNet’s while to reprise Hard Mode. Consider the following statements that in some form circulate discussion topics (rough paraphrasing being done):

  • “Open world is so easy you can run it in blues and greens.”
  • “I have no reason to go back there once I’ve map completed it.”
  • “Is Jormag almost up?” (stick any world boss in this sentence)
  • “The AI is so dumb. Bring back the BWE1 AI!” (rarer than the others, but I’ve seen it many times)

Now take it a step further. What are some of the most common complaints about the PvE in GW2?

  • “Drops suck.”
  • “Risk/reward is so far off the mark. Compare [hard dungeon] to [endless farm somewhere in PvE].”
  • “Everything ANet releases is an endless grind. How many [insert uncommon/rare drop here] do we need now for [insert reward]?”

Take all of these statements together, and I see three distinct problems:

  1. Difficult content is not rewarded at the same level as easy, “Press 1 to win” content. There are a couple of exceptions (Tequatl, Three-headed Wurm).
  2. Open world is stale and repetitive, only spiced up by the first time through for completion or a nearby world boss. Consider that areas without a world boss are generally devoid of activity even with Megaserver.
  3. The vast majority of gear progression is only useful/required in <5% of the game. The most common argument for ascended gear is its sheer unnecessity unless you like Fractals (and even then, you only need 2 weapons and a full trinket set to do through Level 49).

Let’s go back to the start of this topic: Hard Mode in Guild Wars 1. What did it do?

  1. Amped the difficulty of every area, requiring optimized builds and better party composition.
  2. Increased drop rate (magic find in GW2 lingo) for uncommon/rare items.
  3. Increased XP gain by 50%. (Really important when having to stave off 60% Death Penalty and being forced to an outpost)
  4. Added unique rewards, both items (skill tomes) and titles (Vanquisher, Guardian), as well as increased ending rewards (e.g., double gemstones in DoA).

Notice how all four major additions that Hard Mode created align well with the complaints about GW2’s existing open world PvE. Harder difficulty, better drops, and unique rewards that can only be gotten in HM.

Requirements for Hard Mode

Hard Mode should be a Level 80-only activity, because it will be designed to require the higher stats only available to Level 80’s. Furthermore, to enter a zone’s Hard Mode, the original zone must have been map completed at least once on the account.

Accessing Hard Mode

Accessing Hard Mode should be as simple as it was in GW1: push a button on the UI. The main difference will be implementation.

With megaserver, at least one “shard” of a zone will be designated “Hard Mode.” When someone clicks the Hard Mode button, they get the immediate option to zone to the Hard Mode shard. If they’re in a party, the entire party gets the option to zone as well. If they’re in a town, nothing happens. While the Hard Mode button is selected, any combat zone that the player enters will be the Hard Mode shard.

Clicking Normal Mode will do the reverse process of an immediate option to zone back to the Normal Mode shards.

Party-based Difficulty

Hard Mode should not be soloable in most contexts, especially with grouped monsters (see below). It should be highly encouraged to be in a party by balancing all areas based on a full party, or multiple parties in the case of champions. The baseline of difficulty should assume exotic gear in lower-level areas (Queensdale, Diessa, Lornar’s), and ascended in higher-level ones (Sparkfly, Straits, Southsun).

Brand New Mobs

Mob skill sets right now are very simple and stale. Most of the time, they require nothing more than “spam with skills until dead,” even some champions.

  • Hard Mode should have additional skills for mobs to utilize, as well as appropriate triggers for them. (Crowning example of bad skill usage: Ascalonian Fighters always start combat by blocking, rather than waiting for when they’re taking substantial damage.)
  • Mobs should universally gain the ability to dodge, and utilize it in instances that make sense (incoming Earthshaker, pile of AoE on top of them). Endurance gain (and thus dodge frequency) should be identical to players, allowing counterplay.
  • Trait-based effects (especially ones tied to dodging, like a guardian healing AoE at the end of one) could be added to mob skillsets as appropriate.
  • Most skills should be higher-powered versions of player skills, but not just in raw damage numbers. Adding conditions (with actual condition damage behind them) and disables to the mix will increase mob difficulty substantially.
  • Mob tells should be similar to player tells where the skills have near-identical functionality.
  • Mobs should have more health than their normal mode counterparts, but not to an absurd extent (think 50-66% more, instead of 100%). Defensive stats beyond Vitality should not be absurdly higher than normal mode (if higher at all in the case of mobs that were Level 80 already).
  • Damage from skills should not be all stacked into occasional hard hits. Small damage that’s impossible to completely avoid should be more common. More “death of a thousand cuts”, less “one hit KO”, though having a Big Move that can do that (but with a clear telegraph) is fine.
  • Enemy level should start at 80 and scale up to 84 from low to high level (similar to how GW1’s HM went from 22 to 30/32). Due to how fumble calculations work, going much higher than 84 would be frustrating rather than challenging.

Improved, Tougher AI

Mobs right now don’t work together, and in some cases work against themselves. Far from the “army of monsters” approach that most groups should have.

  • Hard Mode should have groups of mobs, instead of isolated sets scattered about. This enables team-based AI.
  • Each group of mobs should be optimized to work as a team. For instance, the guardian type should actively try to protect the glass cannon ele (wouldn’t getting Banished away from the ele casting meteor shower be awesome?). The thief should attempt to stay out of the line of fire. And so on.
  • In the case of mobs that are all the same type (Skelk, Skale, e.g.), apply a “pack” mentality of ganging up on a target and attempting to take it down. Or perhaps a “strike and evade” behavior.
  • AI in general should take several levels of intelligence, though with realistic reaction times. A mob should not dodge a big AoE the instant the windup starts. Typical human reaction time is between 500 and 2000 milliseconds.
  • Mobs should attempt to interrupt important player casts, though again, with a realistic reaction time. ½ second cast interrupts should not be a regular thing. Unless the mob missed the previous cast, of course.

Champions Take a Level in Badkitten

Champions have always been the stereotypical HP sponge punching bag, with little to no difference from their lower-healthed equivalents. Exceptions are some meta-ending bosses and everyone’s favorite giant taking over Nageling again (oh, and most of Dry Top and Silverwastes, which is awesome).

  • All champions should gain a unique skill based on their mob type. For instance, a bandit leader could have the ability to set bombs in a wide ring around her. A Flame Legion Shaman could have the ability to call down meteor showers at near whim (think 75% uptime).
  • Champions should cause the entire area around them (1500-2500 range) to have to react to them. Skill range, particularly AoEs, should reflect that. Fighting a champion in Hard Mode should be a boss battle in itself.
  • All other mob adjustments should be applied to champions, including new skills, smarter AI, and a group mentality.
  • Some champions should spawn with mobs that have the ability to strengthen the champion’s existing skillset. For example, a sword-wielding centaur backed up by two archers that fire Pin Down. So when he starts up a trample move, an inattentive player is an immobilized sitting duck.
  • Champion health pools should not be through the roof. If anything, leave them unchanged from Normal Mode. Make the challenge in their ability to cause tons of damage in a wide area, as well as being slippery due to AI changes.

Event Scaling

Events should scale much less drastically, as mobs in Hard Mode are less throwaway AoE sponges, and more lethal forces more than willing to obliterate players. So instead of an additional person adding 5 to an existing spawn of 5, he might add 2. Additionally, champion health should scale based on number of parties present, not on number of people (divide by 5, consider that champions are tuned to require at least one party, maybe two).

Hard Mode rewards are grouped into three categories: achievements and titles, unique rewards, and increased rewards.

Achievements and Titles

Let’s take a page straight out of GW1’s Hard Mode: Vanquisher. I know you’re immediately saying “but in an open world where mobs respawn, that’s impossible!” My solution:

  1. Divide every map into sectors (this is somewhat already done with Heart Zones and similar). The main challenge is making it visible to players.
  2. Establish the maximum mob count (without events) for each sector.
  3. When 90% (avoiding the one-last-mob problem from GW1) of a sector’s maximum mob count has been killed in the past 10 minutes, a champion related to the sector’s mobs spawns (so if there were mostly drakes in an area, a Drake Broodmother spawns).
  4. Killing that champion rewards vanquisher credit for that sector. If a champion is not engaged in combat within 5 minutes of spawn, it despawns and the “mob counter” is reset.
  5. Gaining vanquisher credit for every sector in a zone in a single run (defined by the party never leaving the zone, and not affected by unexpected logoffs or character swaps) grants vanquisher completion for the zone.
  6. Once the champion dies, the sector resets its “mob counter” for future parties.

As an additional help, completing an event (or event chain if it’s chained) in a sector also spawns the champion.

With a system like this, it encourages parties to work together to clear a zone and kill the end champion of each sector. Particularly efficient parties could spawn the champions of two separate sectors, engage one immediately and kill it, and engage the other champion before it despawns.

With the time restriction on champion spawn, it should be harder to “cheese steal” credit by jumping from champion to champion. Perhaps as an additional deterrent, a player must have killed mobs in either that sector or an adjacent one, or he does not gain vanquisher credit.

Vanquishing a zone should trigger an end chest with rewards based on the number of mobs killed (stealing the 90% threshold from each sector should work, rather than keeping a direct count).

Vanquisher Title

Each zone should count toward progress on the overall Vanquisher title. To allow for expansion, the title could be split into region subsets (Maguuma Jungle Vanquisher, Krytan Vanquisher, etc.). Once gained, the title is not lost, but the required zones should expand to match the greater extents of additional zones.

Another possibility for the title is to have different levels based on region completion. Finishing one region awards one achievement and unlocks the next achievement, similar to PvP title progression. One region completed is a “Vanquisher.” Two, “Accomplished Vanquisher.” And so on.

The highest available tier should always be Legendary Vanquisher (as of this writing, that would be 5 regions: Ascalon, Shiverpeaks, Maguuma Jungle, Kryta, Orr, Maguuma Wastes). When new regions are added, the existing highest title should be renamed as appropriate, and the new highest tier renamed Legendary Vanquisher.

Being a “world complete vanquisher” (read: every zone vanquished) should change the map completion star from yellow to red, similar to GW1’s Hard Mode coloring.

Hard Mode Specific Achievements

Doing anything in Hard Mode should be substantially harder, so having simple counter achievements for the following makes sense:

  • Kills (Capping at 5000)
  • Champion Kills (Capping at 500)
  • Sectors Cleared (Capping at a much higher number than the number of sectors in GW2)
  • Hard Mode Slayer (Steal the slayer achievements, but at slightly lower caps)

Also, some “introduction to HM” achievements can help ease people in:

  • Region Sector Cleared (a 1/1 achievement for clearing a sector in each region)
  • Region Zone Cleared (another 1/1)
  • Mob Coverage (an achievement for killing each type of mob in Hard Mode; one each of the Slayer title categories)

Unique Rewards

Beyond the long-term goal of some swanky titles and a unique icon, there should be unique rewards that are only available through Hard Mode.

Unique Armor and Weapons

Taking a page out of the Silverwastes Carapace/Luminescent Armor and Dry Top Ambrite, having a unique armor and weapon set obtainable by putting pieces together from zone completions (or champion kills) would be ideal.

Zone completion should have a guaranteed piece, while champion kills only a chance of one. To prevent grinding out the exact same, easier zone to get the required pieces, each region should drop one type, with perhaps one piece overlapping (5 regions, 6 armor pieces).

In the case of weapons, 4 different pieces per region. Or perhaps, each zone has its own unique weapon, the core piece gotten from zone completion, the other pieces from champion kills within the zone, with minor overlap (there are 28 zones in the game at present, only 19 weapons).

The unique gear should be stat-selectable exotic on acquisition, with the option to make it ascended in the Mystic Forge with the application of Hard Mode-only tokens and other related materials.

One possibility is to have the collections repeatable to account for multiple characters wanting to get the gear.

Stat-selectable Drops

Getting the gear someone wants via drops alone is a crapshoot. To compensate for the difficulty of Hard Mode, exotic or ascended drops should have a chance of being a stat-selectable chest similar to Ascended Weapon and Armor chests instead of a specific item. No sigils or runes should be attached to exotic and ascended chests, but can be attached to exotic drops that aren’t within chests.

Ascended Gear

Ascended trinkets, weapons, and armor should have a drop chance in Hard Mode.

Hard Mode Tokens

Similar to Badges of Honor, kills in Hard Mode should have a chance of dropping Hard Mode Tokens (better name likely preferred). Champion kills are guaranteed to drop Hard Mode Tokens. Hard Mode Tokens function as both a currency and an anti-RNG-hate mechanism.

Hard Mode Tokens can be used for the following:

  • Upgrading unique exotic rewards into ascended versions via the Mystic Forge.
  • Acquiring collection pieces directly for a sizable number of tokens (200-250).
  • Acquiring specific gear (exotic and ascended) for an even more sizable number of tokens (1000-1500). Gear acquired this way is account bound.
  • Acquiring other rare materials (T6 crafting mats, obsidian shards, etc.).

The idea of the Tokens is to have a deliberate “maximum time” to acquire any unique reward, rather than the unbounded “RNG god hates you” present in some parts of the game (e.g., Fractals).

Increased Rewards

Magic Find

Magic find should have a blanket increase while in Hard Mode. In GW1, it was 3 times more likely to get uncommon/rare gear. That would likely be a bit too good, but that’s the sort of idea. Junk items should have practically zero drop chance.

Unique Bag Drops

Rather than dropping more of the typical normal mode loot bags, Hard Mode drops should be unique versions with a different loot table (crafting mat bags that have more in them, and champion boxes that have a chance of ascended gear, or a collection piece).

One key thing here is that mobs should still retain the proper “crafting tier” of materials for their zone. That way, doing Hard Mode through a zone like Timberline Falls has a higher chance of garnering needed Linen, Platinum, and Hard Wood.


Experience gained should be 50% higher on everything, from event completion to monster kills.

Gold Find

Gold find should have an increased rate, likely equivalent to Magic Find’s.

Smooth out the Risk/Reward Curve

Doing Hard Mode should be substantially more difficult, and substantially more rewarding. As such, it has the potential to reduce and remove the complaints about a mindless farm being a better use of time than playing difficult content.

Making other Stat Combinations Useful

With updated AI and skillsets based around whittling down and disabling players, zerker and dodge will be less powerful, and in certain cases might even be suicidal. Giving greater use to other stat combinations, particular tanky specs, would be a natural side effect of the change in mob behavior.

A Potential Introduction to sPvP

Hard Mode mobs will act a lot more like players, with similar skills, behavior, and limitations (only so many dodges/minute). Rather than spamming every skill the instant it is off CD, players will have to be more tactical with their choices, lest the Big Nuke get dodged.

Likewise, positioning and movement will be more important as mobs seek to take down the weakest target, or protect their own weakest target.

Finally, intelligent use of disables by players will mitigate a lot of the danger of the updated mobs.

Stick all three things together, and you’ve got a pretty decent introduction to how sPvP works.

Double the Content, Instantly

If anything, GW1’s Hard Mode was a relatively easy masterstroke on ANet’s part. By slapping some level increases, skillset changes, and increased rewards on the exact same existing content, they effectively doubled the amount of content available.

Implementing Hard Mode in GW2 would take much less time than crafting new zones, and generate more playable space.

Easy Implementation of RP-preferred Shards

Since Hard Mode will by default require a flag to denote “send me to the Hard Mode version”, it’s not too far-fetched to have a flag that denotes “send me to the RP-preferred version”. This is a side benefit, but a potential benefit nonetheless.

Expansion Potential

What I’m proposing here only accounts for open world PvE zones, but with the groundwork of something like this, adding Hard Mode dungeons, fractals (though in this case, higher levels should automatically be considered Hard Mode, say 51-100), instances, and achievements would not be as difficult.

Consider that mobs got a complete makeover, and AI has seen vast improvements. Porting that over to the relatively contained areas of dungeons and instances is fairly easy.

Improving Normal Mode

By taking the time to create new Hard Mode AI, and improved mob behavior, porting a toned-down version back to normal mode will reduce the snooze factor of it and make combat more engaging. Though not as deadly.

Adding a Reason to Party

Right now, outside of dungeons, guild missions, and Teq/Wurm, the only reason to party with other people is to increase mob tag chances. With Hard Mode being balanced around a full party, LFG will get a lot more use in areas not named Silverwastes.

Unique Bragging Rights

Vanquishing in Guild Wars 1 was hard (at least until Discordway made everything a joke). Doing it in Guild Wars 2 will also be hard. Being able to walk around with a red star icon that says “I vanquished this entire world” is on the same level as running around in every Luminescent piece that exists, if not higher.

So having established that Hard Mode would make a good deal of sense, with a potential implementation and some good advantages, what of the difficulty (no pun intended) of adding it to the game?

Programming Requirements

  • Refining a better AI. Even if a good start exists in the BWE1 version, Hard Mode would require a lot more than simply having them evade AoE. This is the single biggest obstacle.
  • Creating a “shard selection” option to allow players to select a normal zone, or a Hard Mode zone. Handy bonus on this: it also sets the framework for creating RP-friendly zones.
  • Creating the ability for different megaserver instances to have different contents (HM vs. NM).

Database Requirements

  • Creating two versions of every monster, to include different stats, different skill sets, and better AI. This overlaps with programming.
  • Adjusting the loot tables for HM monsters and areas to add new items, as well as updating formerly lower-level mobs to have Level 80 gear exclusively.
  • Implementing new rewards, like achievements with attached titles and new “status” items that can only be obtained in Hard Mode.

Art Requirements

  • Creating new items (weapons, armor) as exclusive Hard Mode rewards.
  • New art to denote a Hard Mode zone (like the “Hard Mode Helmet” of GW1).

Economy Concerns

Having Hard Mode with a blanket increase in magic find and rarity will have an effect on the economy, and we all know that ArenaNet cares a good deal about the GW2 economy. There are three different ways to mitigate the potential effect (or work with it):

  1. Let the market shock happen and resettle. At first some materials might crash in value as there is a relative flood, but things will resettle at a slightly lower normal. This assumes that most of the active player base is capable of Hard Mode. (The Twisted Marionette would bely such an assumption)
  2. Nerf the Hard Mode drop rate, either by locking down materials as account bound, or making the blanket increase in magic find fairly minimal (e.g., 25-30% instead of 50-60%).
  3. Nerf Normal Mode drop rates and let Hard Mode increases compensate for the reduced Normal Mode supply.

Personally, I’m partial to solution 1, though solution 3 is how HM in GW1 panned out. Rare drop rates were so abysmal in Normal Mode that a threefold increase in Hard Mode made them fairly tolerable.

Population Concerns

Doubling the amount of functional content has the knock-on effect of spreading out the player base. Most of this concern can be addressed by the megaserver technology, but it may be too limiting.

However, Hard Mode has the potential to bring back many players who quit the game due to not having enough challenge and things getting repetitive. At least for as long as it takes to run through the new content (which should take a while if implemented well), all those players will be playing again.

Expansion Concerns

One problem that ArenaNet ran into with GW1’s Hard Mode was continuing maintenance of it. Going forward, they had to release not just a Normal Mode of everything, but a Hard Mode, too. Domain of Anguish was delayed from Nightfall’s release, and the Hard Mode of the same was delayed further. The same problem occurred with Eye of the North.

The same potential exists in this system, with any new mob and zone requiring both a Normal Mode and a Hard Mode. However, if a good number of the Hard Mode changes (particularly AI) are ported back to Normal Mode, the amount of time to implement both won’t be double.

In sum, I think there’s a strong incentive to create a Hard Mode in GW2, and that the advantages (both now and future) outweigh the amount of development time that would be required to create it. It will bring more challenge to open world PvE, pave the way for additional content in other areas of the game, and provide an answer to the complaints of not enough reward in difficult content.

The Case for PvE Hard Mode (2024)


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