26/09/2016

My Five Favourite Alliance Alerts (so far)

While there's still at least one more Alliance alert to come (Zenith), the end of KotFE's main storyline seems as good a time as any to look back on this part of the expansion as well. And no, I didn't just decide to rip off Calphy; this has been sitting in my draft folder for a while.

I wasn't actually that keen on the Alliance alerts at first, because the first couple were pretty dull in terms of gameplay: kill some things, click on some things, done. But like with the story chapters, you could clearly see things evolve as time went on, and the later alerts got more and more involved, offering both more interesting dialogue and a greater variety of mechanics.

It eventually struck me that the Alliance alerts are basically KotFE's missing side quests, the optional stuff that fleshes out the background a bit. It's just a shame that so few of them relate to Zakuul, which is the one place that really needs to give us more reason to care. On the other hand I do have to give Bioware kudos for taking the opportunity to add new content to old planets this way and making good use of areas that used to be a bit empty (the latest Alliance alert taking place at the ass-end of nowhere on Nar Shaddaa is a good example). And we do get glimpses of bits and pieces of what else is going on in the galaxy - again, the latest mission is a good example, with Rusk giving insight into the Republic's current relationship with the Hutt Cartel.


While I'm not a huge fan of the "retro" interface per se, I have to give Bioware credit for really making the most out of saving on voice actor bills in this part of the game, as the dialogue is chock-full of class references and you simply get to make so many more conversation choices than in the regular story chapters. Levelling characters for the DvL event has really highlighted for me how much they've cut back on that front over time. For example one of the trooper's very first class missions on Ord Mantell has you talking to the wife of a deceased spy, and in that one conversation you seriously go through four or five dialogue wheel steps of trying to calm down the woman as she gets increasingly hysterical. In KotFE you mostly get to react to an important statement or event once and that's it. Your character also frequently speaks without prompting. The Alliance alerts however manage to successfully bring back some of that feeling of navigating your way through an entire conversation. As an experiment, I counted the number of dialogue choices I got to make in a chapter (27 in Visions in the Dark) and those I got to make in an Alliance Alert (in Little Boss, I still counted 28, even while treating the five item hand-ins as one). While those totals are roughly equal, there's a lot more happening in the story chapter - the Alliance alerts just prompt you to choose a response that much more often.

Anyway, which Alliance alerts so far would I personally classify as my favourites? Let's do it countdown style and go from number five to number one in reverse order.

#5: A Kindly Old Monster - Doctor Lokin

While this one isn't terribly interesting from a mechanics point of view (though the fact that it can only be completed during the Rakghoul event makes for an interesting twist), I adored how different it can turn out depending on your choices.

Based on my first playthrough on my Commando, I wouldn't have rated it very highly. It was the exact same spiel as with many Alliance recruits: I introduce myself politely, run an errand for him, then he agrees to join me. But on my Marauder I was in for a surprise. I had her act as haughtily as ever, which meant that she tried to intimidate the good doctor initially - but he would have none of it and set his pet rakghouls on her instead. Infected by their bites, I was suddenly at his mercy to get a cure - and after I'd finally gotten that, I didn't want to recruit him anymore because - what a jerk! Which kind of impressed me because it went completely against what I had planned to do at the start. Any story that can create emotional responses as strong as that is a good one in my book.


#4: Shining in the Darkness - Guss Tuno 

I found it very interesting that this mission doesn't require you to kill anything or even to click on stuff on the ground - it's purely dialogue-based, merely requiring you to accompany Guss Tuno on his renewed attempts to become a Jedi. The objective of your mission is interesting by itself, as I found it one of the more surprising revelations that Guss went back to pick up his training again after everything that happened.

There are a lot of funny conversation choices to be had here, especially if you don't encourage Guss to simply cheat. His new master is a also a fascinating character in his own right and I wouldn't mind if we ended up seeing more of him.

#3: Arma Rasa - HK-55

I think this is the only Alliance alert that features a "proper" cut scene, that of HK wrecking the lab just as you come down to have him reprogrammed. Again, I've appreciated this mission for trying something different (having you program a droid by running through a bunch of different simulated scenarios with him). There's also that funny achievement that encourages you to accompany a friend while they do it so they can tell HK to shoot you. Finally, the release of the HK bonus chapter has lent additional weight to this mission as certain scenes in the chapter actually play out slightly differently based on your choices while reprogramming HK.


#2: Freedom Fight - Bowdaar

This is the Alliance alert that brought us the Eternal Championship, and while the Championship's appeal to me was short-lived (I think it's really more targeted at dps players), I think that the introduction of a replayable and rewarding solo challenge like that was a great move. It also turns this recruitment mission undoubtedly into the most interesting one in terms of gameplay involved.

#1: Mixological Profiling - Niko Ocarr

And at number one - we have a mission that is very short and sweet but hits all the right notes along the way. Nico is amusing and mysterious, never really letting you get a word in edge-wise, and yet all it takes to get him to join you is you mixing him a drink - which is a very simple "click on stuff " task, but is amusing for all the things you are allowed to add to the drink if you like (explosives?). It also cracks me up that he is sad if you don't add a little umbrella. This mission is just pure fun and can easily be done on every character without ever feeling like a chore.

23/09/2016

KOTOR Adventures: Manaan Manaan

Last time on Knights of the Old Republic, I had finished my Jedi trials on Dantooine and was being set loose upon the galaxy to find the pieces of an ancient star map, which supposedly hides a very important secret.

I had literally bankrupted myself buying enough medpacks for the last fight on Dantooine and was looking forward to now being able to explore the galaxy and extract money from it. I flew to Tatooine first because to me that one sounded like the most appealing out of all the available planets, however on exiting my ship I was immediately accosted by some Czerka officials who demanded a one hundred credit docking fee to even let me out of the spaceport. Since I didn't have that of course, I thought "screw you, guys" and took off again, intending to find a planet first that wasn't ruled by greedy Czerka scum.

I picked Manaan next, and did indeed manage to get off my ship and talk to a couple of NPCs there. However, as soon as I wanted to access Ahto City proper, there was the hundred credit docking fee again. It dawned on me that this was probably a requirement on every planet and that you're basically screwed if you're out of money at this point. Since on Manaan there was at least a vendor nearby, I grudgingly sold him a couple of bits and pieces that I had been hoping to keep, in order to be able to cover the fee. The Selkath gatekeeper told me that a map of the city was included in the fee, but apparently it wasn't, because unlike on previous occasions when I was given a map, the area was not revealed to me.

When Manaan was added in SWTOR, even without offering anything but the staging point for the Depths of Manaan flashpoint, a lot of KOTOR fans seemed very pleased, so I figured that they had fond memories of the place Sadly my own experiences did not reflect this at all. While the "flying in" cut scene looked gorgeous despite its age (taking screenshots of specific things is really hard on the tablet by the way, as tapping it to bring up the screenshot button also registers as "skip this please"), actually walking around Ahto City just felt kind of... boring. There was no "outside" to explore, and relatively few NPCs wanted to talk to me. The peaceful music actually managed to make me doze off once while I was trying to sort out my inventory...


Eventually it became apparent that my only avenue for progress was to do a job for the local Republic representative which involved breaking into a nearby Sith base to retrieve some stolen data. Funnily enough, they made a big deal out of how I had several different options to break in there, a problem that was solved easily enough, but I didn't even know where the damn base was and nobody deigned to tell me that. Eventually I googled it and realised that I had missed the exit to an entire part of the city that I hadn't even discovered yet... if only they'd given me that map...

So I broke into the Sith base and had a horrible time. I cleared the first two or three rooms, but soon ran into problems. One way was blocked by some sort of door puzzle, which - even though I had found a datapad with instructions - made zero sense to me. I decided to go another way instead, and found a room with a couple of uber powerful droids that I once again couldn't even scratch. After reloading (they killed me of course), I tried a different door and ended up being massacred by a bunch of Dark Jedi for a change. "I hate this place, I'm going home," I thought, and exited through the front door... just to be arrested by the Selkath for trespassing in the Sith base for no good reason and getting sentenced to death.


After moping for a bit about having got myself stuck in situation with no pleasant way out of it, I gave in and googled a guide. Fortunately the killer droids didn't really matter, and the Dark Jedi weren't as bad as they had seemed at first, going down relatively easily on my second attempt. The guide explained to me how to get past the door puzzle, and revealed that at the very end, I would be able to find proof there that the Sith were up to no good which I would then be able to use to exonerate myself when the Selkath came to arrest me on my exit.

But first I ran into Shasa, a young Selkath whose father had asked me to look for her as she had gone missing. Turns out that she and her friends had been lured in by the Sith with false promises. I was easily able to prove the Sith's duplicity to them though - apparently a friend of theirs had been tortured to death literally in the room next to them and they never noticed. Suckers. They all went home after that, but clearly nothing good came of Shasa, considering that she later went on to found her own flavour of the Revanite cult on Manaan.


Then came the final room with the datapad I would need for my trial later. It was guarded by another Dark Jedi and his two Selkath apprentices. They killed me, but this time I wasn't going to give up so easily, so I tried again, and again. I pumped my party full of stims, had them all activate personal shields, saved and tried again. Following simple logic, I had them burn down the apprentices first before focusing on the big guy, but once I finally got that far, I once again ran into the problem of none of my characters being able to actually hurt him, and eventually he whittled down my party to nothing yet again. This was weird because a chunk of his health was already missing, and when I paid closer attention on the next try I realised that my group was able to hit him pretty hard whenever he was stunned - so I switched my strategy to focusing on the big guy first, with all three party members rotating through their stuns while they still had Force, which finally resulted in a hard-earned victory.

The whole encounter made me realise that clearly my biggest problem with some of the fights so far has been me "doing it wrong" in some way, whether by using the wrong abilities or the wrong weapons. The problem is that I'm pretty lazy when it comes to the numbers part of roleplaying. This was actually what led me to eventually quit my pen and paper roleplaying group, because the other players were all the exact opposite. The GM would frequently kill off characters, but everyone else was almost happy about that since it allowed them to whip out their rulebooks and try to build a new combination of feats and abilities that would hopefully turn out to be OP. Meanwhile I was always crushed when yet another budding character arc came to an abrupt end and I had to deal with the tedium of distributing stats again.

Because of this I had been happy to let KOTOR's "auto level up" feature do all the work for me and hadn't bothered too much with reading gear tooltips and the like. Only after this did I finally sit down and take a slightly closer look at my character's numbers, only to realise that whatever the auto-level had been doing, it was the exact opposite of what I wanted. Why did I have so many points in demolitions, which I never used? And no wonder my persuasion attempts always failed, considering I had almost no points in it! I immediately switched to adding any newly earned points manually, but for the moment the damage was done. I've also been told that lightsabers are kind of weak against certain droids... but of course I vendored all my vibroblades once I'd got my saber, thinking that surely lightsabers would be superior against everything. (Maybe that vendor at the spaceport still has them...)

Anyway, I successfully escaped the Sith base at last, proved to the Selkath that they were evil and retrieved the stolen Republic data. Because nothing is ever easy, the Republic now wanted me to investigate a secret underwater base they were building and where something had apparently gone horribly wrong as everyone who was sent down to check on it had just disappeared.


After the struggle in the Sith base I decided to try a different party composition and took my little astromech droid T3-M4 (like the German SWTOR server!) down to the underwater base with me. I was delighted by his slicing ability, but when it came to fighting a giant battle droid things were once again touch and go, making me swap companions once again. I think it was only around then that I realised how easy that actually was... for some reason I thought that I'd have to walk back to the Ebon Hawk every time.

As it turned out, the Selkath in the underwater base had all gone mad and torn everything to bits, leaving only a couple of panicked survivors behind. Apparently this madness was induced by a giant sea beast that got woken up by the base's pumps. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, turns out to be to either poison said beast or to try to calm it down by getting rid of the noisy machinery. This has you walking around on the ocean floor in a special environmental suit for a bit, which clearly served as inspiration for the underwater part of the HK bonus chapter. It was a neat change of pace I suppose... except for the part where I was forced to take down several groups of mad Selkath without any companions (since you only have one suit to cross over to that part of the base). Seeing how I had trouble with certain fights with a full group before, this bit was just painful. I died sooo many times... eventually I even turned the option to pause after every combat round back on because I simply couldn't afford a single round to go to waste with an accidental auto attack or anything like that. Somehow I managed to muddle through in the end. (It involved a lot of grenades and a breath mask that made me immune to the Selkath's poison.)


As for the big beastie, I decided to go with destroying the machinery since that sounded more light side, though I temporarily regretted my choice when I was then faced with a small puzzle to actually get things blown up, which took me way longer to figure out than it should have. It wasn't actually hard at all, I'm just getting dumber with age I think. With the machinery gone, the giant fish withdrew and conveniently revealed some ruins with the next piece of my star map. Wahey.

Of course, as soon as I was back on the surface, the Selkath insisted on arresting me yet again. They spoke with awe of the giant sea monster, referring to it as the Progenitor (another server!) - I can only guess that if they really think of it as their ancestor, taking the option to poison it can't go over well. As it was, I was absolved of everything and finally allowed to leave the planet of the fish people behind. I still don't know why people talk so fondly of this place. Onwards to nicer planets (I hope)!

21/09/2016

A Boarding Party Pug

With nearly an hour to go until ops time, I figured that I had time to run a quick tactical flashpoint on my DvL dps Juggernaut, who hit level 40 yesterday. I got an instant pop for a Boarding Party run in progress... sort of. They were only about three trash pulls in, which struck me as a rather odd place to abandon a group, though I soon noticed at least one possible reason for my predecessor's behaviour: At level 40, I was actually the powerhouse of the group, with everyone else clocking in at level 19, 22 and 27 respectively. Oh, and they were all melee dps like me, two warriors and an Assassin.

The Assassin, who was the lowest level and whom someone else in the party eventually dubbed Jar Jar, was forever determined to pull first... just to die a few seconds later of course. Neither of the two warriors ever seemed to remember to regenerate their health either, so we got caught in a seemingly endless cycle of pulling things, people dying, and then pulling more as soon as they came back and while they were still on half health. Well, except for me. I always kind of muddled through, mostly thanks to my recently acquired cooldowns and Jar Jar's insistence on doing all the pulling.

I suggested that maybe things might go better if people healed up between pulls. "Lol sorry," opined one of the warriors, to whom I shall refer as Oblivious for the rest of the post, and dutifully started channelling his hatred. "I CAN'T SEE MY HEALTH, STUPID BUG," explained the other warrior, of whom I soon started thinking as "Allcaps" for obvious reasons. I suggested that he could try resetting his UI, which didn't seem to help, and then explained that it would probably be best to spend some time regenerating after every pull even if he couldn't see his health, because it was pretty much bound to be needed under the circumstances. Next pull: "LOL I LEVELLED WHILE DEAD"

We got to the first boss, and by the time he died I was once again the last person standing. "GUYS, I CAN'T SEE MY HEALTH, STUPID BUG - WHAT'S MY HEALTH?" Allcaps queried, face firmly glued to the floor. "Reup," instructed Jar Jar. "What does that even mean?" asked Oblivious. "Reup, rez, revive?" While everyone else dutifully ran back over and over again, "reup" quickly turned into Jar Jar's catch phrase while he patiently hugged the floor waiting for someone else to revive him. We actually dutifully took turns to do so, but he died so often that this wasn't enough and he didn't seem to listen when I tried to explain to him that the ability had a cooldown. "GUYS. REUP." Writing in all caps seemed to get Allcaps' attention: "DUDE, THE REZ POINT IS RIGHT HERE, TRUST ME." Grumbling, Jar Jar revived about two steps behind us, that one time at least.

We got to the second boss and Jar Jar decided to pull while Oblivious was still running back from his latest death. That was the one time I died too, as it was such a mess that we simply wiped. On the second attempt, I was once again the last person standing, which clearly impressed at least some of my group mates. The great thing about playing with people who don't know what they're doing is that you come off as some kind of god-like being for simply knowing how to use your abilities.

We talked to Captain Yelto. "OMG MY FIRST GROUP CONVERSATION, THAT WAS SO MUCH FUN," exclaimed Allcaps. Well, that explained a lot - and I was happy for him. "THIS IS TAKING QUITE LONG," he offered up almost immediately after (apparently it wasn't that much fun after all). "ARE OPS EVEN LONGER?" He seemed somewhat put out when I answered yes. I tried to reassure him that there wasn't that much of the flashpoint left.

It was fifteen minutes to ops time by now, and my pet tank was telling me to hurry up. I told him and my party that we were almost there. "LOL, YOU SAID THAT EARLIER YET HERE WE ARE." I explained that we really were getting close to the end (we were on the final deck) and that the green triangle on the map was the final boss. "HALLELUJAH", Allcaps responded. "MY HEALTH IS BACK!"

In our haphazard manner, with people accidentally leaping into trash pulls off to the side and such, we had almost accidentally completed the various bonus objectives and I asked if people wanted to do the bonus boss. Usually I love doing bonus bosses, but considering that he's probably the hardest fight in the instance and how badly we'd been struggling with every single trash pull, I wasn't really too keen for once. Fortunately, neither was Allcaps. "NO! I JUST WANT MY GROUP FINDER REWARD."

We were moving on, but Jar Jar, who was probably behind again from yet another death, had something else in mind. Also resorting to all caps, he shouted at us to come back and kill the bonus boss, but nobody moved. "YOU GO KILL THE BONUS BOSS THEN," Allcaps taunted, and just like his namesake, Jar Jar continued to vastly overrate his own abilities and charged right into the first trash pull leading down to the bonus boss's room. He died within seconds of course, and I wondered whether the mobs he had aggroed would come all the way over to us, but thankfully they evaded quickly.

We continued clearing trash towards the bridge, and though he appeared to be sulking, Jar Jar eventually caught up with us again. I thought I'd be helpful and put a target on the medic's head to let everyone know that he should be killed first. However, the moment I charged in, Oblivious went "brb", and everyone else went on the boss himself. I've never seen that fight take so long as I slowly took down the medic by myself and did my best to interrupt his heals.

We finished off the final conversation with a "YAAAH LIGHT SIDE" from Allcaps and then said our goodbyes. Allcaps made a point of thanking me by name, calling me his "flashpoint mentor" and letting me know that he had added me to his friends list. I returned to the fleet and looked at his little portrait, quietly remembering the days when I was a noob myself. "Do you know how to get out of there?" "UMMM..." (I told him.)

19/09/2016

Bioware Answers Some Questions About Flashpoints: An Interview With Michael Backus

A couple of months ago, a strange thought struck me. Star Wars: The Old Republic turns five at the end of this year and I've been maintaining this blog for just as long, but I've never approached anything from the point of view of a real fan site. But really... why not? For all intents and purposes, this is a fan site, and who else is going to ask questions about the nitty gritty details of gameplay or the everyday worries of a loyal player? Since I was still working on my Flashpoint Friday series at the time, I had flashpoints on the mind and decided to put together some questions to pose to Bioware via community manager Eric Musco. And he said this was fine! It took a while until I got my answers, but they did arrive eventually. So, without further ado - my first ever official interview!


Can you tell us a little about yourself and your role at Bioware? [AKA: Who am I interviewing? I didn't know in advance who this was going to be as I wasn't sure who would be responsible for flashpoints!]

My name is Michael Backus, and I’m the Lead Designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic. I joined the BioWare team over 8 years ago and have spent the majority of my time on SW:TOR. My job really has two main parts: The first is to manage the Design team on SW:TOR. The second is to work with leadership and bring the vision of the game to life at AAA-quality for our players. That means sharing the vision with team members, documenting designs, and working with the team to flesh out the details of designing new features and gameplay.

Currently all flashpoints are set up to be PUG-able through the group finder. Have you considered adding a higher difficulty option that would allow smaller groups of friends to challenge themselves similar to what you experience in hard or nightmare mode operations? Some of us have very fond memories of Lost Island HM at launch. 

We have, but it’s always a balance between making Flashpoints accessible to more players versus building a custom experience to allow for a greater challenge but for a much more limited set of players. That being said, we are always looking at opportunities to deliver higher difficulty to players looking for that increased level of challenge.


At launch, flashpoints seemed to be set up to offer an alternate gear progression route to operations since they dropped the same set pieces, though one tier lower than you could get in raids. For a while there were even plans to have different difficulty tiers of flashpoints (Lost Island!), but all of this was soon scrapped. I can understand that the tiering system would likely have become unwieldy over time, but can you give us some insight into why set pieces were removed from flashpoints? I always thought that they made for great rewards. 

You touched on it a bit in the question. The main idea was to streamline gear progression. Building and maintaining so many different stat combinations and tiers of gear added confusion to the gameplay experience for some players and made it a much more difficult system to grow and maintain. It is much easier to communicate that set pieces come from Operations. Flashpoint gear progression was designed to be a stepping stone into Operations, so reinforcing that opportunity in the gear progression sent a clearer message.

Over time, flashpoints seem to have served a couple of different purposes. For example Hammer Station is a relatively inconsequential story, just something fun to do with your friends. The Foundry or False Emperor on the other hand are important encounters that were clearly meant to feel even more epic by requiring a whole group of people. The newest flashpoints have mainly been used to drive the main narrative forward (Forged Alliances et al.), but with the inclusion of solo modes for many of these, the lines between regular quests and flashpoints have become somewhat blurred. What do you see as the main purpose of flashpoints going forward? 

Going forward we want to expand the appeal by increasing the fun of playing these experiences. Early in the game’s history we leaned-in more on cinematic storytelling in group content, but since we have had such a strong response to the storytelling in Chapters we then looked at the value of making make group content like the Star Fortresses. More dynamic with a focus on the gameplay.

What's the most challenging aspect of creating new flashpoints? Are they very resource-intensive to make? If so, why? 

That’s an interesting question, mainly because what’s the most challenging can also be some of the most fun for us as a development team.

For instance, if we look at creating a new level, the amount of effort is quite large. We come up with a critical path for both the level and the gameplay. Then, we have to have the area blocked out and scripted so we can playtest it and make sure we’re doing something fun. Then, you have the time we spend on building the environment art—we often create new environments so an area has unique features or a different look to it. Then we have our artists work on making the area beautiful, which requires texture, lighting, and propping work. And that’s without getting into the other Art work we do to create a quality experience: New creatures and bosses, their abilities, and any animation or VFX time to make the level come alive.

Although this sounds like a complex process, it is still a lot of fun. I mean, we’re creating something new for the Star Wars™ universe. That means our Writers, Designers, and Artists are working together to come up with something new and fun, while consulting with our partners at LucasFilm to make sure we capture the feel of Star Wars and The Old Republic. So although it can be a long process with a lot of moving parts, it’s very rewarding when we see these areas completed and enjoyed by our players.


Do you have a favourite and least favourite flashpoint? Maybe one you're particularly proud of and one that makes you think "yeah, we thought that was a good idea at the time but we wouldn't do it again"? 

I really enjoy Colicoid War Game because we tried some very interesting things in that Flashpoint. It starts with a shooting gallery then contains some heavy group puzzle elements. In the spirit of ‘it was a good idea at the time’, we’ve found it’s a more difficult Flashpoint to communicate and isn’t terribly PUG friendly since it’s SO different from the others.

One of the main points of contention when pugging flashpoints is the matter of "space-barring"/skipping the cut scenes, as some people really enjoy them while others just want to get to the end as quickly as possible because they've seen it all before. Sometimes people can even get kicked from the group over this. Have you ever considered trying to implement anything to alleviate this conflict of interests?

It’s a difficult balance. We did extensive testing to try and minimize this problem pre-launch. We have a ‘decision timer’ that was tweaked to try and get the balance right, but it’s never perfect. At the same time, in a sense, we pioneered multiplayer dialog in the MMO space, so these were problems that hadn’t really been identified before. I think one thing that’s helped recently is minimizing cutscenes in the middle of Flashpoints such as Star Fortress to try and keep the action moving.

In 4.0 all existing flashpoints were revamped to be tactical. This has been great for levelling as it's easy and fast to get into groups for them now. However, in some places the difficulty still seems a little off for the new paradigm, for example there are no kolto stations around the bonus boss in Maelstrom Prison, and Jos and Valk from Blood Hunt are known pug killers since they have so many abilities that are hard to survive when you're low level. How happy are you with the way this revamp has turned out? Are you still monitoring people's performance in different flashpoints and making adjustments where needed? 

I would say we’re happy with how the revamp turned out. As you mentioned, there’s always additional balance we need to tune and we’re constantly assessing those issues and opportunities. One important thing to mention is how much we value when players report the issues they find, so please keep those reports coming! We definitely want to make these experiences as fun as possible.

Another minor downside of the 4.0 changes is that narrative cohesion is lost for new players since it's not obvious at which point in the levelling process each flashpoint is supposed to take place. Do you have any plans to address this, perhaps by having the group finder interface provide additional information about each flashpoint? 

In general, we want our class stories and world arcs to lead you to these experiences. There are definitely exceptions to this and we agree that’s not ideal. Right now, since this content is found in Group Finder we’re not looking to address this issue. That being said, it’s a great idea to give more information to the player, especially when it gives backstory or context to their experience.


Why were Colicoid War Game and story mode Kaon Under Siege/Lost Island not included in the 4.0 revamp? Are there any plans to make these more accessible/relevant again? 

These were part of the ‘good idea at the time, but’ world. As I said earlier, Colicoid War Game is very difficult to communicate to a new player in a manner that facilitates understanding of what you are supposed to do. It facilitates a bad experience because of how different the mechanics are compared to similar instances. Kaon and Lost Island leaned very far outside of our standard difficulty curve, and there isn’t really a simple fix to bring them more in-line with existing Flashpoints. We felt it was better to avoid funneling players into these experiences.

How come the heroic Star Fortresses weren't included in the group finder on release? Any plans to change this and/or to open them up to a wider range of levels? 

This was an oft-debated topic and we erred on the side of making the experience cleaner for as many players as possible at launch, while acknowledging the solution didn’t solve all possibilities.

We were faced with problems like:
  • There are many Star Fortresses—each having their own location and not just being one entity. This means each location would be in Group Finder. If there are now 6+ options instead of 1, players are spread out, potentially impacting queue times for players. 
  • We also assumed players would want the ability to go to a specific Star Fortress in order to progress specific content. We were very sensitive of creating a situation where players would have their queue pop and one or more group members didn’t get the Star Fortress location they wanted. This would force those players to leave the group and re-queue, creating a situation that everyone would dislike. 
Ultimately, I can tell you that we’re constantly looking at the situation and if player behavior or demand changes, we’ll revisit this decision and see if there is a better solution. For instance, if players have done their specific planet Star Fortresses and now just want to queue for them together, there may be a strong argument to add them to Group Finder as one entry.


Have you considered how the new flashpoint system will deal with new additions to the game yet? E.g. next time the level cap goes up, will they all just level with it? Would new flashpoints also be accessible from level 15 onwards? 

We’ve absolutely considered this and our goal is to continue to make all our previous gameplay areas relevant each time we increase the level cap. There is still considerable work involved in that process, not to mention testing time, but it’s something we feel is important for our players.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions!


While I didn't necessarily like everything I heard (R.I.P. Colicoid War Game), I certainly enjoyed some of the insights Michael gave into their thought processes here, even if there was still a good dose of "Bioware vagueness"™ in some of the answers. While I made a point of avoiding explicit questions about future content (you know they wouldn't have been able/willing to answer those), I also think he made it quite clear that going forward we can look forward to more content similar to the Star Fortresses in style. And yes, I know there have been rumours spawned by datamined info along those lines as well.

I hope everyone enjoyed this departure from the usual fare here! As usual, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

17/09/2016

Dark vs. Light: Nearly There

We're getting close to three months of the Dark vs. Light event being live, and I'm nearly done! While I've "officially" still only completed the first three tiers, in practice I'm very close to completing Legendary level (the final one) by now.

The reason I haven't completed Champion level (the fourth one) yet is that I'm missing Battle of Rishi for the Flashpoint Expert achievement. I kind of figured that if I was going to level six new characters to fifty via a mix of warzones and random tactical flashpoints, I was bound to get all of them automatically after a while. Not so, apparently! I know random numbers are funny things, but I'm starting to wonder about Battle of Rishi at this point because back when I levelled my Mercenary through nothing but flashpoints at the end of last year, she never had Battle of Rishi pop as a random either. Instead I've had what felt like dozens of runs of Hammer Station, Cademimu and False Emperor. As I still have one character to finish off, I suppose that there's still a chance that Battle of Rishi will show up as part of my random flashpoint rotation, but at this point I'm not holding my breath. It might just end up being the last thing stopping me from hitting Legendary, by which point I will of course simply queue for it specifically and get it done that way.

Completing KotFE for the umpteenth time was as expected the most chore-like requirement for me, though I did get it done in the end. I covered the first nine chapters in about three days, and then the rest in small bits and pieces here and there, as they are a bit easier to break up into small chunks. I did enjoy KotFE's story and even replaying it a couple of times, just not... that much. I have no idea how someone like xLetalis can happily play through each new chapter sixteen times on release to present his viewers with a playthrough of all eight classes of both sexes.

As it turned out, I had to ask my pet tank for a boost to get the Eternal Championship achievements. I thought that I should get through it easily enough after having completed it on a couple of classes already, but I actually already struggled on the very first boss (!), being a healing Scoundrel in mediocre gear with a companion of influence level five. After that I was kind of genuinely surprised that I managed to kill the next couple of bosses at all, but by the time I reached Lanos it became clear that I just didn't have enough dps. I had no interest in working on better gear and a higher influence level just then, so I simply asked my pet tank for help so we could do the team version. That one doesn't give credit for any quests or regular achievements, but for the DvL event it doesn't matter if you go in in a group so it was definitely the preferable option.

I "finished off" all the characters I introduced in my last event post, getting them to fifty and maxing out their crew skills, plus another one that wasn't even "born" yet at the time, my super cute Mirialan Guardian Starberry.


I was wondering whether I should make her a Sentinel since that's another advanced class I don't actually have at max level, but I do have an alt that's about halfway there and I know from my Marauder that I don't enjoy the playstyle very much so... eh. I like Guardians though, and I'd never given tanking on one a serious try before. While I have a level 65 Juggernaut tank, I actually didn't do that much group content with that one (she was levelled in tandem with my pet tank), so I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. All those cooldowns! So much utility! Even arenas become fun when you're not the first focus target for once and can in fact charge in first without too much fear for your own health.

Incidentally, Starberry is also my first DvL character that actually used armour that I got as an event reward - I got the Resolute Guardian upper body armour out of one of my reward boxes, which is the snazzy armour set that appears on the character creation screen for Jedi knights. I'd quite like it if I got the rest of the set out of one of boxes that are still to come, but for levelling the chest piece and gloves alone were enough to make her look presentable.

Anyway, what's left? Four hardmode flashpoints which I'm hoping to polish off this weekend, levelling my event Sith warrior to fifty, and the aforementioned Battle of Rishi run. I should be able to provide my personal event wrap-up very soon!

15/09/2016

So THERE's That Skytrooper Control Device!

My review of KotFE's chapter 15, The Gemini Frequency, has been showing up in my "recently popular posts" widget for a few weeks now, and I have a strong suspicion that it's less because of people wanting to read my thoughts on it and more because of this sentence: "Where is that damned skytrooper control device?!" Unfortunately anyone looking for the answer via Google would have been disappointed by my post as I was merely sharing my ignorance rather than offering up any kind of help.

I discussed this with Calphy the other day and as it turns out he actually knew what it looked like and described it to me. I decided to use my new-found knowledge when playing through chapter fifteen on my Scoundrel this week, and was flabbergasted to find the damn thing lying right in front of me in plain sight. Is it randomised or did they move it recently? I'm not sure how I otherwise could have failed to find it right next to the lore object three times in a row (it's that little briefcase-shaped thing)...


Anyway, I really wanted to share this knowledge now, so I also screenshotted the locations on each deck where I found the devices:



Have fun with your new (temporary) skytrooper pet! The Gemini Captain seemed to hate mine with a passion and obliterated it as soon as I started the fight.

13/09/2016

Thoughts on the Datamined 5.0 Class Changes

I've been trying to avoid obvious story spoilers for KotET, but I usually don't mind knowing about mechanical changes in advance. However, even if I had tried to avoid learning about them, it would have been pretty hard to do, as my guildies have been chattering away about them on the forums and on voice chat ever since the information was released by data miners, making it pretty much impossible to ignore what's going on. Eventually I just wanted to know for myself how justified any cries about possible nerfs could really be.

The full Jedipedia post can be found here. I won't go into detail about all the different class changes - just check the nicely laid out post for yourself if there's anything specific you want to know - but what they've labelled as "global changes" is certainly worth talking about.

First off, it's time to say bye-bye to base classes. Somehow this feels like both a monumental and an inconsequential change at once. It's inconsequential because generally you pick an advanced class at level ten and that's it. I've known people to level to cap as their base class for a laugh, but that's not really intended or very interesting gameplay.

But at the same time... there was something interesting about a single class splitting into two very different specialisations with no turning back. It's not something that's seen a lot in Western MMOs, though I seem to remember an MMO blogger I read once commenting on the subject that Everquest II had advanced classes too once upon a time. I guess it's telling that that game moved away from that system as well.

Personally I always thought those little quests that are supposed to explain the advanced classes from a lore point of view were very cute; I particularly liked the two bounty hunters actually brawling with you to take your measure. Might be time to create even more alts and record these missions on video before they disappear? And of course your base class is what defines your class story - no matter how different they make Commandos and Vanguards, they'll both always start out as the newest member of Havoc Squad. I'm kind of curious how they'll overhaul character creation for this. Hopefully it will make things easier to understand for new players, which I'm pretty sure is the goal. To be fair, I can see where they are coming from with this one - pretty much every time I watch a stream or video of someone new to the game trying it out for the first time, it takes them ages to figure out that they are supposed to pick an advanced class.

In line with this, various abilities that were tied to the base class until now will be distributed between the advanced classes instead. Some of these will barely be worth a shrug - I don't remember the last time I used Charged Burst on my Scoundrel - but others definitely sting. Bounty hunters without Death from Above? Smugglers without Dirty Kick? Inquisitors without Force Lightning? Ouch. Personally I will miss Stockstrike and Pulse Cannon on my Commando. Stockstrike was a handy instant to use on enemies that were right up in my face, and Pulse Cannon just looked damn cool, making me prefer it over Hail of Bolts any day of the week, despite of the melee requirement and the cooldown. Mind you, this isn't the first time they've done stuff like that, it's just happening on an unprecedented scale. I still remember the days when my Scoundrel had XS Freighter Flyby and my Vanguard had Full Auto. However, I guess that ultimately these changes will have the same effect that those earlier prunings had, which is to say not much of one... except for the occasional burst of nostalgia making me shake my fist, going "damn you, Bioware", and then immediately moving on.


The one notable exception to this that I've seen and which appears to have created by far the most outrage is the proposed removal of Phase Walk from Shadows and Assassins. The difference in this case is that this was never a base class ability - it was introduced in 2.0 for those advanced classes only and fit the theme of the stealthy attacker coming seemingly out of nowhere. That it was also given to Sages and Sorcs in 4.0 seemed kind of odd, but I think most people just shrugged it off. However, restricting it to those two ACs only all of a sudden just makes no sense and I can completely understand why people who play a Shadow or Assassin as their main are annoyed. I still hope that Bioware will reconsider that change at least. (After all, datamined information isn't final.)

Stances and cells will also become baseline to each spec so you can't change between them anymore without also changing spec. Again, this kind of feels like a big deal and yet another loss of choice, but is it really? I can't remember the last time I switched Shintar out of combat support cell except by an accidental misclick! Now you won't get noobs running around in the wrong stance or power cell for their spec anymore, which I'm sure is one of the aims behind this change. I would have said that it's probably also targeted towards reducing "skank tanking" as it is known in PvP, which is to say using certain tanking abilities without going all-out tank, except that another "global change" listed on Jedipedia is that Guard will not be tied to tanking forms anymore, which would actually encourage its use for non-tanks. Huh. Maybe that's only a temporary change or something got misinterpreted while compiling the information.

Apparently roleplaying is also complicated, which is why any distinction between droids and other mobs is being removed. So from the looks of it abilities like Awe or Sleep Dart will work on droids too in the future, but the current droid-only crowd controls are being removed. I don't mind the former too much, but the latter sucks, because Disable Droid and its equivalents were - while situational - the only long-duration crowd control without a cooldown, and one of the few utilities that pure dps classes like Gunslingers and Sentinels could bring to a group. Being able to awe a droid for eight seconds instead won't be nearly as useful.

Finally, from the category of "plain odd": Melee players will be given more mobility and stealth players won't risk being spotted anymore when they are close to you. Just... huh? I don't really see why either of those things needed adjusting across the board. Stealth in particular is already an incredibly powerful tool as it is when it comes to PvP and really didn't need buffing. I also bet you that it won't apply in PvE and that there'll still be plenty of mobs that throw you out of stealth when they see you sneak past.

In summary, the overall theme is clearly one of simplification and the removal of yet more hybrid elements that somehow survived the introduction of disciplines in 3.0. I'm not part of the crowd that tends to complain about "dumbing down", but the problem with these things is that a single change is never a big deal, but once you pile enough of them on top of each other it can lead to classes genuinely losing their flavour. Let's hope that we're not quite there yet.

10/09/2016

KOTOR Continued: Look, Ma, I'm a Jedi!

In my first post about playing KOTOR I didn't include any spoiler warnings because I barely scratched the surface of what the game is about, but I guess as I write about my progress, some proper plot spoilers might end up showing up sooner or later. So if you've never played KOTOR yourself and still care about avoiding spoilers for it... consider yourself warned.

First off, after Calphy's comment on the last post I double-checked all the settings and found an option to turn off the auto-pause after every combat round. Yes! This was sorely needed, especially as I started to run up against fights that were made hard mainly by 95% of my attacks failing to hit their target, making the fights really, really long. I daren't imagine how much worse it would've been if the game had paused after every combat round on top of it all.

So, after escaping those annoying Sith fighters above Taris, your next stop is the Jedi enclave on Dantooine. If you were wondering at the start of the game why a game called Knights of the Old Republic wouldn't let you create anything but some sort of soldier type character, here comes the answer: It turns out you're Force sensitive after all!

I thought it was interesting that the Jedi make you undergo three trials before you even get promoted to padawan. This kind of surprised me as I tend to think of padawan as the lowest rank there is. Is there some sort of lore explanation for this or is it just a matter of power creep that in SWTOR your Jedi characters already start out as padawans and get promoted as soon as they finish the starter planet?

Once you get accepted into the Jedi order, you also get asked to choose a class: Guardian, Sentinel or consular. Hah! You can definitely see that SWTOR took inspiration for its class system from here, as the descriptions of Guardians and consulars are pretty spot-on. It's just Sentinels as something between the two that doesn't really fit into my world view as established by the MMO. In SWTOR they are mainly marked by their wielding of two sabers and by having a short attention span.

While exploring Dantooine, you keep running into Kath hounds. For some reason most of them look quite different from the ones in SWTOR. Seems we only have the horned version in the MMO.


There was a quest to solve a murder mystery which clearly served as inspiration for Broonmark's Alliance alert, though the KOTOR version is more demanding, offering you a bunch of wrong options to click through before you get to the correct answer.

Then there was a side mission that has been copied into SWTOR almost wholesale: the obsessive lady missing her pet droid (found in the Nar Shaddaa bonus series on Republic side). Interestingly, the KOTOR version is both funnier ("She treats me like her dead husband!" "Er, all the time?" "You don't want to know...") and darker, with the smothered droid wanting to commit suicide to escape it all, which kind of forces you to choose between a rock and a hard place. I guess that's why SWTOR made the droid an astromech and had him escape to live with an enclave of free droids, which makes it a much more obvious choice between light and dark side.

What you could call the main side mission is about two feuding houses whose children are in love with each other. Hm, where have I heard that before? It was an enjoyable storyline nonetheless. The only thing that bugged me was that the two fathers remained mad at each other and the matter of the other missing son was never resolved. I can't help but wonder whether it would have made a difference if I had found his datapad sooner (he appeared to have been eaten by Kath hounds as far as I could tell). However, after the two lovers had run off, there was no opportunity to ever bring the matter up again, neither with the young man's father nor with his sister.

Anyway, I keep talking about side quests, but the main goal after passing my Jedi trials was to investigate some ancient ruins with Bastila, because a vision had indicated that Revan and Malak had found something powerful there. The mystery of the ancient aliens is set up well, even though I already know who they are (and not just because the Rakata Prime background music was playing in the background). I was just annoyed by the two droids I had to fight my way past, which was the awfully tedious bit of combat I referred to at the beginning of this post. I sure hope there is some better way to get past them and I just chose a bad option, otherwise that's pretty bad gameplay. I actually went broke from buying medpacks just to survive long enough to beat both of them.


Now I'm supposed to explore the galaxy to find the missing pieces of a mysterious star map. Oddly enough, having such a specific goal has actually reduced my motivation somewhat. Running around randomly was more fun! But we'll see how it goes.

07/09/2016

Shroud of Memory

HK bonus chapter day, hooray!
 

First off I have to say: While I think that this a really neat subscriber reward, it would be a real waste if an hour of such solid content was forever restricted to everyone who happened to be subbed at a certain time. Maybe they'll make it available as a cash shop purchase later on or something.

As it happened, the chapter and I weren't off to the greatest start (and from what I heard many people experienced the same problem): The initial dozen combat encounters or so were laggy as hell. So you're thrown into your first fight with a hotbar full of abilities you don't know, they don't seem to fire when you press them, and mobs are teleporting all over the place...  suckage! It's not as if you're about to die with an OP companion healing you, but you're just sort of waving your arms around ineffectively and it's not very satisfying. Fortunately things seemed to improve somewhat (at least for me) as the chapter progressed.

Also, I wasn't too enamoured with Z0-0M at first. It seemed like both her writer and her voice actor were trying way too hard to make her funny, to the point that she came across as just plain annoying. (I get that she's meant to be a nuisance to HK... but it's way too easy to sympathise with him.)

However, things got better. Some interesting bits of lore were revealed, and you progress through a couple of very fascinating environments, walking along the bottom of the ocean just to be shot up into space shortly afterwards. The things you can do when you're a droid...


Speaking of which, I found the general concept of playing as HK interesting, because I expect that this will open up more opportunities to play as a different character in the future. It seemed like HK was basically applied as a "skin" on top of your regular character. In the target of target window I was still labelled as Shintar, I always had combat support cell on, and various healing buffs procced during the fights. Also, I seemed to hit about as hard as a sponge - very inappropriate for an assassin droid - so I'm guessing that HK's combat abilities were somehow scaled off your usual damage numbers.

I was also delighted to find that your choices in the "Arma Rasa" recruitment mission seemed to be taken into consideration, as there was a moment where I selected the option to kill someone, but instead HK's hand only hovered above the button and he bemoaned his master's programming forbidding him to kill unarmed non-combatants.

And then of course there was the ending... this is where it could get a bit spoilery (though I'll still avoid being explicit)! I had somewhat mixed feelings about it. On the one hand it was quite an interesting twist... on the other hand it felt kind of disappointing to see an excellent villain whose portrayal had been 100% serious up until then be disposed of via such a slapstick move. I'm still kind of hoping that it was all just another trick by the real Shroud, though Z0-0M's description in the companion panel doesn't leave much hope.


Overall I quite enjoyed this chapter. The lag was my biggest annoyance, but presumably that will be fixed soon. It wasn't quite as funny as I had hoped after seeing some of the comments by the writers - I don't think there was a single lough-out-loud moment for me personally - but there were plenty of things to make you smile, and I realised that I've been missing that. Humour has always been an important part of Star Wars, and chapters ten to sixteen have mostly been pretty damn serious, with the exception of chapter thirteen's big heist. So yeah, it was good to poke a bit of fun at things again - I particularly liked what they did with the exarch in that regard.

Did you qualify for the bonus chapter? If so, what did you think of it? Or has the lag kept you away?

05/09/2016

The Defector

I mentioned in my last DvL post that I had decided to level my "event agent" through the class story. After finishing that particular endeavour, I thought it deserved a post of its own.


First off, the levelling experiment: As I mentioned in the previous post, I ended up using this character as an experiment to see how far I could get doing just the class story and nothing else / at which point my level would fall far enough behind that I couldn't continue as before. The answer? It never happened. I dinged 50 while wrapping up the last couple of companion conversations after completing my final mission. I'm still astounded by that. Yes, I did get some exploration XP and I was also rested a lot of the time, but still... basically, it seems to be really hard now to be underlevelled for your class story.

Also, it really showed that I hadn't done the agent story in a long time because from Hoth onwards (which is how far I'd got my Cathar agent last year), I ran into a lot of things that I barely remembered. There will be some spoilers for chapters two and three of the agent story here.

On Hoth, where you interact with the Chiss, I was pleasantly surprised by all the lines that took into account that my agent was a Chiss too. I shamelessly flirted with Aristocra Saganu, the Chiss leader, and he was so pleased with me that he actually adopted me into his noble house by the end. I think if Bioware had any specific species/class combinations in mind while creating the class stories, then Chiss agent was definitely one of them. There was another species-specific reference like that on Voss, when I was asked about my past at the Shrine of Healing.


Revisiting the agent story on Voss was nice in general because while the part with Bas-Ton and his family had been very memorable, I also have this vague recollection that everything else kind of confused me during my first playthrough. Maybe it was because I had taken a break for too long at the time, maybe I got distracted by side quests, but I do recall not quite being able to make heads or tails of what the Shining Man had to do with anything. This time around it was all much clearer.

Corellia just reminded me of why I dislike that planet: Aside from the war-torn environment being kind of depressing, the maps are confusing and you constantly end up being lured into dead ends. There was one point where it took me something like fifteen minutes to find the right way to access one of my quest objectives... and I've been playing this game for nearly five years. FFS, Corellia.

Getting to redo all the companion stories was pretty fascinating as well. I remember absolutely loathing Kaliyo after that last mission on Hutta on my first agent, and if I'd had the option I would have shot here right then and there. Yet somehow, this time it didn't seem nearly as bad. I'm not sure if that's because I knew what to expect, different conversation choices made it sound like less of a big deal, or a bit of both, but I could actually see my character tolerating Kaliyo's continued presence despite of not liking her very much.

Vector is still my favourite romanceable companion in the game; he's just too adorable. I married him this time. Scorpio freaked me out a bit because I had completely forgotten about the part where she tries out a holographic human form for a bit.


In general, there were some interesting interactions between the different companions as well, such as Vector and Doctor Lokin developing a sort of friendship, Lokin spying on Kaliyo, Vector trying to understand Scorpio and more, which was quite fascinating considering what a varied bunch the agent companions are.

Finally, let's talk about what was the actual impetus for levelling this character through the class story: wanting to see a different ending, specifically the one where you agree to be a double agent for the Republic. Vrykerion mentioned in his chapter two review that he had never managed to get it in several playthroughs, though a commenter chimed in to say that it wasn't hard to get, you just weren't allowed to do anything that would majorly incline Ardun Kothe against you, such as get one of his team members killed.

I actually knew very little about how it would all play out. I just knew that there was a confrontation with Ardun Kothe on Quesh, but even though I let him live there, he just ran away and didn't seem to be any more positively inclined towards me than before. I got worried that I had messed up somehow and googled a video of the actual defection scene... which ended up starting on Corellia (I didn't watch any further than that once I realised this). Someone in the video's comments was complaining that he had made all the same choices as in the video but still hadn't been asked to join the SIS in the end, and eventually seemed to trace it back to a conversation on Quesh where he hadn't offered assistance to Saber and Wheels - which I hadn't done either. Argh!

I felt kind of gloomy after that, certain that I had already messed up my chances of getting the ending that I wanted without even knowing it and cursing Bioware for apparently tying it to what seemed like such a minor choice. If only this was a single player game and I could reload an earlier save... however, there was a happy ending after all, because when I came to the crucial junction at the very end, Ardun Kothe did offer me a job and I was able to accept it. I don't know why it didn't work for that guy in the YouTube comments, but it must have been due to something else.


Now I actually really want to get back to my Cathar agent (who is a bit evil and sided with Jaedus) to see how things play out for her. I'll put it on my to-do list for whenever I'm done with the DvL event.