25/07/2017

The Future of CXP?

As my Scoundrel is slowly working her way towards becoming my third character to reach Command rank 300, something has been rattling around my head that has bugged me about CXP from the start but which I didn't really talk about before because there were too many other things wrong with the system that were more important. However, now that Galactic Command is in a relatively comfortable place, I can't help but wonder: Where is it going?

The moment it was first announced, I was immediately reminded of the way Blizzard has gotten into the habit of coming up with "cool ideas" for their WoW expansions just to completely scrap each and every one of them the moment the next expansion comes out, simply because they were never designed to scale and work for the game in the long term. That's what CXP looks like to me too, like something that someone thought "would be a cool idea" but without thinking through how it would integrate into the game in the long run. Simply put: If you have an alternate levelling system after the level cap, what happens to those levels once the normal level cap is increased again?

One obvious solution would be to simply scrap the whole system. It would be the easy way of dealing with it at least, and I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who would not be sad to see it go. I would be a little sad though. After a painful amount of iteration, Galactic Command is finally in a good place, and I think it's not bad as a supplemental way of getting gear. Also, while it's just numbers, I think I would feel a little cheated if my total of over a thousand Command levels just disappeared into the aether without a trace. I may not rank very high as an achiever, but that doesn't mean that I can't develop an attachment to some achievements.

But if it were to stay, this would open up a lot of questions. Would the system still unlock at level 70 or would it move up to the new level cap? And would people be allowed to keep their existing Command levels? If the new stuff were all tacked on at the end, it would still leave 300 Command levels of "old stuff" for new players to grind through before even getting to the new gear, which would feel silly. At the same time, just resetting everyone back to rank one would feel like a sting to veterans for the reasons described above. Any attempt at keeping both new and old players happy while retaining the system would probably involve some awkward rejigging, keeping in line with making the system ever more complicated. As an example, the existing 300 ranks could continue to exist while being greatly sped up for new players, and the loot tables would have to be reworked completely to drop lower-level "new stuff" right from the start, so that veterans would only get a bit of a headstart. I struggle to imagine a simple and elegant solution for this though.

How do you expect Bioware to handle Galactic Command going forward?

21/07/2017

How to LFG in SWTOR, 2017 Edition

The other day it came to my attention that people are apparently still finding my post "How to Successfully LFG in SWTOR" via Google. This is one of the few guides I've written on this blog, but while some of the things described in it still apply, others have become quite outdated with the introduction of level sync and such. Re-reading my own post, I had actually almost forgotten about how EV and KP used to only be in the group finder from level 50-54, or how many pugs wouldn't do a full run of any given operation because the weekly quest only required you to kill things up to the third or fourth boss. Good times.

Anyway, I thought it might be worthwhile to rewrite this guide to provide a more up-to-date source of information for curious new players. I might do some copy and pasting from the old post, but many things have changed!

First off, there are three major types of PvE group content in the game right now:

- Flashpoints are SWTOR's equivalent of what's called "dungeons" in many other MMOs, instanced group content designed for a group of a fixed size, four players in this case. The "default" group setup is one tank, one healer and two damage dealers, however Bioware has greatly simplified the easy versions of most flashpoints to not require a fixed group setup anymore and to be level neutral as well. So you could run them with four level fifteen damage dealers or four max-level healers if you wanted to... though I wouldn't necessarily recommend either setup. The harder versions still require a traditional trinity group.

- Uprisings are sort of similar to flashpoints but only available at level 70 as they are supposed to take place after the story of Knights of the Eternal Throne (the expansion that increased the level cap from 65 to 70). There are fewer of them and they are somewhat shorter, with fewer trash pulls between bosses and a love for endless waves of weak adds for you to AoE down. Like with flashpoints, the easiest difficulty is supposed to be doable with any group composition.

- Operations are SWTOR's raids and each one can be done with eight or sixteen people (you can choose the group size). Both formats require two tanks, while the ideal number of healers doubles from two to four in 16-man.

There are other reasons why you might want to group up with other players, but let's focus on these three game modes first.

Flashpoints

It's worth noting that while this is a guide to grouping, and flashpoints were primarily designed to be group content, many of the more story-heavy ones have been given a solo mode in the recent past, so if you just want to see what they are about and other people scare you, you do have the option to go in alone. An all-powerful droid will accompany you and will tank, dps and heal for you all at once, so that you can lean back and /dance throughout the entire thing if you want to. Personally I find that pretty boring, but to each their own.

Flashpoints come in three different settings: There is the solo mode mentioned above, also called story mode, then there is veteran (hard) mode, and finally there is master (nightmare) mode. This naming convention is a bit misleading because veteran mode isn't actually that hard, it's actually the "story mode" for groups, but I guess someone at Bioware thought that this was too confusing so it became veteran instead. Don't let the nomenclature scare you off in any case.

Veteran mode flashpoints open up at level 10, at which point you only have access to your faction's first flashpoint for five levels (the Esseles for Republic and the Black Talon for Imperials), then at 15 they disappear from your group finder list (though you can still walk in directly if you want) and all the rest opens up. The fact that all these flashpoints are accessible and rewarding for players from level 15 all the way up to the cap has greatly increased their replayability and the speed at which you can get groups for them, but be warned that many of them are quite story-heavy and if you jump into the full random selection at a low level you are likely to accidentally spoil and/or confuse yourself by watching later story events unfold before you've actually played the main game up to that point.

Aside from being level-neutral, veteran flashpoints are also role-neutral, so the group finder will put the first four people in the queue into a group together regardless of their role. You will get a pop-up to ask you to accept the group that has been formed, and this is a good opportunity to decline if the group setup is something manic like four tanks or three healers. As people move through the queue quite quickly, waiting a couple of minutes before re-queuing is usually enough to get something better. Pops are very quick on large servers (often instant for me) and still quite fast on smaller ones - note that you only get grouped with people from your server, there is no cross-server grouping in SWTOR.

If you are feeling timid about your performance, rejecting a group with too many low-levels might also be a consideration. SWTOR's level syncing works pretty well, but there's still a noticeable difference in terms of difficulty between going in with a full group of level 30s or having one or more level 70s in the party. There is no punishment for rejecting a group at the assembly stage, but if you quit after accepting the group, you will receive a debuff that will prevent you from queuing again for a little while. Also don't forget to select your preferred roles before queuing up! It can be quite terrifying to end up being marked as a tank or healer when you didn't really mean to play either of those roles.

Master mode flashpoints, which are the real "hardmodes" and not really nightmare-ish in difficulty, have longer queues since they require a traditional group setup of tank, healer and two dps. They are still reasonably popular though as they are quite rewarding. They are not completely level-neutral but become accessible from level 50. How can a level 50 do hard content with level 70s, you might ask? The same way all the different levels can play together on veteran mode, via something called "bolster", which increases everyone's level and stats to a minimum max-level baseline. It works pretty well actually, and I've successfully healed many a master mode flashpoint with a tank who wasn't even level capped yet. They are just a little bit more squishy than normal.

Uprisings

Uprisings don't have solo modes (and I don't think they need them either as not much story is happening in any of them), so here the naming convention actually makes sense: story mode is the (supposedly) easy one that can be done with a role-neutral group, veteran mode is the hard(er) one that requires a trinity setup, and nightmare mode is nightmare-ish (here and there, some uprisings are easier than others). Only the first two difficulties can be found in the group finder, but trust me, you wouldn't want to try the hardest one with anything but a group of friends anyway.

Due to being limited to level 70, queues for uprisings are a bit longer than for flashpoints, even for the role-neutral story mode. Also, some of the story modes are actually a real pain without a healer. You have been warned.

Operations

Like hardmode flashpoints, operations are accessible from level 50 onwards in story mode at least, and people get bolstered in them. So don't worry about bringing your level 50 alts in crappy levelling greens along for a ride, they'll be able to pull their weight just fine.

Only story mode operations are available through the group finder, only in 8-man size (they tried to upgrade it to 16-man one time and it literally crashed the servers) and only one at a time (the available operation rotates once a day; you can see it on the group finder interface). But according to general opinion nobody really uses the group finder to actually build operations groups anyway, everyone just uses general chat on the fleet to put a group together manually and then everyone queues up together to get the reward for using the group finder.

This is... mostly true. I don't know what it's like on other servers, but on The Red Eclipse at least I have actually gotten into groups assembled directly through the group finder a couple of times, after sitting in the queue for a moderate amount of time during prime time. The problem from my experience is that such groups are usually not what you'd call successful. I once got a group for Ravagers and it fell apart on the first boss because we hit the enrage with her still at half health. Another time I got a group for Eternity Vault that could barely kill the first boss and then repeatedly wiped on Gharj's enrage before falling apart. Wait, Gharj has an enrage? Yeah. I don't say that to diss anyone, but I guess it makes sense that somewhat clueless players would be more likely to just queue up for things via the interface instead of trying to form a group manually, which means that the quality of these groups is distinctly below average when they do happen.

So yeah, in general you are better off keeping an eye on general chat and responding to a LFG request. For story modes people usually don't care if you're experienced or not, as long as you are able to communicate and follow basic instructions, and thanks to bolster, gear isn't a concern.

The Interface

I've been saying all these things about "the group finder" without even explaining what it is. You access it through the little button next to your mini map that looks like three people. At level 70, the Galactic Command interface (Ctrl+G) also serves as a prettified group finder, but it provides fewer options and less information. So for example if you click on the operations icon, it will queue you for the currently featured operation, but you won't know what it actually is without checking the "proper" group finder window. Or if you want to queue for an uprising through the Galactic Command window, it will always be a random one, you can only choose a specific one through the normal group finder interface. Slightly confusing, I know.

It's also worth noting that unlike group finders in some other games, SWTOR's does not provide you with an estimate of how long you are likely to have to wait, a timer for how long you've been in the queue, or any indication if you've made partial progress towards assembling a group and are only waiting for a tank now (as an example). You just have to press that "join queue" button and have faith. Unless you're queuing for veteran flashpoints or story mode uprisings, I wouldn't recommend just waiting around, best to get out there and do some quests in the meantime or something.

But what about...

Heroics? These used to be group content pre-4.0, but have been nerfed so hard that they are all easily soloable. That said, if you see other people in the area and want to group up, there's nothing stopping you. It's quite common that people just throw around group invites without even saying anything beforehand if they can see that you're obviously on the same quest, and then quietly leave again once they're done. It can be very beneficial in areas where spawns for kill quests are highly contested.

World bosses? There is so little incentive to do these these days, I honestly have no idea who does them and when. I reckon that groups must sometimes form in general chat on the planet they are on. Since the introduction of level sync, you can't overlevel and solo them anymore either.

Datacrons? Other quests? Difficult story chapters? There isn't really a big pool of public LFG-ers for these and if you are desperate for help I would recommend making a friend or finding a guild. You could always try asking in general chat as sometimes people don't mind helping out even a stranger if it doesn't take too long, but it can be very hit and miss whether someone even responds at all.

Did I forget anything important? Let me know in the comments and I might add it in! Got a question about finding groups in SWTOR? Happy to answer those in the comments as well.

17/07/2017

The Trouble With Voss

I took an alt of mine to Voss this weekend and it reminded me of how much that planet bugs me at times.

At first glance, there is much to love: I adore the open, grassy zones in autumn colours; they are simply beautiful. And the Voss themselves are at least intriguing initially if nothing else. My very first impression of the planet back in 2012 was mostly positive, even if I found it a bit awkward to deal with the Force-obsessed Voss as a trooper.


But the more often I've revisited the planet, the more it's bugged me, and I've long struggled to put my finger on why. I now think that one reason at least is how extremely repetitive all the storylines on Voss are. If you look back at the original class stories in general, the writers did a pretty amazing job at constructing plots that forced you to visit the exact same planets (not to mention the different sub-zones on each one) in the exact same order on every character while still making for a vastly different experience on each class. Everyone comes to Tatooine, but while a smuggler visits a crime lord's hideout, a trooper goes on a mission to hunt down a traitor and a Sith warrior has a spiritual experience while trying to find a certain Jedi.

On Voss though, everything feels the flipping same. The planetary arcs for both factions, while spiced up with different details, both have you visiting the Shrine of Healing to impress the Voss and then follow this up with a visit to the Nightmare Lands while emphasising what a scary place they are and how the Voss don't like you going there. Yet when you look at the class stories, they all have you do the exact same thing! We're not just talking about visiting the same sub-zones here, but every single class having to enter the same building to grovel to the Voss mystics. It made me feel thoroughly sick of the place, which wasn't helped by the fact that part of the planetary storyline is a prerequisite to get the local endurance datacron, so it was one of those pieces of content you wanted to redo on every single alt too... at least that's something that legacy-wide datacrons have done away with.

The Voss as a species grate on me too, and I'm continuously surprised by their popularity with roleplayers. I guess it's fun to pretend to be a Voss purely because you can't actually play one, so you get to feel all special and different for having thought of it (even if lots of other people have actually had the same idea). But as a species, they are extremely dull. They love their mystics, hate the Gormak, and... what exactly? Through class and side missions we get a bit of extra insight into the lives of Voss Commandos, but not everyone can be a mystic or a commando. What are "normal" Voss like? There don't seem to be any. I'm somewhat reminded of how in early Star Trek all aliens were basically slightly funny looking humans with some random character trait exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness that then defined their entire species (Klingons with wanting to fight for their honour, Vulcans with the logic etc.). That's the sort of vibe I get from the Voss too and it feels old.

As the cherry on top, I really dislike the way they talk. They aren't supposed to be emotionless, but for some reason they always speak in some sort of weird monotone that makes it sound like nothing interests them. It's rare that they display even a tiny bit of excitement in their voices and on their faces, and that even though there is nothing in the dialogue or lore to explain this strange lack of emotional expressiveness.

Feel free to tell me why you think Voss and its people are totally awesome though.

13/07/2017

More Patchy Goodness

Another Tuesday, another patch. I had somehow gotten it into my head that this one would be the one with the new flashpoint, but actually that one is slated for 5.4 it seems, so my disappointment with its absence was entirely of my own making.

For now, the theme of handing out goodies to different parts of the player base that have felt neglected for a while continues.

First off, there were some class balance changes. I have some guildies that keep asking me for opinions on these things and all I can respond with are blank stares. As someone who plays healers for life I pay remarkably little attention to numbers, so as long as I can do my job in ops and don't get focused too hard in PvP, I'm happy. I'm not even too worried about the Commando survival nerfs that people keep crying about (though nothing has been implemented yet), because I don't actually take most of those "OP utilities" as a healer anyway. As long as they don't take away the wonder that is Echoing Deterrence (the survival cooldown with the built-in reflect), which has increased my survivability in warzones tenfold compared to how things were before its introduction, I'm good.

I jumped into a warzone and ended up in an arena where the person who did the most damage by far was a Juggernaut tank. I didn't think that was a thing Bioware was balancing for?


There is also a new stronghold on Manaan. I bought it because I had the complimentary Cartel Coins to spare but I haven't placed a single decoration in it so far. I was quite curious about Galactic Strongholds when it first launched but never really turned into a true housing aficionado. But honestly, it looks pretty even while empty, and the lighting in the outside area looks good for taking screenshots.


... which is something I did with Lana and Koth, who've now also been given the honour of becoming customisable. I was initially surprised that I couldn't see any change, but basically they come with a "customisation" by default which retains their current look, but you can take it off and they'll suddenly lose a lot of muscle and acquire a slightly sickly complexion to allow you to dress them however you want. I can't get over Koth's forehead without those goggles there! I think I'll just leave them both as they are.



Though I have been doubting myself a bit, based on the amount of chatter I've picked up from people who are over the moon about being able to put them in different clothes. I'm somewhat reminded of how I felt when Galactic Starfighter launched and I didn't really care about it, but since it was all everyone was talking about I felt that I should give it a try because I didn't want to miss out. Is playing space barbie really where it's at? I don't know.

My guild also had a brief look at the new operations encounter on story mode, but I really want to see more of it before giving my opinion on that!

08/07/2017

Archaeologists, the Unloved Gatherers

This is a post that has been sitting in my drafts folder for a little while, and before that I'd been bouncing the idea around in my head for even longer. I think it's about time that someone speaks up for the poor archaeologists.


Of the three gathering crew skills (strictly speaking you could count slicing as a fourth, but I don't think that gathering money really counts), my bioanalysts and scavengers never have issues maintaining a healthy supply of high-end crafting materials. I spend most of my time in PvE doing group content, and in both flashpoints and operations, there are plenty of beast and droid type mobs that can be disassembled for their parts. But what is there for the archaeologists? Nothing! Nowhere!

Now, I'm not saying that we should start fighting living crystals (better not give Bioware ideas) and I don't think there's any existing mob type for which it would make sense to suddenly turn out to consist of artifact fragments. But there are plenty of existing instances where it would make perfect logical sense to place some artifact gathering nodes at least:

Assault on Tython, Korriban Incursion: The seats of the Jedi and the Sith respectively are known for suddenly revealing ancient forgotten artifacts to this day, why not let us find some?

Athiss, Legacy of the Rakata: What better places to discover interesting archaeological finds than on planets that are home to forgotten civilisations? Athiss actually has a couple of artifact nodes but except for the ones that unlock shortcuts, they just give pretty useless buffs and you can't level your skill on them either.

Battle of Ilum: The whole reason people are fighting over Ilum is its crystal supply, where are there none for us to pick up in the caves?

Battle of Rishi, Blood Hunt, Hammer Station, Lost Island, Taral V: These all have at least some outdoorsy areas where it would make sense to find a crystal or two.

Cademimu, Kaon Under Siege: OK, city planets are a bit of a stretch, but considering the sheer amount of junk lying around on the streets of Corellia, why shouldn't we find anything on these too?

Operations also offer up multiple locations where it would be perfectly reasonable to find artifacts and/or crystals: Eternity Vault, Terror From Beyond, Scum & Villainy, Dread Fortress & Palace, and Temple of Sacrifice all qualify in my opinion.

Now, you could argue that if we're going to start placing static gathering nodes for archaeologists in instances, why not have some for scavengers and bioanalysts too, aside from the corpses of mobs? And you know, I wouldn't mind that either. But they already have something, while archaeologists leave every instance empty-handed. Give them some love first, I say.

04/07/2017

Trying Secret World Legends

I mentioned previously that I was trying out another new MMO this month... and this MMO has been Secret World Legends. Yes! For once I, too, am on the bandwagon of bloggers all trying out the new shiny on the block (sort of).


Unlike LOTRO, the original Secret World was an MMO that I never had any desire to play, for one simple reason: the setting. I don't have much interest in horror and mystery at the best of times, but completely immersing myself in a world filled with these things? No, thanks.

I still enjoyed reading about the game sometimes though, mostly because it's a great example of how a loyal and vocal community can greatly influence public perception of a game. From what little numbers we have (such as steam charts), the original Secret World seemed to have a player base of a size roughly in the same ballpark as Wildstar. Yet while the latter is constantly lamented as dying and seemingly no news article can avoid mentioning threats of closure, Secret World was consistently praised as a successful niche game and for supposedly having a payment model that "does it right". I remember I once mentioned in a comment that I didn't think Secret World's payment model was working out well for Funcom and was immediately told off for daring to suggest such a thing. I have to admit I felt quite vindicated when a Funcom dev said pretty much just that in an interview leading up to Secret World Legends' launch: that part of the reason for the reboot was that they needed to find a different way to monetise the game.

But I digress... as I was saying, I was never planning to play it myself, but a couple of months ago my pet tank suddenly got it into his head that he wanted us to try it together, and with the F2P relaunch coming up it was really hard for me to say no. So it happened, and here we are.

For someone who went into the game fully expecting not to like it very much, I found myself strangely attached to my green-haired, bespectacled Templar surprisingly quickly. (Once I had made it through the slightly strange character creation screen, which had everything in hexes... which is probably in line with the magical bee theme from the intro but made it kind of hard to see all the options.)

Reactions to the new tutorial from veterans seem to be mixed, but to me it seemed serviceable. In fact, I could have done with some more information still. Even if you pride yourself in your game being challenging, figuring out how the UI works should not be the main event! I think the main reason I didn't have more trouble than I did was that a lot of keys were mapped similar to how things work in Neverwinter. But as an example of what was lacking: As a "Ravager", I was given a healing skill to start with but there wasn't even a mention of the fact that there is a separate friendly target and that you switch it by using the mouse wheel. That I learned only through reading other people's comments about the game on blogs. (Pretty cool feature though.)

The quality of the cut scenes was also good in my opinion, except for some of the NPCs having awkward, nutcracker-like mouth movements which stood in stark contrast to everything else - but then I also read somewhere that this is a bug and not how they usually look. I immediately disliked my character's silence though, something that I knew to expect from videos and which I'd already found off-putting the first time I saw it. I don't need my quest delivery to be super-fancy, but if you do put work into such detailed cut scenes and voice acting, it has to go both ways. As it is, all the NPCs monologuing on and on while my character just stands there looking like a lump falls into a sort of uncanny valley for me... close enough to believable human interaction to draw attention but then missing the mark, with the final result veering mostly into awkward and unintentionally comical. Maybe it works for people who imagine their character as someone super shy who always clams up in the presence of anything that isn't a zombie.


Don't mind me, I'll just stand here and stare at you blankly... it's my thing.

Since I never played the original version of the game, I can't comment on just how the new streamlining and combat changes compare to the original, but to me they seemed... okay. I never felt lost for things to do, though the sheer rigidity of the level requirements for some quests seems a bit patronising. While questing in a group, I also found the quest tracker a bit annoying as it allows you to pick up several missions at once but will only ever display one, and the game can be very fiddly with individual mission steps - sometimes they update for everyone in the group, sometimes they don't. It's become a running gag how often I had to backtrack because I had missed a "click on this" step somewhere and suddenly couldn't progress.

The combat seems okay so far, though it's a bit hard to judge when things fall over as quickly as they do in the first zone. In fact, while questing with my pet tank we repeatedly ran into the problem that he started attacking a rare mob from range and it would die before I could run into melee, resulting in no loot baggie for me.

My starter class combines fist weapons and blood magic - god knows how I heal people with spiked fists, but considering that I spend my days dishing out healy goodness in SWTOR with a giant assault cannon, who am I to judge? Things may have been simplified compared to what they were like, but I still had to rearrange my bars multiple times already to find a combo of skills that worked for me. In fact, I think I'm still not quite there yet, despite actually willfully ignoring a lot of the built-in complexity for now and trying to keep things simple.


As an example, fist weapons have this mechanic called fury, which you can spend on going into a frenzy, which in turn gives you more powerful skills to use. In theory. In practice, every time I tried this the frenzy state was so short (3-5 seconds it seemed), that I had trouble figuring out what was even going on. Later I deduced that apparently all those exciting, more powerful skills are pretty much the same as my regular ones, only with slightly bigger numbers. I decided to just forget about the whole thing for now as too much of a hassle. If it matters later on, I will revisit it.

Being in a group at all times hasn't really helped in that regard, because as mentioned above things die way too quickly. It has also affected my experience of other parts of the game. Like those much-acclaimed investigation missions that people like to talk about? Well, my pet tank has already done them all on his second, higher-level character, so each one so far has basically consisted of me plodding after him while he mumbled something about "music puzzle here, need to enter the correct notes" while I'd just smile and nod until he was done. (Credit for those things was thankfully shared, so I basically got all those missions done without actually investigating anything myself so far.)

One thing that was a really positive surprise to me was the first dungeon. This already opens up at level 10 and I thought it was super fun. Not very difficult perhaps, but once again I found this hard to judge since my pet tank was constantly instructing me to avoid this or run over there. There did seem to be some mechanics that would most likely have killed a group of completely ignorant new players. Either way I found it extremely fun and atmospheric, and immediately wanted to run it again once we were done. I was surprised in so far as I remember seeing very little talk of TSW's dungeons on blogs and such... I guess that like with SWTOR, everyone is so focused on the unique features of the solo content that the lovingly crafted group content gets treated as a side feature? In my opinion it shouldn't be (in either game). We also wanted to try some PvP but there currently seems to be some sort of bug when you try to queue as a group that will only queue one of you.


Fighting winged Cthulhu as early as level 10? Sure, why not!

Overall, my impression of the game so far has been a lot more positive than I expected. They've clearly made an effort to make it more appealing to people who had no interest in or disliked the previous version, and it shows - even if previously loyal veteran players are understandably annoyed by the result. Whether it will work to give the game a second lease at life... who knows. Even though there's been noticeably less buzz about it on my blogroll than there usually is for a completely new MMO, the "new game smell" is still strong: The official subreddit is full of fun threads such as customer service admitting they are too busy to deal with anything but payment issues or people being totally unable to play the game, or a player complaining that they spent over 400 dollars on lockboxes without getting the items they wanted (whales ahoy). Sustainability is something else though.

The new monetisation model reminds me a lot of Neverwinter's, which is widely criticised but clearly works to support a steady stream of content updates. Specifically the triple currency system is very reminiscent of Neverwinter's (I keep referring to the middle currency as astral diamonds whenever I forget its proper name), and they even had their own version of the Caturday exploit just before launch! Likewise the weapon upgrade system has a lot of similarities to Neverwinter's artifact refinement so far. The question is whether SWL will also copy the overall trajectory of that game's monetisation: which is to be extremely generous at low levels and to casual players, while squeezing those who are highly invested in gear upgrades for all they are worth.

01/07/2017

AFK in PvP

The scene: Alderaan Civil War on a Friday night. While waiting for the match to start, people inspect their fellow team members to get a better idea of what they are in for. Suddenly someone points at a well-geared Togruta Sage and shouts in ops chat: "Not THAT useless guy again! He just goes AFK for the entire match and does nothing!" Then the accuser quits the group.

I wasn't quite sure what to think of this dramatic outburst. People will say a lot of stupid stuff in PvP, as evidenced by ops chat in many a random match I've been in, but to see such an eruption of anger before the game had even started was definitely odd. Still, I wanted to presume the Sage innocent until proven guilty, and just made a note to myself to keep an eye on him.

However, once the match had started and we were brawling around the middle turret, all was forgotten. I was the only healer on my team and the Imps knew it, with the enemy melee on my case at all times. I was forced to practice my kiting, which strangely led to one of my own team members shouting at me to stop running away! I think he was having trouble keeping up with the people chasing me and whom he wanted to kill? I think I spotted Pfannenstiel and his friend Sanne on the enemy team too.

We actually managed to cap a side turret first and were ahead for a little while, but eventually we lost the fight at mid and then never quite recovered enough to reclaim a second turret. "Oh well," I thought, "we gave it a pretty good go". Only as the last couple of hitpoints of the Republic ship were ticking down did I suddenly remember about the Togruta Sage. Looking at the map, I spotted him standing in a corner in the tunnel underneath the middle turret, out of the way of combat and away from any objectives. When the scoreboard came up moments later, it showed a big, fat zero in all columns for him... except for damage done, where a very, very low number seemed to indicate that he had hit a single offensive ability at one point, probably to earn the one medal required to get rewards for the match. The doomsayer at the start had been right.

My mood instantly transformed from being gracious in defeat to pure anger. Considering we had held our own as well as we did with one person down, actually having an eighth who contributed to the match in some way surely would have made a difference. I rarely get angry at people for playing badly, because we all have to start somewhere - but this was something else: someone actively sabotaging their own team for the entire duration of the match. Infuriating. I went to rant about it on Twitter and got a bit of a conversation going.

Now, let's not make a mountain out of a molehill here: This isn't something that happens often in SWTOR. For comparison of what things can be like, I only have to think back to a certain period in World of Warcraft's life cycle when the entrance to Alterac Valley was dubbed the "peace cave" by many, as it was not unusual for half the team on each side to just sit around AFK. But on the rare occasion when it does happen in SWTOR, it's still highly annoying, especially as the game's warzones feature smaller teams, where even a single AFKer can deal a severe blow to their side.

There is actually a feature to kick AFKers from the warzone, but I think many people don't know about it because it's so rarely used and not well documented. The way it works is that you can right click on someone in the ops frames and mark them as being AFK - I'm not sure how many people are required for the system to take action, but I don't think it's very many, though still more than one. If enough people mark the AFKer, there is an announcement, which is visible to the rest of the group as well, that they have to engage in combat or will be removed from the warzone. If the player then gets into a fight, the flag is cleared, otherwise they are kicked after some time (if I remember correctly).

I have actually seen this work in the past, but it's a bit of a hassle. Specifically I remember a Novare Coast where a stealther had decided to just idle somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I called them out in chat and managed to drum up enough support for a kick, at which point they briefly engaged in combat to clear their flag before going back to their previous idling in stealth. My memory of the incident is a bit fuzzy, but I think we then flagged them a second time and they actually ended up being removed... eventually. However, I'm sure you can see how this is a lot of effort to remove a leech, considering that you actually want to be focusing on the game instead. There have been other occasions for me when there simply wasn't enough time or engagement to get the AFKer kicked and they went on to finish the game with full rewards.

Now, I understand why Bioware wouldn't want to make it too easy to kick someone: to avoid people getting bullied or targeted by outright trolls, just because they don't have good gear for example. But it's an interesting contrast to GSF, which tackles the AFK problem in a completely different manner: by automatically flagging people AFK if they don't engage for too long - there is no threat to be removed from the match here, but you simply won't be eligible for any rewards if the match finishes while you have that flag up.

Ironically, I've been flagged as AFK in GSF quite a few times simply due to my own incompetence, as sitting in your gunship and missing every single shot doesn't count as being in combat. However, I always managed to clear the flag in short order. So why can't ground PvP have something similar?

My first thought was that objectives that don't involve combat would be a problem. Nobody should be flagged for guarding a turret! But this is already a thing in GSF too, and sitting on a satellite in a domination match is correctly counted as a perfectly valid form of participation. Likewise, the warzone scoring system knows where the objectives are located on each map and you could automatically be exempt from being flagged while you're near one. AFKers tend to avoid those places anyway, because they want to stand as far out of the way as possible to avoid being killed.

I suppose I could see some situations where such a system could throw up false positives: For example a stealther running ahead in Huttball to be ready for a pass later. But as long as there was sufficient leeway in terms of how long you can be in this state, I think it would be fine. If you spend minutes on end just standing around in stealth and waiting for a pass that doesn't come, you're not really helping your team anyway and would probably be better off trying something else.

So, why do we have such a much more clunky system in ground PvP instead? Maybe people can think of other ways to improve it instead of copying the way GSF handles it?

28/06/2017

Cruising Along

Apologies for the (relatively, by this blog's standards) long period of silence. I generally try to get a new post up every 3-5 days, but as I mentioned previously I went on holiday last week and while I had well-intentioned plans to prepare a post or two in advance, I didn't end up having the time and energy for it in the end.

Since my return I've been thinking about how to best get back into the groove of things, and I decided that I might as well do a general "state of my game" post as I haven't done one of those in a while.

Generally speaking, I don't play as much as I used to right now, mainly for two reasons: first, work stress leaving me with less free time and energy for any hobby pursuits in general (ugh), and second, social pressure to try out different MMOs! The latter has been particularly "bad" this summer - I already wrote about my foray into Lord of the Rings Online, and I'll be trying out another game soon, so there might be another off-topic post coming later in July!

When I do play SWTOR though, I noticed that my play patterns have once again shifted a bit. Specifically, I find myself spending a lot less time playing solo in any capacity, and doing almost nothing but group content. It's as if I subconsciously adjusted to the new road map without even thinking about it!

So I'm spending virtually no time on things like regular questing or solo chapters, and most of it on things like operations, flashpoints and PvP. Even the Iokath dailies didn't end up holding my attention for very long, and I've still only done the story on the two characters that I took through it in the first week. I had hoped that wanting to max out the associated reputation would serve as an incentive to bring more alts into it like it did on Oricon, but since the reputation tokens fell from the sky like rain, doing the weekly a couple of times on one character per faction was more than enough to get there with ease... I even ended up with big stacks of spare tokens to vendor after having hit the cap.

I'm looking forward to the new flashpoint coming out soon, as well as the next encounter in the Gods from the Machine operation. Unfortunately my guildies lost their luster for working on Tyth hardmode pretty quickly, so we haven't visited him in a while. Instead we've been working on Revan hardmode, an older encounter that we've yet to beat. Progress has been so-so, sometimes good, sometimes hampered by changes in the roster and having to scale down to something easier for the evening due to a lack of geared and capable players. However, I'm starting to see why so many people cite Revan hardmode as a fight they like. It contains some pretty inventive mechanics, the distinct phases make progress easy to measure, and the tuning along the way is tight, but not so tight that a single, small mistake is immediately going to wipe you, leaving some room for recovery at several points. I still think we have a very long way to go however.

How are things with Galactic Command? Well, as I remarked when I hit rank 300 on Shintar, since they reintroduced more reliable gear acquisition outside of Galactic Command, its ranks have mostly been shrug-worthy to me. It's just another number to raise - but that's not totally unappealing, it's just not a big priority. I actually got my Sage to 300 as well recently, and have now shifted my efforts to working on my Scoundrel next. Why? Why not!


I just wish I had a better ding shot than me losing to my own guildies in Odessen.

Speaking of gear though, I'm also proud to say that Shintar is actually close to having full 248 gear now... the only thing missing is one relic, but that should be easy to upgrade once I get enough PvP tokens. I'm quite pleased by the prospect of soon being "done" with her gearing for a while. MMO devs often seem to be afraid of letting the player enjoy that feeling, but it's really not a bad thing! It just feels good and opens the door for engaging with other things for a while (such as alts).

I hope everyone is having a good summer and business as usual should resume shortly!

16/06/2017

Nightlife Patch

This week's 5.2.2 patch was what I'd generally consider a relatively minor patch, mostly adding some tweaks and bug fixes, but for what it is it has generated a surprising amount of community buzz.

First off, the Nar Shaddaa Nightlife event is making a return. I actually had to go back into my own blog archives to refresh my memory about this event: It was introduced in 2014, at which point I wrote a single blog post about it. It returned in summer 2015, unchanged, so I did not even find it worth a mention at the time. Last year it didn't make a reappearance but we got the Dark vs. Light event instead. With three years having gone past since I last paid any attention to it, it almost feels fresh again - though they did in fact also make some updates this time around, for example by adding a daily mission to use the slot machines ten times and a little quest to find a cheating patron in the casino.

Re-reading that post from 2014 I was kind of amused by just how similar my experience back then was to what I'm once again experiencing right now. People around me bragging about how many hundreds of thousands millions of credits they've already blown on the slot machines in a single day? Check. Me just feeling totally bewildered by the whole thing? Also check. In fairness, some of the new rewards Bioware has introduced are pretty cool - but not to the point that I'd waste my time on mindlessly clicking slots for god knows how long. Whatever other vices I may have, an urge to gamble is clearly something I'll never have to worry about.

Where Bioware did get me a bit are the freebies. When the event was first introduced, I did the intro quest that awarded free chips on all of my alts to not let any goodies go to waste. This time around, Bioware has decided to entice people into playing by adding casino chips as drops to flashpoint and operation bosses, logic be damned. This saw me finishing Tuesday's op with about thirty smuggler's luck chips in my bag, which I grudgingly clicked my way through just so they would be put to use. If these continue to drop from everything for the next two months, it's going to be a long summer.


Sigh, if I have to...

In other news, the patch added the ability to dress Theron Shan and Shae Vizla in custom outfits. This has pretty much zero relevance to me as I was never hugely into customising my companions (I think in my over five years of blogging about SWTOR, I made a whole two posts about it) and I'm even less bothered now that every "Outlander" has a whole legion of them - if anything I was slightly annoyed that this change caused my inventory to be filled with some unvendorable junk items, as both companions' looks were "reset".

My Twitter feed however has been going absolutely nuts about this. If I'd ever needed proof that there are a lot of people out there that play the game in a very different manner to me, that would have done it. #SWTORFamily member @TheTheronShan even held a little contest to find the best-dressed version of himself after the patch. I don't get you guys, but rock on.

All that said, there was a small change that made a big difference for me too: That crew skill missions now grant companion influence. As happy as I was when they increased stack sizes to 9,999, I never came close to actually hitting that limit for any crafting materials because I'm too lazy to keep running missions once my immediate needs have been satisfied. But now, everything's changed! In between boss attempts or warzones I'm now making a point of sending all of my lowest-influence companions out on random missions, and I enjoy watching them slowly leap-frog each other up the ranks. For many of the KotET companions, this was actually the first time I've even heard their various crafting voice lines. Why would I have sent rank 1 Shae Vizla out on any mission when I could have rank 50 M1-4X do it instead? Well, now I have a reason.

12/06/2017

More Pugging with Shintar

It's been over a month since I wrote about my idea to start a video series to detail my new Commando's levelling progress through random flashpoints, and I wanted to give a bit of an update on the series for everyone who doesn't keep a close eye on my YouTube channel.

I was pleasantly surprised that my pet tank didn't mind giving me the quiet time required to do the recording on a regular basis, so that I've been able to release a new episode every week so far - there just won't be one next week as I'll be on holiday.

I finally learned that the best place to sync video and voice recording is the moment when I say hello in chat at the start of each run, as the sound of me hitting the enter key and the line of text appearing in chat make for about as reliable a match-up point as I'm going to get.


Pugette is up to level 32 and the series is up to episode 6! Here are links to and summaries of all the videos I recorded last month:

Episode 2: Buggy Adds in Hammer Station - I was a bit worried about what sort of experience I would have being thrown into the big pool of "proper" tactical flashpoints at level 17, but as it happened I got Hammer Station, which is both level appropriate and quite a softball. (Incidentally, that's the exact same thing that happened to my Mercenary back in 2015.) Unsurprisingly, it ended up being a pretty smooth run. Also, I actually ran into the person who tanked that run on Twitter the next day. Small world.

Episode 3: Weekday Wipes in Maelstrom Prison - This was my first run with a group that had not just one but multiple wipes, but I didn't feel too bad about it as both Colonel Daksh and Grand Moff Kilran are pretty tough. Either way we picked ourselves back up again every time and eventually powered through. Also, I learned that they finally added kolto stations for the bonus boss in Maelstrom Prison. Holy crap!

Episode 4: Ranting about Trash Skipping in Battle of Ilum - When I levelled my Merc through random flashpoints, one of my posts about it was called "Battle of Ilum Makes Me Mad" because I hate people's obsession with skipping both trash and bosses in that one, and unsurprisingly that was the case in Pugette's first run of the place as well. I actually fell a bit behind at the start and struggled to catch up with the rest of my group weaving through as many packs as possible, which immediately reminded me of why I hate that practice so much. We even ended up skipping bosses I had never skipped before. And the final encounter was interesting, though for a different reason.

Episode 5: Hammer Station Again - RNG reared its ugly head by already giving me a re-run in episode five even though I'd only seen three of the 19 flashpoints available through the group finder so far. At least I can note that being ten levels higher already made a huge difference to how challenging I found it to heal this instance. Also, at this point it has become a bit of a running gag that the group finder always tries to put me into groups with stupid group compositions at first (such as two tanks and two healers), which I repeatedly decline.

Episode 6: Slightly Rude in Depths of Manaan - I noted at the start of this one that it could end up being a toughie, but I happened to get a competent group that tackled every fight with aplomb. However, I also ended up with my first truly impatient group mate - in previous runs I had been asked to "skip please" too, but here someone immediately exploded into "FFS" while I was watching the first cut scene, with me unthinkingly adding profanity to the video by reading her comment out loud. Oops.

08/06/2017

Not Too Keen on Server Merges

Lately I've seen a lot of discussions on the topic of server merges. A couple of days ago, Bioware even opened an official thread on the forums to let people duke it out on the subject.

I have to admit I always get a bit of a nervous eye twitch when this topic is brought up. Those of you who haven't been reading my blog since the beginning won't remember, but the great server merges "transfers" of June 2012 were not a happy time for me. There was a happy ending in the sense that I eventually settled on The Red Eclipse without too much fuss, but not without first suffering a lot of emotional stress that I could have done without. I'm definitely not keen on repeating that experience.

Also, for as much of a pain as the process was back then, I could at least see the need for merges at the time and was mostly ticked off by the way Bioware was handling them. Right now I don't feel that the case for more server merges is particularly strong.

From my point of view there is only a single argument that can be made to justify that server merges would serve "the greater good", and that's that extremely low population servers give new and returning players the impression that the game is dead, leading to bad PR and spread of false information. That was certainly a serious issue back in 2012 when there were something like a hundred depopulating servers vs. maybe twenty active ones.

These days though? I dunno. As an English-speaking EU player, you are given the choice between three different servers: Red Eclipse is super active, the Progenitor is medium pop, and Tomb of Freedon Nadd is pretty dead, so you have a one in three chance of ending up in a bad place. If you just want to play through the story though, as many people clearly do, does it really matter to you how many others are idling on the fleet in the meantime? And if you are actively looking for other players, how long is it going to take you to catch on and ask someone whether you happened to pick an unnaturally quiet server? Trying to decide how much of an issue that one in three chance really is requires a lot of speculation about people's motivations and the way they play. How about we focus on the people actually playing now instead?

Most of the reasons I've seen active players cite for being for or against server merges are inherently a bit selfish. I'm not saying that's wrong, but I wish more people would be honest about it instead of doing the "greater good" chant while pretending that whatever they want must naturally be what everyone wants. In the pro camp we have:

- I want to have faster queue pops!
- I generally want to have more people around to improve my experiences doing group content, trading etc.

In the con camp we have:

- I like being on a smaller server! (...because I'm a roleplayer and I like it quiet / because it allows my smaller guild to win at conquest sometimes / because I'm not constantly fighting people for resources and quest mobs / because I love the more tight-knit community etc.)
- I don't want to have to rename any of my characters!
- I don't want to lose my guild ship/stronghold/outfits/other thing that has been introduced to the game since those early server merges and that the current server transfer tech isn't able to deal with in a good way.

It seems to me that pretty much all of these can be countered in some way except the "I like being on a smaller server" one, because once you've put everyone into the same big pool, there's just no way you can go back to having that dedicated quiet time or to being competitive in areas where you were only successful before because of the lack of competition.

If you want faster queue pops and more people around, you can already transfer to a busy server. I appreciate that it's not an ideal solution because it costs money per character, and that's a major bummer for anyone who'd like to move lots of characters at once, but it can be done. Did they ever raise the price of server transfers back up from 90CC anyway? I know that people were advocating server-transferring twice as a cheap way of getting a name change for a while... For the faster queue pops, one could also argue for the development of cross-server queueing instead of merges to get all the benefits without the downsides.

The naming issue could probably be solved if Bioware redid the whole character naming system, but I don't think anything less would do. On TRE for example it's hard enough to come up with new names for alts as it is, even with spaces, apostrophes and what not. There must literally be millions of characters registered on that server by now. Forcing a merge under the current system and potentially presenting tens of thousands of players with the need to rename their characters would be a disaster. Bioware would have to come up with some sort of system to allow names to be non-unique first.

The issues with strongholds, outfits etc. again could probably be solved with sufficient development time - to some extent that is, though some things would remain tricky. What if you have the same stronghold unlocked on two servers that are about to get merged for example? Could they implement something that allows you to keep two versions of your Coruscant home? It's probably not impossible, but unlikely to be something they'd spend development time on.

What stands out to me here is that the issues cited by the pro-merge crowd can already be resolved on an individual level, while the con arguments cannot and rely on the belief that "Bioware will fix it somehow", which is why I'm definitely more in the con camp right now. For me personally, the pro arguments also hold little water just because they wouldn't do much for me - I already have my home on the biggest EU server, so speeding up my pops by five seconds would be pretty damn irrelevant to me. Meanwhile the con arguments of potentially losing names are a very real threat to me. In addition, I've intentionally made new characters on other servers before to roll up new legacies and to re-experience playing as a character without all those legacy perks. It wouldn't be a huge deal to lose those, but it would still be a loss with nothing to make up for it.

To get back to the argument of dead servers being bad for the game's reputation though, that could actually be solved with relatively little fuss, because my impression is that there aren't actually that many of them. Again, to go back to my own experience of the English EU servers, only one of them is anywhere close to dead. If they merged TOFN into the Progenitor for example, that would already have the desired effect of eliminating all the "dead wood" and bringing all English-speaking EU servers back to a healthy population without affecting quite so many people negatively. I hope that if Bioware does decide to give in to the currently very vocal crowds that demand server merges, they'll do it in a sensible way and without listening to those advocating that we should have a single server for every region - as that would just maximise the bad (technical issues, many lost names) without actually adding much value (queue pops can't get any faster than instant).

04/06/2017

SWTOR and EA's Play To Give

This weekend SWTOR players had the chance to take part in EA's Play To Give event. Here's its official page, but if you can't be bothered to click, it's basically EA pledging to donate money to three different charities supporting inclusivity: one dedicated to promoting gender equality and two anti-bullying charities. Because being inclusive means interacting with other people, you could also earn in-game rewards in several of EA's multiplayer games over the weekend, SWTOR being one of them.

Looking at the coverage of this event once again served to highlight that Dulfy really might as well get rid of her comment section, considering what a wretched hive of scum and villainy it has become - the comments in response to her post about the event were filled with people complaining about the "evil SJW-ness" of it all, with some of them even pledging to not play this weekend because they didn't want to support such horrible causes. Yeah, really.

Anyway, I'm generally in favour of businesses giving to charity, though I suspect that it's going to take a lot more than that for a company that was voted "worst in America" twice to improve its image. (Not that I personally think that particular award was justified. This post sums it up well I think.)

However, I also found it interesting to see SWTOR featured in this line-up just because EA generally hasn't really been very proud of the game or happy to mention it anywhere at all for quite some time, so them actually bothering to give it this sort of cross-promotion was good to see. With the event being focused on playing with other people, seeing SWTOR make a point of promoting just that was also yet another sign of Bioware's dramatic shift in focus back to the game's MMO parts. I wonder if Keith had a hand in getting SWTOR on this event's featured games list too?

All that said, I have to admit that I found the event's actual implementation somewhat lacklustre. Announcing it literally only one day in advance was too short of a notice to allow the community to generate much buzz. Also, the connection between the charitable cause and the games was just too tenuous. Yes, "having a good time with lots of different people" was a theme but that was literally it. They could have made it a lot more interactive by for example having "stretch goals" of sorts, pledging to increase their donation if people hit the presented gaming goals instead of just tying them to in-game rewards.

Finally, there was literally no sign of it in game or on the website other than the news article, meaning that many people still probably didn't even know about it, but even those who did had no way of tracking what was going on. I initially went into the weekend with a bit of a plan to devote extra time to SWTOR, but in the end my enthusiasm quickly fizzled out simply because I didn't know if what I was doing was "working". It would have been great to have some sort of live tracker to show how close people were to hitting the goal of one million group content runs completed, to encourage everyone to give it that extra push if needed. With no feedback whatsoever, there simply wasn't much incentive to try harder.

We'll find out on Tuesday/Wednesday whether we succeeded - but to be honest, since we never saw any numbers, Bioware could just say "good job", pat us on the head and give us the rewards anyway. It's not like we'd know.

31/05/2017

Road Map Reveal

I had already drafted up a different post for today, since it looked like Keith was going to miss his self-imposed deadline to release the road map by the end of May, but as soon as my guild's ops run tonight ended, someone piped up with "road map's up" and well, there it was.

I think the only sort of negative thing you could say about it is that it doesn't contain anything mind-blowingly exciting and new, but most people's reactions - from what I've seen so far anyway - have nonetheless been very positive. Everyone seems to latch on to one or two relatively tiny things and goes: "Yes, I've wanted that forever!" (For me the item that stuck out to me in that regard was "the ability to search for stronghold decorations using new filters"- I have so many decos that I don't even use because they've disappeared in UI limbo long ago and I've forgotten that they are even there.)

And that really gives you an idea of what kind of road map this is (aside from the longest one I can actually remember getting for SWTOR before). Keith has gone on to reinforce the initial impression he made when he entered the scene: that after nearly two years of development doubling down on story at the expense of other parts of the game and attempting to bring in new and returning players at the potential cost of alienating existing veterans, it's time to change direction again, to remember SWTOR's MMO parts and give some TLC to the long-time players who've been waiting for their favourite part of the game to get some love again.

From new ops bosses to a new old-school flashpoint to a new warzone to some actual, honest-to-god updates for GSF, everyone is supposed to get something in the next couple of months. And I have to admit that I'm happy about that. While you can't please everyone all of the time, I do think that MMOs in general are at their best when they cater to a diverse playerbase with a number of different interests. If I just wanted to spend my gaming time doing one thing and one thing only, there's probably some other genre of game that does it better. Variety is the spice of MMO life.

What items from the new road map did get you excited?

28/05/2017

Visiting Middle-earth

It's been a while since I've written an "off-topic" post on here to talk about my impressions of a different MMO. In the past there's been Star Trek Online, Neverwinter (twice, until it graduated to its own blog), and the Elder Scrolls Online beta. I guess it was about time I expanded my horizons once more, this time in the form of writing about trying out Lord of the Rings Online.

It's a game that several of my blogger friends play and/or think highly of, so I've certainly thought about trying it before, but in the end I've never felt motivated enough to dedicate any of my limited free time to actually doing so. What changed recently was that my pet tank and I were talking about what other games we could possibly play together - which is actually always a tricky subject as we have somewhat different tastes - and it somehow turned out that we both had an interest in LOTRO. Unsurprisingly, we were both off to install it shortly afterwards.

For me, that was already the first challenge, as the download kept failing at certain points. Fortunately I quickly found a forum thread detailing a workaround - the issue was caused by my particular combination of operating system and antivirus software apparently.

On start-up, the game didn't give the best first impression to be honest. It showed its age by launching in a tiny resolution with terrible graphic settings which I wasn't allowed to change until after character creation, and similarly the theme tune (which is lovely, don't get me wrong) was blasting into my ears at a ridiculous volume by default.

I let my pet tank pick what race we were going to be, so we ended up as elves. Much has been said about the supposed ugliness of LOTRO's character models, but I honestly didn't find them that bad. They could just do with better facial expressions. My own elf for example looks perpetually bored out of her skull for some reason. I guess this is lore-appropriate ("So tired of Middle-earth... must leave it...") but not very appealing.


Speaking of lore, I should probably say up front that I'm not a Tolkien superfan. I did have a love affair with Lord of the Rings back in high school, when I chose it as the subject of my final English paper, and I also liked the films well enough when they came out (in fact, I had a giant poster for each one in my bedroom at the time). But I gave up on the Silmarillion about a third of the way in because I felt that it read like a particularly boring history textbook, and when I tried to watch the first Hobbit film in the cinema I actually literally fell asleep at one point. So I apologise in advance for maybe not understanding things or getting any lore wrong.

Anyway, the game starts you off in a short solo instance that teaches you the most basic of MMO rules, such as how to talk to NPCs and fight enemies, but that was done quickly enough and I was able to join up with my pet tank. True to our favourite archetypes, he chose to roll a guardian tank and I opted for a minstrel healer, also in part because I've never actually gotten to play a bard-type class in an MMO before. It's absolutely hilarious.

"Look at me, I'm playing music at things and they fall over dead!"
"Wow, you're that bad at it?"
"Apparently so!"

Another very deadly attack simply has me shouting at monsters. The amusement value of that is just endless.

The starter zone gave off strong vibes of an old game that doesn't see much fresh blood anymore, as we were on our own for most of it, only running into one other player at the very end. We did see a couple more people once we moved on to the next area though, so maybe it's just another instancing thing.

One mechanic I found very interesting from the start is how loot works. Basically, you don't need to click on the bodies, things just go into a sort of "temporary bag" automatically, from which you can then claim them whenever it's convenient for you (as long as it's within the hour). This is simultaneously very convenient and made me feel kind of robbed, as in every other MMO I've played I usually have a reputation for "chasing after the shinies" and annoying other people by triggering loot-roll prompts in the middle of combat. In LOTRO, that's just not a thing, and it's easy to forget that you're picking up any loot at all. At one point I picked up something like ten (temporary) copies of what was supposed to be a unique quest-starting item because I didn't notice that it was there and the game just kept throwing more at me in an attempt to make me use it already.

This initially lulled me into a false sense of security in terms of bag space, making me think that it would not be a problem, but this turned out to be very wrong very quickly. LOTRO basically does the same thing Neverwinter does to sell bags, which is to fill your bags with loads of stuff that isn't quite crap, but leaves the new player uncertain of what to do. You know that none of it is very valuable, but you're not really sure if it's safe to throw it all away or if you'll just end up regretting that later. I sold a whole load of stuff that I was sure was nothing but vendor trash, just to find out later that there were repeatable quests where those same items could have been handed in for reputation. Conversely, I held on to various crafting materials for a really long time (at least those go into their own separate tab in Neverwinter!), hoping to be able to sell them to other players instead of vendoring them, but then had to learn that free players are not allowed to list things on the auction house.

What I've seen of the F2P model in general so far had me raising my eyebrows a bit. I've never seen an MMO that is quite so pushy in terms of wanting to make you visit its store before. And to think that people accuse SWTOR of nickle and diming! I suppose you could argue that this allows for an "à la carte" experience, with people only paying for the things they'll actually use, but to me it's still a bit annoying to be prompted to go to the store at absolutely every corner. I thought it was telling for example that the riding skill appeared to be something you can only purchase with LOTRO points, not with in-game currency - now, it doesn't actually cost much and the low amount of points required for this is easily earned by doing some deeds in your starter zone, so you don't actually have to pay for it with real money. But it forces you to get comfortable with using the store and pulls you out of the experience repeatedly. As an aside, anyone know why the store insists on opening in an outside web browser? I swear I've seen footage of people browsing it in-game before...

Anyway, back to the game itself. The questing is very old-school, with your character being sent from one mini-hub to the next, where there are usually a bunch of similarly-themed quests to kill X number of mobs, but I can't say that we've minded that so far. My pet tank and I have mostly been pleased that we haven't encountered any issues with doing quests as a group up until now, whether they involve picking up items, talking to an NPC or doing a short little instance. You'd think that ensuring a smooth experience for people playing together would be a given in any MMO these days, but unfortunately I've had to learn not to take that for granted, so LOTRO definitely gets points for that. Every now and then there is also a little cut scene, which I'm sure must have seemed amazing back in 2007.

One overall impression that's very strong however is that the game is very confusing. Considering I seem to remember LOTRO being cited as a pioneer of quest tracking, it doesn't do a very good job at showing you where you need to go, and the maps are only available in a very zoomed out view that makes them hard to read. The game also absolutely bombards you with information about systems and mechanics early on. By level ten we'd already been told about traits (talents), reputation, crafting, deeds, cosmetic gear, dyes and how to use the store, and my minstrel already had more than one action bar full of abilities. There was probably even more stuff that I'm forgetting right now, and it's telling that even as an MMO vet of more than ten years I've been struggling to keep up. It's certainly helped a lot that I've picked up vague references to certain systems from reading other people's blogs about the game. I can only imagine how overwhelming the experience must be for genuinely new players; the game could really do with spacing some of those things out a bit. Also, timing matters! I had to laugh at the sheer absurdity of the game popping up a big window full of text for me to read when we accidentally triggered a fellowship combo for the first time, something to which I was supposed to react within seconds without ever having seen one before. Who has time to read a tutorial at that point?


Overall, my impression of the first couple of levels has been a somewhat mixed bag. There is a lot to love about LOTRO. The zones look every bit as gorgeous as everyone always says, even in 2017. I could see the gameplay maybe being a bit boring when you're on your own, but in a group it has been very fun. The world is an explorer's dream, and the lore runs deep. But the game's age and sheer amount of systems can give you quite a hard time as a new player. F2P restrictions also keep popping up in odd places. (Hey, check out the wardrobe! No, you're not allowed to use it!) If we do decide to keep adventuring in Middle-earth, I'll probably pony up for a month's subscription - it's only fair. If that happens, I'll likely also make another post about later impressions at some point.

LOTRO-playing friends, feel free to share any tips and advice you'd give to a new player! Also, what's the situation with group content while levelling up? Are traditional levelling dungeons still a thing? I've kind of been struggling to find information on that but keep thinking that it would probably be fun for my pet tank and me to be able to test our tanking and healing skills in a real group environment soon.

25/05/2017

Saving The Grophets

What started as an innocent observation about how I didn't like to disintegrate mini-pets took a turn for the strange when Rav felt the need to write a response to express her own hatred of grophets, while simultaneously encouraging people to humanely donate their own grophets to my care. Since then she's sent me a steady stream of them in the post, sometimes even joined by Conrad (meaning he sent some too, not that she put him in the post), and of course my own Command crates have also continued to provide.


I haven't yet run out of alts to press-gang into grophet-keeping, but I worry that the day must be imminent. What then? I don't want to waver in my commitment, but it's uncertain where I can go once I run out of potential grophet-keepers. Open a home for them inside one of my cargo bays? Seems a bit dour. Load up an alt's inventory with grophets and then have them emigrate to another server to found the Grophetkeeper Legacy? I feel like I'm definitely approaching crazy cat grophet lady territory here.

At least tweets like this one reassure me that I'm not alone in my struggle:

22/05/2017

The Curse of Queues

The other day I was playing my Cathar agent on the Progenitor - yes, the one I created two years ago and who still hasn't finished her class story... but I will get there eventually. While doing the rounds on Belsavis, I decided to queue for a midbie PvP match. As time continued to pass without a pop, I started to get restless. I'm spoiled by how quickly everything pops on the Red Eclipse and I'd heard the rumours about other servers supposedly being quite dead, but had it really come to this already? I double-checked my achievement panel: Yes, I had done PvP on the Progenitor before, but quite some time ago. Had the server really lost so much of its population since then?


A warzone did eventually pop, though only after what felt like a pretty long time to me... it must have been between half an hour and an hour. And it really got me thinking about how strongly that queue time had affected me, even though I hadn't even wanted to PvP that badly. The whole point of a queueing system is to make finding groups super accessible so that it happens fast and frequently. If there aren't enough people around who can be bothered to do as much as press a button, surely that's a sign of "dead game"? Or at least of a dead server?

But then I also asked myself: Is that really fair? Or have automatic queueing systems for group content made us expect too much? The first time that thought occurred to me was actually after reading a blog post about Wildstar (not sure where anymore), though my train of thought didn't so much focus on the players at the time as on the devs. The game was supposed to launch with 40v40-sized "warplots", alongside a plethora of other queueable PvE and PvP content. I remember wondering just how big of a playerbase the devs were expecting, to think that at any time there would be enough people online for each type of content to keep all those queues popping, if warplots alone already required 80 players per match.

It seems to me that a game with automatic queueing systems requires a considerably larger player base to be perceived as healthy than a game where such systems don't exist. When I played on the private WoW server Kronos, which rarely had more than a couple of hundred players online at any given time, I was kind of surprised by how little it took to make the game feel alive. There were always people around me, and I got into groups by simply talking to those same people I met out in the world. In comparison, fully automated queueing systems are largely detached from the rest of the virtual world and give little feedback. SWTOR's in particular provides you with no information about how long you've been in the queue, how long the average queue time for that content is, or how close you are to having assembled a full group. There are just two modes: Either you press the button and stuff happens... or it doesn't. if it doesn't... dead game!

Eventually I decided to do some simple maths to find out just how many players are required to keep all the different queues rolling at a healthy pace. Obviously this requires me to make a lot of assumptions and guesses, but I think the logic behind them is mostly sound. Here's how it goes:

In total, there are 11 different queues for group content in SWTOR, and each requires a certain amount of people per match/run:

- Galactic Starfighter (16)
- Lowbie PvP (16)
- Midbie PvP (16)
- Max-level unranked PvP (16)
- Ranked solo PvP (8)
- Ranked group PvP (8)
- Veteran flashpoints (4)
- Master mode flashpoints (4)
- Story mode uprisings (4)
- Veteran uprisings (4)
- Story mode operations (8)

For simplicity's sake, we'll be ignoring the fact that those people need to be balanced across certain levels, roles and factions for the content to function and are just assuming that the player base is perfectly spread out. So we need a minimum of 104 players to make all this stuff happen... at some point.

But we don't just want the queue to pop once a day. We want it to pop, say, every fifteen minutes. Sooner would obviously be better, but I think most players would consider fifteen minutes a reasonable wait, and it's easy to work with since most of the content can be split into fifteen-minute chunks.

GSF and PvP matches do take a little less than fifteen minutes on average, so even if we only have the minimum amount of people queueing, as long as they keep queueing, a match will indeed pop every fifteen minutes. So far, so good. Same for uprisings.

Flashpoints take a little longer, about half an hour if it's a smooth run going at an average pace. So if you only have one group running, the queue would only pop every thirty minutes. To achieve the desired fifteen-minute pop, we need to have eight people interested in running each type of flashpoint at any given time.

For story mode operations, this is magnified even more, as they take about an hour each, so you would need four groups running at the same time, resulting in a total of 32 players doing this content at the same time.

That brings us up to 136 players required - they can probably keep things running for an hour, but they can't be online 24/7. To keep those queues popping around the clock, we'd probably need something closer to 3,264 players (136x24).

However, no MMO has a player base that hardcore, where everyone does group content all the time. Devs have gone on record not long ago to say that almost every activity in an MMO is only interesting to a minority, and when Syp from Bio Break ran a poll on the subject to see what his readers were interested in (you could tick as many as you wanted), even the most popular option barely got more than 10% of votes. So again, let's be generous and assume that about 10% of players are actually interested in running this stuff at any given time. Suddenly you need more than 32,000 players per server, and that's with all those generous assumptions like people being spread perfectly across the levels, never having a shortage of tanks etc. In practice the required numbers to keep things running smoothly are probably a lot higher still - for example if only 5% of players are actually interested in group content, the server would need more than 64,000 players on it for those queues to keep popping, and if you want them to go faster than every fifteen minutes, you'd need to add yet another multiplier.

What is my point here? Probably that while automated queues are in high demand from players these days, they are also dangerous in terms of PR because they require a pretty big population to run smoothly, with the requirements only becoming larger and larger the more different types of content you add. In an environment where people are actually willing to go out and build groups themselves, you don't have the same kind of pressure because it is accepted that other people won't be available to group with instantly and at all times of day. You'll still get people complaining about that of course, but at least they can't claim that your game is dead just because they couldn't get a group. (Didn't try hard enough, I guess!)

I don't expect automated queues to go anywhere, but maybe it's time to reconsider our expectations of what kind of experience they are supposed to deliver. WoW's dungeon finder was introduced at a time when that game could draw from a pool of about three million players per region to fill groups, and that has clearly set expectations. But we can't expect smaller MMOs to always deliver the same kinds of features and experiences when their smaller populations can't necessarily support them.