Battlechicken’s Hymn of the Old Republic

In online games, devs and exploiters play a constant cat and mouse game in which as the stakes are raised, players are subjected to more and more intrusive online monitoring systems. Just to make sure we aren’t cheating and to try to keep our games free from bots, hacks, cheats, and so forth.

You will see similar issues with firewalls and virus protection programs. There is a tradeoff between safety and being able to actually use your hardware/ software unimpaired. And the other tradeoff is around false positives. That is, people who actually weren’t doing anything wrong being pegged by the system as a potential cheater. In the social care field, we talk about the tension between the roles of care vs control. That is to say: you want to support your users to have fun, live their lives, and do the things they want to do. But at the same time, it’s your job to make sure they don’t harm each other or abuse the system. That tends to make workers veer towards the paranoid side, which is a very bad thing if it ends up harming innocent users.

If anyone is following Battlechicken, you’ll be aware of her running battle with the Bioware customer service team, after having been banned from SWTOR on account of a false positive. It’s not pleasant reading, full of form emails which won’t even explain which dodgy program she was allegedly running and lack of communication from the CS team. So it’s nice to read that Bioware (finally) did the decent thing, contacted her, apologised, and reinstated her account. And they are now reconsidering how they will respond to this type of customer service issue – hopefully they’ll be able to learn from the experience.

I wonder how many players would have just quietly dropped the game, upset, on receiving the first email and not tried to fight back and argue their case. I wonder how many would have kept trying after the second and third form email.

Anyhow, props to both Battlechicken and the CS team (who are after all just trying to keep the game safe for players) and hopefully some good lessons can be learned from this.

[SWTOR] Server transfers– A New Hope?

EUservers

It has been a busy couple of weeks for Star Wars: The Old Republic, what with the server transfers and announcements at E3 about new content heading our way before the years’ end. Plagued by aggressive love/hate reactions from the more vocal aspects of the playerbase since well before launch, it perhaps is not surprising that the recently announced server transfers have set the cat among the pigeons. One thing that Bioware have learned from Mythic’s experience with WAR is that once you have decided to go for mergers/ transfers, don’t do it half heartedly.

The first time my WAR characters got pegged for a server merge, I went with it. The second time was harder, and by the time we had a third server merge I was gone already. The SWTOR agenda has been to designate a fairly small number of destination servers and offload lots of origin servers to each one. I do understand that being asked to switch servers, possibly with associated namechange if your character’s name is taken, is a disruptive experience. But it’s so much better than waiting for  long slow server death (which has been a current factor for many WoW servers for awhile, although Blizzard hide it with cross server LFG and BGs) that I’m thrilled that Bioware are taking it seriously. It has been an unqualified lift for my gaming, and I’ll come back to that later.

The screenshot here shows the EU servers as of 5pm today, so not yet peak evening time. It’s clear which the destination servers are here: they are the ones at the top which do not have light loads.

So how is transfer treating people?

I feel for players like Shintar who are wrestling with the decision about whether or not to go, and Kae for whom the disruption of a namechange killed his connection with the game.

My experience has been different.

SWTOR is coming up now on the 6 month mark and sad as I am to see them leave, I’m not really surprised that many of my guildies are drifting away and have been clear that they don’t plan to renew. You could assign this to SWTOR endgame or simply to the fact that most players don’t stick with a new MMO for more than 6 months. It’s very difficult to get estimates on average subscription length for MMOs – my guess is that there’s a huge swathe of players who don’t stay past the first month, then another who drop out at 3 months, probably increasing until the game hits a plateau of sorts. I imagine that older games tend to have a higher average sub length because the proportion of dedicated/core players is higher. (EVE probably has a relatively high average since they have so many players with multiple accounts as well as a generally longterm approach.)

So while I’m still enjoying the game, it has been with a patina of sadness for the last month or so, because I knew my guild was fading and I didn’t really have any plans for what to do next. I played my alts, I read the news, I hung out on my own. And so forth.

Now transfers have changed things quite a lot. I had characters on two different servers (one RP server and one PvE) and one of them was designated an origin server and the other a destination. I decided to transfer my RP characters to The Progenitor (the destination EU ENG RP server) and hung out on the fleet with my consular, with whom I’d finished Act 1. Fleet chat was buzzing, full of excited players who had either just transferred or were enjoying the new crowds. Within an evening I had found a friendly guild and joined a random instance group to run Taral-V and Maelstrom Prison. My new guild seem like a nice bunch, I was interested because they said ‘mature players’ which is usually a code for ‘we know you have a RL and aren’t too hardcore’ and they regularly have 15-20 people on in the evenings and run normal and hard mode Ops. I’m looking forwards to getting to know them better, and will see if more of my old guildies or friends are interested in a RP reroll as I’m sure they’d be welcome also.

alixa1

The fun thing about Consulars (aside from mine being the whitest white person ever created in a character creator ) is that however weird some of their gear can look, they still have much much better hats than Sith Inquisitors. Sadly I don’t have any great pictures yet of SI hats to link – that can be a project for next week. Also, although the storyline is widely held to be one of the weaker ones and certainly starts slow, I’m actually really enjoying it as of Act 2/ beginning of Act 3. It emphasises a) the diplomacy side of the jedi role and b) omg the Republic was actually falling apart as of the beginning of Act 3. How exactly did the empire manage to lose Corellia? (I am now motivated to finish the storyline and find out.)

The consular also develops a rather dry sense of humour, and I rather like her companions.

As for my old server, I’m sad to leave my characters and legacies behind. But it’s now a busy destination server too, with lots of new options should I decide to find another guild there. I suspect RP servers always tend to be my spiritual home, but am not ruling out checking out the scene in Nightmare Lands when I have time. After all, you never know.

So I feel reinvigorated in the game, and am planning to sub for another 6 months. I always meant to try to follow Tipa’s suggestion of spending a whole year in one new game to show some stickability and see how the game and community develop. This is the game I’m going to keep playing, and I’ll try to write at least one post per week to give some honest views on how things are going. I suspect strongly that I will also at some point roll another Sith Warrior because I just enjoyed the setting and storyline so much.

If anyone else is wondering about the transfers, I’d suggest just going for it. The upsides are so much better than the downsides.

[SWTOR] The numbers game

So EA held an earnings call earlier this week and revealed that subscriptions for SWTOR were down by 400k from earlier this year. This still leaves 1.3m active subs, depending on how far you trust their accounting/ reporting, so it’s far too early to conclude from this that the game is dead as a lot of commenters seem very keen to do. Their immediate plan is to get a group finder tool into the next patch (1.3) which they talk about in the official podcast, as well as their plans for conventions this year, the rakghoul plague, what else is coming for Legacies and so forth. (Best thing about the official podcast, as well as the guys sounding genuinely keen, is that it isn’t too long.)

I imagine a solid group finder will provide a lot of content for players who have been struggling to find groups for flashpoints, and they hinted in the podcast that you might be able to make groups for planetside heroics and random op groups also. Certainly as emphasis shifts to alts, the group finder will be invaluable.

They will also need to implement some kind of server transfer. A cross server group finder will mean that they can push this out a little further, but there are low pop servers which need to be sorted out so that players have a community to interact with.

In context, SWTOR is following the sort of subscription number curve that the vast majority of themepark MMOs see, and may even have better retention than most at the moment. But if EA and Bioware were expecting this to be the game that broke the mould, it clearly hasn’t done that either. I do seem to recall at some point they said they needed 500k subscribers to turn a profit, and they’re still well above that level.

More worrying for the longer term is that they don’t seem to be expressing any solid plan for what to do about endgame, which leaves us with these beautifully crafted levelling storylines (as a Bioware fan and lover of storytelling, I’m very thrilled with them so far), perfectly adequate ops and flashpoints, warfronts, and solid MMO-style gameplay. And that won’t be enough to keep people once they are done with alting. This was ALWAYS going to be an issue with a heavily story based game. Always. I’m happy they made it anyway because I like the game a lot and hope it makes some decent returns for them at some point, but you do sometimes wonder what they were thinking.

They are also now stuck with a playerbase that is expecting these voiced storylines with extensive cut scenes and dialogue options from future content. I think what they have done is great and raises the bar in a way that will make it difficult for storytelling in other MMOs to compare, but it will have to be part of future SWTOR development plans. On the other hand, the rakghoul event was very promising and the majority of players seemed to have enjoyed it. As a fan and a keen player, I’m happy to keep paying subs for a few more months to support a game I enjoy a lot, and see what they can come up with.

And I think SWTOR should be an easy sell to WoW fans who are done with Cataclysm content but not burned out with that style of themepark MMO. It’s a high quality offering of a type that we probably won’t see again. Which is why it’s disappointing to see WoW Insider crowing about the numbers when they could instead support the genre – maybe a lot of WoW fans are bitter about people who play other games? (Although you’ll see in the comments that a lot of people say they play both but not at the same time.) It’s not as if Blizzard has been actively putting out content recently.

So what is a casual player again?

One of the comments Riccitello made was that they felt that the drop in subs was due to casual players leaving. This is a new definition to me for casual, because I’d have guessed that hardcore players were just as likely to burn through content fast and then leave. But it’s actually not a bad definition for an MMO so let’s look at it. Imagine if instead of talking about casual vs hardcore, we talk about casual MMO players vs core MMO players.

If you are a core player, then you are quite attached to your current MMO of choice. You may not be burning through cutting edge endgame content, but you are happy to potter around and find things to do because you just enjoy the game and like playing it. You are unlikely to jump to the next flavour of the month game and ditch the MMO completely, or if you do you will probably return. You may well be part of a guild, but you might equally be a soloer or someone who only players with a small group of RL friends who are also core players.

I like the concept of the core player because it describes how I’ve tended to play MMOs once I got out of hardcore raiding. And I am sure it describes other players too – I’ve known plenty of longterm core WoW players who happily pottered around there for months or years without obsessing overly in a hardcore way about the game. It describes a type of player who loves their game of choice and plays it regularly, but without necessarily feeling they have to do cutting edge stuff in it all the time. The type of player who is in demand by just about any guild leader.

Interestingly, it’s at about this stage in an MMO (3 months in) that you will start to find out who the core playerbase are. I think SWTOR may take longer to bed in, because people who enjoy Bioware content have plenty of alt storylines to explore, so it may take a few more months for them to really be done with it. It’s the people who stay after THAT who are the core group.

Or else Bioware provides enough new single player content to keep the semi-core playing – but it is entirely possible that they won’t be able to do this quickly enough. Designing a new core endgame mechanic that will be appealing to players who enjoyed the intense storytelling of the levelling path would work too; but it’s hard to imagine what that might be. It’s not impossible to procedurally generate stories to some extent, but not in a way that will be satisfying. Sandboxing the themepark (ie. player/ guild colonised cities, space stations, trading hubs, etc) could be another way forwards, but not in the short term, and it’s not clear that it’s in Bioware’s skillset or plans to do it, nor whether server size is large enough to make it work.

But MMOs, at their heart, may not really be suited to the mass market. The mass, by definition, will never be core gamers. Those of us who are, whether we be hardcore or casual, sandbox or themepark, PvE or PvP, probably have more in common with each other than we know.

Does it actually make financial sense to create good storylines?

One of the impressions I have gotten from seeing Bioware responses around SWTOR is that while they estimated the average levelling time for players reasonably accurately, they were still surprised at how intensively many people played the game – ie. how many hours per day.

I don’t really think this should have been a surprise. They should have figures for how quickly people played through their single player RPGs, and then realise that MMOs are a more competitive levelling environment. But ultimately, my experience is that if I played more than I had intended, it was because I was really into the story and setting and wanted to know what was going to happen next.

So maybe really compelling storytelling just encourages people to eat up content quickly, and grindy repetitive quests would be better business sense for a subscription themepark MMO. This is not especially good news for consumers or producers. Yes, emotional engagement with the game can make people more attached, but if they play to the end of the story and then leave, was it really worth the effort? And if you like storytelling games, then ideally you’d like companies to feel incentivised to make more of them.

Really this sort of model would work well in a F2P or main game + DLC type of setup. I don’t for a moment think that EA plan to take SWTOR F2P, but actually the content style would work quite well. You could easily sell class or planet storylines – they’re good quality and would be worth paying for.

And lastly, are people really talking too much about SWTOR?

Another point Riccitello made was that investors have been very focussed on SWTOR in comparison with other EA offerings, noting that it isn’t in their top 5 when compared to properties like The Sims and Madden.

On the one hand, they were the ones who hyped it as a competitor to WoW. On the other hand, EA and Bioware do also have a ton of haters who are only too keen to dogpile on them, including journalists. I think a lot of gaming journalists detest MMOs anyway.

I have a theory that this is because RP and themepark fantasy MMOs are more appealing to female gamers and a lot of people think that the holy grail of gaming is still 4-5 male mates logging in every week to shoot the crap out of each other in their FPS of choice and resent anything else that might be popular. I can’t prove it, but when RPers and MMO players are widely disparaged as geeks by EQUALLY GEEKY gamers, it does wind me up.

Stropp airs a few ideas he has about where Bioware are going wrong, but I don’t really agree with all of them. I don’t think Bioware have forgotten their true fans, they keep making stuff I love! Who were the ‘true fans’ anyway? People who liked BG?

Targeter at Imperial Intelligence has some thoughts on what could stem the tide.

Rohan shares some thoughts on the subscriber drop also.

Ethics and the Morality Wheel. Why choices create characters.

One of the appealing factors of MMOs for a lot of players is that you can create your own character.  But what does that really mean?

The standard setup is you can design what they look like, pick a gender, maybe race and age if the character generator allows it, and give them a name. In a sandbox game you can then decide some goals for that character (and show that they are the goals by going off and actually doing it.) In a themepark game your goals are more restricted but you can still say “this will be my PvP alt”, or “this is the alt I’ll level with my bf/gf.”  If you are a RPer (or just like writing backgrounds) then you might also give your character an in game back history. Some games or addons let you share that with other players.

Hopefully the game intro  will then give you some setting framework to hang your character on. In WoW you will start in your racial starting area and pick up extra information about your character’s home culture as you go, for example.

Maybe you’ll pick out a personality or character for your new creation as you go along. (The default in games is the chaotic greedy alignment who doesn’t like taking orders but goes along with whatever gives the best rewards. Sometimes you’ll get the lawful lazy alignment,  where your character follows orders and doesn’t think about it much.)

So what difference does a mechanic like the morality wheel in Bioware games make to that?

A very different type of chargen (character generation) was in Ultima 4 where… you were asked to answer some ethical multi-choice questions in a gypsy’s caravan. The answers affected your starting class, and in the rest of the game you were vaguely encouraged to be virtuous by the game mechanics. It was interesting and different at the time, and felt as though you were really generating a personality … or at least a few traits.

agent1

It’s a feature in Bioware games in particular that you will be making a lot of semi-ethical conversation choices as you play through the game. So in a way, you can keep defining or redefining your character’s personality as bit as you go along. I was trying to decide this week why that felt effective to me. So here’s one particular example where I made a choice in a conversation in SWTOR, and although it made no difference at all to the plot, I felt strongly afterwards that my character had become more real to me. Or at least, I knew how to keep ‘playing’ him in conversations if I wanted to keep that character trait.

This character is my agent, he’s pretty dark side which means ruthless, unforgiving, kills at the drop of a hat, all that regular nasty stuff. I usually pick dark side options in conversations. Well, almost always. So the occasions when I don’t are quite memorable to me because I had to stop and think about it.

In this example, I’d been sent off to kill someone. They weren’t especially nice and probably had it coming. But I knew a bit about their history and I’d felt a) I could see why they’d ended up that way and felt a bit sorry for them, because it was a fairly traumatic  upbringing b) the person who was telling me to kill them was way worse, by an order of magnitude.

So during the conversation, at one point, I warned the NPC that their life was in danger and they should get out of dodge. They ignored the warning so I went ahead and fought/ killed them as per orders. I had decided though when I took that light side choice that if they decided to listen and did leave, I’d have let them go.

So here’s what I am wondering. Why is it that a gameplay option that made zero difference to the story (like I say, the NPC paid no attention and I had to kill them anyway) made ME feel different about my character? Like, suddenly I saw him as someone who was a brutal, efficient operative, but not completely heartless or unsympathetic any more. More of a hard man doing a hard job (which is still not a morally strong position) than the total emotionless psycho that he’d seemed up to that point. I’d let the gameworld affect me and my decision making rather than just going along with the ‘yeah, he’ll be pure darkside’ script I’d started with.

Later I added a moral rule that despite being ruthless and all that, he’d probably not kill someone who was injured and alone but would (grudgingly) provide some medical attention instead. That was because he was a healer. Not a nice person still, but there’s an instinct not to hit someone when they’re down if there’s a choice. Again, there was at least one instance where I spoke to someone who was injured, gave them some painkillers, but they died anyway. Didn’t affect the plot; DID affect how I thought about my character.

Ethical Rules in Action

So one of the features of the decision wheel is that you’re encouraged to make ethical decisions all the time, all the way through the levelling stories. But what does that really mean?

Ethics is all about how people decide what they’re going to do in any situation. If a situation demands “what should I do/ say next?” then that’s an ethical decision. One of the ways we make this easier for ourselves (so as to avoid having major moral dilemmas every time we leave the house) is to figure out some basic personal ethical rules that are going to form our own morality.

These might include rules such as:

  • I will not lie.
  • I will be punctual.
  • I will be nice to strangers.

Religions have a lot to say on the subject of ethical rules and will doubtless have some to suggest too (ie. love your neighbour as yourself, judge not lest ye be judged, don’t gossip  – that’s a Jewish one, believe it or not.)

You could get more complex (and most people do) and say:

  • I will not lie, except to prevent harm.
  • I will not lie, unless someone really close asks me to.
  • etc

Professions and organisations often have ethical codes too, to define how they want members to behave.

  • A doctor should act in the best interests of the patient.
  • The customer is always right.

So really, in a Bioware-type game, you’re being given the opportunity to define a code of ethics for your new character, and see how it plays out in the game. You could instead pick random options, or define a code that involves, “Always pick the top left option” or “Always pick the option that my current companion will like” which is going to end up with a character that feels unpredictable or who always is swayed by the people they are with. And that’s a choice too.

There is a lot more to ethics than this. You can decide “I want my character to act like a good person would act’” (virtue ethics), or “I want my character to do whatever gives the best outcome” (consequentialism), or “I want my character to do the right thing whatever the cost” (deontological ethics), or even “I’d do what a good person in this society would do” (pragmatic ethics.)

That’s one way to build a character in a morality type conversation game. There are also others by which you decide “my character is mostly going to do the right thing, but there are exceptions and these are them.”

Anyhow, here are some ethical rulesets I’ve either designed or worked out in play for my SWTOR characters so far. One of the things I enjoy about the morality wheel is that it does allow you to figure out your character in play.

  • My Bounty Hunter is mostly about getting the job done and having some fun. She’s even quite chilled out and humane. But she has a very short temper and itchy trigger finger so if someone pisses her off during a conversation, they may well get shot in the head. (I decided to be light side, but take every conversation option that involved ((shoot him/her))).
  • My Agent is a stone cold bastard, but he’s loyal to the empire and not as heartless as some of the people he works with. He will hesitate before killing people who are in front of him and obviously vulnerable – which is a weakness in an agent, probably.
  • My Sith Warrior is powerful and chafes against being ordered around,  more of a force of nature than a force of evil. She trended light side initially as a way of acting up against her masters, but sank into it deeper because it’s often quite effective, sets people off balance,  and is a sign of how independent she can be. (She’s not ‘good’ so much as likes to assert her own personality – but I think probably has become a better person than she’d think.)

I don’t know if I think they have more personality to me than my WoW Warrior, but I know that her persona is mostly internalised. With these characters, you actually get to act it out.

[SWTOR] Datacron madness, and recruiting via PUGs

plus10holocronn

You have to admire Bioware putting in a special cutscene for the +10 Datacron of doom.

One of the explorer type things you can do in SWTOR is collect datacrons, each of which gives your character a small permanent stat boost. They are hidden in the gameworld – some are easier to find than others and they tend to get more tricky on the higher level planets. So for starting planets, you may need to just follow hidden paths, or explore just over the next slightly awkward hill to see that familiar glow in the distance and think “ooo, datacron!!” Later on, you may find yourself doing complicated jumping maneouvers, waiting for special lifts or mechanisms, or having to use special items that must be bought from hidden vendors in the middle of nowhere.

If that sounds weird then… yes, it is a bit weird. But when you go datacron collecting (probably with the aid of a guide), you will quickly realise that Bioware put a fair amount of effort into this aspect of the game. It isn’t for everyone, especially the parts with the more annoying jumps, but it is pretty cool to follow a complex set of steps to see a part of the gameworld that you know won’t be found by everyone.

Some datacrons require more than one person working together in order to unlock the door sequence that leads to them. This might require people hitting buttons simultaneously, for example. I have found that this encourages co-operation between random players — I was stopped the other day on Quesh by a guy who wanted help getting a Datacron for example. I said  “sure!” and he showed me where it was and what we had to do. But the +10 to all stats datacron that is hidden on the Empire/Republic fleet is the big kahuna, requiring at least four or five people acting in some kind of harmony to unlock. There are buttons to press, bridges to unlock, narrow girders to edge across, slightly awkward jumps, and areas where you need to use grappling hooks in a carefully timed sequence. On Empire side, you also have to suicide on a laser at one point.

It’s nuts. We did it in guild last week and people were saying that the datacron hunt was one of the more exciting/ scary things they’d ever done in a game. (This is probably due to the part at the end where you have some careful edging along girders to do, knowing that the rest of the team is relying on you being able to do it and if you fail they will have to go back to the start.) But finally you get there, to the last door. People cheer. You open the door and click on the datacron … and you get a special cut scene where all the different coloured datacrons dance around your character and you get your +10 stat boost. That was a great use of cut scenes as an extra reward for players who managed the thing.

I’ve said before that Bioware do include puzzles in some of the raids/operations and instances/flashpoints as part of their design. This is an example of how it changes the feel of the game. It was crazy exciting and fun, and we’ll do it again when Arb gets back from holiday sometime.

In which PUGs explain tactics to us

I’ve also mentioned before how we have picked up PUG members for our raids when we didn’t otherwise quite have enough people to fill out two groups. Previously these have tended to be well geared raiders who were ‘slumming it’. Last night we picked up a healer who actually hadn’t completed EV Normal before. Bit of a change there, we thought, not used to hanging out with players who are less progressed than us.

But sure enough, before we were very far in, he was also advising us on how to avoid some of the trash mobs and giving smart tactics for some of the others. “How did you ever get past this on your own?” he sighed, as I fell off a ledge and aggroed the pack we had just been avoiding. (Gee I dunno, maybe it’s my AWESOME DPS….)

We did clear the instance and get some decent drops for him (and for me, yay!), and left the parting comment that if he or his guild wanted to raid with us more regularly, we should stay in touch.

If anyone is playing in Empire side on the Nightmare Lands EU server and is looking for a chilled out guild that does stuff together including naked dance parties and  normal mode raids, feel free to check us out. Warning: there may be dick jokes on voice chat.

[SWTOR] Winding up the plague, and in which Bioware starts to build a ‘raid style’

worldpvp_rakghoul

(We were going to kill world bosses but …. got distracted.)

So today the rakghoul event in SWTOR comes to an end, unless Bioware are planning on surprising the playerbase with a new phase (I’m not expecting this to happen and it would probably be better to let things settle back to normal for awhile.) Hope everyone handed in their rakghoul DNA for pets/ crystals/ etc since the vendor will be going away.

I wound up last night joining a PUG to kill the event world bosses, since it was the only part of the event that I hadn’t yet taken part in. After some faffing around, we were able to go kill one of the new bosses, checked another that wasn’t yet respawned, and then headed to the PvP area on Tatooine to collect the third one. As you can see in the screenshot above, that last part didn’t entirely go to plan.

We pulled the boss, some republic dudes showed up and a wipe followed. Then we came back and messed up their boss attempt. This back and forth continued awhile, with more people showing up to join each side, and then we all just decided to get on with smacking each other around and let the boss get on with its own bimbling around in peace. Or in other words, my PUG killed one of the world bosses and then got involved in some world PvP, which was a very clear design goal of Bioware sticking one of the bosses in the PvP area. So well played to Bioware on those grounds, it was fun – bit pointless, but I can manage a bit of pointless world PvP from time to time and it was nice to hang out with some of the other level 50s on the server who I don’t interact with all that much. This is how endgame communities form, as people start to recognise each others’ names.

As an aside, one of the nice things about being part of an active community/ guild is that people will contact you when there is something going on in game, in case you might want to join in. So when the PUG group was getting together, I was able to pass the message on to my guild because I knew some of them might want to come have a crack at the world bosses also. Without that network, you’re very reliant on what you personally see and hear and so getting involved is a bit more down to luck.

As far as tactics go on the world bosses, the first one (giant rakghoul) seemed very straightforwards tank and spank. The PvP zone boss was harder, but our PUG was getting the hang of having all the melee group up for heals when we were so rudely interrupted. We would have gotten him if we’d had a clear try.

Puzzle bosses, and the Bioware take on heroics/ raids

One of the other things I did this week was take on the 4 man heroic quest that is associated with the new daily zone. Short form: There are a bunch of daily quests that you can do solo, and when you have done them all, a 4 man heroic quest opens up which is also a daily. There is also a weekly quest to complete all of the dailies including the 4 man which you can get once per week.

Although I have seen people looking for groups for the 4 man while doing the dailies, it doesn’t seem as popular as you might expect. Having now run it with a guild group, I have a slightly better idea as to why this might be. It’s quite challenging for a group that isn’t co-ordinated. Or in other words, the difficulty was great for our guild group which is mostly geared from normal raiding and is fairly together about CC and using markings to indicate kill order. It was fun, and we had to pay attention and think a bit about marking and which CC abilities were in the group. We ran it with an unspecced tank and healer (ie. both tank and healer were dps specced/ geared) which also made it tougher in some ways, although gave us more dps also.

There are several groups of mobs, each of which contain up to 4 elite mobs. CC helps a lot. Then there is an encounter which involves incoming waves of increasingly harder mobs where dps and CC need to be on their toes. And the final encounter on the empire quest … is a puzzle. It’s not an especially hard puzzle, and involves twisting pipes so as to make a connecting pipeline. It was a fun change of pace after the previous frenetic encounter, and I think much fun was had by all.

lonomonkey discusses SWTOR raiding in more detail and concludes that this type of originality is something that is increasingly marking out Bioware boss encounters. I think I agree with him, although SWTOR raiding has a lot in common with WoW, the encounters are different enough in style to make it more fun in many ways. The comments on that post also raise interesting points because dps have a slightly different focus in SWTOR fights because you don’t always expect the tank to be able to grab all of the mobs. The tank needs to get and hold the elites, but the dps initially focus on getting the lower health mobs down first. So the initial stages of a fight tend to involve everyone busily doing their separate thing, rather than waiting for the tank to get things under control. Although obviously if dps can co-ordinate kill order, adds go down very fast indeed, which makes a big difference.

I’m intrigued to see what else Bioware come up with, because I’m enjoying this aspect of the game really quite a lot. Also it doesn’t hurt that my dps (Vigilance Juggernaut) has gone up a lot this patch, not least because you can now need/greed on raid loot so I got geared quite fast after a long previous unlucky loot spell.

apprentice

This is a picture of Spinks with her apprentice. I’m the one in the classically sithy black robes. One of the other things I’ve done this patch is put more effort into finishing off my companions’ stories by building more rep with them. As a light side Sith, I’ve been quite impressed by how wise Spinks is sounding in conversations these days. I was actually building up my apprentice’s confidence quite competently. But not in a way that excludes being violently destructive, obviously Smile

I even got her a decent set of gear with my spare raid tokens. Hope she appreciates this and doesn’t try to betray me, at least not yet.

[SWTOR] A live event! Starring rakghouls, pets, and blowing people up

(If you are reading this post because you are hoping to find a detailed walkthrough of the Rakghoul Plague event and associated quests and rewards, you can find that here at mmo-mechanics. I want to talk more about the storytelling and how we experienced it).

Yesterday, Bioware surprised the player base by launching an unexpected and unheralded live event, which looks as though it will last for at least a week. It starts on the fleet/s, or if you are like me starts with your partner yelling across the room “Log in, we’re going to Tatooine….”

This is because the first indication players had that something was going on was via announcements over the fleet about a dangerous contamination on Tatooine of the rakghoul virus from Taris. News terminals also appeared on the fleet, which played a cut scene of news announcers talking about the dangers and the imperial edicts that rakghouls should be destroyed.

rakghoul1

(the announcement said that people should on no account go to Tatooine, so clearly all player characters took this as a sign to head out there immediately!)

I’m a bit unclear on the actual process by which players found the event quests and location, since by the time I got there, my guild were sorting themselves out and there was a lot of voice chat around getting everyone to the right spot. Or in other words, I found out via other players rather than through Bioware’s carefully crafted cut scenes and NPC announcements in local chat. However, more patient players or people who like exploring will find all the information they need in the town by the Tatooine spaceport – wandering around and clicking on anything that glows is a good way to start.

There’s plenty of colour text and background to the situation as well, from the TV screens on Tatooine offering a news report where a reporter explains that all rakghouls or suspected rakghouls are to be terminated with extreme prejudice, while a guy transforms into a rakghoul in the background behind her and is shot by imperial soldiers, to regular NPC announcements from an imperial official on general chat.

None of this, incidentally, is delivered via quest text from an NPC with a quest symbol above its head.

When you get out into the wilds of Tatooine to chase down the crashed spaceship that released the virus and help to contain things by murdering infected sandpeople, the daily quest shows up as soon as you get into the right area. I am assured that the quest scales with level (so as long as you can navigate Tatooine safely, you can take part), and the mobs that spawn for you to kill are related to your own level.

NPC chat in local channel near the outbreak is more about people trying to persuade imperial soldiers that they aren’t infected, no really guv.

rakghoul2

This leads to the typical daily quest setup where you have to kill some mobs, locate some items, kill some more mobs, collect items, then head off to another quest area and do it again, leading to a final encounter with a slightly tougher mob, a cut scene with LS/DS choice, and a final followup. Your quest rewards can be turned in at a special vendor for a number of items including weapon crystals and a pet pale rakling, once you have collected enough of them.

But there is more, including a couple of ‘secret’ quests. The walkthrough linked above discusses those in detail, but one of them involves becoming infected yourself. There are two ways in which you can become infected. Either you pick up the virus from being in the area (on one occasion I got it after just walking into the quest area) or fighting infected mobs, or you can catch the virus if another victim expires near you.

For ease of identification, one of my guildies here models the effects of the rakghoul virus.

krellinfect

It starts with a green aura, then progresses into glowing purple, and finally ends with you as a greenish smear on the ground after having exploded messily. This can all take a varying amount of time.

If you contract the virus you have two options. Take an antidote (which are now sold by stim vendors all over the game world, and also turn up as daily quest rewards) which cures it, or let it run its course and see how many other players you can infect. There is a quest associated with infecting other players that you’ll find out about once you have expired of the plague at least once. Clearly because this is an MMO there are already forum threads by people complaining of being infected against their wishes (although you could just move away from the infected person.)

As part of the daily quests and associated event secret quests, you will also be able to unlock lore about the rakghoul plague outbreak and how the sandpeople have been trying to find a cure.

rakghoullore

As you can see here, these end up in your codex under a new heading of “Events.” And if you get bored of dailies or blowing people up and want to try a different way to get event tokens, you can take out two new world bosses that have been drafted in just for the occasion. (As earlier, check out the walkthrough link at the top of the post for more detailed information.)

We had a lot of fun with this event yesterday and I’m hoping to find more time for pursuing secret quests and blowing people up over the next week or so. Bioware have done a super job with this event, and despite including a lot of standard daily-type quests, it doesn’t feel formulaic or forced. The cut scenes and voice overs from imperial news are excellent. I love how you can find information about what is going on by just going there and getting involved, there’s no questgiver on fleet who pops something up in your quest log but all the information you need is in front of you.

I also love how adding world bosses on Tatooine encourages players to PUG, since they’re going to be there anyway and presumably all want tokens.

It’s really very nicely done indeed. And here finally are some action shots of us fighting more rakghouls in the dunes …

rakghoulfight

Thanks to Arb for some of the screenshots!

[SWTOR] It’s a new day, it’s a new patch

My experience of playing SWTOR has been solidly positive, but it took a great turn for the better recently. Suddenly my frame rate improved massively, loading screens and conversations start seamlessly, and even hopping in and out of orbital stations is more of an interesting change of scenery than a painful speed bump. Amazing how much difference a new computer can make Smile (The old one was about 6 years old and has now been retired to less onerous duties.)

Oh, yes, there’s a new patch 1.2 also, featuring new high level content, Legacies as a way to earn perks for your alts, huge UI improvements, and the usual round of “PvP is now broken” feedback. (Although some people do also like it.)

What do you need to know about the new stuff?

Here’s a few useful links for SWTOR players:

mmo-mechanics has a guide for Empire players to the new Corellia dailies (I assume Republic players get their breadcrumb quest from the fleet too)

UI Cantina is a repository for UIs, which you can now download and use. Their ‘tips and tricks’ tab also explains where the .xml files (used to store UI information) will be stored, so to use a new one just save it in that directory. It is actually a hidden directory on Windows 7 so you’ll have to set your file explorer to show hidden files/ directories to check it. Look on this as a learning opportunity if you don’t know how to do that yet.

mmo-mechanics also have some UIs which you can download. I am thinking there will soon be plenty of UI related sites, if you know any good ones feel free to suggest them in comments.

legacy

This is a screenshot of the Legacy window. You will have to log in each of your characters to have them show up, and can then move them into the middle of the screen to define some relationships. You do this by holding the picture of one character over the picture of another who you already set up on the screen, and as you can see here some options for relationships appear. When you pick one, the new character will appear in the ‘family tree’. (Same sex marriages are allowed, incidentally.)

Since my agent (shown) is a sleazy horndog, he’s probably slept with all the others so I’m mostly defining him as ally or enemy depending on what happened after that. I’m not sure yet why he earned the enmity of my Sith Warrior but let’s be honest, it wouldn’t take much to set her off. Let’s hope he has some good friends, as opposed to the bunch of weirdos he usually hangs out with.

The Legacy screen also shows you what abilities/  races/ special stuff you have unlocked or have yet to unlock. I think I’m now saving up a million credits so that my ship (and all my alts ships on this server too) can have a repair bot, which is nice in the sense of adding some long term goals. Long term goals are essential for player retention, so Bioware will now be hoping that plenty of other players are also now thinking “Cool, I’ll save up for XYZ,” or “Oo, I could make a True Sith Consular!” Anyhow, it works for me. I like that my alts can benefit from my main, and vice versa. Shame they all have to be on the same server but you can’t have everything.

One of the fancier bonuses is that if you have completed chapter 2 on any character, your other alts on that server will automatically get that character’s buff alongside their own when they cast it. So for example, all my alts now cast the Sith Warrior buff as well as their own automatically. This is actually a pretty nice perk for alts.

There are also perk abilities you can get if you have a character who is LS5 or DS5.

To make your armour match, open up the character window. You will notice a small tab around halfway down on the right hand side – click that for the armour matching option. You can then unclick the icons by individual armour pieces if you want a few non-matching bits too.

Anexxia has also posted a FAQ for patch 1.2 so if you have any other questions such as “Where’s the guild bank” or “where are the legacy vendors” check out her post.

Also, some random rewards from Bioware

Bioware is also giving out goodies to existing and former players. There are free pets for active players, free time for lapsed players and a free MONTH for anyone with a level 50 who has ever subscribed. That’s rather generous – Bioware are now becoming synonymous for me with being wildly generous, I remember they threw out free copies of ME2 with DA2 last year also and even then I thought, “That’s nice, if a bit unexpected.”

Tobold takes the logical assumption that this is all intended to encourage player retention. Comments in that thread compare this to recent WoW offers and to the sorts of offers that subscription magazines offer and don’t find it particularly out of place.

Naturally because this is Bioware, people are also complaining about the free stuff. Personally, free is a nice counterpoint to the money grabbing scams I’m more used to so I’m happy. But then I was planning to renew my 6 month sub when it’s up anyway, because I genuinely am still having a lot of fun with the game,  so possibly making me happy is not a huge win for Bioware.

My feeling is that in the same way that Blizzard have been free to experiment with doing all sorts of weird stuff to WoW, Bioware are being encouraged to try out just about any marketing trick that they can think of to see what works. And since there really aren’t that many successful subscription games, there is still a lot we don’t know about what really does attract players to themepark games that aren’t WoW.  I’d say good luck to them, if offering people 7 months for the price of 6 (which is basically how I’m interpreting this for me) works for them, then go for it.

And while I am not sure that I am the core target for this offer, I am still a keen player with a level 50 who is in a casual guild which regularly does the endgame instances and raids. And as anyone who has ever tried to run a casual endgame guild knows, ANYTHING which encourages max level players to keep playing is a boon for everyone in the guild who wants to run group content. So this might actually be a very savvy move from the perspective of social players. I’m curious to see how it plays out.

New Content

I haven’t run the new dailies yet but we had a crack at normal mode Lost Island, the new flashpoint, last night. We worked out strategies as we went along, people were still adjusting to various class changes, and I was tanking without any tanking gear so this was not perhaps an optimal setup. Still, it was good fun, the scenery is gorgeous (I will take a screenshot of the volcano next time), and we enjoyed learning the bosses as we went along.

It felt quite tightly tuned for a normal mode instance to me, but maybe that is just because we didn’t really know the fights. Highlight was the group’s reaction on spotting a platform in the middle of a lava flow with a boss in the middle, “Oh, knockbacks into lava” – and Bioware did not disappoint.

Have you tried the new patch? What did you think?

[SWTOR] Why I still want to play this thing!

So the ‘backlash’ against SWTOR continues, as people get to actually play the thing and find that – yes – it’s just an MMO and not the second coming.

Analyst comments that “it’s like Bioware mechanics bolted onto a WoW skin”

Massively writers are not blown away. (I thought the take away point from here is that the melee Operative/ Smuggler is a class/ spec with issues at this point, so you can pretty much guarantee it’ll still have some at launch.)

And yet I have to wonder if anyone was surprised. What I am expecting from SWTOR is exactly Bioware mechanics and storytelling ‘bolted on’ to an MMO core, which probably will have a lot in common with WoW-type games. So telling me it’s like that is really not a turn-off.

Main points for me from what I have heard about this game so far:

  • Class centred storytelling. I’m really intrigued to check this out, and especially whether they’ll go for a slightly different genre for each class (eg. jedi knight gets a completely different ‘type of story to smuggler)
  • Crafting via companions. I still think this sounds vaguely intriguing. And housing via ships too.
  • Companions in general. They’re set for this to be one of the telling points of the game.
  • Sound as the ‘fifth pillar’. Fully voiced NPCs, star wars sound effects, the whole works. I’m just curious to see how much difference it makes.

SWTOR rumoured to launch in September. DOOM foretold.

We haven’t had a story in awhile about how SWTOR is inevitably doomed, but fortunately an analyst has stepped into the breath with a breathtaking report that “EA investors are wary.”

But how does he know? Maybe he’s spoken to a few in the games industry, but we don’t know how he knows. So he’s probably just guessing based on the fact that everyone knows SWTOR has cost a lot of money and is a risky endeavour. In fact, anyone who knows anything about the game, even staunch fans who are looking forwards to paying for long subscriptions, are nervous about how well it will do.

I do sometimes wish people would pay me for stating the obvious.

In more upbeat news, MCV (which is a reputable trade mag) got the tip from “development sources” that SWTOR is due for release this September. If that is the case, expect to see official announcements about beta in a month or two. I’m assuming there’s some kind of beta testing going on at the moment.

I think that assuming it’s reasonably polished, September is a good timeframe. It may clash with a Blizzard patch but crucially, it would get in before the October/ November release rush and catch college students after the summer holiday. I am wavering now on my desire to play a smuggler, on the grounds that everyone else probably will too. Plus the last trailer for the trooper showed a female character in heavy armour, and any regular readers will know I’m a sucker for that!