Question of the Day: What are your favourite instances/ flashpoints of all time?

I have been running a fair number of flashpoints recently in SWTOR, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Kaon Under Siege might be my favourite instance/flashpoint in any MMO ever. What really makes this instance stand out for me is the incredible atmosphere, great instance-based storytelling, a few challenging trash mob pulls, and interesting enough bosses (OK, the bosses are not really the highlight of this flashpoint, but I feel they have enough strategy to keep them both interesting and in genre with the rest of the instance).

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What I mean by atmosphere is that this is a zombie survival type of setting. Parts of the instance are eerily dark, with players using torches that hover around their heads. Parts involve zombies/rakghouls jumping out at you, in packs. Even if you know the instance reasonably well, the atmosphere is solid. Part of this is down to good pacing; sometimes you can see the rakghouls wandering around so you have time to plan the pulls carefully and other times you’re walking down a dark and quiet corridor and they leap out. It leads to an instance that doesn’t feel as though it’s just a static bunch of mobs standing around in corridors.

By storytelling, I mean that you pick up an entire storyline as you are travelling from boss to boss. There are some conversations (that people tend to skip through if they’re in a hurrt) but also you get some of the information as you are moving/ fighting. On arrival, you know that the planet is quarantined, then you learn via radio that some nobles are trying to break the quarantine so you try to stop them, then you see their hijacked ship crash, talk to the surviving pilot and see him succumb to the disease, and finally have to pick your way through infested and dangerous areas to get to a place where you can find where the infestation began and get a pickup for your team. It’s very smoothly put together. There’s plenty of show to go along with the tell.

The bosses have some interesting features. One boss fight features waves of rakghouls where one character gets to sit in the weapon turret and everyone else helps mop up and take out the rakghouls that are more dangerous. Another boss has to be kited towards explosives when it goes into frenzy (although tbh people seem more likely these days to tough it out). Another set of three have different abilities depending on the kill order. So again, it doesn’t feel like a set of bosses standing in a room waiting for you.

Some of the packs of trash mobs have interesting abilities also. There are rakghouls which have crowd control, others which explode when they die, and others which will throw players around (probably into any other packs of mobs in the area). So as players learn the instance, they can learn the routes which avoid pulling two packs at once, and learn which mobs should be taken out first.

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I feel it’s an instance which shows off the very best of SWTOR design, with an attention to the detail, storytelling, that extends into boss mechanics in a way that I haven’t really found in WoW recently. (My favourite WoW instances were Stratholme and BRD, vanilla versions.)

So for any fellow instance runners: Which are your favourites, and why?

[SWTOR] Effects of LFG and ranked warzones, and deciding whether to make the mental switch to endgame

liberateddroid

So even liberated droids get floor mopping duty, apparently

I have been playing SWTOR a fair amount this week, focussing mainly on my reasonably new level 50 Jedi Sage. When you ‘focus’ on a max level character in an MMO, it generally means that you plan to spend most of your time in game on that character, probably finding ways to progress it (ie. by collecting gear, gold, etc), socialising, or chasing achievements or other collectable type things. This tends to mean you will be doing similar sorts of things when you log in, depending on how much time you have available and whether there’s some group event you plan to attend. In SWTOR specifically, this means knocking out the daily quests, hitting some regular and hard more flashpoints, figuring out exactly how bad I am at PvP in warzones, and hopping into the occasional Operation/ Raid (I’ve done one with my guild and one PUG that was assembled via general chat on the fleet) – that’s a  good sampling of what endgame has to offer.

Next week I suspect will see a slow down for me, partly because I’m in full job hunting mode (for positive reasons, just got a new qualification), partly because I snagged a pass to the next GW2 beta weekend, and because Crusader Kings 2 accidentally fell into my checkout in the Steam Sale; so I have a new goal to try to learn how to play it. (Incidentally, there’s a really good tutorial here.) The other reason is that my Sage is now pretty much fully kitted out in Columni gear, which you can get from hard mode flashpoints and is also the gear that drops from the two easier story mode Operations, and I also have most of the Battlemaster PvP set, so the urge to get as many hours in as possible is waning.

So I feel that I have a fresh view on the SWTOR endgame and how it has been different for me with this character than previous ones, due to changes in the game.

LFG: They could just rename it ‘Looting Fast Gear’

My run of good LFG flashpoint groups has continued unbroken and since I’ve been running at least one per day, I’d say the tool is off to a good start. I have been queueing as dps and generally the queue times have been less than 30 mins. There was this one time when I clicked queue and really did get an instance pop immediately (as dps, yes) so with the population limited to same server, it can be very variable depending on who is queueing. Queue times do vary predictably with time of day and days of the week, with the evening after weekly maintenance being a prime raid night which means long flashpoint queues. There is a daily quest you can get from the PvE mission terminal which rewards 5 Black Hole tokens for running a HM in the group finder. The daily quests tick over at 1pm local time so people who are online will tend to queue just after that so that they can pick up the daily quest and knock it out quickly. (Or just before it if they didn’t manage to get the previous day’s quest done yet.)

Players on my server also sometimes comment on fleet chat when they queue, especially if they are playing a tank or healer (ie. “tank just joined the LFG”) to encourage the other roles to join the queue. So players are experimenting with combinations of LFG and general chat formed groups.  I am also finding that restricting the group finder to the server community makes quite a large difference compared to WoW. I begin to recognise names that I see around the fleet from either PvE or PvP. So if I get a good group and put people on my friends list, I know they will likely be around. I personally think this growing sense of server community is well worth slightly longer queue times.

The combination of much easier to find groups and experienced players queueing so that they can get the daily quest rewards is that instance runs tend to be fast and easy, plus I have learned lots of short cuts or ways to avoid different bosses. Taral-V takes the prize here, because you can avoid all except two bosses (and I have heard it rumoured that the final boss is avoidable also). Hence my new 50 is really pretty well geared already, which is fine but really the only way for her to get better gear now is to head into hard mode raids or do lots of dailies for Black Hole tokens that way.

I think the effect of fast gearing on the player base is that people tend to get done with the content and bored more quickly, since grinding for progression forms such a core part of the MMO gameplay. Or at least,  players look to progression for guidance on setting their character goals and deciding what to do next in the game. in SWTOR, running daily quests is also a good way to collect credits so you’ll tend to amass in game cash by doing the same things that you would do to progress gearwise. This is a subtle point, and while it is very convenient for casual players, it makes playing the economy feel very optional. My consular just has gathering skills (scavenging, slicing) and I can easily scavenge up some highly sellable metals while doing dailies also. In many ways SWTOR is such a great game for more casual players that I hope Bioware wise up and think about adding more casual friendly endgame elements in the future. I suspect it is one of the better and more approachable games in the market for a true MMO newbie at the moment.

I don’t feel bored with the game now that my Consular has most of what she’d want from hard mode flashpoints, but I have definitely gotten to this point far far more quickly with this alt than with my original Warrior.

The endgame mindset

Dusty had a very insightful post about metagames/endgame in MMOs  and how although you can often begin playing these games by jumping in and trying what is fun, there comes a point where difficulty ramps up and you need to either optimise your playing style or quit.

… here’s what happens with the average player.  They start off, casually playing, and by far and large enjoying the game.  And this keeps them playing – for awhile.  And then, at some point, one or two things happen:  one, they encounter in PvP some other player or players whom have put together some game-breaking combination of abilities the designers never conceived of, and are ravaged by them repeatedly, or two, in PvE, they reach content that requires some combination of abilities the designers intend for you to either know about or have tried, and they don’t, and so they are effectively just stymied from progressing. 

There is plenty to say about the endgame mindset, but I want to pick out this notion that there comes a point where if you want to be competitive or complete cutting edge content, you have to stop playing in an exploratory, playful way, and start playing in a more defined and optimised way. Or in other words, there comes a point where you have to decide if you want to look stuff up and learn the metagame, or just move on. That’s where so many people get a character to max and then drift off to the next game on the list. I think there is also a concept of metagame fatigue where you spent so much time theorycrafting or practicing your minmax spec in one game that you need a break from that intensity of gameplay, or don’t want to switch to a game with another involved metagame. Another player strategy to avoid this shift in mindset is to start in metagame mode right from the beginning and use guides to plan out every aspect of a new character/game right from the beginning.

I personally find this sucks the fun out of games for me so I try not to do it, but after you’ve been burned in one MMO by picking a class/spec that sounded fun and later finding it had no place in endgame, it’s so tempting to do your research first the next time.

This is what killed Rift for me, incidentally. It’s a good game and all but I’d designed a soul combination that I really liked for levelling, and it didn’t cut the mustard for dps in endgame raiding. At that point a player has to decide if they want to switch to the optimal dps combination (which you can look up on blogs and bboards) or just not play that part of endgame. I decided the game had been fun and I preferred to move on than relearn my character and abandon the megadot build. And, maybe more to the point, I didn’t want to join raids and not ‘pull my weight’ – and maybe I’ve learned from WoW to be too much of a perfectionist with dps, because doing significantly less than the max doesn’t feel good enough any more, even where everyone else is happy and bosses still die.

And so to SWTOR. While the game has no addons, you can take a combat log and there are external dps meters that will check the log and report how much damage you are doing. Since the harder raids do involve enrage timers and dps checks, it isn’t surprising that raid groups do measure dps and ask individuals to do so also.

Now, on my Consular I have three DoTs and a proc to keep track of, all represented by little icons which I can’t find a way to enlarge independently. So if I want to do great dps, I need to keep the DoTs up as much as possible without renewing them too quickly, keep an eye on the proc and any debuffs I want to use, and have a rough idea of the best  priority attacks to use when those are all accounted for. My current issue is that I can’t get my dps high enough for the raids I’d need to do, and I don’t know if I can be arsed to keep practising the rotation/ priority until it gets higher. Or rather, I’ve done the research for the metagame but I don’t  find the “maximal dps in raids” metagame to be all that fun; because who gives a flying f*** if my DoTs clip as long as the bosses die, I don’t die, and I’m doing all the other things I need to do in that encounter; potentially including off healing and CC. The dps meter gives a flying f***, that’s who. I am weighing up the options of either more practice (I have an Ops target in my ship now, thanks legacy perks) or switching to healing – because despite what people might tell you, healing or tanking are WAY easier than topping damage meters on a class with a complex rotation.

What I really want is a different model for raid encounters that is less dependent on tight enrage timers and more on utility and reacting to the environment.

[SWTOR] New world event rumours, LFD, and other patch related chatter

First up, there are rumours flying around the fleets of a new world event. I believe the source of the rumours was from someone datamining the new patch but since the website is down for maintenance at the moment I can’t provide a link for that. What I do know is that people on guild chat last night were guessing it might start today. So not long to wait to find that out, at least.

If true, t would be a welcome addition to a patch that is otherwise strong on functionality but weak on content.

What I’ve been up to

I have been quietly levelling my consular this week, and have rather enjoyed Act 3 of her story. Also the romance is quite sweet; it comes late in the game for female consulars, with Lieutenant Iresso. He actually has a first name, unlike Lieutenant Piece (Sith Warrior companion) which you could take as a sign that he was always going to be more fleshed out, so to speak.

The consular story is curiously impersonal compared to the agent or sith warrior, it’s cool but I never felt a personal link between my character and most of the NPCs. I think that sense of emotional distance, together with a slow Act 1, go a long way towards why it’s considered not to be one of the better stories. I have enjoyed it though, and it does come together neatly at the end. You also get to be quite heroic and have a nice “everyone loves ME!” scene at the end where Satele Shan tells you and your companions that you saved the Republic. It is a cognitive dissonance that no one else seems aware of this; the jump between single player storyline and endgame on this class is very weird for that reason. (The warrior came out top from some secretive Sith infighting and carries on serving the emperor, the agent makes some career choices but basically is still doing his/her thing, but where do you go after saving the Republic exactly?)

I will also miss having the squabbling diplomats on my ship. My other comment on the consular storyline is that there are a lot of tough fights. I don’t remember finding so many of the bosses this tough on alts. They aren’t unfair, the fights are doable if you’re careful and use all your crowd control abilities, but just something to note. There was at least one occasion where I wanted to try using a different companion but of course they weren’t very geared up.

My new guild continue to be a friendly bunch, and are also usually quite busy with flashpoints, warzones, and operations. I am not used to being in this size of a guild (it’s not HUGE but bigger than I’m used to) so trying not to find it intimidating. Since hitting 50, I’ve already been joined by a guildie to do dailies together and invited by someone else to come for a guild hard mode run. I did say that I doubted my gear but they said “don’t worry about it” and we headed off to whomp Taral-V, which I’m assured is the easiest hard mode on Republic side. So they’re all quite keen to help newbies, and I’m hoping to gear up a bit, get to know people and be less carried in future. I’m also toying with signing up for a story mode EV run, as soon as I decide if I want to play as dps or a healer.

I have successfully tried out the new LFD tool. Finding groups for levelling characters can be slow, although I’m told it’s fast for tanks (as you might expect) and the tool can be a bit restrictive as to which flashpoints it allows you to queue for based on level. Still, I healed through a Fallen Emperor run at level 48 that went well. Since hitting 50, I have upgraded some mods in my gear via daily commendations and queued for one hard mode via LFD. It threw us into Maelstrom Prison (one of the other republic-only flashpoints) and the group managed it fine. The tank left in the middle but we were able to requeue for a new tank and someone came in and neatly finished the run.

The other bonus is that I’ve now seen all the flashpoints and have the Republic half of Revan’s story. It is at this point clear that Taral-V/Maelstorm happen before Boarding Party/Foundry. Also Republic don’t get to fight HK-47 before the Fallen Emperor instance (he features in The Foundry), but they do get to kick the shit out of Grand Moff Kilran, which makes up for a lot.

So that’s 2/2 random groups which have been perfectly fine for me. I do find it strange that you can pick multiple roles to queue for, given that there is no dual spec in the game. For levelling flashpoints this is fine, and I’ve tanked plenty of instances in SWTOR on my warrior in dps spec, but I can’t see that working too well for a healer. And while I suppose you could run off and respec between finding a group and porting to the flashpoint, that could be a long delay depending on where you are.

I am also told that LFD may not work well if you have the breadcrumb quest for a flashpoint in your quest log. Daily or weekly quests are fine. I haven’t experienced that personally though.

The other thing of note in the LFD is that after the instance is complete, it doesn’t port you back to where you came from. You will end up outside the instance.

Free credits/ PvP gear for level 50s, and upgraded tutorials

I am not sure if this is new in patch 1.3 or if I had just not noticed it before, but when you hit level 50, you can pick up a quest from the PvP quest terminal on the fleet which will give you a free set of starter PvP gear, some of which is probably also better for PvE than your levelling outfit. If you don’t want this gear, or have some PvP gear already, you can opt for an alternative quest reward which is a token that you can sell to a vendor for the equivalent cost: 320k credits.

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This is a screenie of the quest, and of the quest rewards. You can also pick this quest up on an old level 50 if you haven’t taken it yet, so there’s free credits out there for the taking!

The in-game tutorials have also had a reworking, and are now much more graphically appealing. They show screenshots as examples of how to do things, and are context sensitive (eg. the first time a new alt ran through a fire, I got the tutorial about hazardous environments) which they also were before. As a newbie I think I would have liked these. MMOs are so deep that it probably wouldn’t be possible to provide up to date tutorials for everything, but I appreciate the attempt.

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This is the tutorial on how to use the group finder, for example.

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.

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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.