Instance protocol in SWTOR, and my switch from dps to healing and back

holocronnfind

So it’s been a busy week or two in SWTOR. Aside from all the F2P news, I have been settling into the end game and spending more time chatting with my guild. This currently feels bittersweet, because although I am sure the conversion will bring in a lot of new players, it’s not clear whether that will translate into continuing enthusiasm for flashpoints and ops which will be behind the paywall of a subscription.

Anyhow, let me tell you about my character! The pics above show me on a datacron hunt, I’m wearing PvP gear because I was queueing for PvP while I was doing it. This works better than queueing for flashpoints because PvP drops you back into the world where you left it after your match. “The Deprogrammer” is a title that you get from completing the Directive 7 flashpoint; I get a kick from it as an ex-coder.

I have also been running at least one flashpoint a day using the group finder tool, and have been refining my dps spec and rotation.  Having spent some quality time with the noxxic.com guides, my dps is looking much better these days. I don’t really like specs where the optimal results come from NOT taking the top ability in that spec tree, but that is how Balance seems to work at the moment. The groups have generally all been great, even tempered, and friendly. Everyone says Hi when they zone in and Thanks at the end.

It isn’t all hearts and flowers, but the patience levels seem high compared with WoW (this is not a high bar, admittedly). In one run someone said they had to go answer the door and offered to leave as they weren’t sure how long it would take and the rest of the group were happy to sit around, chat, make tea etc for 10 mins while waiting. One phenomenon that I have seen is people who haven’t done much group content while levelling other than PvP and jump into hardmodes without really being aware of how PvE fights differ. It’s not a real issue, but you can tell by: tanks who don’t know they need to just tank the elites and let the dps CC/ kill the other mobs, tanks who can’t hold aggro on more than one mob at once, tanks who don’t notice when their healers are being beaten up, dps who don’t wait for the tank to pull or take aggro.

Note: you can’t actually tell if you have a PvP healer since PvP healing is actually pretty similar to PvE healing, and is also rather harder. There are subtleties like remembering to use your detaunt, but most groups won’t spot that.

I also thought it would be handy to practice healing, just in case that was ever useful. So I’ve also run a lot of flashpoints and warzones in a healing spec and have picked up some gear for that also. I find that once you have the hang of your healing spells and have sorted out quickbars, it is fairly straightforwards. I do find healing easier than dps, and people are also much nicer to healers (in general). However, I also find healing more boring except when things are going totally AWOL. I just don’t feel as engaged with the fights. So I’m mostly back in dps mode, switching to healing when I either want to PvP or the guild needs a spare healer.

The sage/ sorcerer, incidentally, is a great class that I enjoy very much. I love having CC, heals, AE, DoTs, and nukes all on the same class – and you actually have access to all of those abilities in both healing and dps specs. I also find that having played in both healing and dps roles, as well as doing some PvP, I’m much more confident switching the roles up. It feels very comfortable to drop some CC or AE dps even while healing, or throw a (weak) heal or shield in between dps if the group really needs it. Or in other words, it’s a nicely hybrid class. I do wonder why all classes cannot be this hybridised, and even a game like GW2 that has ditched the trinity still ends up with classes like Elementalist which has huge utility compared with – say – Thief.

I’ve also run a few Ops now with my guild, who are a really nice bunch and very welcoming. So my sage is now in full Columni gear with a sprinkling of Rakata and Black Hole (from dailies). It actually looks ok, although the hat is definitely an acquired taste.

Instance and Ops protocol

If you have played multiple MMOs, you will notice that they tend to have a lot of instance protocol in common. For example, it’s really common for people to say hello when they join a group and thanks or goodbye when they leave. People also often ask if its OK for them to roll need for offspec gear, and polite tanks may ask if it’s OK to skip bosses before they go ahead and do it.

The SWTOR Ops protocol that most made me smile is that because the game doesn’t have a built in ready check, raid leaders sometimes ask players to jump up and down to show that they are ready for the next pull. I thought it was a cool use of jumping (always a popular player pastime), and easier to spot who is afk than squinting through chat to see who hasn’t typed ‘OK’.

Is there any interesting instance or raid protocol that you’ve experienced in MMOs?

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).

kaon1

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] Notes from SDCC, and scarce code is scarce

OK, a few more notes about The Old Republic to catch up on what we’ve seen last week, following up Arb’s summary of her flashpoint yesterday.

As an observer, I was mostly taken by:

  • Smoothness of the character animations. This isn’t LOTRO where the game is gorgeous until someone moves. It’s all very nicely animated.
  • Loved the female sith bounty hunter that Arb was playing, she looked very cool and badass. So did her armour.
  • It wasn’t all that easy for me to tell the various characters apart, aside from the sith inquisitor in his robes. Expect the inquisitor/ consular to get picked on a lot in PvP because they’re so easy to spot. As well as potentially being healers.
  • The dialogue wheels were lots of fun. I could see Arb settling into her character when she started instantly picking the most sarcastic options (which got darkside points, naturally.) What she couldn’t see but I could was that the guy sitting next to her was picking the exact same options with similar lack of delay. It’s almost a shame that the game can’t point out afterwards, “You know character X you met in that team? You guys have a lot in common and picked similar options, maybe you’d get on.” Would be especially neat for light side empire and dark side republic characters to be able to spot each other.
  • The instance was pretty much corridors (dressed up nicely as a ship) with mobs in them, broken up by the occasional boss or dialogue. There was an obvious influence from WAR in that side quests such as “kill 30 republic soldiers” kept popping up and it looked as though the team was completing them fairly organically just by running the flashpoint.
  • You do get to mow down lots of enemy mooks.

The point Arb made yesterday was that she could imagine groups getting very impatient if one member was slow to read or select dialogue or went AFK because the game does require everyone to make a selection before things continue. I assume there is a timeout, but we know how fast faster faster gogogo people get in instances.

Star Wars Panel

Bioware ran a 45 minute panel at Comic Con, at which they showed a few trailers, introduced some of the character voice actors, and answered some questions. G4TV recorded the whole thing, along with a commentary – mine would have been better (obviously) if I hadn’t run out of power on the iPod towards the end :)

The room was packed, and people cheered the trailers (which do look awesome on a big screen with proper sound equipment.)

Main points:

  • New trailer. This one briefly introduces the classes, it’s all made up of in-game footage, no cinematics. And I’m assuming you get to hear the actual voice actors who’ll be voicing the player characters. (The Imperial Agent not only looks geeky, he sounds geeky too! I may be a bit in love.)
  • No overlap of quest between class/ faction. For example, the bounty hunter and jedi knight have no quests in common from 1-max level. I’m assuming there may be some faction quests in common but definitely got the sense that the vast majority of class content is not repeated.
  • They discussed the solo endgame. There will be an entire planet devoted to this.
  • Planets can be quite large. They gave the example of 30 mins to run from one end to the other, although players will have faster transport than that.
  • You’ll be able to customise your companions, including changing their skin and hair colour. So yours don’t have to look like everyone else’s.
  • There is a LOT of dialogue in this game, which I think had been well broadcast previously. The voice actors discussed this, and the sizes of the scripts they had to read. They both really seemed to enjoy their characters and praised the writing (I hope the woman playing the love interest is ready for the amount of fan reaction she’s likely to get :) ).
  • They showed an example of the dialogue wheel, with a jedi vs sith fight where the winning jedi got to choose at the end whether or not to kill their opponent. They let the crowd choose, based on how loudly people cheered for each choice (cheers sounded about equal from where I was sitting). They said they expected people to choose killing, but showed both alternate endings. In the light side ending, the guy said he would change his ways, and they said you might run into him again later.
  • I can’t remember the character’s name but the twilek who ends up as a possible companion to the sith warrior is hilarious. They showed a couple of clips of her sassing people.
  • Level 50 was noted as the max level.

Pricing and Scarcity

There has been a lot of debate in the blogosphere (to put it mildly) about the pricing of the SWTOR pre-orders and collectors editions. Yes, they’re high, but they’re also bang in line with pricing trends for AAA games.

This will not be the first game to offer a $150 collectors edition, and it certainly won’t be the last. I don’t really understand the outrage on this particular point, collector’s editions were always supposed to be something a bit special for the hardcore (and rich) fans.  Having said that, I think Bioware could do fairly well if they sell the soundtrack separately.

Similarly, before complaining about the price of the standard edition, stop and think about how much MW3 is likely to be selling for later this year. Will it stop people buying the game? Hell no. I share the dismay on pricing trends, but this is pretty much in line with the way things are going.

Another issue is the deliberate scarcity of pre-order copies of the game. I have heard some obscure conspiracy theories around EA doing this to push prices up. I have also heard some more plausible debates about how to stop the servers getting swamped on launch (along with suggestions that EA should just somehow manage it.)

In any case, the real take away point I took from seeing the game and the dev team at Comic Con is that no one is trying to fool anyone. What you see is what you get. The game is very much for real. If you don’t like what you’re seeing and hearing in the interviews and demos right now, then it may not be for you. And I trust Bioware that if they are keeping the copies scarce, then they have a good reason for it.

It is a shame if players outside the US and EU have to wait a few more months for their servers, but we did that with WoW and it didn’t kill us. My advice is that it’s worth the wait to have local servers if you were planning to play the game anyway.

[SWTOR] Be very quiet, we’re hunting bounties!

Band together with your most trusted allies to undertake some of the most dangerous missions in the galaxy! Flashpoints are action-packed, story-driven adventures that test a group of players to their limits, putting them up against difficult foes in volatile situations. You and your group need your wits, your skills, and all your resources to emerge victorious. Every Flashpoint begins with an exciting story and contains difficult decisions – choose carefully, because your group’s choices have a meaningful impact on the challenges you’ll face, the enemies you’ll fight, and the outcome of the story! All the danger is certainly worthwhile; the rewards from Flashpoints are some of the most powerful you’ll find.

That’s description we’re given for flashpoints on the official SWTOR website  – so basically think of them any kind of group content you’ve done before, mostly like dungeons/instances. I was lucky enough to get through a random selection to play one hour of a flashpoint during Comic Con – an opportunity I’m very grateful to Bioware for. And I was allowed to take a +1, so Spinks could at least come watch with me.

Bioware Base

Now, it wasn’t so easy to find our way in. The guy at the front told us to go to the back, where the door was locked. Being enterprising (and this is before we were in-game) we managed to sneak into the back door and find where the queue was for the flashpoint, at which point my ID was checked and we stood for only around 5m before we went in to play. I’d been assigned the Empire flashpoint Black Talon (first one for Empire players) and each of four computers had a class set up on it ready for action (there were 2 sets of Empire players and 2 sets of Republic ones, so 16 of us in total). The seat I ended up on was that of the Bounty Hunter ‘stupidname’ (ok, the name was something that reminded me of Hashish, so Hash-hash or something! It made me laugh anyway). I was sitting between two guys who OBVIOUSLY were obsessed fans, and another girl rounded out the group at the end. Amusingly, and not-at-all-insultingly, I think both female players were ‘helped’ by the male ones, and also by the staff when we had to reset the instance..

So, I got to play a Bounty Hunter for an hour, even though I very very rarely play ranged classes. It’s ok though, there weren’t many skills to learn, but I got around 30s to check them out before we set off. I had a normal shot, a multi-shot, a ‘death from above’ where I hovered and shot lots, a melee hit (rocket punch) and a brief stun, also a shot that worked only on stunned mobs. In addition a self-heal for use out of combat which I ended up using a lot. In this set-up I should also mention I felt fairly overwhelmed and quite a bit intimidated by the assumption I’d know a lot about the game and not need any time to get going. Dropping in at level 9 isn’t so bad, not unless everyone around you wants to go as fast as possible to voraciously see as much content as possible within the time. But being fairly resilient, I cracked on and at some points was actually running ahead of my group!

So, first let’s mention the look of the game. Much nicer than I imagined. Yes, the chars are more on the cartoony style than the photorealistic one, but with odd races and strange colour combinations, I actually preferred this. Animations were smooth and looked natural, both for simple things like running and also for fast-paced combat. Of course our group voted to kill the Captain not to take him hostage (one of the first decisions in the flashpoint and not a super spoiler I hope, since it’s been out there for a while). But after that it was pretty much all combat and exploration. Ressing one another was apparently possible, I’ve read a few write-ups of the flashpoint, but no-one told our group that so we did many death runs until we got a sense of working together as a group – the deaths were all dumb and much less likely to occur in release when you’re either playing with friends or have time to stop and discuss what’s working and what isn’t.

The dialogue wheel was as expected, though Spinks & I later commented on what it would be like to play with people who read slowly, or super fast, or were non-native English speakers. All responses have to be clicked before the game determines which to use. It’s the same when interacting with lifts, everyone has to select the floor they want to go to. Was fine when there was time pressure and everyone was super-keen, but I can imagine it’ll have a few disadvantages also. We were mostly upset that my fab sarcastic responses weren’t often the winning ones, so I only got to hear my char speak a few times. The voices I heard were all really well acted – but my sound had been mostly turned off for some reason, still meant we could check out all the subtitles and Spinks had some idea what was going on in the flashpoint.

And so we ran around a spaceship and killed lots of stuff, some humanoid, some not. I found some explosives to blow up, I rolled need instead of greed because I’d not seen the looting system before, etc etc. I quite liked the pillars of light denoting loot on bodies – hard to miss them. And it all played very much like every other MMO in terms of button-pressing, running around et al. I liked the speed of combat and how it felt very dynamic, though I found ground targetting my ‘death from above’ skill was a bit of a pain, and by the time my manual dexterity had managed it, the group often didn’t need my dps anymore. I did a LOT of damage and frequently pulled aggro, I loved shooting while running though, even if it meant I did some amusingly accidental pulls (hey, I was ranged dps, that’s like part of the job description). We got to fight some mini-bosses that were tough and required a little more coordination, or thoughtful fighting at least. And we got to see the objectives update organically within our ‘quest’ and give us new side tasks to do (like killing x number of enemy soldiers). It’s not too hard to see Mythic’s influence and knowledge of public quests there, but it feels a lot more organic – at least within a flashpoint where you’re already there as a group and doing these things automatically.

So, why didn’t I rush home and pre-order SWTOR? Well, I’m still not sure it’s for me. It’s fun, that’s for sure, and I do trust Bioware to give us a really good product suitable for months of use with multiple alts all not having the same stories.. but, it didn’t grab me. I don’t know if it’s just the setting, or just being dropped in and I’ll definitely give it a play when it’s released – but it didn’t grab me as a ‘must play’. Still, even having said that, if you’re interested in the game, I don’t have anything bad to say about it – so that should come as a welcome relief!