[SWTOR] In which we raid, and in which factional timelines confuse me

evault1

It must be telling that although we spent a few hours in the Eternity Vault over the weekend in an 8 man group, all my screenshots show Spinks sitting on a speeder.

This is because Bioware have introduced the most amazing raid functionality known to man (or to lazy raiders, alternatively) – a speeder where you zone in which will neatly zoom you through the instance and drop you off somewhere near the last group wipe. This pretty much blew my mind. I don’t know if it’s because I’m profoundly lazy, or because I’ve spent too much of my life running through half cleared raid instances after a wipe. You will see from the screenshots that the Eternity Vault encompasses a bizarrely wide range of environments (snowy mountains, lava pit, jungle, and ancient mechanical vault.)

The speeder did once dump us (amusingly) in the middle of a spawn of mobs (manka cats) but otherwise was very well behaved.

Anyway, back to the raid. We now have about enough level 50s to be considering an 8-man group so decided to go take a poke at the Eternity Vault. In the event, we were one person short so we PUGged a healer (by dint of asking in general chat on the fleet).

And great fun was had by all. We didn’t quite get the last boss, as people were getting tired, but had several tries and I’m pretty sure we’ll get him next time now that everyone understands the fight. I’m going to bullet point some thoughts:

  • Nice range of encounters.
  • Lots of interaction with the environment during boss fights (which I like) such as hiding behind things, moving across lava stepping stones, splitting into smaller groups, big set piece in the last fight with platforms disappearing a la Lich King.
  • There is one fight where every raider has to kill a mob solo. This type of fight is always frustrating for healers, however fun it sounds on paper to designers.
  • Raid was well tuned for our lot, who are mostly recent 50s and not all well geared. We had a couple of close calls on the kills, which is a sign of good tuning on a first raid kill.
  • Loot was nicely distributed, everyone got something. The set pieces are pre-allocated when they drop (ie. when you loot the mob, some pieces will already be marked with the name of the raider they are destined for.) This means you won’t be picking up stuff for your companions, but does make things fairly chilled out.
  • Our PUG healer friend turned out to be a chilled out hardmode raider who was very patient about helping to explain fights to us, and said afterwards that he’d had fun. It’s easy to forget that a lot of hardcore players are nice when you only ever see them bitching at you in random groups.

Final verdict: that was fun! Raiding in a chilled out group with friends is a particular type of MMO fun that’s hard to get in any other way. I remember now why I play these games.

And that’s the difference between well tuned encounters where even if you fail, you feel that you could do it next time, and some of the hard mode flashpoints where difficulty can be a bit all over the place and it’s never clear if it’s down to execution, nonoptimal group composition, lack of gear, or not understanding the fight.

Confusing Republic and Empire Timelines

Although SWTOR gives the impression of being an open world type of themepark MMO, that isn’t entirely true. Or rather, there are some planets which are mostly open world and you could run into the other faction (if you went looking for them), and others which are not.

This is because the Republic timeline doesn’t quite match up to the Empire timeline. Or rather, the two factions quest through some planets during slightly different eras. For example, Empire on Balmorra help to put down the resistance and install Darth Lachris as planetary governer. Republic get to Balmorra later in the timeline, and they help the resistance to overthrow the Empire and get to kill Darth Lachris (at least, I did on my consular).

The odd thing is that as Empire, you never hear about any of this. As far as my empire characters know, Lachris is still in charge and if I go back to Balmorra, I could go and visit her.

Similarly, Republic retake Corellia /after/ Empire have taken the planet in their storyline. And as Empire, you will never hear about this (presumably it hasn’t happened yet?)

This means that from a RP point of view, it’s very difficult to figure out what the actual state of play is politically at endgame. I think the Republic view is the more current one and that they’re actually making good headway by the game’s (current) end. But playing as Empire, you would actually think the opposite. In a true open world game, needless to say, you could go back to those Republic held planets and actually try to re-install the Empire if you wanted to do so.

But in this type of game, you have to wait for someone to write a storyline about it. Just an interesting genre effect to think about.

Tank vs dps, round 5

Lono commented yesterday that he feels the hard mode flashpoints in SWTOR are overtuned, with the ‘hard’ part relying mostly on boss enrage timers. What this means in practice is that that the group needs to provide more dps, which means that it’s the dps who get the extra difficulty. He proved this by healing a hard mode successfully in his offspec and with dps gear (ie. the requirements on healers were very low).

I’d concur with this. We’ve run Black Talon in hardmode successfully, but in Boarding Party we couldn’t get past the first boss (it’s the group with multiple elites). So two issues:

  1. a tuning issue, some of those hard modes are either overtuned or are tuned with the expectation of specific types of dps and
  2. the difficulty isn’t spread across the roles evenly

My perspective is based on playing a dps juggernaut, and I’ve had some experience at playing melee dps in WoW so I don’t believe  lack of dps is down to my incompetence. It could be that the instances favour ranged dps over melee, or that juggernaut dps isn’t up to scratch, or that I’m not in full PvP or raid gear, or that my guild mates are rubbish (which they aren’t). However, groups in SWTOR only have 4 players so if an encounter IS favouring one type of dps over another AND is tightly tuned then they need to fix it, because otherwise it’s making things too hard if even one of your dps is ‘the wrong type.’ And personally, I’m not going to sit around whining about being forced to PvP to get gear upgrades to run instances in, I’ll just quit or play an alt once I feel I’ve given it my best shot and it wasn’t good enough.

It’s also confusing to the player base when the gear requirements for raids are lower than for flashpoints, and if that was intended then it’s something that needs to be made clearer. I have strong feelings about this from TBC when tanking heroics (if you weren’t playing a druid so had access to good crafted tanking gear) was absolutely horrible until you had Kara gear.

Tobold has taken this opportunity to throw some hate at dps players and snarking about lack of responsibility. This is just bizarre to me. So much hate. I have no issues with tanking, and spent a lot of time doing it in WoW. I’d probably be tanking in SWTOR except that we have a fair few tanks already and dps  are needed, and I know fine well what my responsibility is as a dps player. Do so many tanks and healers really hate the dps players that much? I don’t recall that I ever did – well maybe the really rude guys in random PUGs but that’s because they were really rude.

Maybe I was jealous that I had to endure gearing up from raiding to tank heroics where they could just hop in as soon as they hit level 70 (this is TBC, remember). That was in fact still a tuning issue, and it wasn’t right then, and it isn’t right now even if this time it’s the tanks/ healers getting the easier ride.

But on another level, he’s not seen how the emphasis has been shifting to dps in WoW over the last couple of expansions. More enrage timers, more need for top dps just to be able to clear normal mode raids, more raids failing because they have good tank and healer players but can’t get the dps … it’s been a trend. (Not a good one, I hasten to add. I think with X good players of any role you should be able to clear a raid/ instance where X can be less than the total if it’s not absolute cutting edge end game.)

[SWTOR] My experience of endgame

Here’s a couple of screenshots from Kaon under Siege, the most recent flashpoint. It has many zombies, of which the top picture shows us disposing of one (yes, this one’s a screamer). Also there are some cool darker areas where you get to grab little floaty torches, as shown below. Arb and I were a bit girly about our torches and shrieked when the torches went out, and looked frantically for the next box of torches. The guys in the group were much more stoic.

It was a good, fun instance though. Looking forwards to the next one.

kaon

So, SWTOR endgame. I don’t really have a thoughtful summary for this yet, so this is in bullet point form. My experience is based on being in a friendly casual guild where we don’t yet have enough 50s to consider ops (raids) but when there are at least 4 players on of appropriate level range and role who have time available, there will often be an instance or hard mode run.

  • Dailies: I have been sticking with the Belsavis level 50 dailies, since they’re quicker and easier than the Ilum ones. I am not doing them religiously every day, or cleaning them all out when I do spend time there. Slacker? Sure. But I’ve made enough tokens to upgrade all the armor/ hilt in my gear, and it’s possible to solo one of the [Heroic 4] Belsavis dailies by judicious death runs so my companions all now have orange weapons with blue level 50 mods (because that’s one of the quest rewards as well as the daily tokens).
  • PvP: I may have run the occasional warfront but that’s about all, I’m not gung ho for PvP.
  • Instances: Have now completed all the normal ones and one hard mode. (I’m not big on PUGs, I suppose I could but the demand for melee dps isn’t high and gearing for tanking is a work in progress.)
  • Datacrons: Gathering Datacrons (one-time permanent buffs) is a much more engaging game than I had expected. Some need pinpoint (and frustrating) jumping skills, others include odd forms of transport or exploring detailed areas of the grid you hadn’t noticed before. It’s all quite intriguing. Teppo has the patience of a saint and organised a guild run to pick some up from Balmorra and Nar Shadaa. This was enlivened by me *accidentally* attacking a PvP flagged Jedi Knight we ran into who promptly returned with a raid group. So we had a lot of running battles on Nar Shadaa in between Holocron gathering. This reminded me a lot of DaoC, where it was standard tactic to annoy a high level enemy character in the hope they’d bring their friends out to play.
  • Matrix Shards: These are a special type of Holocron. I decided to collect the three shards I was going to need for my dps warrior matrix cube relic. This probably needs to be the subject of another post because it turned out to be quite involved but I’m dead proud that I did it! Gamewise, it made for an interesting and quite engrossing solo sort-of quest.
  • Space Game: I am getting more into this. Currently stuck on Polith Minefield (I can do all of it except getting all the turrets on the minelayer right at the end – feel free to offer any suggestions! :) ).
  • Crafting: I haven’t really been bothered to do much of this except for guildies. I seem to make enough credits from dailies that it isn’t necessary.

So it probably sounds as though I don’t do much in endgame, and that would be correct. On the other hand, I’m also busy with work and often don’t have much time to log on and I am finding enough to do when I do want to be online. I need an endgame like this where most of it is purely optional because I don’t have the time or energy to grind. On the other hand, my gear is fine for hard modes at the moment, and probably decent for ops as well (the rough rule of thumb I’ve heard is 1200 in main stat), when we get round to them.

The main lure away from endgame is playing alts. I do find it awkward that the legacy system encourages players to play alts of the opposite faction but there’s no guild system that can support having characters from opposite factions. So if you do this, you lose access to guild chat and being invited to guild runs etc unless your guild uses something external like voice chat.

The other thing with alts is that if you enjoy playing in duos (which I really do in this game), the alts are off the table unless the other person is on and wants to play the appropriate alt. I may need another solo alt I think…

The big surprise for me from endgame is that I’m enjoying the Datacrons much more than I had expected, even though the really jumpy ones are immensely frustrating. SWTOR Spy have a good guide on how to find them all.

[Question of the Day] What would you like to see in MMO endgames?

Last week, I wrote a post that touched briefly on the SWTOR endgame and it generated some great discussion in comments about what sort of things players liked to do at endgame anyway.

The SW:TOR endgame is hideously lacking if you’re not interested in conventional PvE/PvP. You might ask what else a player might like to be doing, but that’s the crux of the issue – there’s nothing.

“What I really hoped to see was for my ship to be more customizable on the inside, a form of player housing that could be developed far more than just “being there”.  “

– Zellriven

Question is – what do you think there SHOULD be to do at level cap that isn’t there? Maybe I’m a bit jaded by seeing the same debates over every game, but the nothing to do at level cap argument always takes on shades of Monty Python – “yes, but apart from all THAT what have the Romans done for us?”

-Tremayne

What I would have like to see was after you finished your class story they allowed free travel space flight. <…> I would have loved too if they somehow added Pod Racing as an endgame activity also. <…> I’d also have like to play solo challenging instances based off of using your crew as a team instead of just one at a time.

–Kelindia

In practice what you are probably doing is tooling around, hanging out with your guild, and marking time until the next story update.

–Me

So the way I see it, there are three main ways to look at endgame in MMOs.

  1. Endgame is the real game. Be it sandbox, ranked PvP, progression raiding or all three, the levelling stage of an MMO (if there is one) is really just an introduction to the game. Endgame needs to be enjoyable ad infinitum as a game in itself. But over time it will tend to mostly appeal to the more hardcore.
  2. Endgame should consist of a wide variety of opportunities for character progression to encompass all play styles, so that as many people as possible can find something they like. This progression can involve purely cosmetic upgrades. It may consist of identifiable minigames. There could be dailies.
  3. ‘Endgame’ is just a plateau between content patches, its main purpose is to keep people logging in and building social ties with their guild/ friends before the next patch. And each new patch should not be gear gated based on endgame phases. (ie. you should be able to jump into new content without having spent X days doing endgame activities first.)

These are not mutually exclusive, although type 1 games and gamers probably won’t be ‘wasting’ time on type 2 endgame because the rewards are less meaningful to them. If your type 1 endgame is based on guilds holding and defending areas of space, then anyone who spends time doing dailies to earn a minipet is probably not actively helping. (But you never know, I guess it could feed into the in-game economy in some way.).

But it is type 3 endgame that I want to focus on, because this has come to represent themepark MMOs. In SWTOR for example, there’s new single player content due for March. It is possible that Bioware will put a high gear requirement on this content, but since it’s aimed at soloers rather than raiders or high end PvPers, it would be counterproductive. Better that they don’t gate the solo content. Will it provide better gear in quest rewards than what is currently available from endgame instances and hard modes? Again, we don’t know, but it’s likely because they’d like to encourage people to play through it.

So themepark endgame tends to be forced into busywork plateaux before an effective gear reset with the next set of content. At that point it’s a question of what pattern of play do you prefer in endgame and what would you like to be able to do in that time? Or would you be happier to just unsub/ stop playing until the next content patch?

The time requirements of endgame

The other way to look at MMO endgame is to think about how people’s playing patterns change at that point in the game. Do you want the structure of organised raiding? Do you want to be part of a team in endgame? Do you like the pattern of logging on to do dailies and chat? Do you prefer to ease off and chill out in the game?

My feel is that people do like the idea of character progression, of getting something for the time spent in the game, and are less thrilled by the idea of gear resets for that reason. It’s also good to have a choice of activities, as long as no one feels forced to do the ones they don’t like.

But I also think that endgame serves a key role in cementing in game social networks. This is time when people aren’t driven by their own need to level so maybe have more time to hang out, do social activities, or just chat. It can potentially be a kind of downtime which serves a strong pacing role.

I’m still not sure what my ideal endgame would be. The games where I have most enjoyed being max level have always been those where I had the stronger social networks and where we had good options of things to do together (even organising them on the night) as well as things to do if you were feeling less social. I do know that while I have no objections to raiding (I do have a soft spot for raids, too many good memories), I don’t really want to be organising my weeks around it for months on end any more.

What would you like to see from MMO endgames that you don’t see at the moment? More solo content? More sandbox? More crafting?

 

[Links] May the links be with you

Oo, it’s been ages since I wrote a links post. Let’s see what’s in the can.

For the record, I’m still enjoying SWTOR and will write a post about my experiences in the endgame sometime next week. While both Stabs and Richard Bartle comment on how unusual it feels in an MMO for the levelling part to actually feature an ending, they come to different conclusions on whether or not this works.

I’ll note only that I think the original endgame-ish model borrowed a lot from original D&D in which it was assumed the game would turn into more of a simulation/ sandbox/ war game after your character reached the dizzying heights of level 10 or so and there were originally rules for what types of settlements/ strongholds each class would build and what types of followers might be attracted to them. Bear this in mind: the MMO model was based on a game where levelling was an RPG and endgame was sandbox. This accounts for a lot of the confusion for both players and designers I think.

For what it’s worth, I subbed for 6 months. I am in fact in the habit of always taking out a 6 month sub for a new MMO that I really liked in beta/ opening month. It’s one of the ways I try to support my hobby, plus I get to explore the game without feeling rushed. Will I be in for the full 6 months? That gentle readers is a future we’ll explore together ;P

I don’t really have a good list of SWTOR blogs; if you know any good ones or want to advertise your own, feel free to mention them in comments. One SWTOR post that did catch my eye was Calli’s post on Dude, Where’s My Bantha about some patterns and issues she’s (edited: HE I mean. Sorry Calli!) noticed with the republic-side romances. Food for thought!

It’s almost as if Bioware think that everyone playing The Old Republic fantasises about being the kind of tough, strong and ruggedly handsome man that damsels in distress everywhere need to shelter them from all the ugly in the world.

I recommend Imperial Agent, a good dose of Kaliyo will clear away any of those sorts of thoughts.

What’s buzzing round the blogosphere?

Kingdoms of Amalur is released next week, and here are Tipa’s thoughts on the demo. I did briefly try the demo on the PS3 and my thoughts mostly can be summed up as “combat looks as though it’s going to be fun and engaging, the world and story didn’t really grab me.” So if you want an open world fantasy type game with engaging combat, roll a coin. If it’s heads get Amalur, tails get Final Fantasy 13-2. (I’m still looking forwards to Dragon’s Dogma, though.)

Zubon doesn’t like games that have achievements that can only be completed at certain points in the game, so if you miss the right time, you can’t go back later and do it. Good discussion in comments here between people like me who think achievements are just a bit of fluff and fun and not to be taken too seriously, and more achiever/ completionist players.

Keen talks about sandbox games, and particularly some of the design notes that Goblinworks have been putting out about their upcoming (although probably not any time soon) Pathfinder fantasy sandbox game. They’ve been discussing links between PvP, trading/ economy, and resources/ building in a sandbox world. There is more to sandboxes than just giant economic-war simulations though, and it would be nice to see sandbox games experiment more with the sorts of social challenges that featured in Tale in the Desert. Or anything that would encourage players to build working in game communities rather than always be focussed on in-game profit and achievements.

Brian at wasdstomp gaming wonders why in F2P games, he always buys a bundle of points just before he gets bored of the game, so ends up not spending them.

F2P games have been in the news again, with Star Trek Online and SOE announcing that Everquest will be taking the plunge in March. Aion is due to go F2P soonish (in the EU at least), and Rift now offers the first 20 levels free. Anyone planning on taking up any of those? Everquest F2P hold any interest for anyone who didn’t fancy it before?

Scott Andrews at WoW Insider discusses the current (dying) state of 25 man raid guilds in WoW. Syl at Raging Monkeys has a thoughtful look at social control in MMOs and how WoW players have been getting streamlined over the years into small groups of similar ability.

I don’t wish to be in a guild where every person is exactly like me <…> Nor do I mind slower learners or players who simply fail at the odd mechanic <…>  – as long as you can compensate for them somehow during specific encounters.

Zynga has been in the news recently following accusations that they cloned/ copied another game (Tiny Tower). This wouldn’t be the first time for Zynga, whose big hit Farmville was also ‘strongly inspired’ by another similar game. Brian Reynolds (Zynga’s head of design) discusses copycats and cloning on Gamasutra, but only if they don’t ask about Tiny Tower :) Tadhg at What Games Are shares his thoughts on how you can tell if a game is a clone, and what to do about it (if you are the designer of the cloned game.)

Sente reflects on how difficult it can be to remember how to play a game if you return after a few months, and wonders what MMO devs in particular could do to help.

[SWTOR] The ‘oops we just broke high level world PvP’ patch

So, first content patch of the game has brought new flashpoint, operation (raid) stuff, class tweaks, and PvP tweaks and boy has the latter turned out to be a doozy.

There were tweaks made to the open world high level PvP zone on Ilum to encourage players to earn valor via killing other characters rather than just capturing objectives. However, the faction bases had not been given sufficient safe zones, add to that a population imbalance and what you end up with is one faction farming the other at the respawn point for eternity. And the respawning guys couldn’t get to their taxi/ escape point. MMOCrunch describes in more detail what’s been going down.

Bioware have apologised and are planning to patch it urgently. So basically PvP was messed up on Ilum for an evening, and there will be fixes. They also commented about noticing individuals who took ‘extreme advantage’ of the situation, but we’ve no idea what’s happening with that.

I find it hard to be up in arms about this since I’ve never even been to Ilum and although the game contains PvP, I don’t really consider SWTOR to be a PvP game. If they’d broken PvE I’d be mildly irritated though. However, PvP tweaks in a game really do need to be more carefully tested that this. It leaves the feeling that Ilum had been a problem when players were deliberately zone flipping so they put in a quick patch which has led to worse problems. I suspect they will eventually iterate on a fun/ workable solution, because open PvP zones can be fun and aren’t a bad idea.

As for players leaving en masse, it comes down to how much patience you want to have with a new MMO and team. I think the general lack of patience in the player base has been the doom of MMOs in general, but at the same time, a dev team needs to build the level of trust that means players will roll with a bad patch in the knowledge that it gets fixed. Bioware have not got off to the best of starts.

The important thing for me is a) how quickly they hotfix the problem and b) whether they can learn from the experience and avoid doing it again. The faction imbalance, however, is a whole other issue …

[SWTOR] In which Bioware finally nail single player gameplay

A funny thing happened to me this week while playing Star Wars: the Old Republic. My Sith Warrior chick (partner says accusingly, “She looks evil!” but I think he’s just influenced by being in the same room as me while I’m playing) is in the final stages of her class quest now, and I’ve noticed a couple of difficulty ramps in the single player game as I go. But the funny thing is that this week I realised that I was enjoying the single player difficulty, in fact I’m enjoying it far more than WoW.

I may have noted previously that Bioware have done a good job in making the set piece, end of plot arc, boss fights harder than the comparable missions while not being minmaxingly hard (ie. you can beat them if you play carefully even with a randomish build and your choice of companion). But looking back, they have also been teaching you as a player to figure out how to work out a decent rotation (ie. which of your abilities do most damage so you should use them as soon as they come off cooldown, etc), how to use interrupts, using the scenery to help, figuring out how best to handle groups of linked mobs, using your companion to help out, and so on.

For example, I struggle to take on two strong mobs of my level … unless I let my companion pull one while I kill the other and then taunt the spare one back. Even the wimpiest of companions, assuming they’re geared at their level, can tank a mob for awhile on their own. Where there is a strong mob with one or more normal ones, the normals usually do more damage and die faster so it’s best to kill them first. Corner pulls can be used to drag ranged mob out of a room. As an MMO dino, I’m familiar with a lot of these tactics, but I get a kick out of how much more manageable the game becomes when I start using them rather than just piling straight into a fight.

And what’s more, I’m finding that the difficulty supports the storytelling. Not in every case for sure, but the way the single player class quests balance increasing difficulty with increasing story importance has worked really well to draw me in. And in a way that DAO/ DA2 never quite managed (much as I enjoyed them as story games).

I like that as an MMO, players can also choose to level up or bring friends to make the quests easier if they prefer that route. Choices are good. But I think Bioware have hit on some very solid  gameplay in the single player quests, still in the MMO mould for sure, but a subtle improvement nonetheless.

Now the interesting thing about single player difficulty is that part of the difficulty is because you’re still learning the game and the class. I’m sure if I played it through again on a new Sith Warrior, I’d find the quests far easier. Partly because I know what’s going to happen in the fights, and partly because I’ve learned how the class handles. So I want to record that NOW on my first ever playthrough, without looking up builds, gear, or rotations and learning as I go I found that the difficulty level was fun and appropriate. I like only having to worry about one companion, as opposed to the party based DAO, it keeps things fluid and dynamic while not having too many NPCs to gear up and worry about at the same time.

I hope that this is something Bioware can build on in future content. I don’t expect single player endgame to be their main focus, but in SWTOR, they may actually have built one of the more solid gameplay engines of any of their games that I have played. So I found it interesting that Tobold wondered today whether the game will be appealing once the stories have run out — it’s a valid thought, and I enjoy the stories, but I think the gameplay has a lot of merit too.