[SWTOR] 4 things you need to know about F2P SWTOR

“.. in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes AND F2P MMO conversions.”

So, the big MMO news today is that Bioware announced that SWTOR will transition to a full free to play game before the end of 2012. It doesn’t come as a great surprise following a couple of rounds of layoffs in response to falling subscriptions, and departures of senior developers. Clearly EA were looking for some quick fixes for the expensive MMO which is starting to look like an albatross around their necks.

I thought I’d distill the answers to the four main questions I had.

1. When is the game switching to F2P.

November 2012.

2. How much can you get without subscribing?

Quite a lot. Many players (including me) would say that the real jewel in the crown of this game is the levelling content, and that’s largely what you’ll get for free. The game will be F2P to level 50, with restricted access to flashpoints and warzones (ie. a restricted number per week) among other things such as number of auctions. You will have to subscribe to gain access to raids/Operations and there are some other restrictions which are lifted for subscribers.

The current plan is that you’ll still have to buy the core game, but the price is being reduced (a lot) to $14.99 in August and who knows what will happen by November.

If you like the idea of this style of Bioware/classic MMO gameplay, then I’d say it’s a pretty darn good deal. EA never expected to have to give this away and spent way more than they would have done otherwise so you’re getting a very polished Old Republic RPG with some MMO elements attached. It’s also one of the best games I’ve ever played for duoing.

3. I’m a subscriber now. Should I drop my sub and go F2P in November?

Well, if your main interest is levelling alts, you don’t care about Ops, and you aren’t too bothered about grinding flashpoints or warzones, it looks at the moment as though F2P would be the way to go. This is the problem with introducing a F2P mechanism that offers only free or subscription options. Suddenly the subscription option becomes a worse proposition because you pay the same sub as today, but get relatively less for it.

But who knows what they’ll plan to do with this in the future. Ideally they’d look at letting people buy things piecemeal.

3a. I’m not a subscriber now. Should I play this game when it goes F2P in November?

That rather depends on why you’re not playing at the moment.

If you liked the idea of the game but were put off by the cost, then come play and enjoy it. I do rate it highly, it’s a good quality game of its type. I think the levelling game is way better than WoW, for comparison. If you played SWTOR for awhile and then left because you were bored, you might want to check out changes such as LFG, or reconnect with other friends who are playing, it’ll be much easier to set up the occasional flashpoint/PvP night when people don’t have to all subscribe.

If you hated the idea of the game and are burned out on this type of MMO anyway, then it’s not going to change your mind when it is free.

If you are a current or ex-subscriber, you’ll be given an allotment of ‘cartel coins’ (ie. cash shop tokens) when the conversion happens, although the only things we currently know to be on sale are a pet, a cosmetic hat, and a chair (I’m not sure where the chair goes, would be cool if it was on your ship though.)

4. So what new content is planned for this year, seriously?

Currently the stated plans involve a new Op, new warzone, new companion (HK-51) and new space combat missions. What they notably don’t involve is new story content, which is unfortunate since that’s the main draw (fourth pillar et al) of this game.

A new planet had been mentioned previously but isn’t listed on the new content page for this year.

Various commentary stuff

SWTOR subscriptions were noted  as being below a million during yesterday’s EA earnings call (link is to the pdf of the transcription):

Although it launched well, subscriptions have been on a declining trajectory and have now slipped below one million. Last year we announced that the breakeven point was roughly 500,000 subscribers. And while we are well above that today, that’s not good enough.

- (Frank Gibeau)

So the question is whether they can get enough players in for F2P to work its magic, compared to the number of paying subscribers they have today. And how many of those new players (assuming they come, which I hope they do since it’s basically a good game) will want to take out subs or buy items from the cash shop. On the fleet last night, reactions ranged from looking forwards to a new influx of players, people wondering whether they will drop their sub and just play F2P, the usual concerns about the unwashed masses who might pick up a F2P game, and more specific concerns about the future of the game – will they ever make enough money to plan future story chapters?

This looks to me like a swiftly implemented F2P conversion. I have no idea how long Bioware had been considering it as an idea (my guess is from fairly soon after launch) but this isn’t a carefully thought out plan so much as a “give lots of free stuff away to get players in and … err… then charge a subscription for hardcore endgame type players.”

Scott Jennings at Broken Toys is, like me, a fan of the game. He notes that subscriptions for MMOs are looking more and more like an initial markup, which devolves quickly to F2P. That implies that a F2P conversion is in TSW’s future also, and that anyone who said ‘I’ll wait until it goes F2P’ about a new subscription game is likely going to be right in their assumptions. (Note: WoW currently is obviously an outlier to this model, although I suppose who knows what the future holds?)

Green Armadillo has a typically thoughtful analysis, noting that:

While I personally will most likely pay less for SWTOR under the new model, I’m not celebrating.  SWTOR is a quality product, albeit one that may have been especially ill-suited for the subscription model.  The quality and direction of the game’s future development, with the reduced staff and revised business model, are likely to suffer.

[Links] Day of Reckoning for 38 Studios, soloing in MMOs, Diablo 3, Sony won the console wars?

Scott Jennings writes eloquently about the week when 40% of the SWTOR team was laid off, and 38 Studios (makers of Kingdoms of Amalur, and with an MMO in the works) imploded very publically.

I think the direction that our industry is going – the incredible amount of money wasted by EA on what was essentially a roll of the dice that came up 2 and 3, and the even more incredible display of massive hubris and utter incompetence on the part of Schilling and his management team, is killing the very concept of massively multiplayer gaming.

Everything I have read about 38 Studios going tits up makes me think that the management were a bucket of tits. (Yes that is the technical term.) Implausible business plan, lack of auditing on cashflow, taking on way more staff than they needed or could support, dicking around with staff. Unsubject writes in more detail on the financials. The only surprising thing to me is that so many MMO bloggers have sympathy for them – MMOs get cancelled in pre-production all the time, we should be used to it by now. I don’t care if it was run by a rich sportsman with a dream or a lameass banker, they screwed up.

Or in the words of Kevin Dent at  Kotaku:

I have a theory that Harvard Business School basically set this entire thing up so as to demonstrate how many ways someone can screw up running a business. If this is the case, heartfelt congrats to the Crimson Halls, you owned it.

I literally could not invent more ways to screw up than Curt Schilling has with 38.

I can’t entirely agree with Scott about the effect on MMOs though, because big budget AAA MMOs were already pretty much on the outs. You can tell this because Michael Pachter recently said so, and he only ever makes predictions after the event.

One of the interesting things about this story though is that both Bioware Austin and 38 Studios put out pretty decent games that got some critical acclaim. Neither Amalur nor SWTOR are bad games, and both were reasonably successful in the market. Just their funding model needed more than ‘reasonably successful’ – in 38 Studio’s case it is because their management can’t handle simple maths and in Bioware’s case it’s because for some reason EA felt that ploughing unfeasibly massive amounts into the game was going to pay off. (Nice bonus for players I guess, because it does feel lush.)

SWTOR will be profitable, incidentally.  It will just take a few months longer than EA predictions and that’s why it is being seen as a failure. Whereas in fact it sold more boxes more quickly than any other western MMO in the market and has fairly decent retention figures for an MMO, even allowing for number massaging. In any case, they’ve just announced that patch 1.3 (which will include a random dungeon finder) is going onto the test server imminently and that they have plans to consolidate servers into super-servers, which are both needed updates.

Shintar shares some hopes and fears that she has for the new patch.

Anyhow, it’s sad for the staff, obviously. But we’re in a recession and MMOs are risky business at the best of times, and these things happen (especially when your management are a bucket of tits, which isn’t really the case for Bioware). Hopefully they’ll find something else swiftly. I’ll miss Stephen Reid/Rockjaw, he was a great CSM.

Soloing in MMOs

Keen also found time to muse this week about why people solo in MMOs (remember in my last incredibly wise words of wisdom to new bloggers I noted that soloing vs grouping was one of THOSE topics?), claiming that MMOs aren’t single player games. So why do devs want to try to mimic single player gameplay?

I am referring to the open and deliberate act of making a very core part of a MMO into a single-player experience as if the players were offline.

Bernardparsnip at Diminishing Returns reflects on players who might want some of the advantages of mas…sive games without the disadvantages.

I recognize that there is a demographic of players that want the benefits of an MMO – a persistent world, frequent content updates, a player-driven economy, opportunities for PvP and cooperative play, without the disadvantages inherent with playing with others.

Azuriel takes a different tack and wonders whether MMOs really do suck as single player games.

…in a very real sense I consider the average MMORPG these days as a much better single-player game than the average RPG.

My view is that we’re seeing traditional boundaries between single player and multiplayer games come crashing down around us, and players may not yet be sure exactly what they do want. This sense of wanting all the benefits of massive multiplayer games (like a vibrant player based economy and instant groups whenever you want them) without the negatives (like having to actually talk to anyone or rely on other players in any way) is very strong in the current crop of games.

I think Journey laid this out most neatly with having other players viewed as friendly but nameless entities, and Dee wonders if maybe the public quests in GW2 will have the same effect. But it won’t ever be the same as the sort of communities that more forced socialising will bring together, we could end up with people playing side by side but always on their own.

Ultimately I’d like to see more gating in future games, allowing players to build up communities of interest in games of their choice. What if I want to play EVE but without having to play with the more sexist, racist, homophobic players who seem to populate it (going by forum posts at least)? This is going to become more and more of an issue for anyone running online games in future, I suspect, as players lose their tolerance for playing with random dickweeds. (This will come to be seen as one of the negatives of MMOs that people would like to avoid.)

Zubon has a really smart post about how different games attract a different type of player and suggests people flock to games which seem to be populated with players like themselves.

But there is a flaw in his argument, which is how exactly are you going to find this out? If I search round EVE blogs and forums, I’ll find a lot of very aggressive posturing and the aforementioned sexist, racist, etc. language. But I do happen to know people who play EVE who aren’t like that, so it isn’t universal.

Similarly, WoW is so large that it probably contains communities of just about every MMO player type under the sun if you can find them. So characterising it as the McDonalds of MMOs isn’t quite true in terms of the playerbase. It’s more of a mosaic than a least common denominator known for poor but consistent quality.

While LOTRO is justly known for its attention to the setting, I’d also say it was a haven for more mature gamers and for RPers. But that was before it went F2P and it may have changed since then. So how would a new player know?

So while I think Zubon makes a good argument, it just places more emphasis on how /the community/ constructs explanations of what type of player different games attract and then communicates it. And bloggers bear a lot of the responsibility for this. When I write that my guild in SWTOR are laid back, friendly, casual players and raiders, people will assume this is normal for the game. It probably is! But you’re just getting one player’s view.

Redbeard tackles a similar topic from the point of view of new players in WoW at the moment.

If Blizz is serious about bringing in and keeping new blood, then they have to address the social issues in WoW.  This isn’t Pollyanna country, and it ain’t EVE, either.  People like to be welcomed and respected and tolerated.  If they feel the environment is toxic, they’ll move on.  You can’t expect a new player to blindly stumble through all of the social pitfalls and land in a good guild without guidance, and likewise you can’t expect someone to blithely ignore all of the social issues that some players bring to WoW.

Diablo 3

Clearly we haven’t had enough posting about D3 yet. I’m still having fun with the game but slowing down now that I’m in Hell level on my barbarian. I don’t know that I can honestly see this as an evergreen game I’d be playing months from now (especially if Torchlight 2 and GW2 and updates to SWTOR are coming out). The Auction House is definitely impacting on the game’s lifespan in my view, and they haven’t launched the real money AH yet.

Hugh at the MMO Melting Pot (who you should follow for excellent daily aggregations of MMO blogging) collects some more views on the auction house.

The Ancient Gaming Noob has played both Diablo 3 and the Torchlight 2 beta and gives a thorough comparison between what he has seen of the games.

Milady explains why she thinks Diablo 3 is a wellmade mistake.

They had many years to consider how to best mine money from their users, and Diablo III in its entirety is what they came up with. From Blizzard’s perspective, the gear barrier is there so you are forced to buy to continue; the barrier to grouping in Inferno is built so you cannot be too effective at higher levels, and are forced to grind on your own and buy loot; the enforced multiplayer exists solely to apply peer-pressure to your gearing up, so you need to resort to the AH to play with them.

Rohan argues that Elective Mode in D3 is a mistake.

Green Armadillo lists a lot of things that D3 is not and wonders if Blizzard were right to keep the name.

And Gevlon explains why he thinks D3 just doesn’t work as a competitive game.

Straw Fellow defends Blizzard’s decision to require D3 players to be always online.

Microsoft and the Console Wars

Microsoft may face a ban on imports of the XBox 360 into the US and Germany because of patent infringement. I assume they’ll settle with Motorola out of court, but it would be an amusing way to lose the console wars.

It would be nice to think that the patent rats nest might get sorted out sometime soon, but since there is no real sign of that happening, better hope your favourite manufacturer knows how to play the game.

And finally …

Berath ponders why there are so few gaming blogs focussed on shooters, given how many people play them.

Xintia explains why Bioware are great at telling stories but bad at designing games.

And Melmoth waxes lyrical about the general chat channel in TERA.

What was fascinating about the channel was that it had become a microcosm of the blogosphere: nearly every general topic that I’ve seen repeatedly touched upon over the past five or so years of blogging was mentioned in this one place, all in the fast forward nature of a back-and-forth conversation between people whose attention was invariably elsewhere. I quickly found myself privately playing Cassandra to any topic raised, knowing full well the future of each discussion, where the disagreements would come from, and the conclusions which would be drawn.

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

worldpvp_rakghoul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puzzle bosses, and the Bioware take on heroics/ raids

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

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

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

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

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

apprentice

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

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

[SWTOR] Are we there yet?

Bioware have taken the fairly brave step of allowing new players into their shiny new servers/ game in waves, depending on when they entered their pre-order codes into their accounts.

Naturally this has spawned some classic board-rage on the official boards from people who don’t think they got their money’s worth. I don’t normally have a lot of time for board rage but in this case I think they have a point. Retailers/ Bioware were charging extra for those pre-order bonuses, and I think people are entitled to know exactly what they get for their money. Stepped pre-entry might have been fairer if the pre-order had not cost extra over the box version.

Arb and I cheesed the whole thing by getting given pre-order codes for free at Comic Con back in July, so we got in early and made our characters last night. I have a pretty blue bounty hunter and a pretty red sith and a pretty green smuggler. Who knew my life was so devoid of characters with primary-coloured skin? (I know people have criticised SWTOR for the fact so many of the races are recoloured humans, but I actually kind of like the way they look. I also like that you can make dark skinned humans, and that so many of the NPCs also have dark skin. That’s been missing from far too many games, given how easy it should be to do.)

So far the early start seems to have been going very smoothly. That’s not a small thing at all, so props to Bioware and hope they can keep it up. The pre-loaded guild setup means that if you had joined a guild and noted it on the Bioware site before launch, when you log into the server to which that guild was assigned, one of your characters (you can choose which) gets an automatic invite. This has also been working neatly, and saves a lot of hassle around “omg, is anyone around who can invite me???!!” (especially if one’s guildmaster did not get into early start until near the end.)

I will write some more specific posts on particular mechanics or storytelling tricks that I think either work or don’t in this case. But I am continually blown away by how clever the camera work is in the cut scenes, showing different characters’ reactions to conversation, and giving extra information about my character from her posture and movement. I see her leaning casually against a wall, pacing up and down like a caged animal, and all in the background of whoever is actually speaking. It very effectively gives the impression of the sith warrior as a lioness, ferocious, arrogant, contained. How can you not love that?

I am trying to decide whether to give amusing updates on how my budding sith warrior is faring. I don’t want to give spoilers, but … if they’re funny…? Maybe I will mark any such with spoiler tags.

Favourite moment so far: My warrior messing around and telling her master, “If you see the emperor, say hello from me.” His response, “I’m sure he’ll be thrilled,” which sounds like nothing unless you actually heard how dripping with sarcasm the voice work was. I wonder if I’ll have that level of sark when I’m a big strapping warriorette; one can but aspire to greatness. Have also decided that my warrior will suck up to the empire military because they have nice uniforms. Other than that, it’s light side for me.

Also teamed up with a friendly inquisitor (shurely shome mistake?) to complete a couple of group quests. We died a couple of times, but never both at the same time, so were able to press on and complete them both. Naturally I have forgotten her name and didn’t friend her at the time.

How long is a piece of string? How long is an MMO?

Bioware recently noted in an interview that SWTOR would launch with approximately 200 hours of content (core gameplay) per class of gameplay.

Keen, perhaps surprisingly, responded immediately with, “That’s not enough” on the basis that he reckoned he’d spent 144 hours levelling his new WoW shaman and kitting it out, and he’d rushed it (ie. could have spent a lot more time on levelling.)

It wouldn’t take a genius to reckon that via that comparison, it’s pretty much impossible for any new MMO to satisfy players like Keen. (Unless they have really compelling non-core gameplay content, whatever that means. I presume he’d be happy with a good instanced PvP type game for example.)

Whereas I read 200 hours and immediately compared that with Dragon Age: Origins, the lengthiest game that I’ve actually played to completion within the last few years. It took me 45 hours to finish my first run through of DAO and I could have taken longer. I didn’t finish all the side quests and I played on easy mode because I wanted to follow the story. And at the end of that 45 hour stint, I took take a break from gaming for a couple of weeks because it had been quite intense (ie. I’d probably have been more comfortable stretching the playing time over more days). So SWTOR is potentially offering me four times DAO’s content for each class … and I’m duly awed.

What is the right comparison for a new MMO?

An existing one? An existing single player game from the same developers? I don’t know. I just know that 200 hours of Bioware-type RPG could easily be 4-5 months of my time (and I’m not THAT casual of a player) especially when padded out with crafting, PvP, instancing, and chatting. Not to mention alts. Or time spent in other games too.

The WoW comparison

Here’s another WoW comparison. The new Hyjal/ firelands dailies comprise a complex questing grind, including opening up new phases and storylines at various points in the endeavour. Someone on the official boards calculated, assuming you do every available daily quest on every day, that this would take about a month.

ie. 32 days of doing every available Hyjal/ Firelands daily quest.

So how long would that actually take in hours? Hard to say: if you assume on average an hour a day for the first half and two hours a day for the second (rough approximation assuming that it takes longer to get through the later daily quests since there will be more of them), that’s around 48 hours. Then you can add a couple of hours extra for slightly lengthier quest chains as you unlock each new vendor for a round 50 hours or so.

Would you rather spend 50 hours in an MMO doing a complex daily rep grind, or playing the equivalent of DAO?

That isn’t as loaded a question as it sounds, the firelands dailies seem very well done to me. But they are still daily quests. And it takes Blizzard around 6 months or so to come out with each new patch, containing that much gameplay. And however fun DAO was to me, it’s still a single player game.

Bioware tweaks Mass Effect 3 for a larger market

In an investor Q&A yesterday, John Riccitello (CEO of EA) announced that Mass Effect 3 was going to be tweaked for a larger market via some handwavey changes that involve game mechanics.

You might think that – with an eye to the console best sellers of last year – they’d be aiming to CODBLOPSify the game and make it more shootery. But no, what they’re actually talking about is shooter-meets-RPG which is what I thought ME2 was anyway. (I’m still not finished with ME2, I was kind of getting bored with it for no explicable reason – I’m not actually that interested in any of the companions except Mordin so not motivated to go do their missions, and def. not motivated for any romantic involvements. It’s also a very questy game.) I suspect this is tied up with recent comments that they’re introducing a melee class into the next game.

But aside from all this is the question of how much you should really be changing the gameplay in a successful franchise to try to attract new players. What about the old players who liked it the way it was? Bioware fell foul of this audience with Dragon Age 2, another game that got rather streamlined away from the original DA:O mechanics.

We see the same reaction from MMO fans when any kind of content or mechanics is streamlined “to reach a wider audience.”

This is not because it’s inevitable that the game gets worse, it’s because players don’t like change. Also it’s very logical that if you liked a previous game, you’d want the devs to turn out another similar one so that you could like the new one for the same reasons. Yet, if things change that means they can get better …

For all the commercial drive to increase market size though, I think it’s a shame that games with a solid niche are prodded to change. And a shame for the solid niche gamers. One can only hope that gamers who loved the original ME1, original DA:O, original WoW, etc and don’t like the subsequent changes will be catered to by the indie crowd. (And will recognise games designed for them when they turn up.)

[SWTOR] Does Bioware have a vision for class design?

I mentioned in my last post that Bioware (via Greg Zoeller) posted an update on their advanced class design for SWTOR last week.

Talking about classes and class design in SWTOR is tricky for two reasons:

  1. It hasn’t been released yet and if it is in beta, it’s a very closed beta and no one is breaking the NDA. So design is in flux plus we don’t know how they really play.
  2. The big selling point of the SWTOR classes is that they will have extensive class-based stories/ questlines (in the Bioware story-driven game style). So if you love the idea of playing a smuggler, it’s likely because you have a thing for Han Solo rather than because you want to play an uber healer.

The easiest way to look at the advanced class mechanics is to compare them with WoW. I don’t know how much of this design was in place before Cataclysm but they’re now looking more and more similar.

There are four base classes for each faction. Once you get to level 10, you can select from a choice of 2 advanced classes which are specific to that base class. You will then have access to three talent trees, two of which are specific to that advanced class and one which comes from the base class (ie. both advanced classes share it).

For comparison, in WoW you also get access to three talent trees when you hit level 10. It’s less complex than this sounds, but then again WoW has more ‘base’ classes.

If you check out the link above, you’ll see that they’ve also listed roughly which roles accrue to each advanced class.

eg.

Imperial Agent Advanced Classes

Sniper (Roles: Mid – Long Range Damage Dealing)

Operative (Roles: Close – Mid Range Damage Dealing, Healing)

So the Agent has two advanced classes: Sniper and Operative. The Sniper is a pure damage dealer with all their talent trees arranged around damage (possibly one for mid range and one for long range), the Operative has one damage dealing tree and one healing tree.

The current plan is that there will be two ultra hybrid classes, both of which are ranged. Trooper/ Bounty Hunter and Jedi Consular/ Sith Inquisitor will both have options to heal, tank, and dps from range.

My experience with WoW leaves warning bells ringing in my head here. They now have a lot of tank/heal trees to balance with each other (eg. Will a smuggler offer better dps than a consular because they have an advanced class with pure dps trees? Who is the best healer? etc.), and role options on some classes are more limited. I don’t especially want another rerun of a game where I pick a warrior/ burglar and the paladin/ loremaster outperforms me in every respect.

And that’s before we include PvP into the mix.

My other concern is whether they really have a vision for class design in SWTOR. It was never going to be a new take on the trinity (healers/ tanks/ dps) but I hope they have enough time to polish this up and make it shine, because if the actual gameplay is clunky and unbalanced, it may not matter how great the storytelling turns out to be.

[Dragon Age 2] My story and review (with SPOILERS) and some thoughts

da2_hawkeact2 Hawke’s finery (which she wears around the manor in Acts 2 and 3) reminds me of a school uniform.

Dragon Age 2 is, I think, going to be a game that provokes strong reactions. In my last post I briefly mentioned some of the shortcomings of the game (the repetitive areas, repetitive fights with waves of mooks teleporting/ rapelling in – funny how we don’t complain about repetitive fights in MMOs really…). I’ve also mentioned briefly how DA2 incorporates more and more elements from good tabletop RPG games – the idea that your character and their companions have families, backgrounds, stories that will impinge into the main narrative and give your character (and companions) extra goals and motivations, and how I felt more of an emotional connection when playing this game.

I thought they did make good use of Hawke’s family and family ties in the plot. Your sister/ brother and mother are intended to be emotional ties and plot elements (OK, there is a whiff of the disposable NPC here). I know that when I decided to support the mages in the end, it was largely because of my in game sister. I enjoyed this in DAO also, with my dwarf warden deciding the new ruler of Orzammar based on the fact he was nailing my sister (it always comes down to sisters with me ;) ), but with this game they’ve taken it further and brought it more front and centre to the plot.

The companions are some of the absolute high points of the gameplay, storytelling, and writing, even against Bioware’s reasonably high standard. I think every one of them is a winner. From reading other people’s thoughts (there is a thread on rpg.net about favourite companions) it looks as though every one of them expands into an interesting three dimensional character if you spend more time getting to know them. What I liked about the thread I linked to here is how passionately people defend their favourites. I still think Merill was an idiot, but it’s cool that some people want to argue that she was a genius.

I enjoyed the idea of a game set in a single city. These single city campaigns have always been popular in tabletop RPGs (I’ll always remember The City of Seven Hills from our old and beloved D&D game) and have been touched on in RPGs before. Balder’s Gate was largely set in a city, as was Planescape. But setting the game in three acts over several years gives some geniune chances to see how the place and the characters change and grow. Seeing Aveline go from being a new recruit to captain of the guard was a good example, and well deserved.

I did think Varric was awesome and loved how his unreliable narrative tied into the game play and the framing story. The quest where he confronts his brother and you get a section where he single handedly takes out waves and waves of trash mobs was hilarious.

I also enjoyed the pacing of the story. Act 1 did feel slow with all of the side quests, but at the same time you really did get to know your way around the city and get introduced to some of the main characters who you would see in later acts. Act 2 was great and I loved the storyline with the Qunari, it was interesting, well played out, and Hawke did get to be a genuine champion. And then Act 3 was very pacey indeed but that worked for me since by that point I was quite keen to get to the end and not get distracted by side quests.

I also think DA2 marks a change in how Bioware write their lead characters. Although there is still the power fantasy element – you are the hero, it’s never been easier to romance the love interest of choice – Hawke in this game is equally pulled and pushed by other plot elements in the background. And to my mind, the game is all the better for it. It’s about you, but not entirely about you. Sometimes you get swept along by forces larger than yourself.

In particular, the love interests are not really under your control. Anders and Merill in particular have their own agendas, and however close you get to them in a relationship, you may not be able to change them … enough. I think it’s a very grown up piece of writing to ask a player how they would respond if a character they were emotionally close to went off the deep end. (And if the player isn’t interested, there are more ‘stable’ love interests who will be more predictable.)

I’m not sure I envy Bioware trying to design love interests that will appeal to any player, it’s pretty much an impossible task. I did generally like the LIs better in this game than in DAO, but fans of Alistair will probably be disappointed in Anders and Fenris. Having said that, it was nice to see a few familiar faces making a brief reappearance towards the end of the game.

And here’s a fun thread from the Bioware forums in which people discuss which they think the best line in the game was.

What I Did

My Hawke was a female 2 handed warrior. The 2 handed trees are super for smashing through waves of bandits et al really quickly. I think if I did it again I’d pay more attention to abilities that improve stamina regen though. I’m not sure how I feel about her voice, she was a bit of a posh girl and to me she always sounded awkward when she was being sarcastic/ witty.

I played my Hawke as being fairly feisty/ sarcastic in the first two acts and more assertive in Act 3. I suspect that the conversational choices are both more subtle and more key to how people respond than is immediately obvious.

My go-to party was Aveline, Varric and Anders, although I did spend more of Act 2 with Isabella in group than Varric because I liked her dialogues with Aveline.

Bethany did not come on the deep roads expedition with me (I was persuaded by my in game mother’s pleas) and ended up being taken to the Circle. From subsequent letters, she seemed to quite enjoy it there but was around to fight by my side at the end. Hurrah!

Astoundingly, all of the companions except for Sebastian ended up fighting by my side for the last fight. Fenris left when I sided with the mages, but came back when I asked him to. This surprised me because I hadn’t really spent much time with him. Maybe I was more charming than I thought.

In Act 2, Isabella left but returned in the nick of time with her artefact when I was talking to the Qunari. I duelled and beat the Arishok in single combat, and that was a tough fight even on easy mode.

I had Anders as my love interest. I do think he was a cool character, I liked how he was introduced at his clinic (you got the sense that he did have a genuine interest in helping people) and he did a great job of stopping blood mages from killing me and helping to identify people who were possessed in the first couple of acts. I also have a soft spot for blondes :P Yes, he went off the rails towards the end, and I was sucked in to hoping I could try to keep him (and everyone else) safe. I kept him in my party though, partly because by that time I just wanted to protect him from himself and partly because I needed him to help deal with the current crisis. I don’t think the relationship would have really lasted so I was amused when Varric said in the narrative that everyone left Hawke except for Isabella at the end. It may have been a bug (probably the love interest was supposed to stay) but I thought it was very plausible since she was pretty much my best friend.

Incidentally I’m pretty sure Anders didn’t use magic to blow up the chantry but alchemy instead. Let’s face it, if he’d had access to that sort of magic, templars would have been blown up a lot sooner than that.

When we went into the fade to sort out Feynriel, I took Varric, Isabella and Fenris, the latter two being corrupted by desire and pride demons respectively. I had no intention of ever taking Anders into the fade :)

As far as the Circle and Templars go, I tend to entirely blame the first enchanter for all the blood mages in Kirkwall. It was his job to train his mages better than that. If everything hadn’t completely gone to hell, I would have tried to get in a decent mage to head up the circle, but the templar/ circle relationship wasn’t really a good solution anyway. I still sided with the mages though since Meredith was clearly someone who had to go.

Dragon Age 2 Demo!

da2

Yesterday, Bioware released the Dragon Age 2 demo into the wild (link is for the PC version, PS3 and Xbox versions available through usual console mechanisms) with the promise that if one million people downloaded it across all platforms, there will be some extra goodies in game for everyone.

They’re already up to over 400k downloads. No wonder mine was so slow yesterday!

Highlights for me:

  • It’s good to be back in Ferelden, the use of music, voice acting, and film-like lead ins to the plot really does make the first section with the templar and the dwarf feel immersive.
  • Combat has changed, it feels faster and punchier and still very Dragon Age. Main thing is that you can still pause frequently to assign actions to the various characters. But I was finding it tricky to deal with streams of incoming mobs without a specific AE build. This may be a case where practice makes perfect.
  • Some of those fights are quite tricky on normal difficulty and since you can’t save in the demo, better hope you picked up lots of healing and mana potions.
  • I did enjoy playing Hawke as a 2H warrior, whirlwind is awesome. To be fair, the rogue and mage looked fun too! And it’s nice having a voice for the main character.
  • I love the storytelling conceit of the unreliable narrator, but it would have been better if the champion had punched the dragon in the face in the first narrative. (Sharp eyed players on rpg.net also suspect that Bethany’s boobs grow a bit in the first retelling and are more feasible in size in the second narrative.)
  • Varic is an awesome character.
  • Aveline is an awesome tank. She soloed the ogre on her own in my first playthrough after everyone else died.
  • I’m a softie and was moved when Aveline had to decide whether to kill her own husband so that he didn’t become darkspawn. (I guess this kind of storyline is more gripping if you’re in a relationship)
  • The city where you meet Isabella (was that Kirkwall, not quite sure?) definitely gave the feel of being large and city like where Denerim never quite worked for me.
  • Isabella is awesome too, but if you played DAO you know that already.
  • femHawke has good armour. I know I bang on about this :)
  • The blood spatters are still in.
  • There’s some great foretelling in the interactions with Flemeth which makes me very intrigued to see how this story is going to play out.
  • I can’t wait to play the full version!

What did you all think? For me, one of the nice things about a PC demo is that it’ll prove that my system runs a game (arguably something I could have thought about before pre-ordering the signature edition but still nice to know.)

Gaming News: Bioware’s Mystery Game, LOTRO takes hobbits to Isengard, Music games nosedive, Jagex beats patent suit, Activision closes more studios

blackfriday

So apparently this is a traditional week of sales in the US, which brings me to the picture to the left. What’s odd about this screenshot?  It’s from amazon.co.uk. Yes, I’m puzzled too.

In any case, keep an eye out for sales from your favourite US vendor (eg. steam, etc) this week. There does come a point when virtual shops become almost indistinguishable from any other type of online shop with the various sales, time limited offers, etc … which is of course the point.

CODBLOPS duly and predictable broke some sales records last week, despite reviews generally agreeing that it isn’t as good as the predecessor. I presume people are keen for their annual shmup purchase and if it’s disappointing will just whine about it until they get a chance to buy next years’. But it is interesting that the quality of the game doesn’t seem to affect buying decisions unless it really does dip below some kind of acceptable level.

Speaking of which, Activision now claim that Infinity Ward (the studio which made MW2) has now been successfully restructured which means that they have 3 studios working on Call of Duty games. But we don’t know which one will be tapped for next year’s episode.

A lot of MMO bloggers have been writing about Perpetuum this week, an EVE-like game featuring giant robots which is in beta and giving out beta keys at the moment. Interestingly, even the home page gives me an EVE vibe.

EVE itself has released footage of a rather stunning character generator that will go live alongside Incarna (the upcoming expansion that will allow characters to walk around inside space stations). I do still have my doubts about a game where in a standard starter guide, trying to scam other players is listed as a standard way for newbies to make in-game money.

Posts of the week are from Rhii and Alas, both on the subject of having to choose between friendship and progression in WoW. And this illustrates nicely some of the  structural issues in WoW which break up the community (not to mention stressing out players unduly) and which Blizzard has shown no interest in addressing by adding support for raid alliances or multiple guild membership. (ie. anything that would make it easier to be a member of multiple social organisations, some of which might be focussed on different in game objectives.)

The notion that if you want progression you need to pay for it by dumping your mates just reminds me of Fame (“Fame costs and right here’s where you start paying!!”). It doesn’t have to be that way.

Bioware’s Mystery Game

Bioware have been dropping teasers this week about a new unannounced game, promising to reveal all at the VGA awards.

Clues so far have been translated as:

Amazingly, people are attempting to sound somewhat excited about the picture of the man with the gun. I’d say it’s either going to be Mass Effect 3 (in which case they should have teased with a picture of Garrus without his top on) or … some shooter. Kotaku are guessing that it’s a multi-player spinoff of Mass Effect, but surely if it was a scifi game they’d show space or something cool?

I wouldn’t begrudge Bioware if they wanted to take a shot (sic) at a FPS. Good luck to them. But I don’t think they really get the whole PR thing sometimes …

We’re taking the hobbits to Isengard … in Autumn 2011

Turbine announced that the next expansion for LOTRO, The Rise of Isengard, is due next Autumn. It isn’t going to be a huge expansion like Moria, Turbine are moving away from that kind of update due to pacing issues. But it sounds as though there will be plenty to do.

Also they are due to release more raid content next year before that.

I think the pacing comment was very telling. Maybe players would prefer more piecemeal content releases rather than waiting around a couple of years for a big chunk of content all in one piece.

Music games face a downturn

Remember those halcyon days when Rock Band and Guitar Hero were the big thing? All in the past now, apparently gamers just aren’t buying the things in the same quantities any more.

Jagex beats patent suit

Jagex, developers of Runescape, won a patent suit this week and the CEO took the opportunity to have a snipe at the dreadful US patent system. I don’t have much to add except for yes, the US patent system is extremely awful and allows people to pursue frivolous patent claims which end up being very expensive to the defending party on very little evidence.

(I was surprised that the losing party wasn’t required to pay costs, I’d have assumed that to be standard.)

Activision closes more studios

Apparently if your last game wasn’t a huge hit, Activision loses interest. This week they moved to close Bizarre Creations (maker of Project Gotham Racing), although there is a rumour that Microsoft is among several companies interested in buying the developer.

They also closed Budcat Creations, a studio that has been working on Guitar Hero and Band Hero games (see above note about music games being down on sales).