[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] Quest of the day, companion chat, and when is a ban not a ban?

taris1

I’ve mentioned before that I love the graphical sides of being in cities or built up areas in SWTOR. In this screenshot, my Sith Warrior surveys the departures board (I assume) in Taris spaceport.

Taris is interesting in many ways, especially to anyone who remembers it from KOTOR when you encounter the planet before [spoiler alert] it is turned into an industrial wreck. This game takes place around 300 years later, and although Taris is mostly a swampy ruined wreck, it’s been interesting enough that both Republic and Empire have forces there and there are some alien settlements also. It’s not an especially pretty planet, but gives the Bioware artists more opportunities to show their chops on wrecked out industrial landscapes. And swamp.

What I found enthralling is that my class quest here could be boiled down to “find and kill four named republic generals.” That doesn’t sound too exciting, and mechanically it is exactly what your character is doing. And yet, due to the writing, the quest presentation, music, and pacing, it included some of my most memorable moments in the class story so far.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers but one questline in particular sees you furiously racing against time to unlock a safe room inside a reactor that is about to blow up, after having unmasked a ‘fake’ general, and been jumped by republic troops who clearly have no qualms about running into a reactor that’s about to blow up just for the chance of downing a sith. The timer was down to 10s, the music was getting more exciting and intense, and a speech option came up. I said to my companion (Quinn), “Do you have any last words?” And he said, “My lord, you know how I feel about you.”

I laughed. Why can’t you ever say anything that romantic when we’re actually on the ship and don’t have 10s left to live?, I thought, although that option wasn’t actually present. I have enjoyed having Quinn around while questing. He does occasionally pitch in to suggest ideas, or comment on military plans that someone else suggested. Annoyingly, he’s always right. But that comment above came from left field, I was expecting him to have a smart suggestion.

But now I’m curious as to what other companions might have to say for themselves during quests and whether it’s comparable, or if Quinn is an outlier and the writers just liked him.

Pacing

Because I’m a) really digging the game and b) am on holiday at the moment, I’ve been online much more than I usually would. There is a risk in Bioware-type games that once hooked, you can burn through the quests very quickly because you’re just that keen to find out where the story is going. I remember feeling similarly exhausted in Cataclysm-era WoW, because the quest pacing was fast enough that you could burn through content like a three year old in a sweet shop. And it gave me the quest equivalent of a sugar rush back then too.

I am already thinking that I may play another Sith Warrior alt, and take it more slowly next time, writing up each planet or questline as I do it with commentary.

Having said that, the pacing in SWTOR is generally fine (this is on a scale where LOTRO is glacial and WoW is superfast).  It’s a bit slower than WoW because of travel time, listening to quest mobs (if you don’t spacebar through them), and zoning in and out of your ship, and although some would disagree, I find that it gives you some slow time to appreciate the scenery rather than rushing questquestquest.

I have found the difficulty generally good in the game. I’ve been upgrading my gear via quests and gear tokens (which you get for planetary quests), and using biochem to keep myself supplied with healing and buff potions. I am enjoying that I can sometimes die in quests, but that when this happens, I can try again with a bit more thought and get through it. The end of chapter 1 was a particular high point and I died about 4 times in one part before I got the hang of it. Finishing that questline and picking up my legacy name felt like that much more of an achievement.

We’ve also had a chance to run some more flashpoints, none of which have really compared to Black Talon in terms of story. Which is not to say that they haven’t been fun. Plus you may meet some old friends in Boarding Party/ The Foundry which was split into two parts so as presumably to be more manageable for players. (I don’t think either is especially long but they work fine as shorter halves.) We’re still dual tanking them, although I’m now taking on more of the single bosses/ tougher mobs.

The bans, they burn

Top ‘news’ in the game this week was that some people were temporarily banned for doing something exploity in the level 50 zone with their low level alts. (The official explanation for this is behind this link.)

If you read the comments on the RPS story about this, you’ll see how quickly some players get riled up about this. And how people are able to (with a straight face, I presume) argue that innocent players who just wanted to test the limits of what the game allowed them to do are being HURT by this evil EA attitude.

But as an experienced MMO player, I tend to assume that ultra competitive players have a propensity to be obsessive cheating gits (as shown by every exploit in WoW ever) who are not satisfied with merely finding interesting loopholes and reporting them but will then go on and exploit them as if their lives depended on it until stopped, and if that ruins the game for other people then that’s seen as an added bonus. So colour me unsurprised when RPS later posted a more nuanced explanation, and were immediately accused by their readers of pro-EA bias.

What we get from this is that the readers of RPS tend to be twats. Or maybe it’s just that most gamers are twats (present company excepted, naturally), the jury is still out.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no issues with people playing competitively. But if something needs a fix that cannot be done immediately (ie. needs time to decide what the best way is to proceed), I have no issues with temporary bans being handed out while that happens as long as the players were given the chance to stop the offending behaviour first. Also I have no issues with people being banned for gold farming. And one of the good things about playing a sub game is that they usually have active CS teams to deal with this kind of thing, which I believe makes the game better and fairer for everyone else.

And now, here is two sith dancing (/clubdance is great)

dancing

To exploit or not to exploit?

Jamie Madigan@The Psychology of Video Games wrote a thoughtful post about how players respond to known glitches/ exploits in a game. He’s using a PvP game as a model, but a PvE game with a lot of competition (ie. between raid guilds) would follow the same flow.

His conclusions aren’t surprising, but they are worth stating.

The game is more fun for everyone if no one abuses the glitches, and all players know this at some level. They’d all privately prefer if no-one glitched, either because the option didn’t exist or because everyone was trustworthy. However, if they aren’t sure whether anyone else is glitching and don’t trust them, most people will decide to use the glitch.

He does also discuss the Prisoner’s Dilemma, zerg rushes in Starcraft,  and a whole slew of history  of thinking on this type of  social problem. So if you find  game theory interesting, give it a read. I am fascinated because it explains why players will sometimes deliberately select a less fun option, knowing full well that it will result in a less fun game.

Interestingly, not everyone in an MMO will use a known glitch or exploit. There’s a lot of social pressure not to do it, both from social players and from competitive raiders/ PvPers. It’s seen as a cheap option and devalued. Jamie’s model can break down under those circumstances.

But don’t feel too cocky yet because MMO players have other pressures on them to select less fun gaming options. A lot of players, especially raiders, feel pushed in MMOs to play more and more frequently, probably more than they would ideally want for a good game/life balance.  And much of the same game theory applies there too.

Still, this leaves a lot of open questions:

  • At the end of the day, whose fault is it really that players flock to less fun options?
  • The designer for allowing that option into the game, or the other players for not being able to agree that some options do not belong on the table?
  • Would we rather have less choice in games if the choices which WERE there guaranteed us fun gaming experiences, rather than pressuring us away from them?

And I wonder if it is a general trend in media at the moment — not just games — to move towards the on-rails guaranteed experience, because we know that players will gravitate towards less fun options if they can.

If you were a time-traveller…

So assume you have a working time machine, and you don’t want to use it for anything boring like picking winning lottery tickets or teaching the Elizabethans about penicillin. Nope.

Instead you decide to dip into your MMO of choice (or maybe even switch games altogether) and use your foreknowledge to have more fun in the game.

If you could go back in time, is there anything you would do differently in game?

Would you roll a different race/ class/ server? Would you have gotten in on a different game at the beginning (maybe picked up a lifetime sub in a game you passed up, for example)? Would you have used your knowledge of the in-game economy to make some easy gold? Would you have joined a different guild? Booted someone who was going to cause a problem later on? Exploit bugs that later get fixed?

Or maybe you’d even know to take a break and skip a patch altogether until bugs got fixed a few months later.

My exploit; your lateral thinking; his emergent gameplay

The game I am most looking forwards to playing at the moment (yes, even more than Diablo 3!!) is Scribblenauts. It’s a DS game that has been described as an emergent puzzle action video game – the slogan on their site is Write Anything, Solve Everything! The big lure is that you can use anything you can think of to solve the game’s puzzles. It’s set up to reward pure out of the box thinking.

Like many gamers, I love this kind of challenge. If I’m presented with an in-game world, I don’t want to be limited by the programming as to how I can interact with it. If I’m in a bar, I want to be able to pick up a chair and throw it at someone.  Or how about bribing the bartender to spike their drinks. Or maybe sneak into the cellars and engineer a power cut. Anyone who has played pen and paper games will be familiar with this kind of thinking :) I don’t want to be told – err, you can’t talk to the bartender, we didn’t think of that! Or – you can talk to the bartender but only if you want to ask for a beer.

Obviously, video games have their limits. They are limits that can only be stretched by very creative programming, or letting you interact with real people who are able to hop outside the box with you. The strengths of these games is in the way they can model games with very fixed rules like chess, Tetris, or MMO combat, or let you explore a virtual environment as long as you don’t want to interact; and probably not in how they model AI or human NPCs.

Well of course hardcore guilds find exploits!

One of the big news stories out of WoW at the moment is that Exodus, the guild who got the first ultra-hard mode Yogg-Saron kill have been banned for 72 hours for finding and using an exploit. Here they talk about it in their own words.

The ban looks to me to be punitive, setting an example to the rest of the hardcore guilds. It’s also rather arbitrary – as they say on their site they aren’t the only guild to have used questionable tactics on the first kills in some encounters. Blizzard really should sort itself out and get these bans under control. All they had to do here was fix it and remove the achievement from Exodus (or change it to something thanking them for finding and reporting the bug, which is what I would have done if it was my decision).

In any case, it’s not surprising if hardcore guilds find exploits. They explore the raid content deeper and more thoroughly than anyone else, especially when they are searching for a world first kill. Yes, the exploits shouldn’t be there in the first place but no test team in the world is as motivated as a ultra-hardcore raid guild.  Part of exploring new raid content is trying to think outside the box, trying to second guess the devs, trying to figure out what you have to do to solve the encounter.

So the games encourage people to use lateral thinking. But  not too lateral because that might be an exploit.

Having said that, these guilds are perfectly aware of when they find something that makes the encounter a lot easier than intended. And again, I think this is where the temporary ban is meant to send a message. If you find something and you know (with your experience of being a hardcore guild) that it’s not right, then you shouldn’t use it. That’s a rule for people who thrive on breaking rules, in games that encourage you to break rules cautiously to solve new puzzles.

I’m reminded of a hardcore guild leader in DaoC who noted that when he was leading a new raid, they’d do whatever it took to get the boss down (that was Gideon of Servants of the Lake, if anyone played Alb/Prydwen and remembers them). That’s what being hardcore means.  They weren’t cheaters – just they liked to win, and they liked to think outside the box and prided themselves on being good at it.

So do they want us to think outside the box or not?

The answer is not really. But players clearly have a strong appetite for being given more freedom in how they solve puzzles.

I thought it was interesting that there have been a few ‘exploits’ involving people using adds from one encounter to help beat another one (usually by stealing buffs or something like that). It’s not completely without precedent. In vanilla WoW there were raid encounters which could be made easier by using encounters outside the raid (remember the fire resist buffs from UBRS and the various world buffs from Onyxia and ZG?). I’ve always thought it was a shame that they never really followed up on this.

Why should an instance basically be a load of corridors leading between rooms with bosses in it, with each boss encounter totally self contained? Wouldn’t it be more fun if you could use something from earlier in the instance to help solve a puzzle later on? Might make the raids more coherent storywise also. That hardcore guilds keep trying to do this should be a sign to designers that there’s a hunger for it as a legit tactic.

So, bans aside, I hope that designers do look hard at the exploits and get ideas for new raid encounters from them. Because if there’s one thing that players are very very good at, it’s doing something totally unexpected.

And until then, I’m looking forwards to seeing if I can break Scribblenauts (wonder if it knows what ‘great cthulhu’ is).

Brute forcing encounters

Players delight in messing with developers’ carefully laid plans. It doesn’t matter how unusual or cool an encounter might be, if it can be turned into a simple tank and spank, they’ll do it.

And developers have only themselves to blame. By making these games so gear dependent and then handing out gear like it was going out of fashion, it becomes possible to ignore those carefully put together healing or execution checks. Everything instead turns into a dps race. Kill the boss before it kills anyone else.

A couple of examples of this:

  • Heroic Loken. This is a chap who farts a badass lightning nova every 30s or so. The group is intended to all run out of the lightning nova when he starts to cast it, and then run in again (or let him run to them). The extra trick is that they also need to stay bunched up while they do this. It’s tricky because you don’t have much time to react. But now as people get better gear, the standard method is, ‘take a good healer and just stay in the nova so you can keep bashing him.’ It’s turned an interesting fight into a boring one with extra group damage.
  • Anub’Rekhan. First boss of the Spider Wing in Naxxramas. Every 45s or so, he rears up on his back legs and casts an insect swarm. This is an AE which does stacking damage to anyone in range and also pacifies/ silences them. So when he starts to cast, everyone gets at least 30′ away from him. The trick is that the tank has to do this too, so the traditional method is that when he rears up, the tank starts running and kites him halfway across the room (by which time the swarm wears off). But no more. These days, it’s just as likely that I’ll be asked to tank him by the door and just not move, they’ll heal me through the swarm instead. But dammit, ‘Rekhan was one of the iconic tanking encounters in the game. You had to kite. That was the whole point.

I don’t really like brute forcing encounters. I don’t care that it makes things easier, I want to see the content the way it was designed to be seen. It’s certainly not an exploit to kill things in a simpler way but it isn’t really very fun for me.

But what can you do? Get everyone to take half their gear off? And if I’m leading the raid, of course I want to go for the guaranteed kill rather than the trickier execution option.

Would it be better if getting better gear never made encounters easier?

I’m guessing not. It might be more fun for people who wanted to experience the fight ‘as intended’ but part of the incentive for levelling up and getting better equipment is exactly this: to make the game easier.

In any case, encounters are designed to challenge a specific gear level. If you have less gear, they’ll be harder. If you have more gear, they’ll be easier. And this is true even for the pure execution fights. Everything gets easier with more dps, more healing, and tougher tanks.

So games with a heavy ‘advancement via gear’ mechanism will find players blowing through the content more and more quickly. And those fun, intricate movement fights will be relegated to history, and a few thousand youtube videos.