[SWTOR] More thoughts from beta (space combat, PvP, etc.)

This was the last weekend of beta testing for The Old Republic, and now the servers are down and being wiped. Hopefully some of the team get a few days downtime too before the craziness of launch.

The changes from last week’s build were noticeable. I think graphics were improved, servers seemed more stable (we didn’t suffer lots of d/c during flashpoints this time around) and I noticed some minor but very useful UI changes. For example, last week people commented that it wasn’t obvious where the bindpoints were or how they worked unless you specifically set them to show up on your map. Now they’re indicated more clearly in the game. There’s no doubt that the game itself is ready for prime time — main technical issues I had were with how long it takes to quit out of the game. (And it did hang my computer while quitting at least once, or at least took long enough that I got bored and rebooted.)

This time around I aimed to try a few of the classes I skipped last weekend, and level my sith warrior high enough to get my own ship and try out the space combat. My overall impression is that the story emphasis has a much bigger effect on how involved players get with their characters than I first thought. I did miss my sith warrior when I didn’t have beta access, gonzo as she is. Agreed with Arb and other friends in the beta that we had all enjoyed all the classes we’d tried, and thought it would be fun to play all of them at some point to see their stories. (That’s quite a lot of replayability in itself, but raises other issues around communications. This is a game that could really use a realID style comms channel, so you can chat to your friends without having to remember which alt they’re on today.)

So here’s some notes in bullet point form:

  • Found out how to buy advanced class skills. Apparently I did have a taunt at level 10, who knew? (Will post separately to explain how that’s done, in case anyone else misses it the same way I did.)
  • Sith Warrior still is a faintly embarrassing indulgence for me. I don’t know what the rest of her story is like but Act I is a gonzo non-politically correct power fantasy. There’s nothing really surprising yet, it’s the sort of stuff you’d expect, but beautifully implemented. Vette did imply that I was bonkers at least once, not sure if I should punish her for insolence or buy her a new blaster. No signs of any romance yet, but I think you’d have to be crazy to flirt with a sith lord anyway, even if they were hot. (OTOH, I could imagine my character picking out a hot imperial soldier with: “You, my room, tonight!” because that’s how she is. Like I say, it’s not politically correct. But probably something that everyone should try once ;) ) Am puzzled that my protective headgear seems to consist mostly of a mouthpiece — it is thematic but does the rest of my head not need protecting more? I do love how her voice changed when she was wearing it though. Darth Baras still sounds cool although am suspecting he is in fact a colossal jerk (you could argue that I should have twigged this sooner.) Created a male sith warrior to compare the voices, and he sounds awesome.
  • The ships are nice, similar in style to the KOTOR ship with floor plans and several rooms. It is basically player housing. It also comes with a friendly droid (who is excessively subservient if you are a sith warrior.)
  • Space combat is a separate minigame with its own missions, tokens, and rewards (mostly stuff to kit out your ship to make it better at the minigame.) It’s not difficult and I’m not sure how deep it really gets but is pretty and can be a bit fiddly, I had to repeat the first mission a couple of times before I got it. Kitting out your ship also helps enormously. Ultimately I thought it was fun so we’ll call that a win, but it’s not full 3D elite-style dogfighting, Star Trek possibly still your best bet for that in a MMO.
  • Tried PvP on my Bounty Hunter, I suspect strong influence here from the WAR team. Scenarios are compact and combat is fast paced. I tried Huttball which is a capture the flag scenario with extra tweaks involving ramps, platforms and air vents that help you jump. And you can pass the ball from one person in your team to another. Was fun, and worth doing once for the xp, but reminded me of all the annoying things about MMO PvP that bug me (ie. the bunny hopping rogues.)
  • Played consular some more. I still enjoy the slower, more thoughtful pace of the storytelling. And being able to throw rocks at people with my mind; that’s quite good and is a skill I’ve often wished for iRL. I’m curious to see how they deal with the mind reading/ controlling aspect of this class (a la Obi Wan), or whether it gets glossed over.
  • Played smuggler; the Han Solo quotient is high here. I find the class quite fun and like the cover mechanic. The smuggler isn’t as sarky as some of the empire classes (no really!), instead she has some cocky conversation options and lots of opportunity to tell people that it’s all about the money and you’re not really fighting for the republic. Liked the starting storyline also.
  • Character models are stylized and that can sometimes mean odd design decisions. All the male models except the weediest have huge barrel chests, and all the female ones have big boobs. (Was touched to hear someone on one of the republic chat channels wondering why the female models all looked skinny with big boobs, because he wanted to make a char that looked like his girlfriend who was “small and normal looking with big boobs.” Awwww.) Male characters do get an option to be fat, the female equivalent is merely very curvy with a big bum that sticks out when she is in combat stance in a way that makes you wonder if she’s about to fart.

As you can see I’m very positive about the game, and can’t wait to play it with friends in live. Haven’t decided yet on which class. I loved my sith warrior so much, but the bounty hunter was awesome too and it’s nice to have ranged options. Plus BH can be Chiss (ie. blue).

The judgement call is “if you like this sort of thing, you’ll really like this game.” It is what it is, but I’ve never played any RPG with this kind of attention to detail/ story/ voicework.

Player democracy, the FemShep dilemma, and why do we have unpopular classes/ races anyway?

So Bioware recently decided to put a female version of their lead character on the box art for Mass Effect 3, and held a poll on Facebook to let people vote on how she should look. The long-haired blonde won by a large margin (I think my fave was number 3), but that isn’t the point. The point is that they decided to do it in the first place. Not so much the voting – brands have been doing that on Facebook since (it feels like) forever to drum up customer interest. But that they decided to switch the advertising to show off the female version of the character.

I guess it can’t hurt in a world where sex sells product to have a pretty blonde woman with boob-enhancing body armour on the front of a box either.

82% players can’t be wrong, can they?

Last month, Bioware discussed this decision and revealed two interesting statistics. Firstly 18% of Mass Effect players use a female model for their character. And secondly, 13% of players go with the default (male) option and don’t tweak it at all.

So the question is, if they know that only 18% of their players pick a female version of Shepherd, does that really justify that cost and time involved in putting in all the extra female animation and voice work? Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to just not bother? This is a question that I predict we will see more often with respect to F2P games. If it’s part of the ethos of F2P designers that they provide more of whatever customers are willing to pay for, then surely the majority choice must get more attention unless the minority is willing to pay more for their wishes to be taken into account. After all, time is money.

This will be even more marked in SWTOR, because there is that much more voice work. And how many female bounty hunters and sith warriors do people really think there will be? There must be a level on which Bioware decided that offering diversity was worth it, which is one of the reasons that I love them.

Another point is that yes, lots of people are not interested in spending time customising their character, even just to pick one of the several basic settings. This implies to me a UI issue because even people who don’t care how their character looks could manage to select something in a Facebook poll. And I do think it is of value to get people to show a preference or two during character creation, it can certainly make the character feel more personal. The Facebook poll type of character customisation is much closer to how WoW presents character generation. You have to pick one option for face, hair, etc but can’t customise it beyond that. There’s a ‘select random’ if you really don’t care, and still you’ll find that some faces in particular don’t show up much among the player base (which implies that most people weren’t just hitting the random button.)

Race and Gender popularity in WoW

mmo-champion published some data about relative popularity of race/ gender options in WoW recently. There’s nothing new here to surprise anyone, the least popular options are Orc female and Dwarf female and female characters are less popular across the board than male ones with the exception of Draenei (I hope some lore writer is going to portray them as a matriarchal race to reflect this ;) ). Blood Elves are probably the race with the least dimorphism (ie. the females and the males don’t look so different) and their ratio of male: female is roughly equal.

But other than the Draenei and Blood Elves you might be excused for wondering why Blizzard do spend all this time on female models (including new dances etc) when a new race is brought in. Remember all the fuss about worgen females? Only 20% of the worgen players picked them. But sometimes, percentages don’t tell the whole story. And if those female models weren’t there, maybe those players would simply not have picked the game up at all …

So if I am not overly enthused about player democracy in games, it’s because I know that I am in a minority and I don’t trust the majority to vote with my interests in mind. It makes me glad that there are devs who won’t give them the option.