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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instance and Ops protocol

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

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

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

Question of the Day: What are your favourite instances/ flashpoints of all time?

I have been running a fair number of flashpoints recently in SWTOR, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Kaon Under Siege might be my favourite instance/flashpoint in any MMO ever. What really makes this instance stand out for me is the incredible atmosphere, great instance-based storytelling, a few challenging trash mob pulls, and interesting enough bosses (OK, the bosses are not really the highlight of this flashpoint, but I feel they have enough strategy to keep them both interesting and in genre with the rest of the instance).

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What I mean by atmosphere is that this is a zombie survival type of setting. Parts of the instance are eerily dark, with players using torches that hover around their heads. Parts involve zombies/rakghouls jumping out at you, in packs. Even if you know the instance reasonably well, the atmosphere is solid. Part of this is down to good pacing; sometimes you can see the rakghouls wandering around so you have time to plan the pulls carefully and other times you’re walking down a dark and quiet corridor and they leap out. It leads to an instance that doesn’t feel as though it’s just a static bunch of mobs standing around in corridors.

By storytelling, I mean that you pick up an entire storyline as you are travelling from boss to boss. There are some conversations (that people tend to skip through if they’re in a hurrt) but also you get some of the information as you are moving/ fighting. On arrival, you know that the planet is quarantined, then you learn via radio that some nobles are trying to break the quarantine so you try to stop them, then you see their hijacked ship crash, talk to the surviving pilot and see him succumb to the disease, and finally have to pick your way through infested and dangerous areas to get to a place where you can find where the infestation began and get a pickup for your team. It’s very smoothly put together. There’s plenty of show to go along with the tell.

The bosses have some interesting features. One boss fight features waves of rakghouls where one character gets to sit in the weapon turret and everyone else helps mop up and take out the rakghouls that are more dangerous. Another boss has to be kited towards explosives when it goes into frenzy (although tbh people seem more likely these days to tough it out). Another set of three have different abilities depending on the kill order. So again, it doesn’t feel like a set of bosses standing in a room waiting for you.

Some of the packs of trash mobs have interesting abilities also. There are rakghouls which have crowd control, others which explode when they die, and others which will throw players around (probably into any other packs of mobs in the area). So as players learn the instance, they can learn the routes which avoid pulling two packs at once, and learn which mobs should be taken out first.

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I feel it’s an instance which shows off the very best of SWTOR design, with an attention to the detail, storytelling, that extends into boss mechanics in a way that I haven’t really found in WoW recently. (My favourite WoW instances were Stratholme and BRD, vanilla versions.)

So for any fellow instance runners: Which are your favourites, and why?

[WoW] To run or not to run, and the politics of good enough

Out of all the things I saw in WoW on returning recently, one has been the most surprising by far. After all these years, there’s STILL no consensus on whether or not to run back into an instance after a death/ wipe.

As a point of comparison, in both Rift and LOTRO, the player base (or at least the ones I associated with) only wanted the resser to run back. They see it as part of the healer/ resser’s job, it’s what they signed up for. If anyone else released and ran too, no one minded, but people would wonder why you’d bothered. They’d laugh one of those, “you’re weird,” laughs. Less so if you got lost on the way back.

Rift makes this simpler and quicker by allowing classes with a ressing soul (and spec) to switch specs after being ressed themselves so that they can help res others. It also lets everyone have one self res every 30 mins or so, which ressers tend to rotate (eg. I’ll soulwalk this time, save yours for the next wipe.) So you usually have more than one resser in a Rift group, and usually at least one of them can self res in situ so that no one has to run back.

LOTRO on the other hand likes to make recovery quicker by letting people who release in instances reappear just inside the instance entrance, a modification that I am amazed has never made it into WoW. But the culture in my server is also very clear that only the healer runs back after a wipe.

OK, so that’s the comparison. Now let me recount a couple of experiences in WoW PUGs this week.

1. The arsey healer

The instance was Blackrock Caverns, an instance notable for having quite a long run from the graveyard if you do release from inside it. My character got killed while fighting the first boss and the rest of the group seemed to be doing fine so I figured I’d just lie there and wait for a res afterwards. It wasn’t as if running back would really save any time and I’d probably get back at about the time it died anyway.

But after the boss died, the healer refused to res and instead had a small hairy fit aimed neatly in my direction for not running. “Fine,” I said, “Have it your way, I’ll run back now.”

So they all sat around while I ran back because that healer didn’t think ressing people who died during a fight was his job. I don’t know what would have needed to happen for him to actually use his res. Maybe if I’d died a split second before the boss did he’d have decided I ‘earned’ it. (Or, you know, maybe if he’d been more on the ball I might not have died in the first place.)

It’s not that I particularly enjoy lying on the ground during a boss fight. It’s very dull. But I don’t especially see why I should spend 5 mins running back from a graveyard when a healer could cast a 10s spell to have the same effect.

2. You can’t run here, this is bat country

So another instance or so later, in the Halls of Origination, I die on one of the optional bosses (probably because I had totally forgotten the strategy – does anyone else find that you can only keep so many strategies in your head at the same time? after that, you just forget them unless it’s a really memorable boss, which this wasn’t.). The rest of the group die too. I have already started running back, and find that the shaman had self-ressed and ressed everyone else by the time I got there.

“Why did you run?” they asked curiously.

“I like that you walk,” added the shaman, “But you didn’t have to.”

Valor points and the good enough doctrine

The trouble with WoW after a new patch, when new grinds have been added to the game, is that a lot of people feel a moral imperative to gather as many points/ badges per day as the game physically allows.

So for example, if WoW allows players to gather X Valor Points per week (which can be done by running a mixture of heroics and raids), ultra-keen people will feel that they are obliged to gather exactly X Valor points per week. Any less means that you’re a slacker. Any more means that you’re an idiot who is working harder than you need to.

And when earning X Valor Points would take more time per week than you have available, people start to crack under the strain. After all, how can you tell a hard working good player who is short on time apart from a slacker if not by the number of Valor Points per week they earn? Surely if you were really dedicated to your guild, you’d find the extra time to get those points. (This is sarcasm, btw.)

Anyhow, sensible people realise that good enough will have to be good enough and if you earn your points more slowly, all it means is that it takes a few more weeks to gear up. It isn’t the end of the world. (And most raid leaders would rather that you didn’t burn out chasing that last 0.1% of raid performance.)

Guild Mum discusses this pressure, and makes the smart decision:

I don’t have time to do dailies, raid AND max out my valor points. I’ve got 240 this week. That will have to do. I’m sorry – anything more is just too much work for me. It’s a GAME!

But it’s a shame that so many bloggers feel that they have to apologise for … being sensible.

WoW really is quite phenomenal (and not in a good way) by how pressured everyone feels to prove that they’re ‘a good player’ when in practice anyone can tell if you’re a decent player about 5 mins after being in a group with you.

Thought of the Day: On elitism and speed runs

Melmoth suggested yesterday in comments that dungeon runs might be smoother if the LFD tool had an option for fast (gogogo speed run) vs slow (time to chat).

I’m wondering if there’s any way that the slower runs could become more elitist or if it’s inevitable that speed is always better. Maybe some kind of social scoring scheme based on (useful and grammatically correct) forum posts and votes from previous groupees, and some extra cosmetic rewards and titles …

Ancient roles, and non-negotiation in instance groups part 2

Back in the day, some character classes were known as group friendly classes, and others were solo friendly. The group friendly ones were typically tanks, healers and support classes and they usually had fairly poor dps and were slow at soloing. The others were the dps classes. Group friendly classes asserted their importance in groups because … they couldn’t really do much outside groups. Their whole game depended on being needed in groups. A solo archer could happily knock out the odd level or two, a solo healer was a joke. People used to take pity on their guild healers by helping them ‘solo’.

It’s worth noting this because the idea that tanks and healers are group oriented and dps are solo oriented is rooted very deep in the history of MMOs. This didn’t stop them all being able to work together as a group when needed, older games also had group content that required this. On the other hand, older games also had more downtime so people had time to talk, to discuss their roles, and so on. Plus groups used to go on for hours – it was more a case of camping a location until people got bored rather than going through a directed instance.

So what does this all mean today? Just that if no one wants to talk in a group, then the default position is for people to fall into traditional roles. Tam argues that tanks have some kind of divine right and the only way for dps to assert themselves in groups is to do something dickish. (I would argue that using phrases like divine right is encouraging people to feel oppressed when it’s really just a stupid instance group that doesn’t want to talk to each other.)

But how should decisions be made in a group where the majority don’t care, don’t want to talk and (presumably) just want to get on with it? Standing around trying to decide while the people take the opportunity to each express their own individuality by pulling random trash mobs is probably not going to please anyone. Although who knows … maybe that’s the way the genre is going?

A more pressing issue is simply that some people really do prefer to run instances at different rates. There are definitely players who would be more comfortable chatting for a couple of minutes before each pull and who feel disempowered by the whole LFD/ PUG experience. You won’t see them much in LFD because they either avoid it (probably the correct answer — much better to go with friends who use that style) or sit through the whole thing uncomfortably cowering in terror.

[3.33] Revenge is sweet! And whose responsibility is threat anyway?

How is everyone enjoying the new WoW patch?

It has been primarily a balancing patch (you can tell this because paladins got nothing) with the addition of a random battleground finder, and some tweaks to make crafted gear cheaper and reagents more accessible. Plus increasing the demand for frozen orbs which come from heroics (i.e. nudging bored players back into the LFD tool).

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Also, the best patch change of all is that the login screen now reminds you that your battle.net account name will be your email address.

This is handy for people (like me) who keep typing in their old user name by mistake.

How about that Revenge, kids?

Protection warriors did get some love via a tweak to Revenge, which now does a lot more damage. And if you pick up Improved Revenge, it even turns into a mini cleave rather than a random chance for a short stun.

To give an idea of how much difference this makes, I logged in after the patch and queued for a heroic on Spinks. And it was the first time I’ve ever topped the damage meters while tanking (I was on about 3k dps). Since Revenge was part of the standard rotation anyway, at least up until the last patch, the real beauty of this change is that you don’t have to change much about your playing style. Veneretio suggests shooting Revenge up to the top of the priority list. And then it  just – magically — gives you crazy damage and threat. The damage, at least, was warranted and brings us more in line with other tanks. The threat is a nice bonus but was not in any way necessary.

For example, the other thing I did after the patch was run the weekly heroic raid, which was Patchwerk. I pulled threat off a paladin tank who was wearing threat gear, without trying. And I was in full tank gear because I forgot to switch. First I laughed, because it was so ludicrous. And also because single target threat for tanks is a measure of e-peen (as in ‘phwoar, look at the threat on that!’).  Then I noted that I’d have to be careful not to pull threat inadvertently when we have a fight that requires us to swap tanks. Death Knight tanks also picked up an insane single target threat boost this patch, so will be in the same boat.

Which roughly means that in WoW at the moment, the only players who actually need to be careful and watch that they don’t go over tank threat are … other tanks.

The usual question when warriors get more damage is how it will affect the class in PvP. Will players find a way to work this into overpowered arena combinations? And for that we need to wait and see. Because Revenge can only be used after a block, it may simply be a learn to play issue. Don’t melee the shield warrior. They can still be disarmed, crowd controlled, nuked, and otherwise taken out of play.

Who is responsible for threat?

I was thinking about how the responsibility for threat management has changed in WoW over time. (I’m relying on memory to check when these changes came in so please correct me if I am wrong.)

In vanilla WoW, it was the tank’s responsibility to generate enough threat to distract mobs from the healers, and the dps responsibility not to out threat the tanks. It was completely normal for dps to back off a fight, wait for three sunders, or otherwise sit around twiddling their thumbs while they waited for tank threat to build up. Alliance was vastly overpowered compared to horde because all of their dps caused 30% less threat due to paladin buffs.

In TBC, dps classes gained more abilities to control their own threat. Active threat reduction cooldowns became more prevalent and more widely used. So instead of having to wait for tank threat, dps classes could hit their cooldown (to reduce their own threat) and keep nuking. Paladin threat reduction buffs were available to horde as well as alliance. Hunters also gained misdirect, which allowed them to add more threat to another player (i.e. a tank). This helped immensely with tricky pulls such as Gruul. If a hunter pulled with misdirect, then the tank got an immediate threat lead right from the start.

Incidentally I do love misdirect and tricks of the trade. It’s awesome when you’re in a fight with an aggro wipe and someone can help you to pick up the boss again quickly. I like the notion of controlling the fight as a team effort.

In Wrath, tank threat got beefed up significantly, and also rogues picked up a misdirect-equivalent of their own. Suddenly more dps classes could actively help with tanking (by controlling where the threat was directed) but at the same time, the idea of dps being forced to ease off for threat reasons was mostly eliminated. It just isn’t a big part of the dps role any more.

And although tanking is fun and more fluid than ever, it’s also easy as a tank to feel that in some fights you could be replaced by a lump of rock, or a pet. The hunters and rogues would misdirect to you, and the lump of rock could probably take the hits without needing to block or parry anyway, let alone use Revenge.

I do wonder where the devs plan to go with this. Will they go further with the lump of rock paradigm, making it even easier for a group to complete an instance with a poor quality tank? Maybe healers should get in on the act too, and be able to redirect some of their healing aggro?

Or will threat generation go even more over the top, more passive threat generating abilities, making tanking even easier?

I’m not sure that either of those options will make tanking more fun for me. That’s the big risk to tanking that I see going into Cataclysm.

It came from the PUG: Oh, is this an instance? I’m just here to practice my staff skill

I have a lot of sympathy for genuine slackers. The human drive to complete tasks with the least possible effort is the same drive that leads us to generate new and incredible feats of science and engineering. Every great engineering invention started with the thought, “I wonder if there is an easier way to do this?” (Many engineering PhDs end with the thought, “Nope, I guess there isn’t. But at least now I know why.”)

But as all true slackers know, there is a slackers code of conduct.

  1. Don’t put in any more effort than necessary to accomplish your goals.
  2. If you can beat more than one goal at the same time, so much the better.
  3. If someone notices that you are slacking and calls you on it, STOP SLACKING.

OK, now back to the PUG story. I was in an Old Stratholme run for the daily instance and I noticed that one of the other group members was very low on the damage meters. You can use recount to check which abilities people have been mostly using, it’s actually a really handy tool when you’re learning to play a class because it’s easy to compare your rotation with other people. So I moused over his name on recount and saw that his second most damaging attack was a melee autoattack. And he was a mage.

So at this point either he’s the noobiest mage ever or there’s something else going on. And since he had some Icecrown gear, I mentally rolled my eyes and figured he was probably levelling his staff skill. (Which is, by the way, completely pointless for a mage but is also part of an equally pointless achievement.)

I figure, fine. He’s taking the piss. I don’t feel the need to make a scene because it’s only Stratholme but if I have to pay attention during an instance run then I don’t see why everyone else can’t too. So I say something I never thought I would say to a mage, “Could you cast some spells please?”

He at this point makes the tactical mistake of explaining in group chat that he was levelling his staff skill, but notes that he was helping on the minibosses. I say tactical mistake because the rest of the group got outraged and booted him. Since he sounded like a reasonable bloke, I personally would have just said, “OK, fine. But when we get to the town hall, stop doing that please.”  I still think it’s cheeky for an ubergeared player to expect the rest of the group to carry them while they do a totally pointless achievement but I can overlook that if they pull their socks up when I call them on it.

I think I just have a much higher tolerance for slacking when it comes from someone who knows what they are doing. But most players won’t share that attitude.

And on a nicer note

I also had one very sweet PUG this week. One of my guildies was practicing tanking on a Death Knight alt, and since he’s a notorious aggro monkey on his main, myself and one of our other main tanks jumped at the chance to swap to dps specs and get some revenge! (Err, I mean, help and support him while he learns to tank instances.)

We were very lucky and had a fantastic PUG priest in an Utgarde Pinnacle run, who was able to heal through me tanking Skadi in fury gear after the tank died.

At the end of the run, she commented to us that when she zoned in and checked gear, she thought we were going to give the tank hell for being in blues. But then she noticed we all were in the same guild :) So whoever you were, awesome priest, thank you for being awesome.

(And Kesser, if you are reading this, we both thought you’ll be an amazing tank once you have some more gear. But it is part of the job description of fury warriors and boomkins to test new tanks!)