[SWTOR] In which Bioware finally nail single player gameplay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

So many games, so little time

It’s that time of the year again – just as the weather is getting warmer and everyone is recovering from the inevitable colds, flu, and chest infections and wants to be outside (apologies to anyone in the southern hemisphere for the UK bias) – what happens? We get hit with a slew of AAA computer games. And offers on old ones.

Games I am playing at the moment:

Rift – I really do enjoy Rift, and I don’t think people are anywhere near appreciative enough of the PvE/ questing content. It’s not revolutionary but bug free and nicely executed. Technically it’s good too – there’s a nice variety of kill quests, collect quests, use the item quests, use something in the environment quests, etc etc. And if you actually read the storyline quests in each zone, they’re good fun.

It’s a very easy game to spend an hour or so in quietly, even if you don’t feel like running the Rifts, instances or warfronts. Of course my character is still only level 30 so I can’t speak for the endgame. I intend to write longer posts about Rift since I’m happy with my 6 month sub, love the warlock, and looking forwards to seeing how things go. It is noticeable that the population has dropped off after the first month, but maybe they’re just all busy with single player games. Tipa writes a more thoughtful review here.

Dragon Age 2 – I haven’t gotten very far with my second play through as a mage yet, but it’s on the back burner. The more I think about this game (and I have been thinking about it) the more I love what they were trying to do. I find that a) I’m quite forgiving of games that fail to meet their vision if I agree with the vision and b) my characters in Bioware games default to Captain Jack style bisexual (he’ll screw anything as long as it’s gorgeous).

Mass Effect 2:  Since Bioware have been giving this away free to DA2 purchasers, it would have been rude not to download it. I got as far as where Shepherd first meets the Illustrated Man but haven’t really felt the need to play it since. I want to, even though I think I have probably forgotten the various commands for switching guns and … whatever other shooter stuff it does. It’s strange that the Dragon Age games have been so compelling for me but I struggle to get very far with either of the ME ones. I don’t think ME3 is on my shopping list either, now that Bioware have been busy perfecting the shootery gameplay which I’m so bad at.

The Witcher: Another game that I really like but have not been driven to play for ages. Picked this up in the Steam Sale over Xmas and enjoyed the parts that I did play. Again, I wonder if I’ll be able to remember the controls or whether I should just restart from the beginning if I get the urge.

Dragon Quest IX: This is the game which for me defines why it doesn’t matter if you never finish a CRPG. I’m still barely half way through, I think, but wandering around and fighting animated cucumbers never gets old. It would be dull on a PC but on a handheld that you play for 30 mins at a time on train journeys, it’s great.

Sims Medieval: The issue I have with this game is that it’s not really the sort of thing you can just pick up for 30 mins: it needs time, preferably more time than you have. My evil Sim queen got pregnant and I got bored waiting for her to drop the sprog. I will go back to it, because I think they did a lot of things right with this game and I’ve barely scratched the surface. In particular the idea of a simulation game using genre simulation rules rather than real world to help with telling genre-appropriate stories has HUGE potential. Imagine if it has been Sims Fairy Tale instead of Sims Medieval — I think that’s where the franchise needs to go. An unholy mix of simulation and storytelling, and I’d be so there.

LOTRO: Finished the most recent epic book content and enjoyed it a lot. Very tempted to sign up for some casual raiding but I have one major issue. I don’t understand the new legendary item changes, so I have no idea how bad my gear is or how to improve it.

You’ll notice a running thread in my more peripatetic games which is that one of the barriers to me continuing with it is worrying about whether I will remember how to play. Remember this, because it’s just as valid with MMOs that you put down for a while and then pick up again.

On the queue or the wishlist:

Pirates of the Burning Sea: I still really want to find time for this because I loved it! But wow it’s been hard to find time.

Bioshock: I remembered being recommended this game so picked it up from the recent Steam sale for a pittance.

Portal 2: Out next week, in case you missed the hype. Tempted to wait a few months until it is cheaper.

Witcher 2: I think I should finish the first game really, and have some concerns about how well it might run on my system. But it sounds as though it will be awesome.

Steamlands: Some kind of bizarro steampunk tank building/tower defense game? I don’t know, I just know that I’m already sold on it.

Free Middle Earth (US only)! Other single player games I wish I was playing.

I apologise for a bits and pieces post. My husband’s band are launching an album today so it’s all a bit hectic here. (Go check out tinyfish though, they’re a prog band but despite that they are also awesome :))

Turbine has launched an amusing trailer for the Free to Play version of LOTRO. Apparently this will be repeated in TV spots in the US. Sadly for those of us in Europe, our version is delayed.

LOTRO Reporter asks for patience with Codemasters while they sort it out. But I think we can assume that the majority of EU players who are interested in F2P will not be patient and will just go and make accounts on the US servers instead as soon as they realise. That will be a great shame for any existing EU players who were looking forwards to the influx.

Other single player games

I wanted to take the opportunity to signpost a few indie games that have hit the radar recently. If I had time enough, and love …

Minecraft – it’s a sort of building game, and dungeoneering game. There are different modes of play – creative mode for building cool stuff and survival mode which is more of a puzzle game. People have built scale replicas of famous buildings (the reichstag).  If that’s intriguing to you, go check it out.

Recettear – It’s all about being a shop owner in a typical JRPG; so you do some buying and selling, and also sponsor adventurers to go get you more stock. The debt collectors are at your door, so get cracking! Tipa has written eloquently about her experience of the game’s demo. Terrifically silly fun with solid gameplay behind it, and released today via the usual downloading outlets such as steam and impulse. Capitalism ho!

Amnesia: Dark Descent – Billed as a first person survival horror game, you will be spending a lot of your time running away from monsters. Reports I have read agree that it is very scary indeed and extremely immersive. Larisa even wonders whether MMOs can learn anything from this type of play. I may be too wimpy for this type of horror myself, but if it is your thing, the game’s had great reviews.

If you are a fan of multiple choice text adventures, check out the new stories at Multiple Choice Games — choice of the vampire, and choice of romance (seems vaguely appropriate after having mentioned romances in comments on Wednesday). They also have some user submitted stories, including a rather smart one about paranoia. The web versions are all free.

Anyone tried any of these, or any other indie games you’d like to recommend?

Single Player Content (put a pause button on it)

I love having the option of a pause button in single player games.

It’s the difference between gaming as a hobby where you absolutely must reserve undisturbed blocks of time and tell the outside world to pretend that you’re dead until the end of the session, or a pastime like reading or watching TV that you can fit around the rest of your life. Because sometimes you don’t know if you will be disturbed, or you don’t know exactly how much time you have available.

I realised recently how much I enjoy flight in WoW. Not just because I like flying, but because you can just hop on the flying mount when you need to pause, and your character will be safe when you get back. Stealth works also, if you have a stealthy character. And being able to leave your character somewhere safe out in the world for a few minutes while you answer the phone is one of the great bonuses of playing on a non-PvP server.

And I can’t help thinking that solo skirmishes in LOTRO would be much more relaxing experiences with the addition of a pause button. The only real way to pause a skirmish is to die in the middle of it, because the game lets you take a few minutes before you release. Other than that, when you hop into a skirmish you are in for 20-30 minutes of fast paced and fairly unrelenting action.This is because you don’t control the pace yourself, unlike in the little crafting one man instances where you can clear it out as fast or as slow as you like.

Pausing in multi-player games is something to negotiate with the rest of the group, but it feels like such a natural addition to solo instances that I wonder if it really should be a standard.

The convergence of single player and multiplayer games

There’s a rumour going around that the next wave of Call of Duty games will include  options to buy into online subscription extras. So you’ll buy the game, and also be able to sub up for whatever services they decide to provide online. Maybe they’ll throw in some additional DLC on top.

Dragon Age is a single player game, with a 2 year DLC plan (38% through now, and how about them deep roads, by the way? Now that’s how to do horror.) They also have a social site where you can compare quests and achievements with friends, and a bulletin board too. Plus a tie in with their flash game to earn more loot for the standalone game.

And does anyone not think that Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3 will also have subscription options?

Increasingly we’ve seen MMOs also poking around with models which involve box sales plus monthly subscriptions for extra content/patches/server maintenance, and options to buy extras via a cash shop as well.

There’s a convergence coming, and as MMO players, it’s all about how the gaming side took over the virtual world. And about whether we really want to be playing with massive amounts of people anyway. How much difference is there really between logging on for the weekly COD session with friends or the weekly fixed group in a MMO?

These days we understand a subscription as meaning a stream of ongoing content, and complain if the content doesn’t come fast enough. All those things that old MMO dinos lament about the good old days nowlook laughable because so many of the old MMOs were simply bad games. Poor gameplay, poor balance, timesinks, complexity … none of these things made for great gameplay. But the gameplay wasn’t the compelling factor that people miss. Those days of MMOs as virtual worlds are almost gone now, and I wonder if  that is the big reason that new MMOs struggle to get players to sub for more than a month or two.

It isn’t just their merits as games, it’s that perhaps the majority of gamers are looking for doses of solid gameplay, rather than a new virtual home.

Another route to hard modes

Lots of single player computer games have options that the player can select to control difficulty. You start up and get the Easy/Medium/Hard options, so you pick Easy, right? After all, you want to at least finish the game now you’ve bought it. Or at least get a feel for how easy their Easy mode is before you ask them to ramp up whatever tweaks they do to make things harder.

Or maybe that’s just me. If  a game offers an Easy mode, I’ll pick that while I’m learning it. But then again, I don’t like every game enough to want to replay it so maybe that’s the only mode I’ll ever try. The only hard mode I did quite like was in the Civilisation games – I don’t particularly score well at it (I claim that this is because Civilisation is biased towards world domination and against winning through better SCIENCE!) but I like that picking a harder mode unlocks extra options and complexity for the player,

So if harder modes offer a richer game, or at least a slightly different one, then I’m personally more likely to try them.

So what is a hard mode, really?

Usually it means a tweak to internal parameters so that the game becomes more testing of whatever twitch-fest they’re focussing on. More enemies. Faster enemies. Tougher enemies. Sometimes they make your character weaker – less survival options. Or add more environmental variables.

It should lead to a more exciting game experience when you can’t just idly wander through the fields of mobs randomly letting off your AE nuke of choice without any fear for your toon’s safety. Or in fact without having to really think while playing the game.

If you look at a game like Plants vs Zombies, you can see how instead of setting a difficulty at the start, they increase difficulty with each level. This is the other way to set difficulties and it’s the one I prefer. Let the player start with the easiest mode, and then add more elements, tweak settings slightly for the next level, increase complexity slightly. And keep going until players either finish the game or find the difficulty level they’re comfortable with – hopefully by the time they reach either of these points they feel they have had their money’s worth and are ready to buy your next game.

But that’s not so great for a multi-player setting where players may be of different skills, experiences with this type of game, or even seeking different goals. The player looking for a relaxing casual social experience probably doesn’t want to play ultra-hard mode, and it isn’t because they’re some kind of slacker. It’s just because they aren’t looking for a testing experience. Hard isn’t always the same as fun.

All you can do with groups is to offer the different difficulties and let players decide among their own groups how they want to organise themselves and make that decision. You probably don’t want to force them all to start at the easiest level and gradually pick up more and more difficulty because they may not all be at the same level to start with.

In practice, MMOs tend to have their easy modes at level 1. And as you level up, gain more abilities, and probably try out the group content, then things get harder. A game like WoW introduces a lot of the elements you’ll later find in raids in their 5-man instances. This is why it matters if 5-mans are too easy, if they are, people won’t learn the things they need to learn. And MMOs have not been good traditionally at ramping up the solo difficulty, which is another valid criticism. It has tended to be groups only.

Designing the Hard Mode Encounter

In a Diablo/CoH style hard mode encounter they generally just increase the numbers of mobs, increase their damage, and increase their toughness. And sometimes that’s enough. It certainly can be enough to step up the pace and excitement without requiring people to radically change their playing style.

In a WoW-type hard mode encounter, the encounter is intended to more severely test part of the raid. So you get some hard modes that are just harder dps checks with a little extra survivability movement thrown in. You get some that add a lot of extra complexity – more movement required, more adds to handle, more elements for everyone to think about. You get some where the nature of the encounter changes dramatically.

I’ve heard some complaints with hard modes (and I know I’ve seen few myself – we had a pop  at Freya+1 last night and that was fun), but I figure they can’t all be winners. As long as most encounters are more fun and challenging for the hardcore raid groups in hard mode then the hard modes are doing their job and entertaining people.

So what is the best way to have difficulty settings for soloers?

One of my guildies hooked me on Hattrick a few months ago. It’s a web-based football manager game, and not one of those games that will take over your life. Once it’s all set up you can log in once or twice a week to set your team formations for next week’s games and check how things have been going.

(It is amusing to me that I’m not big on football but I love football manager games.)

And there’s one game element in Hattrick that I think is very smart indeed. Alongside your regular team, you can also coach youth players. This means that you will sometimes be able to promote a good youth player to your A-team and it will be much much cheaper than buying a player via the transfer market, also there’s a chance that you’ll raise a brilliant player who is much better than anyone you could have afforded to buy.

The game offers two different ways of managing the youth team. There’s the hands-off method where you just pay a certain amount per week towards upkeep of the youth team. Once you have set that up, it happens passively and you get the chance to promote a youth player once a week. Most of the players you get this way are pretty poor, but there’s always that chance that you could find a winner. (I think my current goalie was a youth promotion I got from using this method.)

Then there’s the more complex hands-on method where you can actually choose to run your own youth academy. If you do this, then you get to send scouts out to find new youth players, set up games for your youth team the same way you do for your main team, decide how you want to train them and listen to the trainers reports on how they are doing. And you decide when or if you want to promote a player to the main team or if you’d rather keep training them with the youth for longer (the youth academy generally has better training options).

So effectively, this game  has a solo ‘hard mode’. If you want the extra complexity, you can choose that. And it gives you much more control over the outcome of the youth team. If you don’t want to be bothered, then you pick the easier setup and although you won’t get as consistent results, you still are in with a chance of promoting a really good player.

I could imagine something like this for crafting in MMOs. People who hate crafting can just not do it. People who like to craft as a casual side-game could pick some non-complex crafting mechanism where you just hit a single button, and there’s more randomness involved in what you get. And people who love crafting and want to spend the extra time on it could pick a more complex crafting mechanic. It would take longer and require more thought but would give them more control over the whole process.