More Livestream and Dev Blog Reactions

I couldn't resist squeeing about the level syncing coming in KotFE as soon as I heard about it, but there are a lot of other things that were talked about in last week's livestream that I haven't commented on yet. Since then, Bioware has also released four new dev blogs detailing changes coming to the Cartel market, changes coming to stats, combat and companions; questing changes and crafting changes. Without further ado, let's dive right in!

Miscellaneous Changes Announced on the Livestream

I don't have much of an opinion on anything to do with creating characters at level sixty. There was a time when I would have opposed the very idea of it, but as the practice of buying high-level characters in MMOs is becoming increasingly common, it feels like shouting into the wind anyway. I still think that in terms of community it's likely to do more harm than good, because for every player who can finally jump right in to engage in max-level activities with his friends without having to deal with the "tedious" levelling process, there'll be three people in your pug that have no idea how to play or behave because they only logged into the game for the first time half an hour ago and are barely ready to tackle the Esseles. But I get that Bioware is making this expansion all about the new single player story, and considering that story is very much a main focus of the game, I find the idea of letting people jump right into the new content less offensive than I might have if this was another MMO. One can only hope that at least some of these new players will get sufficiently hooked on the story of the game that they'll want to go back and play through the previous content as well, even if that requires rolling an alt.

I think it's really nifty that Bioware is raising the overall number of character slots significantly to accommodate altoholics, though personally I still have plenty of slots left right now.

I can't say I'm very excited about receiving a special little icon next to my name for having completed all the class stories, but I guess it will be interesting to see just how common a sight that will be on the fleet. Among bloggers it seems quite common these days to have completed all eight class stories, especially with the various class XP boosts that have been going around, but I'd be surprised if that was reflected in the general playerbase as well.

I think it's funny that they are changing all the commendations to crystals. What was wrong with commendations? Maybe it didn't make much sense for them to drop from things like mobs, but I'm not sure crystals are much better in that regard. At least commendations made sense as a currency.

I've already written about why legacy datacrons don't excite me back in this post.

Cartel Market Changes

I think it's great that they'll be reworking the collections interface. I unlocked a couple of colour crystals that I regularly copy for alts and their companions, yet every time just getting to the right window has been a pain that involved lots of scrolling and clicking. And that was when I knew exactly where to look, let's not even talk about trying to find anything of which I wasn't sure where it was!

All the stuff about changes to Cartel packs kind of went over my head as I've rarely bought any, but I have to admit that having fewer items per pack sounds kind of lame, even if they are supposed to be better items. One thing I've liked about SWTOR's Cartel packs as opposed to other gambling boxes that I've seen is that it almost always felt like you got something out of them, even if it wasn't anything great. Even if you got something like a very common pet and a pair of boots, it still felt like you got decent value out of the pack. So we'll have to see how that pans out.

Bringing some highly popular items from the packs back as direct sale items, even if it's only temporary, is something that a lot of players requested. We'll see how much people will make use of this opportunity.

Combat Changes

I've written about the introduction of mastery here. As far as the other stat changes go, I don't have much of an opinion on them right now, because like many class changes, they currently fall into the category of "too vague for me to tell whether it's going to be good, bad or make no difference to me at all in practice".

Level syncing sounds awesome, as I already said.

More experience for playing in a group sounds nice as well. Just the other day a commenter contested my claim in this post that SWTOR rewarded grouping, based on the argument that you could end up with reduced XP from mob kills while grouped. It feels serendipitous that this change was announced only two days later.

Temporary ability bars mostly sound like a nice idea, especially for things like throwing the Huttball. It always feels extremely awkward when you're in a Huttball match and some inexperienced newbie catches the ball by accident and then just sits there, confused, while the whole team yells at him to pass already. As far as heroic moment goes... eh, I've been able to cope. Surely I'm not the only one who had a whole ability bar dedicated to it, more or less? Now I'll have to think about what else to put on there or whether to disable it entirely. The one thing that scares me is this quote from the related dev post: "This will open up new possibilities for us to do some more interesting content in the future!" Is anyone else seeing WoW-style vehicle fights in our future?

I've already shared my opinions on the biggest upcoming companion changes in this post, but one thing that was new and interesting to me was the upcoming inclusion of non-story companions that only exist for combat, such as an akk dog. On the one hand I'd quite like owning one of these myself (even at the risk of incurring moral dilemmas) and it will be nice to see a greater variety of companions around, but on the other it makes me a little sad, because the fact that all of SWTOR's companions currently have a story has been part of what makes the game unique among its competitors. I can't help but feel that this is mainly being introduced to have another easy way of monetising the game - I know from Neverwinter that people love paying for different-looking combat companions, and I guess it's easier to add random animals and nondescript NPCs than to write and implement a whole new story arc for each new companion like they did with Treek.

Core World Changes

I think it's great that they are adding new indicators for different types of quests. There's nothing wrong with letting people know what they are getting into. I specifically remember P. Mersault from Party Business asking before how he could pick out the main planetary story if that's what he wanted to focus on.

I also think it's interesting that they are actually scaling the crazy XP boosts of recent months back a bit by pushing people towards doing the planetary storylines in addition to their class story.

The only thing I don't like is that side missions will be hidden by default unless you specifically enable them. Is Bioware really so ashamed of that content? With the new labelling system it should be easy enough for people to pick out their desired path anyway, without Bioware actively shunting content out of the way. And new players, the ones who may well be the ones most likely to want to do that content, probably won't expect to have to click a special tick box just to see all the quests.

Heroic missions as repeatable group content "for all ages", including an instant teleport, sounds interesting. Not sure whether they'll still feel sufficiently different from flashpoints at that point, but either way people will have the option of progressing their character at endgame through a variety of ways, and levelling characters should (hopefully) have a much easier time finding groups for these quests - though I haven't seen anyone mention whether the group finder for heroic missions will also receive an upgrade. It's always been pretty crap.

Crafting Changes

Again, I have written about some of the crafting changes before. I will still be sad to have to say goodbye to Red Goo, but hearing that obsolete materials will be turned into something useful instead of vendor trash was comforting. Even if it means that I won't be able to keep a stack of Red Goo just for the memories!

Overall I appreciate that they are trying to streamline crafting a bit, though I'm still a bit disappointed that there won't be a skill increase in KotFE. Hopefully all the changes to the core systems will still make things interesting enough to make it worth working on your crafting again.

The changes to gathering mostly make a lot of sense and were probably simply necessary due to things like level syncing and all the flashpoints becoming tactical. For example most people can't currently scavenge in Kuat Drive Yards because everyone gets bolstered up, so the mobs are too high to be pulled apart by lowbie gatherers. With a lot of the content following a similar format in KotFE, it would have been a hot mess if they left the gathering system as it is. Still, I think we are losing something by not having to think about these things while levelling anymore. It's another bit of complexity removed.

Also, no more zoning back and forth between different areas just to reshuffle your available crew skill missions... please tell me I wasn't the only one who did that?

The crafting changes, once again, border on containing too much theory for me to be sure how it will all work out in practice. Overall it sounds to me like there'll be fewer things of value to craft, what with whole categories like droid parts being removed from the game. (I sure feel like a muppet now for having bothered to reverse engineer all the blue and purple droid parts in 3.0...) I'm not sure how well "components" will fill that gap because they sound kind of boring to me to be honest, like fabrication kits. I rarely make those either, simply because my brain doesn't quite manage to make the mental leap to all the exciting pieces of furniture I could buy with them; they are just a random in-between item that I feel little connection to and therefore have little interest in if I'm not trying to get some for a very specific purpose.

I'm also confused by the supposed changes to reverse engineering, specifically this line: "Reverse Engineering items no longer gives a random item. Instead, the item reverse engineered will give an improved version of that item." Are you telling me that the blues and purples I currently get out of REing are not actually better than the greens? Does not compute.

I'm glad I'm not a huge fan of crafting, so I can look at all these changes with a bit of detachment. I'm curious to see how they will work out in practice, but if the new system fails to amaze me I won't be heartbroken (except about the Red Goo of course).


100 Warzones on The Red Eclipse - Fun With Numbers

At the beginning of September I mentioned that it felt to me like I was getting a disproportionate amount of arena pops in my random warzone queue and that I was playing with the idea of getting scientific about it by actually tracking my matches the way I did back in autumn 2013, when I wanted to find out just how badly the Republic was losing to the Empire at the time (the answer was: very). Well, I decided to go through with my new study! I was right that it would take me longer than three weeks to knock out a hundred random warzones this time, but I was positively surprised to find out that it "only" took me one extra week, for a total of four.

So what did I find out? Let's first deal with the question that inspired this: Are arena pops more frequent now than they used to be? I can't actually answer the question in that form, because I have no data for how it "used to be", as my previous experiment took place just before the introduction of arenas. We can however change the question to: Did I get more arena pops than one would expect? That I can work with. Arena is one of six different PvP gameplay modes currently in the game, so I would expect, on average, to get an arena once every six matches (or about seventeen percent of the time).

There are four different maps for arenas, but considering that a death match is a death match, whether you're on Tatooine or on Corellia, I don't think that they should get higher priority in the queue because of that. If they did, if the randomiser gave every map an equal chance to come up instead of every gameplay mode, arenas would have to come up forty percent of the time, since they cover four of the ten available maps. Ack!

Fortunately my data seems to suggest that the randomiser favours each gameplay mode evenly, not each map, as only twenty of my one hundred matches ended up being arenas. I also got only fifteen Huttball matches, distributed evenly between the two available maps. Not that many arenas then. Phew!

What else did I find out? Well, mostly that Republic on the Red Eclipse still sucks - or again. In 2013 I ended my experience with a win rate of a measly 35 percent, while this year it was up ever so slightly with a staggering result of 38 percent. Yay! That's still a lot more losses than wins though. I also recorded my longest known loss streak to date, which lasted fourteen matches. For comparison, my best win streak only lasted four games. Overall there were many points where I got very frustrated and probably should have stopped playing earlier or taken a break for a couple of days, but I kept going because I wanted to continue my data collection.

Probably the most healing I've ever done in a single warzone... and a loss of course.

I can only take guesses as to the "why" of the Republic losing so badly to the Empire quite so often, but my impression was that there are mostly more dedicated PvP guilds on Empire side right now (even though the Imps don't have that many either). Still, there are some, and I experienced many a moment where I noticed several of our opponents wearing the same well-known guild tag and knew that it was probably going to be a loss. On Republic side there seemed to be much fewer pre-made groups, and generally not many guild names that inspired any kind of reaction in me. The notable exception were the three matches where I found myself with Etun from Nostrum Dolus on my team (once considered the best PvP guild in the world, though now defunct I believe). All three of those games were decisive wins.

What else did I find out that was interesting, especially compared to my 2013 study? Well, for one thing the Republic is still good and bad at the same warzones, and even more so than it used to be. Civil War was the one warzone where I recorded an equal amount of wins and losses, and Novare Coast wasn't too far behind. In Huttball on the other hand we were worse than ever (on both maps), to the point where my faction was only victorious in two out of sixteen matches, or less than thirteen percent of the time! Ouch! This is pretty much in line with what I said before about the Empire going in with more pre-mades, as Huttball is particularly easy to dominate with a guild group. Despite of my dislike for arenas, they weren't really that much worse than the regular warzones, with a win rate of about 35 percent for the arenas vs. 39 percent for the objective-based maps.

The other thing that was funny to me was the comparison between my characters. Back in 2013 they weren't all PvP geared, and I was surprised to find that my Scoundrel had an abysmal win rate despite of being the flavour of the month PvP healer at the time. This time around all three of my characters had full Dark Reaver gear, and Scoundrels are supposed to be the weakest PvP healers... yet my Scoundrel had the best win-loss ration of all my healers, losing only one more game than she won. I don't think that really means anything though; I suspect that this particular oddity is just another case of random numbers being random. Tonight I took my Scoundrel in for another PvP daily and she lost all four of the matches she played.

Now I really need a break from PvP.


Flashpoint Friday: Hammer Station

Do not fear, no amount of expansion excitement will keep me from working on my new bi-weekly  project (mostly because these posts are easy to write up some time in advance).

I've talked about an Imperial-only flashpoint, I've talked about a Republic-only flashpoint, so for my third installment of Flashpoint Friday I'd like to talk about a flashpoint that is available to both factions, the very first of its kind in fact: Hammer Station!

By the way, if you have any suggestions as for which flashpoint you'd like me to cover next, feel free to leave a comment. Given enough time I should be able to get to all of them, but in terms of priorities I'm pretty flexible.

General Facts

Hammer Station is the first of six levelling flashpoints that are available to both factions and pretty light on story. They all start from the dropship launch hangar of your respective faction's fleet, and there are breadcrumb quests on the main station and on level-appropriate planets to direct you towards them. If you're Republic, you get a holo call from Master Satele Shan to explain the situation, while Imperials get one from Darth Malgus.

Hammer Station was originally designed for levels 15-21 or so, however come Knights of the Fallen Empire it will scale to a much wider level range and be adjusted to be doable with a role-neutral group.


On Hammer Station you fight the Advozse Hegemony, so your enemies consist of Advozse and various battle droids - lots of battle droids. Hammer Station is a lowbie scavenger's dream, considering how many broken droids you get to take apart on the way.

Hammer Station is the second flashpoint that new players can potentially encounter in the game, and it feels like it was designed to challenge them at least a little at this point. Most of the trash is easy and straightforward, however there are a couple of pulls that can cause deaths or even a wipe if handled incorrectly. In fact, the most difficult one of these is almost right at the start, where a group of multiple droids that includes two strong and two elite mobs awaits. Their combined firepower is considerable, and the healer might not be able to keep up even if the tank somehow manages to get aggro on everything. What's more likely however is that a couple of mobs will go untanked and undamaged and nuke the healer, with predictable results. This is where players may want to look for their early crowd control buttons.

There are only three bosses on Hammer Station, plus a bonus boss that currently only exists on hardmode - a giant lobel.

The first boss is a spider-like tunneler droid that summons adds that don't need to be killed because they explode on their own after a few seconds, however those explosions do need to be dodged. On hardmode, the mining laser with which he attacks the tank leaves a stacking debuff that needs to be dispelled before it gets too high - a mechanic that is trivial if you know what to do, but absolutely deadly if you don't.

The second boss, Vorgan the Volcano, is a straightforward exercise in kill order, as you want to kill his healer and high dps companions first, though getting it wrong is more likely to just extend the duration of the fight instead of outright wiping you.

The final boss, Battlelord Kreshan, is fairly interesting mechanics-wise and reasonably challenging on hardmode, by combining a painful frontal arc with add summons and red circles on the floor. On hardmode he also has a knockback that can send players flying to their deaths. However, in turn you can easily get rid of his adds by knocking them off that same precipice, which makes the fight quite fun for any class that has an AoE knockback.


In the introduction by Master Satele or Darth Malgus you are told that the Advozse Hegemony is wreaking havoc in various star systems by using a space station specifically constructed for the purpose of flinging asteroids at things - originally designed by the Republic, the prototype of this "Hammer Station" was supposed to have been decommissioned ages ago. Your strike team is supposed to board the station and put an end to the Advozse's madness.

So you do. The end.

In the debrief at the end you are told that the reason the Advozse came into the possession of Hammer Station was that it was supposed to be destroyed by being sent into a star but apparently ended up veering off course or something - either way they managed to salvage it before it could meet its intended end.


After the exciting twists and turns of the Esseles (or the Black Talon on Empire side), Hammer Station initially feels like a bit of a letdown. There is no story beyond "go kill these guys" and there are no group conversations inside the instance apart from a brief interlude at a console where you can earn some light or dark side points based on how much of a disruption you're willing to create on the station's engineering level.

However, once you get over the initial disappointment of it not being more revolutionary, Hammer Station is a solid and lovingly crafted instance. There are some great views to be had, especially at one point where you cross a bridge that leads right across the shaft through which the asteroids are shot out... though your average pug is unlikely to pay attention to that. (To be honest, I didn't notice the full scale of the thing myself until Telwyn pointed it out.)

There are also some "easter eggs" for different professions to be had: archaeologists can click on a crate to give the group a small buff, and bioanalysts can open access to a room with a big treasure chest in it. In practice I haven't seen anyone actually bother with any of these however, with the exception of the scavenger gimmick, which allows you to skip a couple of trash pulls by activating a drill.

Either way Hammer Station is a fun little romp with nice scenery and interesting mechanics that hold up well to repetition.


Level Syncing! So Much Love!

Apparently yesterday another much-hyped developer livestream took place - which I missed of course, because livestreams and I generally don't get on. Even if we did though, SWTOR's pretty much always take place in the middle of the night in my time zone, and I don't have the luxury of staying up until silly o'clock on a weekday anymore. Fortunately sites like Dulfy are always nice enough to provide summaries of these things. Apparently there is a lot of new information to digest, which I will still have to think about, but there's one thing that jumped out at me above all others when I first read about it on Werit's blog: level syncing.

Indeed, level scaling won't just be a thing in warzones, flashpoints and operations anymore, but also on planets (a.k.a. "out in the open world"). You will automatically be downlevelled to the highest "appropriate" level for any planet you visit (though you won't lose any higher-level abilities). So if you go to Coruscant for example, nobody will be higher than level eighteen.

I can't tell you guys how happy I am about this change. I was honestly happier and more excited when I read about this than I was even about the expansion announcement itself. There are just so many ways that immediately come to mind in which this change is going to be awesome.

First off, it just makes so much more sense. Levels should make you more powerful, yes, but not as powerful as they currently do. I doesn't make sense that the blaster of a random thug on Rishi can hurt me, while I can have twenty random thugs shooting me on Coruscant and they can't even hit me. Neither should my character be able to face-tank a killer droid the size of a house just because it's only level thirty. I enjoy feeling like I'm part of an immersive and consistent world, and sadly we live in an age where this is valued less and less by game developers and gamers alike. Instead making things more convenient and "gamey" is often prioritised above all else. So I love seeing Bioware make a change like this - though there are gameplay benefits to enforced level syncing as well.

Solo-grinding low-level heroics - soon a thing of the past. And I'm OK with it!

(I'd like to note that I've never disliked levels the way some people do. I "grew up" in World of Warcraft, and becoming more and more godlike as you went up in levels - compared to the mobs in the zones you left behind - was just part of the natural order of things. However, even things that I've liked and accepted in the past can be improved upon.)

I like the idea of world bosses becoming a genuine threat again. At the moment they can pretty much be split into two categories: those that people can and do solo at max level and those that nobody bothers with because they still require at least a small group. I'm already day-dreaming about taking my guildies on world boss raids on planets like Coruscant and Taris... though admittedly, we'll first have to see whether the new reward structure holds up as well. People won't want to organise a down-levelled operation just to get a level twenty chest piece as a reward.

Finally, characters of all levels will be able to meaningfully group up for content out in the open world. No more rolling an alt just to play with your lowbie friends or worrying about outlevelling them! (Well, you can still do it I suppose, but you won't have to.) Negative player interaction will also be reduced, because there'll be no more open world ganking (in the sense of a high level player one-shotting lowbies). Goodness all around!

Now, I admit that there'll be downsides: There will be no truly "safe" planets anymore, so if you just want to hop over to that particular corner on Alderaan for some screenshots of the scenery, you'll have to deal with the mobs on the way like anyone else. And of course outlevelling things until you can solo them will be a thing of the past, which also means no more "boosting" lowbies through more difficult content on your higher-level character. I know that for some people this will sting (some of my readers/commenters for one) and I do sympathise somewhat, but... to be honest, this expansion is also introducing some changes that aren't really my cup of tea, so I kinda feel like I've earned the right to an announcement that I'm allowed to be unabashedly happy about. The downsides don't affect me, so... whee! (Though I do bet that there'll probably a moment at some point in the future where I'll go: "Damn, I remember when I could solo this, why does it require so much more effort right now?" But that's just the way we always find something to whine about.)

We'll see how well the implementation of this planet-wide level syncing will work out in practice. People have already brought up a number of cases where it's unclear how (well) the scaling will work. Alderaan has a bonus series for example that is ten levels higher than the rest of the planet, does that mean that the cap will be forty-something for everyone or will it vary by area? What about various class quests that send you back to lowbie planets at higher level? What about world events like Bounty Contract Week, where you spawn mobs based on your own level? I'll be positively surprised if Bioware doesn't manage to screw at least a couple of these things up on day one, but I feel that their past experience with the bolster mechanic has given them a solid grasp on how level scaling should work in principle, so I trust that they will get there eventually.

I've heard that the announcement of this feature has been "contentious", but so far I've seen more positive than negative reactions. (Might be my bias clouding my view however.) What do others think? I'd also be interested in the opinions of those who have played other games that enforce level syncing. (I know that Guild Wars 2 does it, and I think Final Fantasy XIV does as well, though that one also takes your higher-level abilities away if I recall correctly.) I rarely see people talk about it as a negative thing, yet I always see a lot of positive mentions.


Farewell to the Customer Service Forum

I was just wondering which of my drafts to flesh out into a proper post tonight, when I found out about some breaking news via Massively: Bioware is shutting down SWTOR's customer service forum in a week! Instead people will be directed to a generic EA help page in the future.

Reduced customer support? Does that mean more staff lay-offs? And that during a time when the game should be growing and getting hyped up... dooooom!

Well, not quite, though I'm sure that a lot of casual readers will interpret it that way, because people love to see bad news everywhere. As a SWTOR player since launch however, I can't help but take a different view.

Fact is, the name "customer service forum" has been a misnomer pretty much since launch, because 99% of the time no actual customer service took place in any of the threads there. Personally I suspect that Bioware may well have had plans for this forum to serve as a genuine customer service channel once upon a time, but when launch came with its two million players and oodles of bugs, they were clearly overwhelmed by the response. Given limited resources it must have made sense to focus on the more "urgent" channels such as phone support and the in-game ticket system, while letting the forums fall by the wayside. While the launch hype eventually died down, customer services suffered further cuts instead of receiving increased support, so they probably never had the manpower to actually revive the idea of providing proper help on the forums.

What the customer services forum has been for the last four years is an online support group for players who had technical trouble with the game. Whenever I had issues launching the game or logging in, my first instinct was to go to the customer services forum and check if anyone else was having problems, because if they were, there was bound to be a thread about it. When it came to certain gameplay issues, people were sometimes even able to offer useful advice: Back in 2012 I had issues with my game crashing all the time after a certain patch, and it was the customer service forum where I eventually found my solution, buried on page 55 of an even longer thread. I still don't know if Bioware ever bothered to apply an official fix for that problem.

So, what does this mean for SWTOR players? Well, we're certainly not losing any official customer support, because the forums weren't providing it in the first place. I'm confident that nobody at Bioware lost their job over this, because most of the time nobody responded to all the issues that people posted about anyway. I have no idea how good those official EA help pages are - EA's customer support doesn't exactly have a stellar reputation - but even bad customer support can't be any worse than not getting any at all. Dare I say that it might even be an improvement?

I'm not sure how well people will take to it, because I'm sure I'm not the only one who happily plays Bioware games while still avoiding their "evil overlord" EA whenever possible. To me as an MMO player it also won't feel nearly as natural to go to an EA page as it is to simply go to my game's official forums when I have a problem. (Even if I don't expect to receive support there, talking to other players about it can still be valuable.) I can easily see threads about various tech issues or "Is the server down?" type questions making an appearance in places like the general discussion forum in the future. If that happens, will Bioware be hardline enough to keep closing those threads down or will discussions like this simply continue in other sub-forums? We shall see.

The only potential downside I see is that a complete deletion of the old forum would result in the loss of a lot of accumulated knowledge and user-created fixes for a variety of problems. So I second the suggestion that they should be allowed to remain on the site as a read-only archive, at least for now.


The Star Wars Hype Is Building Up

Episode VII is still almost three months away but the rising Star Wars hype levels are already palpable. The other week I went to the website of a certain homeware retailer here in the UK and they had a whole separate category on their website for Star Wars. Not that there was much in it, but it had a whole tab of its own, side by side with categories such as "home & garden" or "sports & leisure". When I walk down the street on my way to and home from work, I walk past an optician that advertises Star Wars children's glasses. It's simply everywhere.

I will admit that I'm not immune to the lure of all these ads either. The other day I actually bought a pair of pens in my local bookshop that look like lightsabers. Hey, I needed some new pens anyway, so why not go for something funky? Of course the joke was on me - while they looked amusing, they barely worked as pens even fresh out of the packaging. Disney will literally license to anyone, even someone who makes barely functioning pens. But then I should have already known that, considering all the Frozen kitchen towels I keep seeing around...

Wikipedia says that using a small version of a film poster while talking about said film can be classified as fair use. Please don't sue me, Disney! (The larger version originally comes from here.)

Anyway, I digress. The point is that a rising tide lifts all the boats, and with all this merchandise everywhere you don't really have to be a super-fan to maybe go: "Hm, Star Wars. I remember liking that at one point." And if you're a gamer, you might very well end up remembering that game called Star Wars: The Old Republic. I'm already seeing some of it around the blogosphere. Belghast has been writing about getting back into the game because of the general Star Wars feeling in the air, and other multi-MMO-bloggers like Syp or Telwyn have found themselves returning to SWTOR in anticipation of the new expansion.

I'm thinking that this should result in a healthy boost for the game's population, even without lots of marketing for SWTOR in particular, simply because Star Wars fans will be open to anything that gives them more of their favourite IP while they wait for the next film. I would really like it if EA was able to announce some really big milestone like "back to two million active players a month" as a result of this, just because they've been so cagey when it comes to talking about the game ever since its initial flop and I want to see it do well.

Of course the question is: Even if there's a spike of new and returning players caused by general Star Wars hype - how long will it last? I suppose waiting a month for the next story update might not seem so bad when you have to wait another one and a half years for Episode VIII, but not everyone might find themselves as enamoured with the universe of the Old Republic as they are with the events in the films.

Still, I'm really hoping that this will pull a whole bunch of new Star Wars fans in who may not even have tried the game before. I can't wait for people to say stuff like: "That Revan guy is a total Kylo Ren rip-off!"


Don't Tell Me About Class Changes

While I'm anxious to hear more about the mechanical changes that are coming with Knights of the Fallen Empire, there's one aspect of this I haven't got much interest in, and that's class changes. Of course that's the one thing Bioware has been talking about. /sigh

The reason I don't care much about class changes in patches or even expansions is that most of the time, they are way too abstract to make much sense to me. When you tell me that companion power will now simply scale with level instead of gear, I can immediately picture a lot of practical consequences this will have on my gameplay. When you tell me that ability X will be buffed by Y percent, that sounds nice, but it doesn't really tell me what that will mean in an everyday context.

Not even hearing about entirely new abilities tends to excite me much anymore, simply because they never seem to work out as I imagined either. Apparently Commandos will get a disengage ability / backwards jump in 4.0. My first thought was that this will probably cause me to jump myself off a cliff or into an extra trash pull in no time. But in reality, I just don't know. I remember when Electro Net was introduced in 2.0, I read the tooltip and thought that being able to prevent warriors and knights from leaping at me would be amazing. In practice I never seem to get much use out of that however - instead I mostly use it to help kill Sages and Sorcs by preventing them from bubbling at the crucial moment. However, I had to actually go through many PvP matches to see the ability in action to realise how things were working out. So I figure there isn't too much point in getting excited about any of this new stuff yet either way.

If anything, I'm a little worried about what seems to be an ongoing "mobility arms race". I saw this happen in World of Warcraft when I used to play that. At first, melee was limited in range but mobile, while casters had the advantage of range but had to stand still for the vast majority of attacks. I don't know what came first anymore, but melee said they needed more gap closers, and ranged said that they needed more mobility, and more and more of such abilities were patched in until ranged was running around spamming instants and melee was leaping or teleporting all over the place. It became increasingly silly and Blizzard has been struggling to dial it back ever since.

It's not just a PvP issue either, but also leads to PvE encounters that feature a ridiculous amount of running around and twitch because there is no other way of challenging those increasingly powerful characters anymore. I fear that I'm seeing a similar thing happening in SWTOR, with ever more leaps and even more escapes, with no end in sight. I don't think that this will lead to a better game in the long run.

I also don't really like class changes all that much anyway, even though I may be in the minority here. I'd like to think that I'd be happy to play an MMO for years with my class only receiving minimal updates, as long as they kept adding new features and content to play around with. Maybe I'm wrong and I would get bored eventually. I do know however that changes to my class almost always feel like they are coming too fast. I know that many will disagree with this - I've seen complaints that Bioware takes way too long to make class changes, what with the same classes remaining overpowered in PvP for months, and I can't exactly disagree with that, but I wish those kinds of changes were achieved with more subtle number tweaking instead of sweeping class overhauls.

The point is that I like knowing how my class works and being good at it. I was not happy when I realised during my first ops after Shadow of Revan's release that I was doing it all wrong, since the latest set of class changes had made it so that I needed to use certain abilities in the opposite order in which I had used them before. And that's just on my main! I have alts of all advanced classes, and there the changes tend to feel even worse. If I could barely remember how to play a character in the first place, the next patch turning everything on its head only makes it even harder and more frustrating.

I liked how Vayne Verso put it on Twitter:


Flashpoint Friday: The Esseles

I have decided to make this series a bi-weekly feature (in the meaning of "once every two weeks", that is - what a confusing word). With my posting frequency that means that posts like this will come up quite often compared to "regular" ones, but who's to say that I can't spend a large chunk of time talking about flashpoints? It's still on topic.

After talking about an Imperial-only flashpoint two weeks ago, I thought I would cover a Republic-only flashpoint next. I decided to go for The Esseles (pronounced "ess-EL-ees", except for that one random line in the middle of the flashpoint where they suddenly call it "ESS-el-es" for no reason).

General Facts

The Esseles is the very first flashpoint that Republic players will encounter, meant to be completed immediately after you've left your starting planet, though it's optional. You're told to proceed from the fleet to your faction's capital, and you can either go there directly or embark on an adventure on the way by taking the Republic transport Esseles. The Empire's equivalent is The Black Talon.

When you're a new player and you do this flashpoint for the first time, it seems absolutely amazing compared to the way dungeons work in other games. There are so many NPC conversations, and there's so much story! You get to make choices, and they influence what happens (not dramatically, but still)! It could be a complete paradigm shift for MMOs! Shortly after SWTOR's launch I nominated the Esseles for the Piggie Awards 2011 and it won! Anyone remember those?

Then you do the other flashpoints in the game, and they are all more or less like your typical MMO dungeon: kill some bosses, get some loot.

If you then make it to endgame, where at level fifty the Esseles was one of the hardmodes you had to run to gear up, you may even have ended up hating it, because while you just wanted to get it done to get your reward, there were all those conversations to go through that you'd heard a trillion times before. Tensions were heightened even more if you were grouped with someone who actually wanted to watch it all again instead of space-barring. This is another thing that I expect to make a comeback with Knights of the Fallen Empire's new flashpoint scaling.

Story (spoilers)

I feel that with how important story is in this flashpoint, I need to talk about that first:
It was just supposed to be a routine ride to Coruscant. But a blue Twi'lek in the lounge of the passenger transport Esseles warns you that it looks like Imperials are on the ship's tail. Officially the Republic and the Empire are still supposed to be at peace, but of course the moment you say that, the ship comes under fire. The captain dies in the initial attack (you kind of wonder why, considering his body lies in the middle of a wide expanse of open space) and you make it to the bridge in time to see first officer Haken struggle to not panic.

A certain Moff Kilran demands that you hand over an individual that has been working against the Empire and that his spies tell him is aboard your ship. You repel the Imperials' first attempt to board the Esseles and find out that the blue Twi'lek from earlier is who they are after. Her name is Asara and she is a Republic ambassador trying to get Imperial worlds to secede from the Empire.

As it turns out, while you were busy holding off one group of Imperials, another managed to get to the bridge and has taken over. You detour via engineering to find out how to unlock the bridge. The engineers there are trapped behind a forcefield and it is brought up that there is a way to open the bridge that would also vent the compartment they are in. Asara urges you to sacrifice the engineers for the greater good and you can go along with it or find another, slightly longer way to get to the bridge without getting the engineers killed.

Once there, you defeat the last Imperial boarders and hatch a plan to board your attackers instead to deactivate the tractor beam that holds the Esseles in place. Asara is supposed to accompany your assault team. Once she's out of earshot, first officer Haken suggests that you leave her behind at the end of the mission to give the Imperials what they want and discourage them from giving chase again.

You board the enemy ship, disable the tractor beam and even fight a Sith apprentice on the way. Before leaving, you have the option to tell Asara to stay (she won't fight you) or tell her about the plot against her without going through with it. You return to the Esseles and the ship makes a successful escape. First officer Haken is either pleased with the outcome if you left Asara behind, embarrassed if you took her back with you but didn't tell her about the plot, or in trouble if she's with you and does know. You either return to the fleet or continue to Coruscant.


The Esseles is all about fighting off Imperials (plus some Mandalorians), and most of them are not particularly impressive, even though they used to hit very hard in the level fifty version. (We'll see how that works with the new scaling.) I think the low difficulty is down to the Esseles' low-level version having been designed to be the first tactical flashpoint - before tactical flashpoints were an actual thing - as it was intended to be doable by people who didn't even have their advanced class yet, so that tanking and healing abilites might literally be unavailable.

The bosses are all very straightforward, but I guess that is appropriate for an instance that may well be many players' first experience with group content in the game. Lieutenant Isric, who leads the first boarding party, teaches players about frontal cones and add spawns. Ironfist summons adds and fires missiles. Then there's that droid that does a knockback - which may not sound like much at first but can easily get a newbie killed, since the fight takes place above a typical Star Wars chasm with no safety rails. (There's also a proper "chasm boss" later, where you have to jump down a shaft and can die if you don't make sure to bounce off some pipes on the way.)

The bonus boss, another droid, is at least interesting in so far as he's the only boss I can think of that actually requires two players to be activated, as doing so requires two consoles at opposite ends of the room to be clicked at the same time. Annoying for soloers, but kind of neat as a group experience. (Wonder if they'll change that in Knights of the Fallen Empire?)

This bonus boss is also the only boss I'm aware of that had his mechanics completely turned on their proverbial head at one point. At launch he would occasionally go through a phase where you had to run away from him because he would do a lot of damage to everyone in melee, too much to heal through it really. But then at some point Bioware decided to completely reverse this mechanic, so now being in melee is safe and range has to come close instead whenever he enters his dangerous phase or take lots of damage at a distance. [/fun fact]

The last boss, Sith apprentice Vokk, basically teaches players that standing in purple circles is bad. A very important lesson. However, he also just feels cool because he receives a lot of build-up and the game makes a big deal out of the fact that you're meeting a Sith for the first time - unlike later content, where both Sith and Jedi quickly turn into just another type of cannon fodder.


In my opinion every player should play through the Esseles at least once, ideally with a friend. You may or may not like the story it tells, but it's worth seeing for no other reason than that its delivery is really unique in the MMO space. It's not just the various choices, but this flashpoint also shows the group conversation system at its best. The Esseles is the only place I know of where group conversation options can actually play off each other a little - e.g. when you meet the Sith at the end and a Jedi in the party starts talking to him about how the dark side is evil, a smuggler can reply with a disparaging comment about force users and their crazy beliefs. (If she wins the roll, that is.) It's the closest thing to a true multiplayer RPG that I've ever heard of.

Unfortunately producing content like this either turned out to be too costly, whether in terms of time or money, or Bioware realised early on that it wasn't going to mesh with the WoW-like dungeon grinder they were in the process of building, which is why all the other flashpoints that followed are so much more like traditional MMO dungeons.

Even as I re-ran the flashpoint for this article to take some more screenshots - at level twelve where you might meet some players genuinely new to the game, so that you would expect people to be considerate of that - I ended up with other players shouting in caps lock about how everyone needs to skip the cut scenes and even initiating vote kicks when some of us didn't hit space bar, which of course completely ruins the experience. I suppose that the solo mode coming in KotFE will address this... but at the same time soloers will miss out on some of the Esseles' unique charm, which just can't be recreated without other people there.


In the News: Saying Goodbye to NiMs, Major Conquest Changes Coming

While I was trying to come up with a title for this post and eventually settled on putting "saying goodbye to NiMs" in there, I realised that I never commented on the piece of news which came out of Gamescom and announced the "real" goodbye to NiMs: Bioware stating that they won't bother creating nightmare modes for any new operations going forward. I didn't really see anyone else talk about it either. Not even a quick scan of the Dulfy comments on that post revealed any outrage about it. I guess it's because that comment only served to confirm what a lot of us had already been expecting for a while. (Except for a certain guildie of mine, who was convinced that despite of the difficulty of ToS and Ravagers hardmode, it would be no trouble for Bioware at all to add another difficulty on top of it. We told him that he was nuts.)

If operations take up too many development resources relative to how many people play them, taking out the top difficulty makes the most sense. Progression raiders can't even complain about that right now because ToS and Ravagers hardmode were already more difficult than some previous nightmare modes anyway, so it's not as if players weren't being challenged. It was the middle-of-the-road guilds that ended up with the short end of the stick this tier, facing a wacky progression curve that made it hard to stay motivated. We will see if Bioware addresses this whenever they release their next new operation. Either way, nightmare mode going away was a surprise to very few of us.

The latest bit of news - which is what I actually meant to refer to in the post title - is about something slightly different however. As a reminder, Bioware said that in Knights of the Fallen Empire, all operations currently in the game will be endgame content again, on all existing difficulty levels. Except, well... Eric Musco came out with a post last week that stated something that a lot of us already knew, which is that Eternity Vault and Karagga's Palace NiM don't really measure up to nightmare modes that were released later, since Bioware's first attempts at nightmare modes included no new mechanics, just bigger numbers on everything.

"With the changes we are making in Fallen Empire, all Operations will now be at max level, this means the differences between Hard and Nightmare EV and KP, just don’t stack up against the difficulty differences found in other Operations," he continued. Awesome, I thought - does that mean they'll be updating these to include some new mechanics? Nope. Instead they'll simply remove them so that all the remaining nightmare modes will be at least roughly on par.

That wasn't what I would have hoped for, but I can hardly claim to be upset either. Of course it helps that I've had three and a half years to run this content over and over again, so that I maxed out all my Eternity Vault and Karagga's Palace achievements ages ago. But to anyone who might be worried about missing out: Well, first off you still have the chance to run these now, as they only require a small group by now and are ridiculously easy with players being ten levels higher. But more importantly, Musco speaks the truth. EV and KP NiM are really exactly the same as on story and hard, only with higher numbers. No actual "content" is being removed here. If you've never been, feel free to watch this 2013 video of mine summarising a guild run of both KP and EV NiM (warning: some foul language):

The lesson here is: 1) People in my guild are silly. 2) There really isn't anything in there that you won't still also be able to see on the lower difficulties.

The other piece of news that Musco shared with us is that major changes are coming to conquests. Several events will have their personal targets lowered (though not Total Galactic War), but most importantly, crafting will be turned into a one-time bonus. My gut reaction is that this is a great change, even if I'm not sure if my small guild will ever be able to make it onto the scoreboard again with no crafting. My days of finishing a Total Galactic War with six characters having hit their target are certainly over.

But really, it was not a very exciting way of playing. Being able to accumulate oodles of points for a minimal time investment was just way overpowered. Now you'll have to actually play to hit your target, always. I've heard people say that this will make it even harder for small guilds to achieve a place on the scoreboard, but I'm not so sure about that. What it really does is cut down on the advantages of having lots of alts and being rich, and I see no reason to assume that people with those attributes are more likely to be in a small guild than in a large one. Big guilds have also had people crafting for silly amounts of points. And well, when it comes down to having more active players, bigger guilds have always had an advantage. Either way, I'm curious to see what sort of scores we'll actually see on the conquest board after this change. I'm pretty sure that the times of guilds finishing with ten million points or more are over.

Even if I think that the proposed changes sound good for the game overall, I doubt that they will really do much to alleviate my own conquest fatigue. With no new incentives I don't think that I will suddenly start working on my personal target with more gusto again, but I've heard that in KotFE one of the rewards will be rare crafting materials that you won't be able to get any other way, which would certainly be exciting. Personally I also think that they should look into adding more repeatable PvE objectives. But mostly I'm just happy to see that they are still paying attention to conquests and trying to improve them, even if activities like this are not going to be their main focus in the upcoming expansion.


Starting Off on the Wrong Foot

I have a level 11 Sentinel that has spent the past year sitting on Ord Mantell, waiting for a friend I was supposed to play with to come back. This week I finally logged onto her and took her back to the fleet. It was time to move on, and I've had plans for her for ages: I've been meaning to replay the Jedi knight story for a long time and I still don't have a Sentinel at max level. However, I also wanted to use this opportunity to tell the sad story of her friend that never came back, because it shows how easily a game can be ruined for you by starting off on the wrong foot.

There's nothing sadder than being the only remaining half of (what was supposed to be) a levelling duo.

For the purpose of this story, let's call my friend Cuddles (not his actual name). Cuddles is an Englishman in his forties, married with no children and always very busy with work. In some ways he's the stereotypical "modern gamer" that MMO developers talk about when they argue that they need to make more content that can be completed in short, bite-sized chunks. I originally met him in World of Warcraft but we stayed in touch even after I stopped playing that. He tried out SWTOR at launch and even bought a collector's edition, just in case he'd end up liking the game. However, his interest quickly evaporated - I believe that the last time I saw his Shadow logged in was when he was levelling on Tatooine.

Two years later, he suddenly decided to give the game another try. I can't remember why, but I'd like to think it was because my blog posts about it were so awesome. We talked about classes and I said that the consular takes some time to get going. As he couldn't access his old account anymore, he decided to create a new one and rolled up a trooper this time. Not being someone to do things in halves, he immediately subbed up for two months... and then hardly played during that time, because he was always too busy.

Finally we agreed on a date when we would spend some time playing together. I had rolled up my new Sentinel specifically for this purpose. After finishing Tython, I took her off to the fleet for all the various bits and bobs such as choosing an advanced class (pre-discipline system) and picking up crew skills. I figured that Cuddles would have completed the starter planet by the time our play date came around and we could then be able to do the Esseles together. It was going to be awesome!

Once the actual day rolled around however, Cuddles' trooper was still only level nine and still busy on Ord Mantell. No problem, I thought, we can do the heroics on Savrip Island together! No, actually he was about to go into the volcano base for a bunch of quests. Also fine by me, I just wanted to play together in some fashion. I invited Cuddles to a group and made my way over to the right area on Ord Mantell. I was baffled to see him die over and over again. I vaguely recalled having some challenging encounters in the volcano base as a new player, but nothing that bad!

When I finally reached him, I could see why. He wasn't really healing up enough between fights, but more importantly his rotation consisted of hammer shot, hammer shot and more hammer shot. I asked him why he wasn't using some of the better abilities he'd already got, and I believe he said they were too expensive? He hadn't really groked the way the ammo system worked at all. There was also something about the way plasma cell could trigger a dot and how he thought that this meant that he should be using hammer shot all the time... I don't remember the details, only that it made some twisted kind of sense if you really wanted to look at it that way. I felt a bit embarrassed as I explained to him that he was doing the WoW equivalent of trying to kill everything with auto-attack. It's not like he was a stranger to MMOs or gaming in general! He was even more embarrassed than me I think.

Anyway, he knew what to do now and we proceeded inside the volcano together. With my Sentinel already having her advanced class and her first companion, we made short work of everything. However, with how many mobs and quests are in there, we were still busy for half an hour so. Since Cuddles had already been playing for a while before that point, he was starting to feel tired. I tried to encourage him - there was only one quest left, his class quest!

I was really looking forward to how that would go. Without spoiling much (even though I think that spoilers are not as much of an issue for the story on the starter planets), it's safe to say that the trooper story on Ord Mantell ends with a twist. We entered the phase for the last quest he had left, and I got ready to watch the cut scene. How would he react to the big revelation? I was so excited. However, only a few seconds in I was booted out of the cut scene. I can't remember off the top of my head, but we probably killed some mobs and I was scratching my head in confusion. What had happened? Next thing I knew, Cuddles was already back in Fort Garnik. I don't remember the exact words of our conversation, but it's fair to paraphrase it like this:

Me: "What just happened? Why are you already back in Fort Garnik?"
Him: "I was getting really tired and just wanted a cup of coffee, so I simply space-barred through this last conversation."
Me: ...
Me: "But didn't you want to know what happened? It was the class story, no less!"
Him: "Same as usual, obviously. I saved them, everybody thanked me, blah blah etc."
Me: !!!

I awkwardly explained to him that this wasn't what had happened at all and brought up the option of resetting the mission so that he could see what had actually happened... though of course that would have meant fighting his way back to the inside of the volcano base. Unsurprisingly, he didn't choose to do that. He was super bummed, logged off and never came back to the game (though he's still my friend, luckily).

Even if I've decided to take my Sentinel to new places now, this story will always stick with me, because it shows how opaque even simple things can seem to a completely new player, and how a couple of badly timed mistakes can completely suck the fun out of the experience before you've even had time to properly get into the game.