18/03/2019

SWTOR's F2P Seven Years In

I still remember when it was first announced that SWTOR was going to convert from its subscription model to a free-to-play game: I was devastated, viewing it as an admission of failure and fearing for the game's future. However, the free-to-play conversion came and went, I stuck with the game anyway and quickly found that it wasn't actually all that bad. Yes, the cash shop filled with silly hats did happen, but for the most part that's been easy enough to ignore and my overall enjoyment of the game hasn't really diminished as a result of the business model change. I just stayed subscribed and nothing much changed.

Due to spending most of my time in operations, I don't know many other players who don't subscribe either. We've had people dropping to preferred status occasionally, but as you can't participate in ops without being subscribed these days, this doesn't tend to last (either they re-subscribe or fade away). Running into a completely free player in the wild is always a slightly bewildering experience because nobody really knows how free accounts work and what sorts of restrictions they are subject to. I also remember grouping with a free player for the heroics on Korriban once and having trouble even communicating with them because of their inability to chat in various channels. Still, my point is that to a subscriber SWTOR's free-to-play model is pretty much a complete non-issue.

If you read certain forums or blogs on the other hand, you'd think that it was actually the game's defining feature. People who've never even tried it will go on and on about how terrible it is to play for free and "lol hotbars", purely based on something they read somewhere once. And others who've never played the game either pick up on this and then in turn spread the word about the supposed evils of SWTOR's business model.

This always makes me somewhat defensive when the subject of the free-to-play model comes up, because while I don't think that all the restrictions are good, people are rarely interested in having an actual discussion on the pros and cons of the system and just want to engage in some good old EA bashing. Which in turn is a completely alien point of view to me as someone who's been playing the game for over seven years now and has always felt that she's getting good value for money out of it.

The end result seems to be that the people who enjoy talking about SWTOR's business model the most are those who don't actually play it (anymore), while those who are the most passionate about the game simply subscribe and play, largely oblivious to any potential restrictions that non-subscribers might face. Like I mentioned in one of the posts I linked above, the people actually playing for free regularly - who would be in the best position to cast judgement on F2P restrictions - tend to be enigmatically silent for the most part.

I've occasionally toyed with the idea of starting a new free-to-play account to do some research on the subject and clear up some misconceptions, but I've seen other people try and fail to do the same, and I'm also honest enough with myself to admit that I'm already unable to keep up with all the existing projects that I've been trying to juggle over the course of the past year and that I hardly need to add to their number at this point.

So I was highly pleased to see that Swtorista, one of the most passionate and knowledgeable voices in the fan community at the moment, basically did the whole thing for me and made a very detailed video about it:



The title is a bit clickbaity, sounding like it could potentially be one of those angry video gamer rants with which YouTube seems to be inundated these days, but her tone is actually as cheerful and entertaining as always. It's most certainly not a rant, but instead a detailed exploration of all the different restrictions that free players face, with Swtorista always adding her own opinion on whether she thinks a particular limitation is useful and serves a purpose or is rather silly. The video is over 40 minutes long but I found that time flew right by while watching it and I was entertained throughout.

I'll also openly admit that while my overall "how much do you know about free-to-play" scorecard was pretty good, there were some items on that list that were completely new to me, such as that completely free players can't place bound pieces of armour in their bank. WTF. In general, the video reinforced my impression that when F2P was first introduced, they must have had a brainstorming session at Bioware to talk about every possible gameplay feature that they could restrict in some arbitrary way without completely crippling the player... and then decided to actually implement the lot of them.

I may be a subscriber and perfectly happy with free players having some serious restrictions, but some of that stuff is so random, it does kind of make you shake your head. (My favourite quote from the video was: "If Billybob wants to play 40 space missions a week for free, just let him.") For example I'd happily see stuff like the restricted number of action bars go the way of the dodo just so that people can stop bringing it up as some kind of catch-all argument for why SWTOR's business model sucks. Sure, those who just love to complain will simply latch on to something else instead, but I'd still be happy to be able to reply that no, that quick bar restriction is not a thing anymore.

Then again, some of the most upvoted comments on the video sadly admit that they specifically subscribed because of some of those silly restrictions, with the limited amount of action bars being one that got called out in specific. That doesn't really make a great business case for Bioware to ease up on the restrictions for free accounts. But I guess we can always hope.

14/03/2019

One Tamriel vs. A Galaxy Far, Far Away - Thoughts on Level Sync

I've come to the realisation that I hold two rather contradictory opinions on the subject of levels.

One is that I absolutely love a meaningful levelling system, where what level you are makes a noticeable difference to the way you play and you genuinely feel your character increasing in power every time you level up. The thing that really drove this home for me was playing on a private World of Warcraft server that emulated the Vanilla version of the game. It made a noticeable difference there whether you fought a mob that was the same level as you, one that was lower, or one that was higher, and a single level could be the difference between failure and success. It made me realise just how watered down the levelling systems in many modern MMOs have become in comparison, which gives me one more reason to look forward to the release of Classic WoW.

On the other hand... I also love level sync, but for a completely different reason, namely that of immersion. Feeling more powerful every time I level up is great, but going back to the starter zone at max level is another matter. Yes, it makes sense for my character to have become more powerful, but not to the point where enemies that previously threatened me should fall over dead the moment I merely look at them funny. It's always made me feel awkward and out of place when returning to lower-level zones. (I talked about this a bit when I first started on the Loremaster achievement in WoW back in 2010.) Considering that SWTOR is a very immersion-driven game, I was super hyped when Bioware first announced that they were going to add level scaling with KotFE. Seriously, I can even remember where I was when I first read the announcement (I was in a shopping centre during my lunch break at work) and how much it excited me.


Soloing what was previously meant to be group content can be entertaining... but also kind of awkward.

The funny thing is that for the longest time I didn't even realise that these two things were at odds with each other. What finally did cause me to put two and two together was Elder Scrolls Online, which I'm still playing on the side right now. ESO also had a traditional levelling system at launch, but replaced this with "One Tamriel" in late 2016. One Tamriel introduced open world level scaling that works both upwards and downwards, so you can basically walk out of the starter zone and go wherever you want, to do things in any order you like.

I do have to say that this has been implemented in an extremely polished way. You really can go wherever you want right away, and a lower level friend can join the fun at any time without feeling like they are dragging the group down. The existence of such an expertly crafted level scaling system makes atrocities like Neverwinter's scaling look even worse than I already thought they were (though at least Cryptic is planning to address that in the next module).

However, it also made me realise that at least for me, there is such a thing as making level scaling too good. I've sometimes grumbled about how SWTOR's level sync makes you too powerful too quickly if you over-level content, but ESO showed me what a possible alternative to that looks like, and it actually has its downsides too.

Specifically, levelling in ESO feels incredibly boring and pointless to me. Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that I'm not enjoying the game overall; I have absolutely been having a good time doing quests and other things. However, the act of increasing my character level by itself has been an exercise in tedium and futility - I pretty much end up having the most fun whenever I manage to ignore my character level entirely while playing. If I end up glancing up at that bar in the top left corner too many times, it just gets me down.

It was all right for the first couple of levels, because I actually wanted to earn some skill points to fill my action bar - however, with the game limiting you to five abilities at a time (ten later on, once you unlock the option to swap weapons in combat) and skill points also being awarded from other sources such as completing quests and doing dungeons, I found myself quickly running out of things I actually wanted to spend them on. I've actually rolled up a second character by now, and both of them routinely run around with a dozen unspent skill points or more because I just don't feel any particular urge to spend them on anything. It's all horizontal progression anyway: Most of my early skill point allocations have been desperate attempts to find some combination of abilities that I actually enjoyed using - and once I did, there was no real incentive to unlock any more.

So gaining new abilities doesn't make you feel more powerful, and your character level in itself doesn't really do anything either. (I'm told that the scaling does eventually stop once you get to a certain champion rank, which seems to be supported by the high-level players I occasionally see rampaging across the landscape two-shotting everything, but that strikes me as too little, too late.) If a boss is giving you trouble, you can't just level up and come back later either, though funnily enough, simple food and drink serve as alternative power-ups in such situations. Never mind levelling up; just eating a stale loaf of bread will basically turn you into Popeye after a can of spinach.

You don't get to look forward to being able to equip more powerful gear (though again, this might change once you hit champion rank territory), because for the most part, your gear doesn't feel like it matters much either. And you don't unlock any new content, because you can go anywhere from a low level anyway. (Except dungeons, strangely enough, which is an interesting reversal from the way SWTOR does it. In SWTOR, you still need to level to be able to access the quest content, but can do any instance/flashpoint once you're past the starter planet. In ESO, you can do any quest at any level, but for some reason each dungeon is still gated behind a minimum level. Would love to know how that came about.)

So you gain levels for nothing, and you gain them extremely slowly to boot. From what I gather there are certain ways to level very quickly, such as via random dungeons, but for some reason the rate at which you gain XP from simply doing quests and killing mobs - as I would expect most new players to level - is an absolute pittance compared to that.

All this has made me more appreciative of the way SWTOR does level scaling. I still think it has resulted in levelling being too quick and your character becoming too powerful too quickly, but I appreciate that you do feel more powerful as you go up in levels, and that doing so actually grants you access to more content. I like that mobs never lose the ability to do damage to you, yet you don't need to be a max-level character in top-end gear to notice a power difference once you're past the planet's recommended level. I may not want to feel god-like when I return to the starter zone, but I still prefer my levels to matter in some way at least.

10/03/2019

Hype and Hope

When I reviewed my 2018 predictions for SWTOR back in December, I said that I wasn't going to make any for 2019, but lately I've been doing a lot of thinking about SWTOR's near future again. This year's Star Wars Celebration takes place in Chicago and is only about a month away at this point, and Bioware has made it clear that this will be when we'll finally find out about what's in store for SWTOR for the rest of the year. I think even though it hasn't been made official, everyone pretty much expects this to be the long-awaited 6.0 expansion announcement.

Someone asked me in a comment section somewhere what this expansion would have to entail to make me happy, and this gave me pause because I actually didn't immediately know what to answer. I've heard a few other fan content creators do their own speculating, and in my opinion some of their expectations are pretty high. I guess this is somewhat understandable, what with Casey Hudson's claim that this was going to be SWTOR's "most exciting year yet", but I've long been wary of superlatives like that. And what exactly does "exciting" mean in this context anyway? Exciting things aren't always good...

Anyway, as for what I personally would like to see, in a nutshell: a "classic" expansion following the basic model of Rise of the Hutt Cartel and Shadow of Revan. That would mean one large or two medium-sized planets with new quests and story, a level cap increase, one or two new operations, one or two new flashpoints.

I guess to someone who's made their home in a different MMO it might seem strange that the inclusion of such basic features might even be in question, but SWTOR's just never really developed a consistent model when it comes to adding new content. In the early years it briefly seemed like they were settling on having two smaller expansions per year, one focused on story and one focused on a new feature, such as space combat or housing (which was a cadence that I quite enjoyed by the way), but then Knights of the Fallen Empire came out and threw everything into disarray. Mind you, they still had a plan at that point, to continue telling that story over several "seasons", but then that didn't work out either (for whatever reasons), and since then we've just kind of gone from one patch to the next for more than two years.

From the sounds of it, 6.0 has been in development for over a year, which makes you think that it should be big, considering Bioware's previous output in past years (before the current big lull that is), but everyone always claims that the SWTOR team is much smaller now, so I don't want to get my hopes up too much. Also, people have pretty much always complained about SWTOR's expansions not being meaty enough. I do remember feeling similarly back when Rise of the Hutt Cartel came out actually, simply because my only real reference point back then was World of Warcraft, and WoW's expansions had always been huge. I knew to adjust my expectations after that, but I've still seen other people complain about the lack of content in pretty much every expansion after that.

Beyond this hope related to the basic scope of 6.0, I have little in the way of expectations. The way gearing works will need a revamp because the number of currencies, vendors and tokens is a proper nightmare right now, to the point that it confuses even pretty hardcore players, but I don't have a specific solution in mind myself. I guess it would be nice if there was some new feature that turned out to be a pleasant surprise, but the last big new feature they decided to surprise us with (Galactic Command) created nothing but unhappiness, so... if I had to choose, I'd rather not have something dramatic and new than end up with another dud.

Only somewhat tangentially related, but one also has to wonder whether there will be a big cinematic trailer again. None of the aforementioned expansions that I'm hoping 6.0 will mimic had them, but  after KotFE and KotET had one each it would feel like a bit of a vote of no confidence on EA's part if they decided not to promote this new expansion in a similar way. And Star Wars Celebration would certainly be as good a place as any to try and make a splash with a shiny new cinematic. Bioware's presentation is also going to be a big enough deal that it actually got a mention on the official Star Wars site, which is rare enough.

Ultimately, I find myself going back and forth on this subject a lot, even within the time it took me to write this post. Hype is bad and leads to nothing but disappointment in my opinion. There are plenty of reasons to try to not get too excited about what's coming up next. But then there are those small glimpses that make you hopeful again - and story-wise, I absolutely adored Ossus and can't wait to see how those events will be followed up. I guess I remain cautiously optimistic that reality won't be too far off from what I'm hoping for.

06/03/2019

Superstition

I've talked about some of the many bugs that came with the Ossus patch, but one I haven't mentioned before concerned Kil'Cik, the Geonosian world boss. A bug with the bug, so to speak. Separate from the issue mentioned in the post I linked above, which caused individuals to sometimes not get quest credit for killing either of the world bosses (which was quickly patched out), this particular problem affected only Kil'Cik, but whenever it struck, nobody in the group would get credit for the kill. The good thing about this was that at least it gave the whole group an incentive to immediately try again in another instance.

The bad thing was that somehow this particular bug got people's imaginations going. Nobody could possibly know what exactly was causing it, but humans love to look for patterns, and a certain type of people with endless confidence in themselves didn't hesitate to quickly start passing off their personal observations as fact. First they claimed that the boss supposedly bugged if you didn't tank him in the middle of his platform, which was eventually amended to him at least having to die there. I immediately knew that was rubbish because during my very first kill the boss had spent pretty much the entire fight up against the wall and we'd got credit for the mission just fine.


Eventually enough people seemed to observe the boss bugging out despite of being tanked in the middle of the platform that at some point an alternative theory emerged. It wasn't the boss's position per se, they said, but people registering as too far away from him, which most commonly happened if someone disconnected or died and then returned to the med centre. So any disconnected people were swiftly removed from the group from then on, and someone usually issued a decree just before the pull that people should under no circumstances return to med centre if they died.

When that still didn't solve the issue, it somehow became about death and reviving in general, so now combat revives were banned as well. As time went on, people got more and more passionate about their convictions about what supposedly caused the boss to bug. I saw one guy get removed from the group when he dared to return to the med centre after dying, and generally people got quite shouty. I had to chuckle last night when someone drily commented in response to one such authoritarian that "maybe the boss bugs out every time someone types in all caps".

Today I finally found out the solution to the mystery. Bioware recently added a new official account to the forums called "QA_Droid", which gets used by various devs to communicate with the players about bugs and other technical issues. In a recent post they revealed the true reason behind the boss bugging out: whenever a guardian add is killed, it shaves off a percentage of the boss's health, and if you kill one at just the wrong moment so that this damage becomes the killing blow, kill credit is given to the dead mob instead of the raid group. What do you know.

It really tickles me that in the end, all those wild theories weren't even remotely close to what was really going on. I'm in no position to make fun of people though, because I didn't know any better either. Sure, I knew that the "must tank him in the middle" theory was rubbish from the beginning, but the one blaming respawning/player distance for the bug sounded plausible to me and at least personally I didn't experience any fights that provided conclusive evidence to the contrary. Either way it's interesting to see how quickly superstitions like that can develop and get passed on simply because of some people very confidently stating them over and over again.

02/03/2019

Tracking My Playtime

After seeing it mentioned both by UltrViolet and Wilhelm, I downloaded and installed an application called ManicTime at the start of February to track which programmes I use the most in my day-to-day life. Its paid version seems to be targeted at businesses that want to keep an extremely close eye on just what exactly their employees get up to on their PCs, but the free version is good enough to allow for some easy fun with personal statistics. Unlike some similar services, it also doesn't get confused if you accidentally leave a game launcher up in the background for example - it only counts whatever you're actively engaging with at the time.

Since we're now in March, I thought it would be interesting to look back at what data it recorded for February. Unsurprisingly, I only played two different games all month: SWTOR and ESO. SWTOR clocked in at 66.5 hours and ESO at 63.5 hours. I was honestly kind of impressed with myself for somehow managing to fit 130 hours of gaming into a 28-day month, especially since I was also off for a few days to get married. (Though, saying that, I'm also a bit worried now that some readers will think me a freak for spending that much time at my computer. And that's not even counting the hours spent just browsing the web!) On a normal work day I barely have three to four hours left between coming home and going to bed, and that also includes things like having dinner. Clearly I underestimated just how long my weekend play sessions can get to make up for that. Plus it helped that I had a couple of days off this month I guess.

It was also interesting to see the different patterns in which I played the two games. The biggest chunk of SWTOR's playtime came from doing group content with my guild. On days when I didn't do any of that, I would maybe log in briefly to do a round of Ossus dailies but that was usually only a matter of minutes. Whenever ops night came around however, more or less my whole evening was dedicated to SWTOR.

Meanwhile, my daily engagement with ESO also tends to be short, but nonetheless a little longer than the SWTOR dailies, as I mainly log in to do things like claim my daily login reward, train my horse, or queue some new crafting research, which requires a bit of fiddling. I haven't done much group content in that game however (though I've done a little). Mostly what happens is that I make a point of sitting down for a really long play session on the weekend when I want to make some quest progress, because for some reason the quests feel really time-consuming to me and I worry that I'll lose the plot if I don't spend several hours on focusing what's going on. I don't think that really is a requirement, but with the way I play and still being relatively new to the game, I spend a lot of time puttering about in ways that I suspect most long-time players don't, which makes for very slow progress.

Anyway, it's interesting to have a baseline number to which I can compare future months. Also, I once again feel pleased with just how cheap my hobbies are. I'm a subscriber both in SWTOR and in ESO, and looking at those playtime numbers, the entertainment cost for each game was 11p / hour for SWTOR and about 16p / hour for ESO.

27/02/2019

Hive of the Mountain Queen

Two weeks ago, patch 5.10.1 expanded the content available to us on Ossus with a single raid boss, the Mutated Geonosian Queen. This actually tied quite nicely into 5.10's story too, as on Imperial side Darth Malora talks about also wanting to control the local Geonosian queen - though the boss encounter doesn't entirely match Malora's descriptions of the queen's "six brood-mates" and "three bodyguard drones".

I have to admit I wasn't particularly looking forward to the boss's release as I don't have the best of relationships with SWTOR's "lair bosses" or single-boss operations. I like the ones tied to world events well enough (Xenoanalyst II, the Eyeless), but otherwise I haven't really been a fan. I made a whole post about why I found Toborro's Courtyard disappointing, and the Colossal Monolith on Ziost is probably my least favourite ops boss ever. (I didn't make a whole post about that, but I did mention him in a related post about overly "gamey" boss fight mechanics.)


Fortunately the Mutated Geonosian Queen is more fun than either of those two. A guildie quite aptly described the fight as a combination of Kil'Cik and R8-X8, the two world bosses. Like Kil'Cik, the queen summons a number of Geonosian adds that need to be dealt with in different ways, and like R8-X8, she puts circles on people that destroy items on the ground and require you to think about where to place them in order to control just how much damage you do.

The environmental artists also did a bang-up job on the queen's lair, which is quite eerie and alien-looking. Unlike previous lair bosses she also has some actual trash pulls, and they even serve a purpose by teaching you the abilities of the various adds that you'll later encounter in the boss fight. The whole thing is rounded out by the ability to unlock a shortcut that allows you to get back to the boss very quickly if you wipe, without having to rerun through the entirety of the tunnel system every time.

My favourite part is that you enter the actual lair by dropping through a hole in the ground, which leads to you falling a distance that would usually kill your character... however the floor of the lair consists of squishy goo, so you take no fall damage. Your character also lands face-down in the goo and remains prone until you move, which is just endlessly amusing to me. I always stay there with my face in the gunk for as long as possible.


It's a bit hard to see, but if you enlarge the picture and look closely, you can see me hugging the floor enthusiastically.

All that said, I'm unfortunately still not as excited about this new boss as I could have been. One reason is that my first ever run of it was a bit of a let-down, and first impressions unfortunately tend to colour my feelings a lot when it comes to raid bosses. I ended up being more or less dragged along by a group of guildies who'd already done it before, which is just not as fun to me as everyone exploring a new area for the first time together, even if it's convenient that people's pre-existing knowledge allows you to get stuff done more quickly. There was also some sort of achievement which I simply got from standing around. From what I gathered some of my guildies jumped up to touch some masks (?) but it all happened so quickly that I didn't really get to take in what was actually going on.

My other "issue" with the queen is that the rewards from the fight are weirdly structured. After 5.10 showered everyone with easily available gear (even if there was some grind and a certain degree of RNG involved), the weekly quest for the queen suddenly requires you to do the fight on veteran mode. I kept seeing people spamming LFG requests for this mission during the first couple of days, all the while wondering what they were thinking to try pugging a hardmode so shortly after its release. Apparently a few of my guildies had a go at joining some of these groups and unsurprisingly things didn't go well. Then again, can I really blame people for not immediately catching on to the fact that there was a sudden increase in requirements to get access to the new currency that allows you to purchase 258 weapons? After all those rewards for doing dailies and mindlessly zerging the bug and bot every week, requiring an organised group and having to know how to play your class all of a sudden is quite a shift.

As for story mode, that hardly feels worth doing from my point of view. It drops three of the loot boxes you also get for doing the dailies (six on 16-man), which doesn't sound so bad, but unless you start out with no 252 gear whatsoever, there's no guarantee that the item you get out of your box will actually be useful to you even if you win one of them. Being rewarded with a mere chance at better loot for doing some easy dailies feels fine, but if you actually go through the effort of putting a group together and killing an ops boss, I feel that he or she should drop something more useful than a mere pull at the slot machine.

Anyway, that's my take on the Mountain Queen. Despite of my reservations I've run her lair a fair few times already and will continue to do so as I'm enjoying earning more powerful gear, even if it's not strictly required for anything. What about you?

23/02/2019

Wedding Bells

I don't often talk about my real life on here, partially because it tends to be pretty boring, partially because I feel it's not what anyone comes here to read about. That said, today I feel the need to make an exception to the rule in order to mention that I'm getting married today. In fact, this post is scheduled to go live at the time of the start of the ceremony (so don't expect me to reply to any comments right away).

The reason this is relevant to the blog is that the person that I'm getting married to is the man to whom I've playfully referred as my pet tank on here for the last six years or so. I'm thinking that once we're married I should maybe give him a more respectful pseudonym... he's ruled out Mr. Shintar, though my suggestion of Mr. Commando was given the seal of approval tolerance if desired (even though he hasn't played his own Commando alt in years).

To illustrate this post, I asked him to pose for some wedding style in-game screenshots with me. I expect that some of our guildies will be surprised to find out that Topek the Vanguard is a Zabrak, seeing how he usually never takes his helmet off.


I first met him when I joined Twin Suns Squadron at the end of 2012. He was an officer and raid leader, but hadn't actually been in the guild for that long either - it was still a tumultuous time for the game and many guilds were falling apart as player numbers were plummeting, with those that remained merging into other guilds in order to retain their ability to do group content. I think the first time I mentioned him implicitly was in this post about my first ever progression ops run - he was one of the tanks who kept yelling at me for all the things I kept doing wrong, heh!

I got to know him a bit better outside of operations though, specifically by doing a lot of warzones together. He provided me with a guard, which was a new and life-changing experience to me (other PvP healers will be able to relate for sure) and was what earned him the nickname of pet tank. Of course he insisted that it was the other way round, that I was his pet healer, but I was more persistent in my use of the nickname so that my version stuck (plus I've got a blog and he doesn't, so nyah).

Only a month later we were levelling new characters together - should have known that nothing good could come of that much banter! At some point we met up in real life because a convenient occasion arose, and we had a good enough time. As we got closer and closer though, things got complicated as I was actually in a relationship at the time. After a few months of painful emotional confusion, I ended the other relationship - and I can't say I've regretted it since, or we wouldn't be getting married!

Finding love in an MMO isn't that strange these days I think - plenty of people have written about it - but it's still not exactly common either. It makes for a great story to tell other gamers, and for a really weird/confusing story to try to convey to people who have no interest in games whatsoever. ("So you met on, like, an app?") We've had to mostly deal with the latter - so I'm glad that I'm also able to share the story on here, where readers will actually "get it".

It also adds an additional layer of affection for Star Wars: The Old Republic for me personally - because no matter what happens to the game in the far future, it will always remain "our game". Without it we never even would have met. Just another one of the many ways in which games can have a great impact on our lives.

As for any effects on my posting schedule, fear not: real life is actually preventing us from going on a honeymoon right away, as we both have to be back at work on Monday. But hey, there are certainly worse things than having to return to our gaming PCs asap!

20/02/2019

The Rise and Fall of Knights of the Fallen Empire

I usually don't like to speculate too much about what's going on behind the scenes of any given MMO in terms of finances and player numbers, since we just don't have any useful information most of the time and it feels a bit pointless to simply make random guesses. I have been doing some thinking about the success/failure of the two Knights expansions lately though. With the release of Ossus it feels like we've finally left them behind for good and it's interesting to look at their influence in retrospective.

Also relevant: It was only recently that I stumbled across this post on popular blog Ask a Game Developer from a year ago in which the writer states that based on inside information they have, SWTOR has really managed to turn things around in the past couple of years and is now considered a financial success. Now, that information by itself appears to be a few years old already, but I still found it interesting that they explicitly state that SWTOR exceeded its projected targets for 2014 by 20 million dollars. What happened in 2014?


Most notably this was the year before Knights of the Fallen Empire, and it featured three large content updates: Galactic Starfighter, Galactic Strongholds, and Shadow of Revan. We also know from a later statement in EA's financial reports that after KotFE's launch, subscriber numbers were higher than they had been in nearly three years, so subscriptions in 2014 can't have been particularly high. Where did all that money come from then?

I think we know enough about GSF's general lack of popularity to discard that one as having been a big money maker. Strongholds on the other hand I could see having been very beneficial for the Cartel Market in particular - from what I've seen in other games, housing enthusiasts are easy targets for microtransactions: just give them more houses and new furniture to buy and you're golden! I don't see why that wouldn't have worked out well for SWTOR as well. (If so, it also shines a new light on Bioware suddenly adding three new strongholds to the game in the past two years after a long drought in that regard.)

I also fully expect that Shadow of Revan drew in a lot of players - even if I think that people overrate it in hindsight, I have no doubt that Revan's name alone must have generated a good amount of interest. SoR was also the last expansion (to date) which required a separate purchase to play, which I'm sure was another thing that added nicely to Bioware's coffers.

Now, this big success in 2014 certainly adds an interesting perspective to the release of Knights of the Fallen Empire. I always wondered how Bioware got EA to back that expansion with a big Blur trailer, as that's not how you treat a property that's supposedly been nothing but a failure. Clearly the game's performance just pre-KotFE inspired an unexpected increase in confidence.

And then came the launch of Knights of the Fallen Empire itself. It doesn't seem to have accumulated enough proper reviews to earn a metacritic score, but I know I wasn't the only one who loved it. Its overall reception was definitely positive. While trying to find more reviews, I even came across one from a gold-selling website (which I'm obviously not going to link), which happily declared the expansion a big success simply based on the amount of people who were suddenly looking to buy credits for the game. Sure, there were grumblings about the lack of new group content from the beginning, but at that point it had only been a year since Shadow of Revan, so there was plenty of time for Bioware to still add some, right? And as mentioned above, EA themselves were pleased with the bump in subscription numbers.


But what happened then? The monthly story chapters were... interesting, but not enough to get the flood of more casual players that had jumped back in for KotFE's launch to stick around. More and more long-time players became disgruntled with the lack of new group content to keep them busy. The story direction itself was also received less and less warmly over time: After my own initial enthusiasm for the launch chapters, I soon found myself saddened by the direction Bioware was taking my character and confused/annoyed by the lack of logic when it came to some of the plot's core tenets. Mid-2016, after the last few KotFE chapters were released, EA explicitly called SWTOR out in its quarterly financial report for causing a noticeable decrease in subscription revenue for the company.

In June 2017, Creative Director Charles Boyd actually took to the forums and explained that all the negative feedback they received about KotFE caused them to drastically shorten and condense KotET - originally, the "Knights of" story had been meant to form a whole trilogy, with each "season" similar to KotFE in length. However, he then quickly back-pedalled somewhat by saying that it was all just an issue of pacing and that overall, the stories of KotFE and KotET were well received and had made them their "most successful expansions by a very significant margin".

Now, I obviously wouldn't accuse Charles of lying, but especially that second comment feels a lot like we aren't getting the whole story. I understand that the whole point of the conversation in that forum thread was to show that Bioware cares about player feedback, but the claim that they basically abandoned the KotFE/KotET model just because of some forum posts despite of it being super successful rings... hollow. Presumably it was successful in some way, such as number of people who subscribed just to play through the story, but you don't just change a winning team. With that in mind and looking at just how quickly Bioware course-corrected with Knights of the Eternal Throne, it's hard to believe that the new direction wasn't having a negative effect on their bottom line somehow.

As for what's been happening since then... this is where we're back in true "nobody knows" territory. Story aside, the original introduction of Galactic Command was probably the single most harmful change ever made to the game and cost them a lot of veteran subscribers. Since then, EA has abstained from mentioning SWTOR in its financial reports or at E3 in a positive or negative way, though as previously mentioned on this blog, the last two years have felt somewhat light on new content releases.

I think the next expansion announcement will give us a better indication of where are are right now. For example, will EA back it with any sort of marketing (trailer)? I'm not fussed about these either way, but it would give an indication of how much money the company is still willing to put behind the game at this point. And of course there's the question of the scope of 6.0 - will it be big and make everyone feel like the long wait with reduced content updates will have been worth it? Most people seem to expect the big reveal to come at Star Wars Celebration in April, so we should find out soon enough.

15/02/2019

Conquest Fatigue

It's hit me at last, and based on some conversations I've had, others in my guild are affected as well.

That's not to say that I've suddenly completely given up on it or anything - but with no realistic opportunities to have a shot at first place as of late, we've just been filling our guild's bar week after week, and if you choose your invasion target in accordance with your guild's size and activity levels, achieving your guild target is extremely easy at this point. I dropped from hitting my personal target on 8-10 characters per week to only doing so on 1-3 while skipping some weeks entirely, and it doesn't seem to have affected our weekly total in any way.

I guess it does speak in favour of the new system that the rewards for hitting the guild target keep you going even when you don't have the energy or influence to compete on the scoreboard anymore. It means that instead of just abandoning the system altogether, which is more or less what happened to me with the original iteration of Conquest, you can scale back and still get something out of it even while participating less.

Interestingly, what seems to have slowed us down appears to have less to do with burnout (which is what I would have expected) and more with the ever-changing meta. I previously wrote about how there used to be this one big Imperial guild on Darth Malgus called Stroke My Wookie (consisting of two sister guilds) that dominated everything, and how I actually kind of cheered when Republic guild Exsilium suddenly emerged out of nowhere to become their first serious competitor. The thing was, with "only" (what were effectively) three large guilds fighting among each other, the odds were pretty good that either the small or the medium planet would go unclaimed (by them) every other week or so, giving Twin Suns Squadron a potential opportunity to compete with other guilds our size there.

What happened in the last couple of months however is that Exsilium also got an Imperial sister guild into competitive shape, and on top of that another two to three guilds suddenly emerged as serious contenders. I don't know if this was due to heavy recruitment on their part, further changes to the way scoring works or a mix of both, but the end result has been that there are now six or seven very big guilds fighting for the top spots every week... which I guess is good in a way in so far as no guild has anything close to a monopoly on winning anymore - but it also means that it's pretty much a given that all three planets will be claimed by someone too large for us to compete with them every single week, which has sapped my guildies' enthusiasm somewhat.

I guess with that we'll be back to mostly caring about Total Galactic War, whenever that one's supposed to come around again next.

10/02/2019

ESO vs. SWTOR: Comparing Business Models

After playing Elder Scrolls Online for a few hours on New Year's Eve, I joked that I probably wasn't going to get back into it for another year, but actually I've ended up playing it casually throughout the past month and even splurged on an ESO Plus subscription too. Turns out that now that I made it over the hump of replaying content that I'd already seen in the beta years ago, I've been rather enjoying myself, though not always in the ways I expected.

I'll probably be able to get a couple more comparison posts out of the experience, but I'm a bit wary of making shallow "first impressions" posts at this point, as these are a dime a dozen in the MMO space and can end up being very oddly skewed, so I don't want to write about anything that I haven't been able to actually sink some time into/research in a bit more depth. So let's start by talking about business models, as these are very straightforward. (Well, relatively speaking. Actually they are pretty complex, but still less so than the gameplay itself.)

In a nutshell, I was surprised by how similar the two games are when it comes to their business model, considering that SWTOR is often decried for having a terrible one, while I mostly keep hearing people gush about ESO's being oh so great. I guess Bioware is still having a hard time with bad PR.

Buy to Play vs. Free to Play

To be honest I've never quite understood the obsession many outspoken MMORPG players seem to have with B2P over F2P. That one-off box purchase on its own isn't going to pay for years and years of content to be developed, so the devs still need to push the subscription option/additional cash shop purchases either way.

That said, having tried ESO I can see one advantage for the player in that the required buy-in means there has to be less worrying about restrictions during the early levels in particular. SWTOR places some pretty brutal chat restrictions on low-level free players, simply because of how much gold/credit sellers have abused the ability to create new accounts for free.

That said, having to spend money to start playing at all is still an obstacle, even if the price of the base game is quite low these days. I know I was unwilling to give Secret World a try until it went free-to-play for example, but then ended up enjoying it enough to be willing to give Funcom some money afterwards, so there's obviously some value to not having a pay wall at the very beginning. I'd love to know how the two models compare behind the scenes in terms of acquisition/player lifetime value.

The "Optional" Subscription

People often criticise that SWTOR's subscription isn't really optional as playing without it you'll feel very limited. I don't think I've ever met a SWTOR player that denies this either, though I think people sometimes don't give credit to all the content you can access completely for free, which includes all the class stories.

ESO definitely doesn't nag you about subscribing nearly as much, though in fairness they also don't have to since you've already given them money by the point you've started playing. That said, I actually found the game pretty unplayable without a subscription by level ten or so, for the simple reason that is the crafting bag.

The crafting bag is a feature that you only get access to while subscribed and is basically a portable hole that can hold infinite amounts of everything related to crafting. The thing that people don't tell you is that if you're the kind of person who likes to click on everything around you that the game will let you interact with, 90 percent of everything you loot will be crafting materials. Since I'm somewhat interested in crafting, I wanted to keep them too, but from level five or so onwards this basically meant that I could barely complete a single quest before my bags were full. By the time I ponied up for a month of ESO Plus, both my bags and my bank were full to burst, yet the instant I subscribed and the crafting mats were automatically transferred to the crafting bag, my normal bags and bank were suddenly virtually empty.

I guess this particular limitation doesn't get as much publicity because I know from experience with my guildies that most players aren't as obsessed with picking up everything that sparkles and will happily ignore large numbers of dropped loot, and what they do pick up they will happily vendor without thinking about potential future use for crafting or anything like that, but I suppose it goes to show that "optional" is in the eye of the beholder. At least I know that I'm not the only one who's struggled with the lack of crafting bag for non-subscribers, as people's opinions on the official forums range from "it's okay; you can circumvent it by making extra storage alts/a personal guild bank/buying additional accounts" to being entirely put off the game by this particular restriction.

Convenience aside, another thing that both games' subscriptions have in common is that they give you a cash shop stipend for every month that you're subscribed. ESO is much more generous however, by throwing in 1500 Crowns per month vs. SWTOR's 500-600 Cartel Coins. While the value of funny money like that can be hard to gauge accurately, I did the maths and the two currencies are actually very close in terms of real life value as well, so ESO really does give you more bang for your buck, which is nice! It's pretty obviously part of their marketing strategy too, as one month of ESO Plus actually costs less than buying 1500 Crowns separately, so the idea is to use the lower price to lure you into subscribing instead of having you simply make a one-time purchase.

General Cash Shop Observations

ESO for some reason felt the need to not have just one but two cash shop icons, because they figured the Crown Crates (random lootboxes) needed their own, which is kind of funny to me. Either way the icons are similarly unobtrusive as the Cartel Market icon in SWTOR.


In general, I like the Crown Store's UI a bit better. SWTOR's store UI is much better now than it was, but ESO still requires fewer clicks in comparison to navigate between categories, which makes it easier to casually browse what's on offer. There are also helpful sub-categories, such as "mounts" being split into "exotic", "horses" or "special". I've often wished that SWTOR had more of these, for example to make it easier to only look at animal mounts vs. speeders, or in the armour section at Jedi styles vs. bounty hunter outfits for example.

Another big plus in favour of the ESO store's UI is that they make it much easier to preview everything before buying. While SWTOR technically has a preview function, it's sometimes disabled for bundled items. Compare this to ESO selling a bundle with several dozen hairstyles in it and letting you preview literally every single one of them before buying (though how to do so isn't super obvious and - like many things relating to ESO's UI - I had to google how to do it).

The general wares in both stores mostly consist of cosmetics of some variety or another, with no power-related purchases. The main thing that SWTOR has that ESO doesn't is that they allow you to manually unlock some of the subscriber benefits (such as the infamous extra hotbars) permanently. The only comparable thing that ESO has is that you can buy DLC content - it's generally free to access for subscribers but unlike in SWTOR, you don't automatically get to keep it if your sub lapses. Also, the current newest "chapter" in ESO or whatever word they use to avoid saying "expansion" is not included in the subscription and still requires an extra purchase no matter what. Another thing that's worth pointing out is that ESO sells some insta-gratification consumables - as I mentioned in my last post, there are mechanics such as riding training and crafting trait research that are gated behind literally months of waiting... unless you're willing to pay up that is.

In general it seems to me that SWTOR's Cartel Market is somewhat better stocked than ESO's Crown store, despite of both games periodically removing items to create artificial scarcity; there's just more stuff to choose from in the former than in the latter.

Funny Money

Now, let's talk pricing! As mentioned above, funny money's whole purpose is to make it less obvious just how much you're spending on things, which it generally succeeds at (especially with additional discounts if you buy larger amounts at once etc.). There is however some napkin maths that you can do, and while doing so I was pleasantly surprised to find that SWTOR and ESO made it easy for me to draw comparisons between the two by having an extremely similar exchange rate. (Note that all prices in this post are in pounds as I'm located in the UK.)

Basically Cartel Coins range in price from £4 to £7 per thousand, depending on which bundle you choose, while ESO's Crowns range from £5 to £8 per thousand. So Crowns are slightly more expensive, but not massively so. The main thing that surprised me was the variance in bundle pricing. I think I've only ever bought Cartel Coins once a long time ago, so I didn't remember how it works in detail, but basically the bundles you can buy range in price from £1.80 to £24. For all the talk about "whales" people like to engage in nowadays, a maximum transaction amount of £24 is hardly daylight robbery. I mean, that's only slightly more than I have to pay for my daily commute. In comparison, ESO's Crown bundles start at £6 for the cheapest one but go up to £110. I wonder how many players actually go for that last one? I think I would struggle to even find enough things in the store that I'd like to spend 21,000 Crowns on.

Anyway, I figured that for price comparison purposes it was both fair and easiest to assume a value of about £5 per thousand Cartel Coins or Crowns. Looking at the different categories you can see some interesting differences.

For example on checking the mounts categories in both stores, SWTOR's ranged in price from about £2 to £13, with most averaging around £7.50. In comparison an ESO store mount will set you back £4.50 to £15, with most of them averaging around £9. One interesting tidbit about ESO store mounts is that the in-game alternatives to them are extremely restricted. I've sometimes heard people complain that SWTOR hides all the good cosmetic stuff in the store - something I've always disagreed with - but even if you see some merit in the argument it's nothing compared to the way ESO handles its mount skins. There are literally only four differently coloured horses plus an event mount available from actually playing the game; every other mount is exclusive to the store.

Another category I compared was that of non-combat pets, where again, SWTOR was a bit cheaper, with the average price for a pet being only a little over a pound, while ESO's tended to hover around £3.50. Is suspect that this is simple market pressure at work as pets are not very popular in SWTOR and I doubt they'd sell any at all if they cost more than they do. In ESO on the other hand I see people running around with non-combat pets all the time, despite of their higher prices.

When it came to character looks, I compared SWTOR's armour shells to ESO's appearances, which are slightly different but essentially both grant you a full cosmetic outfit for your character, which I judged similar enough for the purposes of this post. Here ESO is more generous, with prices ranging from £2.50 to £5, while SWTOR's armours can cost up to £13 for some, with most hovering around the £7 price point. I guess this must be one of Bioware's main money makers. I mean, I'm sure ESO players care about their characters' looks too, but SWTOR makes it more of an issue with all the cut scenes making you want to look your most fabulous for the camera. People jokingly refer to the game as "Space Barbie" for a reason.


Crown Crates vs. Cartel Packs

Let's talk about the elephant in the room: lootboxes, oh em gee! I've noted previously that SWTOR has effectively been phasing them out, but the Ultimate Cartel pack is still available, so I guess it counts. As far as I'm aware ESO has shown no signs of shifting away from relying on Crown Crates for its income.

Interestingly, there is a big price difference between Cartel Packs and Crown Crates, with the latter costing twice as much as the former: £2 vs. £1 per pack. (That said, this is still less than I thought either of them were going to cost in real money.) Now, it might be that the ESO crates make up for their higher price with better contents, but to be honest that's hard to judge considering that nobody knows the drop rates for anything for certain, and even if we did know, if the items aren't also sold in the store for a fixed price, there isn't an objective value we can attach to any of them, seeing how people have different opinions on what's a good or a bad drop. One person's favourite mount ever might be another one's trash.

That aside, I do think that SWTOR is miles ahead in terms of consumer-friendliness in this area simply because all the contents of the boxes are tradable. So if you enjoy opening random boxes you can, but if you just want a specific item, you can simply buy it off another player for credits. There is a chance that your particular item might not be available for sale at all times, but in general there is a pretty healthy secondary market for pack items.

I'd previously been told that ESO had this "Crown Gem" system, which was just as good or even better because you can use gems to buy crate items directly, but after having seen it myself I have to call shenanigans on that one. Basically you get gems for disintegrating unwanted junk items from the boxes, such as potions, but they are only worth one gem a pop, which is basically nothing. Bigger items such as pets or mounts cannot be turned into gems at will, only if they're duplicates! So getting an ugly mount that you're not going to use doesn't get you one bit closer to getting the thing you actually want, whereas in SWTOR you'd at least be able to sell it.

Also, and this is something nobody had ever mentioned to me before and that I only learned while looking it up, the top reward tier, which is called "radiant apex" rewards, can't be purchased with gems, ever, so you can only get those via sheer luck.

Really, the only thing I can say in favour of ESO's Crown Crates is that aside from the radiant apex rewards, all the rewards for the current crate season can be inspected via the in-game UI and you don't need to go to an outside site to learn what they are. This would have been a good feature for SWTOR to have too back in the day, though it has now become redundant with the Ultimate pack (as I get that they can't easily give you a preview of every Cartel Market item ever produced).

Trading & Unlocks

After railing against the lack of tradability of Crown Crate items, I do want to mention something positive related to store items and other players in ESO: the game has the option to give store items to others as gifts directly, which I think is very neat. In SWTOR you can give gifts too, but you have to buy them yourself, wait for the bind timer to run out and then send them through the mail or hand them over in person. I think a dedicated gift UI as part of the store is a nice idea.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that (as far as I could tell; personally I still only have one character), all of ESO's cosmetic cash store purchases are automatically unlocked account-wide, whereas in SWTOR you have to pay an additional fee through the Collection UI to get access on all your characters. How much of a boon that is to you depends on your play style I guess - I love creating alts myself but tend to give them all unique looks anyway, so to me automated account-wide unlocks are a moot point. However to players who don't mind recycling a good look, this can be a boon and drastically increase the value for money of purchases in ESO.

Whew, this ended up being longer than expected!

TL;DR: SWTOR's and ESO's business models are remarkably similar. The main differences are:

- SWTOR gives you a big chunk of content for free, but restricts and nags you a lot if you don't spend any money
- ESO's subscription feels more like a nice bonus than a requirement to fully enjoy the game (unless you have a specific play style), largely due to the generous currency stipend
- Both cash stores rely heavily on cosmetics, with no direct power purchases. Both have only a couple of what I would call slightly iffy items in there, such as SWTOR's extra hotbars for non-subscribers, or ESO's unlocks to skip months of waiting.
- ESO's store has the slightly better UI, but SWTOR's has more merchandise to choose from.
- In both cases, the prices for most items are what I'd call pretty reasonable, usually coming in at £5 to £10. I was actually kind of surprised by this, which is funny in itself as you'd think that as a long-time player I'd know better. It gets a lot of publicity when they experiment with releasing something super expensive, but if you look at the everyday items and prices, it's actually much ado about nothing.
- ESO still relies heavily on lootboxes at this point, with some bad luck protection but no ability to trade, which makes them a bad deal for anyone who just wants a specific drop, whereas SWTOR players can get pretty much anything they want from them without having to rely on RNG.

Do you think there's anything important I got wrong or left out? Feel free to add it in the comments and I'll edit it in where applicable.