30/03/2020

Lowbie Life

One of the great things about keeping a blog about my gaming is that it allows me to reflect on what I like and didn't like, not just based on how I feel at any given moment, but also by looking back on the things I enjoyed in the past, what sort of plans I made based on that and whether I stuck to them.

One thing I've noticed is that there's a part of me that, intellectually, really dislikes having too many alts. I do like alts in general, but past a certain point I feel that I can't give them the attention they "deserve", which makes me feel a bit bad. (I'm not claiming that this makes rational sense.)

Also, SWTOR's narrative focus makes me feel awkward when gameplay and story don't quite match up - such as when I have a max-level Jedi whose class story still treats them as a padawan fresh from Tython. Making more alts instead of actually progressing the existing ones through their stories makes that worse too.

On the other hand though, I clearly enjoy the low-level experience on a visceral level. Whenever I do end up playing a low-level character on a whim it's usually a blast, not least because there are goals aplenty and progress is fast and easy to achieve.

So what happens is that I abstain from making more alts most of the time, for the reasons explained earlier, until a particular set of circumstances results in me creating a new or at least dusting off an existing lowbie for some reason and suddenly I go: "Wow, this is fun! What a surprise!"

The latest iteration of this occurred the other week, when my guild was trying to win a planet in that week's Conquest event (we succeeded by the way), and in order to contribute as much as I could I set myself the goal of reaching my personal target on all sixteen of my characters in the guild. This included logging into two lowbies that I rarely play since they were created for the express purpose of doing lowbie PvP with friends, and there hasn't been much of that happening lately.

I decided that even without friends to keep me company in this particular case, doing PvP was going to be the best way to hit my Conquest target on the lowbies, and it was... so... much... fun! I really shouldn't be surprised by this, considering I myself have written blog posts on the subject before, but apparently I have a short memory. (This is another reason to keep a blog.)

Realising that all my characters on Imp side were close to the level cap, this then gave me an excuse to actually make a new alt over there so that I could have a low-level PvP alt on Imperial side as well. Thus, Squizelle the one-eyed Nautolan Sorcerer was born.


Incidentally, just breezing through my class story on Korriban was fun too - it had clearly been too long, considering that I had a couple of achievements for killing K'lor'slugs and the like pop up, and both of the Sith stories just have some great lines that are always fun to revisit. I just keep thinking about all the context given by the side quests that new players are likely to never see these days... doesn't really give you much time to get attached to the world I fear...

Anyway, I queued for my first PvP match at level 12, quickly realising that this might have been a mistake as I didn't even have the Sage/Sorc's signature bubble yet. I got into a losing Huttball and stood at the spawn spamming my single heal on people until the game was over, but somehow that was enough to get me up to twelve medals or something? Still, after that I decided to at least do the first couple of quests on Dromund Kaas next, just to earn a few more abilities.

And I can only say it again, it's been great fun. Few people play healers in the lowbie bracket, so you're a bit of a god(ess) among mortals if you know what you're doing. The limited toolkit really makes you think about what you can achieve with it, and every new ability you earn is exciting because it unlocks even more possibilities.

We'll see how long it takes for me to get distracted  and forget all about lowbie play once again...

26/03/2020

Guild Love

I think I mention my guild reasonably often on this blog, even if the last time I penned a dedicated love letter to it was two years ago now.

Like most things, it has its ups and downs (drama happens sometimes, there's just no way to avoid it where human beings are involved), and I have my own ups and downs with it - for example there have been periods when members that I personally found pretty annoying have been very vocal in chat and on Discord, making me want to be around less in order not to have to deal with them. On the whole though, things have been good.


There have been practical limitations to my involvement though: I'm a bit of an introvert and after coming home from a long and tiring day at work, my capacity to socialise has often been limited. I never really got it when people logged onto voice chat just to "hang out" as opposed to joining specifically to listen to instructions during an operation for example.

Needless to say, that has really changed during the last couple of weeks. Working from home every day and only having Mr Commando to interact with, even I look forward to talking to someone else in the evening, so I find myself logging in just to see who else is on.

Chat tends to be lively, and as unfortunate as it is, the fact that guildies all over Europe are suddenly stuck at home for the same reasons and are having similar experiences gives everyone a shared subject to talk about. (And of course there's always the "whose government is the worst at handling the crisis" competition.)

While more introverted people like me might feel encouraged to log on more often to get a small dose of socialisation, the same actually applies to the extroverts right now, as they suddenly don't have anyone to hang out with other than their online friends, now that their various movie nights, parties and sports events are cancelled. (It makes us feel so loved!)

It's a great time to get to know everyone better, as people are more likely to stay online that bit longer in the evening and are more willing to share a little about their lives. I also find myself much more willing to run content that I may not actually need or even be hugely interested in myself, just to help someone else out or simply to feel like I'm doing something with other people. It's comforting and actually reminds me of my younger days, when I was a much more active guildie in the games I used to play since I was a student and had oodles of free time.

Here's to all the guilds keeping us company!

21/03/2020

How Will The Pandemic Affect MMOs?

I generally try to keep real life off this blog, but the current worldwide "situation" is one of these things that's hard to compartmentalise, so I thought I'd get my one blog post on the subject out of the way.

On a personal level I remain safe and healthy for the time being and hope to continue to do so - I'm not sure I'm in a high risk group as I don't currently suffer from lung problems, but I have a past history of having them, and I'm not sure how that plays into things. Fortunately I'm one of those lucky people with jobs that can be done from home and have therefore been working from home for the past week and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Mr Commando is a so-called "key worker" and has to keep going out, but he's doing his best to not bring any germs home.

On a personal level, this staying home has actually been a good thing for me (aside from the sudden lack of exercise, which is something I need to work on). It means that I save both time and money that would usually be spent on commuting, meaning that I have more time to do things I like, such as play MMOs and blog, yay! Also, unlike that of many of my co-workers, my social life isn't really impacted as I'm used to spending my evenings chatting on TeamSpeak anyway.

That said, I can't help but wonder how the situation is going to affect the games I play. I'm sure game developers are tech savvy enough to enable remote working for most of their employees, and what hardware maintenance may be required can probably be carried out without risk to anyone's health and safety, though I wouldn't be surprised if something like a server going down suddenly took longer to fix in the future.

On the surface, online gaming should also be in a pretty good spot business-wise, as people staying home are more likely to seek safe refuge and entertainment in virtual worlds instead of their usual haunts. On the other hand though, with hundreds of thousands of people losing jobs and suddenly finding themselves without income, they may well have to cut back on non-essential spending which would result in less income for gaming companies. I suppose only the people seeing the numbers on the other end can tell for sure right now whether the result is a net win or loss for them.

I've also been wondering about whether the content of our virtual homes will be affected in any way. I work in marketing and know we have to be very careful with what we say at the moment as you have both people who are understandably worried about how every entity they interact with handles the situation, and those who are (also understandably) sick of getting emails from every business they ever bought from about how that business handles COVID-19. So you have to acknowledge the situation somehow as it would feel weird to pretend that everything is business as usual, but you also don't want to be seen as saying anything inappropriate or trying to profiteer from people's suffering.


What made me think about this in SWTOR in specific were the rakghouls. I was in Kaon Under Siege the other night and when we got to the conversation with Major Byzal, one of the pugs in the group said: "Is this coronavirus?" I just responded with: "Shh, don't say that or they'll cancel the rakghoul event."

I expect that not many MMOs happen to have in-game events that use the concept of a deadly pandemic for entertainment, but I suppose they might still have certain content that might deal with the subject. I doubt that regular players care greatly either way, but let's just say I don't find it hard to imagine that someone new to the game might encounter the Rakghoul Resurgence in game, see quests like the daily to infect several people with the plague and find it highly inappropriate and off-putting under the circumstances. If I was Bioware I think I'd quietly cross that one off the calendar for at least the next couple of months just to be on the safe side. It's not like they don't have enough other events to run in the meantime.

17/03/2020

Levelling Through Flashpoints Post 6.0 - Would I Recommend It?

I originally wrote a version of this post back in January 2016, shortly after Bioware had first introduced level sync to the game and made all levelling flashpoints role neutral. I was intrigued by the idea of being able to level quickly and easily entirely through the group finder and wanted to find out what that was going to be like. The conclusions I came to back then are all summed up in the post linked above, plus it contains links to all the individual posts documenting my Mercenary's levelling journey itself.


I'm going to use the same format for this post, since I think it's still relevant, and will draw comparisons where they seem interesting to me. Sticking to the same headings as last time, let's start off with:

Speed

Just like last time, I intentionally avoided anything that would have artificially increased my levelling speed, such as guild perks, XP boosts or character perks, though unlike last time (when I was rarely fully rested), the casual on-and-off-again nature in which I played my Shadow meant that I benefitted from having some sort of rested XP bonus active most of the time.

Back in 2016, getting from 1 to 65 took me one day and a bit less than nine hours of /played time. I was surprised that getting from 1 to 75 - considering that I had ten extra levels to gain - only took about two hours longer. I wouldn't have expected that extra restedness to make that much of a difference.

More importantly though, despite of the small difference in /played time, it felt like the whole thing took way longer this time around, and looking at the numbers there's an obvious reason for that: while it only took me 37 flashpoints to hit the level cap in 2016, this time around I had to complete 54 of them, meaning that while the overall time required to level was only 6% higher, the number of flashpoints I had to run went up by 46%.

It's hard to find a clear explanation for this. Possible reasons for the reduced XP per flashpoint could be that I frequently forfeited the random bonus this time around, or that "skip culture" wasn't as well developed back then as it is now, resulting in more XP from mob killing. On the other hand though, I benefitted from more restedness this time, things like conquest objectives contributed extra XP (which wasn't the case back in 2016), and the paths of least resistance through places like Taral V or Battle of Ilum are hardly new inventions.

I can only guess that XP gains from flashpoints (whether from completion rewards, mob killing or both) must have received a significant nerf at some point between 4.0 and 6.0. Looking at my /played time, this was probably not an unreasonable move though, as increased familiarity with the content has led to people completing each run faster than they used to back then as well. At least during my own journeys, the average time spent on each flashpoint dropped from 54 minutes in 2015/16 to 39 in 2019/20.

Difficulty

Back when flashpoints were first level synced and made role neutral, there were concerns about the content being too difficult for lower levels. I mostly disagreed. While levelling my Mercenary in late 2015, her completion rate for the random flashpoints she entered was 89% (or 33 out of 37), which I considered satisfactory. That said, I acknowledged that some flashpoints that had been designed with a higher level character's tool kit in mind, such as Blood Hunt, could be a pain at lower levels, and I guessed that playing a healer may have served to elevate my teams' success rates as I could just heal them through a lot of problems.

Now, the big change that inspired me to revisit this whole experiment at the end of last year was that Bioware decided to put minimum levels back on flashpoints, limiting lower level characters to a smaller selection and keeping them out of content that was likely to be too demanding for the average lowbie pug.

And it does seem to have worked! My Shadow's success rate was 96% (or 52 out of 54), and that was without being a healer and therefore with limited ability to save other players from their mistakes. The only time I felt like the group I was in was really pushed to its limits in terms of what the characters could do was on Lieutenant Krupp in the first Kuat Drive Yards run described in this post.

That said, I didn't get the impression that the content has been made too easy or anything like that either. I didn't bother going through my older posts for this, but while reviewing the ones about my Shadow's levelling journey, I also made notes about where I had mentioned wipes and other character deaths, and apparently she was involved in 26 wipes and on at least 27 other occasions people died without wiping the group. That averages out to about one death per run (though of course in reality what happens is that you get a lot of very smooth runs and then the occasional shitshow), which shows to me that Bioware has managed to strike a good balance between making the content easy enough that most groups will be able to complete it but hard enough that you will suffer some setbacks if you don't pay attention, which (to me) is how it should be.


Player Behaviour

Like last time, I thought that on the whole players behaved "nice enough", which is to say that I did not witness anything that I would classify as verbal abuse, people being vote-kicked for bad performance or anything like that. This isn't to say that everyone was always perfectly polite - some players were very friendly but others could be more accurately described as cranky. Most just came across as indifferent towards their fellow pug mates, which is more or less what I've come to expect from automatically matched groups in modern games.

One thing that did seem somewhat different to me, though it's hard to quantify, is that people seemed somewhat less patient to me (which is not necessarily the same as rude). There's always been some impatience in pugs, especially when it came to things like people watching cut scenes, but it seemed to be a more general thing now: barely waiting a minute before wanting to vote-kick someone for lagging behind or being AFK, not wanting to wait for instructions to be typed out, running ahead and not caring if anyone's left behind.

To some extent this may simply be a side effect of us still running Hammer Station in 2020, meaning that more veteran players have perfected the process to a degree that makes everything significantly faster (which would also be in line with my "less time taken per flashpoint" observation earlier). However, personally I can't help but wonder whether over-incentivisation of flashpoints doesn't play a role as well. Basically, as someone who loves flashpoints, I like that gearing up under Spoils of War is most efficiently undertaken in instances, but it also means that players who don't actually enjoy that content (as much) will still gravitate towards it just for the rewards. I'm guessing that these are the ones most likely to be impatient with anyone or anything that "forces" them to spend even more time in there than they would really like.

Social Points, Crew Skills, Money, Gear

Being only social rank four after more than fifty flashpoints feels a bit underwhelming, but as previously observed it aligns with the fact that you only earn points for taking part in conversations and these are limited in most instances.

I did not max out any of my crew skills from gathering this time, though Scavenging came close. This is because I've taken to spending less time on gathering materials from dead enemies in flashpoints - it's always been something that tended to make other players tap their feet, but with the increased push towards speed and not wanting to be left behind I did it even less.

That said, it's honestly also just not really worth it any more - it used to be worthwhile in the past because you would get crafting materials for the current tier, but with everything but Objective Meridian being synced down to level 70, you keep getting nothing but materials for the last expansion, which most people don't really care about at this point.

I made a decent amount of money - more than two million just from levelling and without selling anything on the GTN. I just moved everything straight to the vendor this time around.

Personal loot kept upgrading my gear at a decent pace, but with Bolster it's hard to tell how much of a difference that made anyway.

Story

Besides smoothing out the difficulty curve, the new minimum level requirement for each flashpoint has also reduced the potential for story confusion - no more getting thrown into False Emperor at level 15 to fight the guy who just gave you a mission earlier. That said, I think you would have to be extremely disciplined in your levelling to unlock all content at the right time relative to your class/personal story, so some degree of confusion is still likely when people end up doing Battle of Ilum before completing the Ilum storyline and so on. Then again, this is just one of the side effects of Bioware's relatively lax attitude when it comes to story gating (which I do think is a good thing in general). Let's just say that the in-game signposting to make it clear what's supposed to be done in what order could still be improved.


So... would I recommend it or not?

Back in 2016 my recommendation basically came down to this: I do recommend it if you're an experienced player looking for a change of pace; I don't recommend it if you're a new player as it would be too confusing.

This time around my recommendation will have to be more nuanced, mainly due to a new phenomenon that I haven't really mentioned in this summary post yet but which was a major talking point throughout my posts about levelling: the lack of variety.

Last time around, running the full selection of random flashpoints throughout the entire levelling process, I had a pretty even spread in terms of repetition: Most flashpoints came up one to three times, one (Blood Hunt) came up four times, another one (Cademimu) five times, and another three never popped at all.

This time around I actually ended up abandoning the fully random selection about halfway through the process, as out of 24 runs drawing from the full selection of flashpoints available to me at the time, 14 (or 58%) put me into Hammer Station. Now, part of this can be blamed on the low-level selection being more limited these days and Hammer Station being one of the first flashpoints that unlocks, but the other instance that appears at the same level is Kuat Drive Yards, and I only got that one randomly three times. That's not a coincidence.

As I elaborated a bit in this post, the aforementioned over-incentivisation of flashpoints has led to a whole section of the player base, who seek to earn the most rewards for the least amount of effort, declaring Hammer Station their destination of choice, and it really skews the "random" numbers for anyone hoping to genuinely see a variety of content throughout the levelling process.

However, even if this was not an issue and/or you were to curate your selection to exclude Hammer Station at times, the available selection remains pretty limited for quite a long time, with most flashpoints not unlocking until around level 50. With the increased number of runs required to level up (as explained in the "speed" section), you'll therefore see a lot of repetition of the same flashpoints over and over. Unfortunately this is the opposite of getting a change of scenery; it's boring.

So I can't recommend levelling solely through flashpoints to experienced players seeking a change any more, and I still wouldn't recommend it to completely new players either - while the minimum level requirements have smoothed out the difficulty curve and reduced potential story confusion, there is still room for some confusion. More importantly though, I think that if you're a new player trying to find the fun in SWTOR, being put into Hammer Station over and over again is unlikely to give you the best experience.

Now, all that said, I wouldn't consider flashpoint levelling entirely unappealing. It's still quite fast, so for someone more mechanics-focused who's looking to raise an alt it remains a solid option, especially if you were to add some XP boosters to the mix. It's also a great way of learning your class tool kit in an environment where it actually matters (as opposed to most solo content). I'm still not great at playing Shadow, but the challenges associated with pugging content that can actually kill you have been excellent practice for things such as using my damage reduction cooldowns, playing with threat (when to drop it vs. when to taunt to help someone else out) and more, something that made for one of the most educational and fun parts of Nautalie's levelling journey.

Just keep in mind that you may find yourself being grouped with people with very different goals, from the complete newbie who only just started playing SWTOR to the veteran who just wants to get things "done" as quickly as possible to get their reward. This has always been an issue but has come to the forefront even more with the new gearing system.

And that's all there is to say really!

Here are links to all the installments of my levelling journey in case you want to re-read any of them:

Part 1: Group Finding in 6.0 (hey, the Esseles is hard again)
Part 2: Stuck in Hammer Station
Part 3: Hammered Home
Part 4: Kuat Drive Yards Can Be... Fun?
Part 5: Hammer Station No More
Part 6: Flashpoint Levelling: Halfway There?
Part 7: Flashpoint Levelling: Light at the end of the tunnel?
Part 8: Finding My Fun
Part 9: Harder Better Stronger?
Part 10: Battle of Ilum really IS Hammer Station version 2
Part 11: Finishing Up My Flashpoint Levelling

14/03/2020

Finishing Up My Flashpoint Levelling

In real time it took much, much longer than expected - four months! - but Nautalie the Shadow has finally hit level 75. Here's how she spent her last few levels levelling through flashpoints:

Blood Hunt
I levelled: 70-70

Even with completing both the weekly to do five veteran flashpoints and my personal conquest by doing this flashpoint, I just missed out on levelling up from this one, but that wasn't entirely surprising.

When we entered, one person left instantly, presumably because that person hadn't run Blood Hunt in a while and still thought that it's the horrible pug killer it used to be a couple of years ago. We got a replacement that resulted in our group having two tanks and a healer, with me being the only damage dealer. Unsurprisingly that made for quite a slow run - Torch went through no less than four "firestorm" phases for example - but on the plus side we were never really in danger of dying.

I noticed that one of the tanks and the healer were from the same guild: Nostrum Dolus, who were known as the best SWTOR PvP guild in the world back in the days of 8v8 ranked. I remember always being relieved whenever I saw one of their members in a random warzone back in the day, because even one of them was enough to give our side a significant performance boost. They've been inactive for many years now though. I made no secret of my fond memories in party chat and they claimed to have been the guild's actual founders, who apparently hadn't played since Rise of the Hutt Cartel.


Hammer Station
I levelled: 70-71

I couldn't resist getting a quick random in on another Wednesday morning, which reliably placed me in Hammer Station. Nobody in our all dps group was level 75, which made things a little more challenging than your average run, though not terribly so.

We spent about a full minute standing in front of the elevator shortcut, waiting for someone to slice it, before we admitted to ourselves that nobody had slicing and moved on.

Someone also charged right past the turrets again, which - unsurprisingly - was not a good idea in a full group of levellers without a healer. (Remember: it traps you in combat for the rest of the flashpoint so that nobody can regenerate any health.) One guy died and was lucky in so far as I was able to stealth out and revive him afterwards.

Objective Meridian
I levelled: 71-72

With only seven of what are probably the most unpopular flashpoints selected, I wasn't surprised that I had to wait a little while for a group to be formed. Then I had a couple of pops that someone always rejected, as if they knew what might be coming... but eventually I got into what was probably the least offensive of my choices, the new flashpoint Objective Meridian.

This didn't prevent someone from leaving the moment we zoned in. I don't really get it, as this one's really quite fun and easy, but I guess just like I have a dislike for Hammer Station, for some people anything that's not Hammer Station is unacceptable. Fortunately the others weren't perturbed by this and the group leader queued us for a replacement almost immediately. Two or three trash pulls later the group was full again.

Incidentally, this was a full consular group! The other three characters were Sages. Fortunately one of them was a healer, which made things a lot smoother than they could have been otherwise. In hindsight I think this might also have been the first time that I ran this flashpoint on veteran mode - I can't tell for sure since the achievement counter treats solo and veteran mode as the same thing. Or maybe I did it with my guildies once just after Onslaught had come out.


Anyway, thanks to the healer it was mostly a walk in the park. I took it upon myself to taunt things off the Sages in an attempt to keep things simple for them too. This worked very well for the most part except for the last boss, where I just couldn't hold aggro to save my life. Also, the others enjoyed spreading out across the entire platform so that I spent more time running around chasing Malgus in circles than actually doing damage. We even wiped once, as all but one of us got knocked to our deaths near the end. (Resilience didn't save me. /cry) On the next try we got him down without problems though.

Depths of Manaan
I levelled: 72-73

I had re-queued for this one because Nautalie was at the step in the Forged Alliances arc where she needed it for story progression. I got into a group with two other damage dealers and a tank. The tank left the moment we zoned in and we replaced him with another dps.

I didn't have a great feeling when we almost wiped on the very first pull. I don't know if our damage was just that low or what, but I felt like I had to blow every single cooldown on every mob group to make it through alive.

On Sairisi I made the mistake of not asking whether everyone knew what to do, which resulted in people spending ages hitting shielded targets and being utterly useless. Meanwhile I was tanking and just running back and forth between the two kolto stations just to stay alive. (Did you know that there are only two kolto stations next to Sairisi? Made survival quite a tight affair.)

Anyway, eventually we did get him down and started watching the cut scene featuring Jakarro. I had space-barred through but apparently somebody else was watching, so I waited, and waited, and waited... and suddenly we were all kicked out of the instance as our group lead had disconnected. Now I was lead and we ran back in, but the DCed guy came back on within a minute anyway.

At this point one of the other dps quit and I queued us for a replacement. Unfortunately the previously DC-ed guy chose this moment to leave the group as well, causing the group finder to bug out in the usual manner. Disheartened by how this kind of situation had gone previously, I asked the last person remaining (a Commando and the person who had joined us after the start to replace the tank) whether she wanted to continue with companions or quit... and she wanted to go on, yay!

So I summoned my influence level 6 Qyzen to tank and she whipped out Elara to heal and we finished the instance just fine. We did have one wipe on Ortuno as my trooper friend wasn't quick enough to put Elara on passive to drag her out of the puddles of doom, but once she knew to watch out for that we downed him just fine, even if it took a while.

After the run she whispered me asking if I wanted to join her guild. I declined politely, explaining that I already had a guild, but it still gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling.


What a hero.

Battle of Rishi
I levelled: 73-73

This was a pretty smooth and fast four-dps run. We skipped a lot of trash though (which is admittedly pretty easy in this flashpoint), which once again resulted in barely any XP for me.

Also, I was kind of bothered by how everyone just kind of expected me to stealth everything for them without even saying anything. There is this bit where you have to click on consoles in three different rooms and one guy literally just ran past all of them to the next boss and then presumably made himself a cup of tea. At least the other two hung back a little to make sure I didn't get in trouble (which I actually did once, though I cloaked and fortunately the mobs evaded instead of going after the rest of the group).

At least I did learn how you can indeed successfully stealth all three consoles. I already knew that it could be done but had never done it myself before, always failing at one in particular, but the unspoken pressure put on me in this run forced me figure it out. Yay I guess?

Legacy of the Rakata
I levelled: 73-74

Sod's Law had it that after grumbling about a run where we skipped so much trash that I barely got any XP, the next day the group finder put me into a full stealth group (two Shadows and two Scoundrels). Mind you, I think we still killed more mobs than the group in Battle of Rishi, simply because there are some objectives on Rakata Prime that require it, plus there were a couple of "oops, I forgot I wasn't actually in stealth" pulls. (Nobody called them that, but I've seen enough of this kind of thing to recognise it when I see it.)

In the end I didn't mind too much because at least a full stealth pug is something unusual and entertaining. On the last boss it was interesting to me that people prioritised killing Arkous over Darok, as I'm used to doing it the other way round.

Czerka Core Meltdown
I levelled: 74-74

Queueing for what I knew was going to be Nautalie's last levelling flashpoint, I had only four options selected: Czerka Core Meltdown and the three traitor flashpoints. I settled in for what I expected to be a bit of a wait but got a pop almost instantly - which meant that it couldn't be anything other than Czerka, seeing how most people seem to avoid and rather dislike the traitor flashpoints. And so it was.

It was another four dps group, and the Commando in the group immediately said that it was his first time. I replied that this was fine and that I'd explain bosses. Unfortunately the rest of the group wasn't quite so co-operative, and the Gunslinger pulled the first boss while I was still typing. It felt deserved that we quickly wiped on that attempt, even though I can't say for sure that it was directly related to the untimely pull.

On the next attempt we killed it just fine, with me tanking and dragging the Duneclaw around the room like a boss. Props to the other group members for clicking the kolto stations though - I couldn't reliably have done it myself without messing up the positioning, and while my health did get pretty low a couple of times, making me sweat, we all survived in the end.

We more or less repeated this performance on the next boss: me once again trying to explain for the Commando while the Gunslinger ran in and pulled anyway. At least this time we didn't wipe, though the Slinger messed up the first pod by popping it too early, before the boss was actually in range. Things went okay though once I taunted the boss off him and resumed tanking. The rest of the flashpoint went smoothly enough.

But then... we were done and I still wasn't 75! Even after handing in the Czerka story quest I was still just a sliver away from dinging.

I considered my options and didn't like either very much: queueing for another flashpoint would have been the most "true" to the project, but dinging on the second mob would have felt kind of anticlimactic and the event would have just been overshadowed by still having to run the whole rest of the flashpoint afterwards. Getting the XP somewhere else on the other hand felt a bit cheeky... but was also going to be much faster and easier... and it was really only a tiny sliver! So I went back to Coruscant to pick up Nautalie's class story again and soon dinged 75 from killing a bunch of back alley thugs.


Full debrief about the project to follow soon!

09/03/2020

Four Kinds of Trash Skipping

My flashpoint pugging over the last couple of months has provided me with a lot of food for thought. One of the things I've been thinking about has been the practice of always skipping as many trash mobs as possible.

I used to say that I just hated doing that. I like running flashpoints because I enjoy the gameplay of killing baddies with a group of people. If my pug actually avoids killing as many enemies as possible, I feel short-changed - and in game terms, I do miss out on rewards such as XP for mob killing and bonus missions.

That said, I do get that not everyone runs random flashpoints for the same reasons as me, and I've certainly been there too: when you run several randoms a week (or even day) and keep getting into the same one, sometimes you just want to get it over with so you can do something else next.

Leaving aside the issue of bonuses and tangible rewards though, I still have mixed feelings about trash skipping. After thinking about it some more, I can split the "types" of trash skips that people engage in into roughly four groups:

Walking Past

This is the type I mind the least, and it's pretty much what it says on the tin. Most flashpoints don't require you to kill every single mob in them, and there are "spare" groups that you can obviously walk past without engaging them if you only stay far enough away from them.

It's straightforward and doesn't require any kind of explanation. Every player has basic experience with aggro range and can probably spot opportunities where it's safe to walk past a pull without aggroing it. However, even if you have absolutely no clue on the subject it's enough for one person to know what to do, walk ahead, and the others can follow in their steps. The worst thing that can happen is that someone gets too close, you pull anyway and have to kill the mobs after all.

Climbing/Jumping

The difference between this type and the first one is that the safe route is 1) probably not obvious and 2) requires a certain amount of skill at precise character movement. I'm not counting things like walking up some of the rocks in Legacy of the Rakata here, because while you "climb" those in the sense of engaging in some vertical movement in that flashpoint, it's basically just running up a slope and doesn't require any special skill. What I am thinking of are things like the weird ledge run in the room with the first boss in Athiss, jumping up that rock in Assault on Tython to avoid a mob spawn on the road to the temple, and the multitude of weird and wacky moves that people like to try in Directive 7.

I hate these with a passion, mainly because it's so easy for them to go wrong in spectacular ways, meaning that instead of shaving a few seconds off your run you actually end up wasting several minutes or even incurring repair bills. Since a successful skip doesn't save you more than a minute of mob-killing time, tops, one guy in the group struggling to make the jump and having to re-do it three times is already enough for you to have effectively "wasted" time instead of saving it - and that's if you're lucky. If you're unlucky, people get stuck in the terrain and die, forcing them to make a long run back from the last spawn point or even the start of the instance, or you eventually just have to give up and kill the mobs anyway after wasting several minutes on trying to bypass them.

It's also the most likely type to create friction in the group as it pits those with jumping skills vs. those without them. Nobody enjoys holding up their party because they fail at jumping, and being the one person who just keeps bouncing off the rock can quickly turn something that was meant to be fun into a stressful experience. Plus I've seen sufficiently blasé players literally run off and abandon people who were struggling with a jump skip... it never leads to anything good.


Stealth-Assist

These are the types of skips that require a stealther in the group, either to crowd control a mob that would usually aggro in order to allow everyone else to walk past unharmed, or to sneak up to a console and click it without engaging any of the enemies around it.

These I don't generally mind too much, as it usually just comes down to walking past things once the CC has been applied, and the risk/reward ratio is similar to that of walking past other pulls, with the added fun of skilled stealthers getting to show off a bit. There are two downsides however.

The first is that if you are the stealther and you're inexperienced with what people "usually" expect a stealther to do in this particular flashpoint, things can get awkward as everyone just stands around staring at you, expecting you to do your thing. Of course nobody is actually going to explain what to do - after all the point is to save time, not to spend it typing out instructions. Instead they might just get annoyed with you for not magically knowing how to do it right from the get-go. Fortunately most groups aren't too fussed about this kind of thing though and will happily default to killing things if the stealther doesn't appear to know what to do.

The other potential problem arises if you bypass a lot of trash via stealth use, and then someone who doesn't have stealth dies and gets sent back to an earlier respawn point, for example by falling down a chasm in Red Reaper. Then everyone needs to backtrack and either re-CC or clear the trash to be able to reunite the group, as the respawned person will otherwise be separated from the rest of the party by a wall of mobs. Again, fortunately this isn't too common an occurrence, but when it does happen it's super annoying.

Timed Run

This is another variation of simply walking past things, but dependent on timing because the mobs move. Examples of this exist in the Foundry, Directive 7 and Depths of Manaan. These trash groups are scripted to enter the scene once a group member passes a certain threshold but don't aggro while moving in, so if everyone rushes past them in sync you can avoid fighting them before they start to take notice of you.

This can be fun to do with a group of friends that all know what to do but can be hard to get right even then, so don't expect a pug to succeed, ever. Again, you'd pretty much have to make sure to type out detailed instructions beforehand, and in that time you could've simply killed the mobs anyway so it's not really worth the bother. I don't really see many pugs care about these, fortunately.

Ultimately it's a simple equation of risk vs. reward. The reward is always to shave a few seconds of time off your run. Admittedly that's not much, but I understand that it adds up over the course of a flashpoint and that's why people consider it worthwhile. However - if your "skip" also runs the risk of actually prolonging the run by several minutes, it's not a good tactic to push on random people whose skill levels you don't know. In fact it's rarely worth it. I just wish I could explain that to more pugs who waste so much time on trying to jump over pipes and tents and other such nonsense, just to have someone fail at it anyway.

05/03/2020

Visiting Kai Zykken

In the most recent episode of OotiniCast, Chill and Dr SWTOR had Charles Boyd and Eric Musco tune in for a chat/interview. One thing they talked about was Spoils of War and I thought it was interesting that Eric made a point of how happy they were with the way it had turned out - of course the system is not perfect, but considering just how many things they changed about gearing with 6.0, he thought it was quite miraculous that it turned out as well as it did. I can't really disagree (though I did find it a little concerning how surprised he seemed to be by this pleasant outcome)!

He also talked about Kai Zykken, whom I haven't really mentioned before. Previously a highly inept (and amusing) smuggler/pirate that you encounter on Rishi during the Shadow of Revan story, he has set up shop on the fleet as a vendor since Onslaught. He only has stock on the weekends and it consists of a random selection that rotates every week, but the items he sells are cheaper than from the regular gear vendors plus he has some exclusives that you can't buy anywhere else.


My interest in gear has slowed down at this point, which is to say that I'm not specifically saving up tech fragments for gear anymore but still earn a few thousand per week more or less incidentally and have plenty of alts that could use an extra set or two. Decision-making is hard though, so Kai is my main destination for spending my tech fragments every week simply because his limited selection makes it easier to pick something to buy before I hit the cap. The exclusives and lower prices are mostly just a bonus as I get even more bang for my buck that way.

It just tickled me that the way Eric described the system matched my own experience so well: that he wouldn't want people to hold off on buying things from the regular vendors in hopes of getting the item cheaper from Kai instead (when I was hitting the cap for tech fragments more frequently I certainly didn't wait for him to show up before spending them), but that his weekly stock rotation should make players go: "Oh yeah, Kai's got fresh stock again, let's see what he's got this week." It certainly works to keep me coming back.

29/02/2020

Building Up My Companion Roster

I have a long history of struggling with companion affection in SWTOR. Back when companion story progression was tied to affection I made a post about how I still hadn't finished a lot of companion quests long after I'd completed all the respective class stories because I just couldn't be bothered to gain certain people's affection. Companion story progression getting tied to class story progress was a godsend for me.

Fast forward a few years to 2017, and I wrote about the tedium of levelling companion influence with nothing but gifts. As it happens, Bioware made crew skill missions also award companion influence only two months later, much to my delight.

For a while after that, I ran crew skill missions constantly, just to raise various companions' influence levels. It was really just another way of burning credits on influence - probably not the most efficient one at that - but I really loved that feeling of killing two birds with one stone, raising my companions' influence levels while also gathering crafting materials.

Unfortunately I soon ran into a significant limitation: bag space. Having my inventory fill up at unexpected times because crafting mats were constantly pouring into it on top of whatever else I was picking up was not fun, causing me to eventually abandon the whole thing again.

Now the introduction of the materials inventory in Onslaught has unexpectedly served to revive my interest in this particular pastime, as the spoils of each mission can go directly in there without clogging up my regular inventory. Even better, because crafting materials are actually needed in great numbers and somewhat hard to come by, running missions 24/7 is also worthwhile!


With that in mind, the most pressing question on my mind has now become which companions to level on each character. Thanks to Knights of the Fallen Empire and what followed, all of my characters who've gone through that content have more companions than you can shake a stick at, but you can't send more than eight of them out at once anyway, meaning that you have to make choices about whose influence to level first.

Back in 2017 I just tended to pick the lowest level ones first since I didn't like having anyone sit at level one, but these days there's actually some benefit to having max-influence companions for crafting, so that's become a goal for me. (Technically it was a benefit back then too, but with the exorbitant costs associated with crafting in Onslaught, you really want as many of those crits as possible now.)

It's actually been an interesting thought exercise to pick each character's "favourite" companions. Former class-specific companions are usually a no-brainer if they are still around and I didn't utterly loathe them. And as tired as I got of KotFE over time, one or two of the companions acquired during the Fallen Empire/Eternal Throne story usually make sense as well, depending on the character's preferences.

Then it's simply a matter of who else seems suitable. On my trooper I added Sergeant Rusk to her favourites for example, since he's a Republic soldier too and they should get along swimmingly. I also added HK-51 and Treek, simply because those are companions I haven't bothered to acquire on my other characters so they feel unique to her.

My Sage is trying to get to know Kira because a liberated former child of the Emperor is interesting from a consular's perspective. My Marauder is investing in Scourge because she's intrigued by the fact that he was once her predecessor. My smuggler is levelling up Gault because how could she not want to keep someone with this many underworld contacts close? And so on and so forth.

It's very slow going compared to gift-giving, but I do like watching my selected companions slowly climb in levels, and it tickles my inner roleplayer to imagine my characters' relationships with various companions that don't feature much in the official story. It's like a mini game of my own making.

26/02/2020

Content Creator Discontent

I'm seeing people talk about SWTOR's Content Creator Program again. People sometimes ask me why I'm not in it... so let me tell you a little story.

First off, I flat out didn't like it much in its original incarnation, back when it was called the "Influencer Program". I'm not a huge fan of the word influencer, and in a gaming context it tends to be associated with streamers and YouTubers. That didn't feel like my kind of jam at all.


Early last year Bioware gave the whole thing a revamp though, changing the name and generally improving it significantly. They actually started giving content creators shout-outs on social media more regularly, and even featured some of them on the game's launcher, which I thought was incredibly cool. The idea of maybe seeing my own character up there one day seemed about equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, and after much umming and ahhing I eventually sent in an application.

I did not get an immediate response, but given the increased exposure of the programme after the big revamp they were a bit swamped with applications, so I patiently bided my time, only sending a reminder email after two weeks, based on some other content creators' advice.

Three weeks after my original application I received confirmation: I was in - on a trial basis, that is. Being a trialist didn't actually give you anything and was clearly just meant to be period for you to prove yourself: showing that you were a good community member (in the sense of not violating the Terms of Service, spreading hate speech online or anything like that) and that you could produce content regularly.

The latter felt a bit silly to me considering that I have a blog right here that shows that I've been writing about the game at a rate of several posts per week for more than eight years, but I get that these rules are likely the same for all types of creators and do make sense for something like a streamer for example. When you're trying to join an exclusive club, you don't start your application by moaning about how they should have different rules for you.

Another thing I was supposed to do was send them a little "report" once a month about things like what I thought about recent happenings in the game and the community. Again, perfectly harmless and sensible... but once I started doing it (I only did it twice), I didn't really like it much either. Again, I think it's because of the format in which I produce my content.

It would be highly unreasonable to expect Bioware to follow every single stream that someone puts out for example, so it makes perfect sense for them to request a simple summary of notable events. But all the content I create is already right here on the blog - if you wanted to know what I thought and did in game last month, all you'd have to do is take a look at the front page at the end of the month and scan the last ten headlines or so. I felt like my reports mostly came down to writing CliffsNotes of my blog posts for them because they couldn't be bothered to actually read the real thing, which felt bad.

As it happens, I also chose the worst possible time to apply to the programme, as all of this happened last summer, shortly before I was hit by a severe funk in regards to my attitude towards the game. My lack of interest at the time caused me to never actually send that final report to finish off my third trial month.

When my excitement for the game returned with Onslaught's release not long afterwards, I thought about whether I should try to pick things up where I had left off. Flunking out of my trial was not a good look, but I wondered whether I could explain it away as having had an awkward month (which was not untrue) and be given some lenience on that front. I suspect that they probably would have been fine with it. But ultimately there was something else that made me hesitate.

You see, I'd also started to experience a certain feeling of discomfort during those two months when I was quietly "on trial". I want to be 100% clear that there had not been the slightest hint of being asked to not be critical of the game or anything like that. Frankly, based on the things I've seen and heard from some official content creatores in the past, I'm pretty sure Bioware doesn't ask people to censor themselves in any way. But I was feeling weird.

Again, it may just be a side effect of the sort of content I create, but when I write a post criticising something about the game for example, I tend to see it as serving three purposes: personal venting, engagement with/entertainment for my readers, and giving feedback to Bioware. In regards to the last one, I don't necessarily expect anyone from Bioware to read my writings as I put them on the page, but I still feel like I'm giving them feedback by putting things "out there" so to speak. If someone at Bioware went "hm, I wonder what people think of the Veteran's Edge removal" for example, they could do a Google search and find my post about it. If being in the Content Creator Program gave me a direct channel for feedback that I could use as an alternative though... was I then doing anything other than moaning and spreading bad vibes by also making public blog posts about the things I didn't like?

In other words, even without any prompting from Bioware's end, the idea of being closer to them and being able to give direct input made me feel like I shouldn't then turn around and say bad things about them on the blog. Even if they were relatively mild "bad things" anyway.

So I decided to not send that third report after all. Because the feeling of being able to use my blog to talk about anything I want and whenever I fancy it is too important to me, and I don't want to feel like I should be altering my writing for Bioware's sake. I'll say it again though: this is in no way Bioware's fault. "It's not you, it's me" really does apply here.

I hope they keep working with other content creators to maintain the programme and keep up with what's happening in the SWTOR community. I just prefer to retain my independence and not be beholden to anyone, which is something I wouldn't have known if I hadn't at least given it a try.

24/02/2020

Battle of Ilum really IS Hammer Station version 2

I am now genuinely convinced that Battle of Ilum is a sort of Hammer Station for more confident players. I haven't timed it, but I'm pretty sure that when everything goes smoothly and you skip as much trash as possible, you can probably finish it even more quickly than Hammer Station. There is a bigger risk of something going wrong though, which I assume is enough to put off a large portion of the audience that isn't interested in anything other than a guaranteed fast and easy run.

Battle of Ilum
I levelled: 66-67

This run was the one that made me reconsider having Battle of Ilum in my rotation as it became clear that it seemed to pop a lot more often than any of the other 50+ flashpoints. It's not quite as bad as Hammer Station, but still...

This run also put me into a philosophical mood after the two Sentinels and the dps Sage who made up the rest of the group hesitantly started trying to drive past the first pull... on the wrong side. It gave me the impression that they'd all been here before, but probably without fully taking in what was happening, just tagging along behind someone else's lead.

So I felt compelled to take over... and guided them through all the stealthy shortcuts I remembered. I'm becoming the very sort of person that always annoys me by skipping everything! To be fair, I wouldn't have minded if anyone had shown any indication or desire to kill more mobs, doing the bonuses or whatever, but finding myself in a leadership position with three innocent pugs looking up at me I took the easy way out. /me hangs head in shame.


When you ding at just the right time... (my health was in trouble before the boss died)

Assault on Tython
I levelled: 67-67

With Ilum removed from my selection, I ended up on Tython once again. By the way, in case you're wondering about my criteria for which boxes to tick now beyond "not Hammer Station", I'm mostly going for ones where I don't have the "run this 25 times on veteran mode" achievement yet and that I rarely get to run on veteran mode since they are fairly high level already and I often find myself going straight for master mode.

Once again I ended up with three level 75s looking for leadership - unfortunately for them, I'm really bad at remembering the skips for Assault on Tython despite of having run it a fair number of times, so we ran around pretty inefficiently, fighting more mobs than required (gasp).

One guy suddenly went AFK without a word, and since he hadn't returned by the time we were getting close to the first boss, someone initiated a vote kick, which seemed fair enough to me at that point - I just wish they hadn't done it just as I initiated a big pull, as this meant that the other two were now busy with vote-kicking over killing mobs (priorities, people) and we almost wiped. One guy (not me) barely survived with a sliver of health.

The replacement we got was a Shadow tank who did know all the skips and quickly took over, though it was kind of funny to me how he immediately ran up to the side where people often climb some boxes to skip a trash pull, while we had already killed said pull and were in fact standing in its usual location, right in front of the boss.

Also, later on there was this bit where we climbed over a rock to skip - I think - a group of mobs that spawns as you run past, but the healer in the group just couldn't get up. Once again I stood there watching him flail helplessly against the rock, thinking about how much quicker it would have been to just deal with the mob spawn. The tank and other dps decided to simply run ahead and abandon the healer. I stayed with him and eventually just directed him back down to the regular path, where no mobs spawned anyway (ahaha). Oh pugs.

Hammer Station
I levelled: 67-68

Starting the new in-game week with another early morning, fully randomised run, I was neither surprised nor unhappy to be given a Hammer Station quickie. I was a little surprised that we couldn't take the elevator shortcut for once, as it seems quite rare not to have a slicer in the group these days.

When we reached the turrets by the bridge, the Scoundrel in our party actually moved us past them and across the bridge using Smuggle, the temporary group stealth ability, which did earn my respect because it's not something I see used well very often.

By the end of the run I realised that Nautalie's scavenging had bumped up against the 600 skill cap and sent her to train Onslaught-level scavenging on the fleet. Fortunately she had earned enough money while levelling to be able to afford it without having to draw from the legacy bank.

Legacy of the Rakata
I levelled: 68-69

Limiting myself to nine flashpoints once again, I nevertheless got an instant pop once more and ended up in Legacy of the Rakata, one Nautalie hadn't done yet. Nice!

During the intro cut scene, someone hit escape and then started running off. I said that you couldn't skip a cut scene by aborting it and he said people should be hitting space bar then. Another person said that their UI had been bugging out and that was why they hadn't been able to skip. The second time around everyone dutifully space-barred through the whole thing.


"Dude, why did you hit escape? That's not helping us go any faster."

Legacy of the Rakata is one of those flashpoints that I've done comparatively rarely in pugs, so observing our self-appointed leader guide us along various trash-skipping lines was educational. I can never remember the tricks for this flashpoint though, because my brain just files them under "climb up this rock by that one group of Rakata" and the pulls in the first half of the instance all look the same to me.

During several of the boss fights I found myself thinking that all the bosses in this flashpoint have way too much health on veteran mode. The mechanics aren't hard; it just takes half an eternity to kill them - or maybe our dps was just low, though we had two level 75 damage dealers in full 306 gear.

We also had someone who was nominally a healer but didn't seem to do much healing, so that we ultimately always relied on the kolto stations on the boss fights.

At one point I noticed that two people in the group had the same legacy name (Stormrider or something like that), so I asked whether they were related. They didn't humour me with an answer.

Battle of Ilum
I levelled: 69-69

Well, in this one there was no doubt that someone wanted to skip as much as possible, as the dps Vanguard set off like a bat out of hell to lead the way past as many things as possible, including the first boss. As we once again also had a second Shadow in the group, we were able to do the extra skips as well.

I do wonder if the second Shadow, who was a tank, didn't like skipping the bosses though, because on the next optional boss he ran right in and pulled before anyone had a chance to try and run past it. It's like the question whether to pull something or not is decided in a weird kind of race to be the first one to either pull or run past certain mobs and then the rest of the group is compelled to follow along with that decision.

Unsurprisingly, XP was once again thin on the ground, and I only gained three bars or so.


I'm getting a lot of variations of this shot.

Battle of Ilum
I levelled: 69-70

Another quick run with a second Shadow in the group. I noticed that this one, being level 75, also had the Tactical that allows you to Mind Maze two targets at the same time, which I think is pretty neat for runs like these.

When it looked like people were going to skip Pork Pie Gark the Indomitable yet again I got a bit too close and pulled him. I swear, it really was an accident; I think I was just too keen. Seriously though, my achievement counter for that one is so behind all the other bosses.

We actually had a wipe on Krel Thak - I'm still not entirely sure what happened, one moment everything seemed fine and the next everyone but me just exploded. Proximity probe or something? I vanished out and ran back to re-unite with the group as they were coming back in. They also pulled the two droid mini-bosses which we had initially walked past, presumably also by accident.

With his two cronies dead, it now would have been possible to simply walk past Krel Thak if we had wanted to and I did find myself wondering, but we did actually go ahead and kill him after all.

In the end our lone dark sider once again won the roll and executed Talsa-ko - this time it was a Jedi doing it no less!

Having hit level 70, Nautalie has now unlocked the remaining four veteran flashpoints and only has five more levels to go. I'll try to use those to actually target the flashpoints I haven't done yet or ones I still need for a story quest. Then it'll be time for a reckoning!