25/05/2017

Saving The Grophets

What started as an innocent observation about how I didn't like to disintegrate mini-pets took a turn for the strange when Rav felt the need to write a response to express her own hatred of grophets, while simultaneously encouraging people to humanely donate their own grophets to my care. Since then she's sent me a steady stream of them in the post, sometimes even joined by Conrad (meaning he sent some too, not that she put him in the post), and of course my own Command crates have also continued to provide.


I haven't yet run out of alts to press-gang into grophet-keeping, but I worry that the day must be imminent. What then? I don't want to waver in my commitment, but it's uncertain where I can go once I run out of potential grophet-keepers. Open a home for them inside one of my cargo bays? Seems a bit dour. Load up an alt's inventory with grophets and then have them emigrate to another server to found the Grophetkeeper Legacy? I feel like I'm definitely approaching crazy cat grophet lady territory here.

At least tweets like this one reassure me that I'm not alone in my struggle:

22/05/2017

The Curse of Queues

The other day I was playing my Cathar agent on the Progenitor - yes, the one I created two years ago and who still hasn't finished her class story... but I will get there eventually. While doing the rounds on Belsavis, I decided to queue for a midbie PvP match. As time continued to pass without a pop, I started to get restless. I'm spoiled by how quickly everything pops on the Red Eclipse and I'd heard the rumours about other servers supposedly being quite dead, but had it really come to this already? I double-checked my achievement panel: Yes, I had done PvP on the Progenitor before, but quite some time ago. Had the server really lost so much of its population since then?


A warzone did eventually pop, though only after what felt like a pretty long time to me... it must have been between half an hour and an hour. And it really got me thinking about how strongly that queue time had affected me, even though I hadn't even wanted to PvP that badly. The whole point of a queueing system is to make finding groups super accessible so that it happens fast and frequently. If there aren't enough people around who can be bothered to do as much as press a button, surely that's a sign of "dead game"? Or at least of a dead server?

But then I also asked myself: Is that really fair? Or have automatic queueing systems for group content made us expect too much? The first time that thought occurred to me was actually after reading a blog post about Wildstar (not sure where anymore), though my train of thought didn't so much focus on the players at the time as on the devs. The game was supposed to launch with 40v40-sized "warplots", alongside a plethora of other queueable PvE and PvP content. I remember wondering just how big of a playerbase the devs were expecting, to think that at any time there would be enough people online for each type of content to keep all those queues popping, if warplots alone already required 80 players per match.

It seems to me that a game with automatic queueing systems requires a considerably larger player base to be perceived as healthy than a game where such systems don't exist. When I played on the private WoW server Kronos, which rarely had more than a couple of hundred players online at any given time, I was kind of surprised by how little it took to make the game feel alive. There were always people around me, and I got into groups by simply talking to those same people I met out in the world. In comparison, fully automated queueing systems are largely detached from the rest of the virtual world and give little feedback. SWTOR's in particular provides you with no information about how long you've been in the queue, how long the average queue time for that content is, or how close you are to having assembled a full group. There are just two modes: Either you press the button and stuff happens... or it doesn't. if it doesn't... dead game!

Eventually I decided to do some simple maths to find out just how many players are required to keep all the different queues rolling at a healthy pace. Obviously this requires me to make a lot of assumptions and guesses, but I think the logic behind them is mostly sound. Here's how it goes:

In total, there are 11 different queues for group content in SWTOR, and each requires a certain amount of people per match/run:

- Galactic Starfighter (16)
- Lowbie PvP (16)
- Midbie PvP (16)
- Max-level unranked PvP (16)
- Ranked solo PvP (8)
- Ranked group PvP (8)
- Veteran flashpoints (4)
- Master mode flashpoints (4)
- Story mode uprisings (4)
- Veteran uprisings (4)
- Story mode operations (8)

For simplicity's sake, we'll be ignoring the fact that those people need to be balanced across certain levels, roles and factions for the content to function and are just assuming that the player base is perfectly spread out. So we need a minimum of 104 players to make all this stuff happen... at some point.

But we don't just want the queue to pop once a day. We want it to pop, say, every fifteen minutes. Sooner would obviously be better, but I think most players would consider fifteen minutes a reasonable wait, and it's easy to work with since most of the content can be split into fifteen-minute chunks.

GSF and PvP matches do take a little less than fifteen minutes on average, so even if we only have the minimum amount of people queueing, as long as they keep queueing, a match will indeed pop every fifteen minutes. So far, so good. Same for uprisings.

Flashpoints take a little longer, about half an hour if it's a smooth run going at an average pace. So if you only have one group running, the queue would only pop every thirty minutes. To achieve the desired fifteen-minute pop, we need to have eight people interested in running each type of flashpoint at any given time.

For story mode operations, this is magnified even more, as they take about an hour each, so you would need four groups running at the same time, resulting in a total of 32 players doing this content at the same time.

That brings us up to 136 players required - they can probably keep things running for an hour, but they can't be online 24/7. To keep those queues popping around the clock, we'd probably need something closer to 3,264 players (136x24).

However, no MMO has a player base that hardcore, where everyone does group content all the time. Devs have gone on record not long ago to say that almost every activity in an MMO is only interesting to a minority, and when Syp from Bio Break ran a poll on the subject to see what his readers were interested in (you could tick as many as you wanted), even the most popular option barely got more than 10% of votes. So again, let's be generous and assume that about 10% of players are actually interested in running this stuff at any given time. Suddenly you need more than 32,000 players per server, and that's with all those generous assumptions like people being spread perfectly across the levels, never having a shortage of tanks etc. In practice the required numbers to keep things running smoothly are probably a lot higher still - for example if only 5% of players are actually interested in group content, the server would need more than 64,000 players on it for those queues to keep popping, and if you want them to go faster than every fifteen minutes, you'd need to add yet another multiplier.

What is my point here? Probably that while automated queues are in high demand from players these days, they are also dangerous in terms of PR because they require a pretty big population to run smoothly, with the requirements only becoming larger and larger the more different types of content you add. In an environment where people are actually willing to go out and build groups themselves, you don't have the same kind of pressure because it is accepted that other people won't be available to group with instantly and at all times of day. You'll still get people complaining about that of course, but at least they can't claim that your game is dead just because they couldn't get a group. (Didn't try hard enough, I guess!)

I don't expect automated queues to go anywhere, but maybe it's time to reconsider our expectations of what kind of experience they are supposed to deliver. WoW's dungeon finder was introduced at a time when that game could draw from a pool of about three million players per region to fill groups, and that has clearly set expectations. But we can't expect smaller MMOs to always deliver the same kinds of features and experiences when their smaller populations can't necessarily support them.

19/05/2017

Would You Want To Go Back?

When I stopped playing World of Warcraft after more than five years of being a loyal subscriber, it wasn't because I had got tired of MMOs, raiding or living in a fantasy world. I was simply very unhappy with the overall direction in which Blizzard was taking the game. But I still felt fondly about what had been, and would have been quite happy to go back to the game it once was.

I was therefore quite pleased when I learned that there were private servers out there that emulated older versions of the game, and I had fun playing on a couple of them on and off over the course of the last two of years. While you can't literally turn back time and recreate everything about your first MMO experience, playing on those private servers certainly proved to me that I hadn't been blinded by rose-tinted glasses: I genuinely found WoW's old ways of levelling, doing dungeons and professions a lot more fun and wholesome than the newer iterations.

What does all of this have to do with SWTOR? The other day, I found myself reminded of a reddit thread from a couple of months ago that asked: "If you could roll back SWTOR to a previous version, which would you want?" I was actually really surprised to see that subject even come up, which is telling by itself - I've never actually had the urge to go backwards in SWTOR. No, I haven't been a fan of every single change ever made, but the package as a whole has remained enjoyable to me. Nonetheless, it's still an interesting thought experiment. If you could go back to a previous version, even just temporarily, which one would you choose?


I think going back to pre-4.0 would pretty much be a no-brainer because that was the patch that changed the game the most and reverting it would simply yield the biggest differences. While I like level sync, I do miss everyday combat being more challenging, hard heroics and people actually running Colicoid War Game (at level). I'd also like to see those NPCs and quests again that were removed in 4.0 - there weren't many of these, but there were some.

I think I would take it even further and go back to pre-3.0 though. Again, there were things about 3.0 that I liked, such as the new planets and the "epilogue" to each class story... but I could do without those forced personal phases separating me from my pet tank every step of the way while levelling, and there was something to be said for the old talent trees too. I could play a hybrid Scoundrel again!

Even as I'm saying that though, I'm sure there would be quality-of-life features that I'm not thinking of right now which were implemented in the more recent patches and which I would miss. And it would certainly suck to be nothing but a glorified punching bag in warzones again. There's never been a better time to PvP as a Commando than since 5.0.

What about you? Would you want to go back? And if so, to what time/expansion?

16/05/2017

Iokath Daily Tips

I haven't really spent a huge amount of time in game lately, but when I have been playing, a good chunk of that time has been spent on Iokath. For all its flaws, I've been enjoying just having a new zone to run around and hang out in, and for me, trying to overcome some of the issues with the dailies and finding the fun in them has been part of the challenge. For those of you who are less interested in that kind of thing and have maybe been holding off on doing Iokath for fear of getting frustrated with it - whether based on early experiences or on other people's reports - let me share some tips.

General

First off, as I mentioned in my original post about the Iokath dailies, the weekly requires you to do ten of them, but the terminal only hands out five a day from a larger, rotating set. So my first advice is to make some room in your mission log, visit the terminal every day, but don't bother with actually doing the dailies every day - let them build up in your log until you have ten or more so you can get the weekly done in one go. Several of the quests also overlap in their objectives, making it that much more satisfying to be able to get several things done at once.

Fortifying the Defenses

This is the best daily ever. Don't leave that one in your log if you happen to pick it up on any given day, but go and do it right away so you can pick it up again as soon as it comes back up. It's the "turret daily" that takes place in the same phase as several of the story conversations, so it's just around the corner from the mission terminal and only takes about two minutes. Basically, you enter the turret, and then just press one until everything is dead. (If you like, you can also press two every now and then, but it's not strictly necessary.) So relaxing. As a bonus, this daily was included when Bioware buffed the rewards for all the "vehicle dailies", even though this one doesn't require you to buy anything, so it offers a pretty large reward for very little effort.


The Docking Ring

The docking ring is the area where you originally landed during the storyline, just an elevator ride away from where you spawn on Iokath after having completed the story. There are a total of four different missions to be completed in here: Defending the Docking Ring, Disarm, Disrupting the Network and Subverting the Tower Droids, though I haven't seen the first one of these actually come up as part of the rotation yet. Obviously collecting all of these and then being able to do them all at once would be great, but I haven't had much luck with getting more than one or two of them at a time. I don't know if there's some sort of limit on how many quests of a certain "category" you can hold at once or if I've just had bad luck. Either way, doing any of the missions in here isn't too bad even if one of them is all you've got. It's worth noting though that "Disarm" can also be done outside the docking ring, in the "main part" of Iokath, as there are several of those laser emitters near the weapons factory, which are clickable and count towards mission completion as well.

The Weapons Factory

The weapons factory is at the very southern end of the Iokath map and thereby the objective that's the furthest away from where you spawn, but once you get inside, the objectives there are fairly painless to take care of as well (Monitoring the Situation and Powering Up the Weapons Factory). In fact, I find the latter (where you "steal balls" from the little remotes) quite cute and fun.


Kill Quests

Kill quests sound super boring on paper, but I actually don't mind them on Iokath because they are the easiest missions to combine with something else. There are three different ones, one to kill 50 droids of any kind, one to kill 25 scour swarm droids and one to kill 25 caretaker droids. The first one will pretty much take care of itself if you're doing the rounds pursuing other mission objectives. The same is more or less true for the last one since caretaker droids are everywhere, and there are a lot of them in the docking ring in particular. The scour swarm droids are the only slightly annoying ones, as they are heavily concentrated in and around bodies of water (the dark blue splotches on the map), where you don't necessarily need to go for anything, so it can require going out of your way to achieve the required kill count. However, I still recommend leaving that until the very end of your daily round, just to see how many kills you can rack up on the way anyway. Then you just have to mop up the last couple to complete the quest.

Scouting Iokath

Personally I find this mission very annoying because it forces you to drive all around the houses to scan the five different landmarks, and mobs will slow you down everywhere. Maybe it's not as bad if you play a stealth class. That said, it gets a bit easier once you're comfortable with where to find all the objectives, and you can use this mission as a sort of path to follow while working on the different kill quests.

Systems Go / Systems Offline 

I haven't actually seen Systems Offline in game yet, but as far as I gather it's simply a reversal of Systems Go. The latter has you turning on plasma emitters near your faction's base, so I guess the former should have you turning them off near the enemy base.

This mission is very annoying simply due to its lack of available objectives. You're supposed to activate four of the emitters, but there's only a total of four or five around, and they are slow to reset. For extra confusion, they are surrounded by identical-looking emitters that never turn themselves off, so you kind of need to learn which ones might even turn out to be clickable at some point. I always get a lot of mob killing done while doing the rounds around the area with the emitters, but if it's too badly camped I usually just move on to something else for a while.

Vehicle Dailies

The vehicle dailies are a mixed bag. Even after Bioware buffed their rewards, my criticism of them costing more than they reward still stands. The walker one is probably my least favourite because it's the most expensive and I don't find the walker particularly fun to use. Several of its abilities are actually extremely weak, so that stomping on everything still seems to be the most efficient strategy. The forty kills as a walker can nicely be combined with some of the other kill quests, however what annoys me is that apparently you can't loot while in a vehicle (anymore - you used to initially but this past week it would not let me do so anymore). Having to stomp around Iokath to kill forty droids, leaving a trail of shiny beams behind which I'm unable to loot, would personally drive me nuts, so I probably won't do that one again unless they re-enable the ability to loot while piloting a vehicle.


The daily to kill ten mobs as a monitor initially earned my wrath when my first one died after two kills, making me feel like I'd wasted my shards. Once you get to hang of how it works though, it's actually pretty quick and kind of relaxing. (A mission where you get stunned for six seconds after every attack doesn't exactly make for fast-paced gameplay.) Personally, I found that the best place to do this daily was right outside your faction's base, on the upper level where most of the plasma emitters are. There's a bunch of sluggish drones there that only come in ones or twos, so you can kill them off without immediately dying yourself when the stun kicks in. Just remember to heal back up after every fight.

The mouse droid mission is a bit unintuitive at first, because your droid only has one ability - a self-destruct - and it doesn't do enough damage to one-shot a walker. So... what exactly are you supposed to do? One easy solution is to group up with friends, so they can bring the walker low for you and you only have to finish it off. However, I soon learned that there is a way to solo the walker, which involves aggroing it and letting the various Iokath droids in the area slowly whittle it down. I recorded a video of how to do it and I can already tell that this was a niche just waiting to be filled, as the video organically achieved over a hundred views in only four days. Anyway, the point is, now that I know how to do it, I don't mind this daily either, especially as it's the cheapest of the three vehicles to purchase.

Colossal Threat

I think this mission doesn't fit in with the rest simply because it's meant to be done in a raid, which is not exactly ideal daily material, but more importantly it doesn't even tell you that you need a group. If you were scratching your head about how you were supposed to solo a mob with world boss levels of health, the answer is: you aren't. Unfortunately the quest is also currently bugged (even though the last patch was supposed to fix this), so that only one group in the raid gets credit for quest completion (usually the group of the person that initiated combat, from what I've seen).

For what it's worth, the boss isn't hard... it only requires one tank, one healer and some dps, with a larger group making the kill faster obviously. But what with the bugginess and the lack of rewards, it's currently simply not a worthwhile endeavour beyond doing it once to say that you got the achievement.

The achievements panel and Dulfy's guide to Iokath list another couple of dailies that I still haven't seen after nearly four weeks of running the missions - one has to wonder if Bioware intentionally took them out or accidentally disabled them.

12/05/2017

A Change in the Wind

I've never paid much attention to the names behind my MMOs, which is actually a little embarrassing now that I think about it. How can I be a fan of something and yet know so little about the people who created it and who continue to pour their hearts and souls into continuing to update it? If I think back to SWTOR's early days, the only two names that come to mind for me from that period are James Ohlen and Damien Schubert, but even now I couldn't tell you what exactly it was that they did for SWTOR. Awkward, but that's how it is.

I say this to give context to how strange it's been for me to see the recent changing of the guard (or game producer, to be more precise) receive as much attention as it has. Ben Irving had inadvertently gained infamy among the playerbase for describing the process of opening random loot boxes attained through Galactic Command with the words "thrill of the hunt" during a livestream - which was understandably and rightly mocked by many players and quickly turned into a meme. (Fun fact though: I have a guildie who genuinely loves Galactic Command and who sometimes talks about the "thrill of the hunt" with only a small amount of irony.) I don't know how much blame for Galactic Command can realistically be placed at Ben's feet, but he certainly managed to create some bad PR for himself with the aforementioned quote, casting himself as someone who doesn't really understand the game and what its players enjoy about it.

From that point of view it's understandable that his move to a different position at Bioware got people interested, but it's not just that - it's that his successor Keith Kanneg immediately stepped into the breach with an attitude to show that he was exact opposite of what had come before, actually going so far as to post a producer's letter on the official website in which he talked about how many hours he's spent playing, how many characters he's levelled and how many achievements he's got. Since then, he's also been giving community manager Eric Musco a run for his money when it comes to making posts on the official forums, to the point where fellow blogger XamXam started a weekly column called "Keith Watch" to keep track of what he's been saying.

It's hard not to feel excited by this. Even if one doesn't hold a grudge against Ben, all this direct communication is a pleasant change of pace. We've already been promised a road map for the upcoming year, something that we haven't had since 2014 I think? (From 2015 I only recall mention of a producer's letter being read out at a cantina event.) Keith also immediately took to the forums to apologise for not being done with the road map yet, while feeding us tantalising glimpses of small quality of life changes scheduled for the next patch - changes of the kind that mean little to MMO news sites but that get dedicated players excited. An extra way of gaining companion influence? Didn't I just write about that? Gunships and bombers for everyone, in an actual update for GSF? I had a post about that too! Is Keith reading my blog or something? Hype!

I'm a trained sceptic when it comes to excitement of this kind though. There's got to be a catch, right? I suppose wanting to talk about what's coming up is no guarantee of those same features actually making it into the game in a timely manner. In fact, doesn't a lot of past bitterness among the playerbase stem from features being promised (or at least talked about) and then not delivered? Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Also, enthusiasm for playing and an appreciation for the players' everyday problems doesn't guarantee that Keith will be good at keeping an eye on the big picture. Isn't posting on the forums all the time more distracting than anything?

... that's about all the negatives that I can come up with right now though. And that's pretty good, isn't it? At the end of the day, I can't really see anything bad coming from having someone at the helm who is truly passionate about the game in all its weird MMO-SPRPG hybrid glory instead of wanting to mould it into something else. We'll see where this new direction will take us in the upcoming year.

09/05/2017

Pugging with Shintar, Episode 1

During the past few months, I've frequently found myself thinking back to my flashpoint levelling series. It was just such a fun thing to work on, and I've really been longing to return to the subject somehow; I just didn't want to simply do the whole thing again in exactly the same way. How could I change things up though?

One of my pug runs from back then that has stuck with me to this day was the manic Mandalorian Raiders run where I found myself wishing that I had recorded the first boss fight on video. Just describing it in writing didn't quite seem to do it justice. But hm, recording my pug runs...

There would have to be some commentary to make it entertaining, but I never really got into the whole "let's play" thing. Then again, I have made great strides in the past couple of months in terms of being more comfortable with speaking in front of an audience and not hating listening to the sound of my own voice too much, thanks to things like my invitation to Corellian Run Radio and recording that Dread Master story video.

So after a bit of umming and ahhing I finally decided to go ahead with it: level another character purely through flashpoints, but this time record every run and add commentary to the video. After last weekend, I'm happy to present "Pugging with Shintar, Episode 1":



As I also explain at the start of the video, the aim of the series is both to entertain but also to maybe inform players who are curious yet anxious about making the jump into random groups of what they can reasonably expect. I think there is something to be said for seeing that in detail, and I couldn't find much material about pugging in SWTOR when I did a cursory search for it.

Some things I already learned:

- While it's sensible to record gameplay and commentary separately, one must not forget to then also hit the "start recording" button in two different applications! (I did at first.)

- At the same time, syncing up the video and the separately recorded audio commentary is trickier than I thought. I originally thought that I'd done a pretty good job at it, but at the very end there is this bit where I rapidly train some new skills while calling them out and that shows that I was ever so slightly off.

- While I made an effort to enunciate things clearly at the start, there were later parts where I slipped into "quietly mumbling to myself" mode, making some parts a bit hard to understand.

- Cut scenes are tricky. I fully expected to skip them all, but then of course my pug had to throw me for a loop by being happy to watch them, which made the video quite a bit longer than I had planned. I considered cutting part of them out, but then felt that this would leave the experience feeling a bit disjointed, more so than chopping a couple of trash fights where nothing interesting was said or done. At least it shouldn't be an issue in upcoming runs as none of the later flashpoints have as much as dialogue as the Esseles.

If videos are not your thing, don't worry, this project shouldn't affect my writing. Since I'm also somewhat reliant on both having free time as well as some peace and quiet in the living room, I don't expect to get more than one episode out every two weeks or so. But if you do have any feedback, I'd be happy to hear it!

06/05/2017

Back In My Day: Companions

Since I seem to be on a roll when it comes to writing about companions, I might as well go ahead and finally publish this post, which I've been mulling over in my head for several weeks at least.

"Back in my day" is an irregular series in which I look at a particular aspect of the game and how it has changed over the game's lifespan of currently more than five years. Companions are an interesting case in so far as very little about them changed for the first four years or so, and then Knights of the Fallen Empire changed everything. But let's talk about one thing at a time.

Acquisition

Every class in the game gets to recruit five unique companions over the course of its class story, plus the ship droid, which is identical for all classes within one faction.

The first additional companion to be added to the game was HK-51 with patch 1.5 in November 2012. While his release coincided with the game's free-to-play transition, I thought it was quite obvious that he was still a product of the original exuberance with which the game had launched, when people were still having delusions about SWTOR getting twenty million subscribers and releasing massive patches every month. He had a fully fleshed-out companion story that you had to unlock by maxing out his affection, with slightly different dialogue for Republic and Imperial characters, and acquiring him in the first place required the completion of a lengthy and demanding quest chain. I wonder how many people even bother with it these days... I still think it's a great piece of content and I suspect that it's fully soloable now even where in the past certain stages used to require a group, but it's kind of hidden away, requiring you to go to Section X and talk to that random astromech droid in the base to start the quest chain.

In August 2013, HK-51 was followed up by Treek the ewok as part of patch 2.3. The effort put into adding her was already somewhat scaled back, with no great quest chain required to acquire her; you just had to buy her "contract", either with credits or Cartel Coins, and that was it. And while she also had a full repertoire of conversations she would have with you on your ship, some money was saved by having all her dialogue be alien gibberish. She must have worked out pretty well for Bioware though, as Damien Schubert cited "some months we sell ewoks" as an example of things going well for SWTOR that year.


After that, it was quiet on the companion front for more than two years - while the Forged Alliances story arc and Shadow of Revan introduced Lana and Theron as "quasi companions" during the storyline, they refused to actually join us in combat for the time being.

Until 4.0 that is, when everything was shaken up big time and all of our previous companions were taken away. They were replaced by a bunch of new story characters which were the same for everyone, and a promise that eventually we'd see our old friends again as well. This has been realised in part since then, though many companions remain missing. For those who remain somewhat bitter about this, it might be worth pointing out that before Knights of the Fallen Empire, it looked like our companions' stories might never be advanced again, as it simply wasn't feasible to focus on producing content that only a fraction of the player base would even see. For example continuing the story of Elara Dorne would only have been relevant to about 12% of players (those who play a trooper), and not all of those might even care about that particular companion. By cracking things open and slowly bringing those old companions back in a manner that makes their stories accessible to everyone, we do at least get to see them continue to participate in the ongoing story.

Of course we mustn't forget that Knights of the Fallen Empire also brought with it creature and droid companions as additions to the infamous Cartel Packs. There is something cynical about companions without any kind of personality or story being sold for money, especially when looking back at the rich backgrounds for companions that the game started with, but I can't deny that there's a certain appeal to these guys too. I, too, own an Akk Dog after all.

Roles

One argument in favour of having more companion variety used to be wanting to have different companions available to play different roles. It's easy to forget this now that any companion can play any role on the fly, but at launch companions were effectively limited to a single role. They had "stances" which could be used narrow down their behaviour a bit, for example by having a healer not worry about healing so much and just make them use their damage abilities, but this didn't really make a massive difference. A healer trying to do a bit of dps was still just a healer trying to do a bit of dps, as in: not very good at it.

In case anyone needs a reminder (or wasn't around back then), these were the original companions' trinity roles:

Tanks: Blizz, Bowdaar, Broonmark, Corso, Iresso, Kaliyo, Khem Val, M1-4X, Pierce, Qyzen, Scorpio, Scourge, Skadge, T7-O1, Vik, Xalek

Damage dealers: Akaavi, Andronikos, Ashara, Gault, Jaesa, Jorgan, Kira, Nadia, Risha, Rusk, Temple, Torian, Vector, Vette, Yuun, Zenith

Healers: Doc, Dr. Lokin, Elara, Guss, Mako, Talos, Tharan, Quinn


You immediately notice that there are a lot fewer healers than anything else: This is because every class was given one ranged tank, one melee tank, one ranged dps, one melee dps, and just that one healer. That seems like a sensible distribution on paper, giving everyone a little bit of everything, but in practice the vast majority of players just wanted to do damage while a healer kept them alive, which made for very disparate levelling experiences for different classes in terms of gameplay, depending on when they unlocked said healer. Levelling a bounty hunter for example was easy mode from the start, since your healer (Mako) was your first companion and even joined you on the starting planet, allowing you to go and solo heroic missions right from the beginning - back when this was far from trivial. The biggest contrast was probably the Jedi knight, who didn't get their healer until early chapter two, making the first forty levels with no heals and no crowd control a bit of a slog at times. Smugglers got their healer, Guss, even later, near the end of chapter two, but never felt quite as hindered by this due to having at least a bigger toolbox to work with while getting there.

HK-51 was just another dps companion in terms of his role, but Treek shook up the paradigm by combining both a tank and a healing role in her stances. To me, as someone who likes to tank and heal, that made her pretty useless as I usually wanted a dps companion most of the time, and that was the one thing she couldn't do. For most players however, that tank/healer combo was everything they had ever dreamed of, and Treek was quickly declared overpowered and superior to all other companions.

The ship droids, by the way, were also healers, and you might wonder why more people didn't use them while levelling up if they wanted a healer so badly and their class didn't actually get one until later in the game. The reason for this was two-fold: The first was that the ship droids had no personality or opinions outside the ship, making them boring to have around during mission conversations, but the second was...

Gear

At launch and up until 4.0, companions needed to wear full sets of gear just like player characters, unlike now, where they only really need to wield a weapon to be effective in combat and any dressing up, where available, is purely decorative.

For droids, this meant that they had to be equipped with a full set of "droid parts", which were hard to come by unless you had Cybertech as a crew skill and could craft them. While levelling, you would only very rarely encounter them as drops or quest rewards, and at endgame, you were stuck with the annoyance of the armorings in moddable gear pieces being bound to their slot, so that none of them could ever go into droid parts because no droid part was flagged as being the equivalent of a chest piece for example and therefore ineligible to receive gear pulled out of one. Every now and then Bioware would remember that hey, people wanted to gear their droid companions too, and added some new parts, but as a general rule of thumb their gearing was perpetually neglected until droid parts were finally removed from the game in 4.0.


For non-droids, gearing was a bit easier, but it still took work to not just keep your character geared, but five class companions on top of it. Most people just picked a favourite and focused on gearing that one. In pugs, this could sometimes lead to conflict when people used the requirement to gear their companions as an excuse to roll need on absolutely everything.

It was also a bit confusing though, because like players, companions effectively had classes, and back then, pre-Mastery, different classes needed different main stats (also see my "Back In My Day: Gear" post for this). It wasn't always totally obvious what a companion's class was though: For example Elara Dorne is a soldier in the story, but she wields a blaster pistol, something that neither of the trooper's advanced classes can do, and used to use small, trickly heals like a smuggler. The correct answer was to give her trooper gear, but was that truly obvious? Several other companions wielded weapons like vibroblades and electrostaves, which aren't commonly used by player characters, which could again leave you guessing.

Power

If you didn't keep your companion's gear up-to-date, their decreased power would become quite obvious quite quickly, but even a companion decked out in full tier gear was noticeably weaker than a similarly geared player. Basically, having four real people in your group was pretty much always an advantage unless you had a really bad balance of classes and roles.

To me, this was most noticeable with healing companions, which were strictly limited in terms of how much burst healing they could do in particular, because using their biggest heal on you would place a relatively long debuff on you that would prevent you from being on the receiving end of said heal again. As a result of this, healing companions were at their best if they could spread lots of small heals around in a group - in fact, at this they were better than player characters even then, simply because their AI would allow them to react to even the smallest drop in anyone's health pretty much instantly. If you needed someone to keep you alive against a serious onslaught of damage however, nothing could replace a real healer.


The removal of those restrictions and the general buffs to companion power turned a lot of the game on its head in 4.0. There was a lot of debate leading to companions getting nerfed, then buffed again, then nerfed again (I think) - I honestly lost track. I don't have the exact numbers, but my impression is that they are slightly less powerful now than they were at the start of 4.0, but not by much. They are still powerhouses that make you cross your fingers that a member of your veteran flashpoint group with no healer will drop group so you can whip out a companion instead to make everything easier.

Interestingly, companion affection had no influence on a companion's combat performance originally, just on their crafting efficiency. Different companions also had bonuses when performing certain crew skills. This was also changed in 4.0, when companion "influence", which replaced affection, suddenly made a big difference to a companion's strength (and character-specific crafting bonuses were removed).

Another thing that's worth mentioning is that companion abilities were greatly homogenised with 4.0. I don't think Bioware ever intended there to be massive differences between different companions, but some of them had unique little abilities that gave them additional character and made them more fun to have around, such as Blizz's rocket launcher attack or HK-51's snipe ability. These were all taken out during the great revamp, much to the chagrin of many players... though I'll confess that I didn't pay enough attention to these to really care very much.

The Future?

Companions have always suffered from having to straddle awkward lines. They were supposed to be colourful characters of the kind that made Bioware's single player RPGs so popular, but gameplay limitations prevented you from really having much of an effect on them story-wise - Bioware infamously allowed players to kill certain companions in the beta, but because people regretted it afterwards, players had to be saved from themselves by having that option permanently disabled.

The big 4.0 revamp was supposed to do away with some of these issues, but in my opinion mostly just traded them for others. True, being able to change companion roles on the fly meant that you weren't stuck with the default healer anymore, but with how much of a difference companion influence makes to their power levels and how much of it there is to grind, do you actually want to switch from the one guy you got to 50 to another one that may only hit half as hard? Also, while in the past you had a limited selection for different situations, we now have a plethora of companions... just to not really need them because whichever one we picked as our favourite can play any role anyway. I don't really miss companion gearing though, just staying on top of all of my alts is enough work as it is.

There is also a general tug-o-war on Bioware's end in terms of what kinds of companions to invest in. Add new ones as part of the story when creating new content? Bring back old favourites that people have been clamouring for? Add more funny-looking animals and droids to the Cartel Market? Players probably want all of the above, but with what resources?

My suspicion is that now that leadership seems to be doing a turnabout after KotFE / KotET, we'll see more of a return to old favourites in the near future. But where we go once we got all of them back (whenever that may be), will be anyone's guess.

03/05/2017

My Top 5 Companions We Should Have Been Able To Kill in the Original Class Stories

This is probably my longest post title ever.

The return of Malavai Quinn in patch 5.2 has once again reinvigorated the discussion about what companions we'd like to get rid of or even kill. I think Bioware has handled this well enough in the content they've added since 4.0, but the original class stories still feature many moments where it feels outright wrong that you're not able to do anything but smile and nod in the face of your companions' actions. I understand that it's not feasible to go back and change that at this point, but it is nonetheless somewhat galling when you consider that the original reason for making companions unkillable (people killed their only healer and later regretted it) has completely gone out of the window thanks to the ability to switch their role on the fly.

In the spirit of angrily shaking your fist at the screen to no avail, I shall therefore present you... with what it says in the post title. This post contains spoilers for the class stories of all the Imperial classes. Somehow it's only Imperial companions that inspire this kind of rage in me... probably because the worst any Republic companions can do is be boring or mildly annoying. You might wish for an option to reject some of them, but it's generally not in character to want to outright murder them. Not so for the Imps though.


#5: Ashara Zavros

Ashara is only fifth on this list because she's a comparatively inoffensive companion. However, she is a Jedi padawan, and for some reason the Sith inquisitor decides to adopt her as his or her apprentice. Why? Who knows!

The warrior has a similar thing going on with Jaesa Willsaam, but at least she has a unique talent that makes her desirable to have around, and the Sith warrior in turn gets an opportunity to impress her big time and give her a reason to want to stick around. It's still a flawed scenario, but at least it's got something going for it.

The only thing that makes Ashara relevant to the Sith inquisitor is that she's related to a certain Force ghost, and once that's dealt with there isn't really any reason to keep her around. In fact, she comes across as incredibly naive and gullible, which are hardly good qualities in the eyes of a Sith. From her point of view it's not clear why she wants to stick with the inquisitor either; more than anything she just seems confused and embarrassed by what she's done, probably thinking that she has nowhere else to go.

If you're dark side, the logical thing really would have been to simply off her once you were done with your business on Taris. Light siders maybe could have been given the option to simply let her go and tell her to go back to the Jedi. Suddenly being stuck with her sure came out of nowhere though.

#4: Skadge

Skadge is simply the blandest and dumbest companion in the whole game as far as I'm concerned. Other companions may inspire more hatred from the player base, but in turn they also tend to have some ardent fans that balance things out. But Skadge... I think the most flattering thing I've ever seen anyone say about him was that they didn't mind him that much. What a ringing endorsement.

In more than five years, I never felt the need to take a screenshot of him either (which is why there isn't one in this post). Why would I want to? He's just a dumb, ugly thug. I think the idea behind him was that he could take the role of "muscle" for your character, but he was given to the bounty hunter... and the bounty hunter is already the muscle themselves! He is the one bounty hunter companion that nobody likes and where nobody understands why the story makes you take him along. It's as if you suddenly decided to adopt a random trash mob. And we all know what we really want to do with trash mobs.


#3: Kaliyo Djannis

I hated Kaliyo so much on my first agent. My agent was a well-meaning Imperial loyalist, which meant that Kaliyo disapproved of everything I did and I could not see why Imperial Intelligence considered her a useful asset. When she tries to sell you out at the end, it's hardly a surprise, but that only makes it all the more annoying. I couldn't believe that not only was I forced to forgive her, this was then immediately followed up with a conversation on my ship about what great buds we were. What the eff.

After re-playing the Imperial agent story with a more chaotic, dark-side lean, I've come to appreciate that Kaliyo can be fun to have around if you're playing the right type of character. But there are too many other versions of the agent with whom she just outright clashes, and those should have been able to punish her final betrayal accordingly.

#2: Gault Rennow

Putting Gault on this list actually makes me feel a little guilty because I think he's a great character and I do like having him around. But his acquisition story is awful. At least its ending.

Gault is the bounty aspiring hunters have to hunt down on Tatooine as part of the Great Hunt. And the writers did a great job at having him slip through your fingers over and over again, to the point where you can't wait to shoot this guy when you finally corner him in a narrow canyon. Except then... you're suddenly not allowed to. He offers you a way of claiming the bounty without killing him, and you have to take it. It's incredibly annoying.

I remember shortly after SWTOR's launch (when I was still playing WoW too), a fellow WoW blogger gave the game a try. This turn of events was enough to completely turn him off the game.


#1: Malavai Quinn

Who else could be number one but everyone's favourite treacherous Imperial officer? I just replayed this part of the Sith warrior story recently and it feels so wrong to be unable to exact vengeance on him. Kaliyo's betrayal ticked me off, but she had always been a nuisance. Quinn on the other hand had always been useful, and I actually liked him. To have him turn against me really hurt. And the way he does it is so over the top too! He monologues about how it's a shame that you have to die, but in such an incredibly patronising way that you can pretty much hear the hashtag #sorrynotsorry. No, of course you don't stand a chance because he's observed you and these droids are totally going to counter your every move. Even when you defeat them with ease, he still sounds more surprised than anything else. Painful betrayal delivered in an extremely smug manner? What more reason do you need to want to kill someone? Yet all you can do is forgive him and move on. Sigh.

And I have to say, I'm actually not sure the option to kill him in 5.2 is a good substitute. It comes at an awkward moment when he's just spent several minutes grovelling to you and telling you about all the hardships he endured in your absence while looking for you. Not to mention that it's been five years. I'm sure there are players who hold a grudge and who want their character to hold a grudge too, and they will have happily taken the option to kill Quinn even then. But for me, that's not what I wanted (and my own warrior basically said "I don't think I can fully trust you ever again, but it's time to move on.") Quinn is not someone I would want dead for the sake of having him dead. He's a great and fun character overall. But after a story setup that's pretty much guaranteed to make you see red and lure you into committing a "crime of passion", not being able to go through with it feels highly constricting to this day.

30/04/2017

Love Me, Love Me

Ever since companion affection became companion influence, I haven't concerned myself too much with getting my companions to like me. Pre-4.0, I was motivated to get them to the max in order to unlock their stories and various legacy perks, though to be honest once I'd achieved all of that, I stopped caring about companion affection on alts too.

Since 4.0 you're supposed to be motivated by the power increase companions benefit from as they go up in ranks, but that honestly hasn't mattered that much to me. While levelling, your companions tend to feel ridiculously powerful even at low ranks anyway, and I don't craft enough to really need the extra efficiency. At endgame I tend to spend most of my time doing activities where companions don't feature: operations, PvP, flashpoints.

The only times I've actively felt the need to invest in companion levels have been when I first tried the Eternal Championship and when I was struggling with certain veteran mode story chapters. But even then my efforts were pretty half-hearted, in the sense that I didn't really try to get anyone to max level, I just gave them a couple of gifts and then made another attempt at the content to see if it had helped any.

For this reason, I've only had a single companion at rank 50 until recently, and that happened kind of by accident more than anything else, because even after his initial Alliance recruitment mission, you keep gaining influence with M1-4X for every PvP match you play. Since I've been doing a lot of random warzones, hitting maximum influence with him just kind of happened.

Doing the Iokath dailies since the patch, I've found myself in the position of actually finding a powerful companion useful for the first time in a while, and since I recently bought an Akk Dog, I decided that it was time to make him love me. As he's not a story companion, the only way to gain influence with him was to feed him gifts.


"See you in half an hour," my pet tank joked when I sat down to start gifting, but sadly his joking prediction turned out to be pretty accurate. In fact, even with the legacy perk to speed up gifting time, it took me more than half an hour to go through the hundreds of companion gifts required to get my new friend to influence rank 50.

And I couldn't help thinking how stupid that was. Not the gifting system by itself, but that sitting there for half an hour, pressing the same button over and over, is the only way to max out your influence on certain companions. Seriously, where is the fun in that?

It seems to me that we desperately need a way to raise companion influence more organically beyond conversation approval or disapproval, since that's so limited. And as soon as I thought about it, it seemed really easy to do too: Just give +1 influence for every mob you kill with that companion out.

This wouldn't make companion gifts useless, because even if you spent all day farming mobs, you wouldn't earn the 250,000 influence points to max out a single companion in a day, not to mention that we have a lot of different companions to work on now. Gifts would still be the fast track. But if you took your companion to do dailies with you every day for example, it would slowly but surely start to make a difference too.

We've long abandoned the pretense that companion influence stands for true affection - that's why they renamed it to influence after all. It's more a measurement of slow bonding as you hang out with each other a lot (or buy their loyalty). Slowly increasing it as you spend time actually playing with your companion would therefore only make sense.

Seriously, why wasn't this implemented yesterday? I can see that people already suggested it on the forums over two years ago...

27/04/2017

Tyth, God of Rage

One of the most anticipated features of 5.2 was the addition of the first new operations boss in two years: Tyth. My impression so far? I love him. No, not like that.


I'd like to start by saying that I was actually a bit worried about how Bioware's first new large-scale boss encounter in years would turn out, even more so after they came out and said that it would be designed by the same guy who designed the Revan fight. No offense, but I'm actually not that fond of that encounter. More importantly though, I still think less of Ravagers and Temple of Sacrifice to this day due to their awful initial tuning, which hasn't actually been adjusted all that much even now, not to mention their propensity for pointless red circle syndrome. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if those two operations were at least partially to blame for Bioware's decision to not add any more of that type of content for a long time - raids that unfriendly towards both casual players and mid-level guilds can't have boasted particularly high participation numbers.

But enough of that. The point is: Tyth didn't disappoint me. When I first went in with my guildies to kill him on story mode, he absolutely melted. I think people largely ignored the adds, and we quickly caused him to erupt and spew AoE damage, but somehow we just got through it all even as our tank disconnected towards the end of the fight. "That was way too easy," I heard some guildies mutter, but I was wide-eyed with delight. That's exactly how story mode should be to an over-geared, organised and well-practiced group, or else it will be a killer to pugs. In fact, I'm sure there are pug groups wiping on him even now. And that's okay, because this game isn't about always succeeding at everything on the first attempt. But he should be well within reach of even casual players sticking their noses into a story mode for the first time, and that's how it should be.

Veteran mode is another story. We've spent some time on it but pretty consistently fail around the fourth wave of adds so far. I haven't minded too much, because I really enjoy the fight. It's chaotic yet straightforward, and while there are several important mechanics to juggle, almost nothing is an automatic wipe if you get it wrong once (unless you get yourself flung off the platform I guess); it's usually a combination of too many mistakes stacked on top of each other that gets you.


Not all of my guildies share my enthusiasm. Everyone is entitled to their opinion of course and we can't all like the same things, but at this point I can't help but wonder if we, the ones who have kept raiding throughout the years despite of no new content being added, haven't become a bit complacent. Even though we haven't killed every boss on its hardest difficulty, we're familiar enough with most core mechanics to be able to do them in our sleep. You don't have to be some sort of gaming prodigy to develop a certain level of competence at something that you've been doing literally for several years.

Tyth throws a wrench into the works of our well-practiced routine. We think we know it all, but with this fight, we actually don't. I hear comments about how some mechanic is stupid or buggy or random when we've barely even figured out how to do it correctly yet - while in my opinion, the fun is in mastering the newness of the challenge, in daring to try new things because there are only a couple of guides out yet and they might not necessarily have the best strategy for our group. At least that's what I'm looking forward to.

What else is there to say? I like the overall look of the operation so far - except for the fact that the entrance is a bit confusing, because the trams aren't marked on the map, causing many a clueless player to immediately click the exit again upon entering, as it's the only door they see. However, I'm chucking that one up to Iokath's general lack of navigational logic more than the operation in specific.

The trash is fun - not too tricky, but engaging enough to force you to pay attention. I was somewhat reminded of the droid packs at the start of Terror from Beyond, only with a fire theme.


The run towards Tyth borders on "a bit long", though I was amused by the way the unsecured runways can serve as death traps. (Read: I paid too little attention while running back once, ran myself off an edge and had to start right over again.) I also actually kind of came to appreciate the length of the run, as it's just long enough to give the raid buffs time to come off cooldown and gives you a minute or two to discuss what went wrong on the last attempt. That's time you need to pass anyway, but somehow it feels more productive to me if it happens while we're running back instead of while we're idling in front of the boss. (Feels like multi-tasking?)

Also, my general impression of this whole "one boss at a time" concept has been much more positive than I expected, largely because we do have just enough of an idea of what encounters are coming next to be curious. SWTOR's social media accounts are also proving unusually adept at teasing us with information, by doing things like post concept art of the upcoming bosses - feeding excited speculation of just what sorts of mechanics these "gods" might have in order to live up to their personalities as described in the lore (see this fantastic post by Rav for more information about that).

We'll see if my enthusiasm for wiping and waiting for whatever comes next will abate over time... but for now, Tyth and the Gods from the Machine get two thumbs up from me.