02/01/2015

Solo Flashpoints - Good or Bad Idea?

I have to admit I felt a bit uneasy when I first heard that Bioware was going to include a solo option for flashpoints in Shadow of Revan. I spend a fair amount of time soloing of course, but group content is what keeps me coming back to the game, and since soloing is by default more convenient than doing things in a group and having to be considerate of other people, I know that it's all too easy to make grouping unattractive.

Based on the fact that Bioware has always treated group content with respect, I decided to have faith in them. Yet when I first stepped foot into a solo mode flashpoint, I was taken aback. I was with my pet tank at the time and we had just discovered that we could enter the same solo instance together. If you think that one GSI droid to assist you is OP, just wait until you see multiple copies of it mowing down flashpoint bosses like nobody's business. Not being forced to do things solo is a good thing, but I couldn't help but wonder: If you can do this in a group on easy mode, why would you ever do it in a group on normal mode, if the game doesn't differentiate between the two in any way? (I've since heard that solo mode isn't supposed to give any loot other than basic comms, but I have seen some pieces of gear drop in solo mode so... I don't know about that.)

Of course, then I found out that you can only ever do each solo mode once. At first this struck me as reasonable - let people see the story once and then make them move on, but then I thought: if it's not supposed to drop any gear, what does it matter? If someone wants to repeat the Battle of Rishi solo over and over again, why would this be a problem? I know that I wouldn't want to do this personally, because I find solo mode pretty damn dull. It's okay that it exists, especially where a flashpoint is supposed to advance the story, so you don't have to wait for a group to get going to progress. But in terms of gameplay it's terribly dull. The "Jesus droid" makes it pretty much impossible to die unless you fall off a cliff, as he'll heal you even through continuous standing in fire, so everything just comes down to slowly reducing mob hitpoints at no actual risk to yourself. It's a bit like regular questing, only extremely boring.

Eventually I couldn't help but wonder what exactly the point of flashpoints is supposed to be these days. How did we get to the point where this is the way Bioware wants them to be played? Looking back at the game's launch, the devs have always been a bit schizophrenic about the purpose of group content. Most of it was set up to simply offer gameplay for groups, with stories that were of little to no consequence to the rest of the game. That's why the friendly NPC tells you before your first trip to Coruscant/Dromund Kaas that you can take the shuttle to get on with your class mission right away, or take the Esseles/Black Talon with some friends if you fancy a diversion.

But there were always odd outliers, like the Revan story arc. It's true that at release this storyline wasn't referred to anywhere else in the game, but considering what an iconic character Revan is, it always felt a bit wrong to hide him away in a series of flashpoints like that. Now that Revan has a whole expansion focused on him, it feels outright unacceptable that players might be thrown into that story possibly without ever having learned his backstory in the game if they didn't happen to do the right group content at the right time.

Darth Malgus is another character whose story remains unfinished if you only complete Ilum's planetary story arc - and he's a character that players actually can and do encounter solo. Yet to find out what really happens to him, you have to do the two flashpoints located on Ilum. It seems that there has always been someone at Bioware who adhered to the old school mantra that particularly important/epic boss encounters should require a group to emphasise their epicness. (You know those bosses are badasses if they actually take more than one person to kill!)

As a fan of group content I didn't mind this attitude in the past, but it has always led to backlash from people complaining that they suddenly need a group just to see the ending of what was previously a solo story, and I can understand that. Not to mention that there are disadvantages to handling story this way even if you are happy to group up. Having a story change from solo to group play means that you want to do the group content exactly when you hit that transition point, not later but also not earlier. I'm sure I'm not the only who's ever ended up in Battle of Ilum on an alt, cursing the fact that you haven't advanced the planetary story to the point yet where it actually leads into the flashpoint. Finding yourself in that kind of situation means that a) the flashpoint story is potentially confusing because you're missing vital information and b) you'll have to come back again later purely to finish the associated mission at the "right" time. For this reason I've come to appreciate the approach of making the stories of group content separate and unimportant to the overarching plot, precisely to avoid these kinds of issues. Nobody misses out on anything important if they never go to Athiss. Yet at the same time you can go there any time you like (as far as your level permits it anyway) without being confused.

Looking at the post-launch flashpoints however, there has actually been a move away from this design, which I find both sad and a bit backwards. Kaon Under Siege and Lost Island were the last regular flashpoints with clearly defined side stories in my opinion. Kuat Drive Yards was separate from the rest of the game as well, but I feel that this was only done because it was the only way to make it level neutral (to ensure its story could be played and make sense at any point in the game). The Czerka flashpoints were obviously supposed to be the epic finale to the story of CZ-198... even if beating up a fat businessman and his pet project isn't exactly the height of epic. The Forged Alliances story arc turned everything on its head a little by starting the story in a number of flashpoints, which then cumulated in a solo storyline. Blood Hunt and the Battle of Rishi are neither an introduction nor an epic finale - they hardly feel different from other tasks you complete while on Rishi - however, they are mandatory for storyline progression and you can't continue until you've completed both of them.


A very cinematic scene - but as just one step in a multi-part story, why is this a flashpoint while other things aren't? 

Now, with how integral these latter flashpoints are to the storyline, it makes sense to make them soloable, but I have to admit that at this point I'm wondering why they are flashpoints in the first place. They don't even feature particularly epic enemies. (I like Shae Vizla a lot, but she's just a random Mandalorian. I can't even remember the name of any of the bosses in Battle of Rishi.) If you think that the story is too important to be locked behind a "grouping wall" (and flashpoints are by definition group content), why not just make this stuff the subject of a normal quest? Makeb and Oricon have shown that Bioware can design interesting encounters even for the solo player and outside of instances. I see no reason why Torch's compound and the Revanite base with the signal jammer couldn't have been part of the Rishi map - other than that it probably would have been more work, taking into consideration things like the Mandalorian compound needing a proper exterior instead of being limited to only having an inside.

It feels to me that solo flashpoints are a band-aid applied to a design problem of Bioware's own making, and as so often with band-aids, the end result is a lot less neat than if they had just fixed the core issue. If you just want to tell a story that people can play solo as well as in a group, you can do that through a dedicated quest chain like you've done throughout most of the game. Turning parts of the story into flashpoints seemingly at random just feels clumsy, and leads to all the disadvantages already brought up above. Solo mode leads to tedious "hitpoint grinding" during which it's impossible to die. People who prefer to group are once again faced with the problem of having to get their grouping done at exactly the right time or they can't even move on with the storyline. (But you mustn't go in too early either, or you'll be faced with a lot of dialogue that makes no sense.)

I've done Blood Hunt and Battle of Rishi less than half a dozen times and I'm already tired of them because whether solo or in a group, I have to do them on all of my characters, always at the exact same point, if I want to unlock Yavin 4. This has actually made me resent them somewhat, and unlike at level 55, where I was happy to run any of the offered tacticals for the weekly (and knew that I was free to do so whenever I felt like it), the idea of doing the same at level 60 seems highly unappealing right now.

I'm guessing that Bioware has more plans for solo flashpoints in the future, but personally I hope that they'll reconsider what purpose they actually want flashpoints to serve, and that the answer won't simply be "instanced story quests with scaled up hitpoints". In my opinion designing flashpoints like that degenerates the story experience for both solo players and groups.

13 comments :

  1. I look on the solo flashpoints as both an experiment and a way out of being boxed in.

    The Malgus story is a complete story all by itself, and the two flashpoints are one way of allowing more players to experience that story's ending whereas in the "good old days" it would have had a raid on the end.

    The Oricon story is the same way, and it ends with a classic raid.

    The questline that (eventually) leads to Revan's Happy Fun Times began with flashpoints, and so I look at this as Bioware's realization that they were kind of boxed in: they had this entire expac that was dependent upon people completing FPs that they may or may not have wanted to do. It would be akin to having Blizzard say that you can't get to go to Draenor without having first finished off Siege of Orgrimmar. Maybe for continuity's sake it would make sense to do so, but restricting the expac to only the subset of people who finished the FPs leading up to the Revan storyline basically destroys whatever income you were hoping to get from the expac.

    The solo FP option was a way to fix this problem that Bioware had, but I'm sure that they're watching the players' reaction to see if this is something they should use in the future.

    Knowing how I do things, it'll probably take me a long while to get to the point of actually trying out the Revan expac --about the closest I have is my Sorcerer who just finished the Oricon quests, and I'm presently leveling another Gunslinger on The Red Eclipse-- so for me the solo FP option presents the path of least resistance. Particularly so since I tend to play at odd hours.

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    1. I absolutely agree that they had to make the flashpoints leading up to this expansion soloable.

      The thing is, if they see it like you say, that they "boxed themselves in" and probably shouldn't handle a big storyline the same way again, then I'm OK with that.

      However, I'm worried that instead they'll go: "Great, with solo mode available we can put whatever we want into a flashpoint" instead of thinking about whether that story is really best told that way. Or: "Hm, we can save development time by just putting a random part of the main storyline into an instance, scaling up the hitpoints for multiplayer and calling it a day."

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    2. Oh, and: Gunslinger on TRE? Let me know your name so I can stalk you! :D

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    3. I sent you the info. If someone starts stalking me, I'll know who it is. ;-)

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  2. I'm not that fond of grouping (mostly because I'm pretty sure I'm somewhere between mediocre and terrible and really don't want to inflict that on anyone else) so I was glad I could see the Forged Alliances story without having to group.

    However...

    I found the whole thing hilariously implausible on a _story_ level. I mean, I've had a little bit of a disconnect between the devs thought was reasonable for badass normals to accomplish and what made sense to me in the Star Wars universe, but I really came away feeling like they'd written that part of the story for Jedi and Sith only (okay, _maybe_ Troopers). As a group flashpoint, it might not have been so glaring, but soloing them? To me it was WTF on toast.

    Story is a big part of this game and I really wish they'd do a better job of writing stories that make sense for all classes than they did with this. Makeb (much as I HATE it) handled the classes and even the more difficult endings to class stories reasonably well. When my Agent (who took the *disappear self* ending) was called on to go to Makeb, it didn't feel like the devs had forgotten that ending or decided retroactively to make the Black Codex nothing but a fancy paperweight. Here, there was no attempt to make sense (probably because they were group flashpoints to begin with), not just with potential class endings but with the fact that not all classes are actually part of their respective factions' governments. They began nonsensically and ended nonsensically.

    Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference, but I kind of feel like the fact that they were writing group content hid the fact that the content made significantly more sense for some classes than others. (Especially as this is a consistent issue with the flashpoints - it's just underlined here by making it main story and having people solo through them if they haven't done them already.)

    Another downside to this move is that people (apparently) will have to solo through all these flashpoints on every one of their alts in order to do the expansion. There's been much griping about that on tumblr, since flashpoints really aren't the same as normal content. (Even with a Jesus droid.) They're much heavier on fighting and lighter on story, for one thing.

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    1. Interesting, can you name any specific examples where it feels like the story doesn't work for your class? Other than the obviously "gamey" fact that each of our heroes can kill hundreds of enemies on their own?

      (On a side note, I love the phrase "WTF on toast".)

      And can you recommend any good SWTOR Tumblrs? I feel like I should investigate since I agree with their stance on this. :P

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  3. Well, Empire-side, it seems sort of weird to have an Agent lead the assault on Tython - shouldn't _Sith_ lead an attack on the HQ of the Jedi Order? or at least someone with military command experience? This is a _major_ offensive. And it's just plain inexplicable to have a Bounty Hunter, who isn't even an Imperial, do so. "Here, random mercenary, please lead our armed forces!" Republic-side is a little less weird to start with, since you're supposed to be grabbing information during the assault, not leading it. Except then you're supposed to go save Tython... which makes slightly less than no sense if you're playing a Smuggler. "Here random badass normal criminal who isn't actually a member of our armed forces or anything, go save the Jedi Order from Sith!" Whut.

    The game story has had a few of those moments along, but when you're dealing with the HQs of the Sith and Jedi, it's really hard to ignore how bizarre the whole thing is. It takes it from just a gameplay thing to "badass normals are canonically BETTER able to fight Force Users en mase than other Force Users are" which... no... just no. I mean, either way, you - a completely non-powered person - are saving the _home base_ of your faction's Force Using order from the other faction's Force Users!

    And it comes back to a similar sort of failed logic at the end when Lana and Theron are disavowed and somehow everybody but you, the PC, are now wanted by their own faction. I get why, from a game aspect, they couldn't have the PCs wanted, but story wise it makes no sense. I can see it with the Sith and Jedi PCs - those classes end with enough power and esteem that it might be very hard to turn the Empire/Republic against them. Maybe, just maybe, I can believe that Havoc Squad has gained too much attention and esteem. But an Agent? When Imperial Intelligence has been disbanded? And Smugglers and Bounty Hunters are criminals or quasi-criminals even according to their own faction to begin with. If Revan and co can send a Sith Lord and a high up SIS guy (whose mom runs the Jedi Order!) into hiding, they should be able to screw over most of the PC classes. It was a bad writing decision to set it up like that.

    And, while this isn't unique to Forged Alliances and the Shadow of Revan, it was a horrible, horrible idea for them to have included an *erase yourself* ending for the Imperial Agent because the game doesn't follow through on that. The intro to Makeb is the _only_ time the game even acknowledges it. And the Forged Alliances flashpoints disregard it completely by their very design. You're not just not disappeared, you're somehow a Commander in the armed forces!

    Though, depending on the ending you took as a Bounty Hunter, again there are serious missing repercussions even before you even get to the Empire randomly hiring you to lead military campaigns.

    It just feels like they mostly focused on a story that works for the most powerful (politically and literally) classes and didn't really care if it made sense for the other classes. And, yes, the game story (outside of one's class story) has always leaned that way, but this - particularly the Tython/Korriban parts seems to be taking that up to 11.

    Gee, the SWTOR tumblrs I follow are mostly fanart and fanfic focused (not that they don't talk about the game, obviously). I don't know of any that mainly just focused on the game itself.

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    1. If I remember the Makeb intro correctly, if you're an Agent and disappeared, Darth Marr tracks you down. That "disappear" option only removed you from the existing Imperial records. People, important people even, still remember you.

      Darth Marr then grants you the rank of Commander from that point on, mainly to give you authority for the Makeb mission.

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    2. Fair enough, thanks for elaborating. Maybe I haven't noticed this as much as I mainly play Republic side and mostly classes for which you admit it does make sense. Also, I was under the impression that often the missions you're given are not necessarily officially sanctioned by your faction, but that's it more of a case of certain individuals hiring you for your reputation.

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    3. @Rohan,

      That could be. It's been a while. (And I really hate Makeb.) But that does make sense, especially as Darth Marr couldn't put you back in the records properly even if he wanted to. So, yeah, god only knows what the Empire thinks your skills are after that point.
      (Though clearly one should've changed one's appearance and moved to the far side of the galaxy!)

      Though that doesn't fix that it's still really weird for the Empire or Republic to be putting what appear to be official operations in the hands of random civilians. (That is, nothing really fixes the weirdness for Smugglers and Bounty Hunters. Which, granted, has been a bit of a problem through the whole game.)

      @Shintar

      Hmm, assuming that does make the assault part of the Forged Alliances seem less odd. (Though I still think framing both as getting intel would've been from a story standpoint. Except then it would seem weird for the Sith classes. Unless maybe it was phrased as very sensitive intel on that side... Having things make sense for all classes isn't easy, I admit.)

      It still leaves the rescue your faction's Force User planet weird, though. There'd _have_ to be official missions to do that, even if yours isn't. I guess maybe you're meant to have arrived before (or during?) the official mission and just somehow never stumbled across anything that gave it away.

      Then again, I think you're given a medal (Republic side, at least) afterwards. Of course, that could've been completely fake.

      I can't really figure out anything in universe to make the PC not being disavowed/hunted/whatnot at the end, though. Unless it turns out Revan has other plans for you and is supposed to have intentionally not targeted you. (Except he just tried to kill you. Though I suppose they could pull an "I knew you would survive and left you free to act so that you could be manipulated into doing X for me. Thank you so much. And now I _will_ have to kill you."

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  4. The Jesus droid has a quirk that can bite you in the ass if you're not paying attention. The droid appears to be dependent on you as you are; if you ding, the droid despawns. And, of course, this is virtually always going to happen in the middle of a fight, so you need to pay attention when you get close to leveling to hit the resummon as quickly as you can if you're in combat and don't think you can drop your opponent(s) solo.

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    1. Yeah, I got to experience that little surprise as well... at least it makes things a little more interesting. :P

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  5. I enjoy the flashpoints as they break up the structure and add variety to the feel of the game, although I couldn't always find the people to do them with and missed out a lot. I think it's a good idea to add ways to allow players to enjoy the story even if they're struggling to find a party to do it with, but the droids do seem a bit OP. I thought the point of flashpoints was first and foremost to be designed around a group doing it, and some of the choices they've made do seem a little odd. I have to admit that it has bothered me on other games to be doing a solo run to find myself forced into a situation where I need to find a group to continue.

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