28/10/2015

Levelling by Questing in 4.0

Every time an MMO makes changes to its low-level experience I'm really curious about what the devs think turned players away from their game at the early levels and how they have therefore decided to change the game... and every time I'm surprised how little I see people talk about it. I can only guess that this is because any new players that are lured in by the revamp will have no point of comparison, while the most loyal and hardcore players tend to fixate on whatever new content was added at the level cap. And the players who enjoy quietly rolling alt after alt for the fun of it and are probably most likely to have a nuanced opinion on the changes? They tend to stick to themselves and not interact with the community as much. This was very much the impression I got during WoW's Cataclysm expansion at least, which was literally all about revamping the 1-60 experience, yet everyone just complained about how much they hated Vashj'ir (one of the five new max-level zones). I wrote a whole series of posts about all the re-done levelling zones, but very few people seemed to be interested in things like discussing the pros and cons of old Tanaris vs. new Tanaris.

I'm reminded of this because while we're all busy gushing about Knights of the Fallen Empire's story (and it is totally worth gushing about), a lot of other changes have been made to the game that haven't received much publicity (yet). One of them was supposed to be a "more streamlined" levelling experience, something that immediately caught my attention, since I enjoy levelling alts and have become very wary of MMOs "streamlining" anything these days. It was eventually revealed that XP gains were being adjusted so that you only had to do your class missions and the main planetary storyline to have a smooth levelling curve, while side quests would be hidden by default. However, as pretty much always with these things, there is so much more to it than has officially been explained.

My pet tank and I decided to get our first taste of "levelling 4.0" by jumping back onto our pair of Sith warrior alts, still on Tatooine at level 32. This has pretty much always been our way of levelling together - being completionists when it comes to questing and therefore levelling really, really slowly. Once our quests turned grey, they pretty much stopped giving XP entirely (I still think that SWTOR has always been oddly harsh in its treatment of experience gains for quests that you've outlevelled) and we'd only level very, very slowly from the small trickle of XP that we received from mob kills. Since our progress was so slow compared to the amount of content we were actually completing, we'd eventually get back to the point where some quests were green again... just to be pushed back into grey territory after a couple of hand-ins that actually levelled us, starting the cycle of virtually no XP gain all over again. I'll be honest: it was annoying sometimes. I did want to do all of the quests, but the constant drip-feed of experience points and gear that was several levels below me was certainly not a satisfying reward.

With that said, I was pretty psyched to see how level sync was going to work for us. I can already tell you: it worked beautifully. We were immediately downlevelled to 30, and both missions and kills rewarded a healthy amount of experience, even though they were still easy. It was awesome to receive level-appropriate relics as quest rewards instead of a crappy piece of companion gear. We drove around a bit and it was nice to see everything on the planet being "in sync" - no more getting one-shotted by high level guards or monsters. Even the mobs in the seeker droid area in the north-eastern corner of the Dune Sea are now only level 30.

I was initially confused why there seemed to be so few quests, until I remembered that we now have to enable the option to see exploration missions in the upper right corner of the map display. I'll say it again: I don't see why this is turned off by default, especially since the main missions are now clearly marked in bright purple, but whatever.

Next I had to fight a certain sense of déjà vu: I knew that we had stopped in the Dune Sea last time we played these characters (I had a screenshot of us riding the Jawa balloon), but I could have sworn that we'd already done some of the missions we were being given. Also, some of the quests in the earlier bases - which we had definitely done - were also showing up as available again. I looked at the patch notes a bit more closely and found a note saying that with so many changes, they had to reset quest progress on some missions, so that made sense at least.

While all the heroic missions can now be picked up at a terminal at the spaceport for easy access, they can also still be picked up from their original quest givers. However, beware: the hand-in is now automatic, with the quest giver just giving you a quick voice-over call at the end as soon as you complete your last objective. This is super convenient if you're a max-level grinding out all the heroics on the planet for weekly rewards, but less so if you're a lowbie doing them for the first time and actually wanted to do the associated bonus mission as well. Basically, you have to make sure to always complete the bonus before killing the last mob for the main mission.

We also ran into a Republic player who was flagged for PvP and immediately jumped him. I've always avoided attacking people on low-level planets, even if they are flagged (which is very much voluntary on a PvE server like the Red Eclipse), simply because the level differences tended to be large and made it feel unfair. With level sync I had no such reservations anymore. Sure, two vs. one was still unfair, but I don't care about that!

Our first truly strange experience occurred when we were doing The Thing Czerka Found. We remembered the abandoned Czerka base having a pretty sprawling interior, which you had to largely clear out if you wanted to do the associated multi-stage bonus quest. Well, said bonus quest was gone, and so was half the base! You basically go down, click an elevator button and are immediately at the entrance to the actual story phase. I consulted the patch notes again and found an explanation for this strangeness in the following point:

Changes have been made to a number of existing missions to improve quality and facilitate other changes where necessary including:
  • Task completion count adjustments.
  • Bonus mission addition, removal, or adjustment.
  • Map updates/changes.
  • Location changes.
So this was a bonus mission removal combined with a map change. I'm just a bit confused as to why. Was that extra level of the underground base really such a huge obstacle? And why remove the bonus? Bonus missions are by their very definition optional content, so I'm not sure why the devs felt the need to take that away from us. We weren't exactly heartbroken about this change, but it felt odd.

A brief note about companions: I kind of want to talk about the changes to companions in general in a separate post at some point, but one thing worth mentioning is that the way that affection influence gains are displayed in conversations has been changed. Instead of seeing a little portrait of your companion with a number like 20 or -1, you now just get a small line of text that says something like "Vette is amused". This (sometimes) gives you a bit more information about your companion's opinion other than whether they like or dislike what you just did, but without any numbers it's kind of hard to gauge just how much of an effect you're having. It is however important to note that unlike the old affection, influence can only go up (even disapproval earns you points, just fewer of them), and in general the numbers are much bigger. This is a relief in so far as it was quite a shock to log in on patch day and find that the old max affection only equals rank ten out of fifty in the new system. For max level characters, that means a lot of gift giving and affection grinding. I suspect however that it might not be quite as bad for lowbies that level under the new system from the start, as you gain some pretty big influence numbers just from normal questing with your companion.


It's hard to see, but Vette disapproves.

Anyway, we wrapped up Tatooine's main storyline and I noticed a new quick travel point next to the Imperial Reclamation Service's base. I would later find more of these in locations to which you have to return repeatedly but which were always a bit annoying to get to precisely because they didn't have a quick travel point in the past. Now that's something that I consider a nice bit of streamlining, making it a fair bit easier to zoom around the map quickly even if you don't have any travel legacy perks unlocked.

Then, a shock: We wanted to pick up the Tatooine bonus series and it wasn't there! A quick search on the subject revealed that other people have been reporting this on the forums as well, not just for Tatooine, but for pretty much everywhere. Sadly no official comment has been made on the matter. I opened a ticket to ask whether it was a bug or an intended change and got the standard copy-and-paste "we didn't even read your message and only provide help for class missions" reply. We drove to the hub where the first half of the bonus series takes place and it looked like the actual individual missions for it were still there (as exploration missions), it's "just" the storyline that ties everything together that's gone missing. I'm still holding out hope that it's just a bug though, because these were actual stories! Heck, the Republic Alderaan bonus series was the only place in the game where you could meet Jace Malcolm pre-2.0!

For the time being, we decided to move on to Alderaan. Here we encountered more surprising and slightly confusing changes to the content we knew so well. Apparently all [Area] missions have been removed and instead been turned into regular missions that get picked up from a nearby datapad or something. It's not something that I have a problem with, but again I can't help but wonder why. It was just a little thing that added a bit of variety to the way you picked up quests. Were there actually people who were confused or annoyed by this? The former [Area 4] Assault on Fort Alde was also nerfed to be a regular solo mission, though the area is still wrongly designated as a heroic area. It just felt a bit awkward facerolling everything while remembering how tricky this mission used to be. We also found another mission that used to have a multi-stage bonus and had it completely removed. Sadness.


At Outpost Talarn, we were in for an even bigger surprise. The two NPCs that used to give the heroic mission "Insufficient Staff" were completely gone and so was the quest. Instead, the main storyline sent us into the same bunker where this heroic used to take place. Which was weird, because originally that quest used to send you to a cave a bit further away. The best theory I could come up with is that they removed the heroic in order to save people from a hundred meters of extra driving for the main storyline. Which is still dumb. Removing content is not cool, Bioware! I have a hard time believing that this slightly shorter drive to a slightly closer quest location is going to make a difference to anyone's enjoyment of the game.

I actually got angry when we made our way to the next outpost and found that another side quest by the roadside had disappeared: The Head That Wears the Crown, which has a dying Queen's Guard asking you to recover the crown of Panteer from a shuttle that crashed into the river. That was a nice bit of background lore, damn it! However, funnily enough, this one eventually resurfaced... on the other end of the map, where the dying guard had moved from his old place under a tree into a tent. Again I wondered why, but I could eventually come up with a reason: Since all speeder paths are unlocked by default since a recent patch and there are no other quests asking you to go into the area where this quest used to be, the mission would have been easy to miss in its old location - nobody but quaint, old-fashioned people like my pet tank and I are actually going to drive to the next quest hub on the ground anymore. So Bioware moved it closer to Castle Panteer, where people have a couple of other quests and are therefore more likely to find it. OK, that makes some sense.

In Castle Panteer we ran up the stairs to click on the datacron that's hidden away there and I was disappointed to find that we got absolutely nothing from it. I wasn't a fan of the legacy datacron announcement, but I thought that it might still be fun to re-do them on alts for the codex entries or something. Nope! The codex entries are legacy-wide too. If you enjoy hunting datacrons for any kind of reward and already have them all, you've got to create a new legacy on a new server or GTFO. The thought of never having a reason to ride the Jawa balloon or organise a fleet datacron guild event again makes me kind of sad.

We finished Alderaan at level 41 (though again without having done the bonus series). To wrap up the Sith warrior's chapter one we had to revisit Hutta. At the entrance to the phase stood a level 52 Marauder, so we were clearly not the only ones experiencing a wacky levelling speed thanks to the new level sync. I remembered this particular fight being somewhat challenging, but either it has since been nerfed or everything being synced down to level 12 (for Hutta) made things ridiculously easy. I mean, I was still wearing level 20 gear (at 41!) but I guess if you're officially level 12 even that's overpowered.

After completing chapter one, my Sith warrior's master gave me the usual speech about having done a good job and that I should take a break now. At this point the game used to send you to the fleet (somewhat annoyingly), just to pick up your quest reward. He also mentioned that he wanted to see me on Dromund Kaas later. However, this time I got my chapter one quest reward right away, and instead of having to go to Dromund Kaas, I got my next set of instructions directly via holocall. Now that seemed like a good quality of life change.

So what can be taken away from all this?

Questing has indeed been streamlined in several ways: level sync means that you never have to worry about outlevelling content and can level where you like for as long as you like. Added quick travel points and hand-ins via voice-over save you from having to do too much running back and forth. Increased amounts of XP for class missions and main planetary storylines allow you to progress through the story quickly and ignore other content if you like, while most of the side quests are still available as optional content as well.

Most of them... and that's the rub for me. Musco went on file in September to say that "we aren't going to take things away from you!" Except... they did. I'm still holding out hope that at least the issue with the planetary bonus series is a bug. But either way I'm miffed about those more fun multi-stage bonuses and that heroic being removed. I expect to find more instances of this as we continue levelling. I have no issue with giving people the option to skip this stuff, but I just don't understand why it had to be removed entirely. Surely its mere existence as an optional thing wasn't making anyone's experience any worse?

Of course, for the new and/or inexperienced player this will be pretty irrelevant. There's still tons of content to do and they won't miss what they never knew, as it's not like any of the removed, optional stuff leaves obvious gaps in the story. However, as a veteran with a completionist streak, it's hard not to cringe when content that you used to enjoy is unceremoniously relegated to the dust bin.

13 comments :

  1. I was wondering about the planetary bonus series. I think I only ever did the pub series on Nar Shadaa because I was always overlevelled and always just did my class quests and rarely did planet stories or bonus areas.

    Hell, it took me nearly a year before learning via a guildie that there were Ortolans on Hoth - and I still haven't seen any myself.

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    1. Ah, except in the SI story mission of course. Forgotten about that. Never seen any on he pub side though.

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    2. I'm pretty sure that only a minority of players ever did the bonus series - you can tell by how little attention the subject of their disappearance gets on the forums compared to things like companion or gear issues. Still no reason to take them away though!

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  2. There's definitely some differences to difficulty from the stat changes or level sync. I have a post drafted for later in the week that mentions this but I ran the Manaan instance and it was faceroll easy, not just because I had the droid but because Qyzen didn't take more than like 10% damage in any fight including the bosses - he was practically indestructable! I doubt very much it's my skills to thank, it seems the changes to companions have made quite a difference to their effectiveness...

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    1. Sounds like that was mostly down to the companion changes - they are crazy powerful right now. Apparently there's a bit of a forum war going on about it, with some people complaining that it's stupid that companions are so OP (posting pictures of their companions soloing pulls of multiple elites and such), while others retort that OP companions are fun and don't harm anyone.

      I have mixed feelings on the matter myself - for the most part I agree that it's fun that they made companions more powerful than they used to be, but I worry about the implications for small group content. You just know that comments like "let's kick this guy, my companion would do a better job" are only a flashpoint away...

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  3. On the third hand, might it make FPs more viable for two players + companions? Might have to test that out soon...

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  4. I definitely liked that guards were tuned down with everything else. I actually accidentally rode completely through a Republic outpost on Voss and didn't immediately explode! (Seriously, it was right in the middle of the road, and I was driving by map while distracted. Who puts an outpost in the middle of a major road?)

    And I sadly noticed the bonus series problem as well. Though, oddly enough, when returning to Tatooine for a companion quest, I saw that the bonus series quest giver had the quest icon faded but present above his head. Curious.

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    1. Some people have theorised that Bioware may have simply screwed up the level of the bonus series - people who picked one up just before the patch and still had it in their logs have said that they are now listed as level 60 quests.

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    2. I noticed that earlier too. Checked on my level 59 toon so not quite eligible for 60 quests - will come back tomorrow.

      In other news, I ran the Mandalorian heroic on Balmorra having never done it before. Turns out the "Hero of Gorinth Canyon" title is no longer a reward for that mission which is disappointing.

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  5. Just a note to say, "thanks" for this post. I'm one of those strange people that mostly plays MMOs solo - and love levelling alts. Coming back to SW:TOR after a long break and found my approach had me out-levelling content by 5 levels after Tatooine, and by 10 after Quesh. The level scaling really helps, and taking the time to enjoy those fully-voiced missions is just great.

    Best,
    Andrew.

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    1. Thanks for popping by and saying hello! Glad to hear from another player enjoying the new levelling. While I'm big on group content myself, I can totally understand people who like to play solo a lot.

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  6. Well, the changes with this patch certainly the oversimplistic and repetetive quests that was there before.
    Also, the fact that you were slowly leveling before this patch made you so weak that after each battle, you had to stop and heal yourself for 5 seconds, now,

    this would have been good if it weren't for the fact that you had to heal like this like 30 times for completing only one side quest that doesn't give you that much XP to begin with...

    Of course, now, the game is too easy, but I will always take a too easy game instead of a way too tedious one.

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  7. Thank you so much for this. I had only played a short time when the update happened. I knew something was different, I felt that some things were missing, but I did not know what they were. I found myself saying "yeah" a lot while reading your article. It is good to know that I am not crazy after all. Well, at least not when it comes to this.

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