19/11/2015

For the Alliance! A Different Endgame

One of the bigger surprises of Knights of the Fallen Empire has been the game's alliance system. The devs had made some vague references to it before launch, but nobody really knew how it was going to work. Now we do, and while I've only invested a limited amount of time into it myself, I still think that it's a pretty neat little system, mainly for four reasons:

1) It ties neatly into the main storyline.
2) A lot of it can be done solo or with one other person.
3) It taps into players' urge to collect things and make their characters more powerful.
4) It's what I consider a "good" sort of grind.


Before KotFE's launch, I had kind of wondered how Bioware was going to handle the fact that we were initially only going to get access to nine chapters of a story that's supposed to be a total of sixteen chapters long. I had mental images of the game ending on a cliffhanger, leaving you with nothing but a "to be continued" screen. But no, the way they've handled it is actually pretty clever. The entirety of chapter nine is basically about introducing you to the idea that you need to build an alliance, and continuing to work on it after the chapter has officially ended feels perfectly natural. This should make the transition from the solo story to staying in the game for repeatable content and a persistent world a lot more palatable and might avoid some of the issues people had at launch, where they played through their class story with gusto but then quickly drifted away because they weren't interested in larger group content and it felt like their personal story had ended.

Following on from this, it makes sense that the alliance endgame is much more accessible to the solo player than more "traditional" endgame activities such as raiding. Yes, there are Star Fortresses to blow up and heroic missions to run, but all of these can be soloed, it's just easier and often more rewarding with an extra person in tow. I suspect that Bioware's hope here is that this content will serve as a stepping stone for mostly solo players to get them to start interacting with other people and maybe forge some social ties in the process, without throwing them in at the deep end.

At its core, the alliance system is also really simple. I've been trying to think about how to sum it up for this post, and really, what it comes down to is that you're collecting companions and increasing their power over time. They all have little stories associated with them, which isn't quite as good as a new chapter for the major storyline, but it's still a charming little piece of extra content, so why wouldn't you do it? If you want, you can stop after merely acquiring your new companions... but why not spend some time making your new friends and allies a little more powerful as well, meaning that they'll kick that much more butt whenever they are out questing with you?

This is where the "grind" comes in, though unlike a lot of people I'm not using that word in a negative way here. A lot of the time, when people talk about grind in an MMO, what they really mean is that there is some sort of repeatable content that is designed for you to... repeat it (duh). And that is not inherently a bad thing! The only times when grind becomes problematic is when it simply serves as a gating mechanic to a greater reward, so that people do it purely for the reward without actually enjoying the activity itself.


The reason I think that the alliance system is a good grind is that it isn't tied to any huge rewards, but at the same time there are so many ways to work on it that it would be hard to find a reason to not work on it at all. There are companion missions that push you towards trying out different activities, such as PvP or hunting down world bosses, but more importantly, you can buy both alliance resource boxes and companion gifts to progress your alliance for common data crystals from a vendor, and you can get those crystals from pretty much any PvE content these days. It's all tied together pretty nicely.

Is everything perfect then? Of course not, there is always something to criticise! First off, the "classic conversation interface" used for alliance missions comes as a bit of a shock to the system, whether you ultimately end up liking it or not. Bioware has officially pegged it as a nostalgic throwback to Knights of the Old Republic and as a way of giving people more than three conversation options, but it seems to primarily be a cost-cutting measure, even if Bioware won't admit that. They've always said that voice acting doesn't take up as much of the game's budget as people think and I believe that, but it's still obvious that it's got to be a money-saver to only pay for one voice-over per conversation (the NPC you're talking to) because the player character is suddenly silent (which means that you don't have to pay the sixteen voice actors that do the male and female versions of the player characters of all eight classes). Hell, if you make the NPC an alien that speaks Huttese or some other alien language, you can use a stock "alien gibberish" recording and don't need to record anything new at all!

I can't blame people for being cynical about this move, but cost-cutting and simplification measures like these were already a part Shadow of Revan, what with the side missions that didn't have true conversations, just a quick one-liner that played when you clicked on the NPC. And if I had to choose between that and the alliance conversation system, I'd take the latter any day - at least it's still interactive! It's also something that is only being applied to these specific side missions and the main storyline will continue to maintain its usual production quality. Honestly, once I got over the "shock" of how different it looked, I quickly got used to it.


The other concern is that in its effort to be accessible and optional, the alliance system may not prove "sticky" enough to keep players around that aren't also into some other part of the game, though obviously only time will tell. At the same time, the grindiness involved in actually collecting and levelling all the available companions could be considered alt-unfriendly (even if it's not a requirement for anything) and might put people off in a different way.

Lastly, I personally can't help but wonder what will happen to the whole system once new story content is released. As I said, the end of chapter nine ties pretty neatly into getting the player to work on the alliance system. But what happens once chapter ten comes out? I don't expect that our alliance will become irrelevant until closer to the actual end of the storyline, but is the progression from the main story to this different kind of endgame still going to feel natural as time goes on? Or will people have to backtrack once more chapters have come out? Or skip it altogether? I do worry a little that Bioware (like many other MMO developers, sadly) isn't keeping enough of an eye on how to make sure that their content remains viable for a long time and doesn't become pointless the moment the next expansion shifts the focus to something else again.

2 comments :

  1. Building the alliance reminds me a lot of the "building a team" portion of Mass Effect 2. In Mass Effect 2, if you "invested" in your team then more positive outcomes of the main story were possible. If you skipped the team building, things got grim-dark fast.

    So the million dollar question is: Can you have a properly "heroic" main story outcome if you didn't destroy all the star fortresses? What about if you didn't feed the alliance personnel all those lock boxes?

    Even post-nerf my companion can keep my Tank-guardian alive in a solo star fortress run. That's because my tank guardian can shrug off tons of damage. I'm looking ahead to some of my less defensive characters though. I'm wondering if for example, my scrapper-scoundrel won't be able to run star fortresses without a genuine group.

    So let's assume that it's true that my scoundrel will need help. Let's answer our million dollar question three ways and look at what that means:

    1.) Star fortresses are important and so is influence:

    That's some serious dis-incentive to play my scoundrel. As a solo player, groups would be hard to come by, especially as time goes on. Also, Star fortress isn't in the group finder, so it's stand in Odessen and beg.

    2.) Star fortress is not important, but influence is:

    Not that big a deal, since general heroics aren't as tough content. I'll grind them up and not look at a star fortress.

    3.) Star fortresses aren't important and neither is influence.

    Sweet!!! by the time I get to my 5'th alt I'm sure I'll never want to run either a heroic or star fortress ever again!

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    1. I've never played the Mass Effect series myself, but I've heard other people make that comparison.

      And I'm with you in that I don't want our work on the alliance to influence the outcome of the main story. As I said in the main post, I think right now it works because it's optional, and if you felt the need to grind out all those heroics and influence levels on every alt purely to get a better ending, it wouldn't feel optional anymore. I want the choices in the main storyline to matter, but this is alright being it's own thing. Seeing the little companion stories and having more powerful helpers is its own reward.

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