The Nathema Conspiracy - Mechanics

After players got confused by the way the one-time story mode was handled for Crisis on Umbara, and then got even more confused by yet another implementation of how to handle it for Traitor Among the Chiss, Nathema Conspiracy saw a return of the Umbara model where the one-time solo mode is baked into the story mission, and while you're on that you just can't enter any of the other difficulty modes: deal with it. I remain unconvinced that this is the best way to handle it, but it is what it is.

How's gameplay on Nathema otherwise? Quite pleasant really. Unlike another reviewer I was kind of surprised by how little trash there was. I won't go so far as to say there was too little, but it seemed to me like the space had originally been designed for more. It made me picture the designers initially coming up with a much denser and longer flashpoint, but after the negative feedback they received about the trash on Copero, they decided to just take 50-60% of their planned trash pulls out, leaving a lot of empty space behind. That's my theory anyway.

The mobs have a variety of abilities and at least on hardmode some of them have one hell of a knockback, which is amusing to watch as a healer to say the least. Another interesting mechanic on all difficulty modes is that some of the zealots seem to have a stupidly powerful heal over time - though I haven't actually seen a cast for it, which kind of takes out the fun of actually being able to do something about it, with the net result being that the mobs just take longer to kill. Likewise many of the other trash abilities, while they create all kinds of colourful geometric shapes on the floor, ultimately don't do enough to be truly disruptive and don't really give you the opportunity for intelligent counter-play. Maybe I was expecting too much - fun trash like in Kaon Under Siege or Lost Island has always been the exception rather than the rule. I guess I just can't help but note that the trash both on Copero and on Nathema comes very close to being interesting to deal with but then just misses the mark.

The boss fights are all pretty solid. The first fight is very simplistic, somewhat reminiscent of the Vrblther in Czerka Core Meltdown only without the adds, but that's fine. Since the consoles that you "pop" to increase your damage output on the boss are limited in number and don't respawn, you can strategise a bit when it comes to deciding when to use them.

The bonus boss encounter with the two Hands of Zildrog is a bit boring, as it's mostly a tank and spank with a few circles on the floor. I'm also still not sure if there's even any difference between the two bosses. At first I thought they cast different abilities, but then I swear I saw the second one start using the same abilities as the first one after the first one had died...

What's good is that like in Umbara and Copero, the bonus encounter is accessible without having to do a lengthy quest chain, so that each group can decide on the spot whether to do the fight or not. There is a bonus mission to find seven "Treasures of Valkorian" (which reveal that someone at Bioware doesn't know how to spell Valkorion's name), which is decent fun as the chests are all just hidden enough to make you look around a bit but don't require you to clear every inch of the flashpoint of trash, unlike on Copero. The odd thing is just that it literally rewards nothing: no CXP, no regular XP, no credits, not even a one-time codex entry. I can't decide whether that was an oversight or is a sign of Bioware kind of throwing in the towel on bonuses, thinking something along the lines of: "You know what, it doesn't seem to matter what sorts of rewards we put on bonuses, the majority will always want to skip them. Let's just add a few shiny things to click on for people who enjoy that kind of thing [such as me], but if they can't get their group members to go along with it, at least nobody misses out on any rewards."

Up next is the Giant Kitten Ancient Guardian Droid, who is an interesting amalgamation of a Kell dragon skeleton and a droid skin. His main mechanic is a spinning move that does AoE damage similar to Dread Master Styrak's pet in Scum and Villainy, however instead of hiding behind the tank you're supposed to hide behind some probes that you first have to damage but not kill. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I think it's cool to see them repurpose what was previously a raid-only mechanic for smaller group content, but on the other hand it's kind of unintuitive. In solo mode you can pretty much ignore the mechanic and just heal through it, but in veteran and up it suddenly kills you and you might not even know why. Also, "damage this but don't kill it" is a mechanic that's always hard to execute for pugs. Maybe the hiding part could have been implemented in a way that makes it more obvious what to do.

In the final room you have two boss fights: first Gemini 16, then Vinn Atrius and Zildrog together. I really liked that Gemini 16 splits into multiple copies in a way that's reminiscent of the Gemini Captain fight in KotFE chapter 15; it makes for a nice bit of consistency (even if it's quite a painful mechanic to deal with as a healer, as all the split adds will instantly aggro on you). She also does a powerful damage beam that you can just move out of on solo mode but need to line of sight on higher difficulties to avoid the damage - again something that might take some trial and error for pugs.

Fun fact: When I did the flashpoint on veteran mode for my pugging series, I said that I expected the last boss to be relatively easy... and then we wiped on him. I still think that nothing he does is inherently difficult to deal with, but he does stack a lot of mechanics on top of each other: circles to avoid, a knockback you have to be careful with in order not to fall to your death, a beam that connects two players who then have to stay close together or else they'll heal the boss, and adds that reduce everyone's hitpoints for the duration of the fight. My pug ended up healing the boss a lot due to not quite understanding the beam mechanic right away, but what actually did us in were the adds, which I had completely forgotten about since they hadn't been an issue for me on solo or hard mode. However, left to do their thing unimpeded on veteran mode, they ended up reducing our hitpoints so much that we were barely at 10% of our normal health by the end and a bog-standard attack could one-shot us. Fun times.

All in all, the Nathema Conspiracy backs a great story up with very solid mechanics, yet I couldn't help but feel like something was missing. I think above everything else I felt a bit let down by just how easy the flashpoint felt on master mode in particular when compared to Umbara and Copero. It's not that everything has to be super hard, but to have the climax of the story of all things be a relative cakewalk felt a little underwhelming to me.

It did make me muse about difficulty in general though and how I too am sometimes guilty of saying that I want one thing but then acting counter to my own words. I like the idea of really tough fights such as in hardmode Umbara, and I certainly feel highly accomplished whenever I beat them, but I don't exactly go out to repeat them often. The last time we got MM Umbara as a random, my guildies sighed a lot, and we didn't end up finishing because we just couldn't get a handle on the last boss's endless add waves (not to mention the countless wipes we had on the way). I've even heard people talk about taking gear off just to make sure they don't fulfil the minimum gear requirement and can safely queue for a random hardmode without getting one of the new flashpoints. And I can't claim that I've been actively seeking them out myself, or that I don't relate to the frustration experienced when every single boss causes multiple wipes even though we know the basic mechanics.

I guess what I'm saying is that a part of me wanted master mode Nathema Conspiracy to be harder... but at the same time there's a part of me that is glad that it isn't. I'm not sure how both of them could be satisfied at the same time.


The Nathema Conspiracy - The Story

It took me a few days to gather my thoughts (and to find the time to actually write them down), but it's time to talk about what happens in the Nathema Conspiracy. If you can't guess: this means spoilers! You have been warned.

To recap what happened in the previous two installments of this story arc: Theron Shan suddenly betrayed the Outlander, claiming that you were just using the Alliance to do evil, regardless of what you'd actually been doing. After trying and failing to track him down on the Chiss world of Copero, you as the player learn that he seems to be posing as a double agent for an organisation called the Order of Zildrog, but his divided loyalties are not yet made clear to your character at this point.

The Nathema Conspiracy starts with you and Lana following a mysterious signal to an abandoned Imperial listening post, where your character finally learns the truth, as Theron has left you information about the Order there. You learn that it is led by a former Horizon Guard called Vinn Atrius, a handsome cyborg who comes off as surprisingly sympathetic compared to all the megalomaniacs that we've been fighting since KotFE, and who actually has relatable reasons for hating the Outlander.

From the holos left behind on the station you learn that he's been searching for and has now found Zildrog, who turns out to be as real as the rest of the Zakuulan pantheon, except that it he's a superweapon stored in a vault on Nathema instead of on Iokath. Working with Vinn are Gemini 16, a former Eternal Fleet unit who managed to escape re-enslavement by cutting herself off from her "sisters" and who now wants to see them dead to avoid ever being influenced by the Gemini network again, as well as a couple of other characters who have reasons to hate you and whose identity varies based on some of your previous story choices. For example redeeming Arcann makes you an enemy of a Nautolan from one of the worlds that Arcann bombarded previously and who's outraged that you just made him part of your Alliance without any kind of punishment (understandable). Yet if you killed him and Senya, one of Vinn's allies ends up being a former knight who was apparently very close to Senya and who's furious that you killed her (also understandable). Just goes to show again that there's no winning when it comes to some situations!

Theron's info also tells you to go to Nathema to prevent Vinn & Co. from unleashing Zildrog, which is corroborated by your Alliance specialists on Odessen, who have finally made sense of the star map you retrieved from Copero. (Wait, didn't that get blown up before we could lay our hands on it?) Time to return to Nathema to find out what's what!

You and Lana take a shuttle there and find the planet transformed after Valkorion's death, full of new growth and wildlife. On meeting Theron at the co-ordinates he provided, you don't get to kill him right away (even if you want to) as you need him to point you in the right direction to prevent Zildrog's release.

Eventually you reach the vault where Zildrog is stored, and sadly he turns out to be a boring computer terminal instead of a cool lobster dragon creature... thing like Izax. Wonder how he became a dragon in the Zakuulan legends? You also learn that Vinn's precious allies ended up being recruited for no other reason that to serve as fuel for the machine - too bad for them.

Initially held back by a force field, you can't do anything but watch as Zildrog powers up and it turns out that his actual "body" is the Gravestone, which he promptly flies up into orbit above Odessen to one-shot the entire Eternal Fleet. He then turns it towards Odessen but needs to recharge before being able to fire again, which results in the shield around you dropping and allows you to engage Gemini 16, Vinn and Zildrog. You manage to successfully destroy/capture all of them, however Theron gets stabbed in the back by Vinn and ends up mortally wounded. You get the option to save him by quickly returning him to Odessen or leaving the "traitor" to die.

Back on Odessen you wrap things up with Lana (and potentially Theron if he's still alive) and get to muse on what's going to come next now that your Alliance has effectively been robbed of what gave it most of its power. You also have to choose whether to throw in your lot with the Republic or the Empire going forward.

Even though that was still a fair number of words, it's actually a very bare-bones summary of the plot that leaves out a lot of lovingly inserted detail. For example I've read that if you romanced Lana or Theron, you get the option to marry them at the end (which I haven't seen yet as none of the characters that I've taken through the story so far were romantically involved with either of them). My Guardian, who romanced Arcann in his Alliance alert, got to share a tender moment with him, but even if you're not romantically involved he makes a brief appearance if he's still alive.

On Nathema you have a holo call with one of Vinn's allies who's actually different based on your base class. I've tried to avoid spoiling myself for all the different possibilities, but from what I've gathered this person can even be different for some classes based on decisions taken during the class story. The sad thing is that this went completely over my head during my first playthrough because for my trooper said character wasn't anyone I knew; they just made the briefest of references to something that had happened in my class story, so I thought that sentence was as far as the customisation went. In reality however the identity of the person themselves varies, and for some classes it's even someone you know. Considering that the ally in question ends up being one of the people that get turned into fuel for Zildrog, that's a considerable cast of characters who could now potentially be dead.

None of this changes the overall flow of the narrative, but it does add some much added distinction between characters for those of us with many alts and showcases a love for detail that has often been absent in more recent content releases, probably making this one of SWTOR's best story updates in a long time.

But what about the plot, you might say... Is it any good? Well, I already summarised it earlier in this post, so you'll be the judge, but most of the reactions that I've seen have been very positive, and I was actually kind of surprised by how much I enjoyed it myself. I could see people who were really in love with the role of Alliance Commander hating it, and of course if you were already super jaded with the game to begin with, it's unlikely that this update will change your mind. (Though I have seen some comments from players who felt that the Nathema Conspiracy served to invigorate their previously flagging interest in the game.)

Personally, I've been wanting to see the Alliance come to an end for a while, so I guess I was positively biased towards developments in this flashpoint that way, but this hasn't stopped me from being critical of poorly written story installments in the past (see Iokath as an example). The Nathema Conspiracy just handles things better in every possible way, largely because of the aforementioned love for detail but also because the plot just works much better in general.

Vinn Atrius and Gemini 16 make for interesting and convincing villains despite of having been complete unknowns beforehand, and I wasn't surprised at all to see people asking for an option to romance Vinn the very day the patch came out. There are also some interesting character moments for Lana and Theron. Personally I found it amusing that Lana serves as your foil regardless of which stance you take towards Theron - if you say that you trusted him all along she keeps telling you to be cautious, yet if you leave him to die she's actually taken aback and later confesses on Odessen that despite everything that's happened she's genuinely saddened by his death.

The way the dialogue and cut scenes are set up, they also manage to hit some very strong emotional notes. For example I was genuinely worried about Odessen getting blown up and was actually relieved when we managed to save the planet - not because of it being my base, but because it's a lovely planet and I didn't want any of the characters still stuck on it to die! And when I chose to leave Theron to die on my dark-sided Marauder, I actually felt a pang of regret despite of her having wanted to kill him for months. Honestly, if I had to pick one thing I didn't like it would probably be that everyone kept referring to Zildrog as "it", which seemed like an oddly detached way of talking about a well-known mythical being with a personality.

As far as major plot points go, the Emperor having yet another superweapon stored away in a vault somewhere seemed plausible enough based on what we know about him. While I've seen some people express unhappiness with Zildrog's dialogue claiming that it was him who wiped out the population of Nathema, I don't think it takes anything away from Vitiate/Valkorion to know that he used an actual weapon to kill everyone to achieve his original "ascension" instead of just doing it purely through the power of the Force.

I suppose the Gravestone turning out to be Zildrog's body is a bit convenient, especially as unlike with the Gods from the Machine there's no physical resemblance between the body and the image the Zakuulans have of the deity/mythological creature. The Dark Sanctuary also doesn't really feel like it was originally meant to be a "brain connector" or whatever we want to call it, but I guess it was a leftover mystery from KotFE that had never received a resolution, and resolving it like this felt appropriate enough.

After how lacklustre this story arc started out with Iokath and Crisis on Umbara, the Nathema Conspiracy really restored my faith in Bioware's storytelling and makes me genuinely curious about what they will come up with next. What were your thoughts on the story?


Looking Good

When Crisis on Umbara came out, I thought that it was set in an interesting environment, what with the moving train and those weird tentacle things coming out of the ground. Traitor Among the Chiss raised the bar by taking us to the gorgeous Chiss world of Copero. I didn't think it could get any better than that, but the Nathema Conspiracy proved me wrong. That was quite a surprise too, considering Nathema's dreariness in KotET chapter seven.

The Force made it pretty again though. I swear most of my time during my first playthrough of the flashpoint was taken up by just looking around and taking screenshots. Here are a few of them:

I remember recently in my comment section Soots commented about how none of the new flashpoints are as fun and attractive as the classic ones, and another commenter replied - quite rightly so - that in a comparison of the visuals between False Emperor and Traitor Among The Chiss, the latter would come out as a clear winner. As much as it's fun to reminisce about the good old days sometimes, in terms of looks SWTOR's environments have only become prettier.

I think this will only add to people's already existing longing for another "proper" open-world planet to be added to the game again soon. The fleet is fine as a hub but sometimes you just want to treat your eyes to something nicer. And Iokath didn't really fit the bill for this due to its mechanical design.

Speaking of appearances, the patch also brought with it a new hairstyle. Please tell me I wasn't the only one who paused after seeing it for the first time and went to the Cartel Market to check if a new hair bundle had been released?! Bioware surprised everyone in a positive way however by simply adding the new hairstyle to the existing selection for free. It's a pretty good one as well, a nice variant of the classic short ponytail. I just fear that I might get sick of seeing it pretty quickly, what with seemingly everyone on my Twitter timeline rolling up new alts with the exact same hairstyle now!


5.9 Patch Thoughts & Story Epiphanies

Yesterday was a very good patch day: new content and lots of small fixes of the best kind. Example:
I'm particularly pleased with the tweaks to the trash before Izax though. I do like the idea of the puzzle leading up to the boss, but we've wasted quite a bit of time on it in the past when - despite of understanding what we were meant to do - the "moving pieces" behaved in mysterious ways that prevented us from completing the puzzle. ("How can they not have line of sight? They're right next to each other!")

I was excited to see the mission "Introduction to Conquests" get fixed, as it's very rewarding for alts who complete a conquest for the first time, but it had been impossible to complete for the past few weeks because Bioware had forgotten to update the quest to make sure it actually got triggered by the new conquest system. I immediately had some alts to visit after patching up who had already been waiting to collect their bonus rewards.

And the introductory missions to Black Hole and Section X are back, yes! I never understood why these were removed in the first place, especially with 5.0 making the old daily areas relevant again.

And of course we got the new flashpoint... I will save my opinions on that for another post though. It did cause me to have an only vaguely related revelation in regards to my feelings about MMO lore and stories though. You see, I've often said that to me it's very important that the writers take their own world seriously, which is one of the things I really love about Bioware. And just as often others have countered with arguments like "The real world is already serious enough!" or "Humour is good!", which I didn't really know how to counter, though I didn't feel like these arguments really addressed the heart of the matter.

The newest installment of SWTOR's main story is very earnest and serious, with nothing to really laugh at. It succeeded in evoking all kinds of emotions in me while I played: excitement, curiosity, worry. And yet... I actually made some light-hearted moments for myself too. For example there was one point when it struck me just how lush the environment was, so I decided to go out of character for a minute, put on my trooper's beach outfit and lounged next to a waterfall for a silly screenshot.

At another point, I tried to knock some mobs to their deaths and managed to make one of them bounce off the wall in such a manner that his body came to lie on a narrow ledge... and it emitted a loot beam. In my guild I'm infamous for not wanting to leave any loot behind, so of course I took that attitude here too. First I fell to my death even trying to get to the mob, then I reached him successfully to loot but died afterwards because there was no real way to get back off the ledge without dying. It wasn't really worth it in monetary terms but it's always more about the principle of the thing for me anyway. Throughout the entire sequence I was providing running commentary for my actions to my pet tank and we both got a good laugh out of it. Then it was back to the story and serious business.

And this got me thinking: I'm not averse to making fun of things, but I prefer for it to be my choice. It's easy to take a step back, laugh at some particularity in an otherwise serious story, and then get back into it. But when the whole thing is a big joke from beginning to end, with everything being a parody of something or other and characters spouting movie quotes left and right - that may well be funny sometimes, but if the humour is not your cup of tea it can be hard to enjoy what's left despite of it. An overall serious story can easily include a couple of chuckles here and there, but something that doesn't take itself seriously to begin with will have a difficult time when it comes to getting people to genuinely care later on. At best it's likely to be a very jarring experience. So I do like me a good bit of humour and laughs, but I prefer worlds and stories that can be taken seriously and that the players are allowed to make fun of when it pleases them instead of the devs treating everything like a giant joke from the get-go.


Alive And Kicking

I've been with my guild, Twin Suns Squadron of Darth Malgus (formerly The Red Eclipse) for five and a half years now. I actually meant to make an anniversary video last November but lost steam before I got very far into it. Maybe I'll actually finish it once my sixth anniversary with the guild rolls around!

Twin Suns Squadron logo taken from Wookieepedia. Fun fact: I actually had no idea that this was an Expanded Universe reference when I joined the guild; I just thought that it was a cool name.

From what I hear from other people, being in the same guild for this long is rather unusual. Mind you, I'm not saying that I've actually been playing with the same people all this time. Apart from two or three individuals who have indeed been around for as long as I have, there's always been a certain degree of turnover. However, that hasn't prevented the stability of the guild as an institution from providing me with a comfortable social space to hang out. I've still valued the friendships that I made during those years too, even if most of them turned out to be transitory eventually. Not everyone can be a friend for life. My habit of recording and creating videos of guild achievements and funny moments has turned out to be handy in this context, as looking back at the older videos helps me remember the names of members long gone and the fun I had with them.

I've been thinking about all of this a lot lately because my guild had another very successful run at conquest this past week, hitting the medium yield target for the second time since the new system was implemented, and when I checked the scores more closely I noticed that ours was the second highest score of all Republic guilds across all three boards. The only ones who outdid us were Wardens of the Republic, and this was truly baffling to me mainly because I've always thought of Twin Suns as a fairly small-ish guild, and still do. Nominally our guild roster lists around 800 characters, but I'd estimate that about 50% of those are old members who've gone inactive and that we just never felt the need to remove, 45% are probably alts, and only about 5% are actual playing individuals.

We've always had ups and downs in terms of activity, but in recent months things have gotten interesting in a new way. It started with my pet tank, who is also the guild leader these days, declaring that we needed fresh blood and sending a newly minted officer out to recruit. Said officer took to this task with an almost shocking amount of zeal, spamming general chat on the starter planets and inviting anyone who replied. The results were kind of weirdly fascinating to me, because my own approach to recruiting had always been the opposite: being selective, requiring the completion of application forms etc. (usually with very limited results).

This sweeping recruitment certainly achieved two things: It made sure that we maintained the full XP and reputation bonus for our guild, and it made the guild look active on a superficial level, in the sense that you could log on at any time of day and see some people online. However, the vast majority of players recruited this way didn't actually end up engaging with the established core of the guild in any way. I think one or two stuck around, but most of them just continued to quietly do their own thing for a while and then stopped logging in or disappeared in some other manner, eventually causing the active member count to drop off again.

It was only fairly recently and after several such recruitment waves that our recruitment officer decided to change his tack and began talking to people who were already showing a clear interest in endgame activities and social interactions beforehand. And it worked! We gained a great bunch of new members this way. One of them, who plays a tank, was completely new to endgame and we've slowly been training him up from scratch. Hey, just because we've been running Eternity Vault for more than six years that doesn't mean that we aren't still happy to show a newbie the ropes.

More recently a guild with whom we'd been friendly for a long time also decided to merge into ours. It kind of took me back to when I had just joined myself, back when the game was contracting heavily in its first year and no less than three others guilds had only just merged into Twin Suns Squadron as well, making for a very... colourful environment. It led to me running my first 16-man operation ever and boy, was I excited! Comparatively, the first two days after the most recent merger actually made me feel a bit overwhelmed. So many new names! What are they all talking about? It made me want to hide for a little bit.

However, as things have started to settle down, I'm once again enjoying the process of getting to know the new faces and learning more about them both as people and as players. I'm not that worried about how good they are at the game - what's more important is that they are fun to hang out with, and so far we seem to be doing well, even if these things are never completely without friction.

It just amazes me that we are still going strong after all this time, and I hope that things will continue this way for years to come. I'm certainly trying to contribute in my own way: I know my pet tank for example probably would have drifted away from the game a long time ago if I wasn't so enamoured with it myself, with my presence keeping him around by extension. We all do our part, and long may it continue.


Pugging with Shintar is back!

When I finished up my Pugging with Shintar series last year, I already knew that I wanted to do a "season two" but I also felt that I needed a break and didn't want to get started on it until early 2018. That then got delayed first by me wanting to create a best-of video of season one, and then me getting stuck with a cold that I seemed to be unable to fully shake for several weeks. (Degree of illness aside, coughing and sniffling a lot does not make for the best recording voice.)

However, I'm finally feeling better, so when I found myself with a few hours of unallocated free time this weekend, I set out to get started at last. My plan for season two is to do some endgame pugging, so I started episode one with an operation:

As you'd probably expect, the episode ended up being pretty long even with more than half of the original recording edited out, but I guess that's the sort of video you can put on and watch on the side while doing dailies or whatever. (And I even put in the effort of making a custom thumbnail this time!)

Stay tuned to the YouTube channel for more (though I don't expect to create weekly episodes in this new format; pugging operations is too time-intensive for me to be able to reliably devote time to it every single weekend).


The Point of Conquest

One of the nice things about having a blog is that you get to look back on what you thought about events years ago without having to purely rely on your potentially fuzzy memory. Unlike the way our brain remembers things, the written word doesn't change over time. So when the recent Conquest changes were implemented, I went back to see what I had thought about the system when it was first introduced back in late 2014. (Gosh, has it really been that long?) I had completely forgotten that my first reaction could pretty much be summed up as: "This is quite fun but I'm not entirely sure what's the point."

Since then I've been trying to consider the Conquest changes from that angle: the system's purpose in the game and how the changes potentially reflect an attempt to change - or at least adjust - the reasons people might participate in Conquest.

For the record, I'm still having a pretty good time with it myself. My guild has hit its small yield target every week so far, and once we even went for medium yield and managed to hit that, though it took more than the normal effort to do so.

The way I see it, Conquest was always meant to fulfil two purposes:

1) To give people something to do, on an individual level. Some would call this a pointless grind, but I prefer to see it as an offer of structure for those who enjoy their time in the game in general but find it hard to regularly choose among all the different activities on offer. When in doubt, you can do something that will also earn you some Conquest points.

2) To give guilds as entities something to do beyond chatting and raiding, something that can be both collaborative and competitive (by inviting comparison with other guilds).

The thing that immediately struck me about point one the moment I thought about it is that this is one of the main purposes of Galactic Command as well. And I suspect that this probably presented a problem from a dev point of view: What's the point of having two systems that are so similar? The main difference is that Galactic Command doesn't become available until max level and is limited to subscribers, but aside from that they've both been largely about running X flashpoints or completing Y warzones to earn points to fill a bar that's worth a box of goodies at the end.

So now my theory is that this is part of why they reduced the points granted by repeatable activities so drastically: Galactic Command allows you to earn your points in whichever way you like, so in order to make Conquest different they had to change it so that you wouldn't just automatically hit your goal from doing the same activities you were already doing for Galactic Command. Instead you have to plan and/or mix it up a bit.

The new system doesn't actually make it hard to hit your target on your first character - in fact one of the recent events had me hit my target faster than I'd ever done it before, in a single night: Two operations were featured as one-time goals worth 7,500 points each (with maxed out stronghold bonus), so my guild ran both of those on story mode in one evening - and boom, that was my personal target of 15k points achieved. But you do have to actually look at which activities are featured that week and consider which ones are the most rewarding for your time investment.

That said, there are still similarities between GC and Conquest, and I think that's part of why I've been enjoying it as much as I have: I embraced Galactic Command after it had gone through a sufficient number of iterations and actually got loads of characters to 300... but I've reached a point now where I'm finding it hard to care because I have almost no level 70s left that aren't Command rank 300. Sure, I could always level up more, but... meh. Just then new Conquest arrived to save the day and provide me with something similar but different to hold my attention.

I feel like Conquest's purpose for guilds is a bit trickier to unpack. My first thought was that the removal of the invasion bonus has de-emphasised the importance of being in a guild to do Conquest, but there is more going on than that.

It seems to me that in the past, Conquest was always meant to be more competitive than collaborative, because while it required working together, all your hard work and team spirit would come to naught if you weren't competitive enough to make it into the top ten. On the surface, the introduction of small, medium and large yield planets should have supported the competitive aspects of the system by making the competition more "fair" by pitting guilds of similar size against each other, but that's clearly not working. (Seriously, everyone just seems to go for small yield except for some confused people whose guilds score like 20k points in total and I'm not sure what they were expecting to achieve by invading the large yield planet.)

You almost have to wonder whether Bioware themselves had doubts about whether this would work or not, because at the same time the yield system makes competition a lot less important and makes it all about collaboration instead. Oh well, so you didn't win first place, but at least everyone still got their prize, right?

However, looking at the personal targets again, a lot of the changes there seem to be geared towards making competition between guilds more fair. The big crafting nerf was one. As I already wrote three years ago, the previous iteration was just ridiculously overpowered. Logging in for five minutes a day to craft would earn you more points than actually playing the game all day, and that was just silly. More importantly though, it allowed guild members to make wildly different contributions to the shared goal. The last few times when my guild placed on the board under the old system were pretty much down to one or two people crafting goods worth several millions (!) of points each. And I'm not knocking their efforts - I was grateful for the free ride, but it wasn't exactly a case of everyone coming together in a big display of team spirit. It meant that for many guilds competing for first place on the board basically came down to how many selected members could burn the most credits on crafting in the shortest amount of time, which wasn't really meant to be the point.

I suspect that the changes to objectives, with their move away from repeatable activities towards more one-time objectives is also related to this, because it means that there are basically "diminishing returns" as you try to bring up more alts. It can be done, but for the sake of guild competitiveness it makes more sense to have as many individuals as possible contributing, instead of being able to rely on three guys who play all day and have an army of alts.


The conquest changes make sense if the devs' goal was to distinguish the system more clearly from Galactic Command and to make it more about people successfully working together as a group instead of a few rich/dedicated individuals carrying everyone else to victory.

I think the main problem it has right now is that the competitive aspect is kind of standing on wobbly legs because the yield system is so not working out as a way to make competition more fair. That, and that some points values even for one-time objectives seem seriously out of whack in terms of effort vs. reward. I also agree with Intisar that they could add some more one-time objectives to give people more choice in terms of how to achieve their personal target without making it too easy to farm points on a dozen alts (I love operations but they feel a bit over-represented at the moment for example - need more one-time goals related to things like warzones, GSF etc.). I'm sure that all of these things are still being looked at, however.


Unexpectedly Dangerous

This week's conquest gave me an incentive to revisit the Rakghoul Tunnels on my main for the first time in years.

After running around a bit, I wanted to return to the Republic base, so I tried to get up the little ledge that separates the base from the rest of the tunnel system via the magnetic grappling hook installed there.

First click: Nothing happens.

Second click: It pulls me up, but traps me inside the wall above the hook. I use /stuck to free myself, but it puts me back down at the bottom.

Third click: It pulls me up and traps me inside the rock again, but now /stuck is on cooldown. Hey, maybe travelling to my stronghold and back will free me! I think, feeling very clever, and indeed I'm able to port to my home on Coruscant.

Then I click on "return to Rakghoul Tunnels"... and this happens:

I spawn inside the rock wall again, but dead.

At least that gave me the option to return to the medcenter inside the base, which is where I had wanted to go all along. It's funny because I remember these tunnels being dangerous on occasion, but not in that way...


Companion Returns: Andronikos, Ashara, Corso & Risha

I'm slowly continuing my goal of chipping away at KotET on more classes to be able to see the new companion returns. Having recently made it there on both my Scoundrel and my Sorcerer, I wanted to share some thoughts.

The spoiler-free version is that they were all disappointingly short, similar to the Arcann romance. I had expected something more in line with the class story snippets on Rishi, or the missions that some of your original companions give you while levelling that briefly have you visiting a planet. Instead it's just all talk again. I guess at least I know what to expect from future returns now.

I can't help but get the impression that Bioware just wants to get these companion returns over and done with. Since whatever original plans they may have had to reintroduce the old companions during a longer story consisting of more chapters were shelved, they are now left with this annoying deficit in players' companion rosters that people just won't stop asking about. Regardless of whether it fits into their new story plans, they've got to get it out of the way somehow. Oh well, at least they are trying.

What follows will contain some spoilers for the individual return missions. Spoilers end again after the screenshot of Ashara!

Corso & Risha

The quest title "Unhappy Returns" seemed apt for this one, because I wasn't particularly happy with it. It probably didn't help that this was the first one I did, which meant that my expectations in terms of length were still higher.

It starts with you receiving a message from "Skavak" and your character following a little trail of call-backs to chapter one of your class story on Nar Shaddaa. That was nice by itself, but it seemed strange to me that my character entered the final room on high alert and with her weapon out - she knows that Skavak is dead, so who else could have been leading her on than one of her old crew mates?

Both Corso and Risha basically seem to have achieved nothing in the six years or so since you were forcefully separated from them. Risha's excuse is that Dubrillion was pretty much razed by the Eternal Empire so everyone stopped caring about it and she then continued leading a nondescript underworld life instead. I get that this was an exceptionally difficult companion arc to bring to a satisfying conclusion, but nonetheless this felt like a poor way of doing so to me. After all that she's gone through, Risha is willing to just give up on her heritage because the planet is in ruins? I didn't get the impression that she was in it only to get rich; I thought she cared about the position and the people too. I'm not going to say that this is out of character exactly, but it just didn't mesh with my image of her.

Meanwhile Corso has just been... tagging along and being Corso. Seriously, no further character development in six years? He may have been a bit of a dork, but he also used to have values, principles and goals. Again, it just strikes me as odd that he would have been happy spending six years tagging along with a woman who doesn't even particularly like him. Maybe there is more to either of these if you romanced Corso or Risha (which wasn't the case for my smuggler).


Hylo has captured a pirate that was harassing Eternal Fleet ships - and lo and behold, it turns out to be Andronikos, who claims that he's been doing this for all these years in search of your inquisitor.

I liked this one a bit more, maybe because my Sorcerer had romanced Andronikos. I genuinely had to think about rekindling the romance with him, as she had started a thing with Theron in the meantime. In the end I decided in his favour though because spending six years in search of her seemed like incredible loyality (something that a light-side inquisitor in particular would value), even if somewhat hard to believe in itself.


You find Ashara meditating on Voss, where she tells you that she's intentionally spent the last few years away, doing good in her own name, and that she basically considers herself all grown up now. You can take her on "as an equal" or leave her.

Again, this one was actually interesting to me because I had to hesitate to make up my mind. I've ranted in the past about how I think Ashara has one of the stupidest acquisition stories of all companions, which potentially (depending on the exact path you take) makes her out to be a complete idiot. If I had been given the chance, none of my inquisitors would even have taken her on. However, once you have her... she's alright I guess. Still, telling her that she might as well continue to go her own way hardly seemed like a cruel rejection. And accepting her as an equal seemed a silly thing to do for the inquisitor of all people. I did go with that in the end however, figuring that my Sorc would probably be happy to add a more powerful Ashara to her Alliance army, while inwardly chuckling to herself about how the silly girl could ever consider herself an equal to a Force user of her level...

Of these three stories, I think I liked Ashara's best, even though she's my least favourite companion of the lot. I liked that she went her own way in a meaningful manner and actually had a compelling reason to stay away even after learning of the inquisitor's return and rise to power.

I suppose I'm biased as I'm coming at this from the point of view of someone who's engaged in few romances in this game. I get the impression that many who are very attached to their romanced companions want to see them come back and be all: "I've been looking for you forever, my life was nothing without you!" (which is kind of how Andronikos comes across), and I can definitely see the appeal. At the same time though, when I think about my own life, look back at any major event in it and then compare my life then to how it was six years later - things always turned out to be very different, with things having changed a lot and me having moved on. Now, not everyone works like that, and I can definitely see some companions getting hung up on their romance with the player character and being unable to let go, but if you didn't actually romance them it just makes them look like somewhat creepy stalkers. "We were barely even friends, why the hell didn't you just move on?" But I guess I'm probably in the minority with that attitude.

Knowing what's coming up, I'll have to work on finishing things up on my agent, bounty hunter and consular next!


Story Gating

Telwyn has been playing a bit of Final Fantasy XIV recently, making use of a promotion that granted him some free game time, and summed up his experiences of both the good and the bad in two recent posts. One of the negative points he mentioned was that too many of the game's features are gated behind having to complete its main storyline (for his liking anyway), in this particular case expansion content that you're not allowed to access until you've done a certain amount of "the old stuff", though I also remember seeing people complain about much earlier gates like this before, such as not being able to buy a mount until a certain point in the story.

I've never played a Final Fantasy game myself, and from what I've read about it it doesn't really sound like my cup of tea either, but as a SWTOR player I still find its approach to story very fascinating, as there seems to be a certain amount of common ground between the two MMOs when it comes to the importance given to story within the context of the game. I don't know whether being this strict in terms of questing requirements is necessarily the "right" approach, but I can't help but feel a certain amount of respect for the game's creators for sticking to their vision, even in the face of criticism (as Telwyn is far from the first person to bring this up as a problem).

What's also interesting to me is that despite of SWTOR's love for story as a "fourth pillar", it has never been this strict in terms of its story gating. Yes, the class story is very linear and does tie into the story of the galaxy as a whole, but in terms of game mechanics, the only things that were strictly gated behind story at launch were:

1. More of the same class story - you couldn't just drop it at the end of Tatooine and then pick it up again on Belsavis. If you dropped it at any point and decided to focus on levelling through other means, you had to go back and do all the quests you missed to be able to see the rest of that particular storyline.

2. Access to your companions. (This has become kind of moot with the amount of story-less companions that you are now able to pick up from promotions and the Cartel Market.)

3. Access to your personal starship.

I also seem to remember some sort of early restriction to being able to leave the starter planet if you hadn't wrapped up the story there, but I'm not sure now whether I didn't just dream that...

Either way, for all our love of SWTOR's story, dedicated players have also enjoyed pushing against its limitations for a long time. Who could forget the podcaster who levelled from 1 to cap by doing nothing but queuing for starfighter matches? Being lazy about the class story is also an ongoing joke among players who maintain raiding alts from my experience, especially when it turns out that this or that character hasn't even bothered to earn their personal starship and now has trouble actually getting around despite of already being near or at the level cap.

The initial batch of post-launch content was remarkably indifferent about continuity as well, usually not requiring any specific prerequisites before you could access it. It was just assumed that you'd done your class story and that you would be happy for the NPCs to treat you accordingly. This could actually be annoying when it would lead to unintentional spoilers via characters addressing you by the rank you hold by the end of your class story before you had actually earned it (mostly a problem for Sith characters). I remember this being particularly egregious with Makeb, before the mission terminal on the ship had been introduced and you could suddenly end up with the Rise of the Hutt Cartel intro playing out of nowhere while you were still trying to wrap up your class story.

Shadow of Revan made a valiant attempt at making sure that it made sense to all players regardless of where they were at in the story. The "miniature class story" on Rishi is inserted in such a way that it can be cut out if you start the story arc without actually having completed your class story beforehand, and there are even separate intros for characters that have or haven't done the precursory Forged Alliances missions. I was reminded of this the other day when Vulkk expressed wonder at the optional cut scenes introducing Lana and Theron on Rishi if you never met them before. (Personally I knew that this option existed, but had never played through it myself either.) I wonder how much work went into these content variations that a huge chunk of the player base never even saw?

Looking back at that now, I can't really blame Bioware for developing the desire to start fresh and with a clean slate with 4.0. Forget having all those different story variations - when a player looks at starting Knights of the Fallen Empire, the game outright tells you to better finish up any pending business beforehand as it will be a whole new world after that.

Of course that brought other issues with it. Since the "Knights of..." expansions weren't shy about branding themselves as your new personal story, it seemed to make sense to have one chapter lead into the next and so on - like the class missions, with no jumping around. The problem is that there was nothing else to do. It's one thing to have a linear storyline taking place within a huge world, where you can wander off the beaten path at any time and then backtrack later, and another to have a linear storyline when that's all there is.

Even so, Bioware once again didn't want players to feel held back for too long. Couldn't get yourself to finish all of the KotFE chapters? No worries, just jump right into KotET anyway and we'll count those last few KotFE chapters as "auto-completed"! Then again, that can cause issues yet again, as characters might suddenly find themselves saddled with a backstory that runs counter to everything they've done before.

Yes, I feel a certain amount of admiration for Final Fantasy XIV's developers and their devotion to the game's story. On the other hand, I can totally see how this rigid system can be a drag for players - and in some ways, it offers the writers and developers an easy way out, because they'll always know what exactly each player has seen and done by the time they reach any particular point in the story.

SWTOR on the other hand is constantly torn between wanting to tell a coherent story and giving players the freedom to do things in a different order if they want to. Despite of the game's strong narrative focus, it never manages to stick to requiring this or that to unlock the next piece of the story for very long. As a long-time player with many alts I appreciate that, but at the same time I often see new players get confused about what order they are supposed to do things in and whether it's sensible to skip this or that storyline. There's no winning here: If you lock events into a linear path, players will feel restricted, but if you give them the freedom to choose, others will be confused about where to go.

The more I think about it, the more sense it would make for 6.0 to wipe the slate clean once again (more or less at least), by getting us to a point where it doesn't matter much anymore what we did as the Alliance Commander and it becomes more important to look towards the future.


Shopping Spree

About a month ago, Chuck from the Bad Feeling podcast asked Keith a question in an interview that seemed quite naive to me at the time: Why can't all the Cartel Market items ever released be available for purchase at all times? Keith answered pretty much as I expected: That this would only make them a lot of money in the short run, but less in the long run. Perceived scarcity and fear of missing out are a thing.

However, it seems that either Keith had a change of heart after that interview, or maybe someone else from his team tapped him on the shoulder afterwards and went: "You know, I agree that this wouldn't be a viable strategy in the long term... but why not try running it as a limited time event?"

And thus, the big Cartel Market Spring Sale was born. I have to admit, I actually got a little excited about this one. I'm not a frequent customer of the Cartel Market, but my "complimentary" aka free Cartel coins had been getting close to hitting the 50k mark again and I've been longing for a reason to spend some. Surely, when provided with that much choice, even I would be able to find something to my liking?

And the answer is: yes! There is something relaxing about flipping through pages and pages of cosmetics during a break in an ops run or while chatting away with guildies on TeamSpeak. The first thing I bought was a type of grophet that I didn't own yet, because you can never have too many grophets (I hope).

I've never been a fashionista, with most of my characters just sporting a look cobbled together from various pieces of gear that they acquired "naturally" at one point or another, but I have been known to change outfits on my main and a couple of alts on occasion. And acquiring some more couldn't get much easier than having all those outfit designer slots, thousands of spare Cartel coins and being presented with dozens of complete outfits only a mouse-click away.

So far I've splurged on the following:

Battlefield Commander set for my main: She's the one who changes looks the most often, and to be honest she was kind of overdue for a new one. I remember liking this set when I first saw it, but not enough to buy it then and there. To be honest it seems a bit more suited for an Imperial soldier than for a Republic one, but since "Imperial trooper" is not a class this seemed like the next-best character to wear it.

I was kind of surprised by how light the set was in game, as the preview picture had made it look almost black. Fortunately I still had a bound black/black dye lying around in my bag that I had pulled out of a cantina crate ages ago, so it was simple enough to adjust the colour to a darker hue.

Zakuulan Security set for my Sage alt: I don't recall this set ever gaining my attention before, but I saw it in the sale and was instantly in love. My Sage is all about big shoulderpads that make her already broad shoulders look even more so, plus I love the little circlet that comes with it as well. (Sets with attractive head pieces are rare in my opinion.)

Who's this? This is Cheriza, the Juggernaut I created for the Dark vs. Light event and haven't really played since then. Why buy her a new outfit then? Because I thought Darth Sion's armour set looked really cool, but wouldn't look right on anything but a tall, bulky Sith, and she fit that description better than any of the other alts in my stable. Maybe the new look will inspire me to play her more?

Finally, the Bold Hellion set for my Gunslinger: I remember seeing this set a few times before and admiring all the details on the chest piece, but it struck me as only really suitable for a smuggler and I didn't feel that any of mine really "needed" it. As I recently caught myself thinking about getting my Gunslinger a new look however, it suddenly seemed like an interesting option. I'm still not convinced by the bare midriff (too dangerous, even for a happy-go-lucky smuggler), but maybe this is her idea of "dressing up" for a night out.

In short, this is one money-making attempt that I can get on board with, though of course I'm coming at it from the biased perspective of someone who didn't actually have to spend any money beyond her normal subscription to be able to buy all this stuff. Far be it from me to suggest that anyone should spend money on Cartel coins, but I do have to say that if you've ever been interested in gear from the Cartel Market but missed it being on offer or it came from a random pack and you didn't want to try your luck, this is a great opportunity to have a browse and consider your options. I've heard some grumbling that not truly "everything" is in the sale, and that may well be the case, but it sure is a lot to impress someone like me who's not that intimately familiar with the cash shop and everything that's been on offer over time. The sale event will run until the 17th of April, so you have over ten days left to have a look at the available selection and make up your own mind.


KotET Chapter 9 Master Mode

I expected this chapter to be hard on master mode because it had been somewhat of a challenge on veteran mode too. This turned out to be true, but I didn't mind. In the end it was more of a fun challenge similar to chapter seven, and far from eliciting anything like the frustration I experienced in chapter two.

It started with the group of Knights of Zakuul that block the entrance to the Spire when you arrive. (The couple of trash pulls before that hadn't been an issue.) It's a group of three hard-hitting mobs with a fair amount of hitpoints, and the combination of bouncy melee and the giant walker just shooting from range makes it difficult to neatly round them up so they can kill themselves on Arcann's reflective barrier. The red circles that keep appearing around the area randomly are also veritable traps for hapless companions.

When I finally managed the kill it was still somewhat chaotic. I jumped in to quickly CC one of the knights, but when I initiated combat, Senya managed to leap right into a red circle and died. Fortunately I got Arcann's barrier up in time before he could die too, which took out both the walker and the loose knight. On another class, my character being on low health and with her healing companion dead might have been in a problem at this point, but fortunately I could revive Senya and heal myself back up before engaging the final knight.

The trash mobs inside the Spire were mostly as I remembered them, which is to say there is an endless stream of them and at least one of your companions will be uncontrollable and quickly storm off to commit suicide. You just gotta roll with it and accept some deaths. I was actually quite proud of myself for not dying too many times on my way up the stairs, probably fewer than I did on veteran mode.

The Zakuul Knight Captain in the red armour at the entrance to the elevator hit comically hard! Several times either I or Arcann died before I even had a chance to have him put his barrier up or taunt, but eventually I managed it, at which point the captain basically blew himself up within two seconds. I reckon that if you're doing this bit with Lana and Theron, this one will probably need kiting considering how ridiculously painful all of his attacks are.

And then: the dreamscape. Vaylin was fairly unremarkable again, repeating her mechanics from chapter eight. However, Valkorion himself was a different matter. I died to him many times due to approaching the fight entirely wrong at first. I figured that since you could survive some of his abilities, such as Project and Force Blast, the trick was to figure out which attacks you could absorb and which ones you'd have to interrupt. The problem was that I just couldn't figure out a viable pattern. While it's true that both Project and Force Blast are survivable in good gear, they still take about three quarters of your health off, meaning that you can't take another hit of any kind right afterwards. Plus there was always that Dark Ritual that was an absolute killer. I just couldn't figure it out.

Eventually I decided to "cheat" by looking for advice on YouTube myself and I have to give credit to this video of a Sentinel doing the fight for making me see the light: You can't face-tank anything, you just gotta kite all the way, and the fact that abilities like Project and Force Blast are survivable just gives you a bit of wiggle room so you don't wipe instantly if you do eat an attack every now and then. However, you can't count on intentionally being able to do so. This is doubly true when you have to shift into light or dark alignment to be able to damage the boss, at which point you'll lose any healing abilities or damage cooldowns that you'd usually have at your disposal. Another thing I noticed is that while you keep kiting, Valkorion never even seems to try casting the deadly Dark Ritual that had given me so much trouble before.

The one thing I noted here is that it seems to be random whether he shifts into light or dark first (and I only needed to survive one shift to complete the fight), but dealing with light seems to be vastly easier as the abilities you get are way more suitable for kiting. All the dark side abilities have ridiculously long cast times that make it very hard to get any attacks off while also successfully continuing to dodge Valkorion's own.

Anyway, while I'm not a huge fan of endless kiting, I can't complain about a big end boss being somewhat tough to beat. I sure felt accomplished after seeing that final achievement pop up. KotFE next? Definitely at some point, but probably not immediately, as I have other things that I'd like to focus on first.


New Conquest Musings

I'm sure some of my readers have been eagerly awaiting this post. So, the new Conquest system, huh? I wanted to wait a bit with writing about it because it's the kind of thing where day one impressions are unlikely to be representative of the larger picture, and even now I think it's probably still a bit early, but I still wanted to talk a bit about what I've seen these first two weeks.

On the official forums and in other similar places, there has apparently been a fair bit of outrage over Bioware "breaking" things, but that hasn't really been my experience. On day one I only had time to note the bug that wrongfully caused the objectives for the Gree event world bosses to erroneously be granted from killing random mobs, which basically granted a "free" 10k points and I thought was pretty funny, but everyone in my guild remained in a good mood as the week progressed as well. Being a small-ish guild, we had invaded the planet with the smallest yield and managed to hit our target even though we hadn't made that big a deal out of getting people to contribute; it just happened. On that front, it certainly felt like a success.

The new point values felt a bit weird though. I had been excited about the prospect of my conquest bonus from strongholds increasing from 60-odd percent to the full 150% due to the changes to how it's calculated, but in practice the point values for many objectives had been decreased so drastically that I actually got less out of each activity than I used to. This was additionally highlighted by a change in the interface - where it used to show only the base point value for each activity plus your invasion bonus (so that your actual gain was going to be more than what was shown, once the bonus from your strongholds had been applied) the UI now accurately tells you exactly how many points you will get for each activity. This is not a bad thing per se but serves to increase the feeling of disappointment when you "only" get the exact small number of points predicted by the UI and not more.

In the first week there was also a serious dearth of repeatable activities, something that Bioware acknowledged and deployed a fix for almost right away, but it was still kind of a weird experience that served to highlight imbalances in the rewards for different activities. I ended Sunday evening with one character "only" being a little over 2k points shy of her personal target, figuring that this should be easy to get, but ran into a bit of a wall as all the "good" non-repeatable objectives had already been used up and the repeatable ones only awarded a piddly amount. Eventually I ended up killing Imperial fortifications on Ilum with the help of a guildie, which created repair bills (level sync or not, those things still hit hard) and gave fewer points than the objective to complete a single Gree daily while taking ten times as long.

If you're not doing this as a side objective while killing a Commander with a full ops group, this is possibly the worst Conquest activity ever.

What's been the most interesting for me to watch however has been the meta with the new point yields. With crafting gutted as a source of points (for real now - remember, they already meant to do this years ago but didn't really go all the way back then) you could tell that many guilds were really struggling. By the end of the week, only two of the guilds that had invaded the high-yield Hoth on Darth Malgus had actually hit their target, and likewise only two had achieved the medium-yield target on Iokath (a third one got heartbreakingly close and missed it). Now, admittedly part of this may simply have been a result of ignorance - presumably not everyone keeps up with the patch notes and some smaller guilds may have been invading the "wrong" planets because they were under the false impression that they would still get rewards if only they made it onto the scoreboard. Still, Bioware responded quickly by slashing the targets in half for the second week.

This still didn't solve the problem however - it did cause some guilds (such as mine) to brave the shift from small to medium yield after having had a very successful first week in the lowest bracket, but something very curious happened to the large yield planet: It was entirely abandoned by guilds actually trying to achieve their target and was instead crowded by small guilds that were hoping to gain the prestigious first place on a board that nobody wanted to be on for the "regular" rewards. So nobody on the large board on Republic side is actually on track to hit their target this week, and it looks like the guild in first place will finish with a piddly 500k points or so. The question is: Will its members still be granted the title and the other first place rewards or are those tied to the guild target now? It's not something we've ever had to worry about before.

If the rewards for first place are independent from the guild target, that could certainly lead to a very weird meta, with large yield planets becoming the opposite of what they were intended to be: a playground for small, brave guilds who want to win first place and are willing to give up their weekly guild target to do so, abandoned by the large guilds because it's too much of a hassle and they can win and get their weekly reward by going for one of the smaller boards. It's also been stated on the forums that Bioware is still monitoring how the yield system is working out, however - I have a feeling that they would not leave it like that if what I just described turned out to be the way it's going.

The one thing that left a serious feeling of disappointment in my stomach this week was finding out that the new "Total Galactic War" was anything but and only featured a measly four planets (three really, but one was split in two due to having separate Imperial and Republic versions). This was confirmed on the forums to be an intentional change as well and is a real shame in my eyes, as nothing helps smaller guilds as much as simply having more planets to invade and therefore more chances to win. Not to mention that it would be an odd choice to make all conquest events feature the same number of planets if one of their stated goals with the revamp was to make the events more distinct from each other. I hope they'll reconsider that decision.

The long and short of it is that it's obviously still a work in progress, but I didn't expect anything else. For what it's worth it has reinvigorated my interest in Conquest for the first time in years and seems to have had a similar effect on many of my guildies. We'll see how long it lasts and how things develop from here.


Social Media Games #SWTORCompanionChaos

Last week's patch also brought with it an out of game "feature", as it was announced on the launcher and on the website that SWTOR's social media accounts would be holding an "event" called #SWTORCompanionChaos Celebration - could they have come up with a more convoluted name if they tried?

The premise was simple enough, however: a bunch of polls would be posted, pitting various companions against each other with the question of who's better at what they do, to be decided by the players. Each companion was also assigned to either #TeamNico or #TeamShae, so that at the end one of the teams would come out as the overall winner and then... well, we don't know what will happen then, though I can make an educated guess.

I'm not a heavy user of social media (among other things because I don't own a smart phone, which seems to be people's main avenue of interacting with them), but I do have a Facebook and a Twitter account and follow SWTOR's official accounts on both of them. I think they do a decent enough job at posting about game updates and engaging people in random conversation about the game, but I generally avoid reading the responses/reactions because they tend to be a pretty sad affair, more so on Facebook than on Twitter. Maybe Twitter contains a higher percentage of happy gamers, or maybe the concept of following and un-following an account is more intuitive there. Many Facebook users certainly seem to be oblivious to the idea that they can "un-like" a page and stop receiving updates from it instead of constantly posting trollish comments in response to each and every one of its updates.

I do wonder how important social media are for MMOs. I mean, happy players are probably too busy just playing the game to care either way, but if you're someone who's considering trying a new MMO for the first time or returning after a longer absence, I could see you checking out the game's social media accounts and being put off if there's too much negativity in the responses there. Less of that can't really be a bad thing.

That aside, I also have a semi-professional interest in the subject these days since I moved to my employer's marketing department last year. While social media are not part of my personal responsibility, I do find it interesting to see the challenges my colleagues face while handling them.

With that in mind, this new initiative sounds to me like someone new has been taking charge of SWTOR's social media recently and is trying to improve what's happening there. The most striking evidence of this (to me) is that they are finally using the poll feature correctly! It always bugged me when they posted a poll but instead of actually posting a poll they would ask an either-or question in a status update and attach a picture with the two options, labelled A and B... to encourage people to comment with either "A" or "B"? Always seemed very silly to me. Another hint towards a new person being in charge is that the game's Instagram account suddenly appears to have been abandoned. It was never super active, but it used to post at least one picture a week or so in the past.

Anyway, at the time of writing this, we're just waiting for the last poll in the series to go up. The scores so far appear as follows:

Deadliest Droid: HK-55 #TeamNico
Worst Crook: Tanno Vik #TeamNico
Toughest Soldier: Lieutenant Pierce #TeamShae
Most Charming Con Artist: Gault #TeamNico (didn't see this one posted on Twitter, only on FB)
Fiercest Sith: Lord Scourge #TeamNico (same as above)
Best "Fixer": T7 #TeamNico on Twitter, Blizz #TeamShae on Facebook - that one was really close, wonder how they are going to choose the winner?
Most Gifted Apprentice: Ashara #TeamShae currently in the lead, god knows why!


So, depending on how they decide the "tie" between Blizz and T7 and how the last vote goes, it could still end in a tie between the two teams, but #TeamNico cannot lose anymore.

As for what all this will lead to? Well, considering that the two teams are both named after companions that were previously given out as subscriber rewards, I'd say the obvious answer would be that the winning "team leader" is made available for a second time, whether by serving as a subscriber reward again or via direct purchase on the Cartel Market. I could even see Bioware giving out both of them a second time if it's a tie. If nothing else, I've got to admit that this would be a more interesting way of going about it than simply making players choose between the two available companions directly. Plus, at least for this week the event also seems to have done the job of getting people in the Facebook comments to talk about something other than how the game is dying and they're not getting enough of their favourite content - mostly anyway.