15/02/2019

Conquest Fatigue

It's hit me at last, and based on some conversations I've had, others in my guild are affected as well.

That's not to say that I've suddenly completely given up on it or anything - but with no realistic opportunities to have a shot at first place as of late, we've just been filling our guild's bar week after week, and if you choose your invasion target in accordance with your guild's size and activity levels, achieving your guild target is extremely easy at this point. I dropped from hitting my personal target on 8-10 characters per week to only doing so on 1-3 while skipping some weeks entirely, and it doesn't seem to have affected our weekly total in any way.

I guess it does speak in favour of the new system that the rewards for hitting the guild target keep you going even when you don't have the energy or influence to compete on the scoreboard anymore. It means that instead of just abandoning the system altogether, which is more or less what happened to me with the original iteration of Conquest, you can scale back and still get something out of it even while participating less.

Interestingly, what seems to have slowed us down appears to have less to do with burnout (which is what I would have expected) and more with the ever-changing meta. I previously wrote about how there used to be this one big Imperial guild on Darth Malgus called Stroke My Wookie (consisting of two sister guilds) that dominated everything, and how I actually kind of cheered when Republic guild Exsilium suddenly emerged out of nowhere to become their first serious competitor. The thing was, with "only" (what were effectively) three large guilds fighting among each other, the odds were pretty good that either the small or the medium planet would go unclaimed (by them) every other week or so, giving Twin Suns Squadron a potential opportunity to compete with other guilds our size there.

What happened in the last couple of months however is that Exsilium also got an Imperial sister guild into competitive shape, and on top of that another two to three guilds suddenly emerged as serious contenders. I don't know if this was due to heavy recruitment on their part, further changes to the way scoring works or a mix of both, but the end result has been that there are now six or seven very big guilds fighting for the top spots every week... which I guess is good in a way in so far as no guild has anything close to a monopoly on winning anymore - but it also means that it's pretty much a given that all three planets will be claimed by someone too large for us to compete with them every single week, which has sapped my guildies' enthusiasm somewhat.

I guess with that we'll be back to mostly caring about Total Galactic War, whenever that one's supposed to come around again next.

10/02/2019

ESO vs. SWTOR: Comparing Business Models

After playing Elder Scrolls Online for a few hours on New Year's Eve, I joked that I probably wasn't going to get back into it for another year, but actually I've ended up playing it casually throughout the past month and even splurged on an ESO Plus subscription too. Turns out that now that I made it over the hump of replaying content that I'd already seen in the beta years ago, I've been rather enjoying myself, though not always in the ways I expected.

I'll probably be able to get a couple more comparison posts out of the experience, but I'm a bit wary of making shallow "first impressions" posts at this point, as these are a dime a dozen in the MMO space and can end up being very oddly skewed, so I don't want to write about anything that I haven't been able to actually sink some time into/research in a bit more depth. So let's start by talking about business models, as these are very straightforward. (Well, relatively speaking. Actually they are pretty complex, but still less so than the gameplay itself.)

In a nutshell, I was surprised by how similar the two games are when it comes to their business model, considering that SWTOR is often decried for having a terrible one, while I mostly keep hearing people gush about ESO's being oh so great. I guess Bioware is still having a hard time with bad PR.

Buy to Play vs. Free to Play

To be honest I've never quite understood the obsession many outspoken MMORPG players seem to have with B2P over F2P. That one-off box purchase on its own isn't going to pay for years and years of content to be developed, so the devs still need to push the subscription option/additional cash shop purchases either way.

That said, having tried ESO I can see one advantage for the player in that the required buy-in means there has to be less worrying about restrictions during the early levels in particular. SWTOR places some pretty brutal chat restrictions on low-level free players, simply because of how much gold/credit sellers have abused the ability to create new accounts for free.

That said, having to spend money to start playing at all is still an obstacle, even if the price of the base game is quite low these days. I know I was unwilling to give Secret World a try until it went free-to-play for example, but then ended up enjoying it enough to be willing to give Funcom some money afterwards, so there's obviously some value to not having a pay wall at the very beginning. I'd love to know how the two models compare behind the scenes in terms of acquisition/player lifetime value.

The "Optional" Subscription

People often criticise that SWTOR's subscription isn't really optional as playing without it you'll feel very limited. I don't think I've ever met a SWTOR player that denies this either, though I think people sometimes don't give credit to all the content you can access completely for free, which includes all the class stories.

ESO definitely doesn't nag you about subscribing nearly as much, though in fairness they also don't have to since you've already given them money by the point you've started playing. That said, I actually found the game pretty unplayable without a subscription by level ten or so, for the simple reason that is the crafting bag.

The crafting bag is a feature that you only get access to while subscribed and is basically a portable hole that can hold infinite amounts of everything related to crafting. The thing that people don't tell you is that if you're the kind of person who likes to click on everything around you that the game will let you interact with, 90 percent of everything you loot will be crafting materials. Since I'm somewhat interested in crafting, I wanted to keep them too, but from level five or so onwards this basically meant that I could barely complete a single quest before my bags were full. By the time I ponied up for a month of ESO Plus, both my bags and my bank were full to burst, yet the instant I subscribed and the crafting mats were automatically transferred to the crafting bag, my normal bags and bank were suddenly virtually empty.

I guess this particular limitation doesn't get as much publicity because I know from experience with my guildies that most players aren't as obsessed with picking up everything that sparkles and will happily ignore large numbers of dropped loot, and what they do pick up they will happily vendor without thinking about potential future use for crafting or anything like that, but I suppose it goes to show that "optional" is in the eye of the beholder. At least I know that I'm not the only one who's struggled with the lack of crafting bag for non-subscribers, as people's opinions on the official forums range from "it's okay; you can circumvent it by making extra storage alts/a personal guild bank/buying additional accounts" to being entirely put off the game by this particular restriction.

Convenience aside, another thing that both games' subscriptions have in common is that they give you a cash shop stipend for every month that you're subscribed. ESO is much more generous however, by throwing in 1500 Crowns per month vs. SWTOR's 500-600 Cartel Coins. While the value of funny money like that can be hard to gauge accurately, I did the maths and the two currencies are actually very close in terms of real life value as well, so ESO really does give you more bang for your buck, which is nice! It's pretty obviously part of their marketing strategy too, as one month of ESO Plus actually costs less than buying 1500 Crowns separately, so the idea is to use the lower price to lure you into subscribing instead of having you simply make a one-time purchase.

General Cash Shop Observations

ESO for some reason felt the need to not have just one but two cash shop icons, because they figured the Crown Crates (random lootboxes) needed their own, which is kind of funny to me. Either way the icons are similarly unobtrusive as the Cartel Market icon in SWTOR.


In general, I like the Crown Store's UI a bit better. SWTOR's store UI is much better now than it was, but ESO still requires fewer clicks in comparison to navigate between categories, which makes it easier to casually browse what's on offer. There are also helpful sub-categories, such as "mounts" being split into "exotic", "horses" or "special". I've often wished that SWTOR had more of these, for example to make it easier to only look at animal mounts vs. speeders, or in the armour section at Jedi styles vs. bounty hunter outfits for example.

Another big plus in favour of the ESO store's UI is that they make it much easier to preview everything before buying. While SWTOR technically has a preview function, it's sometimes disabled for bundled items. Compare this to ESO selling a bundle with several dozen hairstyles in it and letting you preview literally every single one of them before buying (though how to do so isn't super obvious and - like many things relating to ESO's UI - I had to google how to do it).

The general wares in both stores mostly consist of cosmetics of some variety or another, with no power-related purchases. The main thing that SWTOR has that ESO doesn't is that they allow you to manually unlock some of the subscriber benefits (such as the infamous extra hotbars) permanently. The only comparable thing that ESO has is that you can buy DLC content - it's generally free to access for subscribers but unlike in SWTOR, you don't automatically get to keep it if your sub lapses. Also, the current newest "chapter" in ESO or whatever word they use to avoid saying "expansion" is not included in the subscription and still requires an extra purchase no matter what. Another thing that's worth pointing out is that ESO sells some insta-gratification consumables - as I mentioned in my last post, there are mechanics such as riding training and crafting trait research that are gated behind literally months of waiting... unless you're willing to pay up that is.

In general it seems to me that SWTOR's Cartel Market is somewhat better stocked than ESO's Crown store, despite of both games periodically removing items to create artificial scarcity; there's just more stuff to choose from in the former than in the latter.

Funny Money

Now, let's talk pricing! As mentioned above, funny money's whole purpose is to make it less obvious just how much you're spending on things, which it generally succeeds at (especially with additional discounts if you buy larger amounts at once etc.). There is however some napkin maths that you can do, and while doing so I was pleasantly surprised to find that SWTOR and ESO made it easy for me to draw comparisons between the two by having an extremely similar exchange rate. (Note that all prices in this post are in pounds as I'm located in the UK.)

Basically Cartel Coins range in price from £4 to £7 per thousand, depending on which bundle you choose, while ESO's Crowns range from £5 to £8 per thousand. So Crowns are slightly more expensive, but not massively so. The main thing that surprised me was the variance in bundle pricing. I think I've only ever bought Cartel Coins once a long time ago, so I didn't remember how it works in detail, but basically the bundles you can buy range in price from £1.80 to £24. For all the talk about "whales" people like to engage in nowadays, a maximum transaction amount of £24 is hardly daylight robbery. I mean, that's only slightly more than I have to pay for my daily commute. In comparison, ESO's Crown bundles start at £6 for the cheapest one but go up to £110. I wonder how many players actually go for that last one? I think I would struggle to even find enough things in the store that I'd like to spend 21,000 Crowns on.

Anyway, I figured that for price comparison purposes it was both fair and easiest to assume a value of about £5 per thousand Cartel Coins or Crowns. Looking at the different categories you can see some interesting differences.

For example on checking the mounts categories in both stores, SWTOR's ranged in price from about £2 to £13, with most averaging around £7.50. In comparison an ESO store mount will set you back £4.50 to £15, with most of them averaging around £9. One interesting tidbit about ESO store mounts is that the in-game alternatives to them are extremely restricted. I've sometimes heard people complain that SWTOR hides all the good cosmetic stuff in the store - something I've always disagreed with - but even if you see some merit in the argument it's nothing compared to the way ESO handles its mount skins. There are literally only four differently coloured horses plus an event mount available from actually playing the game; every other mount is exclusive to the store.

Another category I compared was that of non-combat pets, where again, SWTOR was a bit cheaper, with the average price for a pet being only a little over a pound, while ESO's tended to hover around £3.50. Is suspect that this is simple market pressure at work as pets are not very popular in SWTOR and I doubt they'd sell any at all if they cost more than they do. In ESO on the other hand I see people running around with non-combat pets all the time, despite of their higher prices.

When it came to character looks, I compared SWTOR's armour shells to ESO's appearances, which are slightly different but essentially both grant you a full cosmetic outfit for your character, which I judged similar enough for the purposes of this post. Here ESO is more generous, with prices ranging from £2.50 to £5, while SWTOR's armours can cost up to £13 for some, with most hovering around the £7 price point. I guess this must be one of Bioware's main money makers. I mean, I'm sure ESO players care about their characters' looks too, but SWTOR makes it more of an issue with all the cut scenes making you want to look your most fabulous for the camera. People jokingly refer to the game as "Space Barbie" for a reason.


Crown Crates vs. Cartel Packs

Let's talk about the elephant in the room: lootboxes, oh em gee! I've noted previously that SWTOR has effectively been phasing them out, but the Ultimate Cartel pack is still available, so I guess it counts. As far as I'm aware ESO has shown no signs of shifting away from relying on Crown Crates for its income.

Interestingly, there is a big price difference between Cartel Packs and Crown Crates, with the latter costing twice as much as the former: £2 vs. £1 per pack. (That said, this is still less than I thought either of them were going to cost in real money.) Now, it might be that the ESO crates make up for their higher price with better contents, but to be honest that's hard to judge considering that nobody knows the drop rates for anything for certain, and even if we did know, if the items aren't also sold in the store for a fixed price, there isn't an objective value we can attach to any of them, seeing how people have different opinions on what's a good or a bad drop. One person's favourite mount ever might be another one's trash.

That aside, I do think that SWTOR is miles ahead in terms of consumer-friendliness in this area simply because all the contents of the boxes are tradable. So if you enjoy opening random boxes you can, but if you just want a specific item, you can simply buy it off another player for credits. There is a chance that your particular item might not be available for sale at all times, but in general there is a pretty healthy secondary market for pack items.

I'd previously been told that ESO had this "Crown Gem" system, which was just as good or even better because you can use gems to buy crate items directly, but after having seen it myself I have to call shenanigans on that one. Basically you get gems for disintegrating unwanted junk items from the boxes, such as potions, but they are only worth one gem a pop, which is basically nothing. Bigger items such as pets or mounts cannot be turned into gems at will, only if they're duplicates! So getting an ugly mount that you're not going to use doesn't get you one bit closer to getting the thing you actually want, whereas in SWTOR you'd at least be able to sell it.

Also, and this is something nobody had ever mentioned to me before and that I only learned while looking it up, the top reward tier, which is called "radiant apex" rewards, can't be purchased with gems, ever, so you can only get those via sheer luck.

Really, the only thing I can say in favour of ESO's Crown Crates is that aside from the radiant apex rewards, all the rewards for the current crate season can be inspected via the in-game UI and you don't need to go to an outside site to learn what they are. This would have been a good feature for SWTOR to have too back in the day, though it has now become redundant with the Ultimate pack (as I get that they can't easily give you a preview of every Cartel Market item ever produced).

Trading & Unlocks

After railing against the lack of tradability of Crown Crate items, I do want to mention something positive related to store items and other players in ESO: the game has the option to give store items to others as gifts directly, which I think is very neat. In SWTOR you can give gifts too, but you have to buy them yourself, wait for the bind timer to run out and then send them through the mail or hand them over in person. I think a dedicated gift UI as part of the store is a nice idea.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that (as far as I could tell; personally I still only have one character), all of ESO's cosmetic cash store purchases are automatically unlocked account-wide, whereas in SWTOR you have to pay an additional fee through the Collection UI to get access on all your characters. How much of a boon that is to you depends on your play style I guess - I love creating alts myself but tend to give them all unique looks anyway, so to me automated account-wide unlocks are a moot point. However to players who don't mind recycling a good look, this can be a boon and drastically increase the value for money of purchases in ESO.

Whew, this ended up being longer than expected!

TL;DR: SWTOR's and ESO's business models are remarkably similar. The main differences are:

- SWTOR gives you a big chunk of content for free, but restricts and nags you a lot if you don't spend any money
- ESO's subscription feels more like a nice bonus than a requirement to fully enjoy the game (unless you have a specific play style), largely due to the generous currency stipend
- Both cash stores rely heavily on cosmetics, with no direct power purchases. Both have only a couple of what I would call slightly iffy items in there, such as SWTOR's extra hotbars for non-subscribers, or ESO's unlocks to skip months of waiting.
- ESO's store has the slightly better UI, but SWTOR's has more merchandise to choose from.
- In both cases, the prices for most items are what I'd call pretty reasonable, usually coming in at £5 to £10. I was actually kind of surprised by this, which is funny in itself as you'd think that as a long-time player I'd know better. It gets a lot of publicity when they experiment with releasing something super expensive, but if you look at the everyday items and prices, it's actually much ado about nothing.
- ESO still relies heavily on lootboxes at this point, with some bad luck protection but no ability to trade, which makes them a bad deal for anyone who just wants a specific drop, whereas SWTOR players can get pretty much anything they want from them without having to rely on RNG.

Do you think there's anything important I got wrong or left out? Feel free to add it in the comments and I'll edit it in where applicable.

06/02/2019

Good vs. Bad Faction Wars

Telwyn muses on why he doesn't mind participating in the war of Republic vs. Empire while feeling somewhat annoyed with what's been happening in WoW's Battle of Azeroth lately. It also reminded me of a post that Tyler made on MMO Bro a few months ago, in which he declared that factions had outstayed their welcome.

I'm pretty much of the opposite opinion as him in that I enjoy myself a good faction war in an MMO, and am really pleased that SWTOR is finally turning its focus back onto Republic vs. Empire. When done well, factions can help define your identity in a game and make you feel more attached to it. That's very much been the case for me in SWTOR, where I've been feeling a staunch affiliation with the Republic since day one. They are the classic good guys, and that's something I want my character to be too.


I never felt nearly as much attachment to the Eternal Alliance, despite of it being led by my own character according to the story. It just seemed to lack definition beyond wanting to oppose Zakuul, and even that was something I never fully connected with, and more importantly, hadn't chosen for myself. I wrote about this a few months after Fallen Empire's launch, how my trooper being shoehorned into a narrative that kept her away from her old faction made her feel like she was losing her identity. With how heavily SWTOR relies on having players emotionally invested in their characters, it was actually quite saddening, and I'm not surprised that the game lost many long-time players during that time.

I suspect that this is also at least partially responsible for a lot of WoW players' current dissatisfaction with their game. They haven't been forcibly removed from their factions, but the Horde in particular has changed a lot ever since Thrall gave up the mantle of warchief. It's certainly a far cry from the slightly primitive and ugly band of misfits it started out as back in Vanilla. This isn't a problem with factions per se, but with the writers and devs not caring to portray them consistently and to keep them distinctive. It's not enough to paint one side red and one blue; you've got to give people reasons to want to choose one over the other.

Humans are very tribal creatures, and we love to sort the world into us vs. them at every opportunity. In real life, this can take forms that are quite problematic, but in the context of a game I don't see a problem with it in principle. Having a faction conflict brewing in the background (or even in the foreground) of your MMO is a way of generating conflict and interesting plot points that are both easy to come up with and easy to understand even for the casual player. It means that you don't constantly have to come up with new threats to fight, but that there's a reliable staple that you can fall back on and use to fine-tune just how threatening you want a given situation to be, because it can provide story hooks on pretty much any part of the scale, from small, local and contained to something that's threatening millions, depending on how much you want the conflict to heat up.


I sometimes hear the argument that faction war doesn't work as a narrative device in an MMO because neither side can win. That always strikes me as weird though because that is exactly what makes it entertaining. You don't want the NPCs to outright say it, but I think as players we probably know it deep inside, even if we're not consciously thinking it: The other faction may be our enemy, but we don't really want them to lose, not fully. You want to be able to celebrate victories against them, but you don't want them to go away entirely. After all, you fight them for the fun of it, not to actually eradicate the enemy, and who are you going to fight if the losers pack their bags and go home? So the goal of well-written faction conflict is to have the two (or more) sides always fighting about something or other, maybe allow a minor victory here and a loss there, but it shouldn't feel too serious.

To me, the storyline on Ossus is a pretty good example of this. If you look at it from both sides, it's not entirely clear who came out the winner, but on either side people get to feel like they've achieved something for their faction and get to pat themselves on the back. Just as we like it!

And again, at least looking at it from the outside, this seems to be another thing that WoW's Battle of Azeroth got wrong, by trying too hard to up the stakes and featuring things like the utter destruction of two capital cities. These things make for great PR pieces in a "look what we did, we're so daring" kind of way, but it's not really going to make players happy. The "winners" don't exactly get a great sense of accomplishment from the writers having written a story about them burning down trees, or from seeing a cut scene of their leader taking over an enemy stronghold; and the losers just feel sad about losing one of their bases. It makes things more dark and serious for the benefit of no-one. We want to play at being at war; not be reminded of its worst aspects.

Now, you could say: That's all well and good, but why do we have to pit players vs. players? Couldn't we just have all the players on one side and in a perpetual conflict with an NPC faction that's never fully defeated? And I guess the answer is that yes, we could, but I also think that wouldn't hold players' attentions nearly as well, because just like there's a big difference between PvE and PvP, I think it's much easier to get into that particular headspace of taking your enemy seriously but not wanting to see them crushed completely when you know that you're up against real people. NPCs that you can never really fully defeat just tend to come across as annoying more than anything.

So I say: Bring on the Empire. Down with the Sith! But do let them get away at the end so they can live to be the (interesting and highly entertaining) baddies another day.

02/02/2019

SWTOR's Top Five Worst Planets to Navigate

Thanks to commenter sootnsweep for giving me the idea for this post. I don't think they actually meant to encourage me to make this particular post, but creativity works in weird ways. Thanks for the inspiration anyway.

#5 - Zakuul

Some of you might be raising your eyebrows at this one, thinking something along the lines: "Zakuul barely even qualifies as a planet, how confusing can it be?" Not that confusing, which is why it's only in fifth place, but considering how few open areas it consists of, it's still quite impressive how awkward Bioware managed to make those to navigate.


Look at this screenshot of the landing zone. Do you know where any of those arrows lead to? I've taken the wrong elevator while attempting to get to the last area I was still missing to uncover the full map on more than one occasion. There's also this area near the tram station where I swear I've gone up and down the stairs repeatedly just to watch the quest indicator change its mind about whether I should be going up or down. And despite of having done "To Find A Findsman" on multiple characters by now, there's still always that one part where I initially go the wrong way because the seemingly obvious route ends in a dead end and you actually have to go round the long way.

#4 - Iokath

I bet some of you were waiting for this one. It seems everyone loves to bash Iokath! And I agree that it's pretty underwhelming as a daily area and awkward to navigate.


Still, I couldn't justify placing it any higher on this list because as I expected when it came out, the confusion about where to go for your quests diminishes greatly once you've done the dailies a couple of times, and what with the various teleporters it doesn't take you too long to get to any of the parts of the map that you need to visit to complete your daily round. There's just this one area in the south-east part of the map where you have to follow a pretty annoyingly serpentine path to get to an objective, but at least the related mission is easy to avoid.

#3 - Balmorra

Good old Balmorra. I'm sure everyone will immediately know what I'm referring to with this one. Most of the map isn't too bad, but this planet's problem are the lifts, which are mostly located in and around the Gorinth Canyon. Their problem is that a) they are located in annoying places that never allow you to just go straight from one objective to the next, and b) for some reason some of them aren't in the same places on Imperial and Republic side, so if you switch between factions a lot this can be extra confusing.

The Republic also has this one quest hub for the bonus series in the lower part of the canyon called Moraine Outpost which for some reason still doesn't have a quick travel point to this day, so the fastest way to get there is to QT somewhere else and then take a speeder. Why, Bioware?


Also, there a bunch of broken bridges that tease you with the idea that you could be getting over there much faster if only the bridge wasn't missing a big chunk in the middle. I guess this teaches us that war is bad because broken infrastructure sucks.

#2 - Corellia

Corellia has two simple but persistent problems. The first and minor one is that all its areas look and feel extremely same-y. Except for the park, which I know has the zoo and Lucky in the middle, I couldn't tell you what's where. I still get confused about where to go every time we want to kill the Commander in the Imperial base or whenever I try to find one of the datacrons again. I know how they all work, but just finding the right general area they are in is more of a challenge to me these days than anything else and I usually quickly resign myself to consulting a guide rather than running in circles.


This is because of the second and larger problem, which is that Corellia's roads seem to have been designed with the intent to make the journey between any given points A and B as long as possible. It's pretty much a straight-up labyrinth. The worst thing is that the map can be very deceptive too, showing a path where actually the road leads to the dead end of a building wall or some collapsed bit of masonry prevents you from going any further.

I don't usually like to quote myself but I think I summed it up quite well in this post in which I was talking about levelling my Sniper: "[...] the maps are confusing and you constantly end up being lured into dead ends. There was one point where it took me something like fifteen minutes to find the right way to access one of my quest objectives... and I've been playing this game for nearly five years. FFS, Corellia."

#1 - Nar Shaddaa

I was somewhat torn whether Corellia or Nar Shaddaa should get first place, but I decided to give the award to Nar Shadaa for one simple reason: the Industrial Sector. I'll concede that most of Nar Shaddaa isn't too bad to find your way around, unless you're on a mission that tells you to go from one sector to the next and for some reason the quest indicator keeps telling you to go to the promenade first every time instead of simply pointing at your final destination. The smugglers' moon also suffers from a similar degree of "samey-ness" as Corellia, which always causes me to struggle to remember the datacron locations.

However, the Industrial Sector is the big one simply because it's three-dimensional, which is to say that there isn't a single overview map but that there are various ramps and lifts you have to take in order to navigate between different floors and which will spit you out in surprising locations.


If you know off the top of your head where each of these buttons takes you, I'll call you a liar. In fact, while trying to take this screenshot I initially quick travelled to the wrong place because of course I did, because who can remember what's where down there? And that's with me having gotten a lot better at navigating the area ever since the world boss that's located in a remote corner of the area became a Conquest objective, encouraging frequent visits.

Still, at the end of the day I think I can actually view it as a good thing that this list was relatively easy to come up with. While thinking about it I concluded that most of SWTOR's planets are actually fairly easy to get around on, which made the few exceptions to the rule easy to single out.