14/12/2018

Why I Love The Ossus Story (No Spoilers)

So, let's talk story. There are a lot of spoilers I'd really love to talk about, but looking back at how I discussed new story content releases in the past (also wow, I forgot just how enamoured I was with KotFE's story at launch), I know I can manage a fair chunk of discussion without actually giving the game away, so I figured I should be able to do so again.

Feelings can't always be explained, but I do like to analyse why things make me feel a certain way whenever possible. And funnily enough, one of the first things that Jedi Under Siege reminded me of was Makeb.


The thing is, I've never even been particularly fond of Makeb. When it was released I thought that the story was decent fun, but it wasn't amazing. Being the game's first official expansion, it was judged by the standards of the launch game, and in those terms it fell woefully short. While we already knew that we weren't going to get any more class story content, Makeb still felt like a bit of a letdown being "just" a planetary storyline, even more so when Bioware made attempts to sell it to us as a continuation of our class story anyway. (Doesn't the loading screen summary still refer to it as "Chapter 4"?) It was pretty obvious that it had been written for a generic hero of any class, and beyond a couple of pieces of background companion chatter in certain areas, there were no real references to anything that related to your character's class or story. It was particularly jarring if you had your romanced companion along and they didn't even do as much as bat an eyelid or even lose any affection with you if you started making out with an NPC in front of them.

In hindsight though, Makeb was also the last time that we had distinctly different storylines for Republic and Imperial characters. After that things merged gradually - Oricon still had a very different feel for both factions for example, but strictly speaking you were jumping through the exact same hoops on both sides. Shadow of Revan had somewhat random-seeming variations in dialogue and with cut scenes, but was ultimately still the same story regardless of your faction, until KotFE pretty much did away with the two factions altogether.

In that sense, Jedi Under Siege feels a bit like a throwback to Makeb - only better, because this time around we're getting two distinctly different tales for the two factions but with the benefit of personalisation and better companion integration. (Plus there are some intriguing parallels in terms of how much information about the situation the two factions have, which is another interesting throwback to Makeb.)

The problem with companion interactions has always been a matter of effort vs. reward. Even with just the Vanilla companions, and quests being targeted at just one of the two factions, if a mission was open to all classes it meant that you would have had to account for a total of twenty-one different companions per faction reacting to it, which was just madness. The practical result was that you could bring whoever you wanted, but they did nothing.

In KotFE Bioware changed the approach to instead requiring you to bring a specific companion to each mission, but this companion would then react to things and interact with you throughout the whole thing. Whatever else you want to say about KotFE, I found this change hugely preferrable, and I was happy to see it continue on Ossus.


Companions aside, the challenge of making a storyline that feels personal and fits your class without actually having more class stories is something that Bioware has struggled with for years. Content like Makeb or Oricon felt alright to play through (fighting for the Republic or the Empire was what we did after all), but it always felt a bit impersonal at the same time, what with the lack of companion interactions and only minimal references to your class. It didn't feel like it mattered whether you were the Commander of Havoc Squad, the Barsen'thor or someone else, because it literally didn't.

They took first steps towards making it personal again in Shadow of Revan, where you personally became important not because of your class, but because of your association with Lana and Theron and helping to uncover the Revanite conspiracy. Then the focus shifted to the Emperor, KotFE came out, and they went all out turning you into a kind of Chosen One who was the only one who could resist the Emperor.

Now, while this was always problematic for non-Force users in particular, the enthusiastic early KotFE review I linked earlier shows that I didn't consider this a deal breaker initially. I liked the more focused and personal approach. The problem was that as time went on the story insisted on trying to tell us what our character's motivations were in great detail (You're going to do this because you now hold a grudge against Arcann! No, I don't?) and that it eventually elevated the Alliance Commander into a kind of "sole saviour of the galaxy" role that many people were profoundly uncomfortable with, considering that most of the class stories had been about you being important but still part of something much bigger.

The great thing with the approach that Bioware has taken on Ossus is that your role as Alliance Commander is now pared down to something more similar to the old class roles - important enough to turn heads, but not more than that. As such, it can live alongside your old identity without overriding it, while still providing a story hook to provide some general direction. Ossus is still a personal story, as you get sent there because of your role as Alliance Commander, but the actual goings-on on the planet tie smoothly into your character's wider backstory, such as the Jedi in the enclave remembering your Jedi character, or Darth Malora recalling how your Sith treated her back on Korriban.

The end result is a story that, in my opinion, manages to combine the best parts of KotFE (the feeling that the story is personal to you, that you're not just a generic hero, as well as the increased companion involvement) with all the things that we've really been missing since Vanilla SWTOR: Republic vs. Empire, references to our base class, being part of something greater. The only way Bioware could top themselves at this point would be by bringing full-fledged class stories back, which of course won't happen... but if the next story update/expansion is written in a similar way to Ossus, we have good reasons to get excited again anyway.

12/12/2018

5.10 Launch Night

Boy, am I ever going to have a lot to say about this patch! But since a lot of it is spoilerific and I want to wait a bit with discussing spoilers, let's start by talking about a few technicalities.

The Bug

While the servers were down for patching, my guildies were joking in Discord about just how long the downtime was going to last. When the servers came up an hour early, it was my guildie Araf who uttered the in my opinion most prophetic prediction: "I won't be surprised if they shut them down again in an hour or two after finding a new hot exploit." And indeed, it didn't take thirty minutes for the servers to go down again, with a note on Twitter that they had found a "potentially severe issue".

Basically what happened is this: One of the new features of this patch is that the new story offers an auto-complete option for KotFE and KotET. If you want to just do the new stuff, without worrying about having to play through anything that came before, you can go right ahead and the game will pick some default options for you as far as story-relevant choices go. Now, the problem was that for some reason this process actually triggered for all characters the moment they started the new story, even if they had actually completed the previous storylines, effectively overwriting the player's choices with the new defaults.

I saw some grumbling about this ("Isn't this what the PTS is for?"), but in all fairness, I could sympathise with Bioware on this one. It was a bug that was triggered by the new story content, which hadn't been on the PTS, and while they obviously must have done some internal testing, I could easily see how this sort of thing could have been overlooked. If your chosen character had made the most likely choices, the default overwrite wouldn't trigger any noticeable changes, but even if it did, you would have had to immediately inspect your giant companion roster to notice any odd changes, unless they specifically affected a companion that you were actively using at the time.

It was still a pretty embarrassing bug to go live with, considering it was the kind of thing that was noticeable immediately with thousands of people jumping into the new story at once; I'm just saying I kind of feel for Bioware here anyway. Also, to give credit where it is due, Eric Musco was very good at keeping everyone up to date on their progress via Twitter, they did a full rollback to make sure that nobody lost anything, and the three hours delay until the servers were back up for good weren't too bad in my eyes. I've seen much worse in any case.

Bring A Friend!

One thing that excited me about another open world story installment was that, like Iokath, it would enable me to play through it with my pet tank again. Sure, I expected there to be some personal conversations/phases, but that's something we've had since launch. That's always been a part of the game; I just don't want it to be all there is.

Now, imagine my pleasant surprise when I found that Bioware had actually put some thought into this and tweaked the way the story phases work on Ossus. All the phases we entered for the Republic story were multiplayer phases, so that we could play together and share progress on quest objectives such as killing X mobs, but when we entered a cut scene we would each have our own personal conversation, just simultaneously - the best of both worlds really.


The only downside was that about half of the time, the new system didn't actually work as intended and bugged out. Once my quest didn't progress after a conversation, and I had to walk out, wait for my pet tank to finish and then walk in again to redo my bit. Another time we got separated into our own phases for no discernible reason (the phase wasn't marked as personal), continued on our own anyway, but when I reached the NPC at the end it wouldn't let me talk to her as the game insisted that I was a guest in my own phase and therefore not allowed to talk to anyone. I had to quit the group altogether to finish that one. The reason I'm still giving Bioware so much praise even though it was far from a smooth experience for me and my pet tank in the end is that I could at least tell that they thought about how to make it a better experience for groups and tried, which is more than they've bothered to do since Shadow of Revan.

Pew Pew!

I've mentioned before that I've been habitually playing in the PvP instance in recent months, so when we got to Ossus my pet tank and I had to decide whether I would join him in PvE or he would come join me in PvP, and he agreed to do the latter. It was surprisingly fun! We got more than a dozen Imp kills while only dying once ourselves, and there were some pretty fun and memorable moments, such as the duel against an Imperial tank/healer duo that forced me to blow every last one of my cooldowns, or the time we got embroiled in a fight on a staircase carved into the side of a cliff and many bodies went flying to their death.


With a name like that you're pretty much asking for it.

It only slowed our questing down a little - it's not like we were actively looking for fights, we'd just spar with any Imps that crossed our paths and then moved on - and actually added a nice layer of RP-like immersion to the whole thing: When we saw evil Imps burning the Jedi's farms for example, we could and would actually run up and stop them.

I have a lot of thoughts to sort out about the story, but that's for another post (or another two, or three...).

08/12/2018

Back In My Day: Dailies

"Back In My Day" is an irregular series in which I take one aspect of Star Wars: The Old Republic and look at how it has evolved over time. This particular installment was inspired by me doing a lot of questing on Ilum recently, which got me thinking about how many of the quests there used to be daily repeatable but aren't anymore.

Launch - The Dailies That Weren't Really

At launch, it was very obvious that SWTOR hadn't originally been conceived as a game with daily quests as an endgame activity in mind - until someone at the Bioware offices had a sudden panic attack three weeks before launch or something, and in order to shoehorn the daily concept into the game somehow, they took two quest chains that had been designed to be done at or near the level cap, the Ilum storyline and the Belsavis bonus series, and turned all the missions that weren't part of the main quest chain into daily repeatables that handed out endgame rewards. (I remember some of them gave out purple item modifications, but I seem to remember that this wasn't the case for all of them.)

This went about as well as you would expect. In a post from February 2012 describing my first impressions of the Belsavis dailies, I hilariously noted that I didn't even know where to go and where to start, as there was no "daily hub" or anything, and the daily missions were utterly indistinguishable from regular one-time quests.

Story-wise, a lot of them made no sense either. Now, daily tasks in an MMO require a certain suspension of disbelief most of the time, but there are still ways to make them more credible vs. blatantly hitting the player over the head with how little sense it makes to repeat certain things. My favourite example of this was always the Republic quest on Ilum that had a little astromech droid desperately seeking help and supplies for his owner, a recently crashed fighter pilot... who apparently crashed every day? We used to joke that the guy was really just a hermit who happened to live in a ship wreck and we were basically his daily supply run.

Mechanically, things were pretty bad as well. People were complaining about others not space-barring through the daily quest givers' dialogue quickly enough long before anyone got tired of the cut scenes in flashpoints, but at the same time they didn't just want to have the mission shared with them because they did want to go through the cut scene to farm social points and/or companion affection.

The area also didn't really seem to be designed to have a large number of people questing in it at the same time. Most infamously I remember the quest on Republic side to kill Rattataki leaders, of which you needed three for the quest, and there were only about five in the area, with half of them habitually bugged out and unkillable. Sometimes I'd just sit down and wait for the same guy to respawn three times.


Now, all of this may sound horrible, but it wasn't really that bad. It wasn't well designed for its purpose, but at least for me it also managed to stay below the threshold of actually becoming tedious and annoying. The fact that the Belsavis bonus series included no less than three heroics encouraged people to group up for the whole chain of dailies, and the end result felt kind of awkward but also fun. The payout was also high enough that you never really felt like you actually had to do the whole thing on a daily basis to stay afloat.

1.2 - Into the Black Hole

Patch 1.2 introduced the game's first "proper" daily area, the Black Hole on Corellia. It was a bit of a pain to get to as you had to go through no less than three loading screens to travel there, but it was much more streamlined for its purpose. There was an introductory quest with dialogue on the fleet, but then the actual dailies could just be picked up from a terminal all at once and were neatly clustered around the area.

Bioware decided to keep encouraging people to group up by also adding a heroic mission, as well as a weekly meta quest that required you to complete each mission, including the heroic, exactly once. I noted at the time that the concept of the weekly was very much in line with SWTOR's very casual-friendly approach, in that the best rewards only required you to visit the area once a week. It was also very much worth doing as the weekly also offered a new type of currency called Black Hole commendations, which could be used to buy new and more powerful gear from vendors on the fleet.

1.5 - Experiments in Section X

Section X reiterated on the Black Hole and mostly tried to improve it. 1.5 was also the patch that included the free-to-play conversion though, which led to the weird experiment of making the new zone into paid content that you could unlock by subscribing or via a special access pass (which was eventually dropped).

I can't even remember what sort of rewards the missions gave at launch, but they were most assuredly overshadowed by the introduction of the reputation system, which also made Section X the first daily area with a reputation attached and gave players an incentive to increase their standing with the faction just to get access to things like cosmetic armour shells and pets.

The area was also spiced up by featuring the start to the quest chain to acquire HK-51 and having the world boss Dreadtooth path around the area. People with an interest in world PvP were delighted to actually run into the other faction on occasion now - one thing that had been a bit odd about the Black Hole was that even though technically Republic and Imperial players were playing on the same map, their quests were on entirely separate halves of it and they never even crossed paths. In Section X the two factions still had their own separate missions, like in the Black Hole, but they took place in roughly the same area, and the heroic mission for the weekly was even located in the same instance.


The heroic mission in Section X was the one somewhat controversial thing about the area, as it required exactly four people for successful completion - you couldn't substitute someone with a companion as there were several sections where people needed to click on things in sync to bypass some force fields. This was a bit of a nuisance, and was later on removed without much fanfare, though the quest's [Heroic 4] tag wasn't changed. Personally I only found out that I was suddenly able to solo it pretty much by accident.

1.7 - The Gree Revive Ilum

Patch 1.7 introduced the Gree event, the first world event that was designed from the ground up to be repeated, and which re-purposed the previously abandoned Western Ice Shelf on Ilum where the big open world PvP debacle from launch had taken place. While it also featured one instanced and two open world bosses, the main focus was once again on daily missions with which you could earn reputation to unlock some nice goodies from the local vendors.

The biggest controversy here was Bioware's attempt to use dailies more openly to encourage people to engage in world PvP within a small separate area down south, which would not allow you to be in a group larger than four, dismissed companions, and flagged you(r group) for free-for-all PvP. Personally I thought this was quite fun and novel, but some people got very hung up on the mere existence of two daily quests that required you to flag for PvP, despite of their rewards being minimal compared to the regular dailies.

2.0 - Makeb and Galactic Solutions Industries

2.0 was not a very successful addition to the game in terms of daily quest endgame. There were daily quests to do on Makeb, but they were part of the super awkward Makeb Staged Weekly and required you to limit yourself to one mission at a time, which had you travelling all over the damn place and wade through dozens of mobs just to achieve a single objective. Myself and most people I knew did it once or twice and then decided to go back to the old daily zones because they were much more fun.


Rise of the Hutt Cartel also introduced Galactic Solutions Industries as a faction, which asked us to make use of our new Seeker Droids and Macrobinoculars which we had acquired through one of 2.0's side mission arcs. Like the Makeb dailies these were very spread out, across different planets even, though at least the fact that many of them were on lower level planets allowed you to travel largely unimpeded, and quite a few of them didn't even require any combat at all. Unsurprisingly, these weren't a huge hit with people either, though there does seem to be a niche audience for them that appreciates the slower and more relaxed gameplay that they offer.

2.3 - CZ-198 & Bounty Contract Week

CZ-198 was the first daily hub to be introduced post 2.0 and went back to the classic model of having a small area shared between the two factions in which you could just "do the rounds" for some credits, and it quickly became popular because it was very quick and easy to do and therefore a very efficient way to make some money. It was also the first permanent daily area that didn't really differentiate much between the factions, as they both got the same quests. (I'm not counting that Republic players collect kolto and destroy toxin while the Empire does the opposite. It's still "click on these containers five times".)

What was really odd about CZ-198's weekly mission though was that it required you to run both of the local flashpoints in addition to doing all the dailies... which was a bit awkward to be honest. It's probably the reason I got the achievements for running these on story mode twenty-five times more quickly than for any other flashpoints, and I remember trying to always have the CZ weekly in my log before running a random just in case one of the Czerka flashpoints would pop up. This odd system was eventually patched out in 3.2, when the requirement to run the two flashpoints was replaced with a single heroic mission to kill a big droid.

2.3 was also the patch that introduced the second recurring world event, Bounty Contract Week. This followed more in the steps of the Makeb Staged Weekly, by making you choose a single daily quest that you then saw through to form a kind of storyline. It was a little weird, but still made a lot more sense than the stuff on Makeb.

2.4 - Oricon

Oricon always felt to me like it was made by the same team that created CZ-198, only with small improvements: again we were in a small area shared by both factions, both doing the same quests. Even though the change to the CZ weekly to not require flashpoint running anymore didn't come until much later, it seemed like Bioware already felt a bit awkward about that particular design decision, so the Oricon weekly featured a daily in a heroic area instead. It was brutal and I loved it - to this day it remains at least moderately challenging despite of how much heroics have been toned down in general.

What was different was that there were bonus missions for those who had unlocked their Seeker Droids and Macrobinoculars - CZ-198 had only featured a one-time quest for a pet, but the bonuses on Oricon were attached to dailies and therefore repeatable.

More importantly though, there was a much bigger attempt to tie the whole area into a story. On CZ-198, there was an introductory quest that asked you to run the flashpoints, and the flashpoints were part of the weekly, but the dailies were just kind of... there. Oricon took a different approach, by unlocking the daily quests one at a time and tying them into a quest chain narrative that you had to complete once before the missions unlocked as daily repeatable from the nearest terminal. (As an aside, the story was also refreshingly different for the two factions despite of running along the same general lines.) The story quest then cumulated in you being sent to do the two Dread operations, something that generated some resentment among solo players, but that's really another story as it had no impact on your ability to do the dailies.


2.5.2a - Return of the Rakghouls

(Fun fact, I couldn't actually find any patch notes about this... I only know that the event came with this patch thanks to my blog posts about it.) The third big repeatable world event, the Rakghoul Resurgence that would come to rotate between three different planets, took a fairly conservative approach and basically mirrored the basic setup of the Gree event, with a small enclosed daily area, an instanced operations boss and a couple of open world bosses. They just dropped the PvP area and replaced it with another heroic area instead.

What was somewhat revolutionary at the time was that the event was trying to be level-agnostic - the mobs in the tunnels were mostly very low level and would only spawn reinforcements of your character's level once you got aggro, allowing players of (nearly) all levels to join in the fun. The operations boss The Eyeless was also the first boss that featured PvE bolster, boosting lowbies to a high enough level that enabled them to participate. It's kind of ironic that this whole event appears to have been overlooked when they introduced the galaxy-wide level sync in 4.0, which now makes it feel kind of outdated and causes lowbies to get left out of parts of it due to some of the system's limitations.

3.0 - Soloing on Rishi & Yavin IV

Shadow of Revan's two new planets were a funny bunch in terms of dailies. Rishi featured several missions that were daily repeatable, and some of them even had achievements attached to repeating them often enough, but they were scattered all across the area and had no coherent theme or reward structure to them.

Yavin IV was the "real" new daily area of the expansion but required you to complete the storyline first. There was the whole thing with giving you the choice of either doing dailies or doing the Temple of Sacrifice operation to complete the storyline, which was honestly just kind of awkward. The dailies themselves, once unlocked, were decent enough fun and proved very popular. I ranted at the time though that I thought they were actually kind of over-incentivised, with the hugely powerful companion gear that was rewarded by the weekly making you feel like you kind of had to do them to kit out your companions (this was back when their gear affected their power level). What's also noteworthy is that while there was a weekly quest to kill the walker world boss on Yavin, this was completely separate from the regular weekly mission for the daily quests, which could be done solo in its entirety and was therefore the first of its kind to not feature any kind of grouping component.

3.2 - Pointlessness on Ziost

After the fun of Yavin, the dailies on Ziost felt like a bit of a step back. Requiring the completion of both the basic Shadow of Revan story as well as of the Rise of the Emperor patch, they presented the as of then largest number of hurdles to overcome in order to gain access to a new daily area. It wasn't exactly a prohibitive amount of effort or anything, but compared to the ease with which any alt could jump into any of the pre-3.0 daily areas it felt like a lot.

Mechanically it was interesting in that all the dailies were non-combat missions, enforced by the circumstances of the story... but the big problem was that there was basically zero incentive to come back. Where Yavin felt like it was almost showering you with too many rewards, Ziost had nothing, neither a reputation to work on nor anything interesting to buy with the currency the quests rewarded. I expect the value of all rewards to deprecate over time, but I distinctly remember Ziost being the one planet where I did one round of the missions on the day of release, looked at the local vendor, and realised that he didn't have anything of interest to offer even on day one, which was kind of disappointing. My impression is that I wasn't alone in this and that Ziost has remained comparatively unpopular with the masses for this reason... though again, some players did appreciate the novelty of the combat-less mission design.


4.0 - Goodbye To All The Quests I've Loved Before

Knights of the Fallen Empire brought with it a new focus on solo story, and new dailies were not really a part of Bioware's plan because they were considered too MMO-like I guess. Since the devs were busy retuning a lot of content anyway though, they decided to make most of the old heroics soloable while also attaching Alliance endgame rewards to them, which basically means that they morphed from being open-world group content for levelling players into just another set of endlessly repeatable dailies. I hated that, but based on the responses I got to the linked post a lot of people felt the opposite way.

As part of this great, galaxy-wide tidy-up, the former dailies on Belsavis and Ilum were also turned back into the regular quest chains they had clearly been meant to be from the beginning, so you did them once and that was it. I didn't even notice this for a long time, but as with all things, there were people who were unhappy about the change because they had actually still been doing those old dailies, mostly as a way to farm companion affection.

5.2 - Icky Iokath

Nearly two years after Ziost, Bioware brought us our first new daily area in ages in the form of Iokath. While everyone was quite excited about getting a new planet to explore, what we eventually got felt a lot less iterative than the previous daily areas, and more like they struggled to remember how to design this kind of content after a long time away from it. It felt as if they picked a bunch of features from the old areas, mixed in a couple of new ideas, and simply hoped that the end result would be fun. Unfortunately the different parts didn't gel too well and in the end it was more of a slightly awkward mishmash.

There is an initial storyline like on Oricon, and a couple of the quests you complete in it do return as dailies, but most of the repeatable missions are actually quite different. The quests are more or less the same for both factions and take place in a shared area, though it's larger than most daily areas. Travelling around the zone is also very convoluted, making questing on Iokath very time-consuming.

One of the new features was the concept of different daily missions rotating on the terminal from one day to the next, and the player being expected to do more than one day of them to complete the associated weekly quest. There were also several vehicle quests, which were very badly tuned in terms of cost vs. reward at launch, and while Bioware fixed this later, the bad first impression tarnished many players' impression of the planet forever. The vehicles were also meant to encourage PvP, but the combination of the initial high cost to buy them as well as the awkward geography not really encouraging people to meet up made that fall flat on its face as well.

Nearly three years after the last bunch of daily quests that also featured group content, Bioware also decided to include a single world boss on Iokath, the Colossal, and to make a daily quest for him... but since it wasn't required for the weekly and wasn't even marked as a group quest, most people picked it up once, went "mm, nope" once they saw what they were up against (or maybe did it once just for the achievement) and that was that. It's not like the boss drops anything either.


Looking Back And Looking Forward

Looking back at this history of SWTOR's daily quests / areas, I see several different developments over time. Aside from launch and it's "improvised" dailies, the Black Hole's precedent of the terminal with both dailies and a weekly quest was something that quickly became the norm and that has persisted to this day, but other aspects of the system have been more fluid.

First off, there was a lot of experimentation with story. The first daily areas just offered a voiced introduction and then tried to engage you by giving you different things to do on each faction. On Makeb and with Bounty Contract Week they seemed to try to create a sort of daily repeatable miniature story, with very mixed results. The Oricon approach of weaving the dailies into a one-time story was the most attractive way of going about things in my eyes. More recently they have gated largely separate dailies behind doing a longer, one-time story quest, which I haven't been quite as fond of.

There was also a gradual abandonment of group content. The early weeklies up to Oricon all had some sort of group component to them (even if CZ-198's flashpoint running requirement was eventually abandoned as a failed experiment), but with Shadow of Revan that all went out the window. The Colossal on Iokath felt like a hesitant breadcrumb thrown at players who liked to group up, but it wasn't handled very well in my opinion.

Finally, there is an interesting undercurrent of wanting to incentivise world PvP every now and then, most notably with the dedicated PvP area on Ilum but also with the Iokath vehicles, yet people never seem to have taken to it very well. From my experience the best thing to do still seems to be to simply force both factions into a small space and then let them sort themselves out. I've had some enjoyable world PvP both on Oricon and in the Rakghoul tunnels.


In a few days we'll all get to see the game's newest daily area on Ossus. I've mostly avoided spoilers about it, though I hear that there are supposed to be some new heroics, which is something that I at least would definitely appreciate. As far as story integration and world PvP goes, we'll just have to see!

03/12/2018

Still Conquering

It's been eight months since the introduction of the new Conquest system, and I'm still having fun. Despite of the many complaints people levelled against the changes in the beginning, for me the new system has already been much better at holding my interest than it ever was in its original iteration. The original Conquest system had me playing intensely for about four months; then Shadow of Revan was released and my interest in Conquest points fell off a cliff. It limped on for another six months or so, with the occasional revival of interest whenever there was a Total Galactic War, but eventually I just started ignoring the whole thing completely.

I do think the basic idea of being able to succeed without actually making it into the top ten has done a lot to make people engage with Conquest much more than before, but my own guild has also been a lot more successful, conquering more planets in those last eight months than we'd ever been able to claim before, and not just when Total Galactic War was on. We are getting close to hitting our limitations though, as we're not big enough to compete for first place on the large yield board, and we only have a small number of medium and small yield planets left to tick off. I've also been struggling with burnout a little bit, but as the frequency with which we attempt to race others for first place has slowed down that's been getting better.


Another thing that keeps me interested is just watching the scoreboards to be honest. For example, the biggest Conquest guild on Darth Malgus is an Imperial guild called Stroke My Wookie [sic, the founder apparently didn't know how to spell Wookiee]. In fact, they got so big that they had to split in two just to contain all their members! Strictly speaking they also have a third guild on Republic side, but it seems that SmW are staunch Imperial loyalists for the most part, as Republic SmW is rarely seen on the boards and even seems to have downgraded its ambitions from medium to small yield. The two Imp guilds however have been quite dominant, sometimes claiming first place on two out of three planets at the same time.

But then! Seemingly out of nowhere came a Republic guild called Exsilium. I still know virtually nothing about them, as they don't even seem to have a guild website, but they just showed up one day and started beating SmW to first place. Again, and again. Even without knowing anything about them, I kind of cheered for them simply out of faction pride and because it was nice to see someone disrupt what appeared to have become an almost-monopoly on Conquest victories. Apparently this served to sufficiently upset SmW to the point where they held a special "event month" to pull as many people as possible back into the original guild to refocus their Conquest efforts and beat Exsilium (I know this because they did in fact officially announce this on their guild website) - a goal at which they succeeded, though after they split back in two the fight for first place was once again back on. In an interesting turn of events, it now seems to be Exsilium's turn to spread themselves too thin, as they recently appear to have formed an Imperial alt guild called Fallen Exsilium. Last week they made their own attempt at conquering two planets at once but it didn't quite go as planned, as for a while they were pushed back into second place on both planets. I was watching the board with interest, wondering how it would all plan out. (For the record, Exsilium managed to claw their way back into first place on one of the two planets at least.) It's kind of like a nerdy equivalent of watching F1 racing I guess.

Looking forward, I'm quite curious to see how the Conquest changes announced for 5.10 will shake things up. The biggest change from my point of view is that they will be introducing daily objectives to kill X mobs anywhere in the galaxy. Right now, while I don't think it's difficult to hit your personal target, it certainly requires a certain amount of focus, unless you're lucky and it's a week that particularly rewards your preferred play style. Generally speaking, you won't hit your target by just levelling and doing dailies though; you'll have to specifically target the featured activities each week. The new objectives might change that, and at the very least they will suddenly turn a lot of more casual players into active contributors. I'm excited to see how that will pan out.

30/11/2018

Day 10: Death #IntPiPoMo

It's the last day of November, the last day of International Picture Posting Month, and the last day of my 10 days of SWTOR screenshots. As usual, I close the series on the theme of death, even though we're officially not really dying in game, only getting defeated every so often.


SWTOR does not have good relationship with the third dimension when it comes to death. This is very apparent from the way the whole instance can bug out on you on Soa if you die anywhere except on the bottom floor, but it also shows itself in other places where you can die while being in the air.

On Dread Master Raptus in Dread Fortress for example, you can get thrown high into the air if you have aggro, and if you die from that you usually can't be revived because your body will appear to be somewhere completely different on your screen than where it shows for everyone else, and the latter location is usually somewhere unreachable to boot. In the above screenshot you can see me looking down at a guildie whose corpse is floating in mid-air standing up, all while she was probably assuring us that her body was right there by the door.


This shows me (and a bunch of others) having died to the Rogue Cartel Warbot on Quesh during a world boss run. This isn't anything special per se, but it amused me that this is exactly the same way I suffered my first ever death to a raid boss back in 2012. The more things change, the more they stay the same.


I've mentioned before that as an endgame player, basically most of your deaths occur during operations or PvP. I kind of used to appreciate how lying dead on the floor during a boss fight would sometimes actually give you a particularly good angle for a screenshot, but more recently I've become kind of blasé about that. Too much focus on progression I guess, with not enough thought put into simply admiring the sights. Here's one of the rare occasions when I remembered my roots however and took a moment to admire the machine core in Temple of Sacrifice while waiting for my guildies to finish wiping. (Though we did get Revan down in the end! Not on this try though.)

Your regularly scheduled posting will resume next week - I expect that there will still be a lot to talk about in December though, what with my usual year in review thoughts and the upcoming release of 5.10.

IntPiPoMo count: 60

27/11/2018

Day 9: Silly #IntPiPoMo

My 10 themed days of SWTOR screenshots in celebration of International Picture Posting Month continue. If you want to see a list of all the themes I'm using, you can find it here.


I tend to feel ambivalent about silly character names, but seeing these guys in a Voidstar match made me smile, and I've never even played Bioshock. I certainly appreciate a good pun or well-executed theme.


I would say phasewalking loses some of its power when you know exactly just where all the Sages will plant theirs in Ancient Hypergates...


Things going wrong in cut scenes are always funny, but I really loved this party bomb sneaking into this early scene from the Esseles, both because of how utterly inappropriate it is in context but also because of how the Navigator ends up wearing it like some sort of bizarre hat.


This picture is not that silly in itself but it's more about what it represents. One night in EC we were running with some pugs and were waiting for everyone to catch back up after the Minefield, when one of the pugs taught the rest of us how to climb the cliff face on the side of the area. This manoeuvre allows you to skip just... one, two (?) pulls of trash and was therefore a huge waste of time considering how long it took to get everyone up there, but it was also entertaining. As the pug explained: you have time to discover all kinds of things when you're sitting around bored, waiting for people to catch up.


Finally, this is just a screenshot I took of my chat window during our first ever night on Nahut. It just amused me in several different ways, from a certain Scoundrel complaining about actually having to heal, then rolling to his death through a hole in the floor, to my own eventual demise through Spaghettificiation (best boss ability ever).

IntPiPoMo count: 57

24/11/2018

Day 8: Memorable Moments: #IntPiPoMo

My 10 themed days of SWTOR screenshots in celebration of International Picture Posting Month continue. If you want to see a list of all the themes I'm using, you can find it here.


Just like last year, one of the most memorable moments that I screenshotted was a really bad PvP match! It's funny because I do enjoy PvP, but for some reason the most memorable matches are always the bad ones... what I preserved for posterity here was a Voidstar which I mentally filed away under "Imps are quitters". Yes, it was a loss, but this certainly wasn't helped by my side having literally several quitters a minute. You can't actually see the full list in the screenshot, but I noted in the file name that by the end of the match a total of 28 different characters had been part of the team (actual team size: 8). This is what you get when your game doesn't penalise people for deserting.


Whenever my guild runs Explosive Conflict, one of the tanks will call shotgun on the tower, a tradition that was instituted by our original guild leader, who liked that the role of standing in the tower on the third boss fight allowed him to be fairly lazy for several minutes. I think the earliest we've had someone call dibs on the role during a run was before we'd even entered the instance... for all that I'd never actually experienced myself what you do up there until this year, when I got to have a go on my Vanguard (pictured) and later on my Shadow. It's funny because it's really not very hard at all, but if you don't know what you're doing you can still wipe the group in several different ways. I still remember that pug I had a few years ago where we had a dps go up in the end because literally nobody else knew what to do.


This is just a cut scene at the end of KotET chapter two, and the reason it's memorable to me is not because of the story, but because on master mode this is probably the hardest fight in any of the chapters in the entire game, and I felt incredibly accomplished after beating it. At the same time I feel kind of scarred for life though, because the other day I replayed this chapter on story mode on an alt and I still got slightly twitchy the moment I saw these guys, just from the deeply ingrained memories of what a pain they are on the harder difficulties. It's certainly worked to make me remember the GenoHaradan as more fearsome opponents than any Emperor.


And finally, a Conquest moment: Twin Suns Squadron actually conquered a few planets this year and it was always exciting, but what I found noteworthy here was the brief period of time during which we were actually the conquerors of two planets, one on our main guild and one on our Imperial alt guild. For a guild that isn't actually a dedicated Conquest guild and has fewer than 100 active members I think that's pretty damn good.

IntPiPoMo count: 52 - target achieved! (though the series continues until the end of the month)

22/11/2018

SWTOR's Golden Launch Days

A couple of weeks ago an old podcast made me muse on SWTOR's pre-launch hype, and this post in turn got Asmiroth reminiscing about his early days in the game. That post in turn made me thoughtful due to how it reiterated the pretty popular narrative of how SWTOR was an utter failure at launch, but managed to correct its worst mistakes and is a better game for it now. Aside from a few nitpicks which I brought up in the comments to his post, I didn't actually disagree with most of the specific issues he brought up... but it made me think about how two people can look at the same thing and still come away with very different impressions of it based on their experiences and priorities. (Also topical: Azuriel likes Fallout 76 and is utterly bewildered by all the negative press it gets. Welcome to the world of being a SWTOR player at launch!)

For example, there's no denying that SWTOR's open world PvP was broken from the beginning - the things going on on Ilum even made the news on several gaming sites back in the day. However, to someone like me, who was a) still levelling at the time and b) not particularly interested in open world PvP, that was barely even a blip on the radar and certainly had no noticeable effect on my own ability to enjoy the game. A year after the event, Ilum was nothing but an infamous and weird zone for most of us who were still around.


And sure, there were bugs. Few games launch without them. But unless they are literally game-breaking, making it impossible to log in or progress, or are particularly prolific, nobody quits over a couple of bugs if they are otherwise having fun. I ran into them too, and have blog posts to prove it, but ultimately they didn't stop me from enjoying the game because I was always way too eager to see what was waiting around the next corner.

Simply put: For me, SWTOR was simply a fantastic game from launch, for multiple reasons:

- To this day you'll find people arguing both that SWTOR should have had fewer MMO elements to begin with and should have focused more on its single-player aspects, and that it was too solo focused while not being enough of a "proper" MMO. For me however, the balance at launch was literally perfect. I wanted an MMO and I got it, with all the bells and whistles that entails, but the class story was more involved than anything else that had been seen in that space before and provided strong reasons to identify with and care about your character.

- The promise of being able to level at least eight different alts, have it be a totally different experience, and then receive continued updates for all of those unique class stories sounded absolutely amazing. That those plans ultimately weren't sustainable is another matter, but the amount of content to play through at launch was huge. And yet the game ended up with loads of players who just speed-levelled one class to cap and then complained that there weren't enough raids. I don't even know. Though speaking as someone who did raid once I hit the level cap, the first few months were good times for me too. While there was only one operation at launch, Bioware had added three more by the end of the year. It was a golden age of constant content additions.

- The group conversation system was a hugely unique feature, and I absolutely adored it. There's just something about the whole idea of rolling off with your group mates to decide how a quest is going to continue. To this day, even with most people skipping the cut scenes in flashpoints, the ones with the big choices still get players talking, even in pugs (usually to complain about other people in the group voting for the opposite alignment).

- The levelling game in general managed to be fantastically accommodating to grouping, despite of the solo story arc. Everything that wasn't your class story was designed to make sense whether you were alone or with friends, and I loved how quest givers would even insert little comments about you having company. Coming fresh off WoW, which had decided to deal the final death blow to open world group quests in its Catalcysm expansion (the odd exception not withstanding), I loved loved loved all the heroic quests that encouraged you to group up with randoms while out in the world. I certainly didn't feel like the game needed an automated group finder or anything.


Pugging heroics in January 2012 on my agent.

- Combat in general was fun. It was traditional hotbar MMO combat, which is something I like, and having come straight out of WoW's Cata expansion as mentioned above, I was glad to see that fighting mobs was a decent challenge. It wasn't super hard or anything, but if you didn't upgrade your gear every few levels or didn't use utilities such as crowd control or interrupts, you would pay the price, so putting that extra effort in made a noticeable difference and that felt very satisfying.

- Doing PvP as a levelling character was another thing that stood out positively to me, again because of the inevitable comparisons to WoW, which at the time featured no level sync of any kind, but put you into tiny levelling brackets instead, which could result in long waits just so you would end up in a match where you could still barely hit your opponents. SWTOR's Bolster system seemed amazing to me in comparison, plus tanks actually having a role to play in PvP beyond flag carrying was cool too.

- Story and lore were treated with respect and attention to detail. I loved discovering all the little connections between different class stories for example that made it possible to put all the stories together, like a giant puzzle, and see a coherent larger image emerge. (Not to rag on WoW again, but storyline consistency was another thing they messed up big time in Cata.)

I could probably come up with more points, but these will do for now. What I'm really trying to highlight is how my view of SWTOR's development over time is almost the opposite of the common narrative of failure and then stabilisation. Again, I'm not denying that the game had issues from a financial point of view. However, to me the reason this happened seemed to have everything to do with Bioware and EA vastly overestimating the size of the niche they were catering to, and nothing with the game's inherent quality.

I'm not really trying to say that SWTOR is an all-around worse game now than it was in 2012 either. I sure am grateful for all those bug fixes and for the fact that the game doesn't crash on me every hour anymore, not to mention the many bits of content as well as quality of life fixes that have been introduced since then. However, as far as those big bullet points go that originally drew me to the game, things have got worse in almost every respect. To go through them in order:


- The (for me) perfect balance between MMO content and solo story started to crumble back in 3.0, and the last two expansions went all out on focusing on the solo player. Recent patches have backtracked on this a bit, and to me it feels like the game is now on the right track in terms of regaining some balance... but I still miss the questing content for flexible group sizes. These days it's all either solo story or fixed-size group instances, with nothing in-between.

- Class stories were abandoned quickly, but we still got updates at a decent pace for quite a while. The last two years things have been pretty slow though.

- While the group conversation system hasn't been removed from the game, Bioware effectively stopped utilising it during Shadow of Revan. The only new content added since 4.0 that has you roll off against group members to make a decision is the cut scene where you blow up the shield surrounding a Star Fortress, but the following cut scene only shows a single person running outside, regardless of whether there were other people in the party. It's almost as if the developers who originally worked on the system aren't with the company anymore and nobody else knows what to do with it.


I wasn't playing alone when I did this, but you can't tell.

- In 4.0, heroics as a concept were effectively removed from the game by being turned into just another type of daily quest and yes, I'm still bitter about that. Rumour has it that 5.10 is supposed to see the return of some open world content that you're actually encouraged to group up for, but I'll believe it when I see it.

- The overall combat system hasn't exactly changed, but the way they sped up levelling combined with the introduction of level sync and multiple buffs to companions has led to combat while levelling being quite boring as everything dies in a couple of hits unless you make a point of staying underlevelled, which is actually quite tricky to do if you actually enjoy playing your character and doing things.

- In general I would say that PvP has maintained its quality, but the levelling brackets took a huge hit from the increased levelling speed and the removal of all worthwhile rewards from sub-max-level PvP, which makes it much harder to get into lowbie and midbie matches these days than it used to be.

- Bioware also still loves its story, but Knights of the Fallen Empire certainly played havoc with the established order, and all classes being funnelled into the same personal story meant that the beautiful puzzle essentially broke down, as canonically, all your alts of different classes couldn't co-exist anymore as only one of them could really be the Outlander. I suspect a lot of people would also agree that KotFE and KotET took the game off into a drastically different story direction from what we had seen before, which didn't gel too well with the existing content.

So what's the tl;dr of all this rambling? That I honestly thought SWTOR was great as it was at launch (bugs not withstanding), and from this long-term player's point of view it's been less of a story of a failure finding success and more of a succession of weird ups and downs as Bioware tried to appeal to different types of players in turn who hadn't been satisfied with the launch game for whatever reason. It's only more recently that they finally seem to have remembered what made their game so great at launch (and I'm really thankful for that and am excitedly looking forward to the next update).

21/11/2018

Day 7: Team #IntPiPoMo

My 10 themed days of SWTOR screenshots in celebration of International Picture Posting Month continue. If you want to see a list of all the themes I'm using, you can find it here.


In my guild's operations I have a comical reputation for wanting to loot everything, and since I'm a bioanalyst on my main that includes hoovering up dead lobels and the like. I'm not alone though! We have a whole "team bioanalyst", but for some reason I still get most of the blame for slowing things down.


I think I mentioned before that I love this cut scene from Czerka Corporate Labs because it can make even pugs look cool. This is my Operative (second from the left) in a random group. (I also posted this one on Twitter before, but I already established that Twitter doesn't count in my mind.)


I seriously have so many screenshots of this scene, haha. Here's my Vanguard tank (far right) in a guild group.


There's a similar scene in Battle of Rishi, but unfortunately it's nowhere near as good as it's too zoomed out and goes on for too long, with the characters walking around and looking kind of confused for no reason. Still, I kept this one because it reminds me of an epic run where I (on my Juggernaut tank, second from the left) had roped a guildie on his newly dinged Operative into healing me through a random master mode. We got Battle of Rishi and it didn't go so well! I think I kept the poor guy up way past his bedtime as we wiped on the last boss over and over again... though we did get him down in the end.


The more things change, the more they stay the same: me and some guildies goofing off between pulls during an ops run.

IntPiPoMo count: 44

18/11/2018

Day 6: Environments #IntPiPoMo

My 10 themed days of SWTOR screenshots in celebration of International Picture Posting Month continue. If you want to see a list of all the themes I'm using, you can find it here.


Let's start the environments theme with this shot of Pugette cruising around Taris while waiting in the group finder queue. I always think of Taris as an ugly and unwelcoming place, but when I looked up that day it struck me as strangely beautiful despite of the devastation.


Similar thoughts went through my head here, as my Sage was meditating in Section X while waiting for everyone to get dready to pull Dreadtooth. I never actually realised that the big cannon that you're sent to sabotage in the heroic mission actually looms above the area quite so majestically.


Here's my Guardian regenerating some health on Copero. I noted in one of my initial posts about the Traitor Among the Chiss flashpoint that it was stunningly beautiful, and so far the effect hasn't lessened yet whenever I rerun it. It boggles the mind a bit that they made the Umbaran freight train into a stronghold but nothing on this world... I guess the Chiss aren't very welcoming to strangers.


SWTOR's environmental designers really do get to shine in all areas if they are only allowed to design something other than spaceship interiors or barren wastelands. Here we have the trash run between Nahut and Scyva in Gods from the Machine. The screenshot doesn't really do it justice, but the area is vast and has a certain eerie beauty to it. It's just kind of hard to take a break to really appreciate it and find good screenshot angles when you're also supposed to keep people alive at the same time... maybe one of these days I should go back into a cleared out version of the instance and just do a tour of the area to get a better look at it.


Speaking of taking a moment to appreciate the landscape in unusual places, here's my Sentinel admiring the view during the pre-match timer in Novare Coast.


With the addition of the Battle over Iokath map, even GSF got its chance to look pretty! Easily my favourite of all the death match maps (and not just for its looks).


Finally, a screencap I took of my Commando main harvesting some crystals in her stronghold. Ever since I upgraded my PC two years ago, crystals have turned from just another resource to harvest into pretty good-looking environmental props, so this scene filled with them struck me as strangely beautiful.

IntPiPoMo count: 39