Refer-A-Friend Update

I'm back from my holiday (which was very enjoyable, thank you for asking) and still in the process of catching up with what has happened in game since I left and what my favourite bloggers have been writing about. One thing I did already notice however was that I received another referral reward in my absence, bringing my total up to five.

I believe that I put my referral link up on the blog around the end of March/beginning of April, so it took about five months to make the five referrals that are needed to get all the rewards, about one per month then. Apparently I also earned 1200 bonus Cartel Coins from people subscribing after they've been referred by me.

I considered taking the referral link down after I got all the little recoloured droid pets, because once you have all the rewards, what's the point? However, looking at those bonus Cartel Coins it's clearly worth it to keep making referrals even after you've received all the item rewards. And who knows, maybe Bioware will one day add a little extra reward for people who've made ten referrals or however many I'll be up to by then... so I'll leave that little sidebar box up for now.

Either way, I just wanted to say a quick thanks to all the people who have used the referral link so far and who got me all those little droid pets. I hope you've been enjoying the game!


Galactic Strongholds First Impressions

Last year I went on holiday shortly after the launch of Rise of the Hutt Cartel and had to wait until I came back to experience a lot of the expansion content. Turning the act of missing out on expansion excitement into a tradition, I managed to book myself in for just after the launch of Galactic Strongholds this year. This time I didn't have the time or energy to pre-write a couple of extra posts to keep you entertained during my absence either, so I'm afraid you'll have to do without my witty contributions for the next ten days.

I did want to get at least a brief first impressions post of the housing system out of my system though.

First off, I like the new loading screen. Overall, I still prefer the more "realistic" art style they used on the original loading screen, but out of all the ones they've done in the new stylised fashion they've adopted since Rise of the Hutt Cartel, I probably like this one the best.

After all my arguing back and forth about which stronghold to get, I unlocked them all at the basic level, but decided to only work on the Coruscant apartment for now. And by "work on", I mean that I plonked down the new legacy bank next to the door and started logging various alts to shuffle items around.

Getting down to business.

I did unlock all the rooms on Coruscant though, and promptly felt the urge to throw myself off the balcony just to see if it was possible or if I'd get stopped by invisible walls. (The answer is, I died.) Since it was advertised in the description as offering freedom from safety restrictions, I just had to know!

Relogging all my alts quickly showed just how much this new housing feature is designed to favour large legacies, as every character received a whole bunch of free items for completing the introductory quest, which were then added to my legacy furniture pool.

As the various free chairs and rugs started piling up, I decided that I should at least place a couple of them in the room I was working on. I was pleasantly surprised by how intuitive the hook system was. The only issue I had at the beginning was that I didn't know which type of item was going to be which size and I couldn't find a way to browse through them without selecting a hook first, which led to frantic switching between random hook sizes just to find the right items.

Too tired... haven't placed bed yet...

Overall I was really impressed by the system though. It's easy to use and you really don't need to be big on decorating to be able to put something together that looks at least half-decent. At the same time, if you do like to customise, you can switch between different hook layouts, shift items around on their hooks and rotate them up to 360 degrees. This strikes me as a reasonable compromise between giving people options and keeping the system simple enough that it remains easy to use. Thumbs up from me, Bioware.

Some of the decorations are kind of silly. You can place your companions, but when you're on a character that doesn't have that companion, they just appear as a hologram. I had read about that beforehand, and though I didn't like it very much, I also wasn't too fussed about it. What I did mind was finding that my Aric Jorgan hologram was wearing nothing but undies! Yikes! I guess this is because the game doesn't know which armour set to pick, considering that I have more than one trooper who has Aric as a companion. At least they could have given him some generic armour or something...

If you're a raider, you'll also get about ten million free wall decorations consisting of boss portraits. What do non-raiders put on their walls other than patriotic banners? I seem to have nothing but boss trophies to choose from.

Of course pictures like the above look less like heroic trophies and more like they should come with a caption such as "wish you were here". Or like one of the drouks should be carrying a pitchfork.

Of course this didn't prevent me from making a "boss wall" where I arranged their portraits in order of raid progression. Of all the beings I killed before...

I also visited my pet tank's Coruscant apartment and laughed at some of his silly arrangements, such as the staircases stuffed with pets. Our guild master has purchased the stronghold on Tatooine for the guild and my pet tank has already claimed one room as his office. It was quite fun to hear him lecture the guild master about how he thought the place should be decorated. Furniture is serious business, yo!

In a nutshell, I like what I've seen of the housing so far, but I think I'll need to take things slowly. It seems that Bioware added an absolute crap-ton of housing items to all parts of the game, and I need to investigate what you can get from where and whether it's worth getting for me personally. That's definitely something to look forward to in the long run though.

As for the other new features of this patch, I've run the Manaan flashpoint once but haven't really had a chance to look at the Conquest system yet. I'll be writing about all these things as soon as I get back.


Content Vs. Features: A Zero-Sum Game

The other week Traitine expressed some annoyance (among other things) about Eric Musco stating that Bioware currently has no plans for expanding Galactic Starfighter, or at least none that they are willing to share with us. I absolutely understand how much of a disappointment this must be if you're a big fan of GSF.

On the other hand however... I was pretty down on the game when GSF launched, precisely because it wasn't my cup of tea and yet every other patch seemed to be "GSF this, GSF that". I have since come to find some enjoyment in occasionally engaging in space PvP, but if you asked me to choose between getting a new gameplay mode for GSF or getting a new operation for example, there would be no contest for me. I'd take the new operation hands down. In fact, I can't shake the feeling that GSF has at least been partially responsible for the fact that we haven't seen a new operation since October, so considering possible trade-offs is probably not as hypothetical as one might think.

I can't help but be reminded of that Massively poll from several months ago about whether people would prefer new content or new features, given the choice of what to add to their favourite MMO next. I think I already linked to it once in the past, and a majority in the comment thread seemed to argue in favour of features and how they supposedly keep players busy for longer than mere new content.

I think what people tend to forget is that many features aren't one-off affairs. Sure, some can be. If your game doesn't have a system that allows people to customise the looks of their gear independent of their stats and then you add such a functionality, that's now something that can keep players busy for a long time and with little to no additional effort required afterwards, as you were probably going to introduce new pieces of armour periodically anyway. But if you add, say, a new gameplay mode, you may soon find that its fans are clamouring for more content for this new feature, and instead of having added something to keep players busy with little effort, you've just made more work for yourself as there is now another part of the game that needs regular maintenance.

I reckon that for most MMO developers, the amount of resources they have available to keep adding to the game stays relatively consistent once the game has found its stride. This means that at first you can dedicate X man hours to making new solo content, Y to group content and Z to PvP. What happens if you add something like Galactic Starfighter though? Now you have a new gameplay mode that also demands attention, and no matter which way you shift your resources, someone is going to get the short end of the stick and be unhappy.

I think the best way to get the most enjoyment possible out of an MMO is to try and find fun in as many aspects of it as you can, as this minimises the effect that resources being shifted around can have on you personally. You can always have fun with something else if your favourite part of the game isn't currently receiving updates. However, realistically few people are going to be interested in all parts of an MMO. When you add new content to an existing aspect of your game, you at least know who you're catering to - you already have players who enjoy that kind of  thing. Introducing a whole new feature to the game on the other hand can be a big risk. How many of your current players are going to like it? How many are going to be negatively affected because suddenly their preferred play style receives less support? Is the mere presence of the new feature going to pull in more new players than it's going to piss off old players?

I think that Bioware has been quite bold to introduce space PvP the way they did, and to now add housing so shortly afterwards. I just worry a little how well they'll be able to keep piling things on without losing some support at the base. We have no numbers to gauge how popular Galactic Starfighter has been, but judging by it going from a much-hyped new feature to "we have no plans to expand on this" within half a year, it probably hasn't been quite as much of a success as they were hoping. For Bioware's sake, we can only keep our fingers crossed that housing does better. I mean, I'm excited about it and I know other people who are as well, but I'm pretty sure that there are also players out there who are annoyed about having to wait even longer for their next operation or warzone because Bioware wants to cater to people who love playing house.


Which Stronghold to Choose?

So I mentioned that I'm getting quite excited about the release of Galactic Strongholds next week. However, I'm a bit worried that once it actually launches I'll end up suffering from analysis paralysis and be unable to decide what to actually do with all my new stuff.

For example I'm still not sure which strongholds I actually want to own. You might ask: "Why not get all four once you can afford it?" Well, for one I'm not sure I'll actually know what to do with that much housing space. If I end up really loving the decorating, I can still expand my holdings later, but I'd feel pretty foolish if I spent lots of money on opening up dozens of rooms, just to end up leaving them empty because I don't really know what to do with them.

Also, while the fact that you'll be able to own up to four different strongholds should make things easy, considering that's exactly how many different ones there are, I can't help but worry about stupid "what if"s. What if they introduce another really cool location later (such as Alderaan) and I'm already at my limit? What if they then don't increase the limit and you can't sell your unwanted strongholds? Wouldn't that suck?

It's a given for me that I'll want to have a home on Tatooine, no matter how expensive it is. In my very first post about SWTOR getting housing, before we even knew the name of the expansion, I bemoaned that I wouldn't be able to live on Tatooine. Since they changed it so that now I will be able to, there was never any doubt about that one.

I could also see myself getting the stronghold on Coruscant, what with me being a staunch supporter of the Republic. An apartment on a big city world would also feel sufficiently different from a compound in the desert that I could justify having both of them. They would obviously serve different purposes.

Dromund Kaas I'm not sure about. Initially I was willing to discard the idea simply because I don't feel as much of a connection to Empire side, but I've heard that it's very atmospheric with the rain and what not, and I do have quite a lot of Imperial alts that could really do with a place of their own...

You know which stronghold I could definitely do without though? Nar Shaddaa. I know that a lot of people love the place for lore reasons, but personally I've always found it to be one of the dullest planets in the game in terms of environments. Aside from some flashy lights that you see during your taxi rides it's just another dull cityscape, and considering the crime levels I can't imagine it being a very nice place to live. Yet which one is the stronghold in which subscribers get several rooms unlocked automatically? This one. Le sigh.

Are you planning to unlock them all, simply to max out your weekly conquest point gains? Or are you still undecided like me?


Rakghoul Roundup

The rakghouls have come and gone, and I had fun. The weekly reset today allowed me to use up some of the spare reputation tokens that I had accumulated over the course of the week, so that I'm now maxed out on reputation with yet another faction.

I made sure to do the dailies at least once on each of my nine max-level characters and bought each of them a set of the two rakling pets that you can get from Jeelvic for cheap. I killed the Eyeless about half a dozen times, most of them in pugs. There were some wipes, especially on hardmode, but people were in good spirits and in the end we always pulled through. Cracking jokes about the boss's shapely butt never got old either.

I killed the new world boss, Plaguehorn, once as well, though only once. I'm not sure how I feel about putting the event-related world boss so far away from where the actual event is happening. On Alderaan it was easy to get pulled into a world boss group just as you were about to enter or coming out of the Spike. With Plaguehorn being located more or less on the opposite end of the map from the entrance to the rakghoul tunnels, you kind of had to make a conscious decision to go for one or the other.

I also worked on my achievements a little. I feel that the ones related to all the different rakling pets and the Tunnel Lurker are pretty insane. Get lots of pets that are rare drops and then have each of them out as you repeatedly kill a rare spawn that's not soloable for most people... um, yeah. It's not so bad though when you just chip away at it slowly. For example I didn't go out of my way to hunt the Tunnel Lurker down, but over the course of the week I still ran into him twice while doing dailies in a group and while assembling for an ops respectively. It was no big deal to quickly summon one of my pets for the achievement just then and pull him quickly.

Somewhat to my surprise, I also still had fun spreading the plague around. I have to admit that this is a feature whose entertainment value has somewhat worn off over time, at least for me, because doing dailies - especially the heroic - while infected is such a pain that you tend to vaccinate yourself at the start and then forget about it.

However, I somehow ended up contracting the plague just before a social ops run on Saturday and staunchly refused any requests to vaccinate myself... after all it was only EV and KP! The funny thing was that after some initial expressions of annoyance people soon changed their minds about the whole thing and we actually ended up converging on each other every time someone was about to explode, basically trading the infection back and forth over the course of the run.

I've said it before, but I really like how this event creates opportunities for player interaction. Some people may only see "yet another set of dailies", but I see a lot of ways to both help and compete with other players, which I believe is one of the secret ingredients that truly make an MMO come alive.


Getting Excited for Strongholds

While I've been hunting down rakghouls on Tatooine, my pet tank has mostly been spending time on the PTS with a couple of guildies to have a look at Galactic Strongholds.

I've said before that I feel pretty neutral about housing being added to the game simply because I don't have much experience with it. I've never played an MMO that included it as a feature, and even back when I was really into The Sims 2, I much preferred to just plonk down one of the pre-built houses, maybe replace a few pieces of furniture, and then focus on actually playing with my Sims.

However, the more I hear about Galactic Strongholds, the more I feel that I have reason to be excited about it. I really liked this post by Heather about her impressions of the PTS, as I thought it gave a really good impression of the "feel" of housing. I know I originally mocked Bioware a bit for choosing to name their housing expansion Galactic Strongholds (how pompous), but the more I hear about it, the more appropriate it seems. We're not living in cosy little cottages here, we're building a base of operations for our entire legacy. I'm not sure I'd be able to fill all these rooms if I was just decorating a single character's home, but looking at it from this angle, I can see things coming together nicely. My Commando will have a war room, my Sage a place to meditate, one room will probably be filled with a little menagerie of pets... you see where I'm going with this.

From the sounds of it strongholds will also offer options for emergent gameplay - I've already heard people discuss the possibilities of building obstacle courses or holding indoor PvP events. I don't really know how viable these things will be on live, but it's worth noting that they are even being discussed.

I also realised only the other day that you can have a guild stronghold in addition to a guild flagship. How did I manage to miss this bit of info for that long?

The new crafting options related to the expansion once again drive home the point that Bioware is aiming to make what I think of as a "sustainable theme park", where no content goes to waste. Most of the new crafting schematics require old/low-level mats that had little use anymore up until now, but will now suddenly have a purpose again. I bet a lot of people will be beating themselves up now that they vendored all those stacks of 99 of their level 50 crafting drops...

The conquest events look like they will be interesting as well, involving leaderboards and even some world PvP. My pet tank keeps trying to convince me that they won't be all that great, but I think that just seeing different guilds compete against each other out in the world (regardless of how exactly we'll end up benefiting) will be great.

And of course every time I mail another bunch of stuff from one alt to another, I can't wait for the huge quality of life improvement that the account-wide bank will bring.


Rakghoul Resurgence on Tatooine

It was only a week ago - after having been somewhat unenthused about the latest iteration of the Gree event - that I mentioned that I was hoping for a swift return of the rakghoul event instead. Well, yesterday I came home from work... and there they were! That was faster than expected, however I guess it only makes sense. Galactic Strongholds is almost upon us, and it wouldn't make much sense to hold an event like this during a time when everyone's busy digging their teeth into new content and features. I suppose there wasn't much time left to get the rakghouls "in there".

I can already tell that I'm more excited about this than I was about the Gree, as - even with my limited playtime - I managed to run the dailies on three characters yesterday and already killed the Eyeless twice.

The major factor that intrigued me about this event was the question of how much of a difference it would actually make to have it take place on different planets. Sadly but also unsurprisingly, the answer is: not much. The Spike has simply moved to Tatooine, and the Rakghoul Tunnels are exactly the same as they were on Alderaan, which is honestly a bit weird. As my pet tank put it so succinctly, if there is such a lush underground cave system on Tatooine, why do people bother with the desert on the surface? I understand why Bioware decided to reuse the art assets for the event (and they are pretty tunnels), but it does feel a little off.

What disappointed me more was that the NPC conversations you have during the introductory quests are exactly the same as they were on Alderaan. Considering that these chats aren't very interactive, I would have thought that this would be a golden opportunity to make the different planets actually feel a little different too. Guess not. I'm not sure why the exact same people who needed help in House Organa and Thul are now hanging out in Anchorhead and Mos Ila.

That said, I've heard that there is a new world boss (though I haven't seen it yet) and at least the underground tunnels have been adjusted a little. So the groups of infected you fight in the first cave are made up of mobs like sand people and Mandalorians instead of Killiks and joiners. I also noticed while scanning the little piles of skulls for one of the dailies, that they are now piled into baskets like the sand people would have them. I'm pretty sure that underneath Alderaan they sat on top of some gooey Killik things.

Either way this event still feels sufficiently new and exciting to me that I want to get in on the fun. I also cracked up when one of the first things I spotted in the tunnels was this guy who appeared to be pretty much naked... but when I inspected him it turned out that he was actually wearing a full Covert Energy armour set, plus whatever those pants are called. You kind of have to give kudos for the effort.


Competitive Combat Medics

At one point last week, my Sage healing buddy was late to arrive to ops, so a friend of a friend helped us out on his Commando healer for a little while. It drove me bonkers.

It had nothing to do with the guy behind the character, as he's a good player. It also didn't really have anything to do with me not being used to healing with him, as I've teamed up with other Sages and Scoundrel healers with no problems. But running 8-man progression content with two Combat Medics really threw me off my game and caused me to derp around a lot more than usual.

Happier times...

Mind you, going into an operation with two Commando healers has never been ideal, but I remember doing progression with that setup back in EC NiM and having a good time. Ironically it seems to me that the Trauma Probe changes that made us stronger healers overall are also what makes it more annoying to be teamed up with another Combat Medic these days than it used to be.

Even when I only have to keep track of my own Trauma Probes, it's quite challenging due to the UI not being at all helpful in that regard. The operations frames can't show more than four buffs at a time, while anyone in a progression ops will have at least six buffs on them at all times (the four class buffs, sprint and a stim). So you can't expect the ops frames to reliably show you any information about your Trauma Probes, ever. (Considering that they make up about twenty to forty percent of my healing these days, I'd say that being unable to track that particular ability makes for quite a handicap.)

The reason I can still manage on my own is that once you know the fight, you can develop a feel for when Trauma Probes need refreshing, who uses theirs up quickly and whose only needs refreshing after it expires from lack of use. When you have another Combat Medic casting Trauma Probes as well however (which don't stack and therefore overwrite yours), the whole thing just turns into a confusing, unpredictable mess. As if to mock and confuse you just that little bit more, your character will also wave her hands around in a casting animation every time your Trauma Probe gets overwritten, even if you're in the middle of doing something else.

Healing is not a science of exact rotations, so I figured that it shouldn't be that susceptible to disturbances in one's casting priority as dps can be. But even if healing is more of an art, healing with another Commando just feels wrong... as if we're both trying to paint two different pictures on the same canvas, at the same time, each person constantly painting right over something the other one put down only a minute ago.

I'm surprised that it took me this long to get really annoyed by this, especially since I definitely recall running with other Commando healers since patch 2.6, but that was mostly in casual 16-man ops, where a) healing efficiently wasn't as crucial and b) one person can't keep the whole ops covered in Trauma Probes anyway (or at least not very well).

I don't necessarily expect Bioware to make Trauma Probes stackable, but at the very least they could:

1) fix it so my character doesn't do casting animations when other people refresh my Trauma Probes - it feels a bit like having my character hijacked, and

2) fix the damn buff UI so that you can filter out things like the class buffs and sprint, because in the middle of combat I don't care about those anyway (unless someone died and needs rebuffing after they received a combat res, but that's comparatively easy to keep track of anyway).