My Useless Friends List

Time for a bit of a random tangent that has nothing to do with recent events.

I've always felt that, in terms of gameplay, The Old Republic manages to strike a nice balance between encouraging socialising and allowing you to play solo. Sadly however, many UI functions that are supposed to support socialising are in a terrible state.

Let's take a simple example: the guild list. Every single time I log on, it's bugged when I look at it for the first time.

Exhibit A

As you can see, the "show offline members" box is not ticked, yet every time I open the guild panel after logging in, what does it do? Show me a bunch of offline members. The sad thing is: this bug has been around virtually forever. I can't say for sure whether it's been there since launch or was introduced with one of the first patches, but either way it's been there for a long time. It's so bad that it's become second nature to me to mechanically tick and untick the "show offline members" box every time I open the guild window in order to fix the bugged display that I hardly even realise what I'm doing anymore. You could argue that it's not an important issue because it doesn't directly affect anyone's gameplay, but if players encounter the same bugs day after day, year after year, it doesn't exactly cast a great light on your game.

The worst offender however (in my opinion anyway) is the friends list. It's already gone through various stages of bugginess when the friends display on top of the screen wouldn't update correctly, and the "notes" field that's supposed to help you remember whose alt belongs to whom has been reset so many times that I've given up on trying to fill it in over and over again.

The biggest socialiser in my guild, who plays several hours a day and has friends in many different guilds, told me that when you're looking to fill those last couple of spots for your ops group, you might as well forget about your friends list - it's just that useless. I think that's saying something.

It doesn't even have a default sort that makes any sense: not alphabetical, not based on the last time the person was seen online, not based on when they were added - it's just a random jumble of names.

But the worst thing is that it's still entirely character-based in a game that encourages heavy alting. Even if you don't fill up the maximum of 22 character slots per server (for subscribers), there are eight different class stories you're supposed to play. Even if you only have five different characters and you want to be friends with someone who has the same amount, that still results in 25 friends list entries for each of you, just to keep in touch with one person. I almost despair these days when a friend tries the game for the first time or someone new applies to the guild. Will I remember to add them to all of my character's friends lists? The answer is probably no, and then they'll be looking for me when I'm on the one alt who doesn't have a friends list entry... Simply put, it's a logistical nightmare.

I'm not the first one to note this on the official forums, but understandably more people are busy clamouring for gameplay improvements and new content than for better UI functionality. Nonetheless I think that a little bit of time has to be made to implement quality of life improvements every now and then. A cleaned up, more practical way to stay in touch with my friends would definitely be my personal number one priority in that area.


Musings on 12x XP

At least in the more vocal parts of the community, I'm definitely in the minority for not liking experience boosts. Whenever another double XP weekend rolls around, I sigh, shake my head and go off to sulk in a corner / focus on playing my max-level characters. It's not great - I'd much rather be part of the shared experience of having fun together, but I just don't enjoy having my experience gains increased to ludicrous levels whether I like it or not. I don't mind XP boosts as items in the game which you can take or leave, but enforced "bonuses" annoy me.

You don't even have to dislike them on principle to see why they can be annoying - I think it was on OotiniCast where I heard someone express disappointment the other day that his levelling experience with his friend had become completely screwed up since one of them had pre-ordered the expansion (and had therefore had the XP boost applied) while the other one hadn't. I do hope that Bioware implements an on/off toggle for these things eventually.

I often feel that levelling in this game, and the "side quests" in particular, get a bad rap that isn't really deserved. They absolutely are worth doing more than once, and as far as unnecessary repetition goes, nobody says that you have to do all of them on every character and in exactly the same order.

Sometimes I wonder whether "levelling is boring" isn't a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think that levelling is boring, you're probably going to try and get it over with as quickly as possible, therefore focusing on repetitive and "efficient" activities to level - which are boring. Meanwhile those of us who are willing to take it more slowly get the chance to engage with all kinds of different content on our way to the level cap and end up having a good time while doing so. But anyway...

Part of why I dislike double XP weekends in particular (aside from the inability to opt out of them) is that they seem to encourage people to "play stupidly", e.g. spam Kuat Drive Yards for maximum XP per hour while complaining all the while about how boring it is.

And this is why this whole 12x XP thing actually has me somewhat intrigued... because it works so differently and seems to want to encourage deeper engagement with the content. Even if I feel that the generic planetary quests get a bad rap, I won't disagree that the class stories are the more interesting part of levelling a new class, and this event actually pushes players into paying attention to them, even if they don't want to do anything else. (Not that this will prevent people from using the event to try and power-level through class stories by space-barring through everything, but at least it's very clear that this isn't the point of the exercise.)

I have a couple of characters that have been stuck in the mid-levels literally for years since I accidentally made them a bit redundant. Specifically I created a Sorcerer and a Powertech relatively soon after starting to play the game, and then ended up re-rolling both of those classes with my pet tank and levelling them to cap with him instead. Part of me thinks that I should have just deleted those older characters by now (why do I need two Sorcs and two Powertechs when they are not even my favourite classes), but I'm just too sentimental. They were some of my earliest creations!

So I've decided to do the unthinkable and use the "class levelling event" to maybe get these characters to the end of their personal stories at least, to give them and myself some closure, even if I don't really know what else I'm going to do with them afterwards. Wish me luck...


Total Galactic War!

This past week Total Galactic War swept across the galaxy. In case you don't know what that means, it meant that instead of three to five planets being up for conquest, no less than twelve planets were up for grabs - fourteen actually, if you count Balmorra and Taris twice for having separate versions for Republic and Empire. This is important because during a normal week only thirty to fifty guilds can win anything by placing on the leaderboard. During Total Galactic War on the other hand, a whole 140 slots were available on the scoreboard, drastically increasing people's chances of winning at least a consolation prize.

Before the event went live I found myself wondering whether there were even that many guilds on the Red Eclipse yet who actually owned a guild ship. In the end the answer seemed to be no, or at least there were still ten empty slots left on the scoreboard when the event ended. It is however possible that some guilds simply chose poorly by invading a busy planet early on and then got pushed off the leaderboard there, even though they could have been in the top ten on another planet.

A couple of weeks before this event, one of my guildies had proposed the ambitious plan that we should try to go for gold during Total Galactic War. Since we already had an idea what sort of activities would reward points, he suggested that we start "saving up" things like completed operations quests to hand them in as soon as the event started. Even so it seemed overly ambitious to me at the time - after all we'd only even made it into the top ten twice before (once on Nar Shaddaa and once on Belsavis). Due to our guild name (Twin Suns Squadron) it was suggested that we should go for Tatooine.

When people started to come online Tuesday evening however, it was obvious that Tatooine was already highly contested. A contact in the guild that was in the lead at the time told us that they were determined to craft their way to victory, even if it meant clearing out their guild bank. We chose to look for easier prey and decided to invade Taris instead, which hadn't seen much activity yet at that point.

Shortly afterwards one of the server's top ten conquest guilds joined us there, and I wasn't the only one whose heart sank at the news. According to SWTOR Conquest they had previously scored three to eight million points a week, while our own all time high was barely above two million. Nonetheless we were determined to put up a fight.

Much to our delight, we not only managed to remain in first place, but we even succeeded at increasing our lead over the course of the week, finally ending with an impressive total and a new guild high score of 4,169,656 points. For a while we were even ahead of the top-scoring guild on Tatooine, which seemed highly ironic, though that guild did overtake us again in the end.

On the whole, I was kind of surprised that several of the mega-guilds seemed to have lower scores than during previous weeks. I can only guess that the high personal conquest target of 50k points put a lot of people off getting involved at all. Many are probably also busy levelling alts, what with the 12x XP bonus for people who pre-ordered the expansion.

For Twin Suns Squadron it was an exciting event in any case - I was thrilled enough when we managed to make it into the top ten before, but I didn't think that we'd be able to ever win a conquest event with a guild that only has about twenty active players logging on each week. Clearly all bets are off when Total Galactic War is at hand.


16-man Group Finder to Make a Return

With all the excitement about the expansion and the discipline system, an (in my eyes) pretty important piece of news about next week's patch has largely slipped between the cracks from what I can see: the group finder will return to 16-man mode.

When this change was originally announced for 2.8, I was cautiously optimistic about it. Of course, then we all had to learn that Bioware had coded the new 16-man functionality in such an inefficient manner that people actually trying to use it crashed the servers, so that the change had to be reverted in an emergency patch.

Being faced with the feature's imminent return, I have mixed feelings about it. For one thing I'm obviously a little apprehensive. While Bioware wouldn't be redeploying 16-mans if they hadn't worked hard to fix the problems they caused last time, the issues were of such a scale that I'm a little worried whether whatever changes they've made to the system will be good enough or if we have more technical issues to look forward to in the near future.

However, even if everything goes down without a hitch I'm not entirely happy about this change. The introduction of conquests has taken the group finder from something that mainly existed to help people pug more efficiently to something that also serves as a way of accumulating conquest points for guilds. Doing operations through the group finder is one of the repeatable objectives that awards a good amount of conquest points every week, no matter the specific event, and it's a good way of getting guild members involved that might otherwise not be that interested in conquest. My little guild has been running several group finder operations a week since conquests began, and it's been a nice way of revitalising the guild and getting people of different skill levels to play together.

The problem is, this has only worked for us because the group finder is limited to 8-man groups. We don't usually have enough people on at a time these days to put a 16-man group together, so once the group finder changes over, this source of conquest points and social fun will suddenly run dry for us, or at the very least present us with problems. Sure, we could still queue up with however many people we have online and hope that there are enough players in the queue to fill in the gaps, but we'll basically be at the mercy of the right pugs a) being online and b) being competent enough to make the run a worthwhile endeavour. Not to mention that we'll suddenly have to worry about things like loot rules, which are generally not an issue in a full guild run.

Don't get me wrong, I'm by no means against pugging. All you have to do is check the pugs tag on this blog to read all about the (mis)adventures with random strangers that I've willingly subjected myself to in the past. However, I think that injecting pugs into what is supposed to be a focused guild run with a set objective is a lot less fun. Not to mention that large guilds won't have to put up with this problem, thereby gaining another advantage over smaller guilds in regards to conquest.

I'm trying to see the bright side: maybe semi-pugged group finder operations will be a fertile ground for recruitment - after all, what better way is there to advertise your guild than to have people tag along for your guild runs, allowing them to see first-hand how awesome you are? I'm a little worried that this may just be wishful thinking on my part though. As usual, we'll have to see how it pans out on live.


Have Guild Ship, Will Travel

Other than conquests majorly changing the way I prioritise things in game, the thing that has affected my playstyle the most since 2.9 has probably been the way in which housing has changed travel.

SWTOR has been criticised for its long-winded travel, and some of that criticism has definitely been deserved: loading screens are long and getting around on any given planet involves a lot of walking or driving. (Complaints about the number of loading screens are definitely exaggerated though - e.g. a quick fade to black and back when you take an elevator is not a loading screen; it just masks your character "teleporting" from one spot to another.) To some extent these issues have been alleviated over time, for example with the travel terminals that allow you to hop between the major daily hubs with the click of a button, but they still exist. Especially while levelling, the constant back and forth between the planet you're questing on, your ship and the fleet can feel tedious sometimes.

Strongholds are a fantastic solution to this problem and I would recommend that everyone should invest in at least a basic one even if they have no interest in housing. It's basically your very own "hub" where you can stack pretty much every possible convenience from banks, vendors and mailboxes to GTN terminals and item modification stations, with mission terminals being pretty much the only thing you can't add. The key is that you can travel to your stronghold from anywhere with the simple click of a button and then instantly return back to where you were. Or exit on the planet your stronghold is on. Or your ship. Or the fleet. Basically, it makes convenience easily accessible, while at the same time allowing you to quickly get anywhere you would likely want to be. I'm actually spending more time in strongholds these days (whether it's my own or the guild's) than on the fleet - though the mission terminals and various vendors still provide enough reason to also return to the fleet at least once a day.

The guild ship offers the same perks, only that there is no fixed planet to exit onto - you'll pop out wherever the ship has been parked. This can be very handy for conquest and guild events - for example when my guild invaded Nar Shaddaa one week, we parked the ship right above one of the quest hubs where you could pick up the low-level heroics, which made it easy to go straight down there and repeat them every day.

However, guild ships also have another important feature: they've finally brought the "summon" to The Old Republic. Wherever you are (as long as you're not inside a phase or instance), you can right-click on your portrait and instantly summon everyone in your group (whether they are in your guild or not) to your current location, and that for the low price of 20k credits. It does have a cooldown for the individual using it, but if someone missed the summon, you can just have another guild member repeat the process.

This has required quite a few mental adjustments. After nearly three years of having to walk/drive everywhere ourselves, it was actually kind of difficult at first to accept the idea of: "Just keep doing what you're doing; we'll summon." Initially people still started to travel everywhere on their own even when they had been told that a summon was incoming, simply because it was too much of a habit. It didn't take long to shake this off however. Being lazy comes naturally to most of us.

Quick planet hopping while hunting for enemy commanders has proven the worth of the feature to everyone in the guild by now. "Imperial commander up on Tatooine!" someone shouts. Form group, press button - boom, everyone's right there in the Imperial base. It also makes competition between guilds and world PvP more interesting and unpredictable as a result, as a seemingly lonely player could suddenly summon in a full raid group from one minute to the next.

Datacrons offer up another new and slightly cheeky function for the guild ship transport: get someone to the datacron, group up, get summoned and save yourself the aggravating jumping puzzles. Some guildies already had fun selling this as a "service" to people who wanted the fleet datacron. Even if we charged them some money (after all the summon costs 20k credits each time) they were universally happy with how much easier this was than actually going through the whole procedure with four people and an MGGS. Sadly Bioware has since made this impossible, so I'm guessing they thought that this was taking it a step too far.

Another guildie parked an alt on the endurance datacron on Makeb and went on a summoning spree for everyone in the guild who wanted it, no matter how many alts they wanted to bring. Personally I was even more grateful for that one than for the fleet datacron (while it still worked).

The galaxy is a smaller place now - but in a good way.


Thoughts on Disciplines after the Livestream

I said I was going to write down my thoughts on disciplines in more detail.

First off, let me explain why my initial reaction to the announcement and the idea that the new system might resemble WoW's current one was negative.

Most people who argue about talent trees on the forums one way or another seem to be divided on the issue of which system is deeper and/or provides more meaningful choices. While I've always resented the argument that old school talent trees result in nothing but cookie cutter builds (since this has never matched my personal experience at all, neither back in WoW nor in SWTOR), this is actually not that big a concern for me. I don't care that much about theorycrafting. I also don't have enough experience with any alternate system to genuinely say whether it would be better or worse in that respect than our old school talent trees.

However, when I briefly checked out WoW's Mists of Pandaria expansion at the end of last year, there were several things that I immediately hated about that game's new levelling/talent system and they had nothing to do with depth.

- Levels basically exist as markers that you've earned enough experience to improve your character in some manner. If there are times when you level up and nothing whatsoever actually happens, levelling up becomes meaningless and kind of boring.

- Regardless of whether speccing into "+2% damage" is a meaningful choice or not, actually taking the action of spending your talent points always made me feel connected to my character. It engages me in their progress. If they just gain most of their new abilities automatically, they feel like automatons that level themselves and on whom I have no influence. In fact, since it happens without player input these days, I sometimes missed my WoW character gaining new abilities altogether.

- While WoW's interface for its new talent system is clear enough, the way the old talents/specialisations were baked into the base classes is horribly obtuse. The old talent trees provided a clean overview of what it meant to invest in a certain spec, how one ability was an improvement over another and so on and so forth. In current WoW, the formerly talented abilities are a jumbled mess mixed in with your regular class abilities in your spell book - good luck with figuring out how they're supposed to synergise and with keeping track of what's a class and what's a spec ability.

- I also do not like the way WoW's talents are meant to be easily swappable on a per-fight basis because I don't enjoy respeccing. I want to pick the way my character is supposed to work and then go play, without having to worry about rearranging my UI every other fight. Yes, some people like doing just that (we have some in my SWTOR guild too), but from my experience there are at least just as many of us who don't. And while you could argue that the ability to change things on the fly is optional and I don't have to use it, in practice fights tend to be designed with the idea in mind that people will use all available features to their advantage.

Now, so much for my "why I don't like the way talents currently work in WoW" rant. After watching the recording of the developer livestream devoted to explaining disciplines, I actually feel reassured about some things at least. Base class and advanced class abilities still won't train themselves. Spell ranks are not going away either. (I never thought I'd be rooting for spell ranks, as they are kind of silly... but having seen the alternative of gaining nothing for many levels, I'll take the placebo of new spell ranks any day.) SWTOR will also retain a clean interface to show what specialised abilities your character gains along the way and in what order. These things matter to me and I feel reassured that Bioware seems to want to refine their current talent system instead of completely replacing it.

On the livestream it was even said that they don't plan to remove the intro quests you currently have to do in order to choose your advanced class, even if you will now be able to just make a choice straight from the UI. I thought these quests were a nice piece of flavour.

I'll admit that some of their arguments for making this change are absolutely fair. It is kind of silly that you can choose to be a tank and not actually have any tanking abilities for several levels. (Ever tried tanking Hammer Station before you even got your basic taunt?) Raising the level cap is always an issue with old school talent trees, and since Bioware seems to be on track to release a story expansion every one and a half years, it's understandable that they don't want to have to re-jig the whole thing every time. (Though the way I see it, more levels will still require the system to be re-tweaked every time. Maybe it will take less effort though.)

Nonetheless, some concerns of mine remain. They claim that this new system will make it easier to balance the classes, however I remain sceptical. I know that in WoW, low-level class balance got worse every time they changed the talent trees, with side effects such as tanks doing five times as much damage as damage dealers in lowbie dungeons, and some classes being able to literally one-shot other players in certain level ranges (and that even without having particularly good gear). Admittedly I don't know if that's a problem with changing talent systems in general or if this is caused by the way WoW calculates its numbers. However, you'll forgive me for being wary of the potential fallout of this, especially considering that lowbie PvP and group content in SWTOR are currently pretty well balanced and highly enjoyable.

Likewise, I'm not really sure how the new utility skill system is supposed to be that much easier to balance. I understand why and how hybrids have been an issue, but now you'll just have people choosing a combination of 7 out of 21 utility skills to go with one of three specialisations for one of eight classes instead. That's still a lot of room for people to find some overpowered combination, and maybe it's because I'm not a developer, but I don't see how it's going to be easier to balance an utility skill that all three specialisations of a class will always have access to than it was to balance skills that were limited to a single talent tree. I expect that a lot of utility skills will suddenly seem very overpowered when given to a specialisation that wasn't originally supposed to have them, and I fear that class balance post 3.0 might be a bit of a nightmare as a result of this.

On the whole however, I already feel a lot better about the upcoming changes. I have to admit, I thought that the way they presented the new interface in the livestream looked cool, as it struck me as both intuitive and relatively hassle-free. They also seemed so genuinely excited about the new system, I found it hard not to let that rub off on me at least a little bit. I'm almost looking forward to trying it myself at this point.


Quick 3.0 Announcement Thoughts

At last, it's official: the next mini-expansion is going to be called Shadow of Revan and will be released on the 9th of December. I'm still trying to sort out my thoughts on all the news and I'm quite tired right now, but here are some quick first impressions of the announcement details:

It was kind of amusing to me just how uninformative and full of stock phrases the trailer is: "War is coming." "This is where we make our final stand." etc. I love Bioware and SWTOR, but I always find their trailers (for anything really) to be pretty underwhelming. Sorry, trailer guy at Bioware!

I'm surprised to see Lana and Theron feature so prominently in the expansion artwork. I hope they won't hog the centre stage too much. I like both of them as characters, but let's not forget who this story is supposed to be about.

I'm not thrilled by the 12x class experience boost for pre-orders... and that it's applied automatically. Don't force me to outlevel stuff, Bioware. Also, this means that I'll have several weeks of agony in guild chat ahead as certain people won't stop going on about how awesome it is that they'll be able to acquire another three max-level characters in exchange for minimum amounts of engagement with the game. (Honestly, I don't think it's a terrible idea for those who want it, but I dislike that there's no way to pre-order and opt out of this.)

The price is £11.99? But that's twice as much as they charged for Rise of the Hutt Cartel! Talk about daylight robbery! And to think that WoW players complain about a 20% price increase in their expansions... /muttermutter.

I hope everyone realised that the previous paragraph was a joke. I obviously pre-ordered already.

Two new planets instead of just one sounds great. Even if we don't actually get more story content than we did on Makeb, it will be nice to have a change of scenery.

It sounds like there will be a solid amount of new endgame content. Two brand new operations and two entirely new flashpoints is actually more than we got with RotHC.

I'm not at all keen on the sound of this new discipline system. From what I've seen in the associated forum thread, the reactions to this part of the announcement basically fall into one of three categories:

1) Awesome, it's going to be just like WoW! I love it!
2) Oh god, it's going to be just like WoW! I hate it!
3) Uh, that's going to be just like WoW, isn't it? I'm not sure how I feel about that.

I'm inclined to count myself as part of the second group to be honest, however I do understand at least some of their reasons and don't want to dismiss the whole idea before we've even heard any details about it.

I'll definitely be writing a longer post to talk about my thoughts on disciplines at some point though.


My First Hypercrate

While I've been a subscriber since launch, I've never actually bought additional Cartel Coins before. (With one exception: I once bought a CC code in a shop in Austria to get the associated mini pet.) I'm neither a fashionista nor a collector, so there are usually few things on the Cartel Market that I feel are a "must have", and for the rare exception my subscriber stipend generally has me covered. If I wanted anything from one of the lockboxes in the past, I always used credits to buy it from another player.

Two things changed recently: One, I got a new credit card, which meant that EA was actually willing to take my money. Two: furniture.

While Bioware has made sure that you can absolutely decorate your stronghold without ever spending any real money, they did make a lot of nice items available only through the Cartel Market, and I found that oddly few people were willing to resell their decorations, at least compared to other goods. I'm guessing it's because housing is still so new that the demand for furniture is high, not to mention that the way the system works encourages people to buy larger amounts than they would usually get of other rare items. What I mean is, if there's a new rare mount you really like, you generally only need one of it (if you want to use it on alts, unlocking it through the collection system afterwards is probably the most sensible option). If there's a rare new rug that you really like... you'll need ten of them to cover even one level of one of your strongholds. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there when it comes to furniture.

So I bought myself one of the biggest CC bundles and used it to purchase one of the luxury furniture sets and one of the new Hypercrates. I had been advised to open it on a character that had a reasonable amount of inventory space, so I chose to do so on my rarely played Gunslinger. However I was still taken aback just by how much of an inventory management mini-game it turned out to be just to unpack everything. One thing I didn't know in advance for example was that items with different bind timers won't stack, and unless you're spam-clicking on those boxes really quickly, the contents of pretty much every other box will end up with slightly different timers. Oi...

When I was finally done, had added all my newly acquired furniture to my decorations list and shuffled around the few items that were unbound (such as companion gifts and XP boosts for a specific type of activity), I was still left with an huge load of stuff with which I could do nothing but wait for the timer to run out.

One thing I found particularly peculiar were those armour boxes. Even if you've never opened a Cartel pack yourself, you've probably seen them on the GTN at some point: "Blah Blah's Upper Body Armor", with the description saying that it contains a hat and a chestpiece (and gloves perhaps, I can't remember). Now, I suspect that Bioware bundles these things up to save people some bag space when they unpack their newest purchases, but it's rather weird to have boxes inside boxes, if you know what I mean. Also, unlike their contents, the armour boxes themselves do not have a temporary bind timer - so you can throw them on the GTN without having to wait. A lot of people are clearly desperate to do this in order to clear out their inventory after opening a Hypercrate, which leads to the curious phenomenon of the boxes being cheaper than their contents. I reckon you could run an entire business operation by simply buying armour boxes, extracting their contents and then reselling them for a profit once the timer runs out.

Oh the whole, Cartel packs don't seem to be hugely profitable to me though - based on my limited experience anyway - though I guess it doesn't help that I kept all the decorations for myself. They probably would have sold better than anything else I got. I was outright shocked by just how little some of the orange pieces I got were going for. I sold a lot of orange armour and weapons for less than a hundred - sometimes even less than fifty! - credits a piece. I guess if you've ever wanted an orange armour set for an alt or a companion without being too fussy about how it looks, this is a great time to shop.

Nonetheless I oddly enjoyed my Hypercrate opening experience, and I can kind of see why people even make videos of this. (Though I don't think I should do so myself - I would spend more time going "Oops, my inventory is full again, let me just reshuffle some things..." than actually opening boxes.) Flooding your inventory should by all means be an annoyance, but I've noted before that I get a strange sense of joy out of organising my belongings, so having a whole bunch of new things to sort through at once is oddly entertaining for its own sake. It's now several days later and I'm still opening armour boxes and selling off their contents once the temporary bind timers expire.