A Few Words About Joystiq, Massively and WoW Insider

I don't remember when I first discovered WoW Insider, but I'm pretty sure that it must have been before the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, because I vaguely recall the whole scandal about WotLK beta information being leaked and WoW Insider taking a stand by not posting it (or something like that). I do know that once I found it, WoW Insider soon became one of my favourite sites to visit. It updated frequently and offered just the right mix of news, opinions and general community shenanigans (fan videos, reports about unusual play styles, community drama etc.). Once I started my own WoW blog, I also got linked by WI once or twice, which always resulted in a massive traffic spike.

I only stopped visiting the site regularly when I stopped playing WoW, but even then I checked back every so often to see what was happening in ye olde World of Warcraft and whether anyone had made any funny machinimas recently. Once I even submitted a letter to one of their advice columns (back when they had those) that was actually about my SWTOR guild, which I didn't mention in the letter of course... and it got printed and answered. Let's be honest, most of the subjects discussed in those columns were relevant to more than one MMO, so it didn't matter that it wasn't actually about WoW.

When I started playing SWTOR, as much as I enjoyed the game, I was initially quite frustrated by what I perceived as a lack of community support online. I think a lot of people experience something similar when they move from WoW to another game - after all, no other MMO has had quite as many millions of players pour time and resources into creating content about it and putting it online. I really wanted a "SWTOR Insider", with the same ease of access and frequency of updates. I believe that TORWars actually tried to fill that niche, but it never seemed to take off in quite the same way. The fact that the site was privately owned and therefore had limited resources to work with probably didn't help. It shut down about a year ago.

I tried to get a similar community fix from Massively, but it wasn't quite the same. They wrote about a lot of different games, and SWTOR never felt like one of their favourites. While each writer had their own personal preferences, you could definitely tell that some games came across as being... more loved than others. Any SWTOR article not written by Larry always came across as a bit disinterested or even condescending. I remember a post about Galactic Strongholds where Justin jokingly called it "Star Wars: The Old Republic: Galactic Strongholds: Return of the Colon" - a harmless joke for sure, but also not one I could see them making about most other games while posting info about a new expansion. Of course, the worst thing was that some commenters actually believed that "Return of the Colon" was part of the actual expansion name.

The commenters on Massively were a tribe of their own for sure. You couldn't look at the comments on an article about any game without finding people wade in just to randomly declare that they played this game for a week at launch and that it sucks. Not everyone was like this, mind you... but it was prevalent enough to be annoying and to deter me from commenting myself most of the time. People were never interested in actual in-depth discussions of any particular game, just in vague armchair game design about how this or that feature (free to play, subscriptions, raids, quests) was terrible and needed to disappear from MMOs forever.

And yet... I found myself coming back to the site over and over again. Many posts were entertaining even if I disagreed with them. The news updates taught me about all kinds of MMOs I never knew existed and informed me about the current direction of games I knew about but didn't actually play myself. This is extremely valuable! When I first stepped out of WoW to try SWTOR, it was an eye opener to realise that there were indeed other games out there that could be as much if not more fun than what I'd played before. Even though I continue to defy the trend and remain (for the most part) an MMO monogamist, I like to do so with my eyes open, knowing full well what else is out there and that there are probably at least individual features that are handled better in other games. And when/if I actually have some extra free time, I'm happy to give one of them a spin just for fun.

When I read the news that Massively and WoW Insider were going to shut down, it felt like a punch to the gut. Even though I didn't visit WoW Insider regularly (seeing how I don't play WoW anymore) and Massively often annoyed me, they were valuable community hubs. I don't know where else I'll go for my random news about what else is going on in the world of MMOs now. Sure, there are other, similar sites, but every time I visit one of them I find their layouts clunky and annoying, not to mention that they don't update nearly as often. I can only wish the teams that have been writing for those sites the best of luck, and if you do end up striking out on your own, I'll be happy to chip in. You don't even need to write about SWTOR. Just keep providing us with a bit of entertainment for a rainy day and remind us that there are other MMOs out there that are worth checking out.

EDIT: They have a Kickstarter up now!


Adventures in Old Content

After the release of 3.0, when it turned out that Bioware had forgotten to adjust the commendation drops for certain types of content to the new level cap (meaning that old flashpoints and operations actually gave better rewards initially than the new ones), people asked me repeatedly if I wanted to join for some classic ops runs to min-max my commendation rewards, but I pretty much always said no at first. After more than a year of having nothing to work on but Dread Fortress and Palace, the last thing I wanted to do as soon as we got some new content was go back there! And how long have Terror from Beyond and Scum and Villainy been in the game now? No, thanks.

Of course, two months later the shine of the new operations is starting to wear off and I feel ready to mix things up with a run of classic content again every now and then. It's been interesting.

One of my main concerns in regards to the 3.0 combat changes had been how they would affect ops encounters that relied on interrupts and dispels to have very specific (shorter) cooldowns. As it turns out, Bioware applied a simple if not very elegant band-aid to at least some fights (I only noticed it in Dread Fortress and Palace, though that doesn't necessarily mean that it wasn't present elsewhere). What happens is that as soon as you start the encounter, you'll receive a buff called "Classic Encounter" which resets your dispel cooldown to what it used to be for the duration of the fight.

It works well enough and was probably a lot easier to implement than going back and adjusting the fights to the new cooldowns, but it's a bit clunky as the buff doesn't appear until you pull - so you may very well be scratching your head just before the fight (like I did), wondering how you're supposed to deal with the required dispels. Also, as far as we could tell it doesn't affect interrupt cooldowns, even though the shorter cooldown on those also used to be pretty crucial to some fights.

On the Raptus fight in Dread Palace we also ran into a bug that was supposed to have been fixed in a recent patch, namely that the healing challenge is acting wonky and the NPC you're supposed to heal pretty much dies in the blink of an eye, making the challenge impossible to pass. You can still complete the encounter afterwards (at least on hardmode, which is what we did), but it sure felt odd to encounter new bugs in old content.

The thing that I found the most striking though was that all the hardmodes we did for the various classic ops weeklies were still pretty hard, even at level sixty. As seasoned veterans of the fights we generally made it through them without too much trouble, but it someone messed up too badly it still resulted in a wipe.

I couldn't help but think that this doesn't make for a great environment for casual players interested in operations at the moment. Several fights in the new story modes are hard enough to be pug killers, yet it seems that people can't even go back and steamroll the old content for a couple of easy comms. This is quite a contrast to 2.0, when both TFB and Scum were pretty accessible on story mode, and by which point Eternity Vault and Karagga's Palace could easily be pugged even on the highest difficulties. (Explosive Conflict not so much, but that wasn't as much of an issue simply because there were other options.) I'll admit that it's been a while since I last pugged an operation myself, but at least from the outside the pug scene for operations looks pretty dire at the moment.


Random Rishi Moments

At the moment most of my play time is taken up by working on crew skills and running operations with my guild. Whenever I have time to play between doing those things, I mostly do a flashpoint or a warzone on one of my max-level characters or level an alt for a bit.

Currently I'm working on getting my Imperial agent to sixty. On Rishi, I was amazed to find out that the daily quest to kill three pirates in Raider's Cove actually gets randomised. I don't know if the Republic version was bugged or I just had a really odd streak of luck whenever I did it, but on my Republic characters I got White Maw pirates every time. I actually thought that was pretty stupid, considering there were so many other types of pirates around...

Even though I maxed out my reputation with the People of Rishi quite some time ago (it's kind of hard not to, considering how they shower you with reputation tokens as you level), I never actually visited the reputation vendor until the other day. I cracked up hard when I saw the "Commemorative Meat Tree" decoration for one credit. For those who don't know, the mission "Jungle's Bounty", where you have to lure a beast out by attaching some meat to a tree, could bug out at launch so that you were unable to interact with the tree. This was one bug that I fortunately didn't experience personally, but my pet tank did on one of his alts and apparently it inspired a fair bit of chatter in general chat. I'm not sure if bugs are really the kind of thing we should commemorate with special decorations but... I'll admit it's funny. And since they only cost one credit per piece, you could fill a whole room with these trees of questionable taste if you so desired...

I was also delighted to get a Jungle Grophet mini pet off the reputation vendor. I've loved grophets ever since I first saw one on Rishi (I believe I referred to it as "giant jungle pig" back then) and it's great to have my own miniature version following me around.

Here's my agent doing the daily "She Who Greedily Devours". When I first did this quest with my pet tank, he commented that he knew someone else to whom that nickname could apply...! He hasn't been able to live that one down since then.

Finally, a picture not from Rishi but from Yavin 4. I've said before that I'm very bad at looking up and admiring the environment in this game unless one of my companions prompts me to do so. This happened again when I landed on Yavin and Vector chimed in with: "Can you feel it? The gravity of the gas giant urges us skyward, as if we could spread wings and ascend. This world is more than it appears." Aside from the sheer weirdness of that comment, even by Vector's standards, I kind of went: "Gas giant? Oh right, this is a moon, isn't it..." Then I looked up.



Class Stories: What's Next?

Shadow of Revan has been out for almost two months now. How many of the new class missions have you seen yet? More than one blogger has started to review and compare them already - posts which I've dutifully avoided for now as I don't want to read spoilers. Personally I'm "only" sitting on five out of eight completed at the moment. That's fine though, I'm savouring the fact that there's still unique content left to do.

Even if I had already seen it all, I think I'd struggle to review the new class stories in a critical manner. They may have their flaws (like everything), but I still can't quite get over the fact that they exist - which makes me way too happy in a fangirlish way. We haven't had any new class stories since launch (!) and after more than a year of being told that there wouldn't be any more class stories ever again (while "more class story" continued to be the most requested feature on the forums by a mile), this complete turnaround was actually a bit of a shock, and I'm still surprised that Bioware didn't make a bigger deal out of it in terms of marketing. I guess they wanted to be sure that people wouldn't develop inflated expectations.

While it's a bit formulaic how the new class missions are always inserted into the same part of the Rishi storyline, I'm always giddy when I get to that point on a new class. What surprises will await this time? I've loved walking around Rishi and feeling like there's a whole world of stories out there that I don't know about. I remember noticing the "fever victims" in Raider's Cove that were constantly coughing loudly, and wondering if there was more to them - I was then delighted when I found out that they were a plot point in the new Jedi knight story. It really takes me back to my early levelling experiences, to seeing "phase doors" that were marked for other classes and wondering what lay behind them, making me feel like the game had a seemingly endless potential of untold stories.

The main thing I'm wondering about right now is: what's next? I can't see how Bioware would have any kind of metric to tell them if the new class stories are popular (and therefore profitable to make) other than people explicitly saying that they love them. With how closely they tie into the Rishi story (from a technical point of view), I have a hard time imagining anyone completing Shadow of Revan's main storyline without also doing the class story, simply because it's there. Yet even if (random assumption) more people complete the storylines on Rishi and Yavin 4 than the number of people that completed Makeb, that still doesn't prove anything, because there could be other reasons for that, such as that Rishi's plotting is much tighter than Makeb's or that the quests give great rewards for any character that's levelling up through them.

Plus I can't help but wonder how the class stories would even continue from this point onwards. From what I've seen so far, all the class missions on Rishi are capstones to what came before instead of taking you anywhere new. Mostly they bring back NPCs from your character's past for one last hurrah.

That's fine, but it's also made me realise just how much the class stories have relied on those galaxy-spanning story arcs to flesh out your character's place in the world and to give the supporting cast substance. If Bioware tried to genuinely push the class stories forward, how well is that going to work with a single mission a year? I can't see our characters achieving anything particularly impressive in the scope of ten minutes, and without constantly referring back to the existing class story, how could Bioware possibly make us feel invested in a new plot and a new set of characters?

What are your thoughts on the new class stories in general (leaving aside specific opinions on the individual stories)?


Shintar's Guide to Conquest for Small Guilds

During last week's Total Galactic War my guild managed to conquer Balmorra. I didn't ask people to make an effort for this week's conquest, but currently it looks like we'll end up in the top ten on Nar Shaddaa anyway, which is just bizarre for a guild of 20-25 active players. Admittedly it helped that my pet tank decided to randomly grind out his conquest target on six different characters by chain-running Nar Shaddaa heroics, but still...

I still see people claiming that conquests are only really something for big guilds. I know I definitely had that impression when they first came out, but since then Twin Suns Squadron has managed to celebrate some moderate successes regardless, conquering two different planets so far and making it into the top ten another half dozen times. Here are some things that I've learned:

1. There is no such thing as being "too small".

Before writing this post, I thought about just how small a guild could possibly be while still succeeding at conquest. And funnily enough, the answer is that even a one-person guild could theoretically conquer a planet. A single dedicated player with a number of alts and a lot of cash to burn can actually score over a million points by crafting at maximum capacity throughout the week - and depending on the server, week and planet, it's possible to reach first place with such a score. Of course it's unlikely that this would ever happen... but it's not impossible. So while having more members in your guild obviously makes things significantly easier, it's not strictly required. It's all about being determined, in the right place... and maybe also about having a bit of luck.

2. Choose your battles.

The biggest problem with participating in conquests as a small guild is that every individual member has to put in that much more effort compared to a large guild. I'm not saying that there aren't people in big guilds who work hard to help their guild succeed as well - but the point is that a guild with 200 active members can still be moderately successful even without anyone trying very hard. That's something that's just not possible in a small guild.

As such, you can't realistically expect your members to work on conquest every single week or people will likely experience burnout. Use places like Dulfy to find out what each event entails in advance and when it's likely to come up again, then pick one to work on each month, or once every two weeks at the most. The more planets are up for grabs during an event, the more spaces will be available on the scoreboard, and the higher your chances of at least making it into the top ten. Total Galactic War is obviously best for this, but even during "regular" weeks it can make a difference whether there are three planets available or five.

3. Learn to understand the meta.

This ties in with point two but means that other than simply choosing to only participate in conquests every so often, you also have to understand when and why you should do so, as well as which planet to invade when the time comes. Some planets offer better bonuses than others but also tend to be more contested for this reason (Tatooine is a good example, on my server at least). While places like Quesh may not have much to offer and can actually make it harder for your members to hit their personal targets due to having the "wrong" bonuses, you're also less likely to face fierce competition there.

You'll also want to keep an eye on the scoreboard over the course of several weeks to learn who the biggest guilds are and which planets they've already conquered. (If they haven't got the Galaxy Conqueror title yet, they are more likely to go for one of the targets they are missing.) SWTOR Conquest is a great site to help you keep track of these things, or to just help you learn more about a potential competitor about whom you don't really know very much. If you're going for first place, obviously you don't want to share the planet with a mega-guild that is pretty much guaranteed to beat you, so you want to have a close look at these things before making your choice for the week.

4. Educate and communicate.

Make sure that everyone in your guild actually knows what conquests are, how they benefit your guild and how they work. Players who've been away for a while may find the whole concept confusing, while others who have been around but are very casual may not know about things such as planetary or stronghold bonuses.

When you've decided to push for a place on the scoreboard, make sure to let people know through all available channels, such as the guild website and the guild message of the day. If you're in the top ten but struggling with competition, draw attention to this and urge people on to help you stay ahead. (I've found that getting into the top ten early works well to encourage people to keep going - seeing the guilds behind you slowly creep up on your score really creates a sense of urgency.) Encourage things like guild runs of content that awards conquest points that week.

After the event, whether you were successful or not, make a point of taking note of and praising people for their efforts. I hear that some guilds even give out prizes to their top contributors, though my guild has never done this. I have however kept a log of every member's conquest point earnings since we first started participating. It's busywork, but it's quite handy as a way to keep an eye on who your biggest and most regular contributors are. If you know who earns most of your points and how, this can also help you to make better decisions in regards to bonuses when choosing a planet to invade.

5. Crafting is key.

I mentioned in my last conquest post that crafting is the most effective way of earning lots of conquest points in a short time, even though it's also expensive. Make sure your members know this as well! (As per point four.) Try to gather as many of the materials needed for crafting the relevant items whenever you can, even during weeks when you're not actively working on conquest, then save them up for your next big effort. Don't be afraid to raid the GTN either if you have to. Depending on how your guild is organised, you may want to use the guild bank to provide people with materials as well.

Especially with crafting, you also want to keep in mind that the personal conquest target is indeed just a target and not a cap. While it's obviously more rewarding to hit your target on multiple alts instead of earning lots of points on just a single character, it's quite possible to keep accumulating points way past your personal target just to keep adding to the guild's overall score. In a small guild you may well need multiple people to earn several hundred thousand points each to have any form of success.


3.0.2 - My New Favourite Patch?

"But it's just a bunch of bug fixes and stuff!" you might say. "Exactly," I'd reply.

Specifically, this:

Even if they really need to update the text describing the level ranges now, as it's basically completely wrong.

You see, I got quite fed up with the group finder in the past couple of weeks. I've said that I'm not a big fan of the solo mode flashpoints, so of course I wanted to put my money where my mouth is and progress through both Forged Alliances and the Shadow of Revan flashpoints in a group whenever possible (on my alts that haven't done it yet, that is).

On my agent I got an instant pop when I tried to get into Dephts of Manaan tactical to progress her Forged Alliances arc, so at first this seemed like a perfectly viable option. After that however, I suddenly wasn't able to get a group for any of the Forged Alliances flashpoints on story mode anymore, at all, ever. I must have spent more than four hours in total in the queue, trying to get into Legacy of the Rakata on my agent and into Depths of Manaan on my Gunslinger, without ever getting a pop.

At first I was both confused and disappointed by this: While I get that many people will opt for the solo version if given the choice, you only need three other players of any class or role for a tactical flashpoint. I couldn't quite believe that the player base had suddenly become so asocial that you couldn't even find that anymore, not even during prime time on what's supposed to be the EU's busiest PvE server.

But then the penny dropped: as soon as you hit level 56, all the Forged Alliances flashpoints fell off the group finder, and if you're doing the whole storyline from the start, which is probably true for most people at this point, you will ding throughout the course of it.

Hm, level 57 and trying to complete Forged Alliances... how?!

This went to explain the dearth of people in the queue of course - because it was simply impossible to complete the whole thing via group finder as soon as you hit level 56! Imagine if any other flashpoint was limited to a single level only (that isn't the level cap) - it would be utter madness. And it made me even grumpier about solo flashpoints, because you can bet that Bioware wouldn't just have "forgotten" to enable access to this stuff if solo mode didn't exist... but whatever.

It's fixed now, so hopefully I'll be able to get my remaining alts through Shadow of Revan soon. After the patch, my Gunslinger got a pop for Depths of Manaan within seconds, and my agent got into a group for Legacy of the Rakata instantly. The latter, incidentally, started off with this somewhat amusing (to my eyes) conversation:

Who says the people who ask others to skip cut scenes are always jerks out to ruin other people's experience? Sometimes all that's needed is a little bit of communication.


Watching Conquests Mature

Back in autumn I was all about conquest. I had a lot of fun with it, but after a couple of months I also started to notice how obsessive I had become, wanting to hit my personal conquest target every week and wanting to push the guild towards a top ten placement as often as possible. It caused me to sideline everything else in the game, and I was starting to get a little annoyed with myself even as I kept on grinding.

Then Shadow of Revan hit and broke the spell. Just like that. There was levelling to be done, with no conquest point rewards attached. There were new items to craft, again for no conquest points. And the new flashpoints had to be run in the right order to make sense of the story, once again offering no conquest point reward. The expansion just felt more important than all those other things, and suddenly conquests felt kind of irrelevant, especially since Bioware didn't get around to actually integrating the new content into the system yet.

I'm guessing that I'm not the only one for whom this was a turning point. I certainly enjoyed the "breathing room" afforded by the expansion so to speak, but at the same time I was always planning to get back into conquests eventually. So this week's Total Galactic War came at just the right time for me, offering an almost guaranteed reward for anyone who was willing to put a bit of effort in and therefore presenting the perfect chance to get back into it.

I've been looking at the scoreboards and I think it's quite obvious that the system is maturing. Or in other words, some people are clearly getting bored of it and that's okay. When I look at The Red Eclipse's scores from back in August for example, the top guilds tended to finish on 5-7 million points, with the lowest scores on the board being in the 2-3 million range. Compare this with last week's scores, where two guilds managed to reach first place with less than 3 million points, and half the scoreboard was filled with guilds that didn't even hit one million points (neither event was Total Galactic War by the way).

I actually see this as a good thing, as it means that the number of people investing in conquests in a hardcore way is going down, making it easier for smaller guilds to save up for and succeed with one big effort instead of always being outdone by some mega-guild. I wouldn't count the really big guilds out just yet, but we're getting to the point where they've had a chance to conquer every single planet in the galaxy. Once you've been there, done that, got all the achievements, you suddenly have a lot less to gain from continuing to compete.

Lower numbers might also reduce the influence that crafting and therefore money has on conquests. I have to admit that I overlooked just how broken conquest crafting is for the longest time. I'm the kind of person who does a little bit of everything when working on conquests - a flashpoint here, a few PvP matches there, then craft a few items - so I didn't quite understand what was supposed to make crafting so different. My epiphany came during the last Total Galactic War when I attempted to craft at maximum capacity to give my guild an early advantage and hit the 50k conquest target on all my characters in short order.

The thing that makes crafting different is that it accumulates points for you even while you're not playing. Let's assume for a moment that in a given week with a 50k target you have no bonuses to crafting whatsoever and only get 500 points per item. In the morning, you log on and set all five of your companions to craft five items (let's say you're not high enough level to send out six yet). When you log back in in the evening you have 12,500 points for five minutes of work. You queue up another set, finishing the day having gained a total of 25,000 points. You only have to do this for two days to hit your target. Often people will also have some sort of bonus - make it x2 and you'll already be done after a single day. Since it requires no actual play time beyond the brief login to actually queue up the items, you can also do this on all of your alts at the same time.

Compare this to warzones, which are generally lauded as being a good source of conquest points since there is no hard cap on how much you can earn in a day. With no bonus you earn 250 points for playing and an additional 500 for winning. If we assume that you win every other game, this averages out to 500 points per match. To hit a conquest target of 50k, you'd therefore have to play 100 matches. (Not entirely accurate due to some one-time bonuses for certain warzone achievements, but it's not too far off.)  If we assume that each game takes about 20 minutes including queue time, you'd have to actively play for 33.3 hours to hit your target with no further bonuses, and then you'd still only be done on a single character.

The bottom line is that gaining conquest points through play takes much, much more time and effort than gaining them through crafting, which means that crafting is a far superior way of accumulating points. At the same time it can get quite expensive due to the amount of materials needed and therefore strongly favours rich players.

I'm not saying this is a problem exactly, but it means that if you are hardcore about winning at conquest, you will craft - whereas if you're approaching the whole thing more casually, you'll never be able to keep up with the scores of those dedicated crafters. So seeing the totals on the scoreboard drop means that conquests are becoming more "casual-friendly" in a way - and that's a good thing in my opinion.

Of course, according to what's been datamined we'll have a new conquest event coming up in two weeks, with Yavin 4 becoming eligible for conquests for the first time - something that may very well cause many to stir again because they want to add a new planet to their list of conquests.


Crew Skilling in 3.0

Ever since 3.0 came out I've been addicted to crew skills, logging half a dozen alts every day purely to send their companions out on missions. This is an interesting change, as I had been pretty uninterested in crew skills for months pre-3.0, only really bothering to craft the occasional low-level augment to sell or to restock someone's stim supply.

I think what's made the difference to me is that I'm a reverse engineering junkie. At level 55 I was pretty proud of the fact that I had RE-d all the blue and purple versions of the high level craftable ear pieces and implants, and every single one of my alts (plus their companions) had crafted pieces in those slots until/unless they happened to get something better. With a whole bunch of new schematics in the game now, the race to discover all the new schematics is on once again.

There have been some changes to crew skills though, and some of them are a bit confusing since they weren't really announced beforehand and not documented in the patch notes either.

Bye-bye, Biochem?

Bioware already threatened us with the notion of removing re-usable Biochem consumables before Rise of the Hutt Cartel came out, but in the end they didn't go through with it back then and just made the level 55 reusables a little less powerful than their blue non-reusable versions. This didn't bother me and I kept using my reusable purple stim anyway.

With 3.0 the day has finally come though... no more new reusables. You can still research purple versions of the new medpacks, adrenals and stims, but they are just a little bit more powerful than their blue counterparts and disappear on use just like any other consumable.

I'm being told that this was needed because people felt that they "had to" make all their alts Biochem in the interest of min-maxing. I can't really relate to this, as out of all my characters only two are Biochemists. The reusables were great for my main who raided twice a week, but my alts only ever made it into progression content infrequently, and for those occasions I was fine with sending them a stack of (non-reusable) prototype stims.

With that said, I'm not hugely broken up about this change, but I'm not entirely sure how to feel about it either. Reusables still feel extremely practical, even if the new blue stims are better and dirt cheap to make (not to mention that they stack to 99 now - up from 10 -  meaning that you could carry loads around without clogging up your inventory). I keep the buff from my old reusable up at all times simply because I can, and then I sometimes forget to upgrade to something with higher stats that's better for progression content even when I really should.

An Embarrassment of Riches

One reason why the lack of new reusables isn't as big of a deal as it could be is that crafting materials are available in abundance and so consumables are dirt cheap to make. Bioware has dramatically increased the amount of materials you get from harvesting out in the world (at least in the new content), and there are absolute shedloads of nodes around, especially on Yavin 4.

Up until now, I never felt that there was a point in the game where going out into the world to gather would be more convenient and/or profitable than simply sending your companions on gathering missions, but now I'm not so sure anymore. I mean, I still send my minions out to gather simply because it's something they can do even when I'm not playing, but the returns just seem kind of meagre compared to manual gathering. Even a mission with rich yield generally rewards only eight pieces of any given material - I could get the same from going to Yavin and picking up two plants. Seriously, it's pretty bizarre. It's actually encouraging me to do dailies more often because then I feel like I'm multi-tasking by earning credits and reputation at the same time as gathering.

Reverse Engineering Changes

Reverse engineering has been changed as well. For one thing, getting augmentation kit components is now equally as easy/hard for all professions, as everything costs the same amount of materials to make (usually two of each type of material for that tier). From an immersion point of view it's pretty silly that you need the same amount of metal to make a chest piece as you do to make an earpiece, but it's nice that you don't feel screwed anymore if you only happen to have the crafting skill(s) that needed lots of materials to make pieces for reverse engineering.

The whole RE system itself has also been overhauled, and from what I can tell even the people on the forums are still scratching their heads about it a little. If you need a little reminder, this graphic shows how it used to work. Maybe that image just makes your eyes glaze over, but it does convey the idea that the system has always been kind of complicated. The most important point in my opinion is that each piece of green gear could lead to the discovery of three blue pieces, which in turn could lead to five purple pieces per blue piece.

This has now been changed in ways that make sense but at the same time are a bit confusing in their inconsistency. For example the three blue levels don't always have the same three prefixes in their name anymore, so instead of Critical, Overkill and Redoubt you can have Expert, Fervor and Veracity in some cases. I've seen "Absorb" on a blue as well. I was so used to the old prefixes that I'm still trying to wrap my head around what the new ones stand for.

Bioware also took out some options that used to lead to nonsensical stat combinations, so for example you can't discover recipes for medium armour with defense on it from the new gear. (No tanks use medium armour and no type of smuggler needs it.) This makes sense but confused me a little initially when the game told me that I had no more schematics to discover off a certain green item when I'd only discovered two (out of supposedly three) blue upgrades, or when reverse engineering a blue item led to fewer than three purple improvements.

The one undisputed upside to the new system is that they made reverse engineered schematics more powerful overall. It used to be that the blue and purple versions only added secondary stats, but now they also increase the amount of primary stat on the item, to the point where the currently available craftable purples are on par with raid drops. That is definitely nifty.

Adaptive Armour

On my Synthweaver and Armormech I also noticed that they finally gave both of those professions sets of adaptive armour to craft. Part of me thinks that this is too little, too late, considering that people have asked for this since the Cartel Market first came out  - by now it's really more about legacy-bound gear than about adaptivity. Not to mention that all the gear sets for each profession seem to look identical. But I suppose a small bone thrown to crew skill fans is better than nothing.


Solo Flashpoints - Good or Bad Idea?

I have to admit I felt a bit uneasy when I first heard that Bioware was going to include a solo option for flashpoints in Shadow of Revan. I spend a fair amount of time soloing of course, but group content is what keeps me coming back to the game, and since soloing is by default more convenient than doing things in a group and having to be considerate of other people, I know that it's all too easy to make grouping unattractive.

Based on the fact that Bioware has always treated group content with respect, I decided to have faith in them. Yet when I first stepped foot into a solo mode flashpoint, I was taken aback. I was with my pet tank at the time and we had just discovered that we could enter the same solo instance together. If you think that one GSI droid to assist you is OP, just wait until you see multiple copies of it mowing down flashpoint bosses like nobody's business. Not being forced to do things solo is a good thing, but I couldn't help but wonder: If you can do this in a group on easy mode, why would you ever do it in a group on normal mode, if the game doesn't differentiate between the two in any way? (I've since heard that solo mode isn't supposed to give any loot other than basic comms, but I have seen some pieces of gear drop in solo mode so... I don't know about that.)

Of course, then I found out that you can only ever do each solo mode once. At first this struck me as reasonable - let people see the story once and then make them move on, but then I thought: if it's not supposed to drop any gear, what does it matter? If someone wants to repeat the Battle of Rishi solo over and over again, why would this be a problem? I know that I wouldn't want to do this personally, because I find solo mode pretty damn dull. It's okay that it exists, especially where a flashpoint is supposed to advance the story, so you don't have to wait for a group to get going to progress. But in terms of gameplay it's terribly dull. The "Jesus droid" makes it pretty much impossible to die unless you fall off a cliff, as he'll heal you even through continuous standing in fire, so everything just comes down to slowly reducing mob hitpoints at no actual risk to yourself. It's a bit like regular questing, only extremely boring.

Eventually I couldn't help but wonder what exactly the point of flashpoints is supposed to be these days. How did we get to the point where this is the way Bioware wants them to be played? Looking back at the game's launch, the devs have always been a bit schizophrenic about the purpose of group content. Most of it was set up to simply offer gameplay for groups, with stories that were of little to no consequence to the rest of the game. That's why the friendly NPC tells you before your first trip to Coruscant/Dromund Kaas that you can take the shuttle to get on with your class mission right away, or take the Esseles/Black Talon with some friends if you fancy a diversion.

But there were always odd outliers, like the Revan story arc. It's true that at release this storyline wasn't referred to anywhere else in the game, but considering what an iconic character Revan is, it always felt a bit wrong to hide him away in a series of flashpoints like that. Now that Revan has a whole expansion focused on him, it feels outright unacceptable that players might be thrown into that story possibly without ever having learned his backstory in the game if they didn't happen to do the right group content at the right time.

Darth Malgus is another character whose story remains unfinished if you only complete Ilum's planetary story arc - and he's a character that players actually can and do encounter solo. Yet to find out what really happens to him, you have to do the two flashpoints located on Ilum. It seems that there has always been someone at Bioware who adhered to the old school mantra that particularly important/epic boss encounters should require a group to emphasise their epicness. (You know those bosses are badasses if they actually take more than one person to kill!)

As a fan of group content I didn't mind this attitude in the past, but it has always led to backlash from people complaining that they suddenly need a group just to see the ending of what was previously a solo story, and I can understand that. Not to mention that there are disadvantages to handling story this way even if you are happy to group up. Having a story change from solo to group play means that you want to do the group content exactly when you hit that transition point, not later but also not earlier. I'm sure I'm not the only who's ever ended up in Battle of Ilum on an alt, cursing the fact that you haven't advanced the planetary story to the point yet where it actually leads into the flashpoint. Finding yourself in that kind of situation means that a) the flashpoint story is potentially confusing because you're missing vital information and b) you'll have to come back again later purely to finish the associated mission at the "right" time. For this reason I've come to appreciate the approach of making the stories of group content separate and unimportant to the overarching plot, precisely to avoid these kinds of issues. Nobody misses out on anything important if they never go to Athiss. Yet at the same time you can go there any time you like (as far as your level permits it anyway) without being confused.

Looking at the post-launch flashpoints however, there has actually been a move away from this design, which I find both sad and a bit backwards. Kaon Under Siege and Lost Island were the last regular flashpoints with clearly defined side stories in my opinion. Kuat Drive Yards was separate from the rest of the game as well, but I feel that this was only done because it was the only way to make it level neutral (to ensure its story could be played and make sense at any point in the game). The Czerka flashpoints were obviously supposed to be the epic finale to the story of CZ-198... even if beating up a fat businessman and his pet project isn't exactly the height of epic. The Forged Alliances story arc turned everything on its head a little by starting the story in a number of flashpoints, which then cumulated in a solo storyline. Blood Hunt and the Battle of Rishi are neither an introduction nor an epic finale - they hardly feel different from other tasks you complete while on Rishi - however, they are mandatory for storyline progression and you can't continue until you've completed both of them.

A very cinematic scene - but as just one step in a multi-part story, why is this a flashpoint while other things aren't? 

Now, with how integral these latter flashpoints are to the storyline, it makes sense to make them soloable, but I have to admit that at this point I'm wondering why they are flashpoints in the first place. They don't even feature particularly epic enemies. (I like Shae Vizla a lot, but she's just a random Mandalorian. I can't even remember the name of any of the bosses in Battle of Rishi.) If you think that the story is too important to be locked behind a "grouping wall" (and flashpoints are by definition group content), why not just make this stuff the subject of a normal quest? Makeb and Oricon have shown that Bioware can design interesting encounters even for the solo player and outside of instances. I see no reason why Torch's compound and the Revanite base with the signal jammer couldn't have been part of the Rishi map - other than that it probably would have been more work, taking into consideration things like the Mandalorian compound needing a proper exterior instead of being limited to only having an inside.

It feels to me that solo flashpoints are a band-aid applied to a design problem of Bioware's own making, and as so often with band-aids, the end result is a lot less neat than if they had just fixed the core issue. If you just want to tell a story that people can play solo as well as in a group, you can do that through a dedicated quest chain like you've done throughout most of the game. Turning parts of the story into flashpoints seemingly at random just feels clumsy, and leads to all the disadvantages already brought up above. Solo mode leads to tedious "hitpoint grinding" during which it's impossible to die. People who prefer to group are once again faced with the problem of having to get their grouping done at exactly the right time or they can't even move on with the storyline. (But you mustn't go in too early either, or you'll be faced with a lot of dialogue that makes no sense.)

I've done Blood Hunt and Battle of Rishi less than half a dozen times and I'm already tired of them because whether solo or in a group, I have to do them on all of my characters, always at the exact same point, if I want to unlock Yavin 4. This has actually made me resent them somewhat, and unlike at level 55, where I was happy to run any of the offered tacticals for the weekly (and knew that I was free to do so whenever I felt like it), the idea of doing the same at level 60 seems highly unappealing right now.

I'm guessing that Bioware has more plans for solo flashpoints in the future, but personally I hope that they'll reconsider what purpose they actually want flashpoints to serve, and that the answer won't simply be "instanced story quests with scaled up hitpoints". In my opinion designing flashpoints like that degenerates the story experience for both solo players and groups.