Love Me, Love Me

Ever since companion affection became companion influence, I haven't concerned myself too much with getting my companions to like me. Pre-4.0, I was motivated to get them to the max in order to unlock their stories and various legacy perks, though to be honest once I'd achieved all of that, I stopped caring about companion affection on alts too.

Since 4.0 you're supposed to be motivated by the power increase companions benefit from as they go up in ranks, but that honestly hasn't mattered that much to me. While levelling, your companions tend to feel ridiculously powerful even at low ranks anyway, and I don't craft enough to really need the extra efficiency. At endgame I tend to spend most of my time doing activities where companions don't feature: operations, PvP, flashpoints.

The only times I've actively felt the need to invest in companion levels have been when I first tried the Eternal Championship and when I was struggling with certain veteran mode story chapters. But even then my efforts were pretty half-hearted, in the sense that I didn't really try to get anyone to max level, I just gave them a couple of gifts and then made another attempt at the content to see if it had helped any.

For this reason, I've only had a single companion at rank 50 until recently, and that happened kind of by accident more than anything else, because even after his initial Alliance recruitment mission, you keep gaining influence with M1-4X for every PvP match you play. Since I've been doing a lot of random warzones, hitting maximum influence with him just kind of happened.

Doing the Iokath dailies since the patch, I've found myself in the position of actually finding a powerful companion useful for the first time in a while, and since I recently bought an Akk Dog, I decided that it was time to make him love me. As he's not a story companion, the only way to gain influence with him was to feed him gifts.

"See you in half an hour," my pet tank joked when I sat down to start gifting, but sadly his joking prediction turned out to be pretty accurate. In fact, even with the legacy perk to speed up gifting time, it took me more than half an hour to go through the hundreds of companion gifts required to get my new friend to influence rank 50.

And I couldn't help thinking how stupid that was. Not the gifting system by itself, but that sitting there for half an hour, pressing the same button over and over, is the only way to max out your influence on certain companions. Seriously, where is the fun in that?

It seems to me that we desperately need a way to raise companion influence more organically beyond conversation approval or disapproval, since that's so limited. And as soon as I thought about it, it seemed really easy to do too: Just give +1 influence for every mob you kill with that companion out.

This wouldn't make companion gifts useless, because even if you spent all day farming mobs, you wouldn't earn the 250,000 influence points to max out a single companion in a day, not to mention that we have a lot of different companions to work on now. Gifts would still be the fast track. But if you took your companion to do dailies with you every day for example, it would slowly but surely start to make a difference too.

We've long abandoned the pretense that companion influence stands for true affection - that's why they renamed it to influence after all. It's more a measurement of slow bonding as you hang out with each other a lot (or buy their loyalty). Slowly increasing it as you spend time actually playing with your companion would therefore only make sense.

Seriously, why wasn't this implemented yesterday? I can see that people already suggested it on the forums over two years ago...


Tyth, God of Rage

One of the most anticipated features of 5.2 was the addition of the first new operations boss in two years: Tyth. My impression so far? I love him. No, not like that.

I'd like to start by saying that I was actually a bit worried about how Bioware's first new large-scale boss encounter in years would turn out, even more so after they came out and said that it would be designed by the same guy who designed the Revan fight. No offense, but I'm actually not that fond of that encounter. More importantly though, I still think less of Ravagers and Temple of Sacrifice to this day due to their awful initial tuning, which hasn't actually been adjusted all that much even now, not to mention their propensity for pointless red circle syndrome. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if those two operations were at least partially to blame for Bioware's decision to not add any more of that type of content for a long time - raids that unfriendly towards both casual players and mid-level guilds can't have boasted particularly high participation numbers.

But enough of that. The point is: Tyth didn't disappoint me. When I first went in with my guildies to kill him on story mode, he absolutely melted. I think people largely ignored the adds, and we quickly caused him to erupt and spew AoE damage, but somehow we just got through it all even as our tank disconnected towards the end of the fight. "That was way too easy," I heard some guildies mutter, but I was wide-eyed with delight. That's exactly how story mode should be to an over-geared, organised and well-practiced group, or else it will be a killer to pugs. In fact, I'm sure there are pug groups wiping on him even now. And that's okay, because this game isn't about always succeeding at everything on the first attempt. But he should be well within reach of even casual players sticking their noses into a story mode for the first time, and that's how it should be.

Veteran mode is another story. We've spent some time on it but pretty consistently fail around the fourth wave of adds so far. I haven't minded too much, because I really enjoy the fight. It's chaotic yet straightforward, and while there are several important mechanics to juggle, almost nothing is an automatic wipe if you get it wrong once (unless you get yourself flung off the platform I guess); it's usually a combination of too many mistakes stacked on top of each other that gets you.

Not all of my guildies share my enthusiasm. Everyone is entitled to their opinion of course and we can't all like the same things, but at this point I can't help but wonder if we, the ones who have kept raiding throughout the years despite of no new content being added, haven't become a bit complacent. Even though we haven't killed every boss on its hardest difficulty, we're familiar enough with most core mechanics to be able to do them in our sleep. You don't have to be some sort of gaming prodigy to develop a certain level of competence at something that you've been doing literally for several years.

Tyth throws a wrench into the works of our well-practiced routine. We think we know it all, but with this fight, we actually don't. I hear comments about how some mechanic is stupid or buggy or random when we've barely even figured out how to do it correctly yet - while in my opinion, the fun is in mastering the newness of the challenge, in daring to try new things because there are only a couple of guides out yet and they might not necessarily have the best strategy for our group. At least that's what I'm looking forward to.

What else is there to say? I like the overall look of the operation so far - except for the fact that the entrance is a bit confusing, because the trams aren't marked on the map, causing many a clueless player to immediately click the exit again upon entering, as it's the only door they see. However, I'm chucking that one up to Iokath's general lack of navigational logic more than the operation in specific.

The trash is fun - not too tricky, but engaging enough to force you to pay attention. I was somewhat reminded of the droid packs at the start of Terror from Beyond, only with a fire theme.

The run towards Tyth borders on "a bit long", though I was amused by the way the unsecured runways can serve as death traps. (Read: I paid too little attention while running back once, ran myself off an edge and had to start right over again.) I also actually kind of came to appreciate the length of the run, as it's just long enough to give the raid buffs time to come off cooldown and gives you a minute or two to discuss what went wrong on the last attempt. That's time you need to pass anyway, but somehow it feels more productive to me if it happens while we're running back instead of while we're idling in front of the boss. (Feels like multi-tasking?)

Also, my general impression of this whole "one boss at a time" concept has been much more positive than I expected, largely because we do have just enough of an idea of what encounters are coming next to be curious. SWTOR's social media accounts are also proving unusually adept at teasing us with information, by doing things like post concept art of the upcoming bosses - feeding excited speculation of just what sorts of mechanics these "gods" might have in order to live up to their personalities as described in the lore (see this fantastic post by Rav for more information about that).

We'll see if my enthusiasm for wiping and waiting for whatever comes next will abate over time... but for now, Tyth and the Gods from the Machine get two thumbs up from me.


Iokath's Daily Dilemma

My day one impressions of Iokath were pretty positive, but it only took until day two for the first storm clouds to appear.

"I hate this stupid planet and these stupid quests," my pet tank announced while we were doing the dailies. "Oh, come on," I retorted, "I thought we had a pretty good time yesterday. I even wrote a blog post about how fun it was! Are you calling me a liar?" "Yes. Yes, I am."

I thought he was overreacting for sure, but I certainly wasn't blind to the things that annoyed him. Eric mentioned on the forums that Bioware wanted to try something different with the Iokath dailies, and at this point I'm hesitant to call the experiment a success. At the very least it will probably need some iteration.

The Map

Most daily zones are square or vaguely round-ish, so that you can literally "do the rounds" around the map while clearing out your quest log. Even as someone who's not a huge fan of daily quests, I'll acknowledge that there can be something pretty zen about that.

Iokath's map on the other hand is kind of elongated, and what's worse, its quests are not evenly spread out across the map. Instead they mostly seem to have you going from one far end to the other while sticking to the very edges of one side. It's awkward, and exacerbated by the terrain being confusing, with multiple levels and various trams and teleporters strewn across the landscape without clear indicators of where they take you.

The quest markers don't deal with this very well either and are often confusing or simply incomplete, leaving you to wonder just where you are supposed to do a certain thing. I appreciate that some of this will get better with time and increasing familiarity with the environment, but it's worth noting just how unintuitive this zone is to navigate at first.

Different Quest Structure

I have to admit I immediately felt affronted when I saw that the Iokath weekly mission requires you to complete ten daily quests when you don't get more than five a day. SWTOR's dailies have always been the pinnacle of casual friendly, with the main reward being gated behind a weekly that only required you to basically do the daily quests once per week. And now you are asking me to do two days a week?

I'll admit that my initial reaction was over the top though. Two rounds of dailies a week is still pretty chill. Also, according to one of my guildies, the Iokath dailies seem to reset at a different time of day than everything else, or possibly even multiple times per day. Still need confirmation on that.

For the first time in SWTOR history, you also don't get the same few dailies every day, but instead receive five out of a larger set that is either rotating or randomised (not sure yet). This is something that other MMOs have done for years and something I'm actually happy with, as it means that no two days are exactly the same. I haven't tested it, but log space permitting, you might also be able to gather up several days worth of dailies and then just do them all at once if you like. Conveniently, they auto-complete as soon as you fulfilled your last objective and you don't need to go back to base to hand in. This part sounds good, right?

The only problem is...

Paying For Dailies

On Iokath, dailies actually cost you money instead of awarding it, at least some of them. There are several daily missions that require you to purchase a special temporary vehicle mount to complete the quest - and said vehicle actually costs more credits and shards (the area's special currency) than you earn for completing the mission, which is just bizarre. I only got one of these on my first day, but it was very strange to realise that while doing the initial storyline and the other four dailies, I had not earned enough shards to actually do the fifth daily. Was I supposed to just grind mobs in order to unlock the ability to do a daily mission? In what kind of world does that make sense?

To add insult to injury, the vehicles are single use and buying one does not guarantee quest completion. When I had finally accumulated enough shards on day two, I bought an "Iokath Monitor" and went out to kill ten mobs with it as required by the quest. Unfortunately, I failed to realise just how low its health was and how squishy it was, which meant that it died right on the first group of three weak mobs I ran into. My quest was only on 2 out of 10 kills by then, so I had to gather shards for another two days to be able to try again. Seriously, who thought that this was a good idea?

I get that they probably don't want everyone to be running around in vehicles all the time for PvP balance reasons, but the current setup is just a mess. I can't help but wonder whether the vehicle dailies were a hurried last-minute addition, as the notion of using walkers was originally just advertised as a feature of open world PvP. For that, limiting access to them makes sense, but it's nonsensical in the context of using them for daily quests.

I also can't help but wonder whether maybe they messed up the drop rates of shards and reputation items somehow, because while gathering enough shards to buy even one vehicle is hard work, for some reason reputation tokens fall from the sky like rain. Two days in, I had already hit my weekly reputation cap with both factions. They'll really need to have another look at all of this.

It's a shame too, because looked at in isolation, many of the new dailies have quite interesting and fun mechanics. The systems surrounding them just make you want to not even try.


A Tale of Tier Four

I mentioned before the patch that I had saved up a lot of CXP packs in anticipation of Command tier four. One more reason to be antsy about the patch's release was that I was running out of space to store the things if I didn't want to start redistributing them on alts, so I was really keen on finally being able to clean out my cargo hold, inventory and mail box.

Of course, nothing is ever that easy. To get the most out of all those packs, I wanted to wait with claiming them until my alignment (light side) had had a victory. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen very often on TRE right now, and I'd say there are about two dark side victories for every light side victory. I won't be so melodramatic as to say that light side never wins, but it's certainly proven elusive over the last couple of days. I tried staying up late in the evening, but even though my side was gaining, it was so slow that I eventually had to give up as I was falling asleep at the keyboard and had work the next day. Other times I always seemed to just miss it, with the victory popping just after I had to leave the house for an appointment or just before I came home from work. It was growing kind of aggravating!

Then, yesterday at around 6 in the morning, I logged on to finally find the light side at stage four already, and claiming victory shortly afterwards. Hurrah! What followed were several hours worth of inventory management, which is one of those things that you either enjoy or you don't, and I definitely did enjoy it in this case. I'm happy to report that all those CXP packs translated to a respectable 86 Command crates. And let me tell you, opening so many of the things at once is pretty fun!

I actually purchased all the Command stash extensions, a UI feature that I had always considered pretty pointless before then, but if you open that many crates at once it's actually pretty nice to be able to let the loot pile up for a bit without having to worry about claiming or disintegrating things every other crate. Plus it allowed me to be strategic and for example leave the blue gear pieces in the stash at first without claiming them, in hopes of getting a purple or even gold for the same slot out of one of the later crates.

I'm happy to say that it worked out pretty well for me, and I received an upgrade for every single gear slot. Sure, most of them were blues, and while they feel less prestigious than the purples we're used to and I'm still not convinced whether it's a good idea to even have all these tiers within tiers, everything was at least an upgrade. It seems that Bioware has finally found a sort of balance with tier four, making me reconsider Command rank 300 as a worthwhile goal for some of my alts.

Fiery Grophet seeking to camouflage itself on a carpet.

The thing that came as a surprise for me were the pets. I'm not a pet collector, so I have to admit I have a pretty short attention span when it comes to caring about them. Sure, I'll usually go "that's cute", but by the next day I'll already have forgotten that I even got a new pet the day before. But this tier had a grophet as one of the rewards from the crates. I've written before about really liking those. And the other pet was a cute green froggie with spots! D'aww.

But then the duplicates started rolling in. I hit disintegrate on a grophet and immediately felt a terrible jolt of guilt. It doesn't really make sense. I don't worry about what an uncomfortable life these creatures must lead, being stashed away between armour pieces and companion gifts inside of crates that mysteriously appear out of thin air. But when you ask me to take action myself, to actively destroy them... I suddenly feel bad. It's one thing to "disintegrate" a piece of armour, but a cute little animal? I'd always felt a little bad about it before, but the grophets were more appealing to me than the usual offerings, and due to opening all of those crates at once I had quickly accumulated a whole stack of them. Seven little grophets... sounds like the name of a fairy tale!

Eventually I went "to hell with it", claimed them all and sent them round to my alts. Who wouldn't want a cute little potato creature with spindly legs by their side? My Marauder's also seems to have an interest in slicing, who knew? It's a shame that you can't have more than one copy of a pet in your stronghold, or I could open Shintar's Home for Fiery Grophets in one of them. It's strange in what sort of directions playing a game like this can take your thoughts sometimes.


Iokath Impressions

At last, the War for Iokath has begun!

I was very excited when I jumped into the update with my pet tank last night. I already mentioned it in my post about looking forward to the patch, but this is the first time in literally years that we could get into the meat of an update together instead of just jumping into our separate solo stories. Sure, there were still solo cut scenes, but at least we could group up in-between. We had such fun romping around Iokath and exploring it together; it was great.

Also, I got to play with giant balls - always a plus in my book.

I couldn't help but think though that Bioware seems to be somewhat out of practice in terms of making things work flawlessly in groups. I remember first thinking that back on Ziost, where one of the daily quests initially bugged out big time if you were in a group, and again during 4.0, where in certain Star Fortress cut scenes any people you were grouped with would suddenly disappear. (Pet tank and I joked that he put me in his pocket on the way out.) It's easy to take things working in a group for granted, but it seems to me that a bit of expertise has been lost in that area and has yet to be recovered.

On Iokath this first showed itself when we went to the terminal to pick a side for the dailies and I was told I was "not eligible for this conversation". We soon found out that this was because my pet tank had already clicked on it beforehand, and because he had already chosen a side, I was somehow not allowed to pick one while grouped with him. Easily solved by disbanding the group, using the terminal and regrouping afterwards, but still strange. I'm guessing this is in place to avoid people picking different sides and then essentially being grouped with the "opposite faction" but it didn't feel very intuitive. The biggest blunder however happened when we were doing a story mission in parallel in our own separate phases, finished it, and when it progressed to the next stage I suddenly got ejected from my own phase and ended up spectating in my pet tank's instead. It was amusing more than anything (I got to make snarky comments about his dialogue choices), but still not something that should really happen. There was also at least one daily quest that could have easily been put in a group phase but was put in a personal phase for no reason I could make out, which was again somewhat annoying.

The story itself was... okay. Getting the option to flirt with Jace Malcom in front of Theron had me in stitches, and as a die-hard Republic player I was impressed by how well Acina still managed to guilt-trip me for not siding with her. That was really well written. Some of the other stuff? Eh, not so much. As I proposed on Twitter:
We all know that "chasing after the superweapon" is a well-worn Star Wars trope and mostly serves as an excuse to reignite the Republic-Empire conflict here, but it's not done with a lot of heart. Everyone's chasing after the MacGuffin, but it initially doesn't even have a name and nobody knows what it does (thus the ridiculous overuse of the word "superweapon"), which makes it a bit hard to understand why everyone's quite so gung-ho about it. When I think back to other big-name threats in the storyline, such as the Barrager or the Gauntlet, we at least knew why these things were a big deal. Here, not really.

So I could see players who value the story above all else being a bit disappointed by this update, even if there was an interesting twist at the end. For me however, anything it was lacking in this department was easily made up for by the fun of actually running across Iokath with my pet tank, searching for daily objectives together and discovering things like strange teleporters or glitched-out champion droids (I still don't know what was up with that one).

What else could I add to these first impressions? Oh yeah, one of the first quests has you running around a contested area where Republic and Empire are fighting and the mobs actually come in big and hard-hitting groups. I pulled too much and had to run away at one point; it was exciting to even have to do that!

Oh, and my favourite bug of the day (you know there are always some on patch day) was that in one of the conversations there was a conversation wheel with the options "yes" and "no" stuck mid-screen permanently. I'm guessing this is the base template they always start with and someone forgot to tidy it up after finishing this particular conversation? Either way, I feel like I could get a lot of good use out of this screenshot...


Veteran Outlander

Last month when I finished KotET on veteran mode I mentioned that I was going to give KotFE a try next. What I didn't expect was that I would power through the full sixteen chapters on veteran mode more quickly than I ever did them on story mode!

Mainly there were two reasons for this. One was that I actually really enjoyed the story as a Sith inquisitor. In my "best classes to take into KotFE/KotET" post I ranked the inquisitor as number two, but after this I'm inclined to agree with Sullas, who commented back then that this class should be number one. Even though dealing with the Sith Emperor/Valkorion isn't a natural continuation of their class story, the plot itself fits inquisitors like a glove. In terms of dialogue I was enjoying myself more than I have on any other class I've played.

The second reason was that I wanted to get it done for the achievement and to be able to write a blog post about it. So there you go. Though wondering just how hard veteran mode was going to be this time around also kept things fresh and intriguing, always making me want to push on.

Fun fact: Since I found it annoying to play KotET veteran as a freshly-dinged 70, I wanted to make sure to get as much of KotFE as possible done before hitting the level cap on my inquisitor. I turned off the uber XP boost, but I was still surprised by how little XP the chapters gave past level 65! 65 to 66 went by quickly, only taking two chapters as far as I recall, but then things slowed down drastically, and by the time I completed chapter sixteen, I wasn't even halfway through level 69, despite of having been fully rested the entire time.

Unfortunately I'm none the wiser on whether it really helps to do the higher difficulties below the level cap. The difficulty curve certainly felt a lot smoother than it did in KotET, but that might just mean that Bioware did a better job with tuning this expansion's veteran mode. I didn't encounter any roadblocks like KotET's chapter two this time around, and the only boss on whom I wiped often enough to need to repair between attempts was Arcann. But then, he was basically the "expansion end boss", and I didn't mind that one being harder than anything else.

In general I was surprised by how few of the bosses gave me trouble. Having a long-duration crowd control certainly came in handy, and my combat res saw repeated use as well to revive companions that had managed to get themselves killed in a moment of inattention on my part. Funnily enough, the thing that killed me most often was actually trash. In my KotET post I talked about the annoyance of dying to mobs labelled as weak, and on my Sorcerer in her light armour that feeling was only amplified. I got so much use out of Force Barrier on trash groups! And I laughed out loud when some random wingmaws in the Zakuulan swamp killed me so quickly that I didn't even have to react and hit said barrier. I did learn to deal with those trash pulls a bit better after a while though.

But let's start at the beginning. Nothing really gave me any trouble for the first four chapters except the aforementioned trash pulls. The first boss fight that presented somewhat of a challenge was the skytrooper boss in chapter five (I forgot what he's called, I just remember that it wasn't Skytrooper Captain). The issue was that he became invulnerable every so often while summoning adds, but Lana was obsessed with trying to hit him inside his invulnerability bubble. Oh yeah, I haven't mentioned yet that I was doing this as heal spec, have I? Whenever the adds spawned, I therefore couldn't kill them quickly enough, and manually directing Lana towards each of them in turn took too much time. But I eventually succeeded after I switched her from dps to tank. She was still obsessed with the invulnerable boss most of the time, but once I directed her towards the adds, she would use an AoE taunt and grab all of them at once instead of needing to be told to attack each one individually.

The scions' trial in chapter six presented an interesting challenge. You know how Senya defaults to healer when she joins you? It was surprising how quickly we died as a double healer team! On respawn I changed her to damage, started the fight properly with a crowd control and off we went. I imagine that this part is quite tough if you always have to deal with both scions simultaneously. Heskal was a law onto himself because you're not allowed to have a companion during that fight and he hits pretty hard, especially with his turbulence. I spent a lot of time running in circles and trying to line of sight him while keeping myself healed up and slowly whittling away at his health with dots and weak instant casts. Both times the cut scenes kicked in it felt like I would have died if they hadn't "saved" me just then. I read that it's a lot easier to accept Valkorion's power here, but since this wasn't a replay but my actual story progression, I didn't want to make out-of-character choices just to make the fight easier.

No major issues in chapter seven and eight, except for a knight boss with skytrooper adds in the latter, which caused me similar issues as in chapter five, but again setting my companion to tank eventually did the trick. The first confrontation with Arcann was actually surprisingly easy.

Chapter nine, understandably, doesn't have a veteran mode, but why does it have tick boxes for the other two difficulties then? The HK bonus chapter doesn't have veteran and master mode either, but it's also not showing the icons for them. Argh. [/random UI OCD]

Chapter ten was probably the most annoying one. The fight against the duo of guards at the last junction must be rough without a long-duration crowd control, but as it was I managed. But the Knights of Zakuul in the Overwatch were really annoying. Those were the only mobs that seemed badly tuned to me, as they hit much harder than any knight-type mobs in other chapters, sometimes taking off more than a third of my health with a single instant attack. Switching Kaliyo to tank did no good here either, as she melted just as quickly. Eventually I managed to clear my way in with a lot of frantic kiting, making sure the mobs could barely ever touch me. On the way out, the same type of knight repeatedly spawned in, jumped me, killed me, and then instantly despawned again, never to be seen again, so I made my way back outside in a sort of death zerg. It just seemed so unnecessary.

In chapter eleven I found the final fight against the battle droid on your way out quite challenging: While the weak adds die in one hit even when you're a healer, there are a lot of them and they spawn all over the place. I did eventually succeed with Jorgan tanking and me doing a lot of frantic running around to off all the adds before they could do too much damage. Fun fact: If you try to knock anything off the platform, the fight resets.

Chapter twelve was one I expected to be a major pain in the arse as a healer, seeing how you have to do most of it without a companion (except for part of the second half, when you can tame a pet for a while), but it actually wasn't bad at all. In fact, I had a huge revelation about the first Valkorion fight. You don't actually have to get him to whatever percentage he usually stops at - simply letting him take you down to about thirty percent health also triggers the next cut scene. Quickest boss fight ever!

Thirteen, fourteen and fifteen were pretty smooth too. Unlike Lana in chapter five, Vette and Gault in thirteen immediately switched targets whenever the last boss went into an invulnerability phase, making that fight a breeze with two dps comps sniping any adds the moment they spawned. The Gemini captain in fifteen also wasn't an issue because with Senya on dps she picked out the correct target after a split pretty much instantly, saving you from taking too much damage from the "illusions".

The final chapter initially had me surprised by how easy everything seemed to be. I had picked the turret option for easy extra dps and they pretty much melted all the mini bosses for me without issue. But then I got to Arcann himself... and he is painful. As I said above, I just didn't mind as much because he is the big bad of the expansion.

I already found the shield mechanic a bit clunky on story mode, specifically that switching out of "shield stance" isn't instant but has a one to two second delay. In veteran mode this becomes even more of an issue as at least one of the AoE attacks Arcann does is a guaranteed one-shot, and if you're slowed by the shield at the wrong time, it's pretty much game over. I had to switch back and forth a lot, and found it helpful to try and stay near Arcann, as the deadliest AoE would start at his feet and get wider the further away you were, making it easier to dodge it if you were right on top of him.

When he gets low and puts up his "attuned barrier" or whatever it's called, it's time to get ready to raise your shield, as he will unleash a flurry of lightning in your direction afterwards. I found that if I didn't have the shield up at this point, I would die within mere moments. And then there's the big finale where you're supposed to walk up the stairs and smash him one last time. I saw several people complain that this was impossible on their class, but it seems that the key is timing. (Seeing how the raised shield disables all abilities, class shouldn't make a difference.) The damage and healing seems to be balanced in such a way that as long as you stay at max distance, they continuously balance each other out, so you are actually better off waiting a bit and making sure the first two manifestations kill themselves with reflects. If you charge ahead before that, you might accidentally end up turning your back to them before they are gone and then you die. Likewise, the ascent up the stairs seems to be tuned to take you to the very verge of death just before you reach Arcann, so just keep going and spam that slam button even while it's still greyed out. I thought I was going to die for sure on my last attempt but then the button lit up at a greater range than I had expected and I got that slam in just in time.

It was a satisfying ending to a fun experience and has definitely raised my opinion of veteran mode chapters as a whole. But is master mode going to be next? Eventually I guess, but probably not any time soon. The biggest obstacle for me is that I don't like re-playing the story on a character who's already done it,  but master mode is intended for max-level characters in endgame gear. While I do have some characters at or near max level that haven't done the either "Knights of" expansion yet, getting them ready for master mode difficulty would require some work, and I'm not sure I'm sufficiently motivated to put that much effort in just yet.


The Importance of NPCs

Replaying KotET and more recently also KotFE got me thinking about the role and importance of NPCs in MMOs, probably because both expansions have been criticised for putting too much focus on certain non-player characters, to the point where they feel more like the story of Valkorion, Lana & Co. than our own.

How much of a role should NPCs play in an MMO? Do we need them at all?

I think the answer to the latter question is probably no, if we're talking about truly "needing" them. I suppose a complete lack of non-player characters would be challenging in terms of handling certain game mechanics (such as how to create and distribute currency for example), but that aside it's not that hard to imagine an MMO in which players literally only have each other to interact with. It would be the ultimate sandbox.

But it is desirable? I could imagine such a game being fun, but I fear that if there were multiple games like it, they would be at risk of feeling a bit same-ish. As a collective, MMO players are not very good at building a coherent and interesting culture. Put a lot of them together and it seems you inevitably end up with a lot of people with silly names and a penchant for making crude jokes. That could be a fun setting once or twice, but you wouldn't want all your games to be like that.

I want my MMOs to have an interesting setting and lore, and for that it still seems best to have that part actually put together by professionals. NPCs are one way to achieve this. Even if they were set up to never talk to or otherwise interact with players, their mere presence would already tell us things: about what sort of society they live in, what sort of settlements they have, how they dress, what sort of roles they play. Once you get them talking, things only get more interesting and stories get told.

It seems to me that when it comes to NPC interactions, you can have a spectrum that goes from disinterested and independent to highly attached. The former means that NPCs talk to and trade with you and may even give you quests, but have little to no interest in you beyond that. Once you're done with them, you move on and probably never interact with them again. I remember Vanilla WoW being a lot like that. This can then lead to people accusing the game of having little or no story - but this isn't necessarily true, the story just isn't as in-your-face. Vanilla WoW actually had some very interesting stories, you just had to actively pay attention to quest text and connect the dots. And they were rarely about a single hero and more often about whole political factions or worldly developments (e.g. multiple quests having you investigate Silithid hives in different zones slowly drawing a more comprehensive image of what was going on with them).

On the opposite end we have Bioware's companions: NPCs that pretty much attach themselves to you, follow you around and become your best friends or worst enemies. It seems to me that merely telling stories that way has become almost synonymous with "good storytelling" simply because it's impossible to miss. The more distant approach requires players to be curious and interested in puzzling things out for themselves, which can be fun and rewarding. But if you're not into it, that story might as well not exist. Comparatively, the guy who constantly follows you around and comments on everything you do is hard to miss, and suddenly there's a story for everyone.

Of course that approach has its pitfalls too. Players who enjoy puzzling things out for themselves might perceive a story delivered in a pushy manner as "dumbed down", but more importantly you might piss people off by (semi-)permanently saddling with with companions they don't even like. Theron Shan and Lana Beniko in SWTOR are a good example. They were originally introduced with the Forged Alliances story arc in early 2014 (yes, that long ago), initially just as contacts that guided you through the different steps of the story, just to rise to further prominence in Shadow of Revan until they became permanent companions in Knights of the Fallen Empire.

Both are written in a way that tries really hard to make you like them. They may disagree with what you say at times, but they remain unfailingly loyal no matter what. They are also both skilled individuals and highly useful to have around from a purely pragmatic point of view. Lana is more of a quiet, thoughtful type, while Theron likes to crack wise on occasion, but both are likeable archetypes. And it works! They are popular with a large part of the player base and many have entered into a romance with one or the other.

But there are reasons to dislike both of them too. Lana is manipulative and somehow always gets things to go her way. It's not unreasonable to want to break free of her grasp. Or maybe you're just sick of Theron's forced levity and want to get rid of him.

Yet you can't. On occasions you may be able to say rude things to either of them, but as mentioned above, they are unfailingly loyal to your cause... which only gets more annoying as you try to drive them away by being mean. Pfannenstiel mused in his own comment section the other week that it would be interesting if after the choice on Iokath either Lana or Theron would turn against us. Sure sounds exciting to me, even if I don't think it's likely to happen and I don't even really dislike either of them. But being forced to hang out with them all the time is not optimal either.

And I do think this is one area where KotFE/KotET suffered a bit, in that they tried too hard to make the conflict between you and Arcann and Vaylin personal. I never liked the Sith inquisitor's chapter three because it uses a similar set-up: The villain wants you dead for personal reasons, so you must personally want them dead too. No, that's not how it works! Maybe the "Knights of" story would have actually been stronger if there had been more of a focus on why Arcann and Vaylin's reign was bad for the galaxy as a whole, beyond some occasional mentions of how they were cruel to their people. That would have provided more opportunities for the player to find reasons to want them dethroned and given us back some sense of agency.

Still, on the whole I like having some NPCs around that serve as recurring characters and with whom you can develop a relationship. I just think it's best balanced out with also having characters on the other end of the spectrum, to remind the player that the world doesn't revolve around them and that there are other stories out there that are worth actively discovering too.

SWTOR did used to have those as well by the way. The other week I finally finished up a long-running project of mine, which was to make a video about the Dread Master story arc.

Sure, the Dread Masters were recurring characters too, but not in the "core" story content, and you had to actively seek out those extra stories and figure out how they were all connected. The Masters themselves weren't actually very fleshed out in terms of personality (aside from Calphayus, we don't even know what species they were), but they didn't need to be either - they did a lot of directing events from the shadows, and on the few occasions when you did meet them directly, they almost always made it very clear that they didn't think very highly of the player character. But that's what made them fun: chasing them, proving that you were worthy of attention and that you weren't going to let them get away with their plans.

Do you have any favourite NPCs that you think are underappreciated, or clingy ones that you just wish would leave you alone already?


Reading Patch Notes

Today was supposed to be patch day! Except then it wasn't. Less than 24 hours before the patch was supposed to go live, we were told on the forums that it wasn't ready yet after all and that it would be delayed by another week.

Some people were quite mad, and I do get being disappointed if you specifically took time off to play or something... but then I always say: Don't plan too much of your life around video games! You just know this stuff is never going to work on day one anyway. For me, it just means that I won't be able to play the new content over the long Easter weekend like I'd been hoping to, but instead it will go live just as I have to go back to work on the Tuesday. Bleh.

Anyway, speaking of never planning things around video games, I was totally planning to write about the patch today but now I'm kind of coming up short on that front. To comfort us a little, Bioware posted the preliminary patch notes for 5.2, so let's talk about those a bit. Not the obvious stuff, like the new storyline and operations boss, because most of us already know about those anyway. But even if you didn't, they'll be much more fun to talk about once we've actually seen everything in its full glory. Throwaway one-liners are much more fun to analyse in advance.

Updated Class Story Introductions: The introductory scenes for the original eight class storylines have been significantly updated and improved.

This was a funny thing to see up in the "highlights" section. Someone called this out on the forums too and Eric went on to clarify that they added moving cameras and stuff to these like they have in the more recent content. I find this oddly intriguing. On the one hand I'd rather they spent the time on more content and bug fixes than this sort of thing, but on the other I do love the base game very much and can't fault them for wanting to keep it fresh and interesting to new players. Better than a WoW-style Cataclysm in any case.

The audio that plays when a Group Finder queue is ready has been improved to be more noticeable.

This has the potential to be a great quality of life change, considering how soft that noise has always been. I just hope they haven't replaced it with a loud trumpet or anything like that.

Custom HK-51 appearances will now appear properly during Chapter IX: The Alliance cinematics.

Funny, I was just playing through that chapter on the only character other than my main who has HK-51 and was wondering why his customisation wasn't showing in that scene. Of course now I'd actually have to unlock HK on a third character to actually see the update... or replay the chapter I guess.

All enemies now have a Command Experience value when killed.

This sounds like massive news to me and I'm not sure why everybody isn't talking about it. I mean, unless I'm reading this wrong, it will mean that weak and strong enemies will now also give CXP (though presumably not very much). If so, that would be fantastic. The fact that most mobs you kill don't currently grant any CXP is the one thing that has prevented the system from feeling like a true continuation of regular levelling in my opinion. Can you imagine all those swarms of weak mobs in uprisings actually giving you something? I just hope this doesn't herald another phase of everyone just mindlessly farming mobs until Bioware has to nerf the numbers again.

Defeating the Cartel Warlords in Scum and Villainy in 8-player Nightmare Mode will no longer also grant the Achievement for defeating them on 16-player Nightmare Mode.

This has actually been fixed now, but I like that Vulkk caught the devs struggling with their own new terminology here and still calling master mode nightmare originally (I do this all the time because I like the old names much better).

Completing Uprisings on Story and Veteran difficulty will now grant progress towards the General Uprising Achievements “Initial Uprisings (Story), Initial Uprisings (Veteran), Second Uprisings (Story), and Second Uprisings (Veteran).”

Funny thing is, I actually got one of those achievements the other day already, so they can't have been all bugged... or maybe someone implemented this fix earlier already without telling anyone.

Kolto stations will now respawn when an entire party dies during an Uprising boss encounter.

Yes, thank god! I've only tried my hand at pugging story mode uprisings a little, but this was a major pain in the butt for any group without a healer, because it meant that you basically got one or two attempts at a boss and then it was game over because you'd have no access to heals whatsoever anymore, making the encounter literally impossible for your current group.

Galactic Starfighter Daily and Weekly Missions now award Unassembled Components. Daily Missions award 8 and Weekly Missions award 20.

Woohoo, even more reasons to keep doing that GSF weekly! I kind of get the impression that they waited with this one to see if people kept playing GSF just for the CXP, but then they saw participation numbers drop again and decided to throw that extra incentive in there. I'll take it.

Unlearned Schematics can no longer be equipped in armoring slots.

What is this I don't even...? I'm not sure whether I'm more confused by this having been a thing or by the idea that someone must have actually tried to stick a schematic into an armoring slot to bring the bug to people's attention.

The tireless engineers at Czerka Novelty Labs have released a free software update for the Czerka Crate-O-Matic that incorporates a Zakuulan crate into the device’s repertoire. Czerka has refused to confirm rumors that this same update introduced a bug into the device wherein it may, in very rare cases, disguise a user as a potted plant. 

Man, now I really wish our old guild leader hadn't stashed the "guild Crate-O-Matic" away in his personal cargo hold before quitting. Maybe we can talk him into handing it over...

Invisible assassins are no longer hiding in Chapter XV of Knights of the Fallen Empire. Players can no longer be instantly killed by interacting with certain weapon lockers in the Chapter.

But what about those in chapter sixteen?!

Nerf calfs around the galaxy have become strangely hungry as of late…

Mysterious hint about a new event maybe? But what do hungry nerf calfs have to do with anyhing...


Prepared to Patch

Patch 5.2 looms on Tuesday, and I've talked about many of the reasons why I'm looking forward to it. For the past couple of weeks, I haven't felt like playing much however, and that's due to what I consider the patch's biggest mistake, which is adding another tier of gear less than six months into the new expansion.

I get the purpose of gear resets and don't mind them every now and then, but having them too often really serves to drive dedicated players away. It was one of the things that put me off WoW towards the end of my time there, that they started to have a gear reset every single patch. You could see the expiration date on your hard-earned raid drops pretty much the moment you got them, and the time until then always felt too short to let you truly enjoy the rewards for your achievements. When you know that anything you earn will become obsolete very soon, it really saps your drive to keep logging in... and if this planned obsolescence keeps happening at very short intervals, at some point it hardly feels worth working on anything at all anymore.

So yeah, trying to get any more tier 3 gear has felt a bit pointless when the first tier 4 box I'll earn will already have better stuff in it. There's no use crying over spilled milk, but I do hope that Bioware has taken note of the less than positive reaction to the original tier 4 announcement and will avoid another early push like that.

On the plus side, I've been able to save up a bit, in the form of nearly two cargo bays full of various CXP packs. I expect that popping all of those at once (only after the light side has won, obviously) will be pretty fun.

I haven't really felt motivated to get an alt to Command Rank 300, because as I've observed previously, it doesn't really do much. I've just pushed a couple of them a bit closer towards the middle/end of their current tier so that they'll immediately benefit from the changes to drop rates from crates come patch day.

Aside from more gear for everyone, Bioware has also told us that there will be even more things to look forward to than we originally thought - for example there will be quality of life changes to quick travel, and while this tweet about master mode uprisings almost seemed to come as an afterthought, I'm looking forward to trying those with my guildies too.

My interest may have flagged a little as of late, but I expect patch 5.2 to provide me with enough new things to post about for at least a month.


Developer Appreciation Week: How Work Has Made Me More Understanding of MMO Devs

It's Developer Appreciation Week, and if you don't know what that is, Rav lays it all out in detail here. I've actually been meaning to take part in this for ages, but this time around it has come at a particularly convenient time for me as I've been bouncing around ideas for a post that fits the theme quite well.

You see, in the past year I've really developed an appreciation for the difficulties that MMO devs struggle with in terms of balancing new content with bug fixes, and just generally keeping an MMO running smoothly. This is due to things that I've seen happen at my place of work, even though my job has nothing to do with gaming at all.

You see, I work for an online business that sells opticals (glasses and sunglasses). Seems quite different from running a video game, right? Well yes, in the sense that we do deliver an actual physical product by the end of the day. But our entire image rests on our online presence, and before customers get to actually hold their purchase in their hands, it goes through several steps of electronic processing in our back-end system as well, as stock levels get updated and so on.

Even though that seems a lot more straightforward than managing a whole virtual world, I've been astounded by the amount of work it takes, and just how many things can go wrong. I don't work in tech myself, but we have an open-plan office and my department is right next to IT, so one can't help... overhearing certain things. Not to mention that we do our own share of bug reporting.

For example, our website was originally built something like a decade ago by the guy who started the whole business... and who isn't with the company any longer, so tech has been spending a fair bit of time cleaning up code that only made sense to the founder himself and generally been trying to understand how certain systems were set up. I'm sure that's also true for more than one MMO that's getting long in the tooth by now.

Then there are the constant small bugs. Like that certain page updates lose their header if you hit save first instead of hitting publish right away. Or orders getting stuck at a certain point in processing. Or customers sometimes being told that their payment failed even though it succeeded. Everyone is aware of them, but there just isn't enough time in the day to fix them all, considering how many other things take priority. People have just learned to hit publish right away. Orders getting stuck is bad, but you can always get customer services to manually kick them onto the next stage, and that solves the immediate problem, right? Problems with payments are really bad, but if it only happens occasionally and it's not immediately obvious what the issue is, IT can only waste so much time on randomly fiddling around with attempts to reproduce the problem - again, customer service can patch things up until there is a larger sample size to draw conclusions from.

These are things I always think of now when I encounter a long-standing and annoying bug in SWTOR. Is it annoying? Yes. But is it actually game-breaking for a sufficiently large number of people? Probably not... And I'd like to imagine that somewhere at Bioware, someone is also aware of that bug and wishes they had time to fix it or knew what exactly caused it to at least make fixing it faster and easier. But in a business with limited resources that has to prioritise things we can't always get what we want.

You'd think that if you "just" have a website to sell things, you shouldn't need that much tech to keep it running, right? But no, we too have our equivalents of "content patches", when the business decides that the product pages need redoing to entice more customers into buying or wants to add extra payment options to the checkout. None of these things implement themselves, so these projects constantly vie with attention for things like bug fixes. Until you have those days when something suddenly breaks down completely (e.g. the website doesn't work) and everyone needs to drop what they're doing anyway because that problem needs fixing more urgently than anything else. I imagine that's what things are like at Bioware when a server collapses or a major exploit gets discovered.

Basically, what I've learned in the past year in particular is that even something that looks relatively straightforward on the surface can hide a multitude of moving parts underneath, which require a lot of maintenance and are in constant danger of breaking. I imagine that this is multiplied tenfold when you're not just dealing with a website and an order system, but with a whole virtual world with dozens of interconnected systems.

I appreciate that the devs at Bioware work hard every day to keep things running while also adding new content to keep us all interested. I firmly believe that they're genuinely trying to do their best, but sometimes there are only so many hours in a day. Just keep up the good work.


Victory At Last, Again

Back in September 2014 I wrote a post called "Victory at last" in which I talked about finally killing the Dread Guards in Terror From Beyond on nightmare mode. Long story short, I had spent a lot of time wiping on them and it felt very satisfying to get them down at last, even if we had to overgear the fight by several tiers to get there.

After the 4.0 reset we didn't even make a proper attempt at the fight again, but since 5.0 we've been feeling more ambitious. And last night, we got it down!

And yes, it was yet another level of satisfying to beat the encounter at the intended gear level this time. Sure, it's probably a bit easier now than it was, not just because re-tuning is never perfect, but also because we have some extra abilities now that we didn't have three years ago. (For example I wouldn't have been able to simply ignore Doom with a cooldown like you can see me do in the video back then.)

But still, it felt so good. We had spent several full nights wiping on the fight beforehand, making very slow gradual progress at eliminating those small yet deadly mistakes that kept causing us to wipe, from random deaths in the lightning phase to messed up taunts to green circle shenanigans. The first time we actually hit the enrage, I felt that we could definitely do this. And then we did! The excited squealing you could hear on TeamSpeak is a testament to how excited everyone else got about downing the encounter too. That's raiding at its best in my opinion.