Cruising Along

Apologies for the (relatively, by this blog's standards) long period of silence. I generally try to get a new post up every 3-5 days, but as I mentioned previously I went on holiday last week and while I had well-intentioned plans to prepare a post or two in advance, I didn't end up having the time and energy for it in the end.

Since my return I've been thinking about how to best get back into the groove of things, and I decided that I might as well do a general "state of my game" post as I haven't done one of those in a while.

Generally speaking, I don't play as much as I used to right now, mainly for two reasons: first, work stress leaving me with less free time and energy for any hobby pursuits in general (ugh), and second, social pressure to try out different MMOs! The latter has been particularly "bad" this summer - I already wrote about my foray into Lord of the Rings Online, and I'll be trying out another game soon, so there might be another off-topic post coming later in July!

When I do play SWTOR though, I noticed that my play patterns have once again shifted a bit. Specifically, I find myself spending a lot less time playing solo in any capacity, and doing almost nothing but group content. It's as if I subconsciously adjusted to the new road map without even thinking about it!

So I'm spending virtually no time on things like regular questing or solo chapters, and most of it on things like operations, flashpoints and PvP. Even the Iokath dailies didn't end up holding my attention for very long, and I've still only done the story on the two characters that I took through it in the first week. I had hoped that wanting to max out the associated reputation would serve as an incentive to bring more alts into it like it did on Oricon, but since the reputation tokens fell from the sky like rain, doing the weekly a couple of times on one character per faction was more than enough to get there with ease... I even ended up with big stacks of spare tokens to vendor after having hit the cap.

I'm looking forward to the new flashpoint coming out soon, as well as the next encounter in the Gods from the Machine operation. Unfortunately my guildies lost their luster for working on Tyth hardmode pretty quickly, so we haven't visited him in a while. Instead we've been working on Revan hardmode, an older encounter that we've yet to beat. Progress has been so-so, sometimes good, sometimes hampered by changes in the roster and having to scale down to something easier for the evening due to a lack of geared and capable players. However, I'm starting to see why so many people cite Revan hardmode as a fight they like. It contains some pretty inventive mechanics, the distinct phases make progress easy to measure, and the tuning along the way is tight, but not so tight that a single, small mistake is immediately going to wipe you, leaving some room for recovery at several points. I still think we have a very long way to go however.

How are things with Galactic Command? Well, as I remarked when I hit rank 300 on Shintar, since they reintroduced more reliable gear acquisition outside of Galactic Command, its ranks have mostly been shrug-worthy to me. It's just another number to raise - but that's not totally unappealing, it's just not a big priority. I actually got my Sage to 300 as well recently, and have now shifted my efforts to working on my Scoundrel next. Why? Why not!

I just wish I had a better ding shot than me losing to my own guildies in Odessen.

Speaking of gear though, I'm also proud to say that Shintar is actually close to having full 248 gear now... the only thing missing is one relic, but that should be easy to upgrade once I get enough PvP tokens. I'm quite pleased by the prospect of soon being "done" with her gearing for a while. MMO devs often seem to be afraid of letting the player enjoy that feeling, but it's really not a bad thing! It just feels good and opens the door for engaging with other things for a while (such as alts).

I hope everyone is having a good summer and business as usual should resume shortly!


Nightlife Patch

This week's 5.2.2 patch was what I'd generally consider a relatively minor patch, mostly adding some tweaks and bug fixes, but for what it is it has generated a surprising amount of community buzz.

First off, the Nar Shaddaa Nightlife event is making a return. I actually had to go back into my own blog archives to refresh my memory about this event: It was introduced in 2014, at which point I wrote a single blog post about it. It returned in summer 2015, unchanged, so I did not even find it worth a mention at the time. Last year it didn't make a reappearance but we got the Dark vs. Light event instead. With three years having gone past since I last paid any attention to it, it almost feels fresh again - though they did in fact also make some updates this time around, for example by adding a daily mission to use the slot machines ten times and a little quest to find a cheating patron in the casino.

Re-reading that post from 2014 I was kind of amused by just how similar my experience back then was to what I'm once again experiencing right now. People around me bragging about how many hundreds of thousands millions of credits they've already blown on the slot machines in a single day? Check. Me just feeling totally bewildered by the whole thing? Also check. In fairness, some of the new rewards Bioware has introduced are pretty cool - but not to the point that I'd waste my time on mindlessly clicking slots for god knows how long. Whatever other vices I may have, an urge to gamble is clearly something I'll never have to worry about.

Where Bioware did get me a bit are the freebies. When the event was first introduced, I did the intro quest that awarded free chips on all of my alts to not let any goodies go to waste. This time around, Bioware has decided to entice people into playing by adding casino chips as drops to flashpoint and operation bosses, logic be damned. This saw me finishing Tuesday's op with about thirty smuggler's luck chips in my bag, which I grudgingly clicked my way through just so they would be put to use. If these continue to drop from everything for the next two months, it's going to be a long summer.

Sigh, if I have to...

In other news, the patch added the ability to dress Theron Shan and Shae Vizla in custom outfits. This has pretty much zero relevance to me as I was never hugely into customising my companions (I think in my over five years of blogging about SWTOR, I made a whole two posts about it) and I'm even less bothered now that every "Outlander" has a whole legion of them - if anything I was slightly annoyed that this change caused my inventory to be filled with some unvendorable junk items, as both companions' looks were "reset".

My Twitter feed however has been going absolutely nuts about this. If I'd ever needed proof that there are a lot of people out there that play the game in a very different manner to me, that would have done it. #SWTORFamily member @TheTheronShan even held a little contest to find the best-dressed version of himself after the patch. I don't get you guys, but rock on.

All that said, there was a small change that made a big difference for me too: That crew skill missions now grant companion influence. As happy as I was when they increased stack sizes to 9,999, I never came close to actually hitting that limit for any crafting materials because I'm too lazy to keep running missions once my immediate needs have been satisfied. But now, everything's changed! In between boss attempts or warzones I'm now making a point of sending all of my lowest-influence companions out on random missions, and I enjoy watching them slowly leap-frog each other up the ranks. For many of the KotET companions, this was actually the first time I've even heard their various crafting voice lines. Why would I have sent rank 1 Shae Vizla out on any mission when I could have rank 50 M1-4X do it instead? Well, now I have a reason.


More Pugging with Shintar

It's been over a month since I wrote about my idea to start a video series to detail my new Commando's levelling progress through random flashpoints, and I wanted to give a bit of an update on the series for everyone who doesn't keep a close eye on my YouTube channel.

I was pleasantly surprised that my pet tank didn't mind giving me the quiet time required to do the recording on a regular basis, so that I've been able to release a new episode every week so far - there just won't be one next week as I'll be on holiday.

I finally learned that the best place to sync video and voice recording is the moment when I say hello in chat at the start of each run, as the sound of me hitting the enter key and the line of text appearing in chat make for about as reliable a match-up point as I'm going to get.

Pugette is up to level 32 and the series is up to episode 6! Here are links to and summaries of all the videos I recorded last month:

Episode 2: Buggy Adds in Hammer Station - I was a bit worried about what sort of experience I would have being thrown into the big pool of "proper" tactical flashpoints at level 17, but as it happened I got Hammer Station, which is both level appropriate and quite a softball. (Incidentally, that's the exact same thing that happened to my Mercenary back in 2015.) Unsurprisingly, it ended up being a pretty smooth run. Also, I actually ran into the person who tanked that run on Twitter the next day. Small world.

Episode 3: Weekday Wipes in Maelstrom Prison - This was my first run with a group that had not just one but multiple wipes, but I didn't feel too bad about it as both Colonel Daksh and Grand Moff Kilran are pretty tough. Either way we picked ourselves back up again every time and eventually powered through. Also, I learned that they finally added kolto stations for the bonus boss in Maelstrom Prison. Holy crap!

Episode 4: Ranting about Trash Skipping in Battle of Ilum - When I levelled my Merc through random flashpoints, one of my posts about it was called "Battle of Ilum Makes Me Mad" because I hate people's obsession with skipping both trash and bosses in that one, and unsurprisingly that was the case in Pugette's first run of the place as well. I actually fell a bit behind at the start and struggled to catch up with the rest of my group weaving through as many packs as possible, which immediately reminded me of why I hate that practice so much. We even ended up skipping bosses I had never skipped before. And the final encounter was interesting, though for a different reason.

Episode 5: Hammer Station Again - RNG reared its ugly head by already giving me a re-run in episode five even though I'd only seen three of the 19 flashpoints available through the group finder so far. At least I can note that being ten levels higher already made a huge difference to how challenging I found it to heal this instance. Also, at this point it has become a bit of a running gag that the group finder always tries to put me into groups with stupid group compositions at first (such as two tanks and two healers), which I repeatedly decline.

Episode 6: Slightly Rude in Depths of Manaan - I noted at the start of this one that it could end up being a toughie, but I happened to get a competent group that tackled every fight with aplomb. However, I also ended up with my first truly impatient group mate - in previous runs I had been asked to "skip please" too, but here someone immediately exploded into "FFS" while I was watching the first cut scene, with me unthinkingly adding profanity to the video by reading her comment out loud. Oops.


Not Too Keen on Server Merges

Lately I've seen a lot of discussions on the topic of server merges. A couple of days ago, Bioware even opened an official thread on the forums to let people duke it out on the subject.

I have to admit I always get a bit of a nervous eye twitch when this topic is brought up. Those of you who haven't been reading my blog since the beginning won't remember, but the great server merges "transfers" of June 2012 were not a happy time for me. There was a happy ending in the sense that I eventually settled on The Red Eclipse without too much fuss, but not without first suffering a lot of emotional stress that I could have done without. I'm definitely not keen on repeating that experience.

Also, for as much of a pain as the process was back then, I could at least see the need for merges at the time and was mostly ticked off by the way Bioware was handling them. Right now I don't feel that the case for more server merges is particularly strong.

From my point of view there is only a single argument that can be made to justify that server merges would serve "the greater good", and that's that extremely low population servers give new and returning players the impression that the game is dead, leading to bad PR and spread of false information. That was certainly a serious issue back in 2012 when there were something like a hundred depopulating servers vs. maybe twenty active ones.

These days though? I dunno. As an English-speaking EU player, you are given the choice between three different servers: Red Eclipse is super active, the Progenitor is medium pop, and Tomb of Freedon Nadd is pretty dead, so you have a one in three chance of ending up in a bad place. If you just want to play through the story though, as many people clearly do, does it really matter to you how many others are idling on the fleet in the meantime? And if you are actively looking for other players, how long is it going to take you to catch on and ask someone whether you happened to pick an unnaturally quiet server? Trying to decide how much of an issue that one in three chance really is requires a lot of speculation about people's motivations and the way they play. How about we focus on the people actually playing now instead?

Most of the reasons I've seen active players cite for being for or against server merges are inherently a bit selfish. I'm not saying that's wrong, but I wish more people would be honest about it instead of doing the "greater good" chant while pretending that whatever they want must naturally be what everyone wants. In the pro camp we have:

- I want to have faster queue pops!
- I generally want to have more people around to improve my experiences doing group content, trading etc.

In the con camp we have:

- I like being on a smaller server! (...because I'm a roleplayer and I like it quiet / because it allows my smaller guild to win at conquest sometimes / because I'm not constantly fighting people for resources and quest mobs / because I love the more tight-knit community etc.)
- I don't want to have to rename any of my characters!
- I don't want to lose my guild ship/stronghold/outfits/other thing that has been introduced to the game since those early server merges and that the current server transfer tech isn't able to deal with in a good way.

It seems to me that pretty much all of these can be countered in some way except the "I like being on a smaller server" one, because once you've put everyone into the same big pool, there's just no way you can go back to having that dedicated quiet time or to being competitive in areas where you were only successful before because of the lack of competition.

If you want faster queue pops and more people around, you can already transfer to a busy server. I appreciate that it's not an ideal solution because it costs money per character, and that's a major bummer for anyone who'd like to move lots of characters at once, but it can be done. Did they ever raise the price of server transfers back up from 90CC anyway? I know that people were advocating server-transferring twice as a cheap way of getting a name change for a while... For the faster queue pops, one could also argue for the development of cross-server queueing instead of merges to get all the benefits without the downsides.

The naming issue could probably be solved if Bioware redid the whole character naming system, but I don't think anything less would do. On TRE for example it's hard enough to come up with new names for alts as it is, even with spaces, apostrophes and what not. There must literally be millions of characters registered on that server by now. Forcing a merge under the current system and potentially presenting tens of thousands of players with the need to rename their characters would be a disaster. Bioware would have to come up with some sort of system to allow names to be non-unique first.

The issues with strongholds, outfits etc. again could probably be solved with sufficient development time - to some extent that is, though some things would remain tricky. What if you have the same stronghold unlocked on two servers that are about to get merged for example? Could they implement something that allows you to keep two versions of your Coruscant home? It's probably not impossible, but unlikely to be something they'd spend development time on.

What stands out to me here is that the issues cited by the pro-merge crowd can already be resolved on an individual level, while the con arguments cannot and rely on the belief that "Bioware will fix it somehow", which is why I'm definitely more in the con camp right now. For me personally, the pro arguments also hold little water just because they wouldn't do much for me - I already have my home on the biggest EU server, so speeding up my pops by five seconds would be pretty damn irrelevant to me. Meanwhile the con arguments of potentially losing names are a very real threat to me. In addition, I've intentionally made new characters on other servers before to roll up new legacies and to re-experience playing as a character without all those legacy perks. It wouldn't be a huge deal to lose those, but it would still be a loss with nothing to make up for it.

To get back to the argument of dead servers being bad for the game's reputation though, that could actually be solved with relatively little fuss, because my impression is that there aren't actually that many of them. Again, to go back to my own experience of the English EU servers, only one of them is anywhere close to dead. If they merged TOFN into the Progenitor for example, that would already have the desired effect of eliminating all the "dead wood" and bringing all English-speaking EU servers back to a healthy population without affecting quite so many people negatively. I hope that if Bioware does decide to give in to the currently very vocal crowds that demand server merges, they'll do it in a sensible way and without listening to those advocating that we should have a single server for every region - as that would just maximise the bad (technical issues, many lost names) without actually adding much value (queue pops can't get any faster than instant).


SWTOR and EA's Play To Give

This weekend SWTOR players had the chance to take part in EA's Play To Give event. Here's its official page, but if you can't be bothered to click, it's basically EA pledging to donate money to three different charities supporting inclusivity: one dedicated to promoting gender equality and two anti-bullying charities. Because being inclusive means interacting with other people, you could also earn in-game rewards in several of EA's multiplayer games over the weekend, SWTOR being one of them.

Looking at the coverage of this event once again served to highlight that Dulfy really might as well get rid of her comment section, considering what a wretched hive of scum and villainy it has become - the comments in response to her post about the event were filled with people complaining about the "evil SJW-ness" of it all, with some of them even pledging to not play this weekend because they didn't want to support such horrible causes. Yeah, really.

Anyway, I'm generally in favour of businesses giving to charity, though I suspect that it's going to take a lot more than that for a company that was voted "worst in America" twice to improve its image. (Not that I personally think that particular award was justified. This post sums it up well I think.)

However, I also found it interesting to see SWTOR featured in this line-up just because EA generally hasn't really been very proud of the game or happy to mention it anywhere at all for quite some time, so them actually bothering to give it this sort of cross-promotion was good to see. With the event being focused on playing with other people, seeing SWTOR make a point of promoting just that was also yet another sign of Bioware's dramatic shift in focus back to the game's MMO parts. I wonder if Keith had a hand in getting SWTOR on this event's featured games list too?

All that said, I have to admit that I found the event's actual implementation somewhat lacklustre. Announcing it literally only one day in advance was too short of a notice to allow the community to generate much buzz. Also, the connection between the charitable cause and the games was just too tenuous. Yes, "having a good time with lots of different people" was a theme but that was literally it. They could have made it a lot more interactive by for example having "stretch goals" of sorts, pledging to increase their donation if people hit the presented gaming goals instead of just tying them to in-game rewards.

Finally, there was literally no sign of it in game or on the website other than the news article, meaning that many people still probably didn't even know about it, but even those who did had no way of tracking what was going on. I initially went into the weekend with a bit of a plan to devote extra time to SWTOR, but in the end my enthusiasm quickly fizzled out simply because I didn't know if what I was doing was "working". It would have been great to have some sort of live tracker to show how close people were to hitting the goal of one million group content runs completed, to encourage everyone to give it that extra push if needed. With no feedback whatsoever, there simply wasn't much incentive to try harder.

We'll find out on Tuesday/Wednesday whether we succeeded - but to be honest, since we never saw any numbers, Bioware could just say "good job", pat us on the head and give us the rewards anyway. It's not like we'd know.