Onslaught Expansion to Launch on October 22nd

Last Monday, when nothing much of interest was happening in the MMO world, Bioware decided to finally give us an actual release date for Onslaught: October 22nd. This went against their initial announcement of 6.0 coming out in September, but I for one was relieved about the delay, not chagrined. Anyone who's been on the PTS could tell that the new systems were not ready yet, and who would benefit from a much-anticipated expansion launching as a broken mess just to meet a self-imposed deadline? Nobody, that's who.

Still, to make sure that nobody who'd subscribed early specifically in anticipation of a September launch would feel tricked or disappointed, they changed it so that Nautolans won't count as an expansion feature but as a subscriber reward for which you become eligible from September. So if your sub runs out in September, you could technically let it lapse, "earn" Nautolans that way and then claim them and/or check out the new content later.

Personally I've been on the six-month recurring sub for years anyway, so a delay makes no real difference for me on that front, but to be totally honest another reason I don't mind is that I, too, have been swept up in WoW Classic fever, and am therefore quite happy to have another month to get that out of my system before it's time to get excited about facing Darth Malgus again.

Even if you're not playing anything else though, there is no lack of things to do until October. Most importantly, Bioware can still use our help on the PTS! Phase two of PTS testing has officially started, which means that you can now earn titles for your live account by participating in group content on the PTS. The linked article gives more information about what to do and look out for if you are interested in helping out and earning those limited time rewards.

The first big ticket item to deserve attention is the new gear acquisition system, and unfortunately people's first impressions aren't very good. I think I even saw some comments along the lines of "Galactic Command 2.0" flying around... yikes!

However, even if the way things stand right now isn't good (purely based on other people's observations), I think it's important to remember that there's one very important difference compared to Galactic Command: the latter was dropped on us as a fait accompli, with player criticism and concerns being largely dismissed with assurances that we were sure to love the system if only we gave it a chance - only when people actually started to leave the game over it did Bioware rapidly start to backpedal and then spent the next few months fixing things up.

This time it's all on the PTS, with clear and explicit intent to make it as fun as possible for us and to give feedback on how to make it better. Hopefully if enough people get in there and make their voices heard, there is still time to mould the Spoils of War system into something that we'll all enjoy.


Operations Excitement

A few months ago I thought about sending some interview questions on the subject of operations to Bioware, similar to the interview about flashpoints I posted a few years ago. I got distracted by other things though, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the Working Class Nerds podcast released an episode about operations featuring Eric Musco, Daniel Steed and operations designer Matt Pucevich a couple of weeks ago. That covered a fair amount of the sort of ground I was planning to cover myself, so now I feel I don't have to!

I'm also generally happy to see other players and content creators care about operations. I know that raiders are a minority in pretty much every MMO, but sometimes it feels like I meet even fewer people interested in it in SWTOR circles than I would have expected. Then again, maybe I just don't hang out with a varied enough group of players outside my own guild.

Anyway, I feel that this interview hasn't received as much exposure as it probably deserves, so I wanted to write down some thoughts on it and encourage people to give it a listen themselves.

As far as I'm aware the name of the new operation on Dxun hasn't officially been confirmed yet, though on the PTS its boss lockouts are listed under the name "Responsible Research Initiatives", which is quite a mouthful, so I wouldn't be surprised if people continued to just call it "Dxun" anyway if that's the final name, just like we sometimes refer to Explosive Conflict as Denova or Scum and Villainy as Darvannis.

Matt did state that it will come with five bosses though, which seems to have become SWTOR's standard for operations a long time ago, with Explosive Conflict (four) and Scum & Villainy (seven) being the only outliers.

The tone is also supposed to be a bit more light-hearted, similar to what's happening in Ravagers. I'm not sure how I feel about that, seeing how I criticised Ravagers at its launch precisely because "fighting random pirates" seemed a bit underwhelming after all the world-ending threats we'd had to deal with in pretty much every other operation. I guess at this point we at least have a precedent for having an op with this kind of somewhat lighter tone. (And it did grow on me over time.)

It's also supposed to be a bit easier than Gods from the Machine, which they said was intentionally made to be an outlier in terms of difficulty due to the time at which it came out. The Dxun op should be more around Scum & Villainy's level in terms of difficulty.

Another bit of news was that they are considering getting rid of lockouts for story mode operations in 6.0, so that if you want to keep running them over and over - like flashpoints and warzones for example - you'll be able to do that.

I can definitely see the upside to that, though for people only just starting out it would also mean that their progression won't get saved from one night to the next. So if you only did the first four bosses of Eternity Vault for example, like my guild did on my first ever foray into the place, you couldn't come back the next evening just to kill Soa; you'd have to start from boss one again.

It'll probably also mean that people can't "save" story mode lockouts anymore - among my guildies it's been common that if they were in a pug that failed to complete an operation, they'd bring their lockout back into the guild for us to complete the run without having to kill all the bosses.

On a similar note, Bioware are thinking about giving people doing veteran or master modes the option to extend their lockouts, a functionality that WoW added about ten years ago. That would certainly be helpful when it comes to pushing progression, though it can also lead to arguments among leadership about whether to extend or reset on any given night and can leave people disappointed if they "need" something from earlier bosses (e.g. achievements). Either way, Eric and Matt said that this would be a slightly more complex feature and therefore won't be in at launch in any case.

On the subject of the new scaling they are introducing with Onslaught (every operation and the players in it being scaled down to its original level instead of being scaled up to the current cap), they said that they are still working out just how powerful they want players to be in that situation (i.e. whether to simulate a progression situation or let them effectively be "overgeared" from the beginning).

Generally speaking they really like the idea of locking the old operations to their original level though, among other reasons to prevent their difficulty fluctuating every time they are re-scaled with a new level cap increase. I was surprised that Matt cited people complaining that encounters were getting harder every time this happened, because my personal experience has been that they've been more likely to get easier (with the Revanite Commanders in Temple of Sacrifice being the most striking example I remember).

Matt also explained that one general challenge with difficulty tuning is that different goals pull them in different directions: On the one hand they want story mode to be super accessible, but if they make it too easy, then making the step up to hard mode becomes more challenging unless they make that easier too and so on and so forth. They are currently considering making story mode operations even easier than they are now, but as the gap between that and hard mode is already considerable as it is, one has to wonder if that really is the best route to take right now (which is something the hosts also raised as feedback).

Matt and Eric also talked about internal operations testing and how it can be quite funny when mechanics go utterly wrong and result in things like endless add spawns or bosses killing themselves.

On the subject of naming conventions, it was interesting that they mentioned that they'd be quite happy to change the difficulty names back to hard/nightmare instead of veteran/master. (I think the latter labels have been more confusing than helpful, not least due to their inconsistent application, as veteran has sometimes corresponded to what used to be story, sometimes to hard, and likewise what's now called master mode was sometimes hard mode, sometimes nightmare.) Unfortunately changing it all back is apparently a fair amount of busywork and doesn't quite feel worth it, something I can very much believe considering for how long I kept finding places where the naming convention hadn't been updated when they made the change the first time around.

My favourite little story was Matt admitting that he's responsible for the difficulty of the bridge boss in nightmare mode Scum and Villainy: After seeing a forum post complaining about the holes in the bridge and asking for them to be filled in right next to another one expressing dread at the potential difficulty of a nightmare bridge boss, he felt inspired to combine the two by making the bridge appear to be filled in on NiM (even though it's not) and was given permission to do so during a one and a half hour downtime window where there wasn't anything more urgent for him to do. That's awesome!

Anyway, those are the things that stood out to me while listening, though a couple more questions were asked and answered during the podcast. If you have any interest in operations at all, I can definitely recommend giving it a listen.


Commonalities Between Books And MMOs

It's been quiet on here because I was on holiday for a week, largely unplugged from the gaming world - though for the first time not entirely unplugged from the internet, as I recently surrendered to various internal and external pressures and bought a smartphone (yes, I'm quite late to the party). This meant that I could at least read blog posts on the train and check my email.

I spent a lot more time reading good old-fashioned books during those days though. I clearly have MMOs on the brain at all times however, as I suddenly found myself contemplating similarities between long-running book series and massively multiplayer online roleplaying games.

I'm currently reading the Foreigner series by C. J. Cherryh - incidentally I found out about the first book in the series due to being friends with Wilhelm on Goodreads. Hurrah for blogosphere connections. Anyway, when Foreigner first came to my attention I noted that it was the first part of a series and this immediately made me cautious - knowing that something is part of a series is a sign that greater commitment may be required to get full enjoyment out of the thing, not dissimilar to how you can't expect to get a good idea of what an MMO is like without being willing to invest more than a couple of hours of play time.

The cover of the first book as pictured on Wikipedia.

Luckily for me, in this particular case general consensus in reviews and comments seemed to be that you didn't need to read the whole lot to have a satisfying experience, and that the first trilogy was quite self-contained, which was enough to convince me to take the plunge. And I enjoyed myself enough that it didn't take long at all until I was sure that I wanted to read more.

I'm up to book six at the time of writing this, and even though I enjoyed the series from the start, I think that books four and six (so far) feel like considerable improvements on the first trilogy, while having been read by fewer people, at least based on the number of reviews they've received on places like Goodreads. Which is somewhat sad but also makes sense: Lots of people are willing to give the first one in a series a go, but not everyone's going to like it, and those people aren't going to bother with buying any sequels. Again I couldn't help but be reminded of an MMO's launch hype and how most players drop off after the first few months because for one reason or another the game just couldn't hold their attention.

If a game can't draw you in to begin with, you're unlikely to care about the next expansion pack... but MMO players are probably more likely to give a game that didn't grab them another try than readers are likely to re-engage with a book they didn't like. After all a game's low-level experience can change, but a book will always remain the same. (Your perception of a book can change over time too, but I think it's fair to say that it generally takes longer for that kind of shift of perspective to occur - years or even decades.)

But just like an MMO can live off a relatively small but dedicated fan base for a long time, a book series can keep going for quite a while too as long as people keep buying those sequels. The first Foreigner novel came out in 1994, when I was a mere eleven years old, but Cherryh is still churning them out today. Apparently book #20 in the series is supposed to come out next year. And as long as there are enough long-time readers to keep buying them, with the occasional late-stage drop-outs being replaced by newcomers like myself who came to the series late, this can keep going for a long time.

Like an ageing MMO, such a book series isn't really interested in attracting new audiences with its latest releases... though that doesn't preclude the occasional awkward attempt to try anyway. I found it strikingly strange when book three for example started with a hundred-odd pages that basically did nothing but re-cap the first two books I'd just read, presumably for the benefit of readers jumping straight into volume three? Like a level boost in an aging MMO, it doesn't make for the smoothest of experiences.

Finally, like an MMO, a long-running book series quickly acquires degrees of complexity that are hard to keep track of even for the well-initiated. I'm only six books into a series consisting of nineteen novels so far and can't help but notice how many named characters of importance there are already, and I expect that number to only increase over time. It's not a problem with me reading these back-to-back right now, but I expect that after a couple of years away while waiting for the next release, it could be hard to remember who's who and just what is going on - not unlike the way you struggle to remember what all those buttons do when you return to an MMO you haven't played in a while.

Re-reading this a day after I wrote the initial draft, it all seems slightly inane or at least like stating the obvious, but I'm going to hit post anyway. It's vaguely on topic! And I can't help but wonder now how much overlap there is between MMORPG players and people who follow book series that go on and on for years...


Did I mention I'm a pacifist?

... is one of the voice lines of (not particularly popular) consular companion Tharan Cedrax. This post isn't about him though, it's about me. Yes, I've been trying out the pacifist life!

I first brought up the idea after visiting Dantooine during peace time, and got an approving comment from Charles Boyd of all people!
Well, now I had to do it. And thus, Pacis (pronounced "Paa-sis" in my head) the Jedi Shadow was born. It was obvious that a pacifist character had to be a Jedi, but the reason I chose Shadow was that I figured that the ability to go into stealth would come in handy when it came to avoiding combat later on.

The Pirate Incursion event wasn't actually on when I first created Pacis, so since I couldn't travel to Dantooine right away, I vendored my weapon and then walked around Tython a bit to see how far I could get without fighting anything. There were actually a couple of missions that I was able to do, such as the very first consular story quest to gather holocrons, and the side quest to visit the Twi'lek matriarch. Most of my XP had to come from simple exploration though.

Initially I was extremely paranoid about getting aggro on anything, but I soon realised that at least on the starter planet nothing really hurt very much. By the end I was happily charging through tunnels filled with hostiles twice my level and they would barely scratch me before I'd run far enough to get them to evade again.

I ran out of areas to explore by level five, but was still not allowed off the planet. I genuinely can't remember whether the ability to use the shuttle is gated by your class story or your level. The error messaging tied to that could certainly be more informative.

Anyway, I left it at that and waited for the Pirate Incursion event to come around again. Then I used the quick travel option in the activity finder to get to Dantooine and hid in a corner. The next time I logged back in the event was over and Pacis was able to explore in peace, only occasionally getting chased off by an Imperial spy or angry Kath Hound.

I was somewhat dismayed to find that the bonus mission to pet friendly Kath Hounds gives no XP, but of course I'm still doing it because why would anyone not do that one? However, I'm trying not to let the experience turn into a chore, so I'm not fretting about doing my two daily quests every single day. The goal is to slowly level up over time, and once the next Pirate Incursion comes around, to see if - being higher level - I end up being able to explore other planets and can find a few more non-combat quests to do. (The reason I want to wait until the next event is that without a ship of my own I won't be able to return to Dantooine otherwise.) I'll keep you posted about my progress.


PTS Adventures

I don't recall ever seeing as much excitement about the PTS as I've been seeing in the run-up to Onslaught. I don't know if it's just that I'm being exposed to more people talking about it now or whether is really is getting that much more attention, but the 6.0 PTS definitely feels different to previous public tests. I finally logged in myself the other night and was awed by the number of people just hanging out and messing around with the new gear on Odessen. It's not even like there was a special event going on or anything!

As none of the trooper/bounty hunter stuff was up for testing yet, I made do with a Sorcerer since I still consider my Sage my "main alt" and all the things we were being asked to test were Imperial only. From a healing point of view I wasn't sure what to make of the new set bonuses; the one I tried didn't really feel like it was affecting my play in any way. Of the three tactical items I saw for healing Sorcs so far, two unfortunately seemed pretty worthless due to how weak their effects were, but I made sure to say as much in the feedback thread on the PTS forum and am hopeful that Bioware will still tweak those numbers.

My guildies and I ran a master mode Hammer Station together since Bioware is apparently also changing the way level-syncing endgame content works. It did feel hard enough (the giant lobel Asteroid Beast wiped us twice as a certain someone spent way too much time goofing off), but apparently there's still a lot of tuning to be done on veteran mode and operations. Ajay on Twitter posted about suddenly being able to complete master mode Scum & Villainy in a pug in 25 minutes! Sounds scarily out of whack, but then again being able to take part in this kind of nonsense is precisely what makes it fun to play in a testing environment.

That said, I sure hope that Bioware will be able to gather enough data and take appropriate follow-up actions before Onslaught launches. We still haven't got an official release date for the expansion, but if they stick to their original September target, it's less than two months away now and public testing has only just started. Chuck and Brian said as much in the most recent episode of the Bad Feeling Podcast as well. I almost find myself hoping that the expansion will end up being delayed just to make sure that the devs actually have enough time to iron out all the kinks - looking at the current state of the PTS and thinking that this is what's supposed to go live in about six weeks or so doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.

Anyway, if you're interested in giving the public test server a try yourself, here's the official article on how it all works and what to look out for. Once the next phase goes live, there'll even be rewards you can earn for the live game by participating in testing, something that Bioware hasn't done in years and that I definitely wouldn't want to miss this time around. What can I say? Sometimes, bribery simply does work.


MMORPGs on TV: Dead Pixels

This past weekend I found out that there's a new-ish British television show about MMO players called "Dead Pixels". It first aired on Channel 4 this spring and was apparently successful enough that they already greenlit a second season. Since the first one is only six episodes long and available to watch online for free, I sat right down and went through all the available episodes on Sunday afternoon. I never understood why after the success of The Guild, nobody seemed to want to pick that idea up again and make it come to life somewhat more professionally, with a larger budget, to take it in front of a more mainstream audience.

One thing I immediately liked about Dead Pixels and which is probably my favourite aspect of the show is that it intersperses the actors doing their thing with animated bits showing their characters' actions in the fictional MMO "Kingdom Scrolls". One thing that always bugged me a little about the setup in The Guild was that all their avatars looked exactly like they did in real life, only with funny clothes on. Nobody practising a bit of wish-fulfilment or engaging in some experimentation? In Dead Pixels on the other hand, main character Meg plays an ugly hunchback in the game, and another character, Usman, plays a purple cat person. The animation is very simple and cartoony, but that doesn't detract from its charm.

The show is officially billed as a comedy, but the humour is... a mixed bag. There were some jokes that genuinely made me smile or even laugh, such as when Meg's co-worker Russell joins the game and the crew quickly gets exasperated with his wide-eyed sense of wonder and desire to have fun, or when Meg gets excited about watching a story cut-scene while Nicky is shown to be skipping through it all.

More often though, I simply found the jokes hugely cringe-worthy. For example in one episode, naive Russell invites a friend he made in game to his home without realising that said friend is only fourteen years old. The others joke that surely someone will call the police on him for being a child groomer - crass, but I could have lived with it as a one-off gag - but this then goes on and on, as in an increasingly unlikely sequence of events the awkwardness of the situation gets dialled up to eleven and the joke gets run into the ground. Apparently the show's creators are the same people who were responsible for Peep Show (for any British readers who might be familiar with that), so I guess I shouldn't have been entirely surprised, but I don't remember that show being quite so bad most of the time...

Anyway, I acknowledge that humour is entirely subjective, and other people might well find it hilarious throughout. At least many of the positive reviews I've come across said as much.

What ultimately left me feeling uncomfortable rather than satisfied by the end of the last episode though was the show's portrayal of gamers - which is ironic, considering that I also found an interview with the show's writer Jon Brown, in which it's stated that he wanted to demonstrate what gaming is really like and correct bad misconceptions about gamers. Unfortunately I fear that he may well have ended up doing the opposite: enforcing bad stereotypes.

Simply put, the show's main protagonist Meg is a massive asshole. (And to some extent her friend Nicky too.) I'm fine with characters having flaws and dark sides, but she genuinely just spends most of her time being horrible to people with little to no consequences, and that's a problem when we're supposed to be rooting for her. When Russell first joins the game, she and Nicky lure him into a cave where they club his character to death and steal all his stuff. She feels a little bit of remorse the next day, but this is quickly forgotten again as everyone immediately goes back to treating Russell like a nuisance.

Another episode starts with Meg stopping at a bus stop in real life to scream at a random woman for (in her eyes) looking like a fake gamer girl. She and Nicky also participate in a harassment campaign against an actor who is supposed to star in a Kingdom Scrolls movie and feel vindicated when he drops the role. In general, she keeps being horrible to Russell while also trying to use him for sex throughout. And so on and so forth...

There are moments where the characters show likeable traits and their humanity shines through in a good way, but unfortunately those are rare compared to all the bad stuff mentioned above. Mainly the show portrays gamers as angry, rude, socially inept, unable to differentiate between virtual and real world, and deeply cynical towards anyone who doesn't act like they do. Fortunately that is far removed from the reality of MMO gaming as I know it, but sadly a TV show like this is unlikely to do public perception of our geeky hobby any favours.

All that said, I'll still happily watch season two when it comes out (assuming I hear about it and actually remember to pay attention). The characters do show some growth throughout the series and I suppose one can hope that maybe in future episodes they'll actually become more likeable as a result. 


Master Mode Dread Council

Mine and my guildies' ambitions to knock out as many ops achievements as we can - before the coming expansion potentially makes the fights more difficult again - continue. The latest encounter to fall to our might was the Dread Council in Dread Palace on master mode. Unfortunately I didn't get a kill video of this one as I noticed halfway through the fight that my GeForce experience had unexpectedly stopped working, and then that very same attempt - which hadn't even felt all that great up to that point - unexpectedly turned into a kill.

The thing that made this fight particularly interesting to me is that it's one that I'd never even tried before we started working on it this time around, not even back when you could over-level the operation. I'm actually not sure why, as we did kill the first four bosses back then, but that's just how it worked out.

I also didn't really do any research on the fight or watched videos about just what was different compared to veteran mode, so I was utterly delighted the first time we reached the end of the phase with the two ghosts, when Styrak and Brontes did something totally new that they don't do on either of the two easier difficulties: they repeated additional mechanics from their solo fights in Scum/Dread Fortress. Specifically, Styrak does his "now you'll see real power" move where he grows big and you get surrounded by small copies of him that try to trap you, and Brontes summons little reaches that connect through deadly electrified beams just like she does during the first transition phase of her solo fight. I thought that was a great example of how you can make a nightmare mode fight feel different and exciting beyond just making everything more deadly, something that SWTOR hasn't traditionally been that great at.

As a healer, I didn't find the fight particularly interesting in terms of my role - the main challenge was spacial awareness, as the group has to spread out and move around a lot, so when death marks go out you have to be able to quickly run across the room to be in range of everyone you need to cleanse before they die.

That said, there is something fascinating about the fight when you watch it, which is why I'm actually a bit bummed out that I missed the opportunity to record our first kill. It's quite "dance-y" in some respects, but everyone has to do a different dance while making sure not to crash into anyone else. I always particularly enjoy watching the tank who has to handle Bestia solo run across the room like a headless chicken to get her debuff to drop off, just to then get punted all the way back to where they started. It helps to know that actually, their running isn't as random as it looks, as they have to make sure to keep a distance from the other bosses so that Bestia doesn't buff their damage, and they have to position themselves just right before the punt so that they don't go flying over the edge to their death.

Speaking of people falling to their deaths, you only die from fall damage if you're already on less than half health when you go over the edge, so every time a wipe was called it became a bit of a fun challenge to allow your health to get low enough so that you could jump off and die without incurring repair bills, but before the abilities of the masters themselves had a chance to kill you.

Also, for some arcane reason related to how it's programmed, we soon learned that every set of Brontes' reaches that spawns gives 625 Conquest points when it disappears again. I've never counted, but I think you get at least a dozen spawns throughout the phase, if not more, which meant that each attempt that at least saw us through the reaches phase (even if some people died in the process) gave a huge boost to our guild's Conquest total. Not something you can easily farm specifically for Conquest gains, but it softened the blow of each wipe to know that we'd at least contributed something to the guild in the process anyway.

Oh, and when the masters finally died they dropped a cybernetic rancor mount, which was won by one of our tanks. Looks pretty spiffy!


Happy Blaugust!

It's the first of August, which means that it's once again time for Blaugust, the "2019 Festival of Blogging" as organiser Belghast called it this year.

In short, it's a community event for content creators (not just bloggers anymore), encouraging them to be loud and proud of what they do, so that people can share ideas, give each other encouragement, find new audiences and expand their own horizons. Most of the participants focus on talking about gaming, but there are no real limits on the subject matter.

You can find out more about how it all works here, simply see a list of all the participating blogs with links to them here if you just want to browse other people's contributions, or start chatting with like-minded folks on Discord or Twitter (contact info also included in the two previous links).

I fear that my own contributions will be limited this time simply because I'll be on holiday for part of the month, but I still signed up as a participant just to spread the good vibes. At the risk of sounding overly touchy-feely, for me interacting with fellow bloggers and long-time commenters gives me more of a community feeling than any social media platform: I may have very limited knowledge of their personal lives, but I look forward to reading their thoughts every day and have had ongoing exchanges with some of them for close to a decade now. I guess it's like the virtual equivalent of going down to the pub and hanging out with the regulars, just for those of us who are couch potatoes and/or don't like alcohol.

Anyway, the point is that there's always room for more, so if you've ever thought about putting yourself out there or reviving a project gone dormant, Blaugust is a great time to do so.