20/08/2017

Finding Challenge While Levelling

After I finished replaying the Imperial agent story the other week, I made it my next levelling goal to finally finish my second playthrough of the Jedi knight story. The poor Sentinel I've been using for this purpose has been picked up and dropped again more often than a bouncy ball - originally created in May 2014, she only hit level 40 the other week. However, I think she might finally be getting somewhere, having finished her class story on Belsavis yesterday.

An interesting side effect of the haphazard way in which I've played her in the past is that she's only just high enough level for her class story and by this point actually slightly under-levelled. And boy, does this ever make for an interesting experience. I previously touched on this when I spoke about levelling my Sniper for the DvL event last year purely through the class story, but I thought at this point it probably deserved a post of its own.

I'm generally in favour of the level sync introduced in 4.0, but I was not a fan of how much easier the levelling game became at the same time, and I've been unwilling to blame that purely on level sync alone. Surely Bioware also must have reduced all the mobs' hitpoints at the same time or something? Honestly, at this point I'm not so sure anymore, because not being synced is such a different experience it's almost unreal.

Above anything else, gear actually matters. I don't know how the algorithm behind it works, but purely based on experience I'm confident in saying that levels trump gear any time. If you are over-levelled and being synced down, it doesn't matter if you're still wearing the greens from the starter planet, you'll be noticeably more powerful than your opponents. But if you're actually the same level... oh wow.

My Sentinel is wearing some very old weapons in specific, and it's amazing how long it takes me to kill anything. And I'm loving it! It's even more noticeable than it was with my Sniper, because with that one I ran with my companion as dps, so even if my own damage was low, my companion was still killing things reasonably quickly. My Sentinel on the other hand has her companion usually set to heals, so while she's pretty much never in danger of dying, combat is a much slower affair. You may be wondering how exactly this is supposed to be a good thing - well, let me count the ways:

With weak mobs not automatically dying in one or two hits, even they can be interesting to fight. If I get a crit that does kill the mob outright, it feels exciting. If I use one of those abilities that stuns weak mobs on top of doing damage, I actually notice it and it makes a difference.


Silvers actually have enough health for me to practise my rotation. And I don't mean that in a "high-end-raider practising on a target dummy" kind of way, though I suppose you could do that too. I actually have no idea what the optimal rotation for my class and spec is supposed to be, but I'm at least learning a little. Because abilities come off cooldown several times during a single battle, I notice how they can be woven together in different ways, and I'm reminded that hey, I should remember to use that one more often because it gives me a noticeable damage boost. It's fun and engaging. Gold mobs take it up another notch and almost feel like mini boss battles, which is how I remember them from the early game.

I also get to practise different strategies on different mob groups. For example when I encounter a silver and several weak mobs together, it makes sense to kill the weak ones first, right? Except... since I'm playing a dot spread spec, I sometimes focus on the silver instead and then hope that the weak mobs will die from the spread damage in the meantime. It doesn't always work, but it's fun to try.

I suppose if you didn't have your companion set to heal, there would also be a more serious risk of dying. The only time I've died recently was when I accidentally drove right into the middle of an Imperial base and got mowed down by the defense turrets. But I did come close another time when I accidentally sent my active companion off on a crew skill task and suddenly found myself in combat with an Ackley and another mob with no companion by my side. I scrambled for my cooldowns and to quickly find a medpack in my bag (I'm so used to not needing them that I hadn't even put one on my bar) but just about made it through. It felt quite exhilarating.

It does make me a little sad to think that this side of the game is unlikely to be seen by many players these days because it's just so easy to over-level content. The only reason my Sentinel is where she is is because I've done almost nothing but the class story on her since 4.0, plus a couple of PvP matches here or there. My Sniper managed to stay on track by doing only her class story plus full map exploration on every planet. If you did the planetary story arcs on top of that, or even a flashpoint or two, you'd already be likely to overshoot your target again.

It shouldn't be this hard to find a bit of challenge while levelling a new character. I don't mind that people can have it easy, but it would be nice if the experience was a bit more granular, with level sync and overpowered companions not being quite so overbearing by default. I mean, the levelling experience I'm describing in this post isn't even "hard"; as I said I'm rarely in danger of dying. But it gives me a chance to actually take in the mobs around me and what my abilities do to them, instead of just blindly AoE-ing my way through multi-mob packs and killing the large opponents in a few hits.

16/08/2017

Iokath Story Thoughts

Back in April my first impression of the Iokath storyline was that it was "okay": It had some good pieces of dialogue, but felt lacklustre overall. When I finally replayed it this past weekend, the latter aspect stood out to me much more this time, and I wanted to write down some thoughts on it. In case you couldn't guess: that means that this post will contain spoilers for Iokath.

The thing I already criticised back in April was that the whole "superweapon" shtick doesn't make much sense because absolutely nothing seems to be known about it. I could understand the factions chasing after something they knew to be powerful, but it doesn't make sense that they all charged in full force based on nothing more than an anonymous tip-off that there was a superweapon of some sort, oh, right over there, somewhere. It's not like vague, anonymous tip-offs are ever wrong or even a setup for a trap, right?

I'm also not convinced the connection to the operation was done in the best possible way. Personally I don't mind story tie-ins, and I've had comments on this blog from people who described having experienced them as positive in the past, e.g. because the Oricon quest to do Dread Fortress introduced them to raiding and they actually found it quite fun. But the way it was done here just felt kind of lacklustre - after all the fuss about superweapons, are the gods from the machine important now or not? Pretty much the moment Iokath was released I saw people freak out on Twitter about stupid Bioware "forcing" them to raid in order to see the story, but there is no story in there right now. The mission from the Scions just tells you to enter the operation, and that's it. You kill some bosses and leave again. Maybe it will make more sense once the whole thing has been released. But if there is supposed to be some sort of story thread to the operation as well, then the piecemeal release of the bosses certainly hasn't helped it.


However, my biggest issue with Iokath is the treatment of Malcolm and Acina. Here we finally have a reason to split the story into two different versions for the Republic and the Empire again... and they play out pretty much identical regardless of which faction you side with. We've come a long way (and not in a good direction) since Shadow of Revan, when Bioware first unified the story for both factions but at least still tried to mix things up by making the cut scenes and dialogue for each one play out slightly differently. Worse, two strong and important NPCs are killed off without much fanfare (well, one of them is, depending on your choice) - it's like Darth Malgus all over again.

Despite of my strong affiliation with the Republic, Jace Malcolm is the one whose (potential) death I'm less hung up about. We never really got to know him very well in game, so it just feels like a bit of a waste, but at the same time his actions don't exactly feel "wrong" because we didn't have enough points of comparison for how he should be acting. And while his loss must surely be a blow to the Republic, at the end of the day he's "just" a soldier and will be replaced.

Now, Darth Acina on the other hand... I feel the story just did her a grave injustice here. The whole Outlander arc made it pretty clear that she managed to survive and even seize power when so many other Sith died or scattered due to being a cautious opportunist who was able to swallow her pride when needed. The whole of KotET chapter two is about how she stands for a slightly different (more humble and quiet) kind of Sith, and while out in the jungle she talks about how she never really gets to go out and into the thick of things because she has to stay behind and steer things from the safety of the shadows.

So why in the world does she have to go to Iokath personally when she already has capable people on the ground and doing the work for her? Why does she have to spearhead the crucial attack herself and risk her life by linking up with a piece of dangerous alien technology? I suppose you can't rule out that she had a sudden lapse of judgement, but it just feels so out of character. And of course what's supposed to happen if the Empress of the Sith is suddenly dead? You can't tell me that the power vacuum created by such an event isn't going to change the way the Sith Empire is run going forward.

There is a certain irony here: People have often complained that the choices we get to make in the story don't feel meaningful, but here we have one that should by all means be extremely meaningful... but it's made in such an off-hand way that it's pretty impossible to imagine Bioware having fully accounted for believable consequences.

All in all, I'm left with a lot of uncertainty about how the story is going to continue going forward. I was initially really hyped about the idea of getting to return to the Republic/Empire conflict, because to me that's part of what Star Wars is all about - I never felt as attached to Zakuul and the Alliance. But the current setup doesn't give me anything to look forward to. At least on Iokath, Republic and Empire continue to be treated as playing second fiddle to the Alliance, and are portrayed as uninteresting and same-y. Where's the fun in that?

I suppose the Alliance will remain the main issue going forward. If it was up to me, I'd be happy for it to be disbanded, with my characters just returning to their old factions and helping them rebuild. But I realise that many players feel differently and this direction would be a very hard sell for them. After being commander of a whole faction, why would you just give that up? And you can bet that if Bioware makes us somehow lose the Alliance, enforcing a story direction that causes it to fall apart, there will be hell to pay. It kinda feels like they've manoeuvred themselves into a corner, and I'm curious how they will try to get out of it, but also worried that it will be unpleasant in some way.

What do you think?

[Recently there have been story spoilers for upcoming updates going around that were found by dataminers. If you know any of these and they somehow relate to what I discussed in this post, I would kindly ask you to refrain from posting them in the comments as I have so far managed to successfully avoid them.]

10/08/2017

700 Posts!

Once again I get to celebrate the milestone of having written another 100 posts on this blog, bringing the total up to 700! The tradition on this sort of occasion has been to look at Google Analytics and to pick out any funny and/or interesting search terms that led people to the blog since the previous celebration. Unfortunately, as I already mentioned last time, GA is willing to divulge fewer and fewer of the search terms that led people to the site, and at this point I'm up to literally more than 99% of them showing up as "not set" or "not provided", which unfortunately doesn't leave me with enough material for an entertaining post.

I will have to think of a good long-term replacement for this, but for the time being I'll simply take a page out of Calphy's book, who incidentally celebrated his own blog's third birthday the other day and used it as an opportunity to look back at what have been his most-viewed posts in terms of numbers. I've never done that before, so why not? Here they are, according to Blogger:

1. How to Successfully LFG in SWTOR (2014) - 9107 views

I don't often write guides, and not just because I rarely feel an urge to do so, but also because most of the time, by the time the question of whether to share my knowledge about something might even come up for me, there are usually already plenty of good guides on the subject out there. How many guides to "how to get all the Tatooine datacrons" do we need anyway?

But every now and then, something will pop up and cause me to frown when I realise that it obviously confuses a lot of people but for some reason nobody has bothered to explain it properly yet. How to find groups in SWTOR is one of those things - it's not something I've ever struggled with myself, but it was in fact while going through my Google search terms for one of these celebratory posts that I noticed that quite a lot of them were about "how to lfg" or variations thereof.

Some of the information in that post is still useful today, but other bits are quite outdated, which is why I felt the need to release a version updated for 2017 last month.

2. How to use SWTOR's LFG system and /who (2012) - 7909 views

This was a sort of predecessor to the above post, in which I felt the need to address the people who were complaining about having trouble finding groups shortly after SWTOR's launch (before it had an automated group finder) by basically explaining to them how to put a group together the old-fashioned way. I sincerely hope that the high view count for this post is a result of the game's popularity at launch and that people aren't still finding my instructions on how to use /who in 2017.

3. "Should I play SWTOR?" A review after ten months. (2012) - 5025 views

I can see why this one got a lot of views, because the question of what an MMO is like after the launch hype has died down is always interesting to people but only becomes more and more difficult to answer over time as fewer and fewer sites talk about the game from the point of view of a new player who knows nothing about it.

It's kind of funny to me that most of that review still holds true nearly five years later. Except for the bit about there being no "fluff". There's plenty of that in the cash shop in particular, and there are many players nowadays who love to focus on collecting stuff and playing Space Barbie.

4. Bioware Answers Some Questions About Flashpoints: An Interview With Michael Backus (2016) - 4579 views

This was the only thing I've done so far which I would qualify as something a "proper" fan site would do, as in actually engage with the devs and try to increase communication between them and the community. When I finally had the interview ready to post after literally months of pestering Musco about it (bless him), I was super proud and promoted the heck out of it, linking it on reddit, the official forums and anywhere else I could think of. I'd be bloody disappointed if it wasn't on this list!

5. The Art of Achieving Map Completion (2014) - 4231 views

This is another guide that wasn't even really meant to be a guide but kind of turned into one while I relayed my experiences about working on the Galactic Explorer achievement. I can see why there probably aren't many other guides on the subject because it's a bit difficult to write a guide for... where do you even start? Everyone will be missing different parts of the map! I compromised by giving a general explanation of how to best find out where you need to go if you are puzzled by which part of the map you're still missing and by providing more detailed instructions for a couple of zones that had initially stumped me.

6. YouTube Link Love (2012) - 4181 views

I'm honestly not sure why this one is on this list. I mean, yes, it provided links to a couple of SWTOR videos at a time when SWTOR content on YouTube was still relatively sparse, but none of them were even that great. The post never received a single comment either! I think it's something about the post title that must have attracted generic searches about YouTube at some point.

7. Solo Flashpoints - Good or Bad Idea? (2015) - 3798 views

I'm honestly not sure why this opinion piece is on this list, as I don't consider it one of my best and I didn't even come to any real conclusion in it either, though I suppose the question of what differentiates flashpoints from other repeatable quests when you can do them both in a group or solo remains a pertinent one. I suspect that more than a few people might have ended up finding this post when solo modes for flashpoints were first introduced, trying to find out more about how they work and which flashpoints even have them. Sorry, this post doesn't tell you that.

8. The Group Content I Miss The Most (2016) - 3403 views

The reason this opinion piece has so many views is because I actually went and linked it on reddit myself. I'm not exactly sure what brought on this madness at the time, considering that the SWTOR subreddit can be quite harsh on fan content creators, but I was lucky and this post was fairly well-received. I also still stand by everything I said in it. Where is the amazing storytelling experience you used to provide for groups, Bioware? *insert hurt and accusing glare here*

9. The Best Classes to Take into KotFE / KotET (2017) - 2730 views

This post from earlier this year was a bit of a surprise hit, mostly because someone else decided to link it on reddit. I think some people may also be finding it through Google though, as the question of what class is best to jump into the new story is certainly interesting for players returning from a long absence or those who might be considering jumping into the game for the first time while making use of a high-level character token. Some redditors disagreed quite strongly with my low ranking of the Imperial agent, but I stand by that so far. Commenter Sullas was totally right that I should have made the Sith inquisitor number one though!

10. The Missing Companions (2016) - 2726 views

This post from last year was another surprise hit of sorts, as it's neither a guide nor does it provide any particularly deep insights. I don't think it ever got attention from being linked anywhere either. It's just evident that a lot of people care about the companions that have disappeared in KotFE and want to know when they'll be back. Some players who may have been away from the game for a while may even make their return dependent on whether their favourite companion is already back or not, but how are they to know other than from other people telling them? These are the sorts of burning questions that lead people to this post I guess, and unfortunately it only has limited answers.

If you've read all of these before, I can only congratulate and thank you for being such a loyal and dedicated reader! If not, maybe you've found one or two interesting reads for the evening. Onwards to the next 100!

07/08/2017

Character or Legacy?

Last week, Keith announced on the forums that Bioware is planning to make a lot more currencies legacy-wide in the near future, which will even include credits. Ted and I talked about this on the podcast, and as I said there, my main reaction to this news was mostly curiosity because I'd quite like to find out just how many credits I have spread out across my legacy. But what was even more interesting to me was to read players' reactions to the announcement. Mostly they were positive, but a few people were grousing about losing another piece of their characters' individuality. Others immediately clamoured for Bioware to make even more things account- or legacy-wide, including social rank, valor rank and more.

I think it's interesting to ask why we want certain things to be legacy- or account-wide but not others. As a general rule, I'm probably more in favour of limiting a character's achievements to that one character than most.

First off, there is immersion. I can already hear some of you groan at the mere mention of the word. It seems to have fallen out of fashion to care about a virtual world's internal consistency unless you're a roleplayer, but I do. People always love to bring up random game features that aren't immersive while arguing that therefore nobody is allowed to care about anything being immersive. But immersion isn't a binary switch, it's a continuum, and just because there are aspects of any given game that work against feeling immersed, that doesn't mean that I don't care about having others that allow me to perceive the virtual world as more "real".

As a general rule, focusing on the player behind the keyboard instead of the characters works against immersion. Of course, everyone draws the line in different places. For example I've never had an issue with characters trading gear. SWTOR's legacy system in particular also supports this lore-wise because your characters are supposed to have a connection to each other. But when I last dipped my toes into World of Warcraft during its Mists of Pandaria expansion for example, I was rather put off by the way pets and mounts had been unified into account-wide UI panels. Being able to pull out the rare bear mount I had once earned on my troll priest on my almost newborn worgen just felt wrong.

But immersion aside, there is another important benefit to limiting certain things to individual characters: being able to start over. If I just had a ton of fun levelling a character to 70, I can go right back to the character creation screen and roll up another one, starting the journey all over again. Imagine if levels were legacy-wide, and once you'd hit max-level, any alts you created automatically started at max level too. I imagine some people would even like that idea! But I would find it abhorrent. Starting over from scratch is one of the great joys in an MMO for me, and immediately having things marked as "done" on every new character limits my options. To be honest that's also my only slight reservation about the legacy-wide credits: It means that if I ever want to feel like a nobody who has to earn every credit again, I basically need to re-roll on another server, because any new character in my existing legacy will automatically have a bulging wallet that will be hard to ignore.

With that in mind, I cannot help but read most requests to make this or that feature legacy-wide as the poster saying: "This might have been fun the first time, but like hell do I ever want to do it again." That's certainly the impression I got when datacrons were made legacy-wide for example. I kind of have mixed feelings about that to this day. On the one hand I can't deny that it's made it faster and easier to level alts without feeling like you need to detour for this kind of stuff or miss out on something important. On the other hand, I pretty much never do datacrons anymore. My guild used to host datacron hunting events fairly regularly, and they were interesting to both new and old players because even if you'd gotten them all on your main, there was almost always an alt or two that didn't have them yet and would benefit. Nowadays anyone who's been playing for any amount of time has got most datacrons at some point and - since they are legacy-wide - never needs to do them again. There is no incentive to help out those who are new to the game and might still need them. I find that kind of sad.

So most of the time when I read requests to make this or that legacy-wide, I can't help but read them like this: Make GSF legacy-wide please! - I hate it and I want to know that once I max out my ships once, I'm done and will never have to think about it again. Make social rank legacy-wide please! - I just want the social rewards on all my alts without ever having to run another flashpoint again. Make valor rank legacy-wide please! - I don't want to have to spend time PvPing on yet another character just to get that cool title; it's such a horrible grind. And so on and so forth. If you enjoy a given type of content, repeating it on alts is fun, and making it legacy-wide to discourage repetition is basically giving in to those who say they don't like it and don't want to feel like they "have to" ever do it again.

That said, there have definitely been times when I felt like making something legacy-wide has been a good thing. For example I really liked the way you could trade warzone commendations among characters pre-5.0. This wasn't about spending less time in PvP, but about redistributing resources from characters who had more than they knew what to do with to those who still needed to buy gear. Likewise, making the new Umbara currency that has been talked about by the devs legacy-wide sounds like a good thing to me because if you can use it to buy a stronghold and strongholds are legacy-wide anyway, why shouldn't different characters be able to pool their resources to work on it together?

Unfortunately, there is no single right answer here. For example I could see someone arguing that the requests to make GSF legacy-wide also fall into the second category, because it's about having your characters share their fully kitted-out ships. But I think that levelling up in GSF can be a fun activity by itself (though I'm sure many would disagree) and something that should be preserved for the individual character.

Where do you fall on the spectrum of wanting things to be bound to character vs. bound to legacy (or even account)?

04/08/2017

Pugging with Shintar: July Update

I know it's August now but this is mostly about videos recorded in July. I thought I would give another update on how my Pugging with Shintar series is progressing for those who aren't subscribed to my YouTube channel (and at this rate, I really need to give these posts their own tag).


Episode 7: Defying the Randomiser - After getting Hammer Station for the third time in six episodes, I decided that while repetition had been fine while I was simply writing about adventures like these, in the video format redoing the same flashpoint over and over again was simply boring and rubbish. As a result, I cut down the run to a few key scenes in the video and then queued again with every flashpoint I'd already done unselected from the group finder list. This time I got Athiss, which was at least something new.

Episode 8: Sneaking Through Red Reaper - I decided to start doing the intros on Nar Shaddaa while the Nightlife Event is running and after a commenter reminded me that I could use the heroic quick travel to get there even without a ship. Forcing the group finder to always give me something new from now on, I ended up in Red Reaper, a place known for its nightmarish trash pulls at the start. Of course since I knew and talked about those, I ended up with a rock-solid group that had no trouble with anything whatsoever and managed to skip even more pulls than usual. In Red Reaper I've never minded because there is no bonus anyway.

Episode 9: Cheerful Musings in Korriban Incursion - After the previous episode I realised that out of sheer habit, I had been uploading these in a lower resolution than I actually use to record, so this episode brought an improvement in video quality as I finally made some adjustments. Korriban Incursion made me particularly talkative because there are so many connections to the Sith starter quests - though I wasn't beyond making mistakes when trying to recall them from memory. I oddly enjoy correcting myself via text overlays while editing the footage later.

Episode 10: An Unlucky Gunslinger in KDY - Finally I got the story quest for Kuat Drive Yards out of my log, after having had it there since level 15 or so. A gunslinger asked early on whether he could do the "rescue ten prisoners" achievement if we got the prison cell scenario, and everyone enthusiastically agreed... but this is a pug, you can already guess how it went.

Episode 11: Sentinel Silliness in Battle of Rishi - I was late with recording this episode due to real life distractions and recorded it on a weekday after work, feeling like I was going to fall asleep at any moment. Oddly enough, this made me even chattier than usual, and I ended up in a group with three sentinels, which I considered very humorous. Also, I enjoyed ranting about Battle of Rishi's wasted potential like I already did in a blog post once here.

Episode 12: Businesslike in Czerka Corporate Labs - After a slightly chaotic start, this flashpoint became quickly dominated by a scantily-clad Commando who was eager to push forward no matter what, clearly thinking that she didn't need the rest of the group. I couldn't fault her ability, but I also couldn't help highlighting it as another type of behaviour that I'm personally not super fond of in my pug groups.

01/08/2017

Shintar Goes (Has Gone) Podcasting - Again!

Despite of having been a slightly scary prospect initially, my appearance on Corellian Run Radio earlier in the year was an all-around positive experience and I have to admit that I actually found myself wondering lately whether I might want to repeat it some time.

Life has a way of being uncanny sometimes, and just one day after I'd listened to another episode of the SOTOR podcast and found myself thinking that Ted (the host) would be a nice guy to talk to, I found a message from him in my inbox asking me if I wanted to join him for his next episode. Woohoo!

As Ted is a swift editor, the episode is already available for download two days after we recorded it.
When a guildie asked me what we'd been talking about on the show, I said "everything" - it did feel like we managed to go through a staggering amount of subjects, the most important of which Ted mentioned on the episode page.

On it, he also refers to my pugging videos as a "popular video series", bless him! That's a very... optimistic way of talking about a show that gets about 30 views per episode, haha! Maybe I will gain a few more viewers now after basically getting a free plug on the show.

I can only try to return the favour and strongly advise you to check out the SOTOR podcast if you haven't already. I think it's still one of the lesser known podcasts about the game, probably because it's still relatively young (the one-year anniversary is coming up soon) and Ted mostly runs it as a one-man-show, so there are fewer people to spread the word. I kind of think that makes it all the more impressive though that he's managed to keep churning out updates as regularly as he has, considering that he has no co-hosts to put psychological pressure on him! He just really loves talking about the game. Good thing he's fun to listen to as well.