22/04/2018

The Point of Conquest

One of the nice things about having a blog is that you get to look back on what you thought about events years ago without having to purely rely on your potentially fuzzy memory. Unlike the way our brain remembers things, the written word doesn't change over time. So when the recent Conquest changes were implemented, I went back to see what I had thought about the system when it was first introduced back in late 2014. (Gosh, has it really been that long?) I had completely forgotten that my first reaction could pretty much be summed up as: "This is quite fun but I'm not entirely sure what's the point."

Since then I've been trying to consider the Conquest changes from that angle: the system's purpose in the game and how the changes potentially reflect an attempt to change - or at least adjust - the reasons people might participate in Conquest.

For the record, I'm still having a pretty good time with it myself. My guild has hit its small yield target every week so far, and once we even went for medium yield and managed to hit that, though it took more than the normal effort to do so.


The way I see it, Conquest was always meant to fulfil two purposes:

1) To give people something to do, on an individual level. Some would call this a pointless grind, but I prefer to see it as an offer of structure for those who enjoy their time in the game in general but find it hard to regularly choose among all the different activities on offer. When in doubt, you can do something that will also earn you some Conquest points.

2) To give guilds as entities something to do beyond chatting and raiding, something that can be both collaborative and competitive (by inviting comparison with other guilds).

The thing that immediately struck me about point one the moment I thought about it is that this is one of the main purposes of Galactic Command as well. And I suspect that this probably presented a problem from a dev point of view: What's the point of having two systems that are so similar? The main difference is that Galactic Command doesn't become available until max level and is limited to subscribers, but aside from that they've both been largely about running X flashpoints or completing Y warzones to earn points to fill a bar that's worth a box of goodies at the end.

So now my theory is that this is part of why they reduced the points granted by repeatable activities so drastically: Galactic Command allows you to earn your points in whichever way you like, so in order to make Conquest different they had to change it so that you wouldn't just automatically hit your goal from doing the same activities you were already doing for Galactic Command. Instead you have to plan and/or mix it up a bit.

The new system doesn't actually make it hard to hit your target on your first character - in fact one of the recent events had me hit my target faster than I'd ever done it before, in a single night: Two operations were featured as one-time goals worth 7,500 points each (with maxed out stronghold bonus), so my guild ran both of those on story mode in one evening - and boom, that was my personal target of 15k points achieved. But you do have to actually look at which activities are featured that week and consider which ones are the most rewarding for your time investment.

That said, there are still similarities between GC and Conquest, and I think that's part of why I've been enjoying it as much as I have: I embraced Galactic Command after it had gone through a sufficient number of iterations and actually got loads of characters to 300... but I've reached a point now where I'm finding it hard to care because I have almost no level 70s left that aren't Command rank 300. Sure, I could always level up more, but... meh. Just then new Conquest arrived to save the day and provide me with something similar but different to hold my attention.

I feel like Conquest's purpose for guilds is a bit trickier to unpack. My first thought was that the removal of the invasion bonus has de-emphasised the importance of being in a guild to do Conquest, but there is more going on than that.

It seems to me that in the past, Conquest was always meant to be more competitive than collaborative, because while it required working together, all your hard work and team spirit would come to naught if you weren't competitive enough to make it into the top ten. On the surface, the introduction of small, medium and large yield planets should have supported the competitive aspects of the system by making the competition more "fair" by pitting guilds of similar size against each other, but that's clearly not working. (Seriously, everyone just seems to go for small yield except for some confused people whose guilds score like 20k points in total and I'm not sure what they were expecting to achieve by invading the large yield planet.)

You almost have to wonder whether Bioware themselves had doubts about whether this would work or not, because at the same time the yield system makes competition a lot less important and makes it all about collaboration instead. Oh well, so you didn't win first place, but at least everyone still got their prize, right?

However, looking at the personal targets again, a lot of the changes there seem to be geared towards making competition between guilds more fair. The big crafting nerf was one. As I already wrote three years ago, the previous iteration was just ridiculously overpowered. Logging in for five minutes a day to craft would earn you more points than actually playing the game all day, and that was just silly. More importantly though, it allowed guild members to make wildly different contributions to the shared goal. The last few times when my guild placed on the board under the old system were pretty much down to one or two people crafting goods worth several millions (!) of points each. And I'm not knocking their efforts - I was grateful for the free ride, but it wasn't exactly a case of everyone coming together in a big display of team spirit. It meant that for many guilds competing for first place on the board basically came down to how many selected members could burn the most credits on crafting in the shortest amount of time, which wasn't really meant to be the point.

I suspect that the changes to objectives, with their move away from repeatable activities towards more one-time objectives is also related to this, because it means that there are basically "diminishing returns" as you try to bring up more alts. It can be done, but for the sake of guild competitiveness it makes more sense to have as many individuals as possible contributing, instead of being able to rely on three guys who play all day and have an army of alts.

tl;dr:

The conquest changes make sense if the devs' goal was to distinguish the system more clearly from Galactic Command and to make it more about people successfully working together as a group instead of a few rich/dedicated individuals carrying everyone else to victory.

I think the main problem it has right now is that the competitive aspect is kind of standing on wobbly legs because the yield system is so not working out as a way to make competition more fair. That, and that some points values even for one-time objectives seem seriously out of whack in terms of effort vs. reward. I also agree with Intisar that they could add some more one-time objectives to give people more choice in terms of how to achieve their personal target without making it too easy to farm points on a dozen alts (I love operations but they feel a bit over-represented at the moment for example - need more one-time goals related to things like warzones, GSF etc.). I'm sure that all of these things are still being looked at, however.

18/04/2018

Unexpectedly Dangerous

This week's conquest gave me an incentive to revisit the Rakghoul Tunnels on my main for the first time in years.

After running around a bit, I wanted to return to the Republic base, so I tried to get up the little ledge that separates the base from the rest of the tunnel system via the magnetic grappling hook installed there.

First click: Nothing happens.

Second click: It pulls me up, but traps me inside the wall above the hook. I use /stuck to free myself, but it puts me back down at the bottom.

Third click: It pulls me up and traps me inside the rock again, but now /stuck is on cooldown. Hey, maybe travelling to my stronghold and back will free me! I think, feeling very clever, and indeed I'm able to port to my home on Coruscant.

Then I click on "return to Rakghoul Tunnels"... and this happens:


I spawn inside the rock wall again, but dead.

At least that gave me the option to return to the medcenter inside the base, which is where I had wanted to go all along. It's funny because I remember these tunnels being dangerous on occasion, but not in that way...

15/04/2018

Companion Returns: Andronikos, Ashara, Corso & Risha

I'm slowly continuing my goal of chipping away at KotET on more classes to be able to see the new companion returns. Having recently made it there on both my Scoundrel and my Sorcerer, I wanted to share some thoughts.

The spoiler-free version is that they were all disappointingly short, similar to the Arcann romance. I had expected something more in line with the class story snippets on Rishi, or the missions that some of your original companions give you while levelling that briefly have you visiting a planet. Instead it's just all talk again. I guess at least I know what to expect from future returns now.

I can't help but get the impression that Bioware just wants to get these companion returns over and done with. Since whatever original plans they may have had to reintroduce the old companions during a longer story consisting of more chapters were shelved, they are now left with this annoying deficit in players' companion rosters that people just won't stop asking about. Regardless of whether it fits into their new story plans, they've got to get it out of the way somehow. Oh well, at least they are trying.

What follows will contain some spoilers for the individual return missions. Spoilers end again after the screenshot of Ashara!


Corso & Risha

The quest title "Unhappy Returns" seemed apt for this one, because I wasn't particularly happy with it. It probably didn't help that this was the first one I did, which meant that my expectations in terms of length were still higher.

It starts with you receiving a message from "Skavak" and your character following a little trail of call-backs to chapter one of your class story on Nar Shaddaa. That was nice by itself, but it seemed strange to me that my character entered the final room on high alert and with her weapon out - she knows that Skavak is dead, so who else could have been leading her on than one of her old crew mates?

Both Corso and Risha basically seem to have achieved nothing in the six years or so since you were forcefully separated from them. Risha's excuse is that Dubrillion was pretty much razed by the Eternal Empire so everyone stopped caring about it and she then continued leading a nondescript underworld life instead. I get that this was an exceptionally difficult companion arc to bring to a satisfying conclusion, but nonetheless this felt like a poor way of doing so to me. After all that she's gone through, Risha is willing to just give up on her heritage because the planet is in ruins? I didn't get the impression that she was in it only to get rich; I thought she cared about the position and the people too. I'm not going to say that this is out of character exactly, but it just didn't mesh with my image of her.

Meanwhile Corso has just been... tagging along and being Corso. Seriously, no further character development in six years? He may have been a bit of a dork, but he also used to have values, principles and goals. Again, it just strikes me as odd that he would have been happy spending six years tagging along with a woman who doesn't even particularly like him. Maybe there is more to either of these if you romanced Corso or Risha (which wasn't the case for my smuggler).


Andronikos

Hylo has captured a pirate that was harassing Eternal Fleet ships - and lo and behold, it turns out to be Andronikos, who claims that he's been doing this for all these years in search of your inquisitor.

I liked this one a bit more, maybe because my Sorcerer had romanced Andronikos. I genuinely had to think about rekindling the romance with him, as she had started a thing with Theron in the meantime. In the end I decided in his favour though because spending six years in search of her seemed like incredible loyality (something that a light-side inquisitor in particular would value), even if somewhat hard to believe in itself.

Ashara

You find Ashara meditating on Voss, where she tells you that she's intentionally spent the last few years away, doing good in her own name, and that she basically considers herself all grown up now. You can take her on "as an equal" or leave her.

Again, this one was actually interesting to me because I had to hesitate to make up my mind. I've ranted in the past about how I think Ashara has one of the stupidest acquisition stories of all companions, which potentially (depending on the exact path you take) makes her out to be a complete idiot. If I had been given the chance, none of my inquisitors would even have taken her on. However, once you have her... she's alright I guess. Still, telling her that she might as well continue to go her own way hardly seemed like a cruel rejection. And accepting her as an equal seemed a silly thing to do for the inquisitor of all people. I did go with that in the end however, figuring that my Sorc would probably be happy to add a more powerful Ashara to her Alliance army, while inwardly chuckling to herself about how the silly girl could ever consider herself an equal to a Force user of her level...


Of these three stories, I think I liked Ashara's best, even though she's my least favourite companion of the lot. I liked that she went her own way in a meaningful manner and actually had a compelling reason to stay away even after learning of the inquisitor's return and rise to power.

I suppose I'm biased as I'm coming at this from the point of view of someone who's engaged in few romances in this game. I get the impression that many who are very attached to their romanced companions want to see them come back and be all: "I've been looking for you forever, my life was nothing without you!" (which is kind of how Andronikos comes across), and I can definitely see the appeal. At the same time though, when I think about my own life, look back at any major event in it and then compare my life then to how it was six years later - things always turned out to be very different, with things having changed a lot and me having moved on. Now, not everyone works like that, and I can definitely see some companions getting hung up on their romance with the player character and being unable to let go, but if you didn't actually romance them it just makes them look like somewhat creepy stalkers. "We were barely even friends, why the hell didn't you just move on?" But I guess I'm probably in the minority with that attitude.

Knowing what's coming up, I'll have to work on finishing things up on my agent, bounty hunter and consular next!

11/04/2018

Story Gating

Telwyn has been playing a bit of Final Fantasy XIV recently, making use of a promotion that granted him some free game time, and summed up his experiences of both the good and the bad in two recent posts. One of the negative points he mentioned was that too many of the game's features are gated behind having to complete its main storyline (for his liking anyway), in this particular case expansion content that you're not allowed to access until you've done a certain amount of "the old stuff", though I also remember seeing people complain about much earlier gates like this before, such as not being able to buy a mount until a certain point in the story.

I've never played a Final Fantasy game myself, and from what I've read about it it doesn't really sound like my cup of tea either, but as a SWTOR player I still find its approach to story very fascinating, as there seems to be a certain amount of common ground between the two MMOs when it comes to the importance given to story within the context of the game. I don't know whether being this strict in terms of questing requirements is necessarily the "right" approach, but I can't help but feel a certain amount of respect for the game's creators for sticking to their vision, even in the face of criticism (as Telwyn is far from the first person to bring this up as a problem).

What's also interesting to me is that despite of SWTOR's love for story as a "fourth pillar", it has never been this strict in terms of its story gating. Yes, the class story is very linear and does tie into the story of the galaxy as a whole, but in terms of game mechanics, the only things that were strictly gated behind story at launch were:

1. More of the same class story - you couldn't just drop it at the end of Tatooine and then pick it up again on Belsavis. If you dropped it at any point and decided to focus on levelling through other means, you had to go back and do all the quests you missed to be able to see the rest of that particular storyline.

2. Access to your companions. (This has become kind of moot with the amount of story-less companions that you are now able to pick up from promotions and the Cartel Market.)

3. Access to your personal starship.

I also seem to remember some sort of early restriction to being able to leave the starter planet if you hadn't wrapped up the story there, but I'm not sure now whether I didn't just dream that...

Either way, for all our love of SWTOR's story, dedicated players have also enjoyed pushing against its limitations for a long time. Who could forget the podcaster who levelled from 1 to cap by doing nothing but queuing for starfighter matches? Being lazy about the class story is also an ongoing joke among players who maintain raiding alts from my experience, especially when it turns out that this or that character hasn't even bothered to earn their personal starship and now has trouble actually getting around despite of already being near or at the level cap.

The initial batch of post-launch content was remarkably indifferent about continuity as well, usually not requiring any specific prerequisites before you could access it. It was just assumed that you'd done your class story and that you would be happy for the NPCs to treat you accordingly. This could actually be annoying when it would lead to unintentional spoilers via characters addressing you by the rank you hold by the end of your class story before you had actually earned it (mostly a problem for Sith characters). I remember this being particularly egregious with Makeb, before the mission terminal on the ship had been introduced and you could suddenly end up with the Rise of the Hutt Cartel intro playing out of nowhere while you were still trying to wrap up your class story.

Shadow of Revan made a valiant attempt at making sure that it made sense to all players regardless of where they were at in the story. The "miniature class story" on Rishi is inserted in such a way that it can be cut out if you start the story arc without actually having completed your class story beforehand, and there are even separate intros for characters that have or haven't done the precursory Forged Alliances missions. I was reminded of this the other day when Vulkk expressed wonder at the optional cut scenes introducing Lana and Theron on Rishi if you never met them before. (Personally I knew that this option existed, but had never played through it myself either.) I wonder how much work went into these content variations that a huge chunk of the player base never even saw?

Looking back at that now, I can't really blame Bioware for developing the desire to start fresh and with a clean slate with 4.0. Forget having all those different story variations - when a player looks at starting Knights of the Fallen Empire, the game outright tells you to better finish up any pending business beforehand as it will be a whole new world after that.

Of course that brought other issues with it. Since the "Knights of..." expansions weren't shy about branding themselves as your new personal story, it seemed to make sense to have one chapter lead into the next and so on - like the class missions, with no jumping around. The problem is that there was nothing else to do. It's one thing to have a linear storyline taking place within a huge world, where you can wander off the beaten path at any time and then backtrack later, and another to have a linear storyline when that's all there is.

Even so, Bioware once again didn't want players to feel held back for too long. Couldn't get yourself to finish all of the KotFE chapters? No worries, just jump right into KotET anyway and we'll count those last few KotFE chapters as "auto-completed"! Then again, that can cause issues yet again, as characters might suddenly find themselves saddled with a backstory that runs counter to everything they've done before.

Yes, I feel a certain amount of admiration for Final Fantasy XIV's developers and their devotion to the game's story. On the other hand, I can totally see how this rigid system can be a drag for players - and in some ways, it offers the writers and developers an easy way out, because they'll always know what exactly each player has seen and done by the time they reach any particular point in the story.

SWTOR on the other hand is constantly torn between wanting to tell a coherent story and giving players the freedom to do things in a different order if they want to. Despite of the game's strong narrative focus, it never manages to stick to requiring this or that to unlock the next piece of the story for very long. As a long-time player with many alts I appreciate that, but at the same time I often see new players get confused about what order they are supposed to do things in and whether it's sensible to skip this or that storyline. There's no winning here: If you lock events into a linear path, players will feel restricted, but if you give them the freedom to choose, others will be confused about where to go.

The more I think about it, the more sense it would make for 6.0 to wipe the slate clean once again (more or less at least), by getting us to a point where it doesn't matter much anymore what we did as the Alliance Commander and it becomes more important to look towards the future.

06/04/2018

Shopping Spree

About a month ago, Chuck from the Bad Feeling podcast asked Keith a question in an interview that seemed quite naive to me at the time: Why can't all the Cartel Market items ever released be available for purchase at all times? Keith answered pretty much as I expected: That this would only make them a lot of money in the short run, but less in the long run. Perceived scarcity and fear of missing out are a thing.

However, it seems that either Keith had a change of heart after that interview, or maybe someone else from his team tapped him on the shoulder afterwards and went: "You know, I agree that this wouldn't be a viable strategy in the long term... but why not try running it as a limited time event?"

And thus, the big Cartel Market Spring Sale was born. I have to admit, I actually got a little excited about this one. I'm not a frequent customer of the Cartel Market, but my "complimentary" aka free Cartel coins had been getting close to hitting the 50k mark again and I've been longing for a reason to spend some. Surely, when provided with that much choice, even I would be able to find something to my liking?

And the answer is: yes! There is something relaxing about flipping through pages and pages of cosmetics during a break in an ops run or while chatting away with guildies on TeamSpeak. The first thing I bought was a type of grophet that I didn't own yet, because you can never have too many grophets (I hope).

I've never been a fashionista, with most of my characters just sporting a look cobbled together from various pieces of gear that they acquired "naturally" at one point or another, but I have been known to change outfits on my main and a couple of alts on occasion. And acquiring some more couldn't get much easier than having all those outfit designer slots, thousands of spare Cartel coins and being presented with dozens of complete outfits only a mouse-click away.

So far I've splurged on the following:


Battlefield Commander set for my main: She's the one who changes looks the most often, and to be honest she was kind of overdue for a new one. I remember liking this set when I first saw it, but not enough to buy it then and there. To be honest it seems a bit more suited for an Imperial soldier than for a Republic one, but since "Imperial trooper" is not a class this seemed like the next-best character to wear it.

I was kind of surprised by how light the set was in game, as the preview picture had made it look almost black. Fortunately I still had a bound black/black dye lying around in my bag that I had pulled out of a cantina crate ages ago, so it was simple enough to adjust the colour to a darker hue.


Zakuulan Security set for my Sage alt: I don't recall this set ever gaining my attention before, but I saw it in the sale and was instantly in love. My Sage is all about big shoulderpads that make her already broad shoulders look even more so, plus I love the little circlet that comes with it as well. (Sets with attractive head pieces are rare in my opinion.)


Who's this? This is Cheriza, the Juggernaut I created for the Dark vs. Light event and haven't really played since then. Why buy her a new outfit then? Because I thought Darth Sion's armour set looked really cool, but wouldn't look right on anything but a tall, bulky Sith, and she fit that description better than any of the other alts in my stable. Maybe the new look will inspire me to play her more?


Finally, the Bold Hellion set for my Gunslinger: I remember seeing this set a few times before and admiring all the details on the chest piece, but it struck me as only really suitable for a smuggler and I didn't feel that any of mine really "needed" it. As I recently caught myself thinking about getting my Gunslinger a new look however, it suddenly seemed like an interesting option. I'm still not convinced by the bare midriff (too dangerous, even for a happy-go-lucky smuggler), but maybe this is her idea of "dressing up" for a night out.

In short, this is one money-making attempt that I can get on board with, though of course I'm coming at it from the biased perspective of someone who didn't actually have to spend any money beyond her normal subscription to be able to buy all this stuff. Far be it from me to suggest that anyone should spend money on Cartel coins, but I do have to say that if you've ever been interested in gear from the Cartel Market but missed it being on offer or it came from a random pack and you didn't want to try your luck, this is a great opportunity to have a browse and consider your options. I've heard some grumbling that not truly "everything" is in the sale, and that may well be the case, but it sure is a lot to impress someone like me who's not that intimately familiar with the cash shop and everything that's been on offer over time. The sale event will run until the 17th of April, so you have over ten days left to have a look at the available selection and make up your own mind.

04/04/2018

KotET Chapter 9 Master Mode

I expected this chapter to be hard on master mode because it had been somewhat of a challenge on veteran mode too. This turned out to be true, but I didn't mind. In the end it was more of a fun challenge similar to chapter seven, and far from eliciting anything like the frustration I experienced in chapter two.


It started with the group of Knights of Zakuul that block the entrance to the Spire when you arrive. (The couple of trash pulls before that hadn't been an issue.) It's a group of three hard-hitting mobs with a fair amount of hitpoints, and the combination of bouncy melee and the giant walker just shooting from range makes it difficult to neatly round them up so they can kill themselves on Arcann's reflective barrier. The red circles that keep appearing around the area randomly are also veritable traps for hapless companions.

When I finally managed the kill it was still somewhat chaotic. I jumped in to quickly CC one of the knights, but when I initiated combat, Senya managed to leap right into a red circle and died. Fortunately I got Arcann's barrier up in time before he could die too, which took out both the walker and the loose knight. On another class, my character being on low health and with her healing companion dead might have been in a problem at this point, but fortunately I could revive Senya and heal myself back up before engaging the final knight.



The trash mobs inside the Spire were mostly as I remembered them, which is to say there is an endless stream of them and at least one of your companions will be uncontrollable and quickly storm off to commit suicide. You just gotta roll with it and accept some deaths. I was actually quite proud of myself for not dying too many times on my way up the stairs, probably fewer than I did on veteran mode.

The Zakuul Knight Captain in the red armour at the entrance to the elevator hit comically hard! Several times either I or Arcann died before I even had a chance to have him put his barrier up or taunt, but eventually I managed it, at which point the captain basically blew himself up within two seconds. I reckon that if you're doing this bit with Lana and Theron, this one will probably need kiting considering how ridiculously painful all of his attacks are.

And then: the dreamscape. Vaylin was fairly unremarkable again, repeating her mechanics from chapter eight. However, Valkorion himself was a different matter. I died to him many times due to approaching the fight entirely wrong at first. I figured that since you could survive some of his abilities, such as Project and Force Blast, the trick was to figure out which attacks you could absorb and which ones you'd have to interrupt. The problem was that I just couldn't figure out a viable pattern. While it's true that both Project and Force Blast are survivable in good gear, they still take about three quarters of your health off, meaning that you can't take another hit of any kind right afterwards. Plus there was always that Dark Ritual that was an absolute killer. I just couldn't figure it out.

Eventually I decided to "cheat" by looking for advice on YouTube myself and I have to give credit to this video of a Sentinel doing the fight for making me see the light: You can't face-tank anything, you just gotta kite all the way, and the fact that abilities like Project and Force Blast are survivable just gives you a bit of wiggle room so you don't wipe instantly if you do eat an attack every now and then. However, you can't count on intentionally being able to do so. This is doubly true when you have to shift into light or dark alignment to be able to damage the boss, at which point you'll lose any healing abilities or damage cooldowns that you'd usually have at your disposal. Another thing I noticed is that while you keep kiting, Valkorion never even seems to try casting the deadly Dark Ritual that had given me so much trouble before.

The one thing I noted here is that it seems to be random whether he shifts into light or dark first (and I only needed to survive one shift to complete the fight), but dealing with light seems to be vastly easier as the abilities you get are way more suitable for kiting. All the dark side abilities have ridiculously long cast times that make it very hard to get any attacks off while also successfully continuing to dodge Valkorion's own.



Anyway, while I'm not a huge fan of endless kiting, I can't complain about a big end boss being somewhat tough to beat. I sure felt accomplished after seeing that final achievement pop up. KotFE next? Definitely at some point, but probably not immediately, as I have other things that I'd like to focus on first.