SWTOR – Progress, I Guess

What with the 12x experience boost, carving through the levels is somewhat a breeze.  Let me rephrase that a tad actually.  The 12x experience boost transforms SWTOR into 3 parts; first is the actual story, second is the stat race and third is the travel experience.

The actual story is pretty neat, per class.  I just finished a Sith Warrior (let’s say ~12 hours) all the way through and I’m of the opinion that the story was written to be played light side.  At least the key moments seem to fall well into that line.  There were a few spots where I had to pick the dark side, to keep the semblance of a bad guy but overall, the light side choices weren’t so much super good guy as they were “I don’t really care what happens”.  Which is sort of a better super villain if you ask me.  I’ve done the Sith Inquistor and preferred that story mind you, even though it was more rote.  Sith Warrior is just ho-hum quests, until the final act.

The stat race is something else.  In most MMOs you can get by with straggling gear.  Say the average power curve is 200.  If you’re missing 20, then no big deal, stuff is just a tad harder.  SWTOR don’t play that way chump!  Scaling of power seems to be based on a variance of norm rather than an absolute number.  What that means is that if you are slightly above average in stats, then you just run over everything.  Slightly under and you’re in for a rough time.  Every 10 levels I had to do a full restock.  Every 5 was a top up.  Considering I’m doing about 3-4 quests per world, that’s a fair top up.  It’s not the end of the world, I had a 55 on the fleet who could mail me supplies.  It put me out of pocket maybe 50K for the whole thing, though by the time I hit 55 I was near 400k in cash.  (note: sell everything on the GTN, if it doesn’t go on first pass, vendor it)

The travel time is the odd one and to me shows where the game was stretched.  The first 3/4 of the worlds are great, playing more like a spiderweb than a linear path.  Belsavis and Voss though, wowza.  Belsavis I must have spent 30 minutes just travelling between 2 quests.  Thank goodness I unlocked quick travel with Legacy, so that my ports back to the ship were quick.  Voss was less about travel and more about poor quest design.  I mean Bears, Bears, Bears was the thing here.  Like, have me do the 4 things at once rather than just ping back continually.  Ugh.  47 thankfully came quickly and off I went.

So the optimal leveling path, as I see it, is as follows:

  • Always log off in a rested exp zone
  • Use the Cartel EXP boosts.  You’ll start getting them as rewards near level 20.  Pop them before you turn in a quest, as that’s when it really matters.
  • Avoid all the other quests.  Seriously.  The only one you must take is the one on the Quesh stardock, that’s it.
  • 1-47, do the core world quests.
  • 47+ head to your ship to start Makeb.  For the love of poop, use the GSI terminal on the stardock.  I went from 750 strength to nearly 2500 from the boost that terminal gave.  Very good odds you’ll be stuck on the Armageddon quest to hit 55.  Which is the worst of the Makeb quests, hah!
  • When you complete a quest, use the Personal Holocron (Teleport)
  • Have someone on the fleet who can buy stuff for you and sell stuff if your bags are too full.  A level 15 is fine and with this boost takes about an hour
  • Commendation aren’t worth it, in my opinion.  Get the lockboxes are quest rewards if gear isn’t an option.  Sell it.

For $15, I got a good story, got to see some nice scenery and avoided a ton of content.  But, I learned to play the class much better because of the crappy gear differential.  I am a firm believer that this model is more effective than simply selling max level characters.  In that model, I have no idea how to play the character, no idea what’s going on and I’m just sitting in no-man’s land at max level.  Two separate ways to get to the same goal but vastly different.

MMOs – Where are they now?

Nosy Gamer’s recent MMO roundup from XFire shows some interesting developments when looking at Wildstar and ESO.  Wildstar launched at the start of June while ESO was start of April, so 2 months and 4 months respectively at this point.  They are slotted at 8 and 12 on the list.  WoW rounds out the top, even though it lost 800,000 players.  EvE and FF14 are the other 2 subscription-based games on the list.  Everything else is FTP, which makes for some interesting metrics.

I do agree that the sample is flawed and isn’t a direct representation of the population.  I mean, I can’t think of anyone who actively installs XFIRE today, so newer games are at a distinct disadvantage.  Heck, Raptr only shows WoW, WS, FF14 and ESO in their top 20. That said, XFIRE does a great job at showing patterns over time and for that I think the discussion is very relevant in that both WS and ESO are down.

While I can attribute a fair amount of that to the 60 day drop (people play box + 1 month), rather than the 3-monther Keen professes, there are certainly some additional factors at play.  We can’t just assume that the summer provides a dip here, because it should affect all the games rather equally.  The factors have to be game-specific.

ESO first.  The VR wall was my “I win” bucket.  The fact that the game was anti-social certainly didn’t help.  Mind you, recent reports say they are trying to fix both issues, among a pile of kitchen sink additions.  I do think that once VRs are gone, the game will be in “ready to launch” state, some 5 months after actual launch.  I think of this compared to Marvel Heroes, or Neverwinter’s “beta phase” but both of those had no price point for entry.  It will have cost box + $60 to get to launch with ESO and that’s a price point people can find more value elsewhere.  In particular GW2 from a FTP perspective or FF14 from a subscription perspective. There’s certainly a chance it comes back up to the top, what with WoW likely not launching ‘til December.

Wildstar next.  While I am still enjoying my stay, I do know a lot of people who have left due to lack of progress past 50 – or heck, even mid-game.  Wildstar’s approach to combat is extremely divisive, and scales at an inappropriate pace.  There’s very little transition for people entering group content, just a wall of bodies at 20.  There are very few reports of successful PUGs anywhere, to the point where Carbine had to make change to the rewards system, in order to avoid group crumbling after 5 minutes.  And this doesn’t even get into the craziness of level 50 and raiding.  Sure, you could do the attunement and farm gear in dungeons/adventures but there ain’t no way you’re going to raid.  Everything up until that point can either be accomplished solo, with 5 people or with random PUGs in a zone.  The dungeon medal requirement is crazy, to boot.  But the cherry is getting 40 people to do it and then getting them to raid with you.  Bluntly put, the investment requirement for raiding has either been accomplished already by those with a want to invest or never will be.  That means two distinct parts at issue.  First, you need to accept the combat structure (difficulty + pacing) which is not going to change, outside of adding some “learning” zones.  Second, you need to accept that you’re likely never going to raid.  This part has been beaten to death on many blogs and I would like to think that Carbine, like Bethesda, is actually paying attention.

I do have to say that I’m less surprised with ESO’s tumble than Wildstar’s.  The ESO beta was not kind, and there were significant rumblings before launch about readiness.  It’s clearly still popular if it’s on lists though, so that’s good.  And there is active development, also very good.  Wildstar’s issues seem to be more condemning.  It had a relatively clean beta and had significant groundswell at launch.  Many people have issues finding a flaw with the game outside of the inability to find attachment to justify investment.  That is a massive problem for MMOs in general and one that doesn’t bode well for the future.

Combat and Art Styles

Pegging off Tobold’s post on appropriate art style, I think it bears mention more than just a couple games.  And I won’t really go into what looks better because that’s a very subjective argument.  This is really about the practicalities.

We have WoW art style, with distinct character outlines since the start. However it’s moved away from tab target to smart target, and red/blue markers on the ground. WoD will finally have target outlines as well. It’s evolved.

Neverwinter, a LAS/action game, uses outlines and AE effects given the mouselook aiming features. It’s a more realistic art style, making it damn near impossible to find someone in the thick of things. BUT, since it’s soft lock and AE for nearly everything (including healing), it works.

SWTOR uses cartoon style graphics for a seemingly endless supply of humanoids. I found it a mess in regular PvE but the group instances aren’t too bad as the character types are often different. Plus tab targeting helps drastically.

FF14 uses tab targets and a full skill bar, though in reality few skills. The art style is VERY unique and it’s fairly easy to spot individual players, let alone NPCs in combat. In fact, you rarely have more than 2-3 enemies at once. Of course, with a requirement for focused combat and targeted attacks, this is vital for success

FF14 - Ifrit

ESO is LAS + mouselook. Many attacks are AE or smart target. Every frigging enemy is the same though. PvP turned into meat walls of AE spam because you can’t focus target effectively. It also means many skills lose all value if they aren’t multi-target. Plus everyone blends in together and the background. So it’s less about aiming and responsiveness as it is about mashing AE attacks and hoping the numbers are in your favor.

Big Boy

Big Boy

Wildstar is LAS but tab/free target combat. Everything has an AE target as well, making aiming very important. Plus the character diversity helps you quickly ID the players in the field. The more quickly you can make an assessment, the better your odds.

That's a big gun

That’s a big gun

I guess it boils down to offense vs defense. A more realistic game favors defensive style of play and 2 types of skills. Either you spam and get lucky or you cross that skill gap to “elite” and run amok. FPS shooters I think show that well.

A more cartoon, or rather distinct character set, provides more offensive options as you can’t really hide. Everyone knows who you are and you have more information to make the right decision. It removes the skill gap and includes progression.

I wouldn’t be able to say which has the higher skill ceiling as that is more game-specific. It’s certainly an interesting topic.

Continual Content – Gated Dailies

Themeparks have to give you a reason to run the ride again and again.  There’s a carrot somewhere that makes that switch in your brain go, “ok, one more time”.  Way back in the day, this was more or less organic – run a dungeon.  Eventually it turns into formal quests as we know them today – dailies.  For a very long time, this was mostly about money.  Free cash!  Just jump up and down!  Then this became a reputation grind to get items.  Just 18 more dragon eggs before you get a new shoe.  Then we reached a really weird stage where dailies were the precursor to more dailies. Hello Golden Lotus!

Dailies were also typically capped in terms of how many you can complete in a day.  Not only are the individual quests on a timer but you could only do X amount per day.  The reason for this was three-fold.  First, this was a massive money tap that could be exploited easily.  Millions of gold entered an economy per day unchecked.  Second, they often rewards reputation scores for better gear – which was vertical progression.  If you could do them all, then you would be progressing very fast.  Third was the natural gating requirement of time.  The game should last Y amount of time.  People would (and did) burnout.

Using WoW as a solid example, dailies went through many iterations and nearly all based around expansions.  From BC to MoP, there have been different flavors.  The main driver, or success if you will, for dailies is an alternative progression path.  Certainly, given the choice people will naturally take the path of least resistance.  Dailies however give you a chance to “quickly” make progress through alternate means.  The tabard/daily quest reputation grind made sense.  It fit both playstyles.  The “only-dailies all the time” approach of MoP put in an artificial gate that could not be bypassed.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the cloud serpent faction as the quests were related to the outcome.  Pat Nagle progressed through fishing-related activities.  Golden Lotus had (before 5.4) no purpose other than to gate access to 2 other (and more rewarding) reputation grinds.

SWTOR takes a slightly different approach in that “zones” have daily quests that share rewards.  Tokens/progress is made.  This supplements the raiding/dungeon game with modifications.  There’s a fair amount of horizontal progress as well (customization).  It works for me.

Neverwinter is an odd mix.  Daily quests reward Astral Diamonds based on activities – been there since day 1.  It works in that the rewards are the same, regardless of the content consumed.  Most of that content is social so, more people doing things together = good for the community.  The last 2 expansions added “gated dailies” where the rewards are not item based but content based.  You complete a few and get access to new dungeons.  A few (a lot) more and you get passive stat buffs that are not gear related – you keep it forever even if you get new items.  You complete more and get a better chance at loot.I like that this is daily and gated but that brings me to the final daily hiccup.

If you miss a day, you miss a day of progress.  Missing a raid means you have, usually, another shot in the week (assuming the timer is a week).  Miss a dungeon, then run 2 the next day.  Dailies are the only content with a short expiry.  I personally think it would be great if you could “store up” daily quests for a period of 3-4 days, or perhaps have the rewards reflect that “store”.  Have it run at a reduced ratio too, say 25% per day missed.  I know a game wants a hook to have you login often but unless that game is offering off-line progress (and an interface), then after a while you just lose interest.

If I knew that after a long weekend I could come back and make some additional progress, even reduced (which would be double daily rate based on the numbers above) I think that would motivate me to login and spend more time.  Especially if it related to gaining access to new content (and not items).

Architectural Service Design

Now that’s a heading that should make people’s heads hurt.

I’m in the middle of a rather large service design project now and it’s making me think long and hard about similarities in games.  There are 4 main phases; design, migration, steady state and close out.  I am chest-deep in the first one and I talk about this a lot on the blog.  The other three, let’s get a bit more meat on.

Migration is the period between nothing and operational state.  This is paperwork stage, signing agreements and whatnot.  It’s when you buy your ticket to the ride.  Steady State is the day to day activities.  Close Out is when the service is about to be shut down.  There’s a lot of this one lately.  In simple terms, from a design perspective you need to figure out how to minimize impact to users during migration and ensure that steady state meets expectations, otherwise close out happens.  In practice this is more complex since expectations are all over the map for steady state.

If I take a console game as an example (BioShock Infinite or Ni No Kuni), the process of migration is simple enough.  Buy the disk, put it in, patch (maybe) and play.  There are no extra bells and whistles, you’re in.  MMOs you can’t really buy the games anymore, you’re downloading them.  There’s the signup, payment methods (PayPal should be an option everywhere), patching and then you get into the game.  That game part is also a problem since character creation, for many games, is done poorly.  Customization options are often lackluster and irrelevant after a few levels.  Class/race selection usually have a dramatic impact on gameplay but without the context for players to understand.  Someone starting an MMO cold is going to be confused and likely alone.  I went back to SWTOR recently and it took about 4 hours of reading forums and websites to have an idea what was going on.  Barrier of entry is a problem.

Steady state is also a fun one.  Again, the console example has you play a contained experience which is cohesive.  I mean that the game from start to end is logical, systematic and if you play the game you should be able to follow track for all content.  Batman doesn’t suddenly turn into a FPS game half way through. MMOs again have trouble here.  For some reason, many try to make 3 games in one.  First, is the leveling experience.  Heavy on story, exposition, relative balance.  Very lackluster on world integration.  You consume, move on and never really look back or understand your relation to the rest of the world.  Second is the “end game” aspect, where you’ve reached the end of the levelling experience and now have a list of a dozen things you can do.  Hunt knick knacks, get bigger numbers on your equipment, beat big bad guys.  This is, sadly, skinner box material.  Third is PvP.  This is usually a bolt on mechanic, with parallel gameplay and rewards.

 These 3 components are rarely integrated.  Leveling is often-time the only part people want to play since the disconnect at max level is just a wall of grind.  There’s no real progress except for numbers.  I mentioned in the last post that WoW leveling is a face roll of challenge, and then you reach the max level stuff and realize you actually need to use some of those skills you got 50 levels ago. SWTOR is somewhat interesting in that you need to use ALL skills to do leveling content.  PvP, other than a handful of games, has no bearing on PvE.  Since UO took the knife to the problem, no game has really put effort to figure out this problem.  Heck, FireFall has pretty much thrown in the towel even though it was pitched as PvP only.

Games today have a significant challenge to come out of the gate.  First, there are few people entering MMOs cold and they have expectations.  If your game’s Migration phase is different than existing models, it need to be ultra smooth and intuitive or you’re going to lose people.  If you want people to stay around after the leveling portion of the game is done, make sure it is tightly integrated with other systems.  GW2 is a good example where leveling content is also seen as end-game content.  If you want PvP in the game, make the social aspects obvious and integrated.  Have it affect the PvE world and vice versa.   Change zone “availability” based on PvP results and make those zones relevant.

I love the challenge of architectural service design.  I think it’s one of the most complex and overlooked parts of development.  If done well, and expectations are clearly understood, then meeting those same expectations is in the realm of possible.

Challenge is Fun

I’ve been back in SWTOR for a bit, trying out the new content.  Well, new since I left 2 months after launch.  The context for the extra 5 levels (cap of 55 now) is interesting.

See, most themepark expansions add quests in zones to get you to the max level.  WoW gives you so many quests and linear content that you only ever need to complete half of it to reach the cap.  The rest is just wasted.  RIFT had an interesting tactic where there was just enough content, if you took on the grinding quests at the same time.  The amount of time SPENT leveling is also very inconsistent.  Either they rush you to the end or it takes forever.  I personally prefer a more or less linear path in the levels past the tutorial.  GW2 tried this and it worked.  Well for others, not so much myself.

The thing about GW2 is that there is little to no character progress.  From level 4 to level 50, you have essentially the same skills and press the same buttons.  If the process wasn’t linear, I think I would have gone crazy.  The content you go through is always challenging, since it’s nearly always scaled to your level.  I personally have a massive dislike for the challenge in GW2 due to game mechanics (hard to actually see who’s attacking and threat range is massive).  I do like that death is common enough to be a threat.  I just don’t like the reasons that I’m dying.  Like it’s out of my control.  So that game is on the backburner for a while.

SWTOR is different.  Death happens a lot, not so much as GW2 but if you’re pushing the game, you’re going to die.  The new content – Makeb and Oricon – both have exceptionally challenging battles.  The Imprisoned One has a regenerative heal and a fair chunk of skills you need to interrupt.  At level (53) I could not take him down, using every skill I had.  I wasn’t super geared, but more than adequate for the normal content.   The last guy on Makeb, no spoilers, killed me a dozen times before I figured the “dance” of the fight.  It was thrilling to finish it.  Now 55, on Oricon there is a guy called Commander Zoaron.  He is easily the most difficult fight I have seen in the game.  There are 2 skills that must be interrupted, 1 that you need to move out of range, another you need to break out of.  Each hit is like a bus.  10 tried in, multiple strategies, no luck.  Back at the fleet now, filling in some gear spots for another attempt.  Finally down, but just so.

Finally dead.

Finally dead.

WoW, as contrast, I think my Monk died twice from 1-90 in combat, and that was poor planning on my part.  Zero challenge anywhere, rarely a need to use anything more than 2-3 skills.  A druid I started is just stomping through everything.  It’s like I’m a god from the start til the end.  How does anyone understand how the game plays at max level going through this?

In SWTOR’s case, I feel like the challenge is specific to an encounter.  Figure out the puzzle, feel great, move on.  In GW2, I feel like the entire game is this weird structure of puzzle/punishment.  There’s no real way to solve it since it’s so generic.  I really love challenge, especially one that you feel you can overcome and look back upon.  It makes the game a heck of a lot more rewarding.

Social Core

There’s an old saying that goes something like this.  If I have an apple and you have an apple and I give you my apple, you have two and I have none.  If I have an idea and you have an idea and I give you my idea, we both have two.  For a long time this basically was a separation between the tangible and not but in today’s world, I have a bank full of intangible swords and there is an infinite supply (or near enough) of digital books.  In that train of thought, what you really are exchanging are concepts or frameworks.

This translates well into games so that two people who play the exact same game, the exact same way come out with different results.  You might come out of Tomb Raider antsy from the fighting or wondering about the next step.  What you are given is not necessarily what you actually receive, or interpret to receive.

If we move back a few years in the MMO space, when the time and social requirements were much more stringent the game didn’t provide you content as much as the people consuming the content provided it.  In my UO days, you could spend hours just sitting in the guild castle, talking with friends, working on some skills, maybe bring in a dragon to fight.  In contrast, today’s game is a wham-bam thank you ma’am affair of instant everything.

We’ve been down this road before but gaming is a reflection of the times and as the average “core gamer” age (~30) increases, it is extremely evident that they have less and less time to play.  Today’s younger gamers have thousands of venues to compete for their attention – Twitter, Facebook, all the Internet, Netflix, smartphones, tablets.  When I was younger, I had to leave the house to see friends. As a quick aside, Keen mentioned recently that he’s finishing up grad school this week (congrats!).  That would make him 22-24ish.  His experience in UO would have made him around 6-8 years of age.  It’s safe to say that UO had a different impact at that age than when I was playing (16-18) – especially from a social perspective.

For example, my largest gripe with SWTOR wasn’t that the game had bad ideas, just that they were poorly implemented from a social/time perspective   You were rarely able to find the social aspect while leveling (due to having a companion, very heavy instancing, low difficulty and no tools) and it stuck out like a sore thumb at max level when you 100% needed a social framework.  The time aspect was inversely proportionate to the fun factor.  You spent more time waiting around (again, with no social) for the fun to start – or even to get to the fun.  Sadly, the necessary game updates came 6+ months after launch and 90% of the playerbase had left by that point (they went from 211 servers to 23 in 6 months, now 20).  I firmly believe that the single most important reason Rift is not yet F2P is because of the social/time aspect being a core concept of game design.

Now TESO and Wildstar are both coming in with some new concepts to a genre that was originally founded on the social aspect.  I’ve heard aspects from Wildstar as to how the social portion is going to be important, in a non-combat way, but next to nothing from TESO.  I have my fingers crossed that both can maintain that core concept, with a little tweaking, in order to make either successful in the long term.  I mean, I don’t log in to kill the big bad guy for the 30th time, I log in to talk to my friends for the 300th time.