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.


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.]


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!


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)?


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.


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.


Hand of Jadus

I'm proud to announce that today, I finished the Imperial agent class story for the third time! Yes, that means that I finally completed it on the Cathar agent that I created on the Progenitor over two years ago.

This brings my current tally of class story completions up to:

Imperial agent: 3x
Smuggler: 3x
Bounty hunter: 2x
Jedi consular: 2x
Sith inquisitor: 2x
Sith warrior: 2x
Trooper: 2x
Jedi knight: 1x

It's funny to me that the agent surged to the top alongside the smuggler, because only a year ago the class was lingering at the bottom with only one completion along with the Jedi knight, but then I levelled my DvL agent and well, here we are. The agent is definitely a prime candidate for a class story replay in any case, as all three endings that I've seen so far had a distinctly different feel to them.

I don't know if this is a high number of class story replays to have done in total, but it doesn't feel like it to me, not after five and a half years. As much as I love the class stories, I generally prefer to spend more time on repeating content that was actually designed with repetition in mind, such as flashpoints and PvP. I actually have four troopers at max level for example, it's just that two of them haven't actually done their class story.

Now I just need to give that lowbie knight of mine some love to complete my second playthrough of the Jedi knight. The problem is that she's such an old character and I've picked her up and dropped her again so many times that I can barely remember what sort of characterisation I tried to go for in her story. This is a problem I have quite often when trying to level alts this way. At least with the agent I remembered clearly that this last one was supposed to be evil.

Some notes on finishing this latest playthrough (warning, contains spoilers for the Imperial agent story):

I only found out by chance while googling for something else that agents that side with Jadus have a special bonus quest on Hoth, given by an NPC called Lalya Verron, located in the Imperial base by the Starship Graveyard. Since I had only focused on my class story on that planet, I had completely missed that extra quest giver with a purple triangle above her head. Fortunately I was still able to go back later and complete it then. In terms of mechanics it's nothing too exciting, but it's still cool to see all those small touches that were included in the base game and which can still surprise you even after more than five years.

I also had to note once again that bringing different companions along to missions really helps to spice things up while playing an alt of a class you already know. I'd previously always left Kaliyo behind on my ship and found some of the commentary she offered quite interesting.

Since this agent is my only character on the Progenitor, she didn't get to benefit from any legacy perks while levelling (oh rocket boost, how I miss thee)... but I also had a reason to go datacron hunting again, and it's actually been pretty fun. I got all of them up to Corellia except for the one on Belsavis for which you need the Rakata Energy Cubes, but I'm not holding out too much hope for getting the ones on Makeb and onwards, as I needed help with most of those even on my main. Still, it's been fun to remind myself of some of those jumping puzzles and my memory of how to tackle them was overall pretty good. For all the convenience of legacy-wide datacrons, I do think it's a bit of a shame that there's no benefit to collecting them on alts nowadays unless you completely start over on another server like I did in this case.


The Future of CXP?

As my Scoundrel is slowly working her way towards becoming my third character to reach Command rank 300, something has been rattling around my head that has bugged me about CXP from the start but which I didn't really talk about before because there were too many other things wrong with the system that were more important. However, now that Galactic Command is in a relatively comfortable place, I can't help but wonder: Where is it going?

The moment it was first announced, I was immediately reminded of the way Blizzard has gotten into the habit of coming up with "cool ideas" for their WoW expansions just to completely scrap each and every one of them the moment the next expansion comes out, simply because they were never designed to scale and work for the game in the long term. That's what CXP looks like to me too, like something that someone thought "would be a cool idea" but without thinking through how it would integrate into the game in the long run. Simply put: If you have an alternate levelling system after the level cap, what happens to those levels once the normal level cap is increased again?

One obvious solution would be to simply scrap the whole system. It would be the easy way of dealing with it at least, and I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who would not be sad to see it go. I would be a little sad though. After a painful amount of iteration, Galactic Command is finally in a good place, and I think it's not bad as a supplemental way of getting gear. Also, while it's just numbers, I think I would feel a little cheated if my total of over a thousand Command levels just disappeared into the aether without a trace. I may not rank very high as an achiever, but that doesn't mean that I can't develop an attachment to some achievements.

But if it were to stay, this would open up a lot of questions. Would the system still unlock at level 70 or would it move up to the new level cap? And would people be allowed to keep their existing Command levels? If the new stuff were all tacked on at the end, it would still leave 300 Command levels of "old stuff" for new players to grind through before even getting to the new gear, which would feel silly. At the same time, just resetting everyone back to rank one would feel like a sting to veterans for the reasons described above. Any attempt at keeping both new and old players happy while retaining the system would probably involve some awkward rejigging, keeping in line with making the system ever more complicated. As an example, the existing 300 ranks could continue to exist while being greatly sped up for new players, and the loot tables would have to be reworked completely to drop lower-level "new stuff" right from the start, so that veterans would only get a bit of a headstart. I struggle to imagine a simple and elegant solution for this though.

How do you expect Bioware to handle Galactic Command going forward?


How to LFG in SWTOR, 2017 Edition

The other day it came to my attention that people are apparently still finding my post "How to Successfully LFG in SWTOR" via Google. This is one of the few guides I've written on this blog, but while some of the things described in it still apply, others have become quite outdated with the introduction of level sync and such. Re-reading my own post, I had actually almost forgotten about how EV and KP used to only be in the group finder from level 50-54, or how many pugs wouldn't do a full run of any given operation because the weekly quest only required you to kill things up to the third or fourth boss. Good times.

Anyway, I thought it might be worthwhile to rewrite this guide to provide a more up-to-date source of information for curious new players. I might do some copy and pasting from the old post, but many things have changed!

First off, there are three major types of PvE group content in the game right now:

- Flashpoints are SWTOR's equivalent of what's called "dungeons" in many other MMOs, instanced group content designed for a group of a fixed size, four players in this case. The "default" group setup is one tank, one healer and two damage dealers, however Bioware has greatly simplified the easy versions of most flashpoints to not require a fixed group setup anymore and to be level neutral as well. So you could run them with four level fifteen damage dealers or four max-level healers if you wanted to... though I wouldn't necessarily recommend either setup. The harder versions still require a traditional trinity group.

- Uprisings are sort of similar to flashpoints but only available at level 70 as they are supposed to take place after the story of Knights of the Eternal Throne (the expansion that increased the level cap from 65 to 70). There are fewer of them and they are somewhat shorter, with fewer trash pulls between bosses and a love for endless waves of weak adds for you to AoE down. Like with flashpoints, the easiest difficulty is supposed to be doable with any group composition.

- Operations are SWTOR's raids and each one can be done with eight or sixteen people (you can choose the group size). Both formats require two tanks, while the ideal number of healers doubles from two to four in 16-man.

There are other reasons why you might want to group up with other players, but let's focus on these three game modes first.


It's worth noting that while this is a guide to grouping, and flashpoints were primarily designed to be group content, many of the more story-heavy ones have been given a solo mode in the recent past, so if you just want to see what they are about and other people scare you, you do have the option to go in alone. An all-powerful droid will accompany you and will tank, dps and heal for you all at once, so that you can lean back and /dance throughout the entire thing if you want to. Personally I find that pretty boring, but to each their own.

Flashpoints come in three different settings: There is the solo mode mentioned above, also called story mode, then there is veteran (hard) mode, and finally there is master (nightmare) mode. This naming convention is a bit misleading because veteran mode isn't actually that hard, it's actually the "story mode" for groups, but I guess someone at Bioware thought that this was too confusing so it became veteran instead. Don't let the nomenclature scare you off in any case.

Veteran mode flashpoints open up at level 10, at which point you only have access to your faction's first flashpoint for five levels (the Esseles for Republic and the Black Talon for Imperials), then at 15 they disappear from your group finder list (though you can still walk in directly if you want) and all the rest opens up. The fact that all these flashpoints are accessible and rewarding for players from level 15 all the way up to the cap has greatly increased their replayability and the speed at which you can get groups for them, but be warned that many of them are quite story-heavy and if you jump into the full random selection at a low level you are likely to accidentally spoil and/or confuse yourself by watching later story events unfold before you've actually played the main game up to that point.

Aside from being level-neutral, veteran flashpoints are also role-neutral, so the group finder will put the first four people in the queue into a group together regardless of their role. You will get a pop-up to ask you to accept the group that has been formed, and this is a good opportunity to decline if the group setup is something manic like four tanks or three healers. As people move through the queue quite quickly, waiting a couple of minutes before re-queuing is usually enough to get something better. Pops are very quick on large servers (often instant for me) and still quite fast on smaller ones - note that you only get grouped with people from your server, there is no cross-server grouping in SWTOR.

If you are feeling timid about your performance, rejecting a group with too many low-levels might also be a consideration. SWTOR's level syncing works pretty well, but there's still a noticeable difference in terms of difficulty between going in with a full group of level 30s or having one or more level 70s in the party. There is no punishment for rejecting a group at the assembly stage, but if you quit after accepting the group, you will receive a debuff that will prevent you from queuing again for a little while. Also don't forget to select your preferred roles before queuing up! It can be quite terrifying to end up being marked as a tank or healer when you didn't really mean to play either of those roles.

Master mode flashpoints, which are the real "hardmodes" and not really nightmare-ish in difficulty, have longer queues since they require a traditional group setup of tank, healer and two dps. They are still reasonably popular though as they are quite rewarding. They are not completely level-neutral but become accessible from level 50. How can a level 50 do hard content with level 70s, you might ask? The same way all the different levels can play together on veteran mode, via something called "bolster", which increases everyone's level and stats to a minimum max-level baseline. It works pretty well actually, and I've successfully healed many a master mode flashpoint with a tank who wasn't even level capped yet. They are just a little bit more squishy than normal.


Uprisings don't have solo modes (and I don't think they need them either as not much story is happening in any of them), so here the naming convention actually makes sense: story mode is the (supposedly) easy one that can be done with a role-neutral group, veteran mode is the hard(er) one that requires a trinity setup, and nightmare mode is nightmare-ish (here and there, some uprisings are easier than others). Only the first two difficulties can be found in the group finder, but trust me, you wouldn't want to try the hardest one with anything but a group of friends anyway.

Due to being limited to level 70, queues for uprisings are a bit longer than for flashpoints, even for the role-neutral story mode. Also, some of the story modes are actually a real pain without a healer. You have been warned.


Like hardmode flashpoints, operations are accessible from level 50 onwards in story mode at least, and people get bolstered in them. So don't worry about bringing your level 50 alts in crappy levelling greens along for a ride, they'll be able to pull their weight just fine.

Only story mode operations are available through the group finder, only in 8-man size (they tried to upgrade it to 16-man one time and it literally crashed the servers) and only one at a time (the available operation rotates once a day; you can see it on the group finder interface). But according to general opinion nobody really uses the group finder to actually build operations groups anyway, everyone just uses general chat on the fleet to put a group together manually and then everyone queues up together to get the reward for using the group finder.

This is... mostly true. I don't know what it's like on other servers, but on The Red Eclipse at least I have actually gotten into groups assembled directly through the group finder a couple of times, after sitting in the queue for a moderate amount of time during prime time. The problem from my experience is that such groups are usually not what you'd call successful. I once got a group for Ravagers and it fell apart on the first boss because we hit the enrage with her still at half health. Another time I got a group for Eternity Vault that could barely kill the first boss and then repeatedly wiped on Gharj's enrage before falling apart. Wait, Gharj has an enrage? Yeah. I don't say that to diss anyone, but I guess it makes sense that somewhat clueless players would be more likely to just queue up for things via the interface instead of trying to form a group manually, which means that the quality of these groups is distinctly below average when they do happen.

So yeah, in general you are better off keeping an eye on general chat and responding to a LFG request. For story modes people usually don't care if you're experienced or not, as long as you are able to communicate and follow basic instructions, and thanks to bolster, gear isn't a concern.

The Interface

I've been saying all these things about "the group finder" without even explaining what it is. You access it through the little button next to your mini map that looks like three people. At level 70, the Galactic Command interface (Ctrl+G) also serves as a prettified group finder, but it provides fewer options and less information. So for example if you click on the operations icon, it will queue you for the currently featured operation, but you won't know what it actually is without checking the "proper" group finder window. Or if you want to queue for an uprising through the Galactic Command window, it will always be a random one, you can only choose a specific one through the normal group finder interface. Slightly confusing, I know.

It's also worth noting that unlike group finders in some other games, SWTOR's does not provide you with an estimate of how long you are likely to have to wait, a timer for how long you've been in the queue, or any indication if you've made partial progress towards assembling a group and are only waiting for a tank now (as an example). You just have to press that "join queue" button and have faith. Unless you're queuing for veteran flashpoints or story mode uprisings, I wouldn't recommend just waiting around, best to get out there and do some quests in the meantime or something.

But what about...

Heroics? These used to be group content pre-4.0, but have been nerfed so hard that they are all easily soloable. That said, if you see other people in the area and want to group up, there's nothing stopping you. It's quite common that people just throw around group invites without even saying anything beforehand if they can see that you're obviously on the same quest, and then quietly leave again once they're done. It can be very beneficial in areas where spawns for kill quests are highly contested.

World bosses? There is so little incentive to do these these days, I honestly have no idea who does them and when. I reckon that groups must sometimes form in general chat on the planet they are on. Since the introduction of level sync, you can't overlevel and solo them anymore either.

Datacrons? Other quests? Difficult story chapters? There isn't really a big pool of public LFG-ers for these and if you are desperate for help I would recommend making a friend or finding a guild. You could always try asking in general chat as sometimes people don't mind helping out even a stranger if it doesn't take too long, but it can be very hit and miss whether someone even responds at all.

Did I forget anything important? Let me know in the comments and I might add it in! Got a question about finding groups in SWTOR? Happy to answer those in the comments as well.


The Trouble With Voss

I took an alt of mine to Voss this weekend and it reminded me of how much that planet bugs me at times.

At first glance, there is much to love: I adore the open, grassy zones in autumn colours; they are simply beautiful. And the Voss themselves are at least intriguing initially if nothing else. My very first impression of the planet back in 2012 was mostly positive, even if I found it a bit awkward to deal with the Force-obsessed Voss as a trooper.

But the more often I've revisited the planet, the more it's bugged me, and I've long struggled to put my finger on why. I now think that one reason at least is how extremely repetitive all the storylines on Voss are. If you look back at the original class stories in general, the writers did a pretty amazing job at constructing plots that forced you to visit the exact same planets (not to mention the different sub-zones on each one) in the exact same order on every character while still making for a vastly different experience on each class. Everyone comes to Tatooine, but while a smuggler visits a crime lord's hideout, a trooper goes on a mission to hunt down a traitor and a Sith warrior has a spiritual experience while trying to find a certain Jedi.

On Voss though, everything feels the flipping same. The planetary arcs for both factions, while spiced up with different details, both have you visiting the Shrine of Healing to impress the Voss and then follow this up with a visit to the Nightmare Lands while emphasising what a scary place they are and how the Voss don't like you going there. Yet when you look at the class stories, they all have you do the exact same thing! We're not just talking about visiting the same sub-zones here, but every single class having to enter the same building to grovel to the Voss mystics. It made me feel thoroughly sick of the place, which wasn't helped by the fact that part of the planetary storyline is a prerequisite to get the local endurance datacron, so it was one of those pieces of content you wanted to redo on every single alt too... at least that's something that legacy-wide datacrons have done away with.

The Voss as a species grate on me too, and I'm continuously surprised by their popularity with roleplayers. I guess it's fun to pretend to be a Voss purely because you can't actually play one, so you get to feel all special and different for having thought of it (even if lots of other people have actually had the same idea). But as a species, they are extremely dull. They love their mystics, hate the Gormak, and... what exactly? Through class and side missions we get a bit of extra insight into the lives of Voss Commandos, but not everyone can be a mystic or a commando. What are "normal" Voss like? There don't seem to be any. I'm somewhat reminded of how in early Star Trek all aliens were basically slightly funny looking humans with some random character trait exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness that then defined their entire species (Klingons with wanting to fight for their honour, Vulcans with the logic etc.). That's the sort of vibe I get from the Voss too and it feels old.

As the cherry on top, I really dislike the way they talk. They aren't supposed to be emotionless, but for some reason they always speak in some sort of weird monotone that makes it sound like nothing interests them. It's rare that they display even a tiny bit of excitement in their voices and on their faces, and that even though there is nothing in the dialogue or lore to explain this strange lack of emotional expressiveness.

Feel free to tell me why you think Voss and its people are totally awesome though.


More Patchy Goodness

Another Tuesday, another patch. I had somehow gotten it into my head that this one would be the one with the new flashpoint, but actually that one is slated for 5.4 it seems, so my disappointment with its absence was entirely of my own making.

For now, the theme of handing out goodies to different parts of the player base that have felt neglected for a while continues.

First off, there were some class balance changes. I have some guildies that keep asking me for opinions on these things and all I can respond with are blank stares. As someone who plays healers for life I pay remarkably little attention to numbers, so as long as I can do my job in ops and don't get focused too hard in PvP, I'm happy. I'm not even too worried about the Commando survival nerfs that people keep crying about (though nothing has been implemented yet), because I don't actually take most of those "OP utilities" as a healer anyway. As long as they don't take away the wonder that is Echoing Deterrence (the survival cooldown with the built-in reflect), which has increased my survivability in warzones tenfold compared to how things were before its introduction, I'm good.

I jumped into a warzone and ended up in an arena where the person who did the most damage by far was a Juggernaut tank. I didn't think that was a thing Bioware was balancing for?

There is also a new stronghold on Manaan. I bought it because I had the complimentary Cartel Coins to spare but I haven't placed a single decoration in it so far. I was quite curious about Galactic Strongholds when it first launched but never really turned into a true housing aficionado. But honestly, it looks pretty even while empty, and the lighting in the outside area looks good for taking screenshots.

... which is something I did with Lana and Koth, who've now also been given the honour of becoming customisable. I was initially surprised that I couldn't see any change, but basically they come with a "customisation" by default which retains their current look, but you can take it off and they'll suddenly lose a lot of muscle and acquire a slightly sickly complexion to allow you to dress them however you want. I can't get over Koth's forehead without those goggles there! I think I'll just leave them both as they are.

Though I have been doubting myself a bit, based on the amount of chatter I've picked up from people who are over the moon about being able to put them in different clothes. I'm somewhat reminded of how I felt when Galactic Starfighter launched and I didn't really care about it, but since it was all everyone was talking about I felt that I should give it a try because I didn't want to miss out. Is playing space barbie really where it's at? I don't know.

My guild also had a brief look at the new operations encounter on story mode, but I really want to see more of it before giving my opinion on that!


Archaeologists, the Unloved Gatherers

This is a post that has been sitting in my drafts folder for a little while, and before that I'd been bouncing the idea around in my head for even longer. I think it's about time that someone speaks up for the poor archaeologists.

Of the three gathering crew skills (strictly speaking you could count slicing as a fourth, but I don't think that gathering money really counts), my bioanalysts and scavengers never have issues maintaining a healthy supply of high-end crafting materials. I spend most of my time in PvE doing group content, and in both flashpoints and operations, there are plenty of beast and droid type mobs that can be disassembled for their parts. But what is there for the archaeologists? Nothing! Nowhere!

Now, I'm not saying that we should start fighting living crystals (better not give Bioware ideas) and I don't think there's any existing mob type for which it would make sense to suddenly turn out to consist of artifact fragments. But there are plenty of existing instances where it would make perfect logical sense to place some artifact gathering nodes at least:

Assault on Tython, Korriban Incursion: The seats of the Jedi and the Sith respectively are known for suddenly revealing ancient forgotten artifacts to this day, why not let us find some?

Athiss, Legacy of the Rakata: What better places to discover interesting archaeological finds than on planets that are home to forgotten civilisations? Athiss actually has a couple of artifact nodes but except for the ones that unlock shortcuts, they just give pretty useless buffs and you can't level your skill on them either.

Battle of Ilum: The whole reason people are fighting over Ilum is its crystal supply, where are there none for us to pick up in the caves?

Battle of Rishi, Blood Hunt, Hammer Station, Lost Island, Taral V: These all have at least some outdoorsy areas where it would make sense to find a crystal or two.

Cademimu, Kaon Under Siege: OK, city planets are a bit of a stretch, but considering the sheer amount of junk lying around on the streets of Corellia, why shouldn't we find anything on these too?

Operations also offer up multiple locations where it would be perfectly reasonable to find artifacts and/or crystals: Eternity Vault, Terror From Beyond, Scum & Villainy, Dread Fortress & Palace, and Temple of Sacrifice all qualify in my opinion.

Now, you could argue that if we're going to start placing static gathering nodes for archaeologists in instances, why not have some for scavengers and bioanalysts too, aside from the corpses of mobs? And you know, I wouldn't mind that either. But they already have something, while archaeologists leave every instance empty-handed. Give them some love first, I say.


Trying Secret World Legends

I mentioned previously that I was trying out another new MMO this month... and this MMO has been Secret World Legends. Yes! For once I, too, am on the bandwagon of bloggers all trying out the new shiny on the block (sort of).

Unlike LOTRO, the original Secret World was an MMO that I never had any desire to play, for one simple reason: the setting. I don't have much interest in horror and mystery at the best of times, but completely immersing myself in a world filled with these things? No, thanks.

I still enjoyed reading about the game sometimes though, mostly because it's a great example of how a loyal and vocal community can greatly influence public perception of a game. From what little numbers we have (such as steam charts), the original Secret World seemed to have a player base of a size roughly in the same ballpark as Wildstar. Yet while the latter is constantly lamented as dying and seemingly no news article can avoid mentioning threats of closure, Secret World was consistently praised as a successful niche game and for supposedly having a payment model that "does it right". I remember I once mentioned in a comment that I didn't think Secret World's payment model was working out well for Funcom and was immediately told off for daring to suggest such a thing. I have to admit I felt quite vindicated when a Funcom dev said pretty much just that in an interview leading up to Secret World Legends' launch: that part of the reason for the reboot was that they needed to find a different way to monetise the game.

But I digress... as I was saying, I was never planning to play it myself, but a couple of months ago my pet tank suddenly got it into his head that he wanted us to try it together, and with the F2P relaunch coming up it was really hard for me to say no. So it happened, and here we are.

For someone who went into the game fully expecting not to like it very much, I found myself strangely attached to my green-haired, bespectacled Templar surprisingly quickly. (Once I had made it through the slightly strange character creation screen, which had everything in hexes... which is probably in line with the magical bee theme from the intro but made it kind of hard to see all the options.)

Reactions to the new tutorial from veterans seem to be mixed, but to me it seemed serviceable. In fact, I could have done with some more information still. Even if you pride yourself in your game being challenging, figuring out how the UI works should not be the main event! I think the main reason I didn't have more trouble than I did was that a lot of keys were mapped similar to how things work in Neverwinter. But as an example of what was lacking: As a "Ravager", I was given a healing skill to start with but there wasn't even a mention of the fact that there is a separate friendly target and that you switch it by using the mouse wheel. That I learned only through reading other people's comments about the game on blogs. (Pretty cool feature though.)

The quality of the cut scenes was also good in my opinion, except for some of the NPCs having awkward, nutcracker-like mouth movements which stood in stark contrast to everything else - but then I also read somewhere that this is a bug and not how they usually look. I immediately disliked my character's silence though, something that I knew to expect from videos and which I'd already found off-putting the first time I saw it. I don't need my quest delivery to be super-fancy, but if you do put work into such detailed cut scenes and voice acting, it has to go both ways. As it is, all the NPCs monologuing on and on while my character just stands there looking like a lump falls into a sort of uncanny valley for me... close enough to believable human interaction to draw attention but then missing the mark, with the final result veering mostly into awkward and unintentionally comical. Maybe it works for people who imagine their character as someone super shy who always clams up in the presence of anything that isn't a zombie.

Don't mind me, I'll just stand here and stare at you blankly... it's my thing.

Since I never played the original version of the game, I can't comment on just how the new streamlining and combat changes compare to the original, but to me they seemed... okay. I never felt lost for things to do, though the sheer rigidity of the level requirements for some quests seems a bit patronising. While questing in a group, I also found the quest tracker a bit annoying as it allows you to pick up several missions at once but will only ever display one, and the game can be very fiddly with individual mission steps - sometimes they update for everyone in the group, sometimes they don't. It's become a running gag how often I had to backtrack because I had missed a "click on this" step somewhere and suddenly couldn't progress.

The combat seems okay so far, though it's a bit hard to judge when things fall over as quickly as they do in the first zone. In fact, while questing with my pet tank we repeatedly ran into the problem that he started attacking a rare mob from range and it would die before I could run into melee, resulting in no loot baggie for me.

My starter class combines fist weapons and blood magic - god knows how I heal people with spiked fists, but considering that I spend my days dishing out healy goodness in SWTOR with a giant assault cannon, who am I to judge? Things may have been simplified compared to what they were like, but I still had to rearrange my bars multiple times already to find a combo of skills that worked for me. In fact, I think I'm still not quite there yet, despite actually willfully ignoring a lot of the built-in complexity for now and trying to keep things simple.

As an example, fist weapons have this mechanic called fury, which you can spend on going into a frenzy, which in turn gives you more powerful skills to use. In theory. In practice, every time I tried this the frenzy state was so short (3-5 seconds it seemed), that I had trouble figuring out what was even going on. Later I deduced that apparently all those exciting, more powerful skills are pretty much the same as my regular ones, only with slightly bigger numbers. I decided to just forget about the whole thing for now as too much of a hassle. If it matters later on, I will revisit it.

Being in a group at all times hasn't really helped in that regard, because as mentioned above things die way too quickly. It has also affected my experience of other parts of the game. Like those much-acclaimed investigation missions that people like to talk about? Well, my pet tank has already done them all on his second, higher-level character, so each one so far has basically consisted of me plodding after him while he mumbled something about "music puzzle here, need to enter the correct notes" while I'd just smile and nod until he was done. (Credit for those things was thankfully shared, so I basically got all those missions done without actually investigating anything myself so far.)

One thing that was a really positive surprise to me was the first dungeon. This already opens up at level 10 and I thought it was super fun. Not very difficult perhaps, but once again I found this hard to judge since my pet tank was constantly instructing me to avoid this or run over there. There did seem to be some mechanics that would most likely have killed a group of completely ignorant new players. Either way I found it extremely fun and atmospheric, and immediately wanted to run it again once we were done. I was surprised in so far as I remember seeing very little talk of TSW's dungeons on blogs and such... I guess that like with SWTOR, everyone is so focused on the unique features of the solo content that the lovingly crafted group content gets treated as a side feature? In my opinion it shouldn't be (in either game). We also wanted to try some PvP but there currently seems to be some sort of bug when you try to queue as a group that will only queue one of you.

Fighting winged Cthulhu as early as level 10? Sure, why not!

Overall, my impression of the game so far has been a lot more positive than I expected. They've clearly made an effort to make it more appealing to people who had no interest in or disliked the previous version, and it shows - even if previously loyal veteran players are understandably annoyed by the result. Whether it will work to give the game a second lease at life... who knows. Even though there's been noticeably less buzz about it on my blogroll than there usually is for a completely new MMO, the "new game smell" is still strong: The official subreddit is full of fun threads such as customer service admitting they are too busy to deal with anything but payment issues or people being totally unable to play the game, or a player complaining that they spent over 400 dollars on lockboxes without getting the items they wanted (whales ahoy). Sustainability is something else though.

The new monetisation model reminds me a lot of Neverwinter's, which is widely criticised but clearly works to support a steady stream of content updates. Specifically the triple currency system is very reminiscent of Neverwinter's (I keep referring to the middle currency as astral diamonds whenever I forget its proper name), and they even had their own version of the Caturday exploit just before launch! Likewise the weapon upgrade system has a lot of similarities to Neverwinter's artifact refinement so far. The question is whether SWL will also copy the overall trajectory of that game's monetisation: which is to be extremely generous at low levels and to casual players, while squeezing those who are highly invested in gear upgrades for all they are worth.


AFK in PvP

The scene: Alderaan Civil War on a Friday night. While waiting for the match to start, people inspect their fellow team members to get a better idea of what they are in for. Suddenly someone points at a well-geared Togruta Sage and shouts in ops chat: "Not THAT useless guy again! He just goes AFK for the entire match and does nothing!" Then the accuser quits the group.

I wasn't quite sure what to think of this dramatic outburst. People will say a lot of stupid stuff in PvP, as evidenced by ops chat in many a random match I've been in, but to see such an eruption of anger before the game had even started was definitely odd. Still, I wanted to presume the Sage innocent until proven guilty, and just made a note to myself to keep an eye on him.

However, once the match had started and we were brawling around the middle turret, all was forgotten. I was the only healer on my team and the Imps knew it, with the enemy melee on my case at all times. I was forced to practice my kiting, which strangely led to one of my own team members shouting at me to stop running away! I think he was having trouble keeping up with the people chasing me and whom he wanted to kill? I think I spotted Pfannenstiel and his friend Sanne on the enemy team too.

We actually managed to cap a side turret first and were ahead for a little while, but eventually we lost the fight at mid and then never quite recovered enough to reclaim a second turret. "Oh well," I thought, "we gave it a pretty good go". Only as the last couple of hitpoints of the Republic ship were ticking down did I suddenly remember about the Togruta Sage. Looking at the map, I spotted him standing in a corner in the tunnel underneath the middle turret, out of the way of combat and away from any objectives. When the scoreboard came up moments later, it showed a big, fat zero in all columns for him... except for damage done, where a very, very low number seemed to indicate that he had hit a single offensive ability at one point, probably to earn the one medal required to get rewards for the match. The doomsayer at the start had been right.

My mood instantly transformed from being gracious in defeat to pure anger. Considering we had held our own as well as we did with one person down, actually having an eighth who contributed to the match in some way surely would have made a difference. I rarely get angry at people for playing badly, because we all have to start somewhere - but this was something else: someone actively sabotaging their own team for the entire duration of the match. Infuriating. I went to rant about it on Twitter and got a bit of a conversation going.

Now, let's not make a mountain out of a molehill here: This isn't something that happens often in SWTOR. For comparison of what things can be like, I only have to think back to a certain period in World of Warcraft's life cycle when the entrance to Alterac Valley was dubbed the "peace cave" by many, as it was not unusual for half the team on each side to just sit around AFK. But on the rare occasion when it does happen in SWTOR, it's still highly annoying, especially as the game's warzones feature smaller teams, where even a single AFKer can deal a severe blow to their side.

There is actually a feature to kick AFKers from the warzone, but I think many people don't know about it because it's so rarely used and not well documented. The way it works is that you can right click on someone in the ops frames and mark them as being AFK - I'm not sure how many people are required for the system to take action, but I don't think it's very many, though still more than one. If enough people mark the AFKer, there is an announcement, which is visible to the rest of the group as well, that they have to engage in combat or will be removed from the warzone. If the player then gets into a fight, the flag is cleared, otherwise they are kicked after some time (if I remember correctly).

I have actually seen this work in the past, but it's a bit of a hassle. Specifically I remember a Novare Coast where a stealther had decided to just idle somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I called them out in chat and managed to drum up enough support for a kick, at which point they briefly engaged in combat to clear their flag before going back to their previous idling in stealth. My memory of the incident is a bit fuzzy, but I think we then flagged them a second time and they actually ended up being removed... eventually. However, I'm sure you can see how this is a lot of effort to remove a leech, considering that you actually want to be focusing on the game instead. There have been other occasions for me when there simply wasn't enough time or engagement to get the AFKer kicked and they went on to finish the game with full rewards.

Now, I understand why Bioware wouldn't want to make it too easy to kick someone: to avoid people getting bullied or targeted by outright trolls, just because they don't have good gear for example. But it's an interesting contrast to GSF, which tackles the AFK problem in a completely different manner: by automatically flagging people AFK if they don't engage for too long - there is no threat to be removed from the match here, but you simply won't be eligible for any rewards if the match finishes while you have that flag up.

Ironically, I've been flagged as AFK in GSF quite a few times simply due to my own incompetence, as sitting in your gunship and missing every single shot doesn't count as being in combat. However, I always managed to clear the flag in short order. So why can't ground PvP have something similar?

My first thought was that objectives that don't involve combat would be a problem. Nobody should be flagged for guarding a turret! But this is already a thing in GSF too, and sitting on a satellite in a domination match is correctly counted as a perfectly valid form of participation. Likewise, the warzone scoring system knows where the objectives are located on each map and you could automatically be exempt from being flagged while you're near one. AFKers tend to avoid those places anyway, because they want to stand as far out of the way as possible to avoid being killed.

I suppose I could see some situations where such a system could throw up false positives: For example a stealther running ahead in Huttball to be ready for a pass later. But as long as there was sufficient leeway in terms of how long you can be in this state, I think it would be fine. If you spend minutes on end just standing around in stealth and waiting for a pass that doesn't come, you're not really helping your team anyway and would probably be better off trying something else.

So, why do we have such a much more clunky system in ground PvP instead? Maybe people can think of other ways to improve it instead of copying the way GSF handles it?


Cruising Along

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nightlife Patch

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

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

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

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

Sigh, if I have to...

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

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

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