The Bolster System, or The Guardian’s New Clothes

April 17, 2013 1 comment

“Going into a Warzone completely naked will now be worse than wearing gear.”patch notes 2.0.0b, official commentary.

Shades of Ilum all over again.

First, Naked Bolster. Well-intentioned idea, designed to aid the true lowbie who simply hasn’t filled out some gear slots (helmet, mostly) got entirely out of hand and morphed into the new normal for everyone.

Amazingly, the first iteration of the new bolster system, whose intent was to make obsolete gear competitive, managed to single out and penalise precisely those bits of obsolete gear that most returning PvPers would like spruced up temporarily, i.e. old War Hero/Elite War Hero, Recruit MkII and perhaps even older sets; we can assume that players who returned for RotHC may be dusting off some long untended characters. Because of the inclusion of expertise in their item budget, these were quite literally valued the worst.

Presently, we are at a place where expertise and non-expertise items are treated as separate by the bolster system. It is officially a bad idea to mix and match mods with and without expertise on them, which is a little annoying to tank Guardians who occasionally choose stamina over expertise. And the old sets? WH/EWH are tolerable, just, because expertise was emergency-stripped from these items. Anything below is not recommended for use, though it baffles me why it couldn’t have been restatted in the same way as WH/EWH. By the devs’ admission, the system is still definitely in flux, and initial reports indicate that half-decent level 55 PvE gear arguably outshines the new entry-level Partisan PvP gear in PvP.

While I find all this mostly amusing, some people are predictably very cross. And even I am a little worried about the amount of confusion introduced into the system by all these changes. For the casual PvPer, whom we want to attract to warzones, the feeling that others are privy to some arcane bolstering tricks can be extremely discouraging.

Categories: PvP

TOR and Immersion

April 16, 2013 4 comments

Syl’s recent, skeptical post on storytelling in MMOs struck a little close to home for me. The ability to induce immersion and tell stories is a tremendous strength of SW:TOR, and I am not convinced we should give up on expecting this from future games in the genre. This post contains a few spoilers.

I would define immersion as the act of transporting oneself successfully into the mind of another being in another world, adopting the values, concerns and body of experience (knowledge of lore, etc.) of that being. The being in question may be quite similar to oneself, and for some people it may, in fact, be ‘myself, if I were a…’ but that is just a special case of the general principle. The other world should have enough of an impact even on a deliberate alter ego to render them for all purposes a different, if similar, person.

I am going to define narrative, a little riskily, as the specific storyline constructed from a character’s idiosyncratic experiences. In a single-player game with few choices, this converges quite closely with the game’s storyline. In an more open-ended setting, it is a combination of the game’s storyline and player-generated experiences (“…for the rest of the afternoon, the patient Jedi played a game of cat and mouse with the outpost’s garrison…”, “…we decided to explore Glarus Valley on Alderaan in search of rare biochemical compounds…”, etc.)

I have a bit of a roleplaying streak. It rarely translates to actually being a roleplayer, though I have done that in MMOs before, and it was fun. However, I am conscious of a character’s ongoing narrative at all times and I dip in and out of intervals of immersion frequently. In order to do this in a coherent and rewarding way, the game should assist me in finding out and shaping who exactly that character is, and then offer me opportunities to reinforce and express that.

As an aside, game writers have a dim inkling of the character-centricity of immersion, but they frequently mistranslate it into the need to make the character an exalted hero completely central to everything that goes on in the universe. It is impossible to immerse in something like that because it is completely outside of our experience. No one alive knows what that would be like, or even close. So we trundle along in the haze of cognitive dissonance and, at the gates of hell, count the coins we need to pay for armour repairs before our battle with the devil himself. Even though it is my main class, I have to admit that, of the TOR storylines, the Jedi Knight one suffers the most from this malady.

The game’s storyline, like lore, is important. It is the static part of the game that would best translate to a book or film, but it is also much-needed context. A character living in the game’s world must form an attitude to the events of the day. This is something we do in real life, and the absence of opportunity to do it in the immersed existence would be jarring. The events of the storyline make the character angry, inspire or depress patriotism, confer a general sense of urgency or a sense of stagnation that needs to be stirred away. Ideally, they set the mood, but they should not form all or even most of the narrative.

Syl is absolutely correct when she writes that these overarching storylines end, and WoW’s Arthas story is the perfect example of something that had begun all the way in the RTS coming to a grand finale. However, the fact that they do end simply means that new ones have to begin. Deathwing’s story was feeble and boring, and failed at filling the space left by the Arthas one. It was a failure of execution, not proof that MMO storylines are not desirable or important. Immersion requires the context they provide.

For what it is worth, Bioware faces a similar test now after the death of the Emperor, although the Hutt crisis is a decent stopgap measure, in my judgement.

Syl further advises that “…instead, the world should feature various stories to be discovered by the player and followed in his own time.” And this is where TOR does not merely shine, it blazes.

An example, familiar to any Republic player:

On Coruscant, a Nautolan refugee (Nik) asks you to rescue his wife (Ria), who had apparently been kidnapped by a local gang in retribution for his failing to make a protection payment and pressed into service as an exotic dancer. He is worried sick. After finding her, it turns out she is rather disgusted with her husband, and in fact joined the gang’s dancer troupe of her own free will. You may then compel Ria to return to her husband or let her be. You may also choose to let Nik down easily or tell him what Ria thinks of him. You may lie to Ria about keeping her secret, but actually inform Nik about what she’d done. The choices are further altered by whether or not you care about the reward, etc.

Questions to consider: Who is my character to interfere with this woman’s free choice? Do people always know what is best for them, and is dancing for the mob really the best idea? Is Ria an unbiased narrator of Nik’s flaws? Is Nik’s sob story true? Is she under duress from the gang and simply afraid to try to escape? Would this even have taken place without hardship inflicted on them by the Imperial attack on Coruscant? We are improving Coruscant and things are looking up – perhaps a second chance is what they both need? What of Force morality? What does the current companion think of it? (and they do have an opinion, expressed by changes in affection levels) Does Nik have a right to know the truth or should feelings be spared? How comfortable is my character with deception?

Because of these choices made in the little stories, playing TOR can be described as a never-ending series of questions about the character. The outcome of many of the side quests is largely inconsequential to the main storyline, so they can, and do, end very differently based on the choices made. And it is TOR’s charming habit to have the NPCs (often much later) send you mail containing some follow-up indication of where your logic led.

By the endgame, you know exactly what your character is like, what their attitudes are on war, peace, justice, love, greed, ends versus means – and if you’re grouping with other people’s characters, you find yourself rather engaged by those conversation rolls, fighting your corner for your character’s values.

When you are presented with a new planet and a new conflict, as we have been recently with Makeb, you step into your character’s familiar boots. On the character’s behalf, you have thoughts about your briefing, informed by your past choices. You have a good idea of what the menagerie of companions is going to think. You have a particular attitude, and a particular mood descends. The character’s personal narrative continues. This, I submit, is immersion.

Categories: Uncategorized

2.0 or May the Force™ Be With You

April 15, 2013 Comments off

Yes, they actually use the trademark character, as exemplified by Damion Schubert’s valediction in the 2.0 developer blog post. Yes, it bothers the hell out of me infringes upon the serene Soresu mindset. Yes, I know: what? Star Wars? commercial?

However, it is time to accentuate the positive. I was going to write up a bitter little prune of a post tracking the further WoW-ification of TOR, with direct comparisons to past WoW-patches, but I think I have submitted my MMO of choice to enough tough love already. The truth is, I am enjoying Makeb. The expansion landed flawlessly in the technical sense, it looks great visually, and it is a pleasure to quest in.

The storyline is not bad at all, and the writing and dialogue options manage to skate the boundary between spirited and corny. Even the voice acting – on my Knight, at least – sounds a little more peppy than before. I am not much of an achievement hound – in the sense of ticking arbitrary boxes supplied by the devs – but the system is a handy tracker for the parts of exploration I actually care about, and it’s more or less industry-standard by this point. Come to think of it, I wonder whether they fixed Taris completion?

Having been one of those dumb sods who missed their pre-order EA cutoff, I am not yet in position to check out the new instances. However, mini-tanking opportunities in heroic quests are fun, and the class feels much improved. Better mobility, better cleave, better overall focus generation. People have criticised Saber Reflect for its poor synergy with avoidance stats (an avoidance streak can nullify its use entirely) but given my defensive preoccupations, the reflect component is not all that important to me. I still get a few seconds of extra safety and, through Daunting Presence, an AoE threat cooldown which is never unwelcome for a Guardian.

None of this makes me a fan of the F2P thing, and I find myself wondering how things would be if the team had managed to hold on to the sub model for a little longer. However, it is safe to conclude at the very least that the weeks of gnashing one’s teeth and looking the other way as the tacky nickel-and-diming kicked into high gear are rewarded with a quality addition to the game presumably made possible by that revenue. The question does linger as to how long this content will last, and whether it will bolster TOR’s critical mass of regular concurrent users, given that the questing itself is going rather quickly. I will always have the inexhaustible stimulation of warzones, but the game needs to hold on to its rai… uh, operators this time around.

And now, back to actually playing it.

Thoughts on the Occasion of TESO Beta

January 26, 2013 Comments off

My time in SW:TOR has been serene and pleasant, if a little uneventful lately. The Guardian main’s health pool was not quite where I’d like it to be by current standards, and so I’ve spent some time grinding out the last War Hero’s Elusive mods to swap in. As an alternative to warzones, I am slowly plinking at the storylines of two alts – the Marauder and a Sorcerer. I enjoy the subversive nature of doing good on the former, and the comedy of unadulterated evil on the latter… evil backed up by an excellent damage dealer’s toolbox, even at the underdeveloped stage. I’ve always known in theory why the sorcies were so good at tearing me apart, but it is quite another thing to place one’s own hands on the controls.

Earlier in the week, however, a stone broke the surface of the pond: ZeniMax opened up the TESO beta.

I tossed my name into the hat, and it got me thinking about this next big themepark with a solid IP, and the first which had the benefit of drawing lessons from the roller-coaster ridden by the MMO industry in 2012.

For one thing, it is worth underscoring yet again that The Elder Scrolls Online is a themepark. I can think of no other modern brand that would lend itself better to a sandbox treatment, but here we are nonetheless. The themepark customer is the one being sought and, I suspect, will continue to be sought by the industry this year and beyond.

The predecessor from which TESO borrows most heavily is undoubtedly Guild Wars 2. Three factions. GW2-heart-like questing paradigm. Public quests with instanced loot. Weapon-based skill system. Reduced number of active abilities, radically-increased emphasis on their correct situational use. ‘Vignettes’ rewarding thorough exploration of the world.

Fully voiced quests, though. You’re welcome.

TESO-specific innovations include a single world (as opposed to realms/shards) with players assigned intelligently to phases based on a preferred-activity questionnaire they filled out (“eHarmony”, quipped a friend), guild allegiance and others they find themselves grouping with generally. To be honest, I am not happy with this, and not just because they’re injecting a Facebook/Twitter angle into it. I know that some people consider their existing friends’ list the only relevant social filter, but I like servers. I like the idea of meeting strangers in the wild in a persistent world and emergent server communities with distinct flavours. At least with a game like EVE, players, corps and alliances do end up sorting themselves geographically (astrographically?) anyway, achieving the effect of local colour. This, though? 15%RP/20%PvE/35%PvP/30%Exploration Phase represent!

Having staked out their single-shard position, ZeniMax immediately backtracks, sorting players who wish to participate in TESO’s Cyrodiil open-PvP area into separate campaigns which will be named after Tamriel’s cities, and sound awfully like realms. Each campaign will last for months and culminate in the capture of the Ruby Throne.

Cyrodiil sounds interesting, as such things always do when described by developers. Of course, one could describe the original Alterac Valley in WoW in similar language – paths for individuals, small groups and large groups to contribute to victory, some involving PvE rather than direct PvP activities, opportunities for asymmetrical warfare. What ends up happening in practice involves large zergs circling the area, desultorily gobbling up objectives and smaller groups of stragglers, and the most direct, uninventive route to victory (dare one say: path of least resistance?) being pursued with remarkable tunnel vision.

That said, it is going to be a huge Oblivion-sized map, and the campaign will be long term, so perhaps it will pan out differently this time. Some of the top men on the developer team come from Mythic, with DAoC experience, which may have a bearing on Cyrodiil’s design, but that lineage has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, downplayed by the team itself.

Another potentially refreshing feature of TESO is the emphasis on mob AI, which is supposed to be very aware of its surroundings and think synergistically. So, mobs attacking a fighter might try to kite him, whereas the same mobs might rush a caster; or they might assume tank and dps roles. Players are, it is said, going to get greater opportunities than in previous games for combining their class abilities intelligently, too. On top of all this, if I understand correctly, one gets directly rewarded for how skillfully one fought any mob, so even if you are alone, staying out of the fire gets you better loot or xp. Rewarding merit is always welcome, and it might break up the monotony of mob-grinding that sometimes afflicts WoW-likes, including my MMO of choice.

Incidentally, the Tamriel Foundry has done excellent work in compiling and maintaining early information on the game, so I take the liberty of outsourcing my sourcing to that splendid collection of fanatics.

While I have not yet played this game, and a lot of my notions of how it will play may be wildly off the mark, I do think it is fair to lump it together with Guild Wars 2 as part of a push-back against the WoW model. It reminds me of the recent fleeting fashion in American political commentary, which is to talk about how Bill Clinton’s acceptance of the Reagan rightward paradigm shift validated it as a true inflection point, whereas President Obama’s reversal has yet to be similarly entrenched. If there is something to the notion that a rival’s appropriation of one’s ideas is their best affirmation, then Guild Wars 2 may gain a little more credibility as genre-changer with TESO’s release.

Categories: Other MMOs, PvP

The Coin Shop or Mind Tricks Don’t-a Work On Me, Only Money!

January 18, 2013 5 comments

I am rather late to the party with this, but I have been playing my pureblood Marauder alt a little to get reacquainted with the environment and mechanics of the game. Haven’t been doing too much of my usual ‘why, yes, I can beat this ludicrous challenge if I keep the footwork flawless and Vette twirls her lekku at the right moment!’ headbutting of walls, either. As a result of the leisurely pace, there was plenty of time to notice and mentally dwell on the footprints of the cash shop. In summary: deep and tramply.

When SW:TOR F2P was introduced, I wrote that I am prepared to make peace with the shop unless it encroaches upon in-game achievement, by which I meant too much pay-to-win and short-circuiting of systems like valor and legacy which represent long-term player goals. At the time, I had been a little too idealistic to even anticipate the pay-to-breathe element or the impact on the economy. The strategy appears to be to target primarily people levelling through the stories and to inconvenience them enough that they give in and buy the necessities of everyday life. A dangerous game to play.

However, there is one property of the system which restrains me from pouring unalloyed scorn. All of the items one can obtain through the coin shop unbind after a certain period of time and become resellable, providing a very direct conversion from real currency to in-game currency. I had not anticipated that, either, and I am not entirely sure what to think about it yet.

On the one hand, every time I passed through the fleet, the only trade advertisements were for unbound shop items. The sums I have seen tossed about were on the order of several million credits per fashion item, which is far removed from the income of ordinary gameplay (especially given F2P inventory/storage/crafting limitations) and if it goes on like that, we’re going to need Stones of Jordan. On the other hand, certain utility unlocks and authorisations (like Quickbars and bank access) can be found on the GTN for entirely reasonable prices. I am guessing that some appear as undesirable chaff in ‘booster pack’ type packages which people are encouraged to buy for a chance at rare cosmetic items, and some are put on the market by gambling-averse fashion hounds (probably also subscribers) who prefer to convert coins to credits and buy their desirables directly.

Thus, an enterprising F2Per can make life reasonably (and permanently) comfortable for themselves using solely in-game currency, and a subscriber can help out a buddy with their spare coins. Even as a subscriber myself, I bought the new Section X content authorisation for credits, just because the price was very accessible to my main. Piecemeal PLEX in SW:TOR? Sure, why not. Shame that marketing is so quiet about this flexibility.

On a positive note, and whenever I manage to distract myself away from these meta-concerns, the game is as entertaining as always. I really ought to be sorting out Sullas and getting some warzones going on, but I have fallen victim to the TOR occupational hazard of getting hooked on a storyline. The Warrior’s second companion was a minor surprise to me, and I can get used to a little crisp competence around the place. On my Knight, I had to wait for that until Rusk came along.

Categories: Uncategorized

Floating With The Rest Of The Garbage

January 6, 2013 Comments off

I have not really been moved to write much lately, partly because I have not been playing TOR very much. I had gone back on my strict disavowals and clocked ten weeks of Mists of Pandaria before quitting permanently again. And for the past month or so, I have not been finding myself in a particularly MMO-friendly frame of mind.

The WoW thing was a spur of the moment decision when I learned that a friend was starting a new guild, and I do not regret it. I was in good company and had fun despite the game’s systems and flavour. I could write a long screed about everything that I found wanting, but instead, I’ll recommend this report by the venerable Big Bear Butt, whose blog I remember enjoying back when I was a young, hopeful beartank myself, obscene AR was king, and Swipe was a 3-target cone AoE.

That daily/weekly routine BBB describes did get old, quickly. I was probably not doing myself any favours trying to keep three characters in shape, either. Suffice it to say I am glad it is over, and I salute anyone able to maintain a positive adapt-and-overcome attitude toward the experience.

Since leaving the damned pandas behind, I have been playing a fair bit of Borderlands 2 co-op, checked out Torchlight 2, dug out Deus Ex: HR from the bought-ages-ago-on-Steam collection. I am told that F2P has revitalised the remaining collection of SW:TOR’s servers, and some time in the coming days I will probably hop back on. As a matter of principle, even though I am subbed, I am far from happy with the aggressive monetisation strategy leveraged against the preferred and free-playing customers – like drastic character limits and the infamous UI restrictions. I want to look forward to new, good things in the game, what with the expansion coming up, and all, but the tawdriness is getting to me a little.

Categories: Other MMOs, Uncategorized

From a Distant Perch, or Guild Wars 2

September 2, 2012 Comments off

It is tempting to do one of those cheeky ‘so, I hear there some new game out, or something’ lines, but I think it would come across as somewhat in the way of sour grapes, given how recently my MMO of choice was forced to confront its inadequate commercial success. So, best simply to acknowledge that Guild Wars 2 is out, and everyone’s playing it.

Most of the people who play GW2 seem to enjoy it, so far. The gameplay videos and screenshots confirm that it is quite lovely. It does a good job of disguising its questing to come across more like an interactive world, and its events, when they work right, offer a good illusion of a dynamic world, as well. I don’t think a good themepark MMO needs to be self-effacing about its nature, but offering quests in some kind of ‘realistic’ way is always good for immersion. SW:TOR took the step of full voice, animation and interactivity, TSW came close with great voice acting and decent animations (if no character participation) in its cutscenes. If the next big thing is dispensing with the quest acceptance ritual entirely, that can only be for the best.

GW2 seems to have cleared the ‘massive post-hype disappointment’ hurdle gracefully, which is no mean feat. Although I have no intention of playing it in the near future, I have no particular desire to see it stumble. However, there are a couple of reasons why I am taking its blissful honeymoon period with a grain of salt.

First, the no-subscription model is a thumb on the scale when putting it up against any comparable title. In the subtle competition between GW2 and TSW that seems to flare up on occasion, I am a mild TSW partisan because of the latter’s ambitious stab at storytelling and overall respect for the player’s intelligence. However, it is impossible to argue against GW2 on purely economic grounds. It is part of human nature to react more enthusiastically to comparable quality content for a lower price.

Second, I think it is generally a bad idea to make PvP the endgame of a game with a lot of PvE appeal during levelling. I expect many of the explorers, crafters, vanity-item-chasers and Asura-lovers will slowly fall away as the game’s atmosphere shifts to emphasise interserver competition and community sours, eventually becoming toxic. While the game’s event system, from the reports I read, is doing quite well while saturated with players, a drop in the PvE population, even buffered by the level scaling system, may lead to a vicious downward spiral with regard to the accessibility of the events, which may chase off even more PvEers.

Unfashionably, I’m going to keep my pontificating about a game I do not actually play to a minimum. I am pretty confident, though, that the chimera of GW2, while undeniably innovative, is not the next best way to capture the heart of the themepark customer. At its worst, a beautifully-crafted game with genuine PvE potential may well end up a glorified League of Legends. Which would be a rotten shame.

Categories: Other MMOs