26 June 2013

Summer Project

Summertime has traditionally always meant a decline in raid activity because many people went on vacation or were otherwise occupied enjoying the beautiful weather which left those who did not care for these kinds of distractions behind and frustrated. On the other hand, it could also be seen as an opportunity to focus on something else – a different project, so to speak – until things were coming back on track in autumn. That is what I usually did back in WoW; e.g. leveling another alt or go achievement hunting.

Since I am no longer raiding or interested in in-game achievements for that matter, I have decided to pursue my very own summer project nonetheless. While it cannot be called an experiment in the scientific sense, it will serve to satisfy my curiosity regarding two distinct aspects of MMO gaming, namely “free-to-play” and different server cultures. So here is, without further ado, the title of my summer project:


The idea behind it is to test how the two games differ for F2P players who never spend any real money. SW:TOR offers an exhaustive overview of their F2P restrictions, some of which seem rather ridiculous, such as the reduced number of quickbars or the lack of certain emotes (/hello – WTF?!). RIFT on the other hand claimsNO TRAILS. NO TRICKS. NO TRAPS.” Whether or not that is actually true remains to be seen. I can already attest to the fact that RIFT (same as SW:TOR) allows only two characters per server for F2P players. Unlike SW:TOR, however, that is not made explicitly clear until one tries to create a third character. Moreover, there have also been some problems with the auction house not working properly for F2P players. As it stands now, F2P players can use the auction house only to buy items, but are unable to create their own auctions at all. Again, this is not stated anywhere explicitly.

I have created two brand-new accounts specifically for the purpose of the summer project with characters on the two French PvE realms Mantle of the Force (SW:TOR) and Nomi (RIFT) respectively. I did not have any characters on either server prior to the experiment; in fact RIFT is an entirely new game for me. This will allow me to experience the differences in server culture at least from SW:TOR’s perspective where it also has the additional benefit of eliminating possible Legacy interferences.

My character on Mantle of the Force is a Cyborg Commando, currently level 19 (courtesy of the recent Double XP Weekend). I purposefully chose the Republic Trooper because it has one of my favourite class stories – only surpassed by the Jedi Consular and, of course, the Imperial Agent – and the Commando Advanced Class due to Hail of Bolts, which I consider to be one of the best abilities greatly facilitating trash groups.

On Nomi I decided in favour of the Defiants and created a Kelari Warrior, currently level 21. I did a bit of research beforehand because I wanted to try something different this time. So, very unusually for me, I went with a dual-wielding melee character that I enjoy immensely at the moment. I must also say that this guide was tremendously helpful in getting me started in RIFT.

Over the course of the summer, I will now and then write a post comparing the two games and their respective F2P models. At times I will also include observations on the different server cultures. I am always open to suggestions and will try my best to answer specific questions.

20 June 2013

SW:TOR // Operations

In Star Wars: The Old Republic Operations are described as large-scale multi-group missions, i.e. extended PvE content, the equivalent to WoW’s raids. Shintar already remarked that, at least from a linguistic point of view, the name Operation is not very fortunate because the corresponding verb, operating, does sound rather weird in this context. This is probably one of the reasons why this activity is frequently called raiding in SW:TOR as well. Another reason could also lie in WoW’s market dominance which is further exemplified by SW:TOR’s raid structure, e.g. several versions of the same Operation varying in difficulty. As a strong proponent of the raid model featured in classic World of Warcraft and its first expansion The Burning Crusade, it should be obvious that I do not welcome this approach.

Like Shintar I was unsure whether I should enter the raiding game in SW:TOR at all. My considerations became heavily influenced by real life obligations which simply left me no time for extended playing sessions and the social ties that once were required. (Note that SW:TOR did not feature a tool for automated grouping at launch. It is very unfortunate that the developers gave in to the constant whining and cries for a “Dungeon Finder” – at least it is still restricted to the same server.)

I have no guild affiliation or any other social ties in the game so far. Moreover, I consider it highly unlikely that I will establish any, now that the game is changing drastically into a direction I do not appreciate. My first-hand experiences concerning Operations are therefore very limited. The only time I actively joined an Operation was during the “Relics of the Gree” event for the two World Bosses (Gravak’k and Surgok’k) and the instanced, single boss Xenoanalyst II. If I remember correctly the group consisted primarily of a raiding guild in need of a few more warm bodies. I already had the associated mission in my mission log, so I happily joined as DPS on my Sith Sorcerer. Preparation took some time which gave me the chance to consult Dulfy’s guide and to familiarize myself with all the relevant elements of the encounter. Everything went smoothly and we defeated the boss in the 16-player version on both difficulties (Normal and Hard Mode). Nevertheless, this experience did nothing to re-awaken my interest in joining a guild to start raiding regularly again now that I actually have the time to do so.

Regarding the Group Finder, I was unable to find even a single group to join during a three hour playing session. I did try more than once, though. It may have something to do with The Progenitor being an RP server as I have noticed that players on these kinds of realms seem to have very different priorities. This might also explain why requests for raid groups are far and in between. The very few ones that I do notice, however, share the same illusions that have been prevalent in WoW for quite some time now. In order to join a PuG the raid leader requires potential candidates to already know every encounter beforehand and in addition expects them to be overgeared for the proposed content. Taking a closer look at the Undergeared project should illustrate how ridiculous that is. The easiest way is not always the right way.

Shintar speaks very highly of raiding in SW:TOR (“oodles of fun”) as do others. Nevertheless, I still cannot shake the feeling that – judging by the game’s overall difficulty – the actual raiding experience may turn out to be quite shallow indeed. I must admit, however, that this is an educated guess at best, since I really have no personal (empirical or anecdotal) evidence whatsoever. It's just my impression that raiding (or “operating”) in SW:TOR is not worth my time. This may also have to do with the fact that I am no longer interested in any kind of gear grind.

18 June 2013

SW:TOR // Warzones

Star Wars: The Old Republic currently has five Warzones (instanced PvP battlegrounds) available: Novare Coast, Alderaan, The Ancient Hypergate, Huttball and Voidstar. I rather enjoy the first three and utterly dislike the latter two so much that I'm always on the verge instantly leaving when I see the loading screen.

Please bear in mind that the following account pertains solely to my experiences advancing the Republic’s war effort below the level cap as I may have only ever once participated on the Imperial Side. In addition, my first-hand PvP knowledge is limited to two healing Advanced Classes, namely the Jedi Sage and the Scoundrel. Moreover, this is the perspective of a solo player operating without the support of pre-made teams. I would like to recommend reading this post by Shintar if one desires a more in-depth view into SW:TOR’s PvP content, particularly at the level cap and concerning the adjusted “Bolster” mechanic.

Success in Warzones can only be achieved by focusing on the objectives, not by randomly killing as many enemy players as possible. That should not indicate, however, that the latter is in any way prohibited by the former. Things normally go best when the leader declares a common (and sensible) strategy during the preparation phase which in turn everybody follows. Unfortunately, in most cases that is wishful thinking. Either people openly or privately disagree and follow a different, yet not disclosed, battle plan or they are completely new and lost or they have a different motivation all together and get their kick by “pwing some nubs” one on one. This will most certainly result in a terrible defeat which then again does not really matter because SW:TOR (such as WoW), of course, rewards losing and playing badly.

I have participated in a considerable amount of Warzones by now and I can count the number of times that a Tank was guarding me on one hand. I usually announce that I am a Healer during the preparation phase of every match. It seems that Tanks are either guarding their personal friends and/or guild members (fine by me) or simply cannot be bothered. Talk about lowering the odds right from the start. Usually though, most players follow their own (aforementioned) agenda and their primary goal is killing as many enemy players as possible, regardless of the overall outcome. Afterwards they are happily complaining that “pubs suck” because “we lost again”. Unbelievable!

(1) Novare Coast

My favourite Warzone is Novare Coast where the objective is to take (and keep) control over at least two (of three) mortar emplacements. Once capped, they will begin attacking the enemy base. A very successful strategy lies in capping the western emplacement fast and keeping it controlled. This is best achieved by any Jedi Consular due to Force Speed. The rest of the team should relentlessly focus its entire attack on the southern emplacement. As soon as both emplacements are safe, five players should remain at the southern one, while one additional player is deployed to the western emplacement (ideally a Healer and a Tank or a strong DPS are now on guard duty). Just standing there and doing nothing for the remainder of the match can easily become boring but it is still vital to keep that emplacement safe. Depending on the attack patterns of the enemy, one or two additional helpers need to move across the battlefield from time to time fighting off approaching enemies. Following this method will usually yield very successful results, a landslide victory with the home base remaining undamaged.

However, when no strategy is declared in the beginning and people just run around aimlessly, all the while only serving as cannon fodder for the enemy, things will suddenly look very bleak indeed. I distinctly remember one occasion where I was defending the western emplacement on my Jedi Sage and another player kept accusing me of doing nothing but standing there and “afk-farming” medals. He simply could not understand that the key to victory in Novare Coast is to keep the western emplacement safe at all times (always!). Losing “west” for a prolonged period means almost inevitably defeat. So be smart: keep “west” safe, even if it is boring or other people are yelling at you to do something else.

(2) Alderaan

Another Warzone I greatly enjoy is Alderaan Civil War which is very similar to Novare Coast in terms of objectives. They only differ in name (turrets instead of emplacements and troop transport ships instead of beachheads) and in the layout of the map. The strategy, of course, is similar as well: cap two turrets and defend. What happens, however, is that usually everyone storms the central turret like headless chickens while the enemy is capping the eastern and western turrets. Lately, it seems that the Empire has completely given up on the middle as I have noticed several times groups of four capping the outer turrets (“grass” and “snow”). Good luck defending against that onslaught on your own.

The typical Warzone match then goes something like this: at least 7 Republic players storm the middle and maybe 1 (lucky or rather unlucky) sod heads to the western turret (grass) in hopes of capping it. Meanwhile the Empire has split up into two teams of 4 each moving forward east (snow) and west (grass). They can then easily cap those and just need to defend them in order to assure almost certain victory. Usually it takes some time before the 7 Republic players, who are vehemently defending the empty middle against nobody, are becoming aware of what has transpired. I cannot remember ever winning this Warzone and any attempt to convince the group of the alternate (Imperial) strategy in the preparation phase is futile at best.

(3) The Ancient Hypergate

This Warzone is quite literally the middle-ground for me as I am neither overly fond of it nor do I detest with all my heart. I must say that I cannot provide a surefire winning strategy even though this is the one Warzone I win most of the time. Whenever I see the loading the screen, I instantly think “hooray, another victory”. Since I basically have no clue what to do there other than healing people and collecting orbs and dropping those at our pylon, it must be that my team mates are usually very strong and competent. Why only in this Warzone though? I have noticed that most victories follow a similar pattern: the entire group ventures towards the central complex where we collect orbs and defeat enemies. At some point, shortly before the timer reaches a critical phase someone, somehow captures both pylons and our meter goes up. Do that two maybe three times and the Warzone ends with a congratulatory victory screen.

I do apologize if my account of this particular Warzone does seem rather lacklustre. Maybe someone can enlighten me as to the finer details.

(4) Huttball

A very controversial Warzone, Huttball, puts two teams against each other in a match of the dangerous new sport that has captured the hearts and minds of the people on the Smuggler’s Moon of Nar Shaddaa. The goal here is simple enough: grab the ball, throw the ball and get the ball over the opposing team’s line anyway you can and your team gets a point. The tournament area, however, is not without hazards and careless players will suddenly find themselves swimming in pools of acid and catching on fire.

There is one technical reason and one gameplay reason why I seriously dislike this Warzone: from a very practical point of view, and even though my machine exceeds even recommended specifications to play the game by far, this Warzone is very taxing on my performance. My frame rates are usually at the lowest in “The Pit”, sometimes as low as 4. That is simply very exasperating, especially in a PvP environment. I honestly cannot say why that is and I plan on writing a detailed post about the technical horrors that have befallen SW:TOR at some point in the future. Suffice to say, I cannot enjoy the game if it does not run smoothly.

From the viewpoint of actual gameplay, i.e. objectives, and in comparison to all other Warzones, Huttball, requires the most cooperation among the individual team members. That can be quite an enormous problem when playing with a random group that did not agree on a strategy beforehand. This is exacerbated by the constant need to look around in order to detect people on the ledges and coupled with the aforementioned technical constraints makes for a very frustrating experience.

(5) Voidstar

The final Warzone, the Voidstar, is a derelict Imperial Battle Cruiser believed to contain the schematics to a powerful weapon and both the Empire and the Republic are racing to take control of the vessel and access the secrets stored in its memory banks. My criticism of this particular Warzone can be summed up by one word: boring. Admittedly, it is the most “action-packed” Warzone with nearly constant fighting and hardly any “downtime” but it is also not very elaborately designed. One team has to breach through doors that the other team is guarding. B O R I N G! Also, the sound that plays when the doors are finally breached is more than annoying!

As far as I can see, the easiest strategy for the attackers is for all players to focus their attacks on one side, thereby overwhelming any resistance. Should the enemy team manage to fight back, a single stealth class can sneak over to the other door and place the detonator charge without the enemy being any wiser. The defenders can split their group evenly and try to hold off the attacker’s approach. Normally, they do not all attack the same door at the same time.

Regarding victory conditions, I must admit that I honestly do not know how the game calculates each team’s progress. There's a timer and once it has run out someone is declared the winner. That is all I can make of it so far. I would gladly hear some insights as to how exactly this works.

Generally, I can say that, much to my own surprise, I actually enjoy PvP in SW:TOR. I would never have thought this possible. But the daily mission coupled with the fact that Warzones reward players with both XP and credits really make them a viable alternative to planetary questing which is why I became interested in them in the first place. Additionally, the low level PvP vendors – who can now be found on each faction’s capital world – do sell some very decent looking pieces of armour. Now if only people were starting to actually defend their Healers all would be good.

13 June 2013

Friendship is Magic

One of the universals of language is that all natural languages are constantly changing. Changes can occur on several levels, though perhaps most easily recognizable are changes in meaning, e.g. a word used to mean something different in the past. The semantic change of the word gay is quite possibly one of the most famous examples. At some earlier stage in history gay had a denotative meaning very close to “light-hearted” or “carefree” or even “brightly coloured” in other contexts. Through a series of processes (e.g. specialisation) this meaning changed into “being sexually attracted to people of the same sex”. One simply has to accept the fact that linguistic change is unavoidable in any living and breathing language.

Taking a closer look at video games and modern media, it is possible to identify a slight difference in meaning when using the word friend. Tobold has talked about this phenomenon several times and I must say that I fully agree with him. The inflationary use of the American (“facebookian”) sense of the word friend slowly devalues its core meaning. Whether one considers this good or bad or neither is, at this point, irrelevant. The important part is merely to notice this development, not to arrive at a hasty conclusion of any kind. Nonetheless, I have a very hard time imagining that someone who has over 100 “friends” on Facebook actually knows them all. That number may very well be a lot lower. But then, if one does not know these people, how can they be one’s friends?

Not unrelated to the aforementioned excursion into semantics is this week’s biggest news in SW:TOR, namely the introduction of Patch 2.2 which was supposed to bring with it the option of Paid Server Transfers. Judging by the official forums and Dulfy’s coverage of the topic many people have been crying out for this for quite some time now – basically since the very beginning of the game because they want to play with their “friends” or leave their ghost towns for greener pastures.

I'm not entirely sure how pressing the issue of under-populated servers still is because, after a series of server consolidations, there are simply not that many servers left any more: 9 European servers (3 each for English, French and German players) and 8 American servers, covering the different US time zones. The Asia Pacific servers are being shut down in a few months and people there are given the option to transfer their characters to any other server free of charge. Considering the limited options, I still fail to see how one server can be seen as being vastly more populated than the others – at least from a European point of view. Maybe the situation is really different in the U.S. And maybe this entire discussion is simply a lot more important in the U.S. because the American servers may actually have very strong imbalances in server population. In a European context, however, this does make a lot less sense.

As for any real life friends, I have difficulties understanding why those real life friends would choose to play on different servers in the first place. Why would they not discuss this before even creating their first character? It may be possible that they know each other, but do not know much about each other and only discover their mutual interest in gaming at a later time. Anything is possible. Looking at this post by Green Armadillo I see no convincing argument as to why the author desperately needs to transfer his characters. Granted, he is “stranded” on a server where he does not know anyone, but I highly doubt that he could not find a single person or guild with whom he could associate. He mentions that he could “name at least three other servers where [he] would rather be playing today” were it not for the costs of transferring. I can only assume that means that he knows some people on those three serves already. Now the question remains the same: if he knew these people in real life before, why did he choose a different server as his home base? However, if they are not friends in the traditional (narrow) sense then why is he so eager to transfer to their server? What if they decide to stop playing in the near future? Then he will be left alone again – only on a different server. But then again, if they are merely “Facebook friends”, what is stopping him from making new acquaintances on his current server? I'm simply at a loss here. This might quite possibly be more of an American problem, probably due to the vastness of their country.

I fully concur, however, that SW:TOR is in a very bad position here due to the Legacy system that very strongly promotes playing only on a single server. Once a player has established a large enough Legacy there is virtually no reason at all to create a character on another server, apart from maybe some academic interest in different server cultures. This is one of the greatest shortcomings and fundamental oversights in SW:TOR. The Legacy should have been attached to a player’s account. It's a textbook case of a lost opportunity if ever there was one. During the process of account creation, one should choose a “Display name” that basically serves as the characters’ surname and Legacy name and identifies the player’s Legacy. This is the only unique name! That way all other names become freely available (charactername @ displayname). This system could also have helped avoiding the One Time Password madness by establishing two distinct names: one account name used to log into the game and the official website and one display name that functions as Legacy name for the characters and identifies the user in the forums.

In short, I consider SW:TOR’s implementation of the Legacy system to be fundamentally flawed and anyone who is not a close personal friend in the narrow sense should rather be seen as an acquaintance.

06 June 2013

SW:TOR // Flashpoints

Most planetary missions in SW:TOR involve a lot of combat, especially if one wants to complete the (sometimes staged) bonus mission(s). That is all good and well for almost every Advanced Class with the exception of Jedi Sages, Scoundrels and Operatives. Note that I did not include the Sage’s mirror class, Sith Sorcerers, simply because I think that their lightning-based spells are one of the highlights of the game. The combat mechanics of these three Advanced Classes, however, are either underwhelming and boring (Scoundrel and Operative) or visually massively disappointing and at times very annoying (Sage). This can best be demonstrated by comparing Forcequake and Force Storm. Generally, I would say that any Advanced Class lacking proper AoE abilities readily available will feel slow and tedious in combat due to the enormous amount of trash groups. Commandos, Mercenaries, Gunslingers and Snipers really shine here because they have access to a powerful AoE cast without cooldown early on. Sith Sorcerers (and technically Jedi Sages) catch up at level 34.

Therefore, the traditional leveling approach became unbearable for me on my Jedi Sage and my Scoundrel, so I had to look for alternatives. After finishing their Prologues (i.e. after Coruscant), I leveled them as Healers only via class missions, Flashpoints and Warzones.

Automated and easy grouping has certainly bred a very distinct and very unpleasant player species in World of Warcraft which is why I was extremely sceptical towards the introduction of Group Finder in Star Wars: The Old Republic. I must admit, however, that random Group Finder groups in SW:TOR are not nearly as horrible as their WoW counterparts. In fact, most of them are rather enjoyable. The primary reason may very well be the “same-sever-restriction” which seems to preserve at least some sense of community and accountability. Maybe it also has to do with the fact that I play primarily on an RP sever.

Whatever the reason, it must also have a direct impact on ninja-looting and aggressive behaviour because most people are by and large very polite and plenty of times ask before rolling NEED on an item even for themselves, let alone for their companions. Some of the more intractable individuals may require a strong reminder that I do not tolerate needing on gear for anyone other than the current player character. That means no needing on gear for companions as well. This is a general rule and I really wish the game would simply prohibit needing on any BoE item. The middle ground is, of course, asking politely and/or discussing loot rules at the start of the Flashpoint. If someone does not agree they are always free to leave on their own or suffer the nonexistent consequences of being vote-kicked.

Jedi Knight (Sith Warrior) DPS of any colour can be quite annoying on a regular basis because Force Leap (Force Charge) is apparently too irresistible, which more often than not leads to ninja-pulling. Nevertheless, since SW:TOR Flashpoints are rather easy, this hardly ever causes any problems. On top of that, most people will actually listen to advice and “full clears” (i.e. killing every single mob inside the Flashpoint) are quite common, at least until reaching the level 50 Flashpoints. One of the more surprising observations, however, is that there are still some players who do not seem to understand the standard kill order (weak >>> strong; always!) and why this particular order is the most effective: it really is just common sense to kill the weakest enemy first. As a Healer it has become my habit to assist killing the trash mobs and start healing afterwards, unless of course I draw an able-bodied group where I can focus my attention on the Tank and “his” elites.

I think it is safe to assume that The Esseles and The Black Talon are the most memorable Flashpoints not only because they are the introductory Flashpoints for their faction but also because they contain the largest amount of dialogue and in turn provide the most engaging story-driven multiplayer content. They are my personal favourites and quite frankly I see no reason to skip the conversations just to rush to the end. Granted, I have never farmed Flashpoints for tokens or gear in this game and I can accept a different mindset at the level cap, but certainly not while leveling. Maybe one can imagine why Colicoid War Game might be the least liked Flashpoint when it consists of a boring “vehicle fight” (turrets) in the beginning, a rather unexciting maze in the middle and a shockingly easy arena encounter as the final confrontation. Generally, I would have thoroughly enjoyed it if the Flashpoints were a bit more difficult. Suffice to say that I was able to heal every single normal mode Flashpoint on my “LightningSith Sorcerer just by using Dark Heal and Dark Infusion. (What a shame!)

From a technical point of view, I can fully understand complaints about the lack of healing macros or mouse-over healing abilities. Clicking on a player’s portrait to target them first and then pressing the appropriate spell must feel very ineffective, especially coming from WoW and its active addon community. On the other hand one could certainly consider it only a minor inconvenience. Personally, though, I am using an MMO gaming mouse that has twelve  additional buttons on the side, which means I can place all my healing spells there and then simulate mouse-over healing. (I know it’s not exactly the same because it still involves two clicks, but it sure feels very similar.)

All in all, I can say that participating in random Flashpoints in SW:TOR is usually a lot of fun and something that can very well be enjoyed as a solo player without a fixed group. That does not mean, however, that being part of a group of friends or a guild is undesirable. In fact, I would highly recommend finding a suitable guild to greatly enhance one’s enjoyment of the gaming experience.