Minor Out-of-Game Systems Rant

I briefly thought about titling this post "Customer Service Rant", but then I realised that this would be doing an injustice to all the times Bioware customer service was perfectly helpful with issues that I've had. This isn't really about the customer service reps anyway, more about two out-of-game systems that have annoyed me as of late.

First off, you may or may not have noticed that I added my referral link to the sidebar a little while ago. It's no big deal; I just saw other sites doing it and figured that I might as well. People that use it get some goodies, I get some goodies - it's a win-win, right?

The other week a friend e-mailed me to say that he had used my link to give the game another go. He had forgot his original account information, so he just signed up through the link again, made a new account, bought several months of game time... and neither of us got anything. Scouring the forums for information on what had gone wrong, I found out that I had missed an important line of small print that says that referrals only count if the referred person ticks the "please send me promotional e-mails" box when they sign up. D'oh! I can't decide what's worse: that this is a requirement to make a referral to begin with, or that they've hidden this requirement in the small print so that it's easy to miss. I mean, most people probably wouldn't mind ticking that box at account creation in order for the referral to go through, after all you can always untick it in your preferences later if the e-mails annoy you. But for that, you actually have to know about that requirement...

Oh, and forget about trying to ask customer service for help afterwards, apparently they have no way of tracking referrals if you don't accept those promotional e-mails at signup. Clicking that referral link and confirming that you want to be referred by an existing player is clearly just for show. /facepalm

The funny thing is, the other day another friend of mine used the link and his referral did go through. so now the referral page on my account management has updated to show that I've earned the first referral reward, the Kurtob Alliance speeder. Except that I already earned that one from referring a friend one and a half years ago, under the old referral system, and it has been landing in my mailbox on every character I've created since then. But clearly Bioware has no way of verifying that either. /eyeroll

It's not a big deal for me as I'm not exactly dying to get any of the referral rewards; it just strikes me as a very badly thought out system.

The other thing that has bugged me has been Bioware's billing. I had to change to a new credit card recently and was able to enter it into their system just fine, but when my sub ran out today and I tried to re-subscribe I kept being given an error message: "An error has occurred while trying to process your request. Please, try again later." Where had I seen that before? Oh right, I remember having the same issue at launch - Tobold even blogged about it back then. I can't believe that it's two and a half years later and they are still giving out the same completely unhelpful error message. I get that there can be problems with these things, but is it that hard to actually let me know what's wrong so that I can fix it? Again I tried Google to see whether anyone else with the same problem had made any useful discoveries, but all I found were reports of how phoning customer service about this issue would only lead to them blaming your bank - even if you had already tried three different cards from three different banks and they all assured you that they weren't blocking anything.

In the end I settled for borrowing someone else's card... the same thing I had to do back at launch. I love the game and am clearly willing to jump through all kinds of hoops to be able to play it the way I want, but you'd think that Bioware would be interested in making it a bit easier for people to give them money...


Patch Day Joy

Content patch days are always happy days, but this one was particularly good from my point of view as 2.7 is chock-full of additions that are relevant to me personally and make me very happy.

I've run the new flashpoints once on both factions so far and will definitely have to make a full post about the experience. One thing I can already say is that I really enjoyed both of them and liked them better than either of Bioware's more recent flashpoint offerings (that is to say KDY and the Czerka ones).

I think it's good that they temporarily adjusted the warzone queue to make the new Huttball map pop more often, as after a patch like this, many people will queue up specifically just to see the new map: both to learn how it works and to see whether it's any fun. The learning part in particular can be quite difficult however when it only has a very small chance to come up in rotation. In fact, even with the supposedly increased percentage, I only got Quesh Huttball once in the nine matches I played. (The rest was normal Huttball x2, Voidstar x2, one Ancient Hypergates and three arenas.)

Ranked season one rewards were given out and I saw a lot of rancor mounts in the PvP area of the fleet. It was almost comical how common they were. Myself, I "only" got a title, a pet and a character-bound set of gear that looks just like Obroan with a bit of extra bling added. Not amazing, but definitely a good payout for the small effort of playing a total of twelve ranked games or however many I did (not a lot).

The changes to how AoE targeting works are amazing, especially in the aforementioned Huttball. The biggest challenge in getting a pass off under pressure has always been the problem of repeatedly having your cast cancelled just because your placement of the targeting circle was ever so slightly off. Now you can just target the person you want to pass to and double tap your keybind to pass the Huttball, which makes things so much easier. In PvE I wasn't immediately convinced that the new way of AoEing would be useful, but I was quickly converted. It's especially nice since your target's allegiance doesn't matter, so you can target your friendly tank for example and double tap to unleash AoE damage right over his head. It actually feels significantly faster than messing around with manually placing the targeting circle most of the time.

I have mixed feelings about the change to how mod levels are displayed. To be honest I never understood why items needed to have both an item level and an item rating anyway. What's the difference and what purpose does it serve? So in the long run this will be useful as it'll make things more consistent and easier to understand. (For example I always struggled to convert the item rating recommendations for certain operations to the corresponding mod levels.) In the short term however I'm very confused, as I see items drop and can't remember which of the new numbers corresponds to which tier of gear. I also kind of wish that they had kept the smaller numbers and got rid of the bigger ones instead, as the bigger numbers make gear inflation look worse than it is in my opinion. (My gear has a rating of 180? Really?!)

A small change that nonetheless made me squee is that they reduced the prices of the weapons from the CZ-198 reputation vendors to less than half of what they used to be. Arkanian level weapons are hardly anything to write home about at this point, but main hand weapons in general are hard to come by since they aren't available from the regular commendation vendors, so the reputation vendors are a nice way of gearing up alts and companions. And if you have a main who runs ops, you'll have more Elite Commendations than you'll know what to do with anyway. Now I just need the Gree to come back so I can buy a legacy saber for hilt transfers. (I have dozens of Gray Helix Components lying around, but they are all bound to different characters, so I'll need to do some dailies to actually be able to buy something on at least one character.)


Attis Station

The other day my tiny Shadow tank made it to Quesh. The class quest there leads you to a place called Attis Station, and without giving away any story spoilers, I think it's safe to say that you've got to fight some bad guys in it. The thing that makes this particular mission stand out from many others is that the bad guys are quite a bit tougher than in most class story installments. In fact, the phase is closer in difficulty to a [Heroic 2] mission than to most solo ones, featuring pulls of one weak mob and two strong ones, a strong mob plus elite combo, and one group of no less than three strong opponents. For some classes, a setup like this would be outright impossible to solo.

Not so for the Jedi consular: regardless of whether you chose to be a Shadow or a Sage, you'll have a tank, a dps and a healing companion by this point, so whatever setup you picked for your character, you'll have a companion to complement it. You'll also have access to a sixty-second crowd control, an interrupt, and at least one stun, not to mention extra abilities only available to your chosen advanced class. Basically, as a consular of that level, you have all the abilities needed to solo something of [Heroic 2] difficulty if you know what you're doing... but do you?

On the consular class forum you can find quite a few threads about Attis Station, full of people expressing confusion about how to overcome this challenge. One thread I found had no less than 22 pages. Most of them don't so much complain that it's too hard... they just aren't sure what they are doing wrong.

As an experienced player (and somewhat over-levelled for the planet on top of it), I had no problems with the mission of course, but I remember finding it at least somewhat challenging the first time I did it, on my Sage.

Taking the strongest mob out of the equation by using crowd control goes without saying.

There are other class missions that have inspired similar threads. At the time I'm writing this, there's a ten-page thread on the first page of the consular class forum that asks how to defeat the final boss of chapter one. This is one I don't recall ever having any difficulties with, but apparently he does a big cast that will one-shot the player if not interrupted. As an MMO vet, interrupting anything that looks nasty comes to me pretty much automatically, so I never even found out about it being a one-shot. But to a genuinely new player who might not even be used to paying attention to cast bars, even something as "simple" as having to interrupt a single ability can seem baffling.

I think it's really nice that SWTOR has these slightly more challenging class quests sprinkled in among the easier ones every now and then. I don't think that any of them should be prohibitively difficult (after all the focus during the class story is on the story, not so much the gameplay), but keeping in mind that this is an MMO, I think it's beneficial to train players in the very basics of how to play their class as they level up. The class story is the ideal vehicle for this as well because it's the one piece of content that almost everyone will do as they level up, and it can be tailored specifically towards the abilities of the class. A setup like Attis Station would be cruel and (at level) pretty much impossible for a class with no crowd control for example - but since it's a story exclusive to consulars, the devs know that you'll have some CC available and can require its use.

Features like WoW's recent insta-max level if you preorder their next expansion have once again ignited the discussion about the value of an MMO's levelling game vs. what you do at the level cap, and one argument that I often hear is that levelling doesn't teach you anything relevant to the elder game anyway. I don't agree with that, though I'll concede that levelling in WoW certainly teaches you a lot less these days than it used to. The thing that people tend to forget is that it doesn't have to be that way - and it's certainly increased my appreciation for the fact that SWTOR, while far from being a difficult game while levelling up, at least "dares" to challenge you enough to encourage you to get comfortable with all your class's key abilities.


Weather Changes and Day/Night Cycles in SWTOR

There aren't any.

The end.


That would be a pretty short post though, wouldn't it? Let's go into a bit more detail.

Syl recently wrote about her love for day/night cycles in MMOs and how they contribute heavily towards making her feel truly immersed in a virtual world. Rav then followed this up with some comments about how much she appreciates the changing weather conditions in Lord of the Rings Online, while also noting that this is something that she really misses in SWTOR.

I heartily agree with both of them. I still remember the amazement I felt when I first experienced rain in World of Warcraft (my first MMO), and I'd love it if SWTOR implemented weather and day/night cycles tomorrow. However, I feel that it's a bit unfair to draw a straight comparison between a game like SWTOR and your average fantasy MMO and to accuse Bioware of being lazy for not having all the same features.

Most fantasy MMOs that I know of take place on a single world (things like WoW's trips through the Dark Portal not withstanding). Once the devs figure out how day and night work in that world, how often they alternate and how they change the sky... they are pretty much done. If you add a new area to play through later, it's still going to be in the same time zone and look up at the same sun and moon. (I'd be quite curious about a game that includes different time zones as an in-game feature though, or day/night cycles that change with the seasons.)

In a sci-fi MMO where you hop around between different planets on the other hand, things are a bit different. Every sky is unique, with the differences ranging from a variety of colours to there being different numbers of suns and moons in the sky, so the changes between night and day would be different on every single planet - meaning that day/night cycles would be an extra piece of work that would need redoing every time they add a a new planet.

There is also the question of how the passage of time would work. Right now every planet is forever stuck at the same point in time when you visit - on most of them that's day time, but there are exceptions where it's dusk or night whenever you land. Now, it would be possible to simply tie day and night to the server clock and make it pass the same way everywhere, but personally I feel that it being night on every single planet in the entire galaxy at the same time, wherever I go, would be no less weird than it being the same time on each planet (but at least different on different planets) whenever I visit. So if you wanted to go for something truly immersive, you'd have to come up with unique day/night cycles for each planet - more busywork!

I don't think there are really enough space MMOs out there to establish a shared standard as for how much work should go into features like this, but I did do a quick bit of reading up on how it was in Star Wars Galaxies (which I never played). According to this page, different planets did indeed have different day/night cycles there, based on a pretty simple system - however, it's worth noting that even after eight years of operation, Galaxies didn't have as many different planets as SWTOR launched with.

So I can completely understand that this is not something Bioware chose to go for. At least when you develop a day/night cycle for a fantasy world, players will actually get to experience it most of the time (unless they are in a cave or a dungeon for example). A day/night cycle for Tatooine on the other hand would only ever be experienced by the small percentage of players who actually spend time on Tatooine at that particular moment - and the same would be true for every other planet, with the percentages getting ever smaller the more planets you add and the more you spread out the population. It just seems like a lot of work for a very limited pay-off.

Now, weather... that's something I feel less sure about. I can understand it always being day when I go to Alderaan, but I don't understand why it's always sunny. It seems to be a planet with a moderate climate, so there should be some rain occasionally. And unlike day and night, I could see weather being something that would be easier to "recycle". It doesn't have to be on a fixed timer, so it could just be randomised for each planet, drawing from a pool of existing options that seem sensible for the planet in question (e.g. no rain on Tatooine). Things like cloud cover and the animation for rain (which already exists on Dromund Kaas at least) could be reused on different planets without it feeling weird. (I probably wouldn't want to drink the rain on Hutta for example, but it would be perfectly fine looking the same as other rain.) It would still be extra work compared to just having no weather variations at all of course, but in this instance it strikes me as more of a case of having to put in the work once and then they'd be able to re-use a lot of the assets whenever they add another planet.

So in summary, while I'd certainly love to watch the twin suns set over the Dune Sea one day, I can understand why that's not likely to ever happen in The Old Republic. But a bit of weather? One can always hope.


No April Fools?

I was really looking forward to seeing what Bioware would come up with for April Fools' Day this year - but so far nothing has gone up on the site. Even considering the time zone differences, I would have expected something to have shown up by now. I'd be a little disappointed if they decided not to bother this year. While not really important, April Fools' jokes seem to have become a tradition among MMO developers, not to mention that they present a nice opportunity to remind both players and devs not to take everything about their game too seriously all the time.

2012's Ship Droid Experience is still a classic, and when I went back to re-watch the little videos they released for it, they made me chuckle even now.

Last year's Dance of the Hutts was a bit more subdued, offering no promotional videos or anything, but just seeing those screenshots of characters on their Hutt mounts again still made me smile.

A Google search for "swtor april fools" even brings up results from 2011, before the game was even released - and while I'm not sure whether this actually came from official channels at the time or was just a fan-made thing, seeing random characters converse in the Wookiee language is certainly humorous.

We'll see whether they'll still come up with anything for 2014...

EDIT: They did add something after all, yippee! "Become part of the battlefield with the newest Ship Role: The Asteroid"


Dreadful and Hateful Entity

Today was an interesting day for me in SWTOR, as we set out with an allied guild to kill both the Dreadful and the Hateful Entity. We defeated the first one with ease, and came nowhere near killing the second, despite of several hours of trying.

If you've going "Dreadful/Hateful Entity, what?", you're probably not alone, as these are "secret" bosses that were shrouded in mystery for quite a long time (by MMO standards) and even now relatively little information is available about them compared to most operations bosses. Personally I never expected to get a close-up look at either, so this (somewhat unexpected) afternoon event with an allied guild that is more progressed than my own worked out nicely for me.

It all starts with Dreadtooth, the world boss in Section X. He drops an item called Dreadful Essence, which you can throw right back at him when he respawns to buff him up, stacking up to ten times. There are achievements for killing him at different buff levels, as he grows more powerful and gains extra mechanics. At level fifty it used to take a full raid group of 24 to kill him when fully powered up, though now it can be done with less. At ten stacks, he also drops a so-called Dreadful Amulet, which can be used in the cave between the first and second boss in TFB HM (16-man only) to summon the Dreadful Entity. It has an ability called "Dread Touch", which will insta-kill anyone who doesn't wear a special mask that is also dropped by Dreadtooth (at all power levels). If you manage to kill the Dreadful Entity, it then drops an item called Dreadful Orb, which in turn can be used to summon the Hateful Entity in the cave between the second and third boss in Scum NiM (again, 16-man only).

Our group started the afternoon in Section X, killing Dreadtooth over and over again to collect masks for people who didn't have one yet and to gather more Dreadful Essences to buff the boss and get a couple of Dreadful Amulets. (I'll admit that it wasn't entirely clear to me why we needed to do this as we already had at least one amulet and you only need one to actually summon the Dreadful Entity.) This got pretty boring quickly if I'm honest, simply because of Dreadtooth's half hour respawn timer, which is just short enough that you can't really go off and do much else (we did a round of dailies once, but that only took so long), but long enough that it's boring to sit around and wait. I was glad when we finally moved on to TFB.

The Dreadful Entity fight felt surprisingly easy, though I suspect that this may be down to the fact that it was originally designed for level fifty and hasn't scaled up very well. It wasn't fantastically interesting either. The entity is basically just a floating ball of lightning with bits swirling around it (like the thing you loot after having defeated the Terror from Beyond) that needs kiting around since it periodically leaves lightning circles on the floor. It also bounces people around a lot. We got it down on the first try. It also didn't drop anything other than the Dreadful Orb, which I found kind of disappointing, though we all earned the "Dread Slayer" title for killing it.

Then we moved on to Scum NiM, where we didn't do nearly as well. I think our best attempt saw us getting the Hateful Entity to 40-odd percent before its hard enrage killed everyone. I wasn't surprised, considering that in our guild we haven't even managed to kill any of the normal bosses in Scum NiM so far. Why would we fare any better against a bonus boss? The Hateful Entity definitely felt a lot harder as well - it looks just like its Dreadful counterpart, only with a red tint, and also drops lightning on the floor, but it felt - to me at least - that it bounced people around a lot more often, which made it very hard to cast anything. It also casts death marks that will insta-kill people if not dispelled, like Dread Master Tyrans does on the council fight at the end of Dread Palace, so you have to keep an eye on that as well.

The ops leader kept us "practising" for a long time even though we weren't making any progress and it eventually got very tiring, but it was still an interesting experience. I feel less ashamed about us doing so badly after having had a bit of a read around on the subject and finding out that even though it's been six months since the Hateful Entity's world first kill, even now the number of guilds that have killed it on most servers is very small. It's just that tough.

I think that both the entity fights are pretty interesting experiments on the part of Bioware. They strike me as a nod to super hardcore raiders (the kind for whom even most NiM fights are too easy), with all the trappings of a more old school raid experience: from discovering the "secret" way of gaining access to the boss to having to farm up resistance gear for the whole raid (the masks). At the same time Bioware kept the amount of assets used to create this experience to a minimum: the bosses just use an existing model with no animations, don't really have any particularly interesting mechanics and don't give any particularly great rewards (just a title, and apparently the Hateful Entity drops masks with an alternate model, using that of the Dread Masters instead of the Dread Guard look of the Dreadtooth mask). They are just hard bosses, requiring good dps, healing, positioning and co-ordination. Their sole appeal lies in the fact that their mere existence is a challenge to progression raiders: Can you beat me?

I wonder if we'll see a continuation of this entity thing, or something similar with a different theme, in the next tier of operations, or whether Bioware has decided that even with the limited investment in terms of art assets etc. it wasn't worth the effort since too few people ever saw those fights.



Doing the Balmorran bonus series on Republic side for the first time in a while, I found myself talking to an NPC called Larindaz, a Kubaz who gives the [Heroic 4] mission "Acquired Taste". Kubaz are aliens with big snouts/trunks, with the prime example being the spy that you see in Mos Eisley in A New Hope. In The Old Republic, I can only think of two occasions where they make an appearance, an Imperial quest on Dromund Kaas that asks you to kill some, and this mission on Republic Balmorra.

The thing that fascinates me every time is that even though this guy is the only Kubaz you ever talk to, his snout has been lovingly animated to twitch and wiggle throughout the entire conversation, which I find absolutely mesmerising. Every time. (It doesn't help that the way it is rendered in this particular instance, it also reminds me a bit of a certain part of the human anatomy.)

I thought about simply posting a screenshot, but that wouldn't do the lovely wriggling any justice, so I made a short little video. See for yourself!

And yes, I'm easily amused.