Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Gree get an Knife in the Back

1-15-13 News Article

Game Update 1.7 will be named "Return of the Gree".

Following up on a prediction from my previous post, Game Update 1.7 will indeed contain a limited time event involving the Gree Enclave named Relics of the Gree.

Interestingly, or ominously, the event will take place on the planet Ilum, notorious for its design emphasis on PvP.  Included in this announcement are both gems of goodness and chilling warning signs.

First, the good.  I have enjoyed both of the events that TOR has hosted so far and I'm glad to see that there are more coming.  The Gree are an interesting conception, both for their love of geometry, their whimsical dialect, and their mysterious background.  I look forward to more Gree stories, and the potential to build reputation with this ally.

Also noted in the article is the fact that it will be possible to "join this recurring event throughout the rest of the year."  One of my complaints about new story content added to the Old Republic is that up until recently, it has all been ephemeral.  It lasts about a week and then disappears forever.  Section X on Belsavis was the first new non-instanced story content introduced to the game and that came late in the first year. 

Limited time events are great for my existing characters of the time, but I'll never get to experience the Rakghoul plague on any of my more recent alts.  In a game that is starving for new content, limited time events don't actually increase the total content of the game.

But interpreting the hints of this news release, it seems as if Bioware is taking a different approach, trying to combine the sense of urgency of the limited time event, with the story expanding value of more permanent content.

Ilum Awaits

But now: the faintly ominous.  I note with hesitancy that this event is supposed to take place on Ilum.  In the "contested Western Ice Shelf."  Let's come right out and ask the question, does this mean that some or all of this will take place in pvp-flagged zones?

So one of the HK-51 pieces is bought from a vendor in the Outlaw's Den, an area where anyone who enters is flagged for open pvp regardless of faction.  Die-hard griefers had a merry time at the start preventing people from obtaining the item.  In their eternal and futile quest to get normal people to participate in pvp, in the hopes that they will suddenly find it fun, the quest designers thought this was a good idea.

It is looking like a good possibility that the Gree event will involve the same sort of backward thinking.  Now, it's not a foregone conclusion, of course.  There are flashpoint entrances on Ilum that require no pvp participation, and I'm hoping at least portions of the Gree event will be the same.  If it does require pvp, however, as I suspect it will, I'm going to be disappointed.


So lets speak plainly.  If more than one segment in the Relics event exposes normal pve players to the threat of pvp, then the event is basically a pvp event.   If this is mainly a pvp event, then it will contribute nothing to SWTOR's need to substantially increase the story content of the game.

More cynically, is Bioware attempting  to revitalize the failed pvp of Ilum by dragging a bunch of hapless pve story gamers across the path of pvp gankers?  Is this really their big plan?

I suspect that it is.  This is their attempt to create a Wintergrasp/TolBarad area that mixes pvp and pve objectives.  My feeling is that people who want to pvp will have limited use for a story event, and story gamers will feel excluded from an event that involves them suffering through a lot of mindless ganking.

I do wonder why they don't just say it outright in the announcement, so that people who aren't interested in PvP can plan accordingly, and not raise false hopes about exciting new content that simply isn't designed for them.  If this is a major pvp-only update, then I will just mourn the loss of a favored faction and move on.

Look again at the announcement above.  Look for keywords: adventure, explore, journey, assist the Gree, ancient, uncover, mysterious.  The text urges you to face a powerful opponent in order to earn technology, a classic description of downing a boss and getting loot.  Each of these keywords is specifically chosen to appeal to the pve story gamer.  A single word in the announcement hints that this might be anything other than a purely story-driven encounter.

If this were going to be billed as a massive pvp re-vamp you'd expect words like, clash, conflict, dominate, destroy, attack, defend, rally, conquor, etc, etc.   None of them are present.

And suddenly, I find that I've answered my own question.  They want to create this sense of excitement.  They want carebears to show up to Ilum in massive numbers to be slaughtered by blood-drunk pvpers in imbalanced contests so they can crow about how good pvp is again, to reminisce about those few glory days of the wolves among the sheep.  And after the first few days, when the sad truth has spread and the pve-ers stay away, the wolves will be left alone, eying each other and completely ignoring the actual Gree event, which they couldn't care less about.

The devs want people to participate, even if they have to hide the true nature of the thing for a while.  I just think it's short-sighted to set up so many players for disappointment.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Reaction: Star Wars State of the Game 2013

A Reaction: Star Wars State of the Game 2013

SW:TOR's executive Producer, Jeff Hickman, published on the Developer Blog his assessment of the game as of January 2013.  (Star Wars: The Old Republic – State of the Game #2.)  The game has come through a lot in the last three months, successfully navigating the transition to free to play and completing what was, in effect, a complete re-launch of the game.

Loyal subscribers have taken a beating over things like the brutal server mergers and the failed expectations of the Life Day celebration, but with the influx of new free players, loyalists can see the necessity behind some of these decisions.  Players are now in the mood to forgive old wounds and start looking forward to what The Old Republic can offer in the future.  This was Jeff's opportunity to lay it out for them:  Where is the new, re-launched Star Wars MMO heading?

The Road Ahead

Let's pull apart the specific things Jeff brings up:
  • "We have two excellent updates coming your way"  He specifically mentions Game Update 1.7 and the expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel.  Take away: we're not getting any other major updates for the next six months.  Those are significant pieces of game content, but I'm not sure how they fit into the six week content cycle.
  • The Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion is scheduled for "later in the spring."  To me, that feels like a late May target date, perhaps over the Memorial Day weekend.  This is roughly six months from the launch of Free to Play in mid-November.  MMO gaming traditionally experiences a lull during the summer months, so a major expansion just as the summer begins is an interesting scheduling move. That might tend to push the release date sooner, perhaps early May.
  • Working backward from RotHC, we have to fit in Game Update 1.7 before May.  It seems reasonable to expect something in early March.  Any later than that and the impact of the update will be lost amid the general hoopla preceding the expansion.
  • Between these three month milestones, we should continue to expect pulses of content infusion from the "6-week cycle" of patches.  They have made no statement that they aren't continuing it, and if they do we'll see minor updates in late January and mid April.
As an aside here, I firmly believe that the next three months will be a make or break period for the game.  A year ago, at the first launch of SWTOR, players burned out or used up all the game content in the first three months.  Then, they hung around for the next three to see if anything else was on the horizon, before clearing off entirely.

The free to play launch was really a second lease on life.  If the game wants to avoid repeating the past, these next months will be critical for retaining their new influx of players.  If SWTOR sees the same dwindling pattern in player numbers, the resulting blow to the game's reputation will likely be one it can never recover from. I don't think they will close the servers, but TOR would never be the premier, full featured, industry-leading MMO that the developers and Star Wars fans want it to be.  Bioware must do everything in its power to sustain the game's interest and popularity over the next six months. 

Bioware is gambling that players are going to stick around at least until they see the announced expansion.  A late May release of Hutt Cartel seems perfectly placed to squeeze in just under that 6-month from f2p-launch threshold.   But players are going to need to see a lot of new content to keep their interest, released on a regular basis, and not just in a single game update.  Many players are returning from a previous try at the game last year.  To them, this is old content. And with the new free/sub models, Bioware has to offer reasons why game hoppers should stick around instead of just coming back in the spring.

Overall assessment: The developers have carved out a six-month window in which they can get the train back on the rails, a period of time that should be stuffed with major and minor game updates, and with the prospect of a major expansion at the end.  

So let's throw down a marker.  If Bioware can keep to this schedule, it will be a signal that the game is on the right track.   If Bioware misses either of these two rather generous release windows, if you as a player find that it's been two months since your last spark of interest in the game, it will be an indication of trouble.

Game Update 1.7

Update 1.7 will include changes to "a special PvP area".  This is thought to be a reference to Ilum.  Later, under Topic #2, Jeff addresses Ilum directly, stating that changes will be coming "fairly soon".  That sounds more like the upcoming patch rather than the expansion.  In fact, it is possible that we'll some changes to PvP as soon as the end of January.  The six-week cycle suggests that's the appropriate time for our next infusion, given some time off for the holidays.

Update 1.7 will also include "a visit from some old friends, The Gree Enclave".  Jeff throws in the teaser to say "though maybe not in a way you would expect."  This can only be a good thing.

The Rakghoul Pandemic event began on April 15th of last year so it's possible that we might see a Gree Enclave event in April this year - a delayed release from the 1.7 Update a month or so earlier.  Again, note that this would neatly fit the six-week content cycle.

The Republic meets the Gree Enclave back on Coruscant, and they are fertile ground for further story development.  Just speculation, but how would one expect to meet the Gree Enclave?  Probably along the lines of the way the Republic met them before, through their protocol droids.  That line, "not in a way you would expect" suggest that we're not meeting them through droid diplomats this time, but perhaps more directly.

I would love to see a future in-game event involving the Gree and maybe a future storyline where the Gree face off against the Chevin in a behind-the-scenes power struggle in which the characters are very potent pawns.

Elder Game Content

Topic #1 is titled "Elder Game Content- what is our intent for keeping level 50's occupied?"  I'm pleased that Jeff led off with this topic, because I think this is the single most important question in the game's future.  He states that it is a "top priority in the coming year."  Bioware only remains viable in the long term by offering something for people who have completed the leveling portion of the game.

I'm guardedly optimistic about his answer.  Off the top he mentions new operations, flashpoints and PvP areas.  I continue to maintain that a large portion of the playerbase doesn't engage in operations or PvP regularly, which is the reason why my optimism is guarded.  Those are important components of the game, but not something that most of the players do most of the time.  The first version of this game failed to thrive because they had nothing for these players.

Jeff's mandate is to "Keep the elder game fresh and interesting for players of all types."  That mandate has to include players who don't raid and aren't interested in PvP.  These are the story-gamers that Bioware so widely appealed to at launch.  Now, he seems to be appealing to them again.

I would call this a Jeff Hickman promise.  In the past, the philosophy seemed to be that the story gamers were engaged through leveling, but when they reached 50 they had to turn to warzones or operations to keep busy.  The Hickman Promise seems to be a direct challenge to the old-style MMO.

Also, the developer blog provided us with a Christmas list of future goodies.
  • "New difficulty modes":  I speculate that this is talking about nightmare and other modes for flashpoints as well as operations.  It might also involve re-tuning lower level dungeons for level 50-55.  Both of these would be excellent ideas.
  • "More stuff to do with your Companion":  I'm excited by the potential in this phrase, as well.   I think it refers to more Companion generated conversations and quests, which I would heartily welcome.  It could also mean companion-related daily quests or more heroic-2 missions, which allow grouping while keeping your companion with you, something not possible in flashpoints, for example.
  • "More challenges to tackle with groups":  World bosses exist as a guild activity that's not related to operations.  Recently, they introduced a world boss with escalating difficulty.  I'd like to see something more along these lines.  I'd like to see the introduction of Heroic-8 quests, which can be tackled with 4 players with companions.
  • "More reasons for guilds to recruit":  possible guild leveling, guild perks
  • "Improving our itemization"
  • "Introducing new incentives to revisit existing areas." I find this last comment rife with possibilities.  
      • I think it likely that they are adding areas or mobs tuned for max level. So in the middle of Tatooine, you might come across a level 55 Elite mob surrounded by some level 50s  They'd be deadly for anyone leveling through the planet.  However, a level 55 quest picked up on Corellia might specifically direct you to Tatooine to eliminate this threat. 
      • Of course, the HK-51 series where you collect parts neatly falls into this category as well, as does the Chevin and Rakghoul events, so there's lots of potential 
      • My own personal preference would be to suggest that they are re-tuning heroics and releasing them as level 50-55 dailies.  This would get you back onto old planets.

    Merging again

    My fellow players of Star Wars: The Old Republic certainly have suffered their share of slings and arrows recently, but the latest development of yet another round of server consolidations has people shaking their heads in bemusement.  At a time when Bioware can't afford to alienate any more of its base of core users, and on the heels of a previous server merger that met with mixed reviews at best, EA/Bioware has consolidated its server real estate for a second time.   But more ominously, they've done it in a manner that I think foreshadows their handling of decisions to come.

    Those who are left now are the most dedicated of the hardcore fans.  

    1.        This has, in my opinion, very little to do with player experience, and everything to do with getting ready for the free to play transition.  This means streamlining the game as much as possible and making it as efficient to run as they can over the long term

    The original server merges were handled very poorly, in my opinion.  They initially came out with vague suggestions that “server transfers” were going to be available, making it sound as though they were responding to an expressed desire by the community to transfer to a destination server of their choice.  In addition, they emphatically assured us that this choice was completely voluntary.  If you were happy on your server, you could stay.
    a.       It turned out that none of that was true.  There wasn’t any provision for player-directed server transfers, this system was entirely about server consolidation.  In addition, the gentle language thrown in stating that the server transfers were completely voluntary was another bald-faced lie.  This was always about server merges, and nothing about it was ever voluntary.  The only choice you had was the timing of the move.
    b.      Server merges brought with them all the problems that players were anticipating:  log in queues, increased competition for resource nodes and mob spawns, de-personalization of the larger community, disruption to guilds (including the potential to lose members, lose bank contents, and lose the guild name), and the very likely chance that people would lose their character or legacy names as well.   
    c.       That last problem was the most troubling one, because it seemed to penalize the section of Bioware’s fan base that was the most loyal.  These loyal fans were the ones that Blizzard had carefully cultivated pre-launch. The ones who manned the forums, participated in the beta events and were first in line to pre-order the game, many of them sight-unseen.  It was these fans that lined up for early access so they could get a head start on their characters and secure the names that wanted.  This was supposed to be Bioware’s reward to them for pre-purchasing the game.  Unfortunately, this reward was taken away with the handling of the server mergers.
    d.      Players actually control very little about their game play experience.  The one element of creative influence that a player has is the choice of the character name.  It is the one thing that separates my Jedi Consular from the thousands of others in the Old Republic universe.  Players become attached to a particular name and it develops meaning for them over time, not only within a particular game but it becomes a point of identity across many games that they may share with their friends. This issue of the character name, more thay anything else, represented a breaking of faith between Bioware and its long-term fans.
    3.       Now we come to yet another round of server consolidations.  All the same problems are appearing in one form or another, including the same trouble with long term players losing character names.
    a.        The first consolidation was jarring, but the players recognized that it was for the good of their beloved Bioware, and were willing to help out to get them out of the jam of having opened too many servers at launch.  The second server consolidation was like a blow to the face, with little preparation or warning and with all the grace of a cow kicking over a milk bucket.  They are heading to free to play, mergers will make the game cheaper to run over the long term, so it got done.

    b.      Bioware has always given the impression that they are listening to their fans, and adjusting their production based on that feedback.  This second merge was the kind of authoritarian move more reminiscent of Blizzard.  I think the real outfall from this second move was to strip away any of the residual good feeling that Bioware still had from their loyal followers.  SW:TOR is no longer a supportive partnership between a game company and a dedicated group of players.  Instead it is an impersonal, packaged system with all the customer concern of the average cell phone company.  Electronic Arts is a big business that makes decisions on things like layoffs and content and customer services based solely on the bottom line.

    4.       Does all of this mean that the game is now terrible and we should all leave and play something else?  Certainly not.  It’s just that we are being given a sample of the kinds of decisions that we should expect for the future.  It’s a marker of sorts.  A reference point for down the road when we are wondering how new story content will be delivered, or what benefits will be available to F2P vs subscribers.  When that discussion begins, for better or worse, when unpopular moves need to be made, expect impersonal and sometimes brutal decisions from a company with its eye firmly fixed on the bottom line.