Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Attacks of Opportunity: the Pre-Expansion Patch

Nothing good has ever come from complaining about a pre-expansion patch.  The devs are more likely to nerf things that are too good rather than attend to deficiencies.  But all in all I think we can say that the new expansion has well and truly started.  All eyes are looking forward, either in anticipation for what's coming, or in preparation for it by working through the final fragments of the old game that's rapidly falling behind us. 

I'm not going to enumerate every change that the patch brought with it, but certainly if you have many alts there were some distinct benefits.  First, the new quest line in Blasted Lands is worth taking your characters through, if for no other reason then to get re-acquainted with Thrall and Maraad as living characters in the lore.  The side benefit is that the series rewards you with several 515 armor pieces and one 520.

Or it would have, provided that you didn't complete it the first day like I did on my favorite character.  Yes, Blizzard has acknowledged the mistake but it's an open question whether they're likely to do anything about it.  On the other hand, if you were one of the few running old raids, you found that they were significantly nerfed by the stat squish to the point that Blizzard felt the need to power them back up a bit in the next patch.  So while I was an early adopter of the new content, and not getting the reward, I was not soloing raids on easy mode and, similarly, not getting rewards.

The irony here is that this quest series was advertised as an opportunity to boost the gear level of new characters before heading into Draenor.  So players flooded to the Blasted Lands with the characters that needed the rewards the most, excited for new content and a brief glimpse of what is to come.  The good news, of course, is that all of this has been fixed and the quests are rewarding gear as they should.

Gearing opportunities

For alts that are arrayed in Timeless Isle 496 gear, there are several options for improvement.  The Iron Horde quests have three rewards at ilevel 515 (necklace, cloak, ring) and one at 520 (trinket), which have helped several of my characters that don't always get enough attention.

At the same time Hallow's End is in full swing.  The Headless Horseman drops a 540 ring on every kill, not tied to the once-daily loot pumpkin, that come in four stat varieties.  Since a ring drops from every kill, it's perfectly reasonable to chain queue for the Horseman until you win the roll for the ring you need. This gives you your second ring, along with the one from the Iron Horde.

Within the loot pumpkin itself is the possibility for a plate helm or an agility sword.  While the  sword might be good for your enhancement shaman or rogue, the helm is an option for most of the plate-wearers. 

The other avenue available to the alt-friendly is the Shado-Pan Assault.  With the last patch, all gear from the Assault is purchased with gold; there's no longer any need for valor.  At neutral you can just walk up to the vendor in Niazao Temple and purchase a 522 necklace.  At friendly, however, you can pick out a number of other 522 pieces (rings, trinkets, bracers) everything but shoulders (which need higher rep) and boots (which they don't offer).  It seem that the whole ladder structure of unlocking a few items at each rep level has been eliminated and its now one giant buffet when you reach Friendly.  The catch is that the main way to gain reputation with the Shado-Pan Assault is by running the Throne of Thunder raid.

Raid Finding

Which brings us to LFR.  I've run a lot of RaidFinder recently, using undergeared alts, and I have to honestly admit that much of the toxicity and acrimony is gone.  I'm speculating that this is because everyone is so well geared and the raids are no longer so difficult that people's frustration levels are much lower.  Every run has been generally successful and peaceful.  Even when we've faced a few wipes, no one's become bitter.  All the bad behavior of the past (demanding that we kick the little ones, blaming the healers, mocking the fallen) has largely been replaced with patience and thoughtful explanations.  I don't expect it to last into the next expansion, when even in LFR things will be unfamiliar and challenging, but for now LFR has been a fun thing to do.

The main  reason I mention LFR as an attack of opportunity is that I was able to move from Neutral to Friendly with a single complete pass through the first of the Throne of Thunder raids, The Last Stand of the Zandalari.  The LFR drops from the raid bosses are only level 502 but the reputation unlocks grants access to the 522 gear at the vendor, as mentioned above.

The other reason, though, is that this is the last chance to see these raids while they are current content.  This is the last chance to run them with motivated and experienced players while they are even somewhat of a challenge and while they offer potentially useful rewards for something other than transmogging..  Soon enough they will be relegated to nostalgia runs that you grind for pets.

Draenor Rewards

Each of these activities is interesting in its own right, but I think it's worthwhile to question the entire exercise as merely an opportunity for better armor.

The argument runs like this:  in three week's time, we'll be rolling into the new expansion on Draenor and be up to our necks in new quests and quest rewards.  Also new in Warlords is that some quest rewards will be randomly boosted from green to blue, and from blue to purple.  Aren't we going to be replacing a lot of this gear in the first zone anyway?

Quests in the first zones should give rewards in the 510-520 range.  The quest rewards we pick up from the Iron incursion are typical of the first zone.  This means that your Timeless Isle gear will be replaced in short order with early quests.

However, anything above 510 will be a help with those early quests when you first hit the portal.  I remember many players experiencing frustration in Cataclysm when they entered Mount Hyjal in questing greens and blues and found it very difficult to solo.  The same will be true for alts whose gear is 429 and 463 blues from Townlong Steppes. Mists had Adventuring supplies vendors to help people catch up; it's unclear if Warlords will do the same.

The report from the Beta is that rewards from the questing portion of the game, from level 90 to 100, range from item level 500 to 600. Raiding loot, and anything from subsequent patches will move higher on the ladder.  The ranges overlap what's currently available from vendors and dungeons, so it won't be the same as Burning Crusade where elite raiding gear was replaced by the first quest rewards that came along.

Anything that you can do now will put you in a better position to experience the full story of the new expansion, to have the time and freedom to look around you as you travel through the new landscape, and the freedom to take advantage of new opportunities when they appear.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Chasing Revan: the xp bonus

In a very perceptive comment to my last post, l0n3gun brought up one of the features announced with the new Shadow of Revan expansion for SWTOR that has already gone live. Bioware is increasing the experience gained from class quests by twelve times.  It has all sorts of implications not only for current subscribers but also for how the game may be played in the expansion.

I've seen a few misconceptions about the strength of the experience boost.  It's an odd number, 12, and it doesn't seem as impressive as it is.  It's easy to confuse 12x with 12%.  Think about the 2x XP boosts that you can buy on the cartel market or are sometimes awarded for quests.  Think about the double XP weekends that were so welcome last summer.  Now consider that this boost isn't 2x but 12x.  This bonus is huge.

The extra experience is only awarded to class quests, rather than the overall xp of other boosts, but I think this reveals a very purposeful intention on the part of Bioware.  It isn't just that they want to keep their players in the game while we wait for the expansion to be released, although that's definitely a significant motivation.  And it isn't simply to make sure that players have characters ready to see the new content, though again that's a primary factor.  And where did that number 12 come from anyway?  Why not 10x or 15x?

I suspect that the deep thinkers at Bioware limited the xp boost to class quests because they are genuinely proud of the stories they created for each of the eight classes and they want their players to experience them before they are consigned to irrelevancy.  They could have provided boosts for all experience, as they have in the past, but instead they decided to focus on class stories.  With a 12 time bonus it's very likely that you would advance far beyond a planet's level range if everything was boosted.  And in that situation, the player is likely to simply leave the planet half done and move on to the next one that provided the most efficient xp.  The golden thread of the story would most certainly be lost as you jump around from planet to planet.  Like having the entire season of your favorite TV show on DVD and watching the first 15 minutes of every episode.

In fact, this is the disjointed kind of experience that the early levels of Warcraft offer.  XP comes so rapidly that if you venture into a dungeon you're likely to complete it and find all your quests have turned gray.  I'd like to think that Bioware has learned from Blizzard's experimentation and has improved this next iteration.  I'm guessing that 12x boost was carefully designed to give enough xp to level the character with Class quests alone but allowing you to fully complete at least one story on each planet.

But that brings us to the implicit negative that's lurking here as well.  If the Class quest is the "good parts" version, what do we say about all the other quests that don't get boosted.  Are they mere filler?  I'm hoping that we could, perhaps, be seeing a subtle re-examination of the quality of quests on Bioware's part, that might be reflected in the upcoming expansion.  If Bioware acknowledges that all quests aren't the same and they've decided that the very best of the 1-50 experience lies in the class quests, it may not be too much to hope that the devs might bring us more of what they consider the best.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Old Republic Continues

In what was almost a stealth reveal yesterday, Bioware announced a new major expansion for Star Wars: the Old Republic.  Titled "Shadow of Revan", this is the second major story expansion of the game following "Rise of the Hutt Cartel" and like the previous release also includes 5 additional levels added to the cap.  We're also promised more flashpoints (unlike last time) and two new 5-boss operations.

In addition to the major story content, Bioware is also re-working the skill trees into a system they call "Disciplines."  Like Blizzard did last expansion, Bioware is replacing the largely ceremonial skill tree, where your choices are all but a foregone conclusion, with something more like a skill path.  As you level, the character progresses along a set path of acquiring new skills, but the path also unlocks a small pool of additional "Utility" skills from which the player can choose.  Theoretically, these utilities will change the way you play that character.

Finally, a way forward

What interests me most about the way they've approached this expansion is that they finally appear be adopting a "story first" philosophy.  Again this is all looking at appearances from a long way out, but it seems that Bioware has chosen a major story line involving a great, overarching enemy who threatens the galaxy, Empire and Republic alike.  At lease initially, every element of the expansion appears to be oriented toward facing this threat.  Finally, everyone is on the same page and participating in the same story.

This shared purpose and shared story isn't something we've been able to achieve since the game launched.  The initial 50-level experience was more like 8 stories being told in parallel, rather than one single story in which every class participated.  Each character ends up as a hero in its own class story, but relatively isolated from all the other classes.

At the same time, the galaxy has been torn apart by a number of minor and isolated threats, again, that were largely unrelated to each other.  From the Shroud to Toborro to whatever was happening on CZ-198, from the Gree to the Rakghoul, the characters seemed to be rushing around the galaxy putting out small fires.  I felt like we were watching the TV series, with each event a different episode, rather than watching a movie.

Even the Dread Masters were confined largely to something that happened in Operations.  It was only on Oricon that we eventually brought everything back together into a single story.

Star Wars Episode X: Shadow of Revan

Now, the approach feels different to me.  We've just experienced three story-rich flashpoints that introduce new characters and new environments and given us pieces of the puzzle, glimpses of what is to come.  And building anticipation for the main event, something that will require our total commitment and reward us with an epic and heroic adventure.

I realize that somewhere inside, I'm still yearning for Star Wars Episode X: Shadow of Revan.  I want an experience that rivals one of the main films, and I believe that the MORPG is capable of delivering it.  Clearly, Makeb did not reach that scale but Revan has the stature to be the next great villain.

 A brief glance back...

Just as a post script, I want to indulge myself for a minute by directing our attention to one of my posts back in August, SWTOR: Fall Calendar where I predicted that the new expansion would be released on December 2nd.  If you are a subscriber and pre-order, that is indeed the date when the game is first available.  That's also the date when the mechanical changes to skill trees go live.

So, while I claim that prediction is accurate, it's still up in the air whether we'll see any further update in the late October/early November timeframe as I also suggested.