Sunday, January 29, 2012

[SWTOR] Imperial Agent Done!

I got my Imperial Agent up to level 50 and finished the class storyline and also the main quest storyline. The Imperial Agent storyline (especially Light-side Imp Agent, in my opinion) was very, very good. Very spy-like, lots of twists and turns, betrayal, double/triple agents, etc. The main theme of the storyline, of how the non-Sith exist in an Empire ruled by the Sith, was really interesting.

I was expecting a lot of the traditional spy stuff, and that was there in spades. At one point, I was pretty sure I was a quintuple agent, which in retrospect makes no sense, but indicates the level of paranoia that was going on. But I was not expecting story elements to be based on Isaac Asimov's work. It was brilliant, and well thought out.

For tactics, I played Marksman Sniper. It worked fine for the most part, though it is rather weak until you get to about level 30 or so. At that point you get two abilities (one from talents, one trained) which are a core part of the rotation, and damage starts flowing.

The difficulty level is interesting too. In general, class quests were slightly easier than regular story quests, which does make class balance seem slightly questionable. Overall though, most fights were roughly the same difficulty, save two.

These two fights are significantly harder than all other fights, and it does seem rather odd. The first fight is the class fight at the end of Chapter 1. It doesn't help that it's pretty buggy. But the entire fight is based around interrupting, using any ability that can interrupt, including knockbacks.

The second hard fight is main quest boss at the end of Voss. When did pillar-humping become an acceptable PvE tactic? This fight is literally pillar-humping as you use two pillars to break line-of-sight while keeping dots up and the occasional instant.

Oh well, those two fights do seem a little out of character.

But now the question becomes what should I do? Should I start a new character and check out a new story? Should I try and do instances? Lots of choices here.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Nerfs and Listening to the Hardcore

Kurn wrote a good post about the upcoming Dragon Soul nerfs. She is unhappy with the nerfs. I am on the opposite side of the issue. However, I want to address two specific points in her post.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — I like a challenge. I loved attunement quests, no matter how crappy they were to do (doing Jailbreak twice in a single night for Majik because he was a dumbass and died? Not fun.). I loved working out strats for encounters in Burning Crusade raids, which, at the time, were incredibly punishing (Vashj, Kael, Bloodboil all come to mind off the top of my head). We were nowhere near server first, we were over a year behind in most cases. But we persevered and worked through it. The only nerfs we took advantage of were attunement removals (except the BT one, because we needed the necks for shadow resistance) and the 3.0 nerfs because, dangit, we weren’t ready to stop raiding yet. (Still, we were 4/5 Hyjal and 5/9 BT when 3.0 dropped.) By and large, Vashj was pretty similar an encounter when we downed her (on June 2nd, 2008) as when SSC opened up in 2007. There had been no 20% zone-wide nerf. No stacking 30% player buff. Nothing of the sort. 

There was a measure of pride there. I still wear my Hand of A’dal title because of what it took for us to kill Vashj and Kael and finish the Vials of Eternity quest.


I remember Lady Vashj too. What I remember about Lady Vashj was that she broke the guild I was in. We went 3/4 TK and 5/6 SSC, but we broke on Vashj. Maybe she was beyond us, maybe we should have improved, maybe we should have practiced more or been better players.

Really hard bosses break guilds. Vashj, Kael'thalas, Vaelastraz, Ragnaros.  These bosses are known as guild-killers.

Broken guilds are not good for the game, in my view. Guilds that get stuck on a hard boss, with no respite in sight, die. These nerfs keep guilds from getting stuck. Small, steady nerfs keep people moving forward, keep them from being completely stuck forever.

To me, the choice seems to be between guild-killer bosses, or nerfing. I choose nerfing.

I’ve long felt that Blizzard is ignoring its population of older players. I have been playing WoW since October of 2005. This doesn’t grant me any in-game advantage, and that’s okay, but those things that I “grew up” with, like attunements, like keys, like epic class quests, like epic instances without the novelty of a “heroic” mode… those are the things that kept me interested in the game. Those are the things that helped grow the game to 11 million players. Precious few of those mechanics and concepts remain. Is it any wonder why people are quitting? Is it any wonder why I now believe this to be my final expansion? The game is unrecognizable. The playerbase is maddeningly lazy and unwilling to put forth the effort that so many of us old-timers did and their laziness is affecting us.

Honestly, when has listening to older players ever helped Blizzard?

Blizzard listened to us at the start of Cataclysm. "Wrath was too easy," we said. "Make heroics hard like in TBC!" "Bring back crowd control!" "Make raiding hard again!"

Blizzard listened to us, and was rewarded with a significant drop in subscriptions. It's obvious from their subsequent actions that their internal numbers were telling them that the drop in the subscribers was coming from the people who found endgame too hard.

Consider the idea that ignoring the older players is the right thing to do. That they are merely a vocal minority. In my view, all the evidence points to that conclusion.

I am obviously not the type of player they want playing their game. And that’s what’s so very shocking to me. I am a good player. I am a community asset. I am a guild leader, a raid leader, a healing lead. I write a blog dedicated to the game that has had hundreds of thousands of visitors and pageviews since December 31st, 2009 (and more before then, but I don’t have any data before 12/31/09). I co-host and produce a podcast dedicated to the game.

Kurn loved the original Cataclysm heroics. So did I. We both wrote multiple blog posts extolling the experience.  Many, many other bloggers out there did the same.

And what was the result of the best efforts of these "community assets"? Two million lost subscriptions.

Our set is not as important as we think we are. We are loud, but occupy a small, tightly bound niche. There is no reason that Blizzard should give our concerns any extra weight. If anything, the evidence is proving that our concerns should be given less weight.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

[SWTOR] Dungeon Finder

The Old Republic doesn't have a dungeon finder.  A lot of bloggers seem to be applauding this.

I don't know. Maybe they're right. Maybe a dungeon finder does damage the community and make running instances less fun.

All I know is that my highest level character, a 42 Sniper, has only seen the first three flashpoints, and only the first two were done at the appropriate level. The third flashpoint I did when I was 15 levels higher than the recommended level. I have not finished a [HEROIC 4] group quest since the second planet, at about level 16.  I have done some of the smaller [HEROIC 2+] quests though.

I have a whole set of outdated quests in my log, pointing to the flashpoints I just have not been able to do.

Now, maybe it's my fault for choosing to play a DPS character instead of a tank or healer. Maybe I should have found and joined an active guild with people at the correct level. Maybe I should be more willing to spend hours on the station looking for a group, instead of continuing on my quests.

Maybe I should have stuck with the player-made global Looking For Group channel, despite the fact that everyone was using it as a general chat, and it was worse than Barrens chat.

I did try for the third flashpoint when at the correct level. I spent an hour looking for people, but only found one other person, at which point I gave up.

I really enjoy doing small group content at the correct level. I don't like being carried by higher level players. But as far as I can see, that's pretty much not an option for me in The Old Republic.

I guess I'll get to see the flashpoints when I'm at max level, and there's nothing better to do but hang out at the station and scan the chat.

Maybe the dungeon finder makes running instances less fun. But at least with a dungeon finder, I can actually run the instances.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

[SWTOR] Through a Glass, Darkly

The Old Republic has an interesting mix of zones. There are zones unique to each faction, like the starting planets and the capital planet. There are "shared" planets, like Hoth, where both sides quest (and gank, if on a PvP server) together.

And then there is Taris.

Taris is a city planet, destroyed by planetary bombardment by Darth Malak back in Knights of the Old Republic. It's now infested by rakghouls, a vicious bunch of monsters who infect their victims and turn them into more rakghouls.

Taris is a level 16-20 zone for Republic and a level 30-36 zone for Empire. But Taris is not a shared world!

Both zones use the same geography, and the same planet, and the same concern with the rakghouls. But on the Republic side, the Republic holds Taris and is attempting to reclaim it from rakghouls and pirates. On the Empire side, the Empire holds Taris and chasing the remnants of the Republic off it.

It's as if the two Tarises exist side-by-side in parallel universes. In one universe the Republic is dominant, and in the other universe the Empire is ascendant.

It makes me wonder if SWTOR is a shared universe between the two factions. In World of Warcraft, it's obvious that the two factions share the same world. You can go and visit the home cities of the other side.

But SWTOR seems to be running two parallel universes that only occasionally overlap. Which is really odd at first, and seems quite unusual. But there are advantages. With two separate universes, the storyline can unfold differently for each side. One side can "win" without the other side suffering a "loss".

Still, this quite caught me by surprise. I'm so used to the shared world, that other setups seem hard to grasp.

Is Diablo 3 Gambling?

Tobold asks if Diablo 3 is gambling and concludes that it is:

And thus the question whether the randomized way in which the player acquired the Sword of Uberness is a form of gambling is valid.

I disagree with this interpretation. Wikipedia's definition, which I think is a good one, states:
Gambling is the wagering of money or something of material value (referred to as "the stakes") on an event with an uncertain outcome with the primary intent of winning additional money and/or material goods.
The wager is the important part of gambling, and that's the part that Diablo 3 is missing. When you go to kill a boss to get a random drop, you don't bet anything. And you don't lose anything. Sure the reward is random, but there is no loss, and no initial bet.

You have to be able to lose your stakes based on the random event for the activity to be considered gambling. In a lottery, you have to purchase a ticket, and that's your stake. Losing that stake, tiny as it is, is what makes a lottery gambling.

Where you can lose money is in the buying and selling of items. But that's trade, and it's not random. Sell at the price the market will bear, and don't purchase over-priced items. In fact, if you never buy an item, and always sell at below market prices, I don't see how you can actually lose money in D3. You may end up only making a tiny amount, and the amount per hour will be orders of magnitude less than a real job, but there's no actual loss.

But without the wager, without the bet, without the possibility of loss, there is no gambling. Diablo 3 doesn't make you put down wagers on what the random loot will be, and thus is not gambling.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Tyranny of Skill

In a lot of ways, World of Warcraft raiding is an extreme meritocracy.  The better a player is, the more highly skilled, the more weight her voice carries. All the guilds I've been in follow this general pattern. The players who are listened to are the ones who can perform the best. For this reason, it's very important that officers in a serious raiding guild be among the top half of the players.

In my experience, this pattern even holds in PuGs. I have never been treated badly in a PuG or LFR. It is really hard to argue with a person decked in high end gear, or topping the meters.

And yet, the high skill players are not always right. I mentioned in the previous post that:

There is a type of person who believes that all failure is caused by people playing badly. That skill is everything in this game. That the only response to any problem, any difficulty, is to tell people to play better, or recruit better people to replace the failures. That you must always take the "best" raiders you have to a raid to ensure success.
The people who espouse this view are always really good players. Of the players I've known with this view, the vast majority of them were far better than I am. Indeed, it is highly possible that they are this good because they hold themselves to this standard.

Not all of these players yell or are unpleasant. Many of them are nice and rational. They simply believe that all failure is a failure of personal responsibility.

A lot of the time these players are right. Enforcing standards makes people live up to those standards. Sometimes you'll encounter players who just will not live up to the necessary standards for the level you play at.

But sometimes these players are wrong. All my raiding experience leads me to believe that this style of play, where the only important thing is personal accountability, is brittle. When you get a good group going you can progress exceptionally fast. But sooner or later you lose people just through normal attrition, and have to recruit more and that leads to uneven progress. Or you hit a wall, and relations become acrimonious over who's failure it is.

But the problem is that all these highly skilled players just cannot see that. Suggestions that weigh any other considerations get met with comments that such suggestions are akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. That the only thing that will lead to progress is the individual players stepping up and improving their play. Or under-performing players being replaced by ones who can perform.

And because they are highly skilled, their voice carries a lot of weight. And that is the part that is very hard to combat or argue against.

Edit: Copying this response to Kalon in the comments, because it may make things a little more clear.

Or there's a third option - that you lose people through attrition and instead of accepting recruits that are perhaps subpar you always recruit for the best and do not settle.

But then you don't actually raid. Because you don't always have the numbers to raid.

Part of this--which I left out because I though it was tangential, may have been wrong--is that this style of play is very hostile to maintaining a bench.

If you are always taking your 25 best raiders to new content, then your bench doesn't get to raid. And quality players will not hang around a mid-Aristocracy guild if they only get to raid 1 of 3 days at best. Maybe they'll feel that's okay in a Royalty guild, but not at my level.

And to be honest, that's my main issue with this playstyle. Personal accountability is a secondary priority. The first and greatest priority is maintaining a full raid force, with a deep enough bench that you are always able to raid with a stable group.

Basically, the personal accountability folks felt that because people didn't perform, we didn't progress fast enough in order to attract quality recruits.

I felt that because we couldn't retain people (especially people who were on the bench), we couldn't put together a consistent raid in order to progress consistently.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In the Wake of a Bad Merger

You guys have probably noticed that I haven't been writing a lot over the past two months. And that most of my posts have been about Star Wars. Well, there's a reason for that. Looking back on it, I think I've been playing so much SWTOR not only because it's the new hotness, but also to avoid logging into WoW. Which is somewhat ironic if you take the view that people often play WoW to avoid real life.

When I last talked about my guild in the beginning of November, I mentioned that we had gone through a split, had moved to a more populated server, and were looking at merging with another 10-man guild to get back up to 25s.

That merger turned out to be the worst mistake in the history of our guild.

There is a type of person who believes that all failure is caused by people playing badly. That skill is everything in this game. That the only response to any problem, any difficulty, is to tell people to play better, or recruit better people to replace the failures. That you must always take the "best" raiders you have to a raid to ensure success.

There is a degree of truth in this.  But in my view, there usually there are a lot more elements that you can look at before you conclude that the problem is solely due to bad play. Sometimes the strategy is not quite right. Sometimes people misunderstand the plan. Sometimes people just make mistakes. Sometimes you just need practice, to wipe a few nights before everything clicks. Sometimes you just have to go with the army you have, rather than the army you wish you had.

In any case, the merging guild was entirely made up of people who held the first view. They were all very good players, at least pure skill-wise. But their response to any wipe, any failure, was to yell at people, to point fingers and berate them.  Sometimes the yelling would start before the attempt even finished, while we still attacking the boss.

It was the worst raiding experience of my life.

And of course we started hemorraging members. In two weeks we went from 35 raiders online to barely 25. We lost some essential people from our old guild before the merger.

The final blow came last week. We only had 23 raiders on, so it was decided to take the 10 "best" people and down some Heroic bosses for progression.  Apparently that team had trouble and drama blew up, with lots of yelling and finger-pointing, and the upshot was that the entire group of merged people left the guild.

So we're back down to maybe a 10-man worth of people, minus those people who left earlier. I'm not really certain what will happen. A lot of the people who remain sound rather "shell-shocked", with their confidence in their ability to tackle Heroics broken.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

[SWTOR] Chat Box

So far, the single biggest mistake Bioware has made is their default chat filters. It's a simple mistake, but I think it has surprising large ramifications.

Now, this is a hobbyhorse of mine, so maybe I'm overstating the impact. Especially since every recent MMO has made the same mistake, in my view. Heck, maybe it's a sign that I'm wrong.

By default, system messages are sent to the general chat box. And there are a ton of system messages. When you hit level 25 and unlock your Legacy (shared XP pool and last name between your characters on a server), you start getting a Legacy XP message every time you earn normal XP. That's two lines in your chat box for every XP event. Which is every time you kill a mob. And the default pull is pack of three to four mobs.

Basically, the spam of system chat messages makes your chat box useless for its primary purpose. SWTOR is an extraordinarily quiet game, which is surprising for such a new game, and one that gets quieter as you increase in levels. This is very unfortunate, because you need the chat to organize groups to take on the heroics.

Go into the game, and turn off system messages in the general tab of your chat box. Turn it on in the Other tab (may actually happen automatically). All of a sudden, the general chat becomes usable once again, and you still have the Other tab if you need to recall a system message.

Of all the changes Bioware could make in their next patch, I strongly urge them to turn off system messages in the default chat box. I think it would make a world of a difference community-wise.

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Guild as a Nexus of Contracts

If you look at the Guild Relations Forums, there are a lot of posts of (ex-)Guild Masters decrying the new Guild Takeover mechanisms. This is where, if a GM does not log on for an entire month, the next highest ranked officer can take over the GM position, demoting the original GM. A lot of the GRF regulars are responding that:

  1. This was the policy all along, it just required a Help ticket previously.
  2. You can't really be a good GM if you don't log on for a month.
  3. If you are going to be gone for a month, you should promote someone trustworthy to the second-in-command rank.

These points are all correct, but I feel that they are missing something. Something about how the relationship between guild and the individuals in guilds has changed over WoW's history, and something about the nature of ownership.

Background

Ownership is complicated concept. To own an item implies that one has a great deal of control over that item, often absolute control. If I own a chair, I can sit on it, move it around, paint it, disassemble it, burn it, chop it to pieces, sell it, give it away, or any other myriad options.

Conversely, if there exists an object to which I can do all of the actions above, then for all intents and purposes, I "own" that object.

In common parlance, a corporation is "owned" by the shareholders. But that relationship is not the same relationship as my ownership of my chair. In fact, it is so different that several academics declare that using the word "own" is wrong and misleading. As Professor Stephen Bainbridge of UCLA puts it:

Ownership implies a thing capable of being owned. To be sure, we often talk about the corporation as though it were such a thing, but when we do so we engage in reification. While it may be necessary to reify the corporation for semantic convenience, it can mislead. Conceptually, the corporation is not a thing, but rather simply a set of contracts between various stakeholders pursuant to which services are provided and rights with respect to a set of assets are allocated. 
Because shareholders are simply one of the inputs bound together by this web of voluntary agreements, ownership is not a meaningful concept in nexus of contracts theory. Someone owns each input, but no one owns the totality. Instead, the corporation is an aggregation of people bound together by a complex web of contractual relationships.


Application to Guilds

The above description does sound a lot like World of Warcraft guilds. Sure, the contracts are implicit rather than explicit, and there's very little money involved, but the basic concept of a "web of voluntary agreements" holds.

But when WoW first started, in practice Guild Masters held such mechanical power over the guild that it could be said--with accuracy--that a Guild Masters "owned" her respective guild. A GM could disband her guild, kick people out, promote people, prevent individuals from talking in guild chat, etc. And there was really nothing a non-GM could do. Because of this power, a lot of GMs felt a true sense of ownership.

However, this ownership did not really matter. Mechanically a guild was nothing more than a glorified chat channel and a tag over your character's head. If the GM abused her authority or disappeared for months, the other guild members simply left and reformed with a new name, with no major loss, save for particularly stylish guild names.

As the years have passed though, the guild entity has taken on more and more "real" weight. First we had common guild banks, then shared repair costs. Then with Cataclysm we got the entire system of guild perks, and automatic guild contributions.

Now, regular members have a higher stake in a guild. If you have to leave, you lose all the perks, all the stuff in the guild bank, etc. Thanks to automatic contributions, everyone in the guild has contributed to the guild's current state. Even if everyone in the guild but the guild master leaves and reforms, there is still significant loss.

Basically, the idea that a guild is a nexus of contracts has gotten more and more important.  Finally, in Patch 4.3, we got the ability to dethrone guild masters in specific circumstances. This is a recognition that the balance of power in a guild is too far weighted on the guild master's side, and some of the power needs to come back, especially in the situation where the guild master simply disappears.

This re-balancing of powers makes perfect and necessary sense if you think of the guild as a nexus of contracts between current players. But it also conflicts with a lot of guild masters' sense of "ownership". To this type of GM, she created the guild, she got the signatures, she did all the work, she has all the power. In a sense, she is merely letting other people play in "her" guild.

In the past, such views would have been perfectly correct, and still are correct. How can you say that a Guild Master does not own a guild if she can kick everyone else out of it?

To this GM, the takeovers are nothing less than theft. The theft of the property she "owns", that she has worked to build up. And thus she has a very visceral reaction to that theft.

That reaction is far more understandable than most of the GRF regulars are willing to admit. And I think it is a somewhat valid reaction. I think that Guild Masters have an understandable sense of ownership of their respective guilds, and the entire lifespan of WoW up to the last few months has encouraged that sense of ownership.

I am not certain that Guild Takeovers were the best option possible in light of the way power is balanced in a guild. But on the other hand, because of that power balance, a GM who disappears for over a month can cripple a guild, and the Guild Takeover becomes necessary.