Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Fallen Empire: Alliances

I've finished the nine chapters of Fallen Empires that were released. Shintar makes a good point, when she describes the experience as "the borders between your personal story and the rest of the game are marked more starkly." The main story is very much a true single-player experience, the KotoR 3 that people have been asking for.

But after that come the more traditional MMO elements. Here, Bioware has done some interesting things. The main story of Fallen Empire is not complete yet. What's been released is more like Part 1. Where it stops, your character is setting up an Alliance to oppose the Zakuul Empire.

In some respects, it's like Garrisons from WoW. Only the focus is on recruiting new companions, and sending you out into the galaxy to accomplish things, rather than encouraging you to hang around your base.

One amusing element is that SWTOR now has a second conversation style. Bioware is touting it as a callback to KotoR, but it's real advantage is that your character is unvoiced. This allows Bioware to add these small pieces of content without calling in all 16 class voice actors.

In any case, there are 4 or 5 companions you can recruit through small missions or other tactics. For example, one companion requires you to participate in 20 PvP matches (wins count as 2 matches). Another companion requires you to hunt dangerous beasts, which you can do by killing World Bosses. Level sync makes that a lot more interesting. I like this because the only reward is a companion, of which you have plenty. So these missions are totally optional.

There are also Star Fortresses. Six worlds have Star Fortresses in orbit, and you have to do a mission on the ground to take out the shield protecting them. The Star Fortresses themselves are miniature instances, which can either be done solo or in a group of 2-4. It's pretty great content for just grabbing a friend and running through them.

Finally, all the planetary Heroic missions have been rebalanced and are available from your base, offering transport directly to the mission. This is essentially solo or duo content, and rewards lockboxes which you turn in to improve your base, and also gives you legacy cosmetic gear.

All in all, the Alliances seem like a strong and extensible system for solo and duo endgame content.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Knights of the Fallen Empire: Early Access

Yesterday SWTOR launched early access for its latest expansion, Knights of the Fallen Empire. The launch was smooth, with no real server issues.

There was an amusing bug where all companions were not wearing pants when you logged in. The companion gearing system has changed, with gear being cosmetic only. Therefore companions no longer have non-visible gear slots. All extra gear was sent to your inventory or mail. Amusingly enough, companion pants were also sent to inventory unnecessarily.

The story is quite good. I'm in the middle right now, so we'll see how it ends. It's very much in the vein of Mass Effect 2, with a time skip and rebuilding your companion roster.

The graphics also seem to have bumped up a notch in the expansion, especially the major NPC models.

The big question I have is if this is really enough content. Each chapter is about one hour in length, and nine of them were released yesterday. So pretty much every one is going to blitz through them fairly quickly. Starting in the new year, Bioware is planning on releasing one chapter every month. Is one hour of story content each month enough to keep people playing?

On the other hand, it's more content than we got previously, and people kept playing. So who knows.

The other interesting element was that there is a minimal gear increase. Playing through the existing story up to Ziost gives you item level 190 gear, and HM raiding gave 198 gear. So far, KotFE has only been handing out 190 gear (mostly for people who choose the instant 60), and it looks like group content will start with 200 to 204 level gear. That's a very compressed gear curve, which is fairly unusual for an MMO.

So far so good. We'll see how the story finishes, and what endgame content looks like.

Monday, October 19, 2015

SWTOR and Class Armor

One overlooked aspect of the new SWTOR expansion is that SWTOR seems to be moving away from class-based armor entirely. This is unusual for an MMO based on classes.

The primary stats (Strength, Willpower, Aim, Cunning) are being replaced with a single stat called Mastery. So all gear becomes interchangeable class-wise. There are still multiple secondary stats, including some role-specific ones like Defense or Accuracy. But no longer will an item drop and you can say that it is Warrior gear or Agent gear.

The other element is that most newer armor is "Adaptive". This means that if you're a class that uses Light Armor, the armor is Light Armor for you. If you use Heavy Armor, it's Heavy, and so on.

The link between armor and class in a class-based MMO is usually very strong. But with these changes, the link becomes very weak. I'm sure that there will still be gear with class-specific set bonuses. But outside of that, we're setting up for a situation where any class can wear any gear.

I'm not so sure that I like this change. I like having different armor for the different classes. I suppose that it can be annoying to wait for your one piece to drop, though. Still, it does feel like the game has lost something.

Maybe this is an inevitable result of selling cosmetic gear in a F2P game. You don't want to restrict costumes to different characters, so you sell costumes that all characters can wear. And then there's not much point in forcing the player to find a Strength mod compared to an Aim mod.

I am a bit surprised that SWTOR hasn't taken the next step and started dropping armor shells separately from the mods in instances. That would separate the cosmetic part of the armor even farther from the mechanics aspect. People who wanted the mods would roll specifically on them. People who wanted the costume could roll specifically on the armor shell.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Crowfall and the Metagame

It's been a while since I've written anything about Crowfall. Artcraft looks to be steadily making progress. Unfortunately most of their updates in the last few months have been in video format, so I've pretty much ignored them. Videos just take so long to get through compared to text, and text is so much easier to reread and pull out bits to chew on.

In any case, Artcraft seems to be toying with the idea of promoting a "metagame" as in Eve Online. Where people can be spies and scammers in other guilds, and betray them, etc. It's always a newsworthy part of Eve, so it's not surprising that it would be attractive to someone making another PvP MMO.

However, I think it's a bad idea. To be fair, I think it's a bad idea in Eve Online as well. The culture of spying, betraying, "awoxing", and generally being hard to trust is bad for the game. I think games where trust is easier are a lot more fun. But Eve has its own culture, and the people who play Eve are happy with it.

However, I think the "metagame" is an especially bad fit for Crowfall. Crowfall's signature element is that the game board resets. After a while, the campaign world ends, and players start fresh on a new campaign world.

A strong metagame cuts across that. When the board resets, the alliances and enemies made should also reset. I'm sure we've all played board games with people who hold a grudge from one game to the next. Or two people who will always attack each other. Or people in a relationship, where you can expect one of them to throw away her chance at victory to support her partner. These games are less fun than new games where everyone is attempting to win.

Crowfall will never get rid of all relationships between campaigns. For one thing, guilds will want to play together and support each other. But it's better if the game encourages relationships between guilds to reset, to treat each world as truly new. But that will require discouraging the Eve-style metagame of guild politics.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

DPS Meters and Player Behavior

Whether DPS meters are good or bad is a hotly debated topic. I saw an interesting Reddit post by WitcherMog that approaches the question from a different angle.

In FFXIV, there are no in-game damage meters. However, you can run an external parser that reads your combat log and gives information for your group. FFXIV runs on a  "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to meters, though. If you reference them in chat, it's considered harassment, and you get punished by SE. So meters are pretty much the province of individuals and high-end static groups.

WitcherMog ran 100 instances with his parser active and compared player behavior with parser results. He found that harassment of other group members for being slow or wiping uniformly came from low-dps players.

The negative behavior indulged in by high-powered players (as measured by gear level) was to slack off during fights. Of course, negative behavior in either case only occurred in a minority of runs.

This is not quite the same negative behavior exhibited in games with public meters. In WoW, any harassment is more likely to come from good dps towards the low dps.

The results do make sense. In a game without meters, a good dps makes the run faster and less likely to wipe. So really, she has nothing to complain about, as all visible outcomes are positive. Meanwhile the low dps player believes he is doing fine, believes that he is really a good player, so obviously any problems must come from the other players.

In a game with meters, on the other hand, the poor player cannot blame others for visibly bad outcomes, because each individual performance is quantified. However, even if the outcome is visibly good, a negative high-dps player can feel aggrieved that she is "carrying" the group, and incite harassment of the others that she feels are not playing up to par.

So it's really a choice of picking your poison. Without meters, runs that have negative outcomes like excessive slowness or wipes incur harassment from the very people who most likely cause the problem in the first place. With meters, a run that is successful might very well still see harassment, just because one player thinks another player is not living up to an arbitrary standard.

There's no obvious best choice here. Would you rather have poor players never realize that they're bad, or have good players hold others to an unnecessary standard?

Of course, we must reiterate that, especially in FFXIV, we are talking about a minority of outcomes. Most runs are successful and go just fine.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Lull in the Storm

It feels like we're in a lull in the MMO sphere. There's stuff on the horizon, but nothing really interesting is happening right now. Well, I guess there was the Wildstar F2P launch, but I ignored that.

The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion comes in a week. In a month, FFXIV will drop its 3.1 patch. Who knows when the next Warcraft expansion will come out. I honestly thought Blizzard would aim for a release around the end of the year. But with no beta in sight, that's looking extremely unlikely.

In the meantime I'm just casually cleaning up side-activities in TOR and FFXIV.

In TOR, I've levelled my Sith Warrior to 60, and am also looking to go through all the companion stories from the original game. I have 5 done, so only 3 classes to go.

In FFXIV, I've levelled White Mage to 59. I also have worked on pretty much all the other classes, gaining a level here and a level there. I really should pick one activity to focus on. But there's so many options I'm just bouncing around.

What are you doing in this lull?

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Level Syncing

Last week The Old Republic revealed some of the game mechanic changes coming in Fallen Empire. The most controversial is that all planets will be level synced. That is, when you out-level a planet, your character and gear will be scaled back to the max level for that planet.

On the one hand, I can see why some people are unhappy. These games are about character progression, and level syncing undoes your progression. It's fun to come back to an old zone that gave you trouble and destroy it. What's the point of gaining levels if the game is going to arbitrarily roll them back?

On the other hand, because it's normal for a max level character to overpower old zones, the game never sends you back to those zones. Or if it does, it sets up a little max level area where the max level players go. It's harder to preserve challenge without level syncs.

Level sync makes it easier to add new content to old zones. For example, all holiday events in FFXIV are level 15 or 30. High level players will get synced down, and the low level requirement makes it easy for new players to join the event.

However, FFXIV only scales group content. Solo-content is pretty much left alone.

Another point is that level syncs also balance world PvP a bit better. Sure, a synced player is more powerful than a leveling character, but the disparity isn't as great any more. If world PvP starts up, the leveling players on the planet can join in.

In the end there is an unavoidable tension between maintaining character progression and preserving challenge. I think that FFXIV strikes a good balance for group content. I thought that Guild Wars 2 did a bad job maintaining character progression, as it was very aggressive about syncing levels, so you'd get scaled back even in the same zone. Games without leveling syncing basically give up on attempting to preserve a challenge in old zones.

We'll see how well TOR manages to balance both goals.