Things I Hate About SWTOR

Things I Hate About SWTOR

This is a link to an editorial on Darth Hater by a contributor named Baelor that was just posted today. While his views may not reflect the entire staff at Darth Hater, one of the premier fan sites surrounding the game, they certainly reflect mine. 

Anyone who has read my articles on specialized gear grinds for PvE and PvE, the holy trinity and its boring combat design, the illusion of complexity involved in a WoW-based ability system and so on, will see a lot of my points echoed here. 

I doubt that it’s a coincidence that this article from a former champion of SWTOR comes on the heels of the release of Guild Wars 2. 

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SW:TOR Announces Free-To-Play Option – With Several Restrictions

A little while back I wrote an article about why I think raiding sucks as “endgame”, and why it’s a manipulative, artificial way of slowing down the progress and reward acquisition of players of subscription based MMOs in order to keep them paying a monthly fee. I went into great detail about why Guild Wars 2, the soon to be released buy-to-play (you pay for a copy but no sub) MMO from ArenaNet doesn’t need this kind of endgame to be successful.

In subscription MMOs, raiding is a cooperative experience with very specific and intentional limitations built in to ensure players keep coming back week after week, month after month in order to repeat the same scripted, static content. That’s why only a few people receive loot of off each boss kill, and that’s why raids have lockouts that restrict the number of times you can defeat the same boss in a week. In many ways, it’s like gambling. You win once in awhile and get a rush, and then spend your remaining raid time chasing that high while pouring your time and money down the drain. And make no mistake, you NEED that loot to be competitive in a subscription MMO since the emphasis is on gear instead of skill. That’s why raids have new, more powerful gear to chase with each new raid tier. Without the promise of more power, who in their right mind would raid? Sure, the initial boss kill can be fun, like an unfamiliar puzzle you get to solve as a group. But who in their right mind would enjoy putting together the same exact puzzle time and time again without any additional reward, especially for a fee?

So what does this have to do with Star Wars: The Old Republic offering a free-to play option?

I’m glad you asked.

First, let’s take a look at exactly what that option is. Here is the breakdown as listed on the SW:TOR page:

Looks pretty good to me actually, considering I enjoy the Star Wars world enough to play in it for free now and then, but what I find really interesting are the restrictions and exclusions. I think it backs up everything I said about raiding in the first place and its dependency on the subscription model. Let’s break it down item by item:

1. Story Content  – Players can play their full class stories from levels 1 to 50.

This is perfectly logical, and some would argue it’s the only portion of the game SW:TOR really did right. BioWare has long said that playing this MMO is like playing several sequels to their Knights of the Old Republic games, and this line basically means that you get multiple single player story lines for the shelf price of the game. Looks great on paper, but we’ll get to the fine print on this later.

2. Character Creation Choices – Some character creation options, such as species, are limited to subscribers.

Interesting, but intentionally vague. Does this mean existing species/class combos are included but perhaps unlocking new combinations through the Legacy system is for subscribers only? What if you already unlocked species in your Legacy system? Will those characters be locked unless you pay a subscription? Does this mean that even less species will be available than there are today under the F2P model? What other options are limited besides species?  Had SW:TOR been build from the ground up as a F2P model, then things like species could have been offered as microtransactions. It will be interesting to see how they implement this, and how many people they piss off in the process if they remove existing functionality. If it were any other MMO, I could see them adding new species exclusive to subscribers, but given the thousands of lines of voiced dialog each species needs to be a playable race, this is unlikely. Unless they add Wookiees, and make all their dialog the same 10 subtitled Wookie growls over and over again like they did in KOTOR, adding new species is a long shot.

3. Warzones – Free players are limited in terms of how many Warzones they can play per week.

This is a fairly huge limitation, intentionally designed to get players to sub. SW:TOR is essentially WoW in space, and just like in WoW, gear is everything. PvP in SW:TOR, just as it is in World of Warcraft, is NOT fought on a level playing field. The guy with the best gear wins. The team with the best gear wins. If you only have a limited number of games per week to earn the currency needed to purchase your PvP gear, you’ll never be the guy with the best gear, meaning F2P players will always be at a disadvantage. People hate losing. People love winning. Winners will subscribe, and BioWare is counting on this. Unless you don’t care about SW:TOR’s PvP at all (like me), and have no intention of participating in it, this may bother you.

4. Flashpoints – Free players are limited in terms of how many Flashpoints they can play per week.

The same concerns about limited Warzones apply here, with one large exception. You’ll still suffer the same gear disadvantage that your F2P PvP counterparts, but at least they’ll be able to access the “endgame” of PvP. As a PvE player, your access to Operations is completely dependent upon your subscription status. Unless you don’t care about raids at all (like me), and have no intention of participating in them, this may bother you… a lot. More on that below.

5. Space Missions – Free players are limited in terms of how many Space Missions they can play per week. Aside from being a means of picking up a few easy credits, space missions in SW:TOR were a lot like raiding, only without the prospect of new gear: static, boring and on rails. Unless they add some incredible new elements to this corner of the game, I can’t imagine anyone caring.

6. Operations – Only Subscribers may complete Operations.

ONLY SUBSCRIBERS MAY COMPLETE OPERATIONS. This validates everything I’ve said about raiding, and we’ll get to that after these last few items.

7. Travel Features – Subscribers have access to all travel functionality, making getting around the world easier.

If this isn’t the most backwards thing ever, I don’t know what is. How about make it easier for EVERYONE to get around in your terrible travel system? The fact that it takes multiple load screens to travel from one planet to another, or even from just your ship to a planet’s surface, is just horrible design. Orbital Stations shouldn’t even exist. The Looking for Group system was a much-needed addition to the game, but even it fails to let you return to the planet you were on immediately after your flashpoint. Instead it dumps you back on the fleet. Does this mean they’re only fixing this for subscription players?

Even if Bioware wanted to implement a solution to this mess and only offer it to subscription players for free, a microtransaction option for F2P players would have been a bare minimum. There are probably a lot of players out there who’d pony up for a limited use item that would make travel between planets instant.

8. Game Login – Subscribers will always be in login queues ahead of free players.

Fair is fair. VIP access only makes sense in a dual payment model game.

9. Galactic Trade Network – Subscribers can post up to 50 auctions for sale. F2P players get “Extremely Limited Access”, whatever that means.

Until they release details, it’s hard to say what the hell they mean. If anything, it probably devalues crafting even more that it already is for casual, F2P players. If you can’t sell your goods, or if you can’t compete with sellers who can post more product than you can, then why bother? You really only need top end gear to compete in top end PvP and PvE, and since you can’t even access Operations under the F2P model, why participate in the time and credit sink that is SW:TOR crafting? Seems short-sighted to make an entire avenue of your game useless to a portion of your player base, but it’s far from the worst thing on the list.

VALIDATION OF THE RAIDING CONSPIRACY

By locking out F2P players from the PvE endgame of SW:TOR, they’ve only proven that raiding is a system entirely dependent upon, and entirely designed for, subscription players. If you aren’t raiding, and you have no subscription strings attached, then congratulations, you’re free to come and go from the game as you please. The only thing keeping you playing is if the content you have access to is fun and enjoyable, just like any other game you own, and just like any game should be experienced. If you are paying a fee, then you need to feel like you’re getting something for your money. With this model BioWare is giving you exclusive access to content and, more importantly to a gear-based MMO, the best tier of PvE gear in the game.

Of course, you only need that gear to access the next set of raids, and so the cycle will continue ad infinitum. Enjoy your run on the hamster wheel.

This is what kills me about the current generation of MMO players. Raiding isn’t doing you any favors. It isn’t the alpha and omega of MMO endgame. It’s just a time sink, and by association, a money sink. Sure, there is the initial thrill of overcoming an obstacle and seeing new content, but your perpetual need for gear, coupled with the intentionally gated method in which raiding awards that gear, chains you down to that same content over and over again until you dread logging in. It dictates how you spend your time in-game, and with whom you spend it. Raiding leads to dedicated rosters and schedules, where you can lose your spot unless your attendance meets standards. It leads to loot systems to manage loot drama over the randomized loot that may or may not even drop. It leads to resentment when people can’t attend or when someone “less deserving” than you gets the loot you wanted. It leads to guild applications with more questions on it than you’ll find in many job interviews. In may ways it is just as much the opposite of fun as the grind fests that older generation MMOs used to be. Yet where most players have realized that the evolution of MMOs means freeing yourself from those terrible grinds, thousands and thousands of those same people can’t even imagine a successful MMO without raiding at its core.

It’s mind boggling.

In many ways, trying to talk to people about it feels like being in the Matrix films and trying to convince them to wake up from the system that enslaves them.

But hey, at least with SW:TOR, players will have a choice. They can still experience almost everything the game has to offer, including multiple characters and story lines…

Or can they?

Remember that fine print I mentioned earlier?

From the FAQ on the official site:

Q: What happens if I decide to change from being a subscription player to a Free-to-Play member? What will happen to my credits, inventory, bank items, and characters?

A: Your account will automatically be downgraded and it will operate under the Free player restrictions. You will need to choose what items to keep with you within the restriction levels of the free access. Furthermore, you will be able to see, but not use, your excess credits, inventory slots, bank tabs, and extra characters.

I’m not sure what the BioWare means by “extra characters,” but it sure seems like F2P players won’t be able to enjoy as much of the story portion of the game after all. It’s one thing to offer a number of character slots with purchase and then offer additional character slots for a small fee, but it is something else entirely to lock players out from using characters they already have. The same thing goes for inventory slots and bank tabs.

And what does “excess credits” mean? Does it mean that F2P players can only have so much wealth? If so, then that’s a whole other explosion waiting to go off in BioWare’s face.

I enjoy SW:TOR from time to time because I enjoy the Star Wars universe, and I’d continue to play it under the right F2P model, but I’m very skeptical about how all of this is going to shake out. While I’m certain that offering a F2P model within a year of release isn’t what anyone at BioWare or EA intended, half-assing it could be worse for the game than not offering it at all.

To me, this looks less like a free-to-play model and more like an extended trial.

Stop whining. Why Faction Imbalance in SW:TOR doesn’t matter.

Good vs Evil.

Jedi vs Sith.

Star Wars: The Old Republic centers on the classic confrontations between Light and Dark that we all know and love from the films.

The one thing I don’t recall seeing in the movies was a time when members of the Republic just sat around complaining about how they were outnumbered, and how it was unfair, and that George Lucas should stop shooting the movie and do something about it. You think Luke Skywalker would have wasted time on forums? HELL NO! He capitalized on years of practical womp rat killing experience and blew up the friggin Death Star! Unfortunately, I can’t read a SW:TOR forum or listen to a podcast without hearing how faction imbalance in the game is some sort of atrocity that needs fixed or moderated somehow by BioWare. A number of players seem to suffer from the mass delusion that imbalance in SW:TOR actually means something, and they’re all wrong.

This is why.

1. The leveling experience is fairly tame.

Don't worry, Republic. The Imperials aren't threatening till max level.

SW:TOR offers a very insulated and safe leveling experience, even on PvP servers. You won’t cross paths with members of the opposite faction until you’re about half way to max level. Oldrepublic.net features an impressive planet progression map which highlights this. This gives ample time for players to familiarize themselves with their abilities safe from predatory players. A fair number of the planets are even faction specific and don’t even allow the opposing faction to set foot on them. As it stands, there won’t be any sort of plundering and occupation of Coruscant or Korriban unless BioWare decides to create some sort of special instanced event.

Beyond this segregation, the other big factor that impedes spontaneous open world encounters is how frustratingly tedious it is to go from one planet to another. While patch 1.2 has cut down on the number of orbital station load screens we have to suffer through needlessly, that doesn’t mean that getting around is convenient. There aren’t any summoning mechanics or methods of fast travel directly from one planet to another. People tend to stay one whatever planet they’re on and focus on some other non-PvP oriented task rather than roaming the galaxy looking to pick a fight.

Even if you stumble over an enemy player in the open world somewhere, and even if you decide to fight, you always have the option to simply rez at the medical center and avoid corpse camping – essentially eliminating one of the major driving factors of open world PvP. It makes perfect sense from the point of view of BioWare wanting to reduce player frustration. Odd as it may seem however, corpse camping led to escalation of warfare in other games. Many a Southshore vs Tarren Mill battle in WoW began as single player getting camped and calling for backup, and ended up looking like something out of Braveheart. With the aforementioned inconvenience involved with planet hopping, even if you happen to need help, it probably isn’t going to come from another planet. At best you may see a handful of local players get involved, especially on lower population servers.

2. Instanced PvP is King – and the King is Benevolent.

PvP in SW:TOR means Warzones. That’s where the rewards primarily come from, so that’s where people go. Without any incentive for open world PvP, and with Ilum broken and discarded for the time being, Warzones are where players need to go to kill one another with elegant weapons during this civilized age. Faction imbalance in other games can make queues for battlegrounds an extremely hit or miss affair. Prior to cross servers BGs in WoW, it was quite common to wait for over an hour for a single game. Today’s players don’t have the patience for that anymore, nor should they. Luckily BioWare came along and gave us the possibility of fighting in Warzones against your own faction. Even if you’re server’s faction balance is skewed to comical proportions, you can still find near instant queues provided your server has a decent population to begin with.  Until patch 1.2 this may have meant a whole lot of Huttball for some people, but we have more inter-faction options available now. Everyone can participate and earn rewards.

At the very worst, one could theorize that faction imbalance may have given one faction more Huttball practice than the other. So what? That same logic means the minority faction got more consistent time in the other Warzones. You could also make the argument that inter-faction Warzones meant that the faction with superior numbers could gear up faster, but even this is pretty thin. With patch 1.2 you can purchase PvP gear with credits so no one has to start from scratch. It still may come down to which team has the highest amount of expertise on their gear, but it probably has a lot more with which team has two  partial premades of Battlemasters on it.

3. SW:TOR encourages, promotes and incentivizes cross-faction alts on the same server. 

Legacy is a pretty big thing in SW:TOR, and the bonuses apply cross-faction. There are so many incentives to level characters on both sides of the force that some guild leaders complained during the Guild Summit that BioWare was eroding the cohesiveness of their guilds. Everyone has a main, at least in theory, but tons of people have already leveled and geared up multiple characters in both PvE and PvP. It isn’t exactly hard to do in SW:TOR. Not everyone has the same time available to them as everyone else, but that’s sort of a non-issue on a long enough timeline. If you believe the grass is greener on Korriban (it isn’t), then nothing is stopping you from coming to the Dark Side and trying it out.

I love my Powertech. There is no doubt I consider that Bounty Hunter as my main. On the PvP front however, I had the most fun in SW:TOR I’ve ever experienced on my Vanguard. I didn’t have to tank with him. There was never a need to respec or worry over multiple gear sets. It was the mirror class, but offered just enough differences to be unique. Hell, it was worth it for the story alone. If I really wanted to swap sides and center on Republic as my PvP faction of choice, I could do so with my Trooper very easily and without the hesitations or aversions I have towards doing so in other MMOs. You fight your own faction in Warzones half the time anyway, so what does it really matter?

BioWare clearly understands that the strength of their game resides in the leveling experience, so which faction you’re on and who outnumbers who is mostly irrelevant. Go where you have the most fun. You don’t really have to worry about which side of the fence is greener when BioWare added a revolving door.

4. Players say they want an Open World PvP zone, but they really don’t.

James Ohlen, a man I greatly respect and admire from his Baldur’s Gate contributions, is a pretty smart guy.

After the Ilum collapse, he created a poll and forum topic asking players what they want in an Open PvP experience. Here are the options:

What kind of Open World PVP excites you most?

‘Raw’ Open World – faction vs faction, with no faction population restriction mechanics AKA ‘true’ Open World PvP. Factions claim objectives.

PvPvE balanced – bolstering the underdog faction through NPCs, turrets, etc. Factions claim objectives.

Faction population capped – strict balancing in place between faction populations in objective areas. Factions claim objectives.

Guild based – everyone is your enemy except players in your guild. Guilds claim objectives.

The majority of players currently opted for the PvPvE balanced approach with almost 50% of total votes. But that’s not true open world PvP. It’s Wintergrasp 2.0 in the making. Once you create mechanics to make everything ‘fair and balanced’, it isn’t open anymore. Since that isn’t the case, the whole concept of faction imbalance no longer applies.

Ilum was egg on BioWare’s face, and I’d wager it was enough that they lost subscriptions over it when combined with buggy Operations and lack of other basic MMO features that 1.2 has now partially corrected. They’re smart though. Just listen to Georg Zoeller speak, and tell me he doesn’t sound like a Bond villain. I’m willing to bet that, whatever they have in mind, they’re smart enough not to make the same mistakes twice. I’m not sure what form it will take, or how long it will take to implement, but I’m hopeful it will be the last nail in the faction imbalance argument – at least for a little while. You may never fully put it to rest in a game centered on binary factions, but in SW:TOR imbalance doesn’t really count for much.

MMO Evolution – Life after the Holy Trinity

I have had a few discussions recently involving the usefulness of the Holy Trinity in MMO design, and whether or not a move away from it is the next step in MMO evolution. In this article, I’ll speak of what I refer to as “Traditional MMOs”. MMOs in this category are those including World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic and other similar titles where the Trinity exists. While these titles are certainly successful, they represent old design that makes for static, UI driven combat which brings people together out of co-dependence rather than interdependence.  (More on that later.)

Let’s begin with what exactly the phrase Holy Trinity means.

WHAT IS THE HOLY TRINITY?

The Holy Trinity in MMOs refers to three basic and traditional roles that every single character falls into:

1. Tank – A high health, highly damage resistant player who has the sole focus of getting and maintaining the attention of enemies and withstanding the punishment they dish out.  The idea is that the demon/dragon/giant enemy crab would kill anyone else in a single blow, but the Tank survives because his or her gear, class and skills/talents are all focused on mitigating or avoiding enough of it to take a few hits. They’re the masochists of the MMO genre, and pride themselves on being able to take a punch. Every fight revolves around the same concept for tanks… “How can I put myself in harm’s way?”

If you’ve ever watched the original Rocky, then you’ve seen a perfect example of a tank.

Meat Shield

While it may surprise you as to which one in the picture I’ve given the title to, the reason for this is pretty simple: tanks aren’t really good for much other than this one, highly specific job. Dedicated tanks often romanticize their role, (I’ve been guilty of it) and there can be aspects of tanking that are dynamic and require precision and timing. At the end of the day however, the boss is a German Shepard, and the tank is a hotdog stuffed inside a chew toy. In a traditional MMO only 1 or 2 players per group are tanks, depending on group size, for this very reason.

2. DPS – Stands for “Damage Per Second” – a basic measurement for how much pain you can dish out over the course of a fight. The higher the number, the better you are at video games and the more attractive you are to members of the opposite sex. The acronym also stands for the people who will make up the majority of your group in a traditional MMO. They are the sadists of the MMO genre. They can be split into melee or ranged DPS, but generally share common traits of being egotistical, completely self-absorbed and dedicated to one thing and one thing only – their own damage output relative to everyone else around them. And by everything else I mean their own survival, the survival of those around them, or even if the enemy you’re fighting dies or not. All of it is secondary. They may possess some utility abilities as well (like being able to crowd control enemies and prevent them for hurting other players), but since there are no meters to track the numerical significance of such things, they generally don’t do them unless tasked to do so. If they die, someone else is generally to blame. If the group fails, it is because of a weak link elsewhere in the chain (and they have the combat log numbers to prove it). DPS players are the least important members of the Trinity, yet suffer from the deepest delusions of self-importance.  Certainly there are exceptions to this mindset, but not many.

The fact remains, however, that the only reason DPS is important is because (in most traditional MMO boss encounters) there are artificially imposed fail conditions called “enrage timers” that are put into place to prevent groups from stacking enough tanks and healers to slowly defeat the boss without much effort. Unless you have enough DPS in your group, the boss finally has enough of you, gets bored and finally obliterates you for willingly entering its lair. How he is suddenly only now able to do this requires a suspension of disbelief that good encounter designers must stay up all night thinking about, searching for ways to logically weave the reason into the story. Mediocre designers on the other hand, just don’t give a shit.

Need an example of DPS? Say hello to Clubber Lang.

"My Prediction? Pain."

3. Healer – Last, but certainly not least, we have the healer. If tanks are masochists, and DPS are sadists, then healers are the enablers of traditional MMOs. The reason I list them last is because without the other two, they really have no purpose. They only exist to ensure others can live to do their jobs, and their role is to make sure that no one else has to suffer the consequences of standing in front of a boss and intentionally taking damage, or blindly wandering into areas containing fire, acid, poison or any manner of deadly hazards.

"I TOLD him not to fight. I was OOM!"

They are highly specialized players, like tanks, only their specialization is to sit back and essentially play a separate mini-game from everyone else. This game is usually played by mousing over draining health bars and making them fill up again by pressing different buttons depending on how much of the bar they need to fill and how much available time they have to fill it. The skill of this game centers on managing a limited healing resource – like mana – in order to fuel your heals. This game is generally the same, offering only slight variations in the background location it’s played in, and regardless of the complexity of the encounter everyone else is participating in. In fact, I’d wager anyone with some rudimentary programming skills could make a downloadable app for the iOS called “MMO HEALER!” that simulated this easily enough without costing $15 a month to play.

Good healers will be there for you no matter how reckless you are, or how many times you blame them for your own stupid mistakes. If you’re lucky, they won’t even say “I told you so” and remind you how they told you NOT to pull the next pack of mobs until they were at full mana. Typically you only bring the bare minimum number of healers needed to keep everyone alive since they tend to nag a lot and wear silly red hats.

So… what’s the problem? Obviously the Holy Trinity works. Ten million WoW players can’t be wrong.

  • It forces people to depend on each other because no one can survive alone, at least not on challenging and interesting content. Isn’t playing together the whole point of MMOs? In that regard, I’d say the Trinity certainly has a lot going for it. Everyone needs someone else.
  • Everyone knows what their job is. It allows specialization to the point of exclusion of all else. You can excel at one aspect of the Trinity and be hailed as a great and powerful slayer of pixels. People in traditional MMOs are constantly looking for quality tanks and healers to group with. You’re a walking commodity! What’s not cool about that?
  • It reduces loot drama. Hybridization aside, most gear that drops in traditional MMOs is so specific to one of the Trinity’s roles, it all may as well be as color coded as the Mass Effect 3 endings.
  • It makes content easier to design and execute. The existence of the Trinity means that content is formulaic, even in the most complex of encounters. Encounter designers can assume up front that you’ll have x number of tanks, y number of healers and z number of DPS. Then it just becomes a matter of figuring out the correct method to balance the encounter to those numbers. Someone is always supposed to have aggro. Someone else is supposed to heal. Everyone else is supposed to kill the boss. It’s familiar, and it means every fight can be approached in essentially the same way.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE HOLY TRINITY?

Short version: It is stale. It is predictable. It makes content formulaic. It centers on playing the UI and not the game. And it brings people together out of co-dependency instead of interdependency.

Allow me to expand on that a bit.

Familiarity can be a good thing. As my friend Emmet summarized, developers stick with the Trinity because “there is no risk of spending millions of dollars over several years to create a system that is either intrinsically broken or is so unfamiliar to the gamers that you do not succeed”.  But familiarity ofter breeds contempt as well. The Trinity isn’t broken, but we’ll never really push the MMO genre forward unless we’re unafraid to take risks. Status quo design leads to stale gameplay and games that are just new versions of ones we’ve all played before.

The same formulaic content that makes group content easy to approach in Trinity games also makes them boring. We live in an era of gaming where boss strategies can be found as fast as you can alt-tab out to a website. Sure, it takes execution to succeed, but it is still essentially paint by numbers. The top 1% of players will kill a boss, the strategies will find their way online, and the remaining 99% just follow it step by step. The very knowledge that you’ll have a set number of tanks, healers and DPS each and every time means encounters have to fall within certain parameters that are predictable. Furthermore, once you defeat the boss the first time and it gets placed on “farm status”, it just becomes a repetitive task. It is static content. I could still log into WoW right now and defeat content based almost entirely on memory.

As far as the UI differences go between games that are built around the Holy Trinity and those that aren’t, I have an entire article about it already on the site . The short version is that games that are based around the Trinity end up being experiences where you play the UI instead of the game. This is especially true for healers. Your screen is not only cluttered with a myriad of different abilities – most of which are situational but that you need on hand in case that one situation pops up – but you also need meters and bars and mods to support your gameplay. Below is an example of what I mean. Grid is a powerful addon for WoW, but it is often the only thing many healers stare at during encounters. This is your game. Everything else going on around you is just scenery. Sometimes that scenery may kill you if you’re not looking, but that’s what peripheral vision and other mods are for.

Image from Mystic Chicanery

So what is with all the psychological references about dependency?

The idea about this article was rolling around in the back of my head, and I just happened to be listening to the Tales of Tyria podcast on the way to work one morning. (ToT is an excellent Guild Wars 2 podcast! Check your local listings.) During this particular episode, at around the 18:30 mark they began discussing a PC Gamer article in which author Chris Thursten asked developers at ArenaNet about Guild Wars 2 and its departure from using the Holy Trinity. In the article, and during the podcast, questions arose regarding teamwork vs dependency and co-dependence vs interdependence. I realized these kinds of themes really helped me put my ideas into context, and how I see it is this…

Co-dependence is relying on others to provide what we are not providing for ourselves.

In traditional MMOs, this is exactly what the Trinity is designed to do. We can’t fully provide for ourselves. Just sit in any city or population hub in a traditional MMO and look at general chat. Try to find a dungeon group as a DPS player. How long do you typically wait? How many times do you see phrases like “Looking for Tank” or “Need Heals” scroll by your text window? The level of specialization offered by the Trinity comes at a price.

Even in player versus player combat, the team with the best healers generally wins. You can get by without a tank just fine (although depending on the MMO and the type of battleground you’re in, a tank can be a big benefit), but fighting without healers is suicide. It gets to a point that controlling and neutralizing the enemy healers becomes the main objective instead of the actual objective the game expects you to focus on.

In fact, in any traditional MMO, you will reach a point that the game becomes unplayable unless you have the right balance of the Trinity represented. That is co-dependence. The other real downside is that once you fill your needed tanking and healing roles, you don’t really need more. It limits your ability to play with the people you want to play with unless they also happen to fill the appropriate role you happen to need. You may hear phrases like “Bring the player, not the class”, but that only gets you so far in a Trinity game.

Independence is being self-reliant and completely capable of providing for your own needs.

In an MMO setting, this is solo play. It’s just you, and maybe a pet or non-player companion, against the world.

This is also what champions of the Holy Trinity rally against and cite as an example of what threatens to make MMOs who stray from it bland and homogenized. After all, if you can do everything, then why do you need other people? It’s a fair point, and one that needs to be explored as more and more MMOs become more solo-friendly. I consider this fear to be unfounded, however, given the other ways we have to differentiate ourselves from other players in different game genres. I think the article quote from ArenaNet developer Jon Peters says it best when he’s talking about shooters like Team Fortress 2. “No-one would tell you that everyone in Team Fortress just does damage,” he says. “No-one would say a Spy and a Heavy are the same because they both do damage – they’re very different playstyles. They have a very good sense of purpose.”

The incentive to group with people shouldn’t be limited to a cost-benefit analysis of the specific buffs they bring or role they fill inside the Trinity. You can remain independent and fully capable and not have that automatically mean you’re a loner or a carbon copy of everyone else around you. In fact, a group of independent people can still come together and become greater than the sum of their parts. Which brings us to…

Interdependence – The synergistic combination of  multiple self-reliant people who provide for the needs of the whole.

Taking a queue from Jon, and drawing upon my own recent experience with Tribes: Ascend, I can honestly say there is no way I feel a team in Capture The Flag feels homogenized. I can fill every role as a Technician. I can guard our flag, capture the enemy flag, chase down enemy runners, provide support for our runners, and guard and repair our team’s generator and base defenses. I may be better suited towards generator defense, and there are reasons Technicians excel at it, but I can be just as brutally effective in other ways on the battlefield.  On the other hand, I can decide to play a Doombringer or a Pathfinder and have a very different playing experience within the same game even though we’re all similarly equipped with guns and jetpacks. I can choose to do it, but I don’t have to. And even if I stick with my Technician across 20 games in a row, I can end up with 20 different experiences based on what roles my team has covered and what they need most when I join. It is my willingness and ability to adapt to the situation, and that same willingness and ability in others around me, that makes us a team.

That is interdependence, and that is why it is superior to co-dependence.

And that’s why there is not only life after the Holy Trinity, but why better and more dynamic MMO experiences are on the horizon.

Paladins wish they were me

OUT WITH THE OLD. IN WITH THE NEW.

So how can we play in a MMO without dedicated tanks and healers? ArenaNet hopes to answer that question with Guild Wars 2 when it launches later this year.

In Guild Wars 2, each of the eight classes are designed to be interdependent. Everyone has the ability to self-heal, and you can heal others with proximity and ground targeted abilities. The lack of direct target healing means you can play the same game as your friends without the need to stare at health bars. Everyone can tank based upon proximity to the mob you’re fighting, but not for long. Tank swapping is something you’ll work together with everyone to do, like a pack of wolves taking down dangerous prey. To top it off, everyone can put out respectable damage while supporting the group as a whole. The specialization and customization comes from how you want to perform these roles and which you’d prefer to focus on most.

You leave Tank, Healer and DPS behind and you move on to Control, Support and Damage.

CONTROL isn’t a totally new concept to MMOs, but the emphasis placed on it in Guild Wars 2 will be a step forward. Most damage in the game is avoidable. You can dodge out of it or control your opponents in such a way as to negate their ability to harm you. This is something new for people coming from WoW or SW:TOR, and it can seem like a bitter pill to swallow for people who love healing and tanking in those games. The good news for these players is they can still be just as valuable. It just requires a new mindset.

I liken it it to a dilemma I recently had. For an upcoming Pathfinder game, my friends and I were all currently deciding which classes to play. No one wanted to be stuck with the healer. It can be a gratifying role, but it is more of a necessary evil than anything. In researching classes, I discovered an article about playing a Wizard in which the author stated  that dedicated healers aren’t useful in combat because they are reactive instead of proactive.

He states that, “The Wizard will alter reality to prevent damage, a healer will try to do damage control  after the damage has been taken. The mechanics of the game make preventing damage more efficient then healing damage after the fact. That’s not to say a well placed heal never has use in combat – but if you’re doing your job – it should never be required as a primary role.”

In Guild Wars 2, there are all sorts of ways to control your enemies via conditions. You can blind, cripple, fear, bleed, knockdown, daze, immobilize, push, pull and even confuse your enemy – which actually makes your enemy take damage if they use an ability. Tanks and healers can now look to become controllers who prevent damage and dictate what enemies do (and to whom) by use of positioning and conditions. If you want to center your class build around control through liberal use of conditions, you can easily do so.

SUPPORT is the other way you can gain the upper hand on your opponents and boost the effectiveness of your allies. Again, it isn’t a new concept, but it is cranked up to eleven in Guild Wars  2. It isn’t about providing a few class specific buffs before the fight, but rather giving your allies boons they can benefit from in the middle of the action. You can boost their damage output, critical strike rating, health regeneration, movement speed, ability to sustain damage and even make it so enemies take damage if they attack them.

You can also support your allies through interesting skill and talent choices unlike anything I’ve seen in other MMOs. For example, it is possible to build a Thief who every time he uses his Steal ability will poison and weaken his opponent while buffing his nearby allies with increased damage, critical strike rating and movement speed. Furthermore, every time he uses a poison utility skill, the poison will apply to his allies’ weapons as well. It is just one of several ways you can build out a thief, but the fact that you can take a class that isn’t traditionally known for being supportive and have it fill a heavy support role is impressive.

DAMAGE is still very much the same old role, but now everyone can do it. No one has to feel like they need to respec or grab a friend in order to walk around in the open world and be able to hold their own. You can still specialize in damage output, but you have to realize up front that your survival is primarily your own responsibility. Glass cannons won’t have anyone else to blame if they die.

The end result is that combat and content can be much more dynamic. Tanking and spanking won’t cut it. Everyone needs to adapt to situations that can change in a much more fluid way, and no one can afford to get complacent because no one is safe. You can play with your friends regardless of their class and tackle anything the game throws at you as long as you are skilled enough to defeat it.

Only time will tell if ArenaNet’s gamble will pay off, but I have a feeling that its very existence will be enough to bring much needed change to the MMO genre.

If you’d like to delve even deeper into the subject, here are a few resources that can help:

There is an awesome video by WoodenPotatoes that covers the lack of Holy Trinity in Guild Wars 2.

A great article by MesmerPL highlights the transition from Holy Trinity to the Control, Support and Damage model of Guild Wars 2.

Finally, Guild Wars Insider has a page that details all of the conditions and boons present in Guild Wars 2, so you can get a clearer picture of how these all work.

Star Wars:The Old Republic – Legacy Patch 1.2

Regardless if you’re talking about the movies, books or the new MMO from BioWare, Star Wars always seems to revolve around defining moments. There is that fork in the path where a character is faced with a decision that will not only affect his own life, but potentially the fate of the galaxy. Han returns to help Luke destroy the Death Star. Luke refuses to kill Vader. Vader refuses to let his son be destroyed.  Leia never reveals the location of the hidden rebel base, putting quite a dent in Alderaan’s tourism business.

Now, with the massive Legacy patch to Star Wars: The Old Republic, the defining moment for BioWare’s MMO has arrived. Will this be shot in the arm the game desperately needs? Can it carve out a lasting spot for itself as a AAA subscription MMO? Or will subscription numbers dwindle once again, sending it towards the dark path of obscurity? I won’t try to tackle every single change–that’s what patch notes are for–but I’ll at least give you my initial impressions.

Let me start by saying that I really love what BioWare has done in their game, and for MMOs in general, in regards to storytelling and making your character feel like an individual instead of just another stat sheet. I have more empathy and attachment to my Bounty Hunter after a few months than I ever did for any of my World of Warcraft characters after years of playing them. The leveling experience in SW:TOR is much richer and interesting than in WoW too, and unlike Blizzard’s MMO, I never hear “the game starts at max level”. Companion characters have also been a really brilliant addition to my MMO experience. Not only are they helpful in a practical sense, but they also bring stories of their own and really enhance the idea that your character is a person of real power.

But… as many who play and follow the game know. SW:TOR has suffered from a lot of problems. World PvP is essentially dead. Even on PvP servers, the planet design ensures that factions do not cross paths easily till far into the game. Ilum, a world originally set up to be an entire planet for open PvP, has been put on ice. All incentives have been removed from it, and BioWare is going back to the drawing board regarding its future in the game. Bugs have plagued end game PvE content, sometimes being the only challenging part of a boss encounter. Faction imbalance led the Warzone PvP experience to become endless strings of Huttball. Even the basic need to get around in the game world is lacking, with a ponderous amount of steps and load screens needed to get from one place to another in order to meet up with friends. Frame rate and performance glitches made the game bog down at times on even high end machines, especially in warzones. The stock UI was decent, but completely lacking in customization options or even basic features like target of target frames. It all added up to a frustrating experience despite the game’s potential.

Fortunately, the Legacy patch solves (or at least improves upon) most of these issues.

THE LIGHT SIDE

With the addition of Novare Coast, and the alterations made to Voidstar, players now have three different PvP Warzones where they can potentially compete against their own faction. This adds a lot of variety when it comes to servers with a population imbalance, essentially smoothing over the only real problem population imbalance causes. Ilum is still in development, and there is no world PvP to speak of, so imbalance really isn’t a factor elsewhere. And, while I’m on the subject, even if there was a population imbalance, so what? Open world PvP was never about fairness and equality anyway. If you want a structured, evenly populated PvP environment, queue for a Warzone! But I digress…

Explosive Conflict adds another Operation to the game, much to the joy of raiders everywhere. Not only does this give people the new content and gear they’ve been after, but it also raises the bar with a higher tier of raid difficulty. In addition to this, BioWare has finally put to rest a number of bugs and design problems in their other two Operations. They also released a new Flashpoint called Lost Island which centers on the second half of the Rakghoul plague storyline (space zombies!). The first Flashpoint half was covered in Kaon Under Siege, and I considered it to be the finest and most challenging Flashpoint in the entire game. Lost Island is apparently ramping up the difficulty as well, perhaps too much so, given the fact that you’re still rewarded with first tier gear and commendations despite needing all of that gear to complete it in the first place. I’m sure we’ll see tweaks made to it in the near future, although I hope they increase the rewards rather than taking the Blizzard way out and adding training wheels to the content.

The real gem of the patch (as far as I am concerned) is the drastically improved performance and user interface. I don’t play on a bleeding edge machine, but it is more than capable of running most games at the highest settings without too many problems. This hasn’t been the case with SW:TOR till now. Even with max settings, I am no longer reduced to a stuttering sideshow on the crowded fleet or in warzones. The game just looks and feels better. I adore the Awareness Radius option which reduces the number of other players rendered in crowded environments. While BioWare claims this is for “low end machines” in the same way they write off every performance improvement – as if our machines were to blame, and not their code – I highly suggest everyone use this option. The UI customization is like a breath of fresh air. Finally being able to scale and move things around really helps me make the game my own. The addition of the target of target frame means tanking isn’t nearly as much guesswork in crowded AoE packs or in PvP. The UI still isn’t perfect, but it is a really great first step.

Other quality of life improvements include the gear “match to chest” option that allows you to match the color and pattern of your gear. There is starter level PvP gear for fresh level 50s so they can compete without being obliterated. Crafting has also seen huge improvements, with augmented crafted gear (containing sockets for augments) and the ability to remove mods from end game PvP and PvE gear combining to make for interesting combinations and levels of customization. You still won’t be able to carry over your set bonuses in your old gear, so don’t go too crazy, but if you’re like me and hate your Powertech having quad mufflers sticking out of your back, you can finally do something about it.

I may be a subcontractor, but that doesn't mean I can't try to blend in a little.

The other major feature of the Legacy patch is the fact that our Legacy is finally more than just a useless purple bar. We actually gain some tangible benefits for logging all these hours playing, and it’s pretty cool. The whole family tree business doesn’t really matter all that much to me. I suppose it adds an additional layer of depth to know that my Bounty Hunter has two brothers, a Sith Warrior and Jedi Knight (who are also cyborgs with a striking family resemblance), and that each of them has an ally they work with (Sorcerer and Trooper respectively) and that my Imperial Agent is my Bounty Hunter’s adopted daughter – a young lady who has proven a far more lethal and morally flexible protege than Mako has, and who provides me with intel on lucrative Imperial opportunities. It gives me a nice context to put things in when I play one of them that adds to their individual story arcs, even if that context only exists in my mind and on a family tree screen in game.

The real benefits come from features that encourages the leveling of alternate characters, and making that experience seem like a feature instead of something to do when you’re bored with your main character. These include:

  • The ability to send mail instantly to any of my characters, including cross faction. For someone who spreads out crafting professions across alts, this was most welcome.
  • The global unlocks that happen as you advance your characters. Whenever you finish a companion’s story line, you unlock a presence buff across all characters which stacks and makes your companions more effective at their roles. For each category of companion (like healer, for example) you also unlock a non-stacking buff that applies to all your characters as well. In the case of Mako, my healing companion, I unlocked the ability to receive more healing – making incoming heals on me a bit larger. I don’t know if this applies to non-companion heals, but I would assume it does considering other similar perks through this system include things like static boosts to your maximum health or critical hit and damage ratings. Each of these companion unlocks also reduce the cooldown of your Heroic Moment by 1 minute (to a max reduction of 5 minutes) and increase the duration of your Heroic Moment by 12 seconds (to a max increase of 1 minute). Your Heroic Moment now not only allows you to recharge your crowd control abilities and put a heal over time on you and your companion, but also allows you to use Legacy Abilities.
  • Legacy Abilities are signature abilities you unlock once hitting max level with a certain class that can be shared across all your characters. For example, each of my characters can use my Bounty Hunter’s flamethrower ability during their Heroic Moment. Since you can only do this with a companion out, it doesn’t impact Operations or Warzones.
  • Bind on Legacy gear that can really help you level – especially the gear that can use mods.
  • The ability to unlock any race you level to 50 (or are willing to spend 1.5 million credits on) that you can use with any class.
  • Other miscellaneous perks you can spend credits on like adding mailboxes to each character’s ship or reducing the cooldown on your fleet pass or quick travel.

Not only is this a fun system that provides a new mini-game for completionists and some decent perks for everyone involved, it is also a brilliant move on BioWare’s part. The strongest aspect of their MMO by far has been the leveling experience. From the start we’ve been told that the MMO is not only the spiritual sequel to their Knights of The Old Republic games, but that it is like eight sequels rolled into one game. Getting people to play through each of those stories is what BioWare is banking on. It keeps people playing, keeps them paying for their subscriptions, and it buys them time to improve their end game experiences. Even if some casual players out there have no intention of ever raiding or getting into PvP, there would still be hundreds and hundreds of hours of game time they could sink into these story lines. The fact that we’re now provided with rewards for doing so is just icing on the cake.

BioWare should also be commended for the incredible public relations and marketing push they’ve done surrounding this patch, pulling out all the stops with their Legacy Promotion. Free to play weekends. Referral initiatives. Giving 30 days of free play time to subscribers AND to people who reactivate their subscriptions. Pets you earn just from having an active subscription. When you consider this came on the heels of their Guild Summit which was an unprecedented community participation think tank aimed at making the game the best it can be, you know they are leaving nothing to chance. BioWare is committed to making this a great game.

However… That doesn’t mean everything with this patch has been good news.

THE DARK SIDE

Healers have been nerfed considerably, and while I understand that killing a geared and skilled healer in PvP in a 1 on 1 scenario was a huge challenge, I think it points out a drawback of the game. Healers have to be potent because they are the only thing keeping multiple people alive – especially in PvE endgame. If they aren’t powerful enough to do that, then your raid fails. If they are powerful enough, then they become the single most dominating factor on the PvP battlefield. It’s a problem that plagues every MMO that pays homage to the time tested and very effective “Holy Trinity”. Getting that balance right is a non-stop game of tail chasing.

Perhaps there were legitimate problems that needed fixing, such as the Force Bending buff for Sorcerers applying to more than one ability incorrectly. But the problem is that they’ve now changed the implementation of the ability as a whole, and removed the cast time reduction that applied to your biggest single target heal. This means to get that big heal off, Sorcerers have to root themselves in place for 3 seconds. This is a fair amount of time in PvE if there are environmental hazards or boss abilities to worry about. In PvP, standing still for 3 seconds can get you killed, and it gives people a LOT of time to interrupt you. This results in more emphasis being placed on your shorter, and less efficient heals, which means you burn through your Force faster. Sorcerers have the ability to trade Force for health, but doing so can be extremely dangerous. They used to be able to pick up a talent which would remove the health penalty, but no longer. This means on longer fights or in PvP, Sorcerer healers are going to run the risk of running out of heals. Maybe some of that can be compensated by throwing a heal over time on themselves when they pop Consumption and trade health for Force, but I have no idea how efficient that will be. At best you’re wasting two global cooldowns instead of one, and if you’re to the point where you’re starved for resources those seconds can add up.

To make matters worse on the healing front, medpacks have also been nerfed so that you can only use one per combat. This means that players other than healers, who are traditionally already horrible at self-preservation in Holy Trinity MMOs, now have even less incentive to keep themselves alive. They have a single emergency medpack to hold on to, but I can almost guarantee most players will be so worried about saving it that they’ll die before using it. This means healers, who are already less effective, are going to be expected to do more or risk shouldering the blame when things go wrong.

I think a far better solution to at least try would have been to remove the healing boost given by expertise. Let’s face it. No one complains about healers being too powerful in a PvE setting. Removing the healing boost from PvP gear would have been a decent nerf that wouldn’t have compromised PvE healing at all. Ahh… but maybe that isn’t what BioWare was really concerned with.

Time to put on my tinfoil hat!

Perhaps someone does see a downside to healing as it was in PvE – and that someone is BioWare. After people complaining over and over again how their Operations were too easy, perhaps they decided to take the easy way out. The Holy Trinity relies on three pillars. Weaken one of those pillars enough, and you weaken the whole. A nerf to healers can be perceived as increased difficulty in PvE without the need to make the content itself any harder or more dynamic. It’s effective, but it’s also a bit of a cheap shortcut.

Another thing that’s a big downside to patch 1.2 is the lack of Rated Warzones and the ability to queue as a full 8 man group. I know a lot of people were looking forward to this, not only for the sake of competition, but also in hopes that partial premades wouldn’t dominate like they currently do. What many players were looking forward to was 8 mans going up against  other 8 mans and the rag tag PuGs competing against mainly other rag tag PuGs. As it stands, this isn’t the case. When you factor in the changes to how medals are earned, the greatly nerfed rewards for losing, AND the complete lack of any sort of deserter penalty for leaving games early – the end result is less than ideal or fun. Partial premades dominate, people on the losing team drop, only to be replaced by people who come into half a game with no time to earn medals, and who then drop out themselves. Repeat until time expires. This may not be the way things are on every server, but it has certainly been my experience thus far.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about patch 1.2 is the feeling of it being too little and too late. Many players feel that this patch contains features that the game should have launched with back in December, and the develops themselves have gone on record saying that they wish a lot of these features were present at launch. While second chances are also a big part of the Star Wars universe, only time will tell if it carries over to The Old Republic. My own guild is scattered and many have gone off to find a more active home to join. Many have cancelled their subscriptions, and many more were waiting on this patch to “save the game” before pulling out completely. Personally I’m enjoying taking a very casual approach and leveling alts, and checking out the new dailies. I will say that solo PvP isn’t very fun, and the lack of any sort of group-finding tool makes running pick-up groups for Flashpoints a less enjoyable task than it already is. If I do continue to play, it will probably have to be as a member of another, more active, guild where I can hop in and out of Warzone, Flashpoint and Operations groups instead of trying to be a driving force in creating and maintaining them.

I will say that if you are even remotely interested in Star Wars: The Old Republic, NOW is the time to play. The experience is much better than it was at launch, and even BioWare is keenly aware that it is now or never.

If you’re playing the game, please share your impressions on it and on patch 1.2. I’d love to read your feedback!

May the Force be with you.

A Tale of Two User Interfaces

I recently logged back in to Star Wars: The Old Republic after taking a break from playing. My guild has had the current Operations (Raids) on farm for some time, and there really doesn’t feel like there is all that much to do with my Bounty Hunter. Many of our players have scattered to the four winds, some have cancelled their subscriptions, and we’re all waiting to see if BioWare’s big 1.2 patch will be enough to invigorate the game once more. I could PvP, but I’m at a point were hitting the solo queue doesn’t seem like a great deal of fun and setting aside time to find a dedicated group to PvP with seems tiresome. Besides that, my Bounty Hunter was my guild’s main tank, so I have to essentially start the PvP gear grind all over again for a gear set that would actually allow me to survive 1 on 1 encounters. At the end of the day, I’m just leveling a couple of alts and enjoying the stories of different classes, since that is the primary area where BioWare got things right and advanced the MMO genre.

Which brings me to the point of this article.

Why did the honeymoon phase end so quickly with SW:TOR?

While there are many examples I could give, the main reason for me is that it feels like I’ve done all of this before. The same burn out I suffered in World of Warcraft after six years of the raiding treadmill has carried over to my SW:TOR experience. While I’ve defended BioWare’s MMO over and over again whenever I heard it written off as a WoW clone, in many ways it does feel like I’m dating an ex-wife who changed her name and bought a redheaded wig.

Familiarity can be a good thing, especially when you’re talking about a MMO with ten million subscribers. It lowers the barrier of entry, and allows people to start playing your game immediately instead of spending those first few crucial hours learning basic keybinds or the UI. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, familiarity also breeds contempt. While it is normally a phrase used as a psychological reference to the idea that the better we know people, the more likely we are to find fault with them, I think it applies to games as well.

I’m finding a lot of faults with the Star Wars UI, and while I’m certain the customization options in patch 1.2 will help, some of these issues are found at the core of the game’s design.

As a visual aid, I’ll post a screenshot of the UI for my Trooper alt.

Good... Bad... I'm the guy with the gun.

Buttons. So many buttons.

I won’t make any claims about being a keybinding genius. I play using a Razer Naga mouse coupled with a Razer Nostromo gamepad. I try to only use my keyboard for typing in chat and for leisurely keybinds to things like my inventory and quest log. My binding ability isn’t the problem. The problem is that out of all of these buttons, I probably only use about 10-12 of them 80% of the time. The rest are completely situational in nature.

My main binds to my core abilities are all located on the two bars immediately under my health bar near my character portrait – six on top, and six below. These are my bread and butter abilities. The remaining buttons, while useful at times, are really just providing the illusion of complexity. Just because I have 48 total available button slots doesn’t mean that all each of them are vital to the majority of my gameplay.

Beyond that, once I do start to fill up each and every one of these (much like I did in WoW – especially since every expansion includes a mandatory 3-4 new abilities for each class), I start to play the UI instead of the game.

Some of these buttons and binds are used up so that if I swap roles, say from damage dealing to tanking, I don’t have to spend time setting up a new UI. In the screenshot above, I keep my tanking stance, my guard ability (which allows me to share damage with another player if I am in the right stance) and my taunts (both single target and multi-target) on the left side bar. These abilities only exist because SW:TOR, like WoW, forces you into traditional roles of Tank, Healer or Damage dealer (DPS). If those roles didn’t exist, or if everyone shared them to an extent, then there would be little reason to have a UI this expansive.

Likewise, each class in SW:TOR has a specific buff that only they can provide to their group members. I use a slot for my Trooper’s buff. These buffs are designed to make you more powerful when grouping, since you can all buff one another. For organized activities like raiding and team PvP, it also means you’re forced to bring along at least one member of each class so that none of these buffs are missing. The downside to that is that, much like class roles in the “Holy Trinity” of Tank, Healer or DPS, you’re group composition is now constrained by these factors.

Still other buttons on the right side bar are used for temporary buffs that boost my damage or performance in some way. I have three different buffing items stacked together – a stim (like a potion in WoW) and two relics that my Trooper has equipped. The idea being that I hold these items in reserve for when I need an extra surge of power to take out an enemy.

Others binds are used for conditional abilities, ones that “proc” or require a prerequisite of some sort before becoming available. My Trooper’s High Impact Bolt (which is greyed out and bound to my number 5 key) only becomes active for use if I have the right damage over time ability already on my target. Other classes have similar abilities, and they are primarily used again to promote the illusion of complexity. They break up the monotony of a static ability rotation. The premise being that it adds a level of randomness that, in theory, keeps things from getting too predictable or boring.

My least favorite type of ability of all, and one which unfortunately has a place of prominence on bound to my 1 key, is the Filler. The Filler is an ability that you can always use regardless of what else is on cooldown or how much of your class resource you have available. It doesn’t really do much by itself, and it is by design not very interesting. In the case of my Trooper, it is a few rounds of burst fire that hit for mediocre damage. By weaving in a few of these “free” filler shots with my more powerful abilities (all of which use ammo), I effectively manage my ammo resource along with my cooldowns. This is intended to reward skillful play. What it really does is add a fairly useless keybind, and one that I would eliminate the minute I had macro functionality. Once I did, I would just add the filler to each of my cooldown abilities so that if the ability I really want to hit is on cooldown, it would auto fire my backup filler ability instead. Some would argue that this goes against the spirit of the game and reduces the complexity of what divides good players from bad ones. I would counter that it doesn’t require skill to know that if my number 2 bind is grey that I need to hit number 1. It is just clutter.

Thus far I’ve listed a few different categories of abilities:

  1. Core Abilities – Where the fun is.
  2. Role Abilities – Specific to which facet of the Trinity I’m serving at that moment
  3. Buff Abilities – Static abilities/items that provide temporary bonuses
  4. Conditional Abilities – “Procs” that aren’t available at all times
  5. Filler Abilities – Bland abilities that are similar to the auto attacks found in other games.

Add each of these up, and it is easy to see why without macro support and the ability to customize and scale your UI, your screen can easily start to fill up with buttons and binds.

Now, let’s take a comparative look at the UIs of  SW:TOR and Guild Wars 2:

A Tale of Two UIs.
Image provided by GuildMag.com

In the image above, we have 24 available ability binds (only HALF of what they support) on top compared to 10 abilities (13 if you count the F keys) for Guild Wars 2 on the bottom.

Which offers the most complexity and fun? For me, the answer is clearly Guild Wars 2.

Instead of massive amounts of clutter for every ability my class can possibly possess, my binds are streamlined, making every ability a Core Ability.

From right to left, and ignoring how this particular player set up his personal keybinds:

Binds 1-5 are determined by your weapon and are class specific. For a two-handed weapon like the Hammer the Guardian is using in this image, all five of his binds are tied to his weapon. If you are dual wielding, the main hand weapon determines your 1-3 abilities while your offhand determines your 4 and 5 abilities.

There is also a weapon swap button for most professions (classes) that allows you to interchange two different weapon presets on the fly, in essence doubling your available weapon abilities without doubling the space your UI takes up. No fluff. No filler.

It is also important to note that the primary attack for each profession (the number 1 ability) is the only one without a cooldown, and it is usually far more dynamic than an auto attack or Filler Ability. Guild Wars 2 makes use of a fair amount of Chain Abilities in this slot – abilities that are essentially three different abilities that fire off in succession with each press of the button. It adds a lot of dynamic feel to the game while still giving you something to do to be effective if you’re waiting for the right moment to unleash your more powerful abilities.

Bind 6 is your heal. Every class has one, although there are three options you can choose from to customize your play style. You don’t need 5 different heals, a medpack, and a PvP specific medpack. One and done. Other heals and healing abilities are tied to weapon abilities, utility skills or are a side effect of traits you pick when customizing your character. Massive amounts of complexity contained within a minimum amount of UI.

Binds 7-9 are your utility skills. You choose three at a time from an available list of around twenty. You don’t need all 20 available at all times. Your utility skills help define you and what makes you different from the guy next to you who is playing the same class. More choice. more complexity. Less UI space.

The number 10 bind is for your Elite skill. This is your big nuke, your game changer, your “Oh shit!” button. You choose one from list of three class-specific and three race-specific Elites.

The remaining F key binds are class specific. Some classes, like the Warrior, have a single powerful weapon-specific ability. The Guardian has three virtues that have both passive and active effects. The Elementalist has four elemental attunements (Fire, Water, Air & Earth) that completely change all five weapon skill slots, giving her 20 different skills for each weapon set.

Complexity. Not clutter.

Just another reason I can’t wait for Guild Wars 2 to release. It isn’t about hype. It’s about the evolution of the MMO, and innovation that rewards skill and personal choice and customization while allowing you to play the game and not the UI.

It is also why last generation MMOs, including SW:TOR, have a hard time keeping my interest. I know a lot of my issues with traditional WoW-like UIs can be minimized or worked around with the use of mods and some basic UI customization features, but in my opinion, that’s masking the problem instead of solving it.

ArenaNet is setting out to solve it.

MMOs & Investor Confidence: How Business Concerns Affect Your Gaming Experience

Bear with me on this one, as I will be referencing a couple of different articles in order to make comparisons between some popular MMOs and the companies behind them.

I noticed today that a few articles have popped up regarding Star Wars: The Old Republic and the accusation that they have too many active servers. According to the squeaky wheels on the official forums, several servers are relative “dead zones” where players have a difficult time finding other players to group with. It has been stated that while SW:TOR only has 10% of the subscriptions that World of Warcraft currently has, they have 50% of the number of servers that the MMO giant has. If this is accurate, then it is easy to see where some of these concerns are coming from. The easy solution would be to consolidate servers and bring players closer together.

Unfortunately, the suits on Wall Street don’t see it that way.

The plain truth is that nothing shakes up investor confidence in the companies who produce MMOs like server consolidations and/or lower subscriptions. I don’t think it is a great stretch to imagine that most of those investors are only vaguely aware of the products their investing in, and perhaps overreact to these kind of metrics. As a result, despite the fact that consolidation would make the experience better for YOU, the player, and may in fact keep you playing and paying, server consolidation is a measure of last resort. This is especially true if you’re Electronic Arts and you just shelled out an estimated 80 million dollars to make the game, and it has only been out for a few short months. I don’t think SW:TOR is in dire straits just yet, although they certainly could be if their big April patch falls short of expectations, but they’re certainly not the only MMO who’ll play the numbers game for a better quarterly statement.

Take a look at World of Warcraft, the 800 pound gorilla in the MMO market. They’re certainly not above this kind of sleight of hand either. A very interesting article I read back in 2009, and one that is still relevant, highlights some of the ways that Activision Blizzard manipulates statistics in order to market their game and keep their investors happy. You may hear that WoW has 10 million subscribers, but that number doesn’t take into consideration that many players in the asian market aren’t playing or paying quite the same way as their American and European counterparts. For instance, at the time of the article, the Asian market made up 50% of the WoW player base, yet only accounted for 6% of the total revenue. Other areas where WoW has been historically accused of fudging the numbers is keeping servers online that have huge faction imbalances; servers that would greatly benefit from mergers with others that could balance them out and improve the overall player experience.

The WoW annual pass scheme has certainly been an effective tourniquet on WoW’s bleeding subscription numbers. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the short version is that if you agree to purchase a one year subscription to WoW, you get a free digital copy of Diablo 3 as well as an in game pet and beta access to the next WoW expansion. Seems like a great fan service! The reality is that no company would make such a move unless they had already reached the decision that doing so was the best financial decision possible. They’re essentially giving their players a $60 game in order to guarantee they spend $180. And when I say guarantee… I mean it. Apparently is it almost impossible to cancel the annual pass once you’ve paid for it. For anyone in the Blizzard Finance Department, this is a huge win. You’ve essentially locked in a large portion of your revenue stream and marginalized the future subscription losses you would have suffered otherwise, buying you a year to prepare for the announcement of Blizzard’s next MMO, code named Titan. In the meantime, you just hope and pray that people still love pandas and Pokemon.

Going back to the Old Republic and their server issues, it is really nothing more than a corner they’ve painted themselves into by failing to plan. Every MMO, especially those with monthly subscriptions, see a huge population swell at launch. Players are eager to try something new, and the first 30 days is generally included with the price of the game. This means that almost no reasonable amount of servers that would sustain your normal expected population post-launch will be enough to handle this kind of traffic. Server queues begin to back up longer and longer as players try in vain to all get in at once. After the initial 30 days, however, the population starts to fall off to a more manageable level. If you’re artificially increased your launch servers to minimize queues, or if your content is relatively stale or buggy and players start leaving, then server populations start to dwindle and thin out. It is important to note that this happens to every single MMO that has ever released (or at least it has happened to enough to be considered the rule even if an exception or two actually exists).

So what is a developer to do? What kind of solution can you come up with to account for the perfectly normal and anticipated launch rush, while at the same time minimizing or hopefully eliminating the post-launch purge and merge?

It appears that ArenaNet may have the answer.

As part of their design of Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet is implementing something called an overflow shard. This server acts as a buffer against server queues, allowing you to temporarily play on a separate, dedicated server while your remain in queue for your home server. When your queue is up, you hit a button and after a load screen, you magically reappear logged on to your home server and standing in the same spot you were in on the overflow server. That is forward thinking and innovative. No two ways about it. The real genius is that it doesn’t matter if you have a single overflow shard or two dozen of them. It will be seamless to the player who is playing, and post launch you can still reduce the number of these overflow servers without sending up red flags to your investors. The suits remain happy, and your players come away with an even better playing experience.

Seems odd that someone at a company the size of Activision or Electronic Arts didn’t think of it first.