27/05/2014

What makes for a good boss fight from a healer's PoV?

The other week Healing SWTOR wrote a list of their "top 5 SWTOR bosses to heal", and when I commented on it (because originally they forgot to actually add a fifth one to the list) they asked me about my own favourites. I couldn't think of an answer right then but decided to give it some more thought.

As it turns out, I found it really difficult to come up with a ranked list of bosses. Most of the time when I enjoy a fight, it's not for any reason related to how it feels to heal in particular; it's enjoyable in any role. Likewise, whenever I find an encounter annoying, it's usually not just because of what it does to the healers. Exceptions exist but they are rare. One example I can think of is the Terror from Beyond, which is a brilliantly engaging fight from a dps point of view (in my opinion) but boring as all hell to heal, because a lot of the time there just isn't anything to do for the healers.

Still, it did get me thinking about the general subject of what makes an encounter fun from a healer's perspective. In the end I came up with the following criteria for myself:

It mustn't require too much or too little healing.

Now this is obviously very subjective depending on skill, as one person's "too much" might be another player's "just right". I do think there are some fights that really stand out as hitting either extreme though.

Olok the Shadow in Scum and Villainy, to me, is an example of a fight with almost non-existent healing requirements. Now, that fight has other problems, most importantly that it's just too long and uneventful in general, but it's particularly bad from a healer's point of view because a lot of the time you just feel redundant. Both the upstairs and the last phase cause very little damage and you'll probably spend a lot of time just standing around and adding lacklustre dps out of sheer boredom.

It's a bit harder to qualify when the incoming damage during a fight becomes too much, but I remember the Dread Guards on nightmare indeed feeling like a nightmare to me, because even if I spammed heals like crazy until I was out of ammo, it never seemed to be quite enough, and I just became more and more stressed out with every attempt.

There needs to be a rhythm to the damage patterns.

Healing in SWTOR is a very rhythmical activity from a mechanical point of view, simply because of the way resource management works, and good encounter design takes advantage of that: for example by including times where you have to heal extra hard, burn cooldowns and so on, as well as times where damage is lighter so that you can recover a bit if you overextended your resources previously.

Dread Master Brontes is a good example of a fight with a great rhythm. It starts out easy with some damage on the tanks and tentacle dodging, then things ramp up a little once the failed clones spawn. While dps down the droid adds, the healers can recover a bit if needed or help by adding a little bit of extra damage, but from then on things just keep getting crazier until the fight ends in a mad climax of people being bounced around every which way and taking lots of damage in the process. When you get her down at the end of that, it feels like a great achievement.

It doesn't always have to be that complex either. To use an older and simpler example, take the first boss in Eternity Vault: he alternates between phases of doing light damage and phases of doing lots of damage throughout the fight pretty much until the very end.

Bonethrasher in Karagga's Palace on the other hand is an example of a fight with a fairly poor sense of rhythm, since it's more or less the same from start to finish and he attacks people completely at random.

There should be things to do other than heal.

As much as I love healing, whack-a-mole and all, if I don't have to pay attention to anything else it gets boring pretty quickly, and circles on the ground only provide a limited amount of distraction in the long run. There should be something else that I have to pay attention to at least at some point to the fight: maybe we all have to change position together, maybe I have to add a bit of dps during a burst phase, or maybe a button needs pushing at a specific moment. Just... something.

Prime examples of this: Soa with his platform jumping and Operator IX with all the colour-related mechanics.

Dispels should be handled with care.

Now this is something that's only become a bugbear of mine quite recently. I always thought SWTOR took a reasonable enough approach to dispelling since it had cooldowns on dispels from launch, making it clear that they weren't something intended to be spammed. And then... they gave us fights like Nefra in Dread Fortress, who puts a DoT on the whole raid something like once every thirty seconds. If you have a group where nobody but the healers can dispel (which I often do) you end up hitting it pretty much on cooldown, as well as hating all your dpsers for having rolled classes that can't cleanse at least themselves.

There are other ways to make dispels annoying too, such as on the Dread Council. Tyrans only casts his death marks about once a minute, but on hardmode they need to be dispelled asap or the afflicted person dies. Now, having an unforgivable mechanic like that isn't necessarily bad, but just like on Nefra, requiring more dispels than you are guaranteed to have dispellers can cause group make-up to increase pressure on the healers dramatically. On that particular fight it's also an issue that you're supposed to dispel things in a predetermined order (if you are limited to two dispellers) because it can be really hard to tell some debuffs apart, even if you increase the icon size to its absolute maximum on the UI. Making me feel like I'm fighting the UI instead of the boss is never fun.

Compare this to, for example, the person who needs to stay on the ground on Firebrand and Stormcaller in EC NiM. At level fifty, not dispelling the debuff there led to guaranteed death as well, but you only needed one person to take care of it (which could be done by any healer with no issues), and the bright yellow beam gave an obvious visual cue even without having to squint at debuff icons.

Basically: if there are dispels to be made, they shouldn't be so numerous as to require your healers to hit their dispel more often than some of their heals, and if there are any dispel-or-die mechanics, they should be obvious from a UI perspective and again, not so numerous as to punish groups with fewer dispels.

23/05/2014

More Podcast Recommendations

TOROCast

At last, I, too, have started listening to "SWTOR's longest running fan podcast" (according to the associated website). Considering that they are up to two hundred episodes by now, I can believe it. I actually avoided this podcast before because a long time ago someone warned me away from it by telling me that the hosts were all terribly jaded and just bashing the game a lot. I haven't gone back to listen to all their old episodes, but the show has clearly undergone some changes since then. In fact, this was the reason it actually got my attention after all this time, as one of the current hosts guest-starred on other podcasts I listened to and sounded nothing if not cheerful and enthusiastic.

As it stands, the show is hosted by Road, the aforementioned serial guest star and community-minded extrovert, and super hardcore raider Mae, though they sometimes have other people joining them to chat. The two of them make for an interesting combination that leads to the show presenting a bit of a "top-down" view of the game, with a focus on overarching issues such as game direction and class balance. Mae can still be quite critical of the devs sometimes, but not to the point that it would make the show a downer.

The TOROCast site also hosts the "Galactic Gamers Coalition", an irregular spin-off show that brings hosts from different podcasts together to be silly and have fun together.

SWTOR Escape Pod Cast

This relatively young podcast is hosted by two members of the AIE gaming community, which I only really know of as the home of Scott Johnson of Instance fame (though I have no idea how much people who play different games within that community actually interact). Of all the podcasts I've listened to, I feel that this one is the closest reflection of two friends just chatting about the game with each other. Aside from the intro that gives the podcast its name and involves an astromech droid being ejected in an escape pod, they don't seem very focused on having fixed show segments. This isn't necessarily a bad thing if you enjoy hearing stories about what people have been up to and listen to them cracking jokes.

The only "issue" I have with this podcast is that both hosts are quite soft-spoken. Considering that I mostly put podcasts on as something to listen to in the background while I play the game, having a show where neither of the hosts has a particularly commanding voice makes it easier for me to get distracted and lose track of what they were talking about.

Bad Feeling Podcast

This is the youngest podcast on my link list and only up to fifteen episodes at the time of me writing this! The hosts, Chuck and Brian, sound like they are still relatively new to the game as well, as they get excited about basic features like hunting datacrons or getting to marry their companions, but personally I actually find it quite charming to be reminded of all the simple things you can enjoy about the game.

They also do a fair bit of swearing, which might not be everyone's cup of tea, but personally I find it amusing more than anything.

At around thirty minutes an episode this is one of the shorter podcasts out there, but I actually tend to enjoy the shorter shows, as they always leave me hungry for the next episode.

20/05/2014

Random Revelations

My random PvE pursuits continue.

I actually got all the datacrons except the two Makeb ones on my main now. Yes, even the Green Matrix Shard on Belsavis. I got lucky in so far as it "only" took me about an hour to find the four Rakata Energy Cubes I needed. Pet Tank advised me that I should make the most of my work by parking some alts at the datacron location to see if I could quickly relog to get the Matrix Shard on all of them while the datacron was still active and without having to collect more cubes. Despite of Belsavis' long loading screen, I managed to click on it with a total of three characters, and I probably could have squeezed a fourth one in if I had been optimistic enough to bring a fourth one along in the first place.


Oddly enough, the endurance datacron on Quesh was probably the next hardest one. You used to be able to access it on your own (the SWTOR Spy guide hasn't been updated since those days), but I already knew that wasn't possible anymore. However, until fairly recently, Pet Tank and I were always able to get it with the two of us when we were levelling on Quesh, with one person clicking the outside panel and the other activating the two inside the cave in quick succession. Except the last time we got there, we found that the latter was suddenly impossible to do, even with a speed boost. I got lucky in that when I went to get it on Shin, there was already another guy there looking to group up for it, so I just had to coax Pet Tank into logging in to be our third.

All in all, it wasn't too bad an exercise as I had already made significant progress before this latest hunting session, but I don't think I could run another alt through all of it again right away. I look at the status of the datacron codex category on some of my alts, see things like "2 out of 69" and it just makes me want to weep.

On Imperial side, I've continued running flashpoints on my Operative and my Marauder. In this post-automated-group-finder world, most groups are fairly quiet, but I've noticed that everyone still says hello at the start and goodbye/thank you at the end. People also remain fairly easygoing for the most part. I was surprised to find that not all pugs hate listening to cut scenes or doing bonus bosses, even at endgame. One time I zoned into False Emperor HM and the tank dropped group the instant he saw which instance it was. We ended up three-manning it with Kaliyo tanking and never got a replacement tank despite of having requeued.

My favourite pug was probably the Core Meltdown hardmode run where upon zoning in I noticed that our tank had only about 23k health. I wondered whether I should say anything, but decided to see how things went first and leave it up to the healer to complain if he wanted to. Surprisingly, the healer managed to keep our paper tank upright throughout the whole thing, except on the sandstorm boss, where the other Marauder (who was way overgeared) simply dps-tanked the rest of the fight. It was just a little comical.

In other news, my guild has run EC NiM a lot in the past few weeks, to get tanks for people and to finish up achievements. I still don't have a tank, but at least EC is now the third operation for which I have 100% achievement completion. Every time we loot a chest with Molecular Stabilizers in there, someone makes a joke about how they are so excited about the loot, to mock its supposed worthlessness now compared to how much we all used to crave those "stabs" back before 2.0. Imagine my surprise then, when I checked the GTN to see whether anyone was still buying them, just to find that they were actually selling for more than Exotic Element Equalizers, the current blue crafting materials. I always knew that there was a segment of the population that lingered at 50 - basically anyone who hasn't bought Rise of the Hutt Cartel or subscribed for at least a month since they made it a free addition to the sub. But to see people actually care enough to craft old endgame level gear, to buy old crafting materials at higher prices than current crafting materials... that just boggles the mind.

Last night we undermanned an EV story mode on Imperial alts, and meant to take a guildie with us who was only level 48. He bounced off the door with an error message about needing to be level 50 to enter operations. We all scratched our heads in confusion, since we could distinctly remember taking sub-50 players into ops with us before. I asked on the forums and someone pointed out to me that this was a change made in patch 2.1 - over a year ago. I felt like such a noob... also a bit sad though. Did it really hurt anyone to be able to take along people who were a couple of levels lower?

18/05/2014

NBI: Specialisation

The Newbie Blogger Initiative has come around again - somewhat to my surprise, considering that I thought it was now an annual event and the last time I recall mentioning it was only eight months ago. Nonetheless, if you're thinking about starting up a blog, I can only recommend checking out the NBI's website, its forums and especially its list of articles about blogging advice.

I'm happy to say that the SWTOR blogging and social media community seems to be thriving as of late anyway. I don't know if it's because all the talk about Episode VII is rejuvenating interest in Star Wars in general, but the last time I updated my blog roll was the first time in a while that I actually added more new blogs than I removed old and dead ones. Keep up the good work, fledgling SWTOR bloggers! I always enjoy hearing new voices chime in about the game, and if you've got an active SWTOR blog that isn't part of my blog roll on the right, feel free to let me know in the comments. If you've got another, not opinion-based type of fan site (news, guides etc.), I'll be happy to add you to my "general SWTOR resources" list instead.

Anyway, in the spirit of the Newbie Blogging Initiative, I also wanted to dispense a bit of blogging advice of my own. Specifically, I want to offer a counter-point to this post by Rivs, in which he quotes Tobold on the subject of how it's supposedly best to keep your blog title and theme as generic as possible, because your interests will change over time and you don't want to be stuck with a name and theme that don't actually match the things you want to write about anymore.

This is such a common piece of advice - I've seen it many times - and it's always made me feel a bit self-conscious about having such a hyper-focused blog. But you know what? I'm done with that. I blog about one game only and I'm proud of it.

The thing is, I don't disagree with the core idea as voiced by Tobold, that your interests will change over time, but I disagree with the conclusion. Making a new blog to write about a different subject is not a bad thing. If you completely change what you write about, you're going to lose a lot of your old readers anyway, whether you keep the same URL or not. And unless you're specifically trying to get internet famous, does your Google page rank really matter?

Scree recently wrote a post about how he's developing a tool to make it easier to sift through gaming blogs for subjects that actually interest him, and that was honestly a bit of an epiphany for me. "Gaming" is such a huge subject that ten different people can write ten different gaming blogs and cover completely different subjects throughout. This can make it very hard as a reader to find new blogs that interest you because their titles are usually completely non-committal and it takes skimming through a lot of posts to find out whether they tend to cover the kinds of subjects that you personally find interesting or not.

To a reader (and I take it as a given that everyone who writes a blog also reads at least a couple of other blogs), specialised blogs are a godsend, because you can tell pretty much instantly whether they are going to contain the kind of content you're interested in or not. So I say: don't be afraid of specialising with your blog, whether that means writing only about your game(s) of choice or only about a certain aspect of gaming in general. Your readers will thank you, and if you eventually lose interest in writing about your chosen subject - oh well. You can start over and still have a good time. Did you know that I used to blog exclusively about WoW? I'm really glad I started a new blog for SWTOR though, because having an archive full of WoW posts would feel weird now. Njessi did the same (she used to run the Murloc Parliament) and I pretty much dare say that she's actually made more of a splash in the SWTOR community than she ever did in WoW - starting over under a completely new name and URL certainly hasn't been a hindrance to her. Recently she also started blogging about Wildstar - and sometimes I even read those posts (even though I don't plan on playing the game) because I enjoy her writing style, but I sure appreciate that she made a new blog for it, so I don't find myself clicking on the link to her "usual" blog and going: "Oh, another post about Wildstar... and I was really hoping to read her opinion on the latest changes in SWTOR."

15/05/2014

The Art of Achieving Map Completion

While gallivanting across the galaxy to do things like collect datacrons on alts, I thought I might as well kill two birds with one stone and get some map exploration done at the same time (and get the Galactic Explorer achievement in the process). Surprisingly, this turned out to be more challenging than I expected.


The way SWTOR reveals maps to you as you explore is a bit weird. When you first enter an area, the map is covered in dark hexes that light up as you explore designated sub-zones of the region. However, not every hex is actually connected to a sub-zone. What this means is that you end up with little dark spots all over your map that make you think that there is something left for you to uncover in that place, when actually there isn't. They go away once you've found the last named area in the region, but until then, which one of all the little dark spots actually hides something that you still need to unlock is anyone's guess.


As an example, let's take this screenshot I took while exploring Jundland on Tatooine on my agent the other night. There are a lot of dark spots left, but I was actually only missing one explorable area at this point. Can you guess which one it is? There are some hints you can follow. For example the big triangular splotch just off the centre is out, because the hexes inside it have black lines instead of light blue ones. This is something I only noticed fairly recently, but basically the black lines denote the edges of the explorable map, like a big "nothing to see here" sign. There are also black lines around the outer edge of the area I've already explored, so it's not as if I haven't ranged far enough, even if there are seemingly large chunks of darkness out there.

That leaves a couple of small areas that are still covered by one to five dark hexes. The ones north and south of Outpost Salara look promising because they are the biggest ones, but looking at the map as well as considering what I know of that area, they appear to be the tops of cliffs you can't climb. However, that road coming out of the northern end of Outpost Rennar seems to lead straight into those two hexes north-east of it. Following roads usually works quite well, so I do, and eventually...


Ta-daa! Apparently I had missed a whole Imperial outpost there, but now that I've found it, the whole map reveals itself at once. This is useful if you're trying to uncover everything on a planet but can't remember how much you completed previously - as long as you can still see the hexes, you're not done.

Finally, let me just share with you a couple of planets and sub-zones that gave me particular trouble while trying to explore them myself: maybe this will help someone else who's experiencing the same issues.

Ord Mantell: The Lava Flow Overlook is the one area you'll never get sent anywhere near while levelling up through questing, and it's not immediately obvious how to get there. The "secret" is to jump up the rocks in the south-western corner of Fort Garnik. One of the henchmen during Bounty Contract Week spawns up there as well.

Balmorra (both factions): In the Sundari Flatlands, I initially had some trouble to get the western edge of the map to uncover. As it turns out, those bits are actually the heroic area and the attached canyon which you access from the north-eastern corner of Gorinth Canyon, but for some reason they count towards progress for Sundari.

Alderaan: The Juran Mountains is one of those areas where you end up with tons of dark hexes scattered all over the map when it looks like you should've already revealed everything... yet the final sub-zone is actually somewhere completely different. As you enter the area from the south, go up the mountain path on the east, all the way to the top, where all those Rist soldiers hang out. Then, jump down the southern cliff face, where there appears to be a bit of a plateau leading down to King's Pass. It's called the Alaskan Overlook and probably the only thing you're missing. I don't think I ever would've come up with that one myself if it hadn't been for a helpful comment I found somewhere buried on the official forums.

Hoth: In the Glacial Fissure, the area at the very bottom of the map, south of the heroic area, has no obvious entrance. There is however a hidden path through the giant icicles, starting at roughly X: 330, Y: 1160.

Belsavis: In the High Security Section, a couple of dark hexes in the middle of the map drove me nuts. They are right where you go to the Willpower datacron, but they just wouldn't uncover! That's because they don't count as a sub-zone, and I was actually missing another area, in my case the perfectly rectangular bit underneath the southern exit towards Maximum Security. If you're on the road leading to the outpost where the Republic bonus series starts, there's a big tunnel off to the north that leads into a secluded area full of Trandoshans and Varactyls, which is where you need to go to reveal that part of the map. The Imps actually have a quest there, but as a Republic player it's easy to miss.

Makeb: I didn't have any issues uncovering the map on Makeb, but even after I had found everything on my Commando and everything showed up as completed and ticked off in the achievement panel, the status of the "Explorer of Makeb" achievement remained stuck on incomplete. The forums recommended doing it on both factions to get it to pop, so I logged on my Sorcerer and finished uncovering the map from her point of view as well, which finally worked to trigger the achievement.

13/05/2014

Nightmare Operations - Operations Nightmares

It's been a while since I've written about my PvE endgame progress. Two months ago I noted that we finally killed Brontes on hardmode and predicted that we should be able to get the Council too before 2.7 released. I was right. In fact, as soon as we got the Council down once, we were able to repeat that kill pretty consistently in the weeks afterwards, while Brontes is still giving us trouble on our farming runs. I just don't know what it is about that fight.

We also went back to give Scum NiM another go and actually got the first boss down. We also had some decent tries on Titan 6 that night but messed up too many times to really get anywhere. I still can't believe how hard those 2.2 nightmare modes are, even now! Just... mad props to the people who cleared this when it was current content.

Ever since the release of nightmare mode for Dread Fortress, we've been working on that. We got Nefra down on our first night - she's comparatively easy, as you just need two people to learn a new trick for nightmare mode and everyone else can basically continue playing as if it was hardmode. Since then, we've been working on Draxus.


Oh that Draxus.

He's one of the trickier bosses on any difficulty really, due to the consecutive add waves requiring different people to do different things, but on nightmare all this basically gets tuned up to eleven. The most glaring example is that using an interrupt locks you out of interrupting anything again for the duration of that wave, so you have to set up whole rotations including tanks and healers. It's pretty nuts.

We've been making some progress, but it's slow. I hope that we don't end up with another Dread Guard situation. (We spent over two months trying and failing to kill these on NiM, until the release of Oricon "saved" us by giving us something else to run. I still haven't got that kill.) Especially since it looks like the next new operation is still going to be more than a few months away.

Then again, we might actually benefit from what they are doing with Nightmare Power this time around, as they've announced that the buff will already be removed in 2.8. While fights like Draxus are very much about execution, having less health to burn through and taking less damage would still work to provide a bit of a buffer to make unforgiving mechanics a bit more forgiving, maybe allowing the raid to recover from a mistake that would previously have been a wipe. We'll see.

All I can say is once again that I'm quite in awe of the people who clear this content with ease. I listen to people like Mae from TOROCast and her slightly exasperated complaining about how these new nightmare modes are way too easy because it took her guild only two days to clear them (or however many days it was, a small number in any case) and my mind just boggles.

I believe that all the people in my ops group are good players - they know how to gear, how to play, how to execute tactics... but we all make mistakes. And that seems normal to me, whoever doesn't make the occasional mistake? Miss an interrupt, taunt the wrong thing, stand in the wrong place at the wrong time? Well, on fights like Draxus NiM, every one of those mistakes will wipe the group, even if it was just one person getting one small thing wrong. I guess true NiM raiders don't make mistakes, or at least it must be extremely rare.

11/05/2014

People in Your Ops Pug

I've written about stereotypes I've observed in game before. Today, let me give you a guide to the stereotypical people in your operations pug, as I've encountered them during my own pugging adventures as of late:

The Cat Herder

The cat herder knows the operation and all the boss mechanics inside out and wants to use this knowledge to help lead the group to success. Unfortunately, asking people whether they know the tactics will almost always result in silence, so it's usually better to insist on explaining things anyway. If there is a particularly important or difficult role to perform during an encounter, the cat herder will volunteer, much to everyone else's relief. The cat herder isn't necessarily identical to the one who put the ops group together though, and if their instructions clash with what the actual ops leader tells everyone to do, there might be some issues.

The Hardmode Raider

The hardmode raider hasn't actually done an operation on story mode in several months and you're not sure what compelled them to join a pug run for one now - they're covered in full best in slot gear as it is! Despite, or rather because of all their experience, they'll keep getting confused about what to do on certain fights, ask for someone to kill the tentacle on Bestia and generally keep trying to react to mechanics that don't actually exist on story mode. All the while, they'll still outperform everyone else in the group by a mile.

The Perpetual Pugger

The perpetual pugger has a decent set of gear in terms of item level, but it's all vendor-bought so the stat distribution is super awkward, leaving them with more health than one of your tanks. If you were to ask them, they'd tell you that they already know all the fights as they've done this operation about a dozen times. They're not lying either, it's just that every single one of those runs was in a pug, so their idea of knowing the tactics is "hit the thing that everyone else is hitting" and "heal people that have taken damage". If they suddenly get targeted by a random mechanic that requires them to do more than dps or heal, such as Doom on the Dread Guards or Kephess the Undying's blast attack, they'll stand there like a deer in the headlights and just take damage or die, while learning exactly nothing from the experience.

The Complainer

If your pug is failing, the complainer will be the first one to pipe up with a comment about how much everybody else sucks, but even if you're progressing through the operation with zero wipes, they'll find something to moan about anyway. That one person died to an avoidable mechanic! That one time, the tank was slow to taunt! The dps in this group is much lower than they're used to! Oh, the humanity.

The Ninja

The ninja will roll need on pretty much everything that isn't a pair of bracers or a belt (because you can get decent pieces for those slots from the commendation vendors anyway), even though what they are wearing is already much better. If called out on it, they'll mostly stay silent, or else claim that they "need" it for their alt or companion. The ops leader can't be bothered to remove them because you're already approaching the last boss and nobody wants to go through the hassle of finding a replacement at that point, but there may be some unsubtle conversation in ops chat about how "certain people" are selfish jerks and the only way to win any loot in an operation is to follow their example and need on everything.

The Barbie

There are a lot of different outfits in game by now, but a staple that you'll find in pretty much every operations pug is the skimpily dressed lady, frequently also sporting the so-called "Barbie" haircut. Usually played by a guy who takes great pride in how supposedly sexy his character looks, seemingly oblivious or just indifferent about the fact that he looks exactly like twenty other people on each instance of the fleet at any given point in time. Just like his character, the player behind it will vanish in the crowd and perform no outstanding feats either way.


The Mysteriously Silent

These will make up the majority of your operations pug: people who'll follow the crowd but seem to want to avoid talking at all costs, to the point where you're not sure how they ever managed to overcome the hurdle of having to whisper the ops leader to ask for an invite. Even if you address them directly by name when asking a question such as "Are you okay with pressing the button during the yellow phase?" you'll get nothing but silence in reply. Hard to tell whether they are socially anxious newbies or just lazily ignoring all chat while they try to cruise through the content on autopilot.

08/05/2014

Bruce Maclean's 2.8 Update

After the announcement that Galactic Strongholds would be delayed, we were told that we were going to get another update soon to let us know what was still going to be released in patch 2.8. Last night Bruce Maclean delivered said update, though it was somewhat "hidden" on the forums this time instead of being posted on the front page. Pretty much as expected, the patch is going to be somewhat thin on actual content after losing the expansion it was supposed to deliver, but there's mention of some pretty interesting system changes.

First off, he talks about being able to access casinos on Nar Shaddaa to play slots, and a "Nar Shaddaa Nightlife" event that'll last two months. This paragraph just raised a whole lot of questions for me. First off, from the way it's written it's not entirely clear whether casino access as a whole will be limited to the duration of the event, or only access to the rewards. Secondly, an event that lasts a whole two months is definitely something new and different from the current recurring events that only last a week or two. I wonder if it's going to be a seasonal thing?

Thirdly... slots, really? People have been asking for pazaak to be added to the game pretty much since launch, and while I've never played the original KOTOR games myself, I assume that it must be a decent amount of fun for so many people to want to have it included. Yet when Bioware finally gets around to giving us a game of chance to serve as a bit of a credit sink, they choose... slot machines. The most boring way to waste money ever. Sorry to say, but that sounds pretty lame. It also immediately conjures up unpleasant associations with real life gambling, especially considering that you can indirectly purchase credits for real money by buying things from the Cartel Market and selling them on the GTN, even if the temporary item binding should inhibit impulse purchases for quick credits. Then again, people could always hit up the lone gold seller advertising his wares by the GTN, seeing how customer service can't seem to be bothered with banning the guy's alts fast enough (grumble grumble).

Basically, my main impression of this bit of information is that I'd really need to know more about it to be able to form any kind of opinion. At the moment some of it sounds cool, some of it sounds kind of dodgy, but it could honestly go either way depending on how the actual implementation works out.

The second bullet point on Bruce's list talks about dedicated periods of three weeks where PvPers will earn double the currency rewards from either warzones or Galactic Starfighter. Now this is interesting because I remember seeing someone comment only the other day (sadly I don't remember who and where) that they wish Bioware would have more "mini events" like the double XP weekends, only for things other than experience gains. It also reminds me of games like Neverwinter, where there are specific times during the day where you will earn extra rewards for participating in highlighted activities, though three weeks is obviously a much longer period of time than a single hour per day.

I do wonder what Bioware is trying to achieve with these events. Obviously they want to increase PvP queue pops during the allocated time, but is it just an attempt to pull in more casual players or are there issues with the regular PvP queue and the Starfighter queue competing with each other? That's not an unusual thing to happen in games where people can choose between a lot of different activities, and since SWTOR doesn't have cross-server queues for anything, the issue is only all the more noticeable. By giving players incentives to choose one option over another during certain times, you can at least guarantee pops for one option during that time - though it might then be all the harder to get anything going during times when that incentive isn't there. Anyway, that's all just idle speculation on my part.

Finally, 2.8 will give the operations section of the group finder an overhaul. (Damn, and I only just wrote my "how to LFG" guide, now I'll have to adjust it already!) First off, they'll follow the community's common sense and change it to the more accessible 16-man format. They'll also introduce bolster, which mostly elicits a big "meh, whatever" from me. It's not as if getting geared for story modes was hard before, but I suppose this way it'll be even easier to jump right in, and elitists can't moan about anyone's health being too low for their liking. I suppose it's interesting to see the Bioware devs take a more inclusive approach here, as opposed to something like WoW's gear checks locking you out of content if you don't meet the requirements.

The biggest change however will be this: "The Operations section in the GroupFinder window will list available Operations on a pre-determined schedule, rotating in different Operations every few days." This is again in line with what I talked about above: funnelling players into specific content for a certain amount of time to keep queues short. I actually think that this sounds like a pretty damn elegant solution on paper, though of course we'll have to see how it works out in practice. This way the queuing population won't be spread among seven different operations on any given day, increasing the chance of a pop, but the different ops will all be available at some point or another. And if you really want to run something that isn't in the rotation that day, you'll probably still be able to form a group for it the old-fashioned way. I'm curious to see how that will work out.

At the end of the update Maclean mentions that all the usual recurring events will also make an appearance again soon, which is good to hear. The Gree have been gone for so long that I've actually heard mutterings from people genuinely longing for them to come back, something that I haven't heard in a while. (It helps that they added all those legacy off-hands to the vendor since the aliens' last visit.) Oh, and there totally won't be another rakghoul insurgence because obviously they were completely wiped out last time (hint hint). I have to say I quite like this approach of using recurring events to patch the gaps between major content releases. Much nicer than having them on a fixed schedule that eventually causes things to overlap in awkward ways.

06/05/2014

What Tactical Flashpoints Teach

This past weekend I decided to do the Forged Alliances story arc on my healing Sage, and the group finder seemed to be absolutely flooded with healers. My first proposed match consisted of three healers and a dps, but one of the other players declined that one before I could. Next the game tried to put me into two different groups consisting of two tanks and two healers each, but I declined both of those as well. Where are all these damage dealers for whom these role-neutral flashpoints are supposedly designed, huh? Eventually I accepted a pop for a group that included two dps and two healers, even if it grated a bit. As much as I love healing, I hate having multiple healers in a small group because generally there just isn't enough damage going around to make it worth it, and I end up spending most of my time doing piss-poor dps instead of what I actually want to be doing. It's even "better" when the other healer refuses to even try to contribute in any way that doesn't involve casting healing abilities and just ends up twiddling their thumbs for most of the fights where nobody takes damage.

Anyway, despite of those gripes it was actually a decent amount of fun. We cocked up the first boss on Tython big time, so that we ended up with four adds up plus a random trash pull that someone managed to aggro during the fight. Two people died and I felt oddly proud of myself for surviving.

The whole experience got me thinking though. Detractors of tactical flashpoints like to complain that they are too easy and will raise a new "generation" of SWTOR players with no understanding of role distribution and no skills in general. While I'm not super fond of the tactical flashpoint concept myself, I can see its benefits and think that it has a place in the game - I just don't want it to be the only option. Either way, I also think that it does teach people some lessons, though I'll agree that they are not necessarily the right ones. (I'm mostly talking about the level 55 tacticals here by the way - Kuat is a bit of an outlier since it's tuned to be doable even by the worst and most undergeared group of lowbies.)

One good thing I have observed is that tactical flashpoints seem to be a great opportunity for less experienced players to learn to appreciate the value of tanks and healers. As the saying goes, you don't know what you've got until it's gone. One example I see quite frequently is that in a group with no tank, the dps are often actually a little hesitant to pull (unless you've got a twitchy Sentinel/Marauder) because if they've done so in the past, they've quickly learned that getting the attention of every single mob at once can be quite painful in a large pull.

On a similar track, having a group with no healer really drives home the point that you're responsible for your own survival and that standing in bad places will kill you. It turns having a healer to keep you topped off at all times into a veritable luxury.

In general, missing the control and safety buffer of a proper trinity group encourages people to look at what other tools they have at their disposal, such as crowd control, stuns and damage reduction cooldowns.

The main problem, in my opinion anyway, is that all these factors combined also foster a certain "every man for himself" attitude. If you can't rely on a tank to control the pull for you, if you can't rely on a healer to heal you, if you can't rely on anyone to do anything, the logical thing is to try and do everything yourself. This doesn't necessarily lead to terrible runs, as a group of four players who can take care of themselves will generally manage to get things done (especially in content that is tuned to be as accessible as the tactical flashpoints currently are), but it can certainly make the experience feel slow and disjointed to a more experienced player. Instead of four "specialists" all co-operating to do what they can do best, you end up with four people all trying to cover all the bases with little to no co-ordination. The most heartbreaking example of this (to me anyway) that I see in almost every tactical flashpoint I do as a healer is that dps waste time running to the kolto stations every time they light up, even if everyone is at nearly full health - even when we have multiple healers and oh god, will you please just do some dps so we can finish this run before bedtime?

But can I really blame them? After all, tacticals have taught them that they can't rely on anyone to heal them, because no two runs they do will have the same group composition. This actually makes me question how much it really benefits the casual/purely dps player to have a grouping mode where they are supposed to adjust their play to a different group setup every time (or else have a terrible slow and clunky experience).

04/05/2014

Random PvE Pursuits

I've always said that my love for PvP is a bit of an on-again, off-again affair. For the past three months I've been doing the PvP weekly on three max-level characters pretty consistently... but I think I've actually managed to burn myself out a little in the process. This week, I hardly felt like doing any warzones at all. Generally speaking that's not a big deal; flitting around between different activities is part of MMO life... but I have to admit that my timing in this particular case is a bit poor. My PvP characters are barely in full Obroan gear and should really work on upgrading to Brutalizer, not to mention that Ranked Season 2 started this week and I was going to dabble in it a bit... but oh well. Since I don't particularly care about being competitive, I guess it can wait.

Instead I've been pursuing random and sometimes long-neglected PvE goals on a variety of characters.

For one thing, I decided to once again work on getting all the datacrons on my main. (I've repeatedly started doing this before but always lost interest quickly.) Datacrons used to be something I cared about very little when I levelled up my first couple of characters, but ever since I started levelling alts with my pet tank I've been dutifully dragged past (nearly*) every datacron on every planet since he's a completionist and always wants to get them all. Again, at first I didn't really give this development much thought, but the more alts I level up this way, the more "wrong" it starts to feel that my main of all things, plus the alts I play the most often, are actually missing a whole lot of datacrons. It just feels imbalanced. So I've been working on that.


It was funny to go back and re-read my post from two years ago about riding the Jawa balloon for the first time and how exciting I found it at the time. Nowadays it's not nearly as thrilling anymore, plus in this case it felt a bit annoying to do the whole thing again just for the one datacron on the ledge that I missed last time.

Another thing that I've been doing is play some of my lesser played max-level alts and try to clear out their mission logs a bit. A lot of them still have one-time story quests for various daily areas, flashpoints and operations, not to mention those "achievement" missions that award speeders. I haven't really made any great strides on that front yet, but every little helps. Mostly I've been focusing on running flashpoints on my agent, but choosing the random option for level 50 hardmodes kept throwing me into the same three Imperial-only ones all week, which was a bit boring. I did some level 55 hardmodes as well to change things up and was surprised to see that, being just about adequately geared for the content, I actually had to pay attention to my healing. It wasn't exactly stressful, but whenever I play my Republic counterpart in warzones or ops, Scoundrel/Operative healing pretty much seems to come down to spamming your heal over time on everyone, while maybe adding the occasional instant cast. It was actually nice to be forced to use my entire arsenal of healing abilities for once.

We'll see for how long this particular diversion will keep me busy.

* The exception is the one on Belsavis that requires you to find randomly spawning Rakata Energy Cubes, which my pet tank got once and hasn't had an urge to ever do again, and the two Makeb ones, which neither of us has got. We once set an afternoon aside for one of the Makeb ones, but gave up after a couple of hours of jumping failures as it just got too frustrating.

01/05/2014

How to Successfully LFG in SWTOR

Shortly after launch, The Old Republic was repeatedly criticised for its supposed difficulty when it came to finding people to do group content with if you weren't in a guild. (I never had any issues myself, but there was enough complaining about the subject that this was clearly a thing.) Patch 1.3 then introduced an automated group finder such as people knew it from games like WoW. Nonetheless many of the most popular search results leading to this blog are related to looking for groups in game. What gives? The problem is that the group finder works very well for some types of content, but not so much for others, and to the inexperienced player it's not easily apparent when group finder use makes sense and when other methods might be more efficient.

There are three major types of group content in the game:

- Heroics: These are group quests for two to four players situated out in the open world, either completely out in the open or inside a group phase.

- Flashpoints: These are group content designed for two to four players and always fully instanced (meaning you get a loading screen when you enter one). So-called "tactical" flashpoints are the easiest ones and designed to be doable by any group of four, no matter the class and role distribution. Skilled players may be able to do them with fewer people. Most "normal" flashpoints are designed for groups of four that include a tank and a healer. Some also have hardmodes which are meant to be extra challenging.

- Operations: These are endgame group content for either eight or sixteen players with a balanced group setup that includes multiple tanks and healers. They come in three difficulties: story (easy), hard and nightmare.

A fourth but less common type of group content are open world bosses. They can be tackled with a varied number of people, depending on the boss's level and mechanics as well as the levels of the characters trying to kill it. There are also other occasions where you might find yourself in need of help, for example to get a datacron that requires another person to push a button, or if you find yourself struggling with a solo mission, but these are comparatively rare.

Let's look at how to best get into groups for each type of content:

Heroics

This is the type of group content for which the group finder is the least useful. It does have a category for heroics, unhelpfully called "planetary destinations", but it doesn't allow you to be any more specific than to set what planet you're on, which means that even if you used the group finder for this category and it successfully formed a group for you, you might get teamed up with people who aren't even on the same quests as you. That's why nobody uses it. Simple.

("Nobody" is of course an exaggeration: I think I managed to fill out a group for the Section X [Heroic 4] by using the group finder twice, but at least one time the person we got wasn't even aware of what they had been queued for and was visibly confused when we asked them to come to Belsavis. I wouldn't recommend this method.)

What to do instead? Use general chat. It may sound old-fashioned, but a lot of the time, it works - and when it doesn't, it's not that big of a deal since Heroics are completely optional content that don't even tell that interesting a story a lot of the time. Some tips:

- When you first acquire a heroic quest, put a LFG request into general chat. If nobody responds within a minute, continue doing solo content for the time being.

- Keep an eye on general chat while doing other things. When someone else is looking for a group for a heroic that you need, be ready to stop what you're doing and join them. You don't know when the next opportunity will arise.

- When someone is looking for a group for a heroic that you don't have yet... ask what level it is and if it's shareable. Most of them are, so you might as well join and get it done before you "find" it out in the world yourself.

- Once you have a group and everyone seems reasonably competent, assuming you have more than one heroic in your log... ask if people want to stick together and do that as well. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it's handy. Likewise, be open to the idea of coming along to a heroic that you might not have picked up yourself yet - as per the previous point, it might be shareable.

- Most heroics can be done without a traditional tank-healer-dps group setup, so don't worry too much about whom you invite (though having someone with the ability to heal, even a dps-specced off-healer, is generally handy). There are exceptions to this though; some [Heroic 4]s can be quite harsh on damage output.

- Many [Heroic 2]s are actually soloable at level, depending on your class and gear. Likewise, just because something is labelled as [Heroic 4], that doesn't necessarily mean that it requires a full group of four. Many times one or two companions can fill in just fine, and it's often better to go ahead with three players and a companion than to spam "LF1M" in chat for ten minutes.

- If you're pretty much done with everything else on the planet except for a pesky group quest or two... don't hang around spamming chat, leave it be. For anything up to most of Hoth at least, you can come back later and solo it once you've outlevelled it (if you're the completionist type). Otherwise, just look at it as a piece of content that you can save for your next alt and thus make the levelling process for that one more interesting.

Flashpoints

This is the type of group content for which the group finder works best. You can always try to put a partial group together manually to speed up queue times (especially if you can find a tank or healer), but even as a lone dps you can put yourself in the queue and sooner or later you'll generally get a pop.

The tricky thing is managing queue expectations. Like in many games, tanks will pretty much get a group the moment they queue up, but for other roles wait times can vary wildly. Unlike WoW's dungeon finder, SWTOR's LFG tool doesn't tell you how long you've been sitting in the queue already or try to predict how long it will take you to find a group, which can make using it feel like a bit of a gamble sometimes.

As a rule of thumb I would say: if you're a tank, or queueing for a role-neutral (tactical) flashpoint during your server's prime time (usually the evening hours), expect an instant or very quick group formation. Under any other circumstances, I recommend that you get ready to do something else while you wait, whether it's some dailies or using your Seeker Droid - but just sitting on the fleet is boring. As the group finder is limited to people on your server, be aware that during very quiet times (i.e. in the middle of the night server time) you might not get a group at all, no matter how patiently you wait.

Some general tips and tricks for using the group finder:

- Make sure before you queue up that you have the proper roles selected (meaning only the ones you're actually prepared, able and willing to perform). If you're already grouped, double check with your group mate that they have the right boxes (un)ticked as well. Unlike WoW's dungeon finder, SWTOR's LFG tool doesn't initiate a "role check" before queuing as a group, so if your friend doesn't have the right boxes ticked before you queue up, things can get confusing later.

- One thing that SWTOR's group finder does is show you the group that is about to be assembled before you have to confirm that you're ready. It's generally worth taking a couple of seconds to actually look at this because it allows you to double-check that you've got the right role icon next to your name. If you recognise one of your potential group mates as a known jerkwad, this is your chance to decline. (Though I would then wonder why you don't have them on ignore already.) If you're queuing for tactical flashpoints, it can also be worth declining at this point if you get a really awkward group composition (such as four tanks), as another group with a better setup will probably form quickly anyway. There is no penalty for declining to join the group at this point, however you will get locked out of using the tool for a little while if you accept the group and then quit afterwards. While levelling, seeing the levels of your group mates in advance can also be an interesting indicator of which flashpoint is coming up (assuming you queued for a random one). For example, if you're level 19 and one of your group mates is 23, you're not going to get Hammer Station (which is rated for 15-21).

- Most flashpoints include NPC conversations. Experienced players that have seen them many times before may ask you to "spacebar" through them since they don't care to listen to the voice-overs and just want to get to the end quickly. In most runs at the level cap, people do this automatically, but especially while levelling or seeing content for the first time, don't let anyone pressure you into skipping things that you want to see. I've read horror stories of people getting kicked for not wanting to spacebar, but I've never seen it happen myself and from personal experience most players don't seem to have an issue if you politely explain that you would prefer not to skip the voice-overs.

- If you queued up as dps, focus on killing the weak mobs in each pull first while the tank holds the attention of the stronger ones.

- If you queued up as tank, make sure to focus on the biggest mobs first, but be prepared for the possibility that your dps might have their priorities wrong and ignore the weak mobs around the edges of the room - in which case you need to run around and do at least a little bit of damage to them or they will mob your healer.

Operations

You can get into an operations group via the group finder, but most people prefer to join ops the old-fashioned way, via general chat. The problem with the operations sub-section in the group finder is that it's extremely limited. Of all the different group sizes and difficulty modes, it only supports 8-person story mode. Now, while I definitely wouldn't recommend pugging hard or nightmare mode operations anyway (those are really designed to be done by more organised groups), many people prefer 16-man when it comes to story mode, due to the fact that it rewards more commendations and is a lot more forgiving of having a couple of unskilled or clueless players in the group.

The selection of available operations is very limited as well. For example Eternity Vault, Karagga's Palace and Explosive Conflict only show up on the group finder while you're between level 50 and 54, at 55 they disappear, and if you've got a 55 in your group, you won't be able to queue up for these operations even if they show up as available to your character. At 55, you only have the option to queue up for Terror from Beyond or Scum and Villainy. Dread Fortress and Palace aren't included in the group finder in any format.

So what does this mean in practice? Most pug operations groups are assembled for 16-man story mode in general chat on the fleet, so keeping an eye on that is your best bet. Since there are weekly quests for all the operations (including the old level 50 ones), people tend to create groups for pretty much all of them throughout the day, though some are more common than others. (For example most people will go for EV to get the classic ops weekly done, as it's the easiest of the old operations, while hardly anyone will try to brave hardmode EC.)

The group finder for operations isn't completely useless, but queue times can be very random and I've never seen it assemble a full pug group from scratch. What's more likely to happen is that a guild group that's short a dps or healer will use it to fill that last spot, for which it can work. In turn, your best bet to get some use out of the operations group finder as a solo player is to queue up on your own in the evening and hope that a guild group somewhere will have an open spot.

Some tips for pugging operations:

- You really don't have to watch any videos or guides to prepare yourself for story modes, but if you've never done an operation before, be honest and up-front about it. Unless the LFG request specifically asked for people to know the tactics beforehand, most groups don't mind giving a quick explanation before the fight. What they do tend to mind is when nobody admits to not knowing the fight and then the group wipes because of people obviously not knowing the tactics.

- Pay attention to the LFG message (or ask the leader if it's not clear) to find out whether the group is intending to run the whole operation or just planning to kill things up to the boss needed to complete the weekly quest.

- Try to make sure that you're adequately geared for the content you want to do - the weekly quests for each operation all give a recommended item rating that you can compare your gear to. Most pugs I've been in don't really care about people's gear, as there are usually at least a couple of players in the group that are way overgeared for the content and can carry some underperformers. However, some ops leaders will be displeased if your health is very obviously on the low end of what's needed for the content (not always rightly so) and might remove you from the group.

- Be polite when it comes to loot and only need on things that are actual upgrades for the character you're on. Greed on things that you would take for alts, companions or to vendor. Pets, mounts and crafting materials are generally needed on by everyone, but if you're unsure of what's appropriate, just wait for a couple of other people to roll first and then follow their lead. Some people will need on gear for their alts, arguing that that's who they are really running the ops for and that they are "helping" by playing their better geared character instead. While I haven't seen anyone get kicked outright for this behaviour, it definitely won't make you any friends, as people have no way of verifying whether those claims are true or you're just being greedy.

- Don't join for an operation if you're in a rush and short on time. (This applies to all forms of group content actually.) Yes, if you get a good group you might get things done quickly and with little fuss, but you never know in advance what kind of group you're going to get. There might be wipes; there might be random AFKs. Be prepared for some difficulties. It sucks for the rest of the group if you can't schedule your time properly and end up having to leave before the end, leaving seven to fifteen other people in the lurch.

- If your 16-man pug falls apart before you've completed the operation, ask whether anyone is willing to complete the run on 8-man. (They share the same lockout, so you can just switch the group size and pick things up where you left off, though some trash might respawn.) It doesn't always work, but when it does it's a nice way of salvaging a run that has gone bad.

Other Content

If you find yourself in need of help with a datacron or a solo mission, your best bet is to politely ask a random passer-by or in general chat of the area you're in. Many people don't mind taking a few minutes to help someone out, since they've usually been in the same situation themselves at some point.

World bosses can be tricky to get a group for, since assembling a whole ops group just for one boss is generally more effort than any rewards will be worth. However, if you do want to give it a try, general chat on the planet where the boss is located is probably your best bet for lower-level bosses, as you'll reach people of the right level that way. Higher-level characters will often prefer to solo lower-level bosses, as it's less hassle for them. If everyone's at the appropriate level, a group of eight to twelve should get you through most fights, though adding more people tends to make things easier. For the higher-level world bosses (Hoth and onwards), the fleet is a better place to look for interested players, as most high-level characters choose to hang out there.