SWTOR, I don’t know you any more

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Change is to be expected in MMOs. But what happens when an online game changes so radically that it isn’t the same title you knew at all? Game devs know that playerbases will bend with some degree of change, but if you make those changes too drastic, the connection between a player an an MMO snaps and bonds are dissolved.

I feel that this is exactly what’s been happening in SWTOR over the past year. And after looking at what the next expansion is going to bring, I’ve simply lost any desire to ever come back.

It actually hurts a little bit to think back to SWTOR’s launch back in, what, 2010? And to think of all of the great adventures I had in that game, especially over the first year. The Imperial Agent story was tremendous, and the free-to-play switch meant that I could leave and come back at my convenience. I might have drifted away, but it’s always been one of those MMOs that would come back into my orbit sooner or later. I was anticipating this event with this fall’s expansion, Knights of the Eternal Throne, but the more I find out about it, the more I know that this is not to be.

It’s not one big thing or a thousand small things, it’s somewhere in the middle — a death of interest due to a hundred medium cuts. The sheer contempt that BioWare holds for its F2P community is one such cut, and the news that not only will you be unable to participate in the expansion at all if you don’t subscribe but you can’t even get any gear at level 70 makes the free-to-play label laughably obsolete. A free trial, perhaps, but this has to be one of the most unfriendly, unwelcoming F2P systems in the industry. As BioWare holds what it must see as freeloaders in contempt, so I too hold the studio in equal contempt for shunning its free crowd and all but strong-arming people into subscribing.

Hey guys? If you wanted just a subscriber option, you should’ve stuck with it. Remember how your numbers tanked and you went F2P to draw in the crowds? Can’t have it both ways. That’s going to bite you, hard.

Beyond the business model is the structure of the game itself. Up through Shadow of Revan, SWTOR stuck to its original formula, with the classes distinct from each other, with their own companions, stories, and so on. Planets were released as adventuring zones with overarching stories and all was good.

But then comes Fallen Empire, and the paradigm of the game shifted considerably. SWTOR split into two games — the old, 1.0 experience that took players from 1 to 60, and the new 2.0 experience (which BioWare encouraged people to jump right to via boosts) that started in Fallen Empire and is continuing through Eternal Throne. There was a greater emphasis on a cinematic story, which was pretty great for storytelling. Less sidequest deadweight. Some strong new characters. I can’t condemn it for being ambitious or trying to hew more to BioWare’s strength, which is its stories.

Still, the changes were so drastic that they went beyond trying to change things up a little to reinventing most everything. The timeline was shifted five years into the future. The companions and relationships that we’d spent years cultivating had been abandoned, and in some cases, still haven’t been able to be recovered. All classes were funneled down into the same story with the same selection of companions, with many of the missions forcing us to use a certain companion instead of letting us choose. We were relocated away from our ships to the Gravestone. It was a whole lot of change to swallow, and while I was initially on board with it, after a while it left me feeling more disconnected than ever from the character I’ve had since launch.

And to be honest, the whole Zakuul storyline was starting to leave me cold, too. As another blogger said, how many evil empires do we need in a Star Wars universe? Very little of the Fallen Empire felt fun, like a high-spirited Star Wars adventure should. It was perhaps a little too solo, with very little open world exploring with the chance encounter of other players.

I don’t know. Looking at SWTOR right now makes me a little bit angry, but even more sad and wistful. I miss what it was. I don’t like what it’s growing to be. And I have strong doubts that I’ll be coming back to this game world because of it. If BioWare’s mission was to make it as difficult as possible to come back and enjoy the ongoing story, then that is fairly accomplished in this case.

Maybe we should start hoping that someone else starts working on a new Star Wars MMO?

6 major MMORPG launch days revisited

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One of the neat things about having a long-running blog is that it inadvertently turns into a historical document chronicling major events. In this case, Bio Break has been around since 2008, and I’ve gone through several major MMO launches since then. I thought it might be fun to look up the day one (or day two) posts talking about those experiences to reshare them with you.

Guild Wars 2 (August 2012)

“Guild Wars 2.  Is incredible.

“Playing it live feels so much different than beta, and I’m so glad I have a character to actually invest in.  But even more than that, this is just a game that exists to wow you left and right.  I’m sure that there are those who have become immune to in-game beauty and details, and only see the numbers and min-maxing, but that’s missing the point here.  It’s a game where I felt fully justified to spend the first hour just gawking around like a tourist instead of killing things, and I’m forever going off the beaten track to explore.”

WildStar (June 2014)

“As you may have heard/experienced, it was anything but a smooth beginning.  Due to a purported DDoS attack and a kajillion people trying to cram through the login servers at the same time, we simply could not log into the game.  We got to know the little running hamster, the theme music, and our account passwords very well, however.  It was 4:15 before I could log in, and by then going back to sleep wasn’t much of an option.”

RIFT (February 2011)

“All in all, I’m pretty impressed with the game performance.  No crashes for me, and everything flowed just smoothly.  I did roll a Dwarf Bard, and I’m pretty pleased with the choice.  I’m a Medieval Guitar Hero and proud of it, baby!  I splashed in a bit of Riftstalker for the teleportation spell — being able to jump ahead 25 feet every so often is a ton of fun, as well as a helpful escape button if I got over my head.”

Star Wars: The Old Republic (December 2011)

“On a lark I tried to see if I could log in at 6:30, and lo and behold I could.  Servers were up about ten minutes after that, and I began the process of reserving the eight character names I picked out.  When I finally logged in, it was to a ghost town — not a single soul in the zone, not a single voice on the chat screen, nothing.  I’m not saying I was the first in game, but it almost felt like it.”

Champions Online (September 2009)

“Framerate issues notwithstanding, I had a great time last night.  It was fun to see a lot of friends in the game (and the @name system is growing on me, for sure).  I even spent a bit of time learning the ropes of the crafting system, which is pretty useful — you can make your own inventory bags, which is certainly useful.”

Neverwinter (April 2013)

“While the character creator is really skimpy and the Foundry reportedly in shambles, the core game itself looks fantastic and is pretty fun to play.  It’s more action/arcade-like than a traditional MMO, but for some reason it works here.”

SWTOR: Walkers on the east ridge

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Random thought: I wonder how much of the plot and writing of Knights of the Fallen Empire was contingent on which voice actors BioWare could bring back to reprise their roles? I suspect that it’s more than we’d think.

In one short evening, I blitzed through Chapter 11. This time, the guest star companion was Jorgen (of the Trooper storyline). I never played the Trooper much, but what I had left me the impression that Jorgen wasn’t the most jolly or likable of souls.

Naturally, the leader of the resistance decided that a half-hour away from Zakuul was too long to be out of danger, and so she rushed back in. The mission was remarkably straightforward: To assist Havoc Squad with tapping a transmitter so that they could listen in on the bad guys. I like straightforward missions.

Sure, it got a bit complicated when my presence triggered an immediate Skytrooper assault. Here’s a thought — perhaps if I stayed at the base and stopped micro-managing, the bad guys might not find me so tempting a target? Some folks got kicked out of their homes and we had to escort them all back to a base for safekeeping.

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This time around I played very nice, although there wasn’t much of an opportunity to exercise light or dark side decisions. Just a lot of random, meaningless combat designed to slow down the progression of the mission.

Two things made this quest something other than totally forgettable. The first is that I enjoyed the feeling of a frontal assault, and at times the game did a great job making everything feel immediate and dangerous. The second was when I was tasked with getting inside a force field… somehow. My Secret World training kicked in and I figured out the puzzle in no time. Still, it was kind of nice to be required to use my brain instead of my finger muscle memory for battle rotations.

With that mission done, I went back to Odessa, only to be told that there’s an even BIGGER transmitter tower and a more DANGEROUS mission to tap into it. What, was this a dry run? Do the devs not have any better idea than copy and paste?

SWTOR: Is regretting a decision a sign of a good story?

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Some spoilers ahead for SWTOR’s Chapter 10, but either you’re way more behind than I am or you’ve beaten this months ago, so I’m not terribly worried here.

Anyway, as part of my month’s goals, I went through the entirety of Fallen Empire’s Chapter 10 last night. It was another field trip to Zakuul to check out a possible ally, a mission that I found preposterous on two fronts. First, we had scads and scads of allies, thanks to the Chapter 9 interlude. And I wasn’t even trying hard to collect them!

And second, why in the BLUE BLAZES do we keep going back to Zakuul? The enemy planet? The planet filled with bad guys and uber-bad guys that all want to kill you? I mean, this chapter makes such a big deal out of how frustrated Arcann is that he can’t find me — to the extent that he ends up firebombing five worlds — and if he’d only pay attention to history, he’d know that I’d be coming right back to his planet within a week, probably in the exact same zones. It’s like playing hide-and-go-seek with someone who is deliberately trying to get herself found.

The real reason, of course, is that the devs spent a lot of effort making some pretty cityscapes and they wanted to reuse them as much as possible, even if logic and common sense had to fly out the window.

Anyway, once back on the planet I bumped into yet another old Agent companion — Kaliyo — which would have been a total surprise except that the splash screen for the mission spoiled it. She wasn’t too happy to see me, probably because she felt abandoned. Tough — I was a corpsicle for five years. She can deal.

Apart from the pathos-filled reunion (which I handled diplomatically), the mission itself was the height of tedium and backtracking. Seriously, it was way too much running all over the same zone maps, fighting the same waves of skytroopers, and clicking on the same glowies.

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Eventually we did get into a great set piece fight at the Overwatch’s HQ. Would’ve been nail-biting, too, if there was any chance of actually failing. I loved the gunships firing in through the window, especially when you got to blow it up. I’m the A-Team in one Chiss-sized package.

The interesting part of Chapter 10 came at the very end, when Kaliyo revealed that she had planted even more bombs around the city that would go beyond mere service disruption (our original intended goal) and detonate public areas, skyscrapers, etc. Lots of human collateral damage, but she reasoned that Zakuul as a planet was the enemy, so all was fair game.

The light side choice was to shy away from this, while the dark side leaned more toward the “revenge! REVENGE!” aspect. I was feeling all cranky and contrarian, so I figured that my character had had enough of this planet. Blow it all to smithereens — after all, wasn’t that what Arcann was doing anyway?

In reflection, it was a bad choice. Terrible one, even. I felt horrible as I saw all of those buildings come down, more so after I got back to the home base and the various allies chewed me out over it. Koth even stormed off, leaving me permanently (?), saying that this wasn’t what he signed on for. I won’t say that I’ll miss him — he’s a whiner, that one — but it was a shock even still. It’s the kind of heavy cause-and-effect consequence that BioWare often promises and only sporadically delivers, especially in an MMORPG.

I logged off actually wanting to rewind the clock and choose differently. I even had my character throw a snit fit and stomp out of the room saying that she was done with it all, much to the dismay of my companions. Emotionally, this all sent me plunging a bit (although not too much, this being a game and all).

Yet it got me thinking that this result was, in its own way, a sign of a good story. That eliciting an emotion, even a negative one, from the effects of a personal decision and seeing that play out, meant something to me. Getting a player to care can be a herculean task for devs, especially in games with reset buttons everywhere. So regret, if properly earned, can be as powerful as elation or surprise.

I’ll live with my regret. I’ll forge on. I don’t even know where my character’s morality lies, but I feel as though she should make up that one bad choice in any way she can.

SWTOR: Operative appraisal

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I feel as if I’m gradually getting my gaming house in order, and it is glorious. Having a computer that actually runs these titles is a plus, of course, but on top of that I’m loading up MMOs (as many as I want!) and organizing them according to interest and projects. The idea is that I generally want to focus on one character in each game and have him or her be on top of the content so that I can jump in and check out whatever is new.

This brings me back to SWTOR and my long-time Operative Yeti. According to my gaming records (this blog, which functions surprisingly well as a record of what I was up to and when I left and returned to games), Yeti had reached chapter 9 of Knights of the Fallen Empire around November 2015, after which I lost interest in the whole companion search party and never returned for the new chapters. Still, like my LOTRO Captain, Yeti has been with me on a very long journey so far and I want to see her through. I’m not super-interested in ops or raiding, but seeing the storyline progress? Sure, I’m on board with that.

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Plus I got this in my email, a note from BioWare welcoming me back and saying that I could come play five chapters for free. I’m not sure if this means I get chapters 10-14 for good from now on or just for August, but why not? I think my plan here was to wait for the ultimate chapter to come out and then sub up for a single month to snag it and all the previous chapters for a free-to-play account anyway.

If I don’t have to spend money right now on a game that I’m quite casually playing, sure. I’m in.

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I will say that I’ve missed my Operative. It’s such a joy to play her without a computer stuttering all of the time, and she just looks cool all around. It took me about 30 seconds to get reacquainted with her fight rotation (which I adore) and everything else kind of fell into place soon thereafter.

To help with the refamiliarization process (is that a word?), I did go on one of those companion gathering missions that was sitting in my log anyway. I really truly do not understand why SWTOR wants us to get all of these companions, since you can’t have more than one out anyway. To be honest, I was totally fine with my Agent companions.

So two slight bummers in this return gaming session. The first was that my guild seems more or less dead at the moment. Every time I’ve logged in during the past week, there’s been one or zero other people on. That’s not a terrific sign, at least for the guild, so I might have to go shopping again. The other bummer is that now the game has made my Agent’s spaceship completely empty of companions. Running through it, I felt their absence keenly. Maybe all of these other companions we’ve collected are clogging up a closet somewhere in the back?

It wasn’t all bad, of course. I maxed out my slicing skill while we puttered around on Zakuul, and I had a great time fighting. Chapter 9 is officially over and done, and that purple button inviting me to start Chapter 10 is waiting for my say-so.

Another night, perhaps.

Recharging the MMO interest meter

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Hey guys, meet Yeetii, my new Imperial Agent in SWTOR. With my new computer, I’ve been (re)installing several MMOs, mostly just to have them there in case I want to branch out on a given night. Some are old favorites while a few are on my list of games to try.

I’m on the fence as to whether or not I should go back to SWTOR right now. You see, with MMOs it isn’t always a question of available time (which there never is enough of, but which you can make time for if you want to). Sometimes it matters how full or empty my interest meter is.

This is totally nerdy and probably a product of my years spent playing RPGs and MMOs, but I see my interest in any given game as a bar that goes from empty to full. On the empty end, that represents complete burnout and disinterest after a long time playing. On the full end, it usually signifies excitement to return to a game and plenty of interest to sink into it for a good long while.

When to return to an MMO is tricky sometimes. If I haven’t “refilled” the bar by letting enough time go by (and enough changes come to the game), then by jumping in I’m just going to re-deplete it faster than before. I don’t want to be mildly interested in playing a game, I want to be downright enthusiastic about it. But if I wait tooooo long, well, then I could forget about a game entirely or feel as though too much time has gone by for me to really reenter the scene.

One other way of refilling that imaginary meter for me isn’t just by taking long sabbaticals from the game, but by playing it in short, occasional bursts. Right now this is me and The Secret World. I’ll pick it up about once a week, so that’s about six days of gradual recharging and one of depletion. That keeps the game almost always interesting to me, although it’s not going to re-top that meter any time soon.

So when I return to a game I’ll be cautious about feeling it out. Maybe a new expansion or big news (such as in the case of SWTOR) helps with an interest boost, but I’ll usually spend the first couple of days just puttering around and seeing if the game triggers any “ugh, been there, killed that” negative emotions or if it’s sparking genuine interest in me.

For SWTOR? Too soon to tell. I have an idea of replaying the entire Agent storyline, only this time completely dark side with a sniper — two big changes from my light side operative.