Summer of PvP

Last week Keith surprised us with the unexpected release of a road map for summer. The reason this was as surprising as it was is that Bioware usually likes to make announcements about announcements for teasers first, so them just dropping something like that without warning is rather unusual.

I read through it before anyone else had a chance to talk to me about it and my first thought was that there were probably going to be a lot of complaints about too much focus on PvP and about how nobody thinks of the poor, neglected solo players, and when I looked around on forums and social media later, that seemed to have been right on the money.

There is very little talk of actual new content coming out any time soon. There is mention of more companion returns, "a completely new storyline" as well as "new characters to meet and planets to explore in the new year", but that's all still very far off (autumn/winter) and vague. I don't really count things like Nar Shaddaa Nightlife returning once again or another week of double (C)XP as content, even if they are nice.

The only definitives we have to look forward to in the near future are:

- A new stronghold set on Rishi
- A new arena (I think it was previously mentioned that this would be set in Shae Vizla's Mandalorian compound on Rishi) and a new Huttball map set "in the dangerous and dizzying heights of an industrial planet" (guesses as to said planet's identity that I've seen so far range from Corellia to Vandin).

Aside from that, there was some talk about quality of life improvements, which are always nice to see but which aren't a complete replacement for actual content. Also, apart from a mention of "big updates for guilds" later in the year, the upcoming changes are all PvP focused and again somewhat vague. I'll hazard a guess at what some of them might mean:

- Convert more, if not all, of our Warzones and Arenas to allow cross-faction grouping: Okay, this one is pretty clear except for some wiggle room in terms of what exactly "more, if not all" will turn out to be. This is the one thing I'm actually not keen on at all, because yes, I care about roleplaying in my PvP - crazy, huh? That's to say: I'm fine with making some more warzones cross-faction where this makes sense, which is to say in Huttball and in the arenas. I'm not keen on the idea of the factions mingling randomly in warzones that have traditionally been explicitly about the Empire-Republic conflict. However, I could see Bioware perceiving a certain necessity for this, as some of the other changes they are alluding to actually risk increasing queue times (see below).

- We’re investigating ways of improving the experience of all Warzones: This is about as vague as it can get, but my personal hope is that it means that they are looking into addressing the desync issues that have plagued the game's PvP for a while and which have gotten considerably worse over the past couple of years. I tried to find some great videos/gifs again that I'd seen on reddit about this in the past and couldn't find them right now, but for those who've never experienced desync, it means that your game client and the game servers can have some pretty violent disagreements about what's happening in any given situation. The effects of this are worst in Huttball, where you might find yourself passing to someone just to watch that person suddenly teleport somewhere completely different so that you look like an idiot who just passed into empty space for no reason. Similarly you might leap towards the ball carrier in Queshball and suddenly have them vanish and re-appear on a completely different floor, which is very hard to recover from. I've had both of those happen to me and they are highly discouraging. We can only hope.

- We’re taking an in-depth look at our unranked PvP matchmaking system overall to see what kinds of improvements we can make to better ensure every match is a good one: Another very vague one, but here my guess is that they are looking into role-balancing, which currently isn't a thing in unranked at all. The goal would obviously be to avoid matches where one side has four healers and the other has none. While I've had some pretty memorable games with setups like that, I can't disagree that it would be better to have balance, though I dread the effect this might have on queue times for healers if there aren't enough or too many queuing for your respective faction. Then again, I suppose the increased cross-faction queuing is probably meant to address this.

- We’re also exploring giving unranked players more queue control over which Warzones and Arenas they want to play: While still somewhat vague, this one is a bit clearer and basically talking about a feature that people have been requesting since launch: to queue specifically for the warzone(s) they want or at least to be able to exclude one or two that they really hate. There is a reason this has been rejected for years, and that has been queue times (and risk of enforced monotony for those who queue for everything just because x people don't like Huttball for example). I'm not sure why it would be feasible now, even with cross-faction queuing, but I guess Keith intentionally used language that doesn't commit them to anything ("we're also exploring...").

- We’ll be focusing attention on exploiters, cheaters, and adjusting how Ranked Warzones complete: This one is straightforward and I'm glad to hear it, especially after I managed to go for years without running into any genuine hackers/cheaters but recently encountered one twice within the course of only a few months. People running through walls and forcefields or teleporting themselves inside a wall to AoE their opponents from an unreachable position suck.

- Finally, the Rishi stronghold as well as some changes to the way decorations work will be set up with an eye on supporting duelling tournaments and such. My first thought on reading this was "Are they actually implementing this just for Snave?" but I'm guessing there must be other people arranging events like these on occasion... I don't really see this being very relevant to me, but at least it's kind of original I guess? Or are there any other MMOs out there that encourage you to build custom PvP areas?

All in all, I agree that this road map is particularly thin on concrete information, but then the early summer months are traditionally the least busy season for MMOs so I can't claim to find this shocking or terribly disappointing. Also, while I'm not a huge PvPer, it is a part of the game that I quite enjoy (even if it's on a more casual basis), so I'm happy to see and test whatever changes they come up with.


The Nathema Conspiracy - Mechanics

After players got confused by the way the one-time story mode was handled for Crisis on Umbara, and then got even more confused by yet another implementation of how to handle it for Traitor Among the Chiss, Nathema Conspiracy saw a return of the Umbara model where the one-time solo mode is baked into the story mission, and while you're on that you just can't enter any of the other difficulty modes: deal with it. I remain unconvinced that this is the best way to handle it, but it is what it is.

How's gameplay on Nathema otherwise? Quite pleasant really. Unlike another reviewer I was kind of surprised by how little trash there was. I won't go so far as to say there was too little, but it seemed to me like the space had originally been designed for more. It made me picture the designers initially coming up with a much denser and longer flashpoint, but after the negative feedback they received about the trash on Copero, they decided to just take 50-60% of their planned trash pulls out, leaving a lot of empty space behind. That's my theory anyway.

The mobs have a variety of abilities and at least on hardmode some of them have one hell of a knockback, which is amusing to watch as a healer to say the least. Another interesting mechanic on all difficulty modes is that some of the zealots seem to have a stupidly powerful heal over time - though I haven't actually seen a cast for it, which kind of takes out the fun of actually being able to do something about it, with the net result being that the mobs just take longer to kill. Likewise many of the other trash abilities, while they create all kinds of colourful geometric shapes on the floor, ultimately don't do enough to be truly disruptive and don't really give you the opportunity for intelligent counter-play. Maybe I was expecting too much - fun trash like in Kaon Under Siege or Lost Island has always been the exception rather than the rule. I guess I just can't help but note that the trash both on Copero and on Nathema comes very close to being interesting to deal with but then just misses the mark.

The boss fights are all pretty solid. The first fight is very simplistic, somewhat reminiscent of the Vrblther in Czerka Core Meltdown only without the adds, but that's fine. Since the consoles that you "pop" to increase your damage output on the boss are limited in number and don't respawn, you can strategise a bit when it comes to deciding when to use them.

The bonus boss encounter with the two Hands of Zildrog is a bit boring, as it's mostly a tank and spank with a few circles on the floor. I'm also still not sure if there's even any difference between the two bosses. At first I thought they cast different abilities, but then I swear I saw the second one start using the same abilities as the first one after the first one had died...

What's good is that like in Umbara and Copero, the bonus encounter is accessible without having to do a lengthy quest chain, so that each group can decide on the spot whether to do the fight or not. There is a bonus mission to find seven "Treasures of Valkorian" (which reveal that someone at Bioware doesn't know how to spell Valkorion's name), which is decent fun as the chests are all just hidden enough to make you look around a bit but don't require you to clear every inch of the flashpoint of trash, unlike on Copero. The odd thing is just that it literally rewards nothing: no CXP, no regular XP, no credits, not even a one-time codex entry. I can't decide whether that was an oversight or is a sign of Bioware kind of throwing in the towel on bonuses, thinking something along the lines of: "You know what, it doesn't seem to matter what sorts of rewards we put on bonuses, the majority will always want to skip them. Let's just add a few shiny things to click on for people who enjoy that kind of thing [such as me], but if they can't get their group members to go along with it, at least nobody misses out on any rewards."

Up next is the Giant Kitten Ancient Guardian Droid, who is an interesting amalgamation of a Kell dragon skeleton and a droid skin. His main mechanic is a spinning move that does AoE damage similar to Dread Master Styrak's pet in Scum and Villainy, however instead of hiding behind the tank you're supposed to hide behind some probes that you first have to damage but not kill. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I think it's cool to see them repurpose what was previously a raid-only mechanic for smaller group content, but on the other hand it's kind of unintuitive. In solo mode you can pretty much ignore the mechanic and just heal through it, but in veteran and up it suddenly kills you and you might not even know why. Also, "damage this but don't kill it" is a mechanic that's always hard to execute for pugs. Maybe the hiding part could have been implemented in a way that makes it more obvious what to do.

In the final room you have two boss fights: first Gemini 16, then Vinn Atrius and Zildrog together. I really liked that Gemini 16 splits into multiple copies in a way that's reminiscent of the Gemini Captain fight in KotFE chapter 15; it makes for a nice bit of consistency (even if it's quite a painful mechanic to deal with as a healer, as all the split adds will instantly aggro on you). She also does a powerful damage beam that you can just move out of on solo mode but need to line of sight on higher difficulties to avoid the damage - again something that might take some trial and error for pugs.

Fun fact: When I did the flashpoint on veteran mode for my pugging series, I said that I expected the last boss to be relatively easy... and then we wiped on him. I still think that nothing he does is inherently difficult to deal with, but he does stack a lot of mechanics on top of each other: circles to avoid, a knockback you have to be careful with in order not to fall to your death, a beam that connects two players who then have to stay close together or else they'll heal the boss, and adds that reduce everyone's hitpoints for the duration of the fight. My pug ended up healing the boss a lot due to not quite understanding the beam mechanic right away, but what actually did us in were the adds, which I had completely forgotten about since they hadn't been an issue for me on solo or hard mode. However, left to do their thing unimpeded on veteran mode, they ended up reducing our hitpoints so much that we were barely at 10% of our normal health by the end and a bog-standard attack could one-shot us. Fun times.

All in all, the Nathema Conspiracy backs a great story up with very solid mechanics, yet I couldn't help but feel like something was missing. I think above everything else I felt a bit let down by just how easy the flashpoint felt on master mode in particular when compared to Umbara and Copero. It's not that everything has to be super hard, but to have the climax of the story of all things be a relative cakewalk felt a little underwhelming to me.

It did make me muse about difficulty in general though and how I too am sometimes guilty of saying that I want one thing but then acting counter to my own words. I like the idea of really tough fights such as in hardmode Umbara, and I certainly feel highly accomplished whenever I beat them, but I don't exactly go out to repeat them often. The last time we got MM Umbara as a random, my guildies sighed a lot, and we didn't end up finishing because we just couldn't get a handle on the last boss's endless add waves (not to mention the countless wipes we had on the way). I've even heard people talk about taking gear off just to make sure they don't fulfil the minimum gear requirement and can safely queue for a random hardmode without getting one of the new flashpoints. And I can't claim that I've been actively seeking them out myself, or that I don't relate to the frustration experienced when every single boss causes multiple wipes even though we know the basic mechanics.

I guess what I'm saying is that a part of me wanted master mode Nathema Conspiracy to be harder... but at the same time there's a part of me that is glad that it isn't. I'm not sure how both of them could be satisfied at the same time.


The Nathema Conspiracy - The Story

It took me a few days to gather my thoughts (and to find the time to actually write them down), but it's time to talk about what happens in the Nathema Conspiracy. If you can't guess: this means spoilers! You have been warned.

To recap what happened in the previous two installments of this story arc: Theron Shan suddenly betrayed the Outlander, claiming that you were just using the Alliance to do evil, regardless of what you'd actually been doing. After trying and failing to track him down on the Chiss world of Copero, you as the player learn that he seems to be posing as a double agent for an organisation called the Order of Zildrog, but his divided loyalties are not yet made clear to your character at this point.

The Nathema Conspiracy starts with you and Lana following a mysterious signal to an abandoned Imperial listening post, where your character finally learns the truth, as Theron has left you information about the Order there. You learn that it is led by a former Horizon Guard called Vinn Atrius, a handsome cyborg who comes off as surprisingly sympathetic compared to all the megalomaniacs that we've been fighting since KotFE, and who actually has relatable reasons for hating the Outlander.

From the holos left behind on the station you learn that he's been searching for and has now found Zildrog, who turns out to be as real as the rest of the Zakuulan pantheon, except that it he's a superweapon stored in a vault on Nathema instead of on Iokath. Working with Vinn are Gemini 16, a former Eternal Fleet unit who managed to escape re-enslavement by cutting herself off from her "sisters" and who now wants to see them dead to avoid ever being influenced by the Gemini network again, as well as a couple of other characters who have reasons to hate you and whose identity varies based on some of your previous story choices. For example redeeming Arcann makes you an enemy of a Nautolan from one of the worlds that Arcann bombarded previously and who's outraged that you just made him part of your Alliance without any kind of punishment (understandable). Yet if you killed him and Senya, one of Vinn's allies ends up being a former knight who was apparently very close to Senya and who's furious that you killed her (also understandable). Just goes to show again that there's no winning when it comes to some situations!

Theron's info also tells you to go to Nathema to prevent Vinn & Co. from unleashing Zildrog, which is corroborated by your Alliance specialists on Odessen, who have finally made sense of the star map you retrieved from Copero. (Wait, didn't that get blown up before we could lay our hands on it?) Time to return to Nathema to find out what's what!

You and Lana take a shuttle there and find the planet transformed after Valkorion's death, full of new growth and wildlife. On meeting Theron at the co-ordinates he provided, you don't get to kill him right away (even if you want to) as you need him to point you in the right direction to prevent Zildrog's release.

Eventually you reach the vault where Zildrog is stored, and sadly he turns out to be a boring computer terminal instead of a cool lobster dragon creature... thing like Izax. Wonder how he became a dragon in the Zakuulan legends? You also learn that Vinn's precious allies ended up being recruited for no other reason that to serve as fuel for the machine - too bad for them.

Initially held back by a force field, you can't do anything but watch as Zildrog powers up and it turns out that his actual "body" is the Gravestone, which he promptly flies up into orbit above Odessen to one-shot the entire Eternal Fleet. He then turns it towards Odessen but needs to recharge before being able to fire again, which results in the shield around you dropping and allows you to engage Gemini 16, Vinn and Zildrog. You manage to successfully destroy/capture all of them, however Theron gets stabbed in the back by Vinn and ends up mortally wounded. You get the option to save him by quickly returning him to Odessen or leaving the "traitor" to die.

Back on Odessen you wrap things up with Lana (and potentially Theron if he's still alive) and get to muse on what's going to come next now that your Alliance has effectively been robbed of what gave it most of its power. You also have to choose whether to throw in your lot with the Republic or the Empire going forward.

Even though that was still a fair number of words, it's actually a very bare-bones summary of the plot that leaves out a lot of lovingly inserted detail. For example I've read that if you romanced Lana or Theron, you get the option to marry them at the end (which I haven't seen yet as none of the characters that I've taken through the story so far were romantically involved with either of them). My Guardian, who romanced Arcann in his Alliance alert, got to share a tender moment with him, but even if you're not romantically involved he makes a brief appearance if he's still alive.

On Nathema you have a holo call with one of Vinn's allies who's actually different based on your base class. I've tried to avoid spoiling myself for all the different possibilities, but from what I've gathered this person can even be different for some classes based on decisions taken during the class story. The sad thing is that this went completely over my head during my first playthrough because for my trooper said character wasn't anyone I knew; they just made the briefest of references to something that had happened in my class story, so I thought that sentence was as far as the customisation went. In reality however the identity of the person themselves varies, and for some classes it's even someone you know. Considering that the ally in question ends up being one of the people that get turned into fuel for Zildrog, that's a considerable cast of characters who could now potentially be dead.

None of this changes the overall flow of the narrative, but it does add some much added distinction between characters for those of us with many alts and showcases a love for detail that has often been absent in more recent content releases, probably making this one of SWTOR's best story updates in a long time.

But what about the plot, you might say... Is it any good? Well, I already summarised it earlier in this post, so you'll be the judge, but most of the reactions that I've seen have been very positive, and I was actually kind of surprised by how much I enjoyed it myself. I could see people who were really in love with the role of Alliance Commander hating it, and of course if you were already super jaded with the game to begin with, it's unlikely that this update will change your mind. (Though I have seen some comments from players who felt that the Nathema Conspiracy served to invigorate their previously flagging interest in the game.)

Personally, I've been wanting to see the Alliance come to an end for a while, so I guess I was positively biased towards developments in this flashpoint that way, but this hasn't stopped me from being critical of poorly written story installments in the past (see Iokath as an example). The Nathema Conspiracy just handles things better in every possible way, largely because of the aforementioned love for detail but also because the plot just works much better in general.

Vinn Atrius and Gemini 16 make for interesting and convincing villains despite of having been complete unknowns beforehand, and I wasn't surprised at all to see people asking for an option to romance Vinn the very day the patch came out. There are also some interesting character moments for Lana and Theron. Personally I found it amusing that Lana serves as your foil regardless of which stance you take towards Theron - if you say that you trusted him all along she keeps telling you to be cautious, yet if you leave him to die she's actually taken aback and later confesses on Odessen that despite everything that's happened she's genuinely saddened by his death.

The way the dialogue and cut scenes are set up, they also manage to hit some very strong emotional notes. For example I was genuinely worried about Odessen getting blown up and was actually relieved when we managed to save the planet - not because of it being my base, but because it's a lovely planet and I didn't want any of the characters still stuck on it to die! And when I chose to leave Theron to die on my dark-sided Marauder, I actually felt a pang of regret despite of her having wanted to kill him for months. Honestly, if I had to pick one thing I didn't like it would probably be that everyone kept referring to Zildrog as "it", which seemed like an oddly detached way of talking about a well-known mythical being with a personality.

As far as major plot points go, the Emperor having yet another superweapon stored away in a vault somewhere seemed plausible enough based on what we know about him. While I've seen some people express unhappiness with Zildrog's dialogue claiming that it was him who wiped out the population of Nathema, I don't think it takes anything away from Vitiate/Valkorion to know that he used an actual weapon to kill everyone to achieve his original "ascension" instead of just doing it purely through the power of the Force.

I suppose the Gravestone turning out to be Zildrog's body is a bit convenient, especially as unlike with the Gods from the Machine there's no physical resemblance between the body and the image the Zakuulans have of the deity/mythological creature. The Dark Sanctuary also doesn't really feel like it was originally meant to be a "brain connector" or whatever we want to call it, but I guess it was a leftover mystery from KotFE that had never received a resolution, and resolving it like this felt appropriate enough.

After how lacklustre this story arc started out with Iokath and Crisis on Umbara, the Nathema Conspiracy really restored my faith in Bioware's storytelling and makes me genuinely curious about what they will come up with next. What were your thoughts on the story?


Looking Good

When Crisis on Umbara came out, I thought that it was set in an interesting environment, what with the moving train and those weird tentacle things coming out of the ground. Traitor Among the Chiss raised the bar by taking us to the gorgeous Chiss world of Copero. I didn't think it could get any better than that, but the Nathema Conspiracy proved me wrong. That was quite a surprise too, considering Nathema's dreariness in KotET chapter seven.

The Force made it pretty again though. I swear most of my time during my first playthrough of the flashpoint was taken up by just looking around and taking screenshots. Here are a few of them:

I remember recently in my comment section Soots commented about how none of the new flashpoints are as fun and attractive as the classic ones, and another commenter replied - quite rightly so - that in a comparison of the visuals between False Emperor and Traitor Among The Chiss, the latter would come out as a clear winner. As much as it's fun to reminisce about the good old days sometimes, in terms of looks SWTOR's environments have only become prettier.

I think this will only add to people's already existing longing for another "proper" open-world planet to be added to the game again soon. The fleet is fine as a hub but sometimes you just want to treat your eyes to something nicer. And Iokath didn't really fit the bill for this due to its mechanical design.

Speaking of appearances, the patch also brought with it a new hairstyle. Please tell me I wasn't the only one who paused after seeing it for the first time and went to the Cartel Market to check if a new hair bundle had been released?! Bioware surprised everyone in a positive way however by simply adding the new hairstyle to the existing selection for free. It's a pretty good one as well, a nice variant of the classic short ponytail. I just fear that I might get sick of seeing it pretty quickly, what with seemingly everyone on my Twitter timeline rolling up new alts with the exact same hairstyle now!


5.9 Patch Thoughts & Story Epiphanies

Yesterday was a very good patch day: new content and lots of small fixes of the best kind. Example:
I'm particularly pleased with the tweaks to the trash before Izax though. I do like the idea of the puzzle leading up to the boss, but we've wasted quite a bit of time on it in the past when - despite of understanding what we were meant to do - the "moving pieces" behaved in mysterious ways that prevented us from completing the puzzle. ("How can they not have line of sight? They're right next to each other!")

I was excited to see the mission "Introduction to Conquests" get fixed, as it's very rewarding for alts who complete a conquest for the first time, but it had been impossible to complete for the past few weeks because Bioware had forgotten to update the quest to make sure it actually got triggered by the new conquest system. I immediately had some alts to visit after patching up who had already been waiting to collect their bonus rewards.

And the introductory missions to Black Hole and Section X are back, yes! I never understood why these were removed in the first place, especially with 5.0 making the old daily areas relevant again.

And of course we got the new flashpoint... I will save my opinions on that for another post though. It did cause me to have an only vaguely related revelation in regards to my feelings about MMO lore and stories though. You see, I've often said that to me it's very important that the writers take their own world seriously, which is one of the things I really love about Bioware. And just as often others have countered with arguments like "The real world is already serious enough!" or "Humour is good!", which I didn't really know how to counter, though I didn't feel like these arguments really addressed the heart of the matter.

The newest installment of SWTOR's main story is very earnest and serious, with nothing to really laugh at. It succeeded in evoking all kinds of emotions in me while I played: excitement, curiosity, worry. And yet... I actually made some light-hearted moments for myself too. For example there was one point when it struck me just how lush the environment was, so I decided to go out of character for a minute, put on my trooper's beach outfit and lounged next to a waterfall for a silly screenshot.

At another point, I tried to knock some mobs to their deaths and managed to make one of them bounce off the wall in such a manner that his body came to lie on a narrow ledge... and it emitted a loot beam. In my guild I'm infamous for not wanting to leave any loot behind, so of course I took that attitude here too. First I fell to my death even trying to get to the mob, then I reached him successfully to loot but died afterwards because there was no real way to get back off the ledge without dying. It wasn't really worth it in monetary terms but it's always more about the principle of the thing for me anyway. Throughout the entire sequence I was providing running commentary for my actions to my pet tank and we both got a good laugh out of it. Then it was back to the story and serious business.

And this got me thinking: I'm not averse to making fun of things, but I prefer for it to be my choice. It's easy to take a step back, laugh at some particularity in an otherwise serious story, and then get back into it. But when the whole thing is a big joke from beginning to end, with everything being a parody of something or other and characters spouting movie quotes left and right - that may well be funny sometimes, but if the humour is not your cup of tea it can be hard to enjoy what's left despite of it. An overall serious story can easily include a couple of chuckles here and there, but something that doesn't take itself seriously to begin with will have a difficult time when it comes to getting people to genuinely care later on. At best it's likely to be a very jarring experience. So I do like me a good bit of humour and laughs, but I prefer worlds and stories that can be taken seriously and that the players are allowed to make fun of when it pleases them instead of the devs treating everything like a giant joke from the get-go.


Alive And Kicking

I've been with my guild, Twin Suns Squadron of Darth Malgus (formerly The Red Eclipse) for five and a half years now. I actually meant to make an anniversary video last November but lost steam before I got very far into it. Maybe I'll actually finish it once my sixth anniversary with the guild rolls around!

Twin Suns Squadron logo taken from Wookieepedia. Fun fact: I actually had no idea that this was an Expanded Universe reference when I joined the guild; I just thought that it was a cool name.

From what I hear from other people, being in the same guild for this long is rather unusual. Mind you, I'm not saying that I've actually been playing with the same people all this time. Apart from two or three individuals who have indeed been around for as long as I have, there's always been a certain degree of turnover. However, that hasn't prevented the stability of the guild as an institution from providing me with a comfortable social space to hang out. I've still valued the friendships that I made during those years too, even if most of them turned out to be transitory eventually. Not everyone can be a friend for life. My habit of recording and creating videos of guild achievements and funny moments has turned out to be handy in this context, as looking back at the older videos helps me remember the names of members long gone and the fun I had with them.

I've been thinking about all of this a lot lately because my guild had another very successful run at conquest this past week, hitting the medium yield target for the second time since the new system was implemented, and when I checked the scores more closely I noticed that ours was the second highest score of all Republic guilds across all three boards. The only ones who outdid us were Wardens of the Republic, and this was truly baffling to me mainly because I've always thought of Twin Suns as a fairly small-ish guild, and still do. Nominally our guild roster lists around 800 characters, but I'd estimate that about 50% of those are old members who've gone inactive and that we just never felt the need to remove, 45% are probably alts, and only about 5% are actual playing individuals.

We've always had ups and downs in terms of activity, but in recent months things have gotten interesting in a new way. It started with my pet tank, who is also the guild leader these days, declaring that we needed fresh blood and sending a newly minted officer out to recruit. Said officer took to this task with an almost shocking amount of zeal, spamming general chat on the starter planets and inviting anyone who replied. The results were kind of weirdly fascinating to me, because my own approach to recruiting had always been the opposite: being selective, requiring the completion of application forms etc. (usually with very limited results).

This sweeping recruitment certainly achieved two things: It made sure that we maintained the full XP and reputation bonus for our guild, and it made the guild look active on a superficial level, in the sense that you could log on at any time of day and see some people online. However, the vast majority of players recruited this way didn't actually end up engaging with the established core of the guild in any way. I think one or two stuck around, but most of them just continued to quietly do their own thing for a while and then stopped logging in or disappeared in some other manner, eventually causing the active member count to drop off again.

It was only fairly recently and after several such recruitment waves that our recruitment officer decided to change his tack and began talking to people who were already showing a clear interest in endgame activities and social interactions beforehand. And it worked! We gained a great bunch of new members this way. One of them, who plays a tank, was completely new to endgame and we've slowly been training him up from scratch. Hey, just because we've been running Eternity Vault for more than six years that doesn't mean that we aren't still happy to show a newbie the ropes.

More recently a guild with whom we'd been friendly for a long time also decided to merge into ours. It kind of took me back to when I had just joined myself, back when the game was contracting heavily in its first year and no less than three others guilds had only just merged into Twin Suns Squadron as well, making for a very... colourful environment. It led to me running my first 16-man operation ever and boy, was I excited! Comparatively, the first two days after the most recent merger actually made me feel a bit overwhelmed. So many new names! What are they all talking about? It made me want to hide for a little bit.

However, as things have started to settle down, I'm once again enjoying the process of getting to know the new faces and learning more about them both as people and as players. I'm not that worried about how good they are at the game - what's more important is that they are fun to hang out with, and so far we seem to be doing well, even if these things are never completely without friction.

It just amazes me that we are still going strong after all this time, and I hope that things will continue this way for years to come. I'm certainly trying to contribute in my own way: I know my pet tank for example probably would have drifted away from the game a long time ago if I wasn't so enamoured with it myself, with my presence keeping him around by extension. We all do our part, and long may it continue.


Pugging with Shintar is back!

When I finished up my Pugging with Shintar series last year, I already knew that I wanted to do a "season two" but I also felt that I needed a break and didn't want to get started on it until early 2018. That then got delayed first by me wanting to create a best-of video of season one, and then me getting stuck with a cold that I seemed to be unable to fully shake for several weeks. (Degree of illness aside, coughing and sniffling a lot does not make for the best recording voice.)

However, I'm finally feeling better, so when I found myself with a few hours of unallocated free time this weekend, I set out to get started at last. My plan for season two is to do some endgame pugging, so I started episode one with an operation:

As you'd probably expect, the episode ended up being pretty long even with more than half of the original recording edited out, but I guess that's the sort of video you can put on and watch on the side while doing dailies or whatever. (And I even put in the effort of making a custom thumbnail this time!)

Stay tuned to the YouTube channel for more (though I don't expect to create weekly episodes in this new format; pugging operations is too time-intensive for me to be able to reliably devote time to it every single weekend).


The Point of Conquest

One of the nice things about having a blog is that you get to look back on what you thought about events years ago without having to purely rely on your potentially fuzzy memory. Unlike the way our brain remembers things, the written word doesn't change over time. So when the recent Conquest changes were implemented, I went back to see what I had thought about the system when it was first introduced back in late 2014. (Gosh, has it really been that long?) I had completely forgotten that my first reaction could pretty much be summed up as: "This is quite fun but I'm not entirely sure what's the point."

Since then I've been trying to consider the Conquest changes from that angle: the system's purpose in the game and how the changes potentially reflect an attempt to change - or at least adjust - the reasons people might participate in Conquest.

For the record, I'm still having a pretty good time with it myself. My guild has hit its small yield target every week so far, and once we even went for medium yield and managed to hit that, though it took more than the normal effort to do so.

The way I see it, Conquest was always meant to fulfil two purposes:

1) To give people something to do, on an individual level. Some would call this a pointless grind, but I prefer to see it as an offer of structure for those who enjoy their time in the game in general but find it hard to regularly choose among all the different activities on offer. When in doubt, you can do something that will also earn you some Conquest points.

2) To give guilds as entities something to do beyond chatting and raiding, something that can be both collaborative and competitive (by inviting comparison with other guilds).

The thing that immediately struck me about point one the moment I thought about it is that this is one of the main purposes of Galactic Command as well. And I suspect that this probably presented a problem from a dev point of view: What's the point of having two systems that are so similar? The main difference is that Galactic Command doesn't become available until max level and is limited to subscribers, but aside from that they've both been largely about running X flashpoints or completing Y warzones to earn points to fill a bar that's worth a box of goodies at the end.

So now my theory is that this is part of why they reduced the points granted by repeatable activities so drastically: Galactic Command allows you to earn your points in whichever way you like, so in order to make Conquest different they had to change it so that you wouldn't just automatically hit your goal from doing the same activities you were already doing for Galactic Command. Instead you have to plan and/or mix it up a bit.

The new system doesn't actually make it hard to hit your target on your first character - in fact one of the recent events had me hit my target faster than I'd ever done it before, in a single night: Two operations were featured as one-time goals worth 7,500 points each (with maxed out stronghold bonus), so my guild ran both of those on story mode in one evening - and boom, that was my personal target of 15k points achieved. But you do have to actually look at which activities are featured that week and consider which ones are the most rewarding for your time investment.

That said, there are still similarities between GC and Conquest, and I think that's part of why I've been enjoying it as much as I have: I embraced Galactic Command after it had gone through a sufficient number of iterations and actually got loads of characters to 300... but I've reached a point now where I'm finding it hard to care because I have almost no level 70s left that aren't Command rank 300. Sure, I could always level up more, but... meh. Just then new Conquest arrived to save the day and provide me with something similar but different to hold my attention.

I feel like Conquest's purpose for guilds is a bit trickier to unpack. My first thought was that the removal of the invasion bonus has de-emphasised the importance of being in a guild to do Conquest, but there is more going on than that.

It seems to me that in the past, Conquest was always meant to be more competitive than collaborative, because while it required working together, all your hard work and team spirit would come to naught if you weren't competitive enough to make it into the top ten. On the surface, the introduction of small, medium and large yield planets should have supported the competitive aspects of the system by making the competition more "fair" by pitting guilds of similar size against each other, but that's clearly not working. (Seriously, everyone just seems to go for small yield except for some confused people whose guilds score like 20k points in total and I'm not sure what they were expecting to achieve by invading the large yield planet.)

You almost have to wonder whether Bioware themselves had doubts about whether this would work or not, because at the same time the yield system makes competition a lot less important and makes it all about collaboration instead. Oh well, so you didn't win first place, but at least everyone still got their prize, right?

However, looking at the personal targets again, a lot of the changes there seem to be geared towards making competition between guilds more fair. The big crafting nerf was one. As I already wrote three years ago, the previous iteration was just ridiculously overpowered. Logging in for five minutes a day to craft would earn you more points than actually playing the game all day, and that was just silly. More importantly though, it allowed guild members to make wildly different contributions to the shared goal. The last few times when my guild placed on the board under the old system were pretty much down to one or two people crafting goods worth several millions (!) of points each. And I'm not knocking their efforts - I was grateful for the free ride, but it wasn't exactly a case of everyone coming together in a big display of team spirit. It meant that for many guilds competing for first place on the board basically came down to how many selected members could burn the most credits on crafting in the shortest amount of time, which wasn't really meant to be the point.

I suspect that the changes to objectives, with their move away from repeatable activities towards more one-time objectives is also related to this, because it means that there are basically "diminishing returns" as you try to bring up more alts. It can be done, but for the sake of guild competitiveness it makes more sense to have as many individuals as possible contributing, instead of being able to rely on three guys who play all day and have an army of alts.


The conquest changes make sense if the devs' goal was to distinguish the system more clearly from Galactic Command and to make it more about people successfully working together as a group instead of a few rich/dedicated individuals carrying everyone else to victory.

I think the main problem it has right now is that the competitive aspect is kind of standing on wobbly legs because the yield system is so not working out as a way to make competition more fair. That, and that some points values even for one-time objectives seem seriously out of whack in terms of effort vs. reward. I also agree with Intisar that they could add some more one-time objectives to give people more choice in terms of how to achieve their personal target without making it too easy to farm points on a dozen alts (I love operations but they feel a bit over-represented at the moment for example - need more one-time goals related to things like warzones, GSF etc.). I'm sure that all of these things are still being looked at, however.


Unexpectedly Dangerous

This week's conquest gave me an incentive to revisit the Rakghoul Tunnels on my main for the first time in years.

After running around a bit, I wanted to return to the Republic base, so I tried to get up the little ledge that separates the base from the rest of the tunnel system via the magnetic grappling hook installed there.

First click: Nothing happens.

Second click: It pulls me up, but traps me inside the wall above the hook. I use /stuck to free myself, but it puts me back down at the bottom.

Third click: It pulls me up and traps me inside the rock again, but now /stuck is on cooldown. Hey, maybe travelling to my stronghold and back will free me! I think, feeling very clever, and indeed I'm able to port to my home on Coruscant.

Then I click on "return to Rakghoul Tunnels"... and this happens:

I spawn inside the rock wall again, but dead.

At least that gave me the option to return to the medcenter inside the base, which is where I had wanted to go all along. It's funny because I remember these tunnels being dangerous on occasion, but not in that way...


Companion Returns: Andronikos, Ashara, Corso & Risha

I'm slowly continuing my goal of chipping away at KotET on more classes to be able to see the new companion returns. Having recently made it there on both my Scoundrel and my Sorcerer, I wanted to share some thoughts.

The spoiler-free version is that they were all disappointingly short, similar to the Arcann romance. I had expected something more in line with the class story snippets on Rishi, or the missions that some of your original companions give you while levelling that briefly have you visiting a planet. Instead it's just all talk again. I guess at least I know what to expect from future returns now.

I can't help but get the impression that Bioware just wants to get these companion returns over and done with. Since whatever original plans they may have had to reintroduce the old companions during a longer story consisting of more chapters were shelved, they are now left with this annoying deficit in players' companion rosters that people just won't stop asking about. Regardless of whether it fits into their new story plans, they've got to get it out of the way somehow. Oh well, at least they are trying.

What follows will contain some spoilers for the individual return missions. Spoilers end again after the screenshot of Ashara!

Corso & Risha

The quest title "Unhappy Returns" seemed apt for this one, because I wasn't particularly happy with it. It probably didn't help that this was the first one I did, which meant that my expectations in terms of length were still higher.

It starts with you receiving a message from "Skavak" and your character following a little trail of call-backs to chapter one of your class story on Nar Shaddaa. That was nice by itself, but it seemed strange to me that my character entered the final room on high alert and with her weapon out - she knows that Skavak is dead, so who else could have been leading her on than one of her old crew mates?

Both Corso and Risha basically seem to have achieved nothing in the six years or so since you were forcefully separated from them. Risha's excuse is that Dubrillion was pretty much razed by the Eternal Empire so everyone stopped caring about it and she then continued leading a nondescript underworld life instead. I get that this was an exceptionally difficult companion arc to bring to a satisfying conclusion, but nonetheless this felt like a poor way of doing so to me. After all that she's gone through, Risha is willing to just give up on her heritage because the planet is in ruins? I didn't get the impression that she was in it only to get rich; I thought she cared about the position and the people too. I'm not going to say that this is out of character exactly, but it just didn't mesh with my image of her.

Meanwhile Corso has just been... tagging along and being Corso. Seriously, no further character development in six years? He may have been a bit of a dork, but he also used to have values, principles and goals. Again, it just strikes me as odd that he would have been happy spending six years tagging along with a woman who doesn't even particularly like him. Maybe there is more to either of these if you romanced Corso or Risha (which wasn't the case for my smuggler).


Hylo has captured a pirate that was harassing Eternal Fleet ships - and lo and behold, it turns out to be Andronikos, who claims that he's been doing this for all these years in search of your inquisitor.

I liked this one a bit more, maybe because my Sorcerer had romanced Andronikos. I genuinely had to think about rekindling the romance with him, as she had started a thing with Theron in the meantime. In the end I decided in his favour though because spending six years in search of her seemed like incredible loyality (something that a light-side inquisitor in particular would value), even if somewhat hard to believe in itself.


You find Ashara meditating on Voss, where she tells you that she's intentionally spent the last few years away, doing good in her own name, and that she basically considers herself all grown up now. You can take her on "as an equal" or leave her.

Again, this one was actually interesting to me because I had to hesitate to make up my mind. I've ranted in the past about how I think Ashara has one of the stupidest acquisition stories of all companions, which potentially (depending on the exact path you take) makes her out to be a complete idiot. If I had been given the chance, none of my inquisitors would even have taken her on. However, once you have her... she's alright I guess. Still, telling her that she might as well continue to go her own way hardly seemed like a cruel rejection. And accepting her as an equal seemed a silly thing to do for the inquisitor of all people. I did go with that in the end however, figuring that my Sorc would probably be happy to add a more powerful Ashara to her Alliance army, while inwardly chuckling to herself about how the silly girl could ever consider herself an equal to a Force user of her level...

Of these three stories, I think I liked Ashara's best, even though she's my least favourite companion of the lot. I liked that she went her own way in a meaningful manner and actually had a compelling reason to stay away even after learning of the inquisitor's return and rise to power.

I suppose I'm biased as I'm coming at this from the point of view of someone who's engaged in few romances in this game. I get the impression that many who are very attached to their romanced companions want to see them come back and be all: "I've been looking for you forever, my life was nothing without you!" (which is kind of how Andronikos comes across), and I can definitely see the appeal. At the same time though, when I think about my own life, look back at any major event in it and then compare my life then to how it was six years later - things always turned out to be very different, with things having changed a lot and me having moved on. Now, not everyone works like that, and I can definitely see some companions getting hung up on their romance with the player character and being unable to let go, but if you didn't actually romance them it just makes them look like somewhat creepy stalkers. "We were barely even friends, why the hell didn't you just move on?" But I guess I'm probably in the minority with that attitude.

Knowing what's coming up, I'll have to work on finishing things up on my agent, bounty hunter and consular next!