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jingadingdangdo
02.19.2012 , 07:53 AM | #1
This post is written from the perspective of a hardcore guild raid leader. I fully understand that everyone plays this game for different reasons and my aim in posting this is simply to try and make Bioware aware of how their operations content is being received by people who have a serious interest in SW:TOR raiding. It is very much a critique of what I and many others regard as serious flaws within the SW:TOR operations system and due to its length I have tried to break it down into sections.

Lack of variety between difficulty modes

One of the core weaknesses of SW:TOR raiding is that there is an alarming lack of variety in boss mechanics. The vast majority of raid encounters play out identically in terms of boss mechanics no matter what difficulty the raid is attempted on. The difficulty is only increased through increased damage and increased boss health pools.

The net result is that progression through the higher difficulties feels like little more than a gear check. The lack of new mechanics to adapt to makes the encounters feel very stale and unimaginative. The sense of having genuinely accomplished something by completing nightmare mode content is severely diminished because you simply do not feel as though you have overcome some new obstacle that has been placed in your path.

Narrow Range of Raid Difficulty

When it was revealed before the release of SW:TOR that it would have three different difficulty modes for raiding I do not believe I was alone in thinking such a system would have huge potential. There has been concerted push among MMO developers to make raid content available to the more casual player in recent years and understandably so - hardcore raiders do not make up a large percentage of the overall market. A three tiered system seemed to be the best possible way to satisfy people at both ends of the MMO spectrum, the casual player and the hardcore raider.

Such a system allowed Bioware to implement a raiding system where the normal mode represented an opportunity for just about every player to experience raid content and, to be totally fair to them, this is exactly what they accomplished with normal mode raiding. I have absolutely no problem with the tuning of normal mode raiding. It is very well tuned to offer the vast majority of players to experience raid content and to engage with the storylines surrounding this content.

The tuning of hard and nightmare mode content however is especially poor. There should be a significant jump in difficulty going from normal mode to hard mode. As a middle ground hard mode should be tuned to the level that casual or semi-hardcore guilds need a great deal of preparation in terms of gear and consumables to complete them. It is more or less a given that some more hardcore guilds will be able to compensate for a lack of gear with better execution, strategy and by taking more of a min/max approach to their individual roles. This is where the nightmare mode becomes key. Nightmare mode should be tuned such that it absolutely requires every raider to put in the maximum possible effort in terms of pre-raid preparation. It should also require an exceptionally high level of execution and strategy to complete encounters at this level. There is absolutely no reason why nightmare mode content should not be tuned to this level given that normal mode gives the more casual player an entry point to raiding and hard mode gives them something to aspire to.

Tuning nightmare mode raid content such that it is able to be completed by the average player simply bloats the system - it simultaneously renders hard mode content obsolete while massively devaluing the inherent sense of achievement in completing nightmare mode content for the hardcore raider.

As things currently stand the difficulty level of hard mode and nightmare content should both be significantly increased. As a rough indicator the current difficulty of nightmare mode content is approximately where hard mode should lie and nightmare difficulty should be completely re-tuned such that the difference in difficulty between normal and the new hard mode is similar to that between hard and nightmare mode. At present there is very, very little difference in difficulty between hard and nightmare mode content on 16 man (possibly 8 as well although I do not have personal experience with this).

Lack of Gear Differentiation

There is a very distinct lack of gear differentiation between encounters of different difficulty. When I am talking about difficulty in this section I am referring not only to normal/hard/nightmare modes but also to the size of the raid given that (at present) 16 man content is more difficult than 8 man content. The gear available through hard mode flashpoints and normal mode operations feels very well tuned. You accumulate Columi level gear through both of these but at a much faster raid through normal mode operations and this feels very intuitive and makes sense.

The problem with this is that with only 1 tier of gear above Columi, Rakata, it means that this is all that can be offered for what are effectively 4 different levels of difficulty - 8 man hard, 8 man nightmare, 16 man hard and 16 man nightmare. The sense of achievement in acquiring a Rakata level piece of armor is severely diminished by the fact that it can be acquired just as easily on 8 man hard mode as on 16 man nightmare mode.

There are two possible solutions to this. The first is that more of an effort should be put into ensuring that 8 man and 16 man raids are tuned to the same level, although from the latest Q&A it seems like the intent is simply to swing the pendulum back in the other direction and make 16 man content easier than 8 man content (more on that below). Even if it were possible to balance small group raiding with large group raiding, which seems unlikely given that several MMOs have tried and failed to do so, it would still mean that the problem is merely diminished and not resolved.

Assuming that both 8 and 16 man raids were tuned to the same level it would still mean that under the current loot model that hard mode raids were awarding exactly the same loot as nightmare mode raids. This is pretty poor planning. It is far to late in this current tier of content to make sweeping changes but ideally it should have been set up as follows:

Normal mode OPs and hard mode flashpoints drop entry level gear
Hard mode OPs drop mid level gear
Nightmare mode OPs drop the best possible gear

This would have meant either allocating Tionese level gear to hard mode flashpoints and normal mode operations or else adding a 4th tier of loot higher than Rakata that was only obtainable in nightmare modes. This type of gear spread is very much needed in the next tier of raid content to ensure that each difficulty mode maintains the appropriate level of risk vs reward.

Bugs

Before I get into the problem of bugged raid content let me say that I understand as a member of a hardcore guild I expect to encounter bugs simply because we are among the first few to complete the content. To expect a bug free raid environment when you are among the first to do said raid content is probably setting yourself up to be disappointed. With that said some of the bugs are so readily reproducable and consistent that I cannot help but believe that the content is either being rushed out with known bugs or that the in house raid testing is lacking or even non-existent.

As a developer of an MMO Bioware has any number of guilds at their disposal who would likely assist them with raid testing but it really does seem as if this resource is largely left unused. The ability to call upon a group of people to test your product free of charge is not at all common in most industries and there really is no excuse for Bioware to be releasing raid content that is littered with bugs when they have such a resource available to them.

Admittedly of late they have picked up the pace somewhat of late in terms of bug fixing. There does not seem to be any regression testing done with some of these fixes however. A perfect example is in the fix to Soa which prevented the fight from resetting if the tank were to become trapped by a mind trap. The problem was that this fix now causes him to reset threat every time a mind trap is cast. This bug would have been blindingly obvious if the fight was tested even once or twice after the initial fix but instead the secondary bug went live to the game and is still live after a few weeks. More of an effort needs to be made to ensure that these fixes are not simply introducing new bugs into the game.

Similarly there are glaring bugs which have simply been ignored for too long. The fact that master loot in operations has frequently caused some loot as well as crafting materials not to drop has been present since release and has STILL yet to be fixed. This is absolutely appalling. Another slightly different example is the bugged reset on the Ancient Pylons encounter in the Eternity Vault. This was supposedly fixed several patches ago according to the patch notes but again, to date this bug is still present in the game.

Customer Service

This is probably one of the worst aspects of SW:TOR. Response times are the worst I have seen in an MMO with the possible exception of Funcom games. Solutions are rarely found for any problem submitted and the vast bulk of the time you simply receive a generic template reply which indicates that they cannot assist you with your problem but that it has been forwarded on to the appropriate department so that it does not occur in future. With the number of bugs present in the game since release this kind of customer service is entirely inadequate and unacceptable.

Given that it has been widely reported that SW:TOR only needed 500,000 subscribers to be profitable and that recent figures show it has over three times that number of subscriptions this lack of investment in delivering quality customer service is nothing short of shameful. I am utterly tired of hearing the argument that the sheer size and scope of SW:TOR and its playerbase makes it virtually impossible for them to deliver good customer service. This is patently absurd. If anything it means that the larger revenues generated by their product make it possible to allocate more resources toward customer service. If this is already occurring then all I can say is that this capital allocated toward customer service is being allocated very wastefully.

Lack of Basic Features

The lack of basic features that are of critical importance to an MMO with raid content is particularly damning. The lack of a combat log and more detailed UI customization upon release are key features that by this time surely have to be considered as standard. Other features such as dual spec have surely become standard in the MMO industry at this point in time. I am very much aware that the developers have said that these features are being worked on but with a 5 year development and the large development budget of SW:TOR I simply cannot fathom why these features were not available at release.

Regarding the Potential Downgrade of 16 Man Operation Difficulty

The recent Q&A discussion saw it mentioned that the design intent was for 16 man content to be slightly easier than 8 man content to compensate for the logistics of having to organize a larger number of people. There has been a great outcry over this and for good reason. There are any number of subscribers who want to test themselves vs the most difficult content available to them and if this shifts toward 8 man content instead of 16 man content this will either see guilds running multiple 8 man groups or else fragmenting into several smaller guilds. I genuinely feel that either of these outcomes would be a sad loss for the SW:TOR community as the end result would likely be a game population of small fragmented groups which have very little interaction with each other. This to me goes against the very spirit of what an MMO is all about - it is a slippery slope which diminishes the multi-player element of SW:TOR. Without this multi-player element SW:TOR becomes little more than a single player RPG with very little replay value. I strongly urge the game's designers to re-consider this intended design as it has the potential to be very, very detrimental to the game's long term prospects.

What is SW:TOR Getting Right?

In terms of raiding I would be being dishonest if I did not say that there is very little that SW:TOR is getting right in terms of its raid content. There are some positive signs though. Fights like Soa really show that Bioware has it within them to generate very dynamic and interesting boss fights that make much more use of the game environment than most other MMOs. If they can couple this with some serious reforms to other aspects of their raiding system, as discussed above, there is no reason they could not go on to dominate the MMO market in much the same way as WoW has for so long.

I am not writing this to try and put another nail in SW:TOR's coffin - quite the opposite. When I began playing this game I really thought that this was the next game where I would take root and play for many, many years. I desperately want this game to succeed where so many others have failed shortly after release in recent years. SW:TOR does seem to be heading in that direction however and I can only hope that Bioware takes heed of not just my concerns but of the concerns held by many members of the SW:TOR community. Massive changes in terms of raid design and implementation are absolutely necessary if SW:TOR is to avoid quickly spiraling toward becoming just one of many free to play, casual oriented MMOs on the market.
Jinga - Raid Leader of <Retribution>

16 man - World 5th clear of EC Hard Mode. World ranked 6th overall.
Seeking exceptional applicants, apply now at retribution-guild.net