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SWTOR going F2P this fall

So BioWare recently announced that their Star Wars MMO will be taking on a free-to-play subscription model later this year. As someone who played from the closed-testing period up until a month or so ago…. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised.

Don’t get me wrong – in many ways it’s a fantastic game. It has something for Star Wars fans, MMO fans, and BioWare fans. If you happened to be all 3 of those, you probably ran around like a giddy little school-girl the moment it was announced (you can admit it, we’re all friends here).

That said, while initial subscriptions were strong, subscription numbers have continually dwindled. There are a number of reasons (and opinions) as to why, but I’ll go over the major issues I noticed:

 

1) When things got bad, BioWare was slow to react.

Two big examples here. 10-50 PVP, and server mergers.

Not long after the game launched, a number of players hit level 50 rather quickly. That itself wasn’t a big deal – the “bolster” system in the game worked swimmingly, giving a level 20 a fighting chance against a 50. Unfortunately, once the level 50 players got “Expertise” gear, it was game-over for the level 10-49’s.

For a few weeks, the vast majority of players (who weren’t 50 yet) would walk into WarZones and get blown up by a 50 before they knew what happened. I can’t imagine they had any fun. And it’s a shame, because the WarZones themselves were fantastic. A number of players couldn’t take it anymore, and quit. By the time 50’s had their own bracket, numbers were already starting to drop.

The next issue revolved around server mergers (or the lack thereof). It became clear earlier this year that populations were dwindling. Merges didn’t happen until recently – months after it was a serious problem. Nobody likes waiting 30+ minutes for a PvP queue, and somebody who spends a couple hours unsuccessfully looking for a flashpoint or raid group isn’t likely to come back for more waiting-around-tomorrow. “This game is dying” became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2) Over-tuned character attributes resulting in nerfs.

Level 50 didn’t get a lot of testing during the beta phase. It took a while to reach 50 during test (characters were deleted nearly every new build/phase), and pre-made level 40 characters had their share of hiccups.

Turned out when the game went live and 50’s started getting gear, characters were a little over-tuned. BioWare addressed this with a series of nerfs in 1.2.

Problem is, nobody likes nerfs. Blizzard learned long ago that nerfs don’t go over well. The smart thing to do is intentionally under-tune characters and solve things with buffs later. BioWare either didn’t know about this, or missed the mark.

What added to the Patch 1.2 upset was that skill-caps on some of these nerfed classes were quite high. And the nerfs tended to target the weaker players more than they affected the strong players. To their credit, they gave a free month of game time, but that wasn’t of much comfort for individuals who were starting to hate their class.

 

3) Poor game engine, a lack of communication with hardware vendors, high system requirements, a lack of optimization.

That’s a bit of a mouthful clumped into one. The end result was that a number of players just couldn’t play the game, or couldn’t stand the low performance. The rest here gets a little technical, so feel free to skip down to #4 if I’m already boring you to death (I’ll indent this to make it easy to skip).

A great example here was the “black screen” issue for users with AMD/ATI video cards using Catalyst 11.8 drivers. Most large game companies communicate with the major video card manufacturers during development to ensure that drivers work. Clearly, BioWare and AMD weren’t working together well here, and when the 11.8 drivers came out during closed-game-testing, a large number of testers reported that these drivers were breaking the game.

Now I don’t know if the programming leads didn’t quite understand the repercussions here or what, but rather than providing a work-around in the game engine, BioWare seemed content to simply get AMD to ensure that the next version (11.9) would work. Unfortunately, that isn’t a complete solution. Telling a desktop user to “upgrade their video drivers” is simple enough, but many laptop manufacturers have AMD “lock” their mobility video drivers to specific versions, and AMD’s driver utility has a habit of lying to the user about drivers already being up-to-date. If you were a laptop user who wasn’t much of a techie, you might be boned.

If they can’t play, they won’t resub. It’s that simple. There were numerous other technical issues, but suffice it to say, a lack of execution here meant that BioWare ended up spending too much money on tech support staff, had extremely vague stickies that tried to address a lot of different (but similar) issues, and lost customers in the process.

The lack of optimization was particularly painful as well. During the testing phase, there were a number of complaints about low performance, long load screens, etc. The community in general always came back with “don’t worry, they haven’t reached the optimization phase yet”. It was just that obvious. A game developer wouldn’t possibly think the current level of performance was acceptable, and must have a plan in place for launch. They’d have to be insane if they didn’t have optimization plans and were going to let it ship in that state, right? Well…….

Turned out, all that made it to launch. Graphics were quite good, but didn’t justify the poor frame rates on a significant number of reasonable systems. Load screens didn’t get better and were painful even on a cutting-edge gaming system with raided SSD’s. And there were a *lot* of load screens. They didn’t make any effort to design gameplay in a way that avoids them. Presumably, the people who designed flash points & operations also figured load screens would be fixed by another team before launch.

A large part of these issues appears to have stemmed from BioWare’s usage of the “Hero” engine – an engine that should have made development quick and simple, but was seemingly crushed under the weight of the extensive modifications required to expand the engine in order to make a huge MMO. You can make a solid case as to why it made sense in the beginning, but it’s something that certainly hurt them in the end.

 

4) Long, painful, buggy flashpoints (instanced dungeons).

Many flash points were incredibly long. With an organized group, you could skip enough to bring them down to 30 minutes, but with an unorganized group it would typically take well over an hour. Deaths, load screens, and time running back made it feel like an eternity. If at some point your members had to repair, it could be a 10-15 minute wait while they went through more load screens to visit the vendor.

As for bugs, the final boss in Essels had a tendency to blow people up in heroic even if they’d moved out of the targeting reticle immediately (likely a latency thing that should have been checked for client-side). A boss in Directive 7 liked to bug and spew out a zillion clones. There were also “Operations” that had buggy encounters. These are the types of issues that went far too long without being addressed.

Don’t get me wrong, a number of encounters were fun. Sadly, the fun was overshadowed by a long and dragged-out overall experience.

5) Long, painful, buggy dailies.

Similar to #4, but with the addition of spawn-camping on the Republic side.

 

6) Complicated/convoluted/unbalanced crafting.

Pre-1.2, most crafting was worthless. BioChem was essentially required because the rest was so weak. Slicing was ok otherwise. The rest was only good for gearing your companions. There was uncertainty as to what could be reverse-engineered and what couldn’t.

By patch 1.2, most of the issues had been addressed. However, they revamped the “custom gear” system to implement augments and move set bonuses from the “gear” to the “armouring”. But only on some custom gear. And only the new stuff. The old stuff wasn’t updated so there were now 2 incompatible (and very different) systems at play.

If you were a new player in 1.2 and tried to figure out set bonuses & custom gear, you might have wondered if you’d accidentally downloaded EVE Online instead of TOR. A complex crafting system is fine so long as things are intuitive, consistent, and make sense.

 

7) Lack of companion usefulness at 50.

Your companions are with you right until the very end…. and then they may be dumped out the nearest airlock. You can’t bring them to raids. It’s very difficult to bring them to heroics (we 2-manned a few heroic flash points with companions, but the average player probably won’t).

With all the work that went into companions, and the huge role they play in your character’s story, it’s a shame that they become limited to dailies, crafting, and looking pretty on the fleet.

 

8.) No Mac OS X client

a) Take your entire group of WoW friends (or guildies).
b) Count the number of them who use Macs.
c) If you’re all going to start playing another game together (MMO or otherwise), list the possibilities.
d) Guess what, TOR’s not on the list.

I can’t put it any more simply. If you’re aspiring to compete with WoW and perhaps even poach a few of those customers, you have to remember that a number of guilds & groups will only come as a “package” deal.

 

 

So is “the cat on the roof” for TOR?

I certainly hope not. Despite some of the issues being rather serious, there’s a lot going for it. You can’t get the same level of story and immersion in any other MMO right now. The WarZones are stellar. And perhaps consolidating the servers has helped to make the game feel alive again.

But with the developer team dwindling in size, and subscription numbers continuing to drop, it’s hard to be optimistic. They have less people, less incoming money, and it’s more of an uphill battle than ever.

In any case, I wish BioWare the best of luck. And hey, I’m itching for a WarZone right about now. Maybe enough to boot up Windows. We’ll see 😉