Monday, February 20, 2017

How to save Galactic Command in @SWTOR

The introduction of Galactic Command in SWTOR (Star Wars The Old Republic) 5.0 and the changes in 5.1, brought out many issues in the game, especially in "what players want". On the forums there's basically non-stop repetitive yelling and weeping over various aspects of the game, generally focussing on
  • Developers not listening
  • RNG (random number generation, or basically the randomness of achievement / progression / acquisition)
  • Grind (repetitively doing things)
  • Lack of alt support (having to grind over all alts)
Developers Not Listening
This complaint is probably the biggest problem.
The answer, ironically, is to listen less.
When you open yourself to "suggestions" and have a history of acting on it in some way, you trigger two things:
  • Too many cooks spoil the soup -- Ideas get sidetracked and ultimately derailed.
  • You can't please everyone -- No matter what a lot of people will complain about a lot of things. There will always be complaints and calls for things to change.
Various aspects of Galactic Command (and the game in general) show that the developers are in fact not that good at designing and testing and cleaning up messes -- so much so that players feel justified in giving advice. But that just means they need better focus groups and quality assurance before releasing anything.

RNG *could* work to be interesting / exciting, but it can be very hard to fine tune it. Next time you buy a lottery ticket, you are participating in RNG and you can think carefully about how you feel about it. There's a reason why lotteries give out easier-to-get lesser prizes -- it gives you hope to get at least profit ("get ahead") every now and then. It'd be a very different experience if there were only one prize, a nearly-impossible-to-get jackpot, every time.

In other games you see RNG as essentially a money sink, where players are drained of fairly easily obtained resources in the process of re-trying to get something (usually upgrading gear to the top levels). In SWTOR this essentially happens with Cartel Market packs.
Open enough packs and you will quickly realize that Cartel Market Packs cost you a lot for a good chance of getting rubbish. So much so that people buy packs and resell them on the Galactic Trade Network for literally millions of credits so that they can get something in a non-random way, even if it costs hundreds of millions of credits -- which in those quantities are moderately easy to accumulate without resorting to gold sellers (which are against the Terms of Service).
That's how much the demographic hates RNG. They want the product, not the RNG. Everyone does, really. How much people complain depends on what the product is. And that's the key part: How much they complain depends on what the product is.

It's one thing to sell lottery tickets Cartel Market Packs for ultimately inconsequential things, but a far touchier thing to exchange time grinding with a good chance of getting nothing / going nowhere. And I think that's where the excitement of RNG went completely wrong. You are setting to a lottery something that shouldn't be a lottery -- time and progress.

With SWTOR 5.1 they attempted to supplement the RNG aspect by letting players accumulate various currencies (tokens, gear pieces, etcetera) that are guaranteed to appear in various situations. It's still new so the drop quantity and exchange rate will likely change over time, but the basic idea is you are not completely at the mercy of random drops any more to get bis (best in slot) stuff.

So what to do with RNG? Currencies are actually a good way of dealing with the issue. How and how much the various tokens are obtained need to be tweaked (especially against exploits) but that's a given. What appears wrong with it is grind, and that's a different issue that needs to be addressed.

There are games that are literally all about grinding and people love them. Shop Heroes, for example. The core of the game is crafting and selling, dressed up in attractive graphics, and with various side things to do to break up the tedium. The game keeps going and going by setting incredibly far achievement milestones that take a long time to reach. But no one who plays those games complain about it being "grind"! Why? The SWTOR developers need to look at other "grindy" games and decipher how they don't elicit the same complaints. Here are some aspects to consider:
  • The essential gameplay is enjoyable, even if repetitive.
    • You can't please everyone, so different people will complain about different aspects of the game. Ignore them. For each aspect of the game, listen to who loves it and why.
  • There is something to reach for.
    • Each milestone unlocks gameplay and TRANSFORMS it. Transformation is key -- once you reach a milestone, it must give a new experience to the game -- in a small way making it a "new game".
    • It has to be far enough away and REWARDING enough to feel like an achievement and to make you want to get to the next thing.
  • There is enough gameplay where you are currently at.
    • Because the next tier transforms your game, obviously you want to get there for the benefits. But while you are getting there, you should still be enjoying the game.
In SWTOR, people who complain about Grind are probably people who have exhausted the game and at some level don't like it anymore or need a break from it. They feel entitled to rush to the end and get the best stuff. They actively look for exploits to get there. Nothing in between matters because you pass the in-between stages so quickly. Worse, the developers "listen to the players" and actually help them shoot themselves in the foot with such events as +250% XP / CXP events.

Now that so many players are habituated to this, it's really hard to cure, much less bring in a new demographic of players. With people threatening to unsubscribe and stop income flowing into the game, it gets even trickier to do anything about it. However, I feel the most important step is to STOP LISTENING TO PLAYERS. Well, not exactly cut them off, but limit their influence. Ultimately, as with any other game out there (especially those that have not opened themselves to listening to players too much) you will be left with players who love the game enough to stay and hopefully a new generation of players who aren't spoiled by being able to throw a tantrum to get what they want.

Galactic Command was likely an attempt to introduce a slow-release of content with Tiers 2 and 3 as the rewarding milestones where you got better gear. But it failed because of marketing:
  • The initial incarnation was essentially a loot lottery. Each GC level gave you one chance to get loot and more often than not you didn't get anything worthwhile. It was possible to go through all tiers and all levels and get nothing useful.
  • The end was in sight and with some complaining on the forums, made easier still.
    • Too quickly people saw that it was theoretically possible to get to Tier 3 and maximum level -- quickly enough that nothing in Tiers 1 or 2 mattered.
    • So immediately they set their sights on Tier 3 and a full set of the best gear, and felt entitled to a full set for each character by level 300.
    • And if in their minds it took too long even with various exploits, they complained.
Overall it was a marketing failure -- Too many end-game players latched on to a self-defeating paradigm. And probably too many new players rushed to the same end-game situation, not helped by obscene XP boosts.

What can be done about Galactic Command now?
  • Try to make the continuing gameplay rewarding, if not necessarily more enjoyable.
    • Uncap Galactic Command levels, BUT reserve the right to adjust the exponential rate according to how quickly people are advancing.
      • Suppose it requires a cumulative total of N^r points to get to GC level N. If an adjustment needs to be made, change the rate to N^(r+a). Don't take away levels as a result, but the new total needs to be reached before the next level can be attained.
      • Exploiters can be further penalized by permanently changing their personal rate to N^(r+a+p), in effect forcing them to make up points for those they got through exploits.
      • By uncapping the levels, all current actions continue to accumulate toward a potential future benefit. There is therefore a reason to continue playing.
    • Unlock Galactic Command for Free-to-Play and Preferred players, but make gear beyond the rating possible from max-level vendor schematics to be subscriber-only.
      • They cannot equip gear even if they could before their subscription ended.
      • This provides incentive for f2p (free-to-play) players to continue playing the game and eventually (re-)subscribe.
  • Expand currency exchange
    • Already suggested on the forums: Alternative non-gear rewards. Pretty easy to slowly expand on this one.
  • Remove the lottery
    • Command levels give currencies for exchange only. But continue to track Command Levels AND currency transactions so that the total in circulation/use by each player can be controlled against exploits.
  • Tie the top tier gear to something other than a clearly grindable number
    • For example, specific achievements or tiers of total game Achievement scores might be necessary to use gear currently rated at the topmost 0-8 points of Gear Rating. It's still possible to grind to it, but the array of achievements required and their one-time nature means it's not going to be so straightforward or exploitable.
  • Stop flogging a dead horse
    • With tweaks to the currency exchange rate, and providing various exclusive rewards for currency conversion, Galactic Command can just stay as is. What's more in need is adjusting the game itself from instant gratification to milestones to ever expand and transform a player's gameplay experience.
    • For example, for players who demand more challenges, a simple but unlimited difficulty slider could be introduced, tweaking damage inflicted / damage received in increments of 10% and a host of achievements for different instances provided.
      • E.g., An achievement for completing Story Mode Dread Palace with the slider at -25% damage inflicted / +25% damage taken.
  • Slow down Level Gain
    • Since many multiplayer activities are level-synced (e.g., PvP), there is actually little reason to accelerate level gain. In fact, levelling too fast brings all sorts of problems, not the least of which are
      • DECREASED game enjoyment from being over-levelled in the stories.
      • Uselessness of just about anything you acquire unless it is at maximum attainable /level.
      • A sense of entitlement to instant gratification.
Lack of Alt Support
For players interested in story, it was a huge improvement to be able to re-run chapters of Knights of the Fallen Empire and Knights of the Eternal Throne. It saves players from having to make a new character just to see the various story paths -- addressing in part the issue of too many alts or grinding through story.
Being able to reset more of the game, and especially your choice of character subclass (e.g., Sith Juggernaut versus Sith Marauder) would go a long way to rePLAYability (and somewhat address the issue of too many alts).
For everyone else, the question then becomes why someone would want so many alts. Until that question is answered, any steps toward appeasement are futile and possibly misguided. How many snipers does one need, especially when you can overhaul their specialization at any time?
Suppose someone wanted to be able to play every type of character at some point or other. This is still 16 characters maximum (allowing for respecialization). Any more and they are likely throwaways for Galactic Trade Network slots or exploits to get weekly rewards such as Conquest Points (imagine one person having a couple dozen alts, each doing an ops lockout for Conquest Points).

If there is the ability to change subclass then the need for alts is immediately halved and that could go a long way. Since subclasses still share the same class story (Sith Juggernauts have the same story as Sith Marauders), it's almost a logical step to allow changing between subclasses.
Alt support could then be added by supporting whole sets of quick-keys that do not need to be reconfigured whenever specializations are changed.

With respect to Galactic Command, GC level could be legacy wide -- but with the caveat that the more alts you have, the slower your progress since it is diluted across all max-level alts. This would already be built-in if the idea of Galactic Command for strictly controlled currency tokens is adopted (see above).
In tandem with this, a slowdown in introducing new gear to help players catch up in gearing AND enjoy their new gear -- customized to what is perceived as a reasonable number of maximum alts. If Galactic Command levels are uncapped then players also have a choice to focus on fewer maximum-geared characters or just a few alts, depending on how much time they have sunk into getting Galactic Command levels and the associated currencies.

Friday, February 10, 2017

SWTOR Crafting Supplement Costs

In SWTOR (Star Wars The Old Republic), most crafting schematics require Supplements to make basic building block components (Assemblies, Bonded Attachments, and Cell Grafts). You can get these supplements in three main ways: From Crew Skill Missions (Archaeology, Bioanalysis, or Scavenging), the Crew Skill Vendor, and the Galactic Trade Network. Here is a chart with the comparative costs.
Remember that Free-to-Play and Preferred players buy from the Crew Skill Vendor at 125% normal price.
  • Vendor - Remember that Free-to-Play and Preferred players buy from the Crew Skill Vendor at 125% normal price (rounded down).
  • Mission Cost - This is the cost of a Crew Skill Mission to get the Crafting Supplement. There is a slight chance of total failure, resulting in no materials and no credit refund.
  • Mission (5) - This is the cost-per-unit if the Crew Skill Mission returns the minimum number of units, which is 5 units. Typically a mission returns 5-10 units, or about three times that much on a critical success.
  • Mission (7) - This is the cost-per-unit if the Crew Skill Mission returns the average of 7 units.
  • Mission (10) - Assuming that 1 in 4 missions is a critical success (25% from Companion Influence level 50), on average you will get 10 units per mission.
Grade Vendor Mission Cost Mission (5) Mission (7) Mission (10)
1 10 125 25 18 13
2 50 525 105 75 53
3 100 925 185 132 93
4 150 1300 260 186 130
5 200 1600 320 229 160
6 400 1850 370 264 185
7 600 2100 420 300 210
8 800 2350 470 336 235
9 1200 2600 520 371 260
10 1800 2850 570 407 285

You can see that you are most likely to get your credits' worth if you run Crew Skill Missions for Grade 6+ Crafting Supplements, and you are better off saving time (and often credits) to buy Grade 1-5 Supplements from the Vendor.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

SWTOR Banking Credits as Free-to-Play

In SWTOR (Star Wars The Old Republic), accounts that are Free-to-Play or Preferred have a credit limit of 350,000. The excess goes into Escrow and cannot be accessed without the use of Cartel Market Coins.

Here are some ideas for how to bank credits. You may want to bank credits in case you suddenly see a good buy on the Galactic Trade Network and don't want to bankrupt that character -- remembering that as Free-to-Play or Preferred you cannot transfer credits by mail. You therefore need to send things between your chararcters using Legacy Storage.
  1. Meat Trees
    • If you are able to go to Rishi, you can buy Meat Trees in stacks of up to 9999. Each Meat Tree costs 1 credit, but more importantly also sells back to a vendor for 1 credit. Therefore there is no value loss buying and selling them. A full Cargo Bay is almost 800,000 credits banked.
    • Unless you are planning to somehow make multi-million credit purchases (e.g., have someone buy something for you and then pay them back in installments), there is probably no need to maintain several pages worth of Meat Trees, especially if you have a single stack of high-vendor-value items (see below). It is quite tedious to keep going back and forth to Rishi buying stacks, so just let the rest of your credits go into escrow. When you do become a subscriber, all credits in escrow come out immediately with no need for Cartel Coins to access.
  2. Expensive Items
    • Since one inventory slot can hold 9999 Meat Trees for a value of 9999 credits, you may therefore want to hold on to any item you intend to sell to a vendor if the value exceeds 9999 credits, thereby getting more "storage value" for your inventory space.
      • For example, some green level 66 weapons have a vendor value of just over 10,000 credits. The corresponding blue version has the same vendor value, so try to sell those on GTN instead and hold on to the greens.
    • Some consumables that stack can easily exceed a vendor-value of 9999.
  3. Reputation Items
    • Once you have maximum reputation with a faction, the reputation-increasing items they award have no value except to a vendor. Keep them around and let them grow into a sizable stack of credit value.
  4. Slicing Lockboxes
    • If you cannot go to Rishi, another way to bank credits is by "converting" them to Lockboxes. Unless a Slicing mission fails, the lockbox you get always nets more than the cost of the mission (though sometimes not by a wide margin). The Lockbox is not Bound so you can put it in Legacy Storage and have another character pick it up (or you can even try to sell it on the Galactic Trade Network).
  5. Treasure Hunting Lockboxes
    • Similar to Slicing Lockboxes, except it is much chancier whether you will profit by a good margin as it's very likely you'll get a green item that will net less than the mission cost when you sell it to a vendor. You can sell what comes out of the box on the Galactic Trade Network but that could take a lot of time and there's no guarantee it'll sell at all.
  6. Companion Gifts
    • Diplomacy, Investigation, and Treasure Hunting all let you have missions to get Companion Gifts. Grade 5 Gifts means for a mission that costs you 1,650 credits you will get a rank 5 blue gift worth 5000 credits (or a rank 5 pink gift worth 10000 credits if the mission is a critical success).
    • You cannot vendor the gift for more than the cost of the crew skill mission, but even if you sold it on the Galactic Trade Network for the same as vendor cost, even after the 6% GTN commission you come out well ahead.
  7. Crafting Supplements
    • Same idea as Companion Gifts -- convert credits into something you are likely to use anyway, and that way "buy" at a huge discount. Grade 6-10 crafting supplements cost much less this way than buying at a Crew Skill Vendor.
    • Note that lower-grade crafting supplements are more costly to get this way, so calculate your Crafting Supplement cost per unit. Typically you can get 5-10 units on a successful mission, and approximately three times that amount on a critical success.
  8. Craftable Consumables
    • Grade 8 Biochemistry consumables (adrenals, stims, med units, medpacks) vendor back at 1400 credits per unit. You get 6 units each time you craft, making them far better than any Slicing lockbox.
      • Strangely, Grade 9's vendor back at LESS than Grade 8's.
    • Similarly, Grade 8 Cybertech grenades also vendor back at 1400 credits per unit.
    • You can of course try to slowly sell some on the Galactic Trade Network, but keep a large stack of a thousand or so for their sell-to-vendor value and you have a compact and easily shared stack of liquid credits.
      • Remember to buy them back from the vendor when you can or temporarily convert a page of Meat Trees (see above) to buy them back and maintain credit liquidity.
    • Obviously for this to work well you need a lot of crafting materials, and if you have to buy them off the Galactic Trade Network your net profit isn't going to be as good.