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.
    • Rebrand the contents of the lottery crates as a bonus rather than a necessity toward getting a set of gear.
    • Make gear rated beyond what you can craft with vendor schematics to be subscriber-only. Also, disable the ability to sell or trade gear beyond a certain rating.
      • Right now, you don't need Galactic Command to gear up -- you can buy the nearly-top-tier Item Modifications off the Galactic Trade Network. This bypasses the whole Galactic Command system such that theoretically you don't need to be subscribed, you just need someone to buy or make the Item Modifications for you and be at level 70. You can be stuck at a very low Command Rank and still have nearly-the-best gear that is hundreds of Command Ranks away.
  • 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, and player expectations, away from instant gratification to milestones to ever expand and transform a player's gameplay experience.
  • Slow down Level Gain
    • Since many multiplayer and end-game 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.
      • Not having the proper time to learn how to use your character's abilities.
      • 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.

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