Tag Archives: crafting

SWTOR’s F2P is an unsatisfying compromise

(Sorry for the radio silence; I’ve been away with my tabletop gaming group. Gaming holidays ftw!)

So, SWTOR’s F2P patch has hit the test servers, and finally we’re starting to see the details people have been wondering about ever since the F2P announcement first hit.

One recent Google search term that hit my page: “swtor horrible f2p implementation”. Sadly, I’m forced to agree with the anonymous searcher. The best I can say about it is that it’s less horrible than it could have been.

Dulfy.net has, as usual, a good round-up of the facts. Of particular note is the fact that SWTOR will indeed have a premium feature level, applicable to anybody who’s ever spent money on the game (either as a former subscriber or via the cash shop). This is common among F2P games; SWTOR’s version is called “Preferred Status”.

So let’s have a look at SWTOR’s F2P implementation in detail, shall we?

The Restrictions

Character Creation

  • Free players: Human, Zabrak and Cyborg are your only options, for a maximum of two characters per server.
  • Preferred Status players get to keep species they’ve unlocked via Legacy.

This seems fairly reasonable – it’s restrictive, but not unduly so. Presumably you’ll also be able to access a character created as a subscriber even if they’re another species, though I haven’t seen confirmation of that.

Communication & Social

  • Free players get 1 message per minute in public channels, can’t send mail at all, and can’t use /who. (Say, ops, groups and tells are unrestricted.) They also can’t hide head slot, unify armor colours, show a title or legacy name, use most emotes.
  • Preferred Status players have a higher quota for public channel messages, can use /who, and can send mail with up to 1 attachment.

Again, fairly standard practice, although limiting free players from using /who seems rather excessive; it’ll make it harder for them to actually meet up with their friends, thus making the game less appealing. The lack of emotes is a giant WTF, at least to me. I can understand selling some ‘premium’ emotes separately, as LotRO does, but not being able to /cheer at the person next to you is just ridiculous.

Items and Money

  • Free players can’t expand their inventory using credits, no access to the Cargo Hold (bank), vendor items cost 25% more credits or tokens, no trading, only 2 sale slots on the GTN (sales network), can’t equip purple gear or event gear, Cartel Coin items are locked for longer, capped at 200k credits, caps on all commendation types.
  • Preferred Status players can trade, can use the Cargo Hold, retain any inventory or Cargo Hold expansions they’d purchased, get 5 GTN sales slots, and have a higher credit cap.

These are fairly standard limitations, although the lack of a bank is a bit restrictive. (The trouble is that the basic Cargo Hold is pretty generous even before you expand it; there’s no half-measure they can offer a free player.) I’m ambivalent about the restriction on artifact-quality gear, too, especially given that it’s very expensive to unlock.

Travel

  • Free players can’t use Fleet Pass, Quick Travel cooldown is 2 hours.

Inconvenient, but not unexpected. This will likely be a huge annoyance to former subscribers, but F2P players probably won’t mind it too much.

Combat

  • Free players only get 5 field revives total, and must buy more when they’re used up. Free players also only get 2 quickbars (increased from 1 due to community outcry).

Even 2 quickbars is horribly limiting for ACs like the Jedi Sentinel/Sith Marauder. Ugh. This seems like such a petty restriction.

Companions & Crew Skills

  • Free players can only deploy 3 companions, and only get 1 crew skill. Lockboxes from crew skill missions aren’t received.
  • Preferred Status players get an extra crew skill.

This is pretty reasonable — it’s the kind of thing that won’t be horrible for free players or former subscribers, but is still a good carrot to get people to subscribe as they get more involved in the game.

Content

  • Free players don’t get access to Section X (the new content coming in Patch 1.5); only 3 space missions per week, only 5 warzones per week, no Operations, no lockboxes from mission rewards, only 3 loot rolls per week.

The lack of lockboxes, as with crew skill missions, is another one of those petty restrictions that just chafes without seeming reasonable. I think it’s a mistake to restrict free players from Operations content – this seems like something that would be ideal for Preferred Status players. As it stands, restricting Operations to subscribers doesn’t really encourage anyone to subscribe other than those who are regular raiders already — it doesn’t give free players a chance to sample an Operation or two and get hooked. Then again, they couldn’t wear the purple loot from an Operation anyway.

My Thoughts

As I’m sure you can tell already, my thoughts aren’t complimentary.

A good F2P system, in my opinion, doesn’t force people to subscribe — it lets you unlock most game features piecemeal, so if subscribing looks like a bad deal for you (because you’re not interested in some content, or because you have limited time to play) you’re still encouraged to spend money in microtransactions on the parts of the game you do want.

SWTOR nearly hits this mark — it allows you to spend RL money (via their Cartel Coins currency) on unlocking content, but it’s only on a periodic basis. You can buy weekly content passes to remove the limitations on warzones, space missions, flashpoint loot rolls and operations (although if you win any epic gear on those operations, you’ll have to pay 1200CC for an Artifact Equipment Authorization to actually wear it). 1

But there’s not enough incentive to purchase these passes in the first place, in my opinion. Raiding is a particularly egregious example – without the weekly pass, you can’t do a single Op. Who’s going to spend 240 Cartel Coins just to see if they like Operations? Far better, I would think, to allow Preferred Access players one Operation per week for free, to whet their appetite and encourage them to spend more or subscribe. This would also have the side benefit of making server communities healthier, by providing a larger pool of potential Ops recruits.

Ultimately, I think the most offputting thing is the pettiness of some of the restrictions. Some make sense – limited chat, trade and cash caps, for instance, to stop the potential floods of spammers and scammers. Restrictions on bag space, crew skills, and the like? Fair enough. But too many of the restrictions are offputting, not enticements — massive restrictions on emotes and moods? Can’t use /who? Can’t use extra quickbars? These come across as unreasonably petty, nickel-and-dime nonsense, and I think a lot of people will find them hostile and offputting. I wouldn’t want to subscribe to a game that restricted even the most basic emotes, or stopped me making UI customisations.

And yet they’re steadfastly refusing to restrict access to their greatest selling point – their story. If they let you do Act I for free, to get you hooked, and then sold permanent access to Acts 2 and 3 (separately), they’d be drowning in players throwing money at them. As it is, they’re giving you all the good stuff for free, and then putting really annoying obstacles in front of you that you have to pay to remove. Just skip the obstacles and charge for the stuff we want to spend money on — the content that’s what Bioware is best at.

In my experience, successful and enjoyable F2P transitions involve more carrot than stick. Don’t punish the free player for being a free player – encourage them to spend by showing them the tasty goodness that’s out of their reach, rather than taking away the staples most players have come to expect as part of the basic play experience. If you give Fred the story content for free, but make him pay to do all the trivial stuff, and you give Jane the trivial stuff for free and make her pay for the story, I’m willing to bet that Jane will spend just as much as Fred, and she’ll be a lot less annoyed to boot.

Carrot, Bioware, not stick. Please.

What’s nifty about Firefall

I’ve been playing the Firefall closed beta with Kris lately, and enjoying it a surprising amount. It’s a F2P MMOFPS with an open world for PvE and battleground-style instanced PvP, set in a future Earth after a spaceship crash that’s rendered the vast majority of the Earth uninhabitable. At the moment the PvE content is noticeably lacking1, but it’s still heaps of fun tooling around blowing the heads off mutant bug monsters. And the game has the single best implementation of jumpjet-style movement I’ve ever played; just running around is gleeful fun.

Me, demonstrating jumpjets

When you start the game you choose a battleframe, which is basically lightweight power armor originally designed for a combat game in the setting’s backstory, now adapted for the war for survival in which humanity finds itself. Your five options are Assault (AoE DPS and mobility), Biotech (DPS limited healing ability), Engineer (DPS and support devices like turrets), Recon (sniper-range precision DPS) and Dreadnaught (survivability and massive single-target DPS). You’re not limited by your starting choice, though — you can buy different frames with in-game currency (although garage slots are limited and opening extra slots costs RL money).

And I’ll digress here for a moment to highlight my single biggest gripe about the game: yet again, there’s a ludicrous and sexist gender disparity in character gear. As an example: male characters in Assault armor get a tank top and cargo pants; female characters in Assault armor get a sports bra and hotpants. Sigh.

The Assault frame, male and female

(And don’t even get me started on the female dance animations. “Pole dancer” is not a good look for a combat veteran.)

Anyway, that non-minor quibble aside: one of the most interesting things about the game is character progression. Once you’ve got your battleframe, you can improve it by spending Experience to unlock new and upgraded equipment via the tech trees. The Tier 1 starting frame is relatively basic and gives a general taste of the frame’s abilities, but if you spend enough XP you can unlock Tier 2 frames – and Tier 3 and beyond are in development now. Generally the two Tier 2 frames focus on different aspects of the frame’s core playstyle – for instance, for Assault frames, the Tigerclaw frame provides superior mobility while the Firecat frame is focused on DPS.

The Assault battleframe progression

Within the tech tree for each frame, you can unlock specific ability modules and upgrades to your existing gear, which you can then fit to your battleframe in whatever configuration you prefer — subject to weight, power and CPU limitations. Most upgrades come in four flavours – the basic “Accord” variant, which is usually unlocked first, and then variants produced by three corporations: Astrek Association, Omnidyne-M and Kisuton. Each corp’s gear has certain specialties – for instance, compared with the standard Accord gear, Omnidyne-M armor plating gives extra health, Astrek armor plating gives health regeneration and Kisuton armor plating reduces incoming damage.

Tier 1 of the Assault battleframe's tech tree

Tier 2 of the Assault battleframe's tech tree

What really piqued my interest, though, was the sudden expansion of the crafting system as soon as I unlocked my Tier 2 frame. Any Tier II upgrades you unlock (except the basic Accord versions) give you the piece of gear to equip on your frame, and they also give you a crafting recipe.

Everyone gets access to crafting, via stations called Molecular Printers, and there are no skill levels involved. They’re introduced early in the PvE game via an introductory mission, and everyone starts with a selection of crafting recipes (or “nanoprints”) for basic items, consumables, and industrial processes like ore refining.

Tier 2 nanoprints allow you to make a crafted version of the basic upgrade you unlocked with XP, with superior stats (but commensurately higher mass, CPU and power requirements). They also introduce interesting complexity to the crafting system, because they introduce the concept of resource quality affecting the finished product.

Resources are in the form of minerals and are acquired by looting them from mobs, blowing up mineral nodes with sonic detonators, or using a temporary mining device called a Thumper. Thumping is a popular PvE activity because it causes waves and waves of mobs to spawn, providing handy home-delivered sources of XP and loot, so it’s fairly easy to rack up thousands of minerals without even trying. Acquiring good-quality materials takes a little more savvy, however.

Resource attributes

As you can see on the left, each resource possesses a number of attributes with numerical ratings: Conductivity, Density, Malleability, Reactivity and Resistance. These attributes are measured on a scale of 1-1000, and if you want to improve a particular attribute you can actually blend two resources — as you can see on the right — to change their attributes.

A Tier 2 nanoprintSo you take a look at a Tier 2 nanoprint, and you can see that the attributes of the resource used to craft it will affect the product’s attributes. This example is the nanoprint for the Kisuton variant of the Assault’s Tier 2 Crater ability (which lifts you up in the air and then blasts you back to the ground at high speed, conveniently AoEing all the mobs you land on). You can see that Reactivity is the most important attribute to improve the Crater module’s damage and radius, whereas Conductivity is the key attribute to reduce the ability’s cooldown. So to make this, I’d look for a resource high in Conductivity and Reactivity.

This will feel very familiar to former Star Wars Galaxies players, where these mechanics were the linchpin of the crafting system. But wait, it’s about to feel even more familiar: resources in Firefall change quality over time.

The overall quality of a resource is referred to by an isotope number next to the resource’s name – the higher the number, the better the resource. These resources shift over time; although each resource has upper and lower limits on each attribute — Bismuth is always going to have high Conductivity and Malleability — the Bismuth you find this week may well have very different stats from the Bismuth you found last week.

This introduces an interesting and complex crafting minigame, where you can spend hours working out the best materials to blend for the attributes you want. And again, former SWG players will remember the buzz of realising this week’s spawn of a given resource has fabulous stats and promptly spending the next week hoovering up as much as you possibly can.

In fact, the only fly in the ointment is that there’s currently no trading system or player economy in Firefall. Devs have said that trading is on the way, but not the highest priority; no word at this stage on any kind of player vendor/auction house system. So for now, anything you make is for you and you alone; you can’t trade or sell your wares (or even your raw resources) to anybody else. Once the trading system comes in however, if crafted items aren’t automatically bound to the crafter, there’s significant potential for Firefall to be almost as appealing to crafting lovers as SWG was.

  1. But the devs have said that they’re focusing on PvE content next.

When copying is a good thing

It’s no secret that plenty of games in the MMO space borrow from each other, and from their community. Each new game is, in many ways, a response to the games that have come before — and, of course, many of us bemoan that fact, or deride new MMOs as WoW Clones, and so on.

And yet it’s not at all uncommon to play a new game, stumble across a feature, and think “oh, ffs, [Game X] did that so much better; this is so clunky!” Or, more often, stumble across the lack of a feature, and be frustrated that “bah, [Game X] managed to get this right three years ago, why isn’t everyone doing it?“.

It’s terribly unfair of us, of course, to criticise games on the one hand for being too similar, and yet to complain on the other when New Game Y is missing the convenience features we’re used to in Old Game X. But apparently it’s human nature, so here are a few off the top of my head:

  • Looting: DCUO gave us one-key AOE looting. RIFT, WoW and SWTOR now have AoE loot; TSW and GW2 have keybound loot. Other MMOs are still catching up, but few games have matched DCUO’s looting convenience. Every time I kill a mob in SWTOR or RIFT I lament again the lack of a loot key – TSW and GW2 have spoilt me.
  • Selling junk: RIFT has a “sell vendor junk” button on every vendor window. Why doesn’t every game do this? (In fact, why even have vendor junk?) GW2 followed suit. SWTOR comes close with your ability to send off a companion to sell your junk for you. WoW solved the problem with addons. Other games missed the boat.
  • Character customisation in game: SWG had a brilliant “image designer” system back in 2004, people. LotRO caught up with the release of Barbers in Book 12, early 2008. WoW matched them with barbershops in Wrath of the Lich King, late 2008. RIFT only brought in stylists a month or so ago, and SWTOR still doesn’t have them. TSW launched without it, but is implementing them shortly; GW2 lacks any kind of in-game character customisation and ArenaNet’s said nothing about it.
  • Crafting: It’s no secret that I have strong opinions about how games implement crafting systems, but however else you feel about it, SWTOR did one thing brilliantly right: crafting from the bank. RIFT wasn’t far behind in implementing that, and players everywhere loved it, yet GW2 launched without it (as did TSW, though that was probably an inevitable effect of its crafting system).
  • Group-finding tools: I’m not sure whether WoW was the first to implement such a feature, but despite criticism it revolutionised gameplay for many many players. There are those who don’t like group finders, but they make it much easier to find groups for the majority of players, and especially in games with low (or spread-out) populations, one could argue that they’re vital. And yet they don’t seem to be a priority for many games at launch, oddly, despite grouping woes being one of the single biggest turn-offs for player retention.
  • Customisable UIs: WoW obviously set the bar here with its addon system (although it wasn’t the first by a long shot), and other games followed suit. Even games without addons allowed players to move and resize stock UI elements for their own comfort. Some devs, on the other hand, seem to be very precious about their beloved UIs, refusing to allow players to customise their layout in any meaningful way (which is a bad move on accessibility grounds, if nothing else). BioWare, thankfully, wised up with SWTOR and implemented a system like LOTRO and RIFT; ArenaNet, on the other hand, are very resistant to letting players customise GW2’s (intrusive and unfriendly) interface. It’s certainly not winning them any friends in my neck of the woods, I can tell you.

I’ve probably got a whole bunch of these wrong, in terms of who first pioneered an innovation, but the key point is not “who did it first” but “why isn’t everybody doing it now?”. I understand that devs want to set their game apart, but eschewing features that make gameplay better, more convenient or more satisfying is really not the way to do that.

So, what have I missed? I’m sure there are plenty of other features that should be industry-standard by now — and aren’t.

What makes good crafting great?

Blacksmithing - CC licensed image by caravinagre

Recently I’ve been interested in the news coming out about The Repopulation, an indie sci-fi sandbox MMO in development (with a Kickstarter that ends shortly, if it’s your cup of tea). It seems to have been something of a surprise hit at E3, and commentators are making much of its similarities to Star Wars Galaxies. Massively, in particular, quotes the devs as saying “if players do not wish to partake in combat, they can still be a successful crafter”. ArenaNet designers have stressed that you can level exclusively via crafting in Guild Wars 2. And even BioWare’s James Ohlen said you could be a level 1 crafter in Star Wars: the Old Republic (although, for the record, it’s not actually true).

This focus on avoiding combat for crafters seems to be grasping at the wrong end of the stick. I don’t know many MMO players who actively dislike combat and would prefer never to do it — and those who are in that boat generally care less about levelling and XP than they do about other aspects of gameplay anyway. 1 Being able to level up through nothing-but-crafting is presented as a sop to lovers of MMO tradeskills, but in fact it’s not really much of a selling point to me any more. It says nothing about the quality of the crafting system: the complexity, the reward, the fun factor — all it says is that it gives you XP. Well, guess what, farming for herbs in WoW gives you XP, too, and you can level all the way to the cap without combat just by mining, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re compelling gameplay.

I’ve been thinking for a while about what makes for an engaging crafting system. I talked about it with Dee over at 6D. I expanded on those ideas at Crew Skills, my SWTOR crafting blog. I’ve debated this with guildies, too, and for many people their measure of whether a crafting system is worthwhile is whether it makes useful gear at a range of skill levels. If it makes gear that’s actually useful as you’re playing, and continues to make gear that’s relevant at endgame, that’s enough of a success for most players. However, that’s not enough for people who want engaging crafting systems. It might be a good enough reason to invest time in leveling your character’s crafting skills, but it doesn’t make it a fun or engaging path of gameplay — it’s just an useful accessory to ordinary PvE or PvP.

So now I’m having another go at explaining my thesis on What Makes a Crafting System Fun.

    1. Player skill should matter.
    Dedicated and knowledgeable crafters should be able to set themselves apart with better crafting output, in the same way that the game rewards expert PvEers or PvPers with better gear and in-game recognition (titles, cosmetic rewards, etc).

    2. Character skill should matter.
    If I’ve got a character with high-powered crafting skills, I should be able to produce better gear than Joe Average who’s just starting out — not just higher-level gear, but better versions at every level. Otherwise there’s no incentive for a crafter to put effort into anything other than ‘endgame’ crafting recipes.

    3. Crafting should have a barrier to entry.
    For crafting to be an engaging activity in its own right, rather than just an accessory to gameplay, you need to not have a million PvEers mindlessly grinding crafting skills because they ‘may as well’. That devalues the skills of the crafters who are actually invested in crafting gameplay, it puts pressure on the devs to eventually simplify the crafting system (to cater to the ‘may as well’ crafters), and it almost always creates a glut of crafted items, the byproduct of a million ground-out skill points. This tends to damage the economy, making it impossible for crafting-centric players to support themselves. Crafting should always add value, but how often do you find crafted items selling for more than the raw materials? Not often, not in most games.

    Instead, crafting needs to have a cost involved. Not monetary, but a sacrifice of other potential. In EVE, time you spend working on your industrial and production skills is time you can’t spend on training combat skills. In UO and (pre-revamp) SWG, skill points you spent on crafting professions were skill points you couldn’t spend on combat professions. And, as a result, the mechanics of supply and demand actually work; crafters’ skills become valuable to the community, because they’re not just something any Joe Average can run out and replicate with a few stacks of raw materials and a crafting skillups guide. 2

    4. Crafting should not be tied to PvE or PvP play.
    The classic version of this dilemma is when a crafter has to raid to get crafting materials or recipes. It’s fine if endgame activities are required to get these things, but they shouldn’t then be bound to the raiding characters. PvErs wouldn’t like it if they had to complete some herculean PvP objective to get into their raid; PvPers wouldn’t like it if they had to complete some epic multi-part crafting recipe to get into their PvP zones for the day. Let people decide how they want to consume their peanut butter and chocolate, rather than mixing it all before you give it to them. 3

    5. Crafting should involve meaningful choices.
    Meaningful choices are really the core of the issue, because they’re what make a game a game. You need to have the chance to succeed or fail, otherwise you may as well be playing Farmville. 4

    There’s no choice involved in any aspect of the crafting system of most MMOs, beyond “do I grind the cheap recipe or the expensive one?”. Everquest 2’s original crafting system was an interesting example of this concept implemented in a themepark game. Crafting a single item was a mini-game that could take a minute or two; you’d have crafting abilities with different effects and you’d use them at various points in the minigame to affect the quality of the finished product. Now, it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it was a good example of how to implement meaningful, skill-based non-combat gameplay in a themepark MMO, which is a concept most people scoff at.

Unfortunately, most mainstream MMOs opt for the lowest common denominator and position their crafting system (if they have one at all) and player economy as an adjunct to their core gameplay of PvE and PvP content. WoW is the best example of this, where crafting is a homogenised, grindy and entirely un-fun affair with little to recommend it 5. I might be missing an obvious example but I can’t think of a single major MMO since WoW’s release with a crafting system that wasn’t, fundamentally, just the same as WoW’s. LotRO and SWTOR have the most differentiated crafting gameplay – both systems are deeper than WoW’s, in the sense that there’s more potential to spend time gaining access to rare recipes – but there are still no meaningful choices to be made, and no real way for a crafter to set themselves apart by greater knowledge or skill.

Still, who knows what the next crop of MMO releases will bring? The next wave of MMOs in development – including Funcom’s The Secret World and ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2 – do seem to be diverging from the “WoW-clone themepark” model in more meaningful ways than most of the AAA titles of the last half-decade; perhaps we frustrated crafters and economists can finally find a niche somewhere. 6

  1. Admittedly, there are plenty of people who’ve bemoaned themepark MMOs’ tendency to restrict the crafting endgame to players who participate in the PvE/PvP endgame, but that’s a separate issue.
  2. Heck, a sociology student even did his thesis on the way SWG’s division of labour mirrored the real world.
  3. Not that I have anything against PvE or PvP. I’ve been raiding in WoW and SWTOR for seven years; I’ve got tens of thousands of PvP kills under my belt. I just don’t want peanut butter in my chocolate any more.
  4. Not that there’s anything wrong with Farmville, for those who enjoy it. I still enjoy a casual Zynga game, Cityville – but it’s not a game, it’s a computerised Lego set with less freedom.
  5. Obviously, this is a personal opinion, but I’d love to hear from people who think the system is engaging as-is.
  6. Other than EVE. Which is interesting, and might be just the game for me, but I don’t feel qualified to talk about its crafting system yet! I’ve only got 1.5 million skill points; I am but the tiniest of minnows.