BioWare made a lot of naive mistakes with Star Wars: The Old Republic, but one of the biggest is that it listened too much to the vocal minority instead of attempting to make a game that caters to the long-term player. I consider myself and my guild long-term players. We play SWTOR for a multitude of reasons, ranging from basic Star Wars fanboyism to exploring new content to engaging in intense PvP battles. But one thing that is consistent among all of us is that we don't like to gear grind.
Don't get me wrong; I understand that there need be a carrot for the players who complete high-level content, but I believe that SWTOR, along with other MMOs, is doing it wrong, and frankly, it's not fun.
I often refer to the Daedalus Project when offering statistics for the MMO gaming community. I was turned on to this web site by Brian "OddjobXL" Rucker, and I suggest that anyone who is truly interested in the tone and motivations of MMO communities (especially if you're looking to be a Community Manager some day) take a look at this study. I'd also very much appreciate it if someone conducted similar studies to reflect the MMO communities of the last couple of years since the Daedalus Project ended in 2009.
One of the studies details the contrasting statics of leadership in-game versus the physical world. As should be no surprise to anyone who plays MMOs, younger players tend to find leadership roles in-game. According to the survey, 23.9% of 18-to-22-year-old players have a high desire to take charge in a game. Willingness to lead drops drastically once a player hits his 30s: 13.9%.
Obviously there are multiple factors involved as to why this is the case, and I'm not going to attempt to expound on those reasons. What I would like to point out (as the author of the study did) is that this statistic might disproportionately skew the direction of gaming development. More younger people being guild leaders and younger players choosing a more aggressive server types and playstyles might make it appear that more players are interested in that type of gameplay, thus making developers believe that is what they should cater to. However, the opposite might be the case. We know that more women are playing MMOs than ever and that the average age of the MMO player is on the rise. If you take a look at the study's statistics on motivation by age and gender, then it should be obvious that a vocal minority is incorrectly driving the game's direction.
Improperly targeted game development leaks into more than just gear progression, but that's my primary focus for today.
The general idea behind the gear grind is that players, in whichever bracket they might be, will complete their current content, gain better gear, and then progress to more challenging content. In theory, that sounds phenomenal! However, this theory begins to fall apart when you look at the individual pieces. And since SWTOR is my primary game, my best examples will come from that game.
I consider the current content for SWTOR as being the content you are engaged in right now or perhaps the content you enjoy the most.
If the facts we've been given by the Daedalus Project still hold true, then solo PvE content tends to be the most desired outlet for both male and female players in all age brackets. However, aside from the leveling content, there is little variety for the solo player. In fact, once a player hits level 50, he has maybe an hour and a half of repeatable daily content. On top of that, there is very little variety in the existing content. We have literally the same exact quests to complete every day with the exact same results: Belsavis, Black Hole, and Ilum dailies. They're a great source of satisfaction if your goal is gaining easy money but not so much if your goal is fun.
The second most desired content is small group raids and PvE. This is one area that I believe SWTOR nailed as far as variety is concerned. There are nine possible hard-mode flashpoints and three distinct operations. If a player did one a day on three days a week, then it would take about a month to get through all of it. If SWTOR would balance out the amount of repeatable solo content to cover the rest of the average 20 hours of weekly gameplay time, then gaming fatigue would be greatly reduced -- in theory anyway.
The gear customization
Let's talk a bit about the gear itself for a moment. Progression raiders are well aware of how this works. The gear you gain in the current content sets you up for the next level of content.
Unfortunately, what appeals to the average gamer is not what SWTOR seems to be giving in regard to gear. When players were asked, "What do players want to see?", the second most desired aspect was customization options (although the statistics were all quite close together), varying from gear stat variety to character appearance customization. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult task in SWTOR, especially the latter. To achieve the desired look for my character, I had to give up both of my PvE set bonuses for Rakata gear and one of my bonuses for PvP gear, even then I would still like variety in my color options that I just don't have.
I also briefly mentioned to a friend yesterday that it's strange that the best-in-slot gear does not necessarily have the best statistics for your particular class. As a specific example, we mentioned that the Black Hole gear for a Sorcerer focuses on critical rating and surge rating, when it's generally agreed upon that power is the optimal stat for most Sorcerers in PvE content.
Lastly, the idea behind gear progression is to set you up for more challenging content. I'm torn on whether or not SWTOR actually provides this. The data are very conflicting.
When you look at the raid progression from story-mode to hard-mode to nightmare-mode, you see that the primary changes are not in mechanical differences but in statistical changes. The raid leader for our group says that the only difference between hard-mode and nightmare-mode Eternity Vault and Karagga's Palace is a 5% increase in damage output and hit points. That tells me that if you can defeat hard-mode, the only thing that would keep you from defeating nightmare-mode is gear. That doesn't equate to "more challenge" to me. That's just a grind. "Same shit; different day," as the saying goes.
However, this story-mode to nightmare-mode progression changes when you look at the progression from operation to operation. The gear from Eternity Vault and Karagga's Palace hard-modes sets players up for Explosive Conflict story-mode, just as Eternity Vault and Karagga's Palace nightmare-modes set players up for hard-mode Explosive conflict. For now, I see that as enough variety in my game; however, there is a huge potential for power creep and unbalanced raid groups.
I don't believe it's too late for BioWare to move some pieces around to address some of these issues, but my opinion isn't the only one that counts. Massively readers, where do you stand? What would make your character progression more interesting in SWTOR? What would keep you eating up content regularly?
The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!