Archive for September, 2006


Saturday, September 30th, 2006

Smugglers not being able to smuggle was a running joke in Star Wars Galaxies long before I started playing it and continued to be a hot topic long after I quit. Players with Smuggler characters were long unsatisfied with the tools their profession had for roleplaying the shady underworld type. At one point there was a thread on the official forum where developer comments regarding the "Smuggler Revamp" were posted. Indeed it made grim reading; delays, rethinks, complications, promises, apologies…

Until recently. A few weeks ago the test server was patched with new content for Smugglers. Players could seek out NPCs and get missions to smuggle stuff to a different planet, with the possibility of getting tracked down by a bounty hunter along the way.

Naturally the player reaction to this was lukewarm. Essentially what the devs were proposing was FedEx missions with an ambush. So now Smugglers can smuggle stuff but there’s no point.

Smuggling as a concept isn’t overly complex. Three things would pretty much do it. First, contraband. Then someone who wants to get said contraband. Finally, someone who doesn’t want either you or the other person to have it.

Back in the day, SWG supported these things. The problem was that it failed to do anything with them. Contraband? Yes we had that. Smugglers could "slice" armour and weapons to improve their stats. Such sliced equipment was classified as illegal in the game’s backstory, as were the "spices" – short duration, high power buffs – that Smugglers could craft. We certainly also had demand for these things. Sliced weapons and armour were always highly desirable, even if the popularity of spices decreased when Chefs were revamped and began churning out enhanced foods and drink.

What we didn’t really have was Authority. Stormtrooper NPCs would perform random "spot checks" for contraband on players. If they detected spices or sliced equipment in a player’s inventory they could give him a TEF so he became attackable by faction NPCs and even other players. The problem was that grinding out a relatively small amount of faction points (or buying them, from a Smuggler) could earn you a high enough rank to avoid the checks. Even if you were caught, a handful of Stormtroopers posed no challenge to any but the least experienced and least powerful players – or Entertainers with no reason to be carrying sliced equipment in the first place.

Because of this, illegal items never felt illegal, and there was no risk at all in carrying them around. Whilst Smugglers did have the ability to create useful stuff, they might just as well have been regular Weaponsmiths, Armoursmiths or Chefs.

Buying and using supposed contraband was a mundane part of life rather than something dangerous or exciting. If you wanted real shady dealings and an element of risk, you had to look to the players.

One time when my character was sitting at Lieutenant Colonel rank and I wanted to attain the highest rank (Colonel), I decided I would rather buy the faction points I needed from a friendly Smuggler rather than slaughter a bunch of NPCs for them. I arranged to buy faction from Ralyias, one of the legends of the server with a bunch of accounts who had played practically every profession and earned the respect of everyone.

To transfer faction points to another player you had to go overt, meaning you could be attacked by other players, then transfer the faction while he was standing in front of you. Ral told me to meet him in Mos Eisley; where could be more appropriate? I caught sight of him around the starport and followed him into one of those nondescript NPC buildings that most players had never been in. We were followed by another player; his bodyguard in case some Rebels tried to jump him while he was PVP enabled.

We sat in private at the back of the room and, after I gave him the money we’d agreed, I saw the system messages informing me I had been delegated the faction points I needed. Keeping the roleplay going, I waited for Ral and his hired muscle to leave before rising from my chair and walking out of the building in the opposite direction.

As was so often the case in SWG – and this is not necessarily a bad thing – player-created content was much more compelling than the devs’ clumsy attempts to use the tools they had skilfully built. Everything about that meeting exuded the seedy underworld quality that the game wanted to convey. And everything about it was only there because three players spontaneously made an interesting roleplay out of something which from a game mechanics perspective needed be no harder than meeting in a safe location, paying the money, getting the goods and driving off.

The devs had the opportunity to make that sort of thing commonplace instead of an exceptional event. They laid the foundations with their "this item is contraband" flags and NPC patrols. A little extra effort would have had people flocking to play Smugglers rather than complaining that the profession had nothing going for it.

The Stormtrooper presence in Imperial cities should have been strengthened. They should have been larger in number and buffed up instead of being pushovers. They should have inspected players of much higher rank, and been strong enough that you worried about getting caught. Cities should have been locked down tight. Any player equipping a weapon within the city borders should have been flagged and attacked. Smugglers should have been able to craft factional papers that you could use to defuse the situation if you were seen engaging in illegal activity in towns. They should have been able to use their private ships to avoid security checks at starports, smuggling people or items past dangerous checkpoints. Pretty much every player can think of Something that Smugglers could be able to do that already tied in with the existing framework of the game.

Instead they waited three years to run errands with NPCs shooting at them.

What is Content?

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

There’s a lot of talk on the City of Heroes forums about Content. People talk about ensuring their characters permanently have XP debt so that they don’t outlevel their contacts, and can thus do more story arcs and see more Content. They talk about the developers’ stated goal that there be "too much Content" for any one character to see, meaning you would have to create an(other) alt to experience everything. They talk about concentrating on enjoying the Content as opposed to trying to gain XP and level up as fast as possible.

So just what is Content, in this context?

Missions, I suppose. Not just any old missions, though. Missions from contacts that form a story arc. Running missions for contacts is Content whereas taking missions from the newspaper/police scanner is … what? Grinding? Powerlevelling? Yet the missions are effectively the same. It’s true that there’s only one Defeat Frostfire mission and only one Stop 30 Fir Bolg From Escaping mission but the majority of story arc missions are really no different from the infinite supply of newspaper capers you can get. A "defeat all" is the same regardless of whether you have to run across three zones to report your success to a contact.

Is it because newspaper missions are repeatable that they are seen as the inferior alternative to good, honest, Content? Because they’re just for racking up some XP and don’t compare to the immersion of the backstory that the seven other people on the team never get to read? Because you don’t get a souvenir and a bucketful of XP at the end?

Personally I don’t consider missions of any sort to be Content. Jumping into the same map I’ve seen over and over again and slaughtering everyone there isn’t Content, whoever gave me the mission and however fun it may be. You can do that in any game (well maybe not Face of Mankind). Content for me is fighting fires in Steel Canyon. It’s trapping ghost pirates in Port Oakes. It’s hunting Giant Monsters. It’s bouncing around the Shadow Shard on the gravity geysers. It’s the things you can only do in this one game that qualify as its Content.


Thursday, September 21st, 2006

Since Dark and Light didn’t turn out to be the amazing thing we were all hoping it would be, and since I have stuff I’m too lazy to post about other games, I’ve abstracted this out into a "Games" blog and created a subcategory for all the DnL posts.

I even made an SWG section, just in case I feel the urge to discourse on that subject. At one point I had this great plan to write a whole load of stuff about SWG: about game balance, lack thereof and need therefor, the UI, the bugs… Really a whole load of stuff. This was while I was playing of course, and I never found the time to drag myself away from the game to commit my thoughts to posterity. I suppose that says a lot about the game.