Monday, November 27, 2017

Pushing Too Hard : SWL

Yesterday I happened to read something Telwyn posted about the new Anima Allocation system that was added to Secret World Legends as part of a recent "Quality of Life" update. Then I saw Syp talking about it too.

I had read about all this when it happened but at the time I didn't have a window of opportunity through which to look the changes over. Well, what better time than halfway through a lazy Sunday afternoon?

I logged in and went to check the new system, only to find that you need to be Level 20 to use it. I'd already forgotten that SWL, unlike TSW, has levels. I couldn't even have guessed with any conviction what mine might be.

It turned out that my one and only character was Level 18. That seemed close enough to fix so I pulled on my leveling pants (I don't actually have leveling pants although that's a merchandising idea right there...) and set to it.

I warmed up by doing The Black House. It was far shorter and easier than I remembered and yet I still managed to die somehow.

I'd logged out in the roadside store in Savage Coast. I thought I remembered a couple of simple kill quests there so I went to grab them...and they wouldn't give them to me! I conned a couple of mobs. They were only a handful of levels higher but the quests involving them were recommended for level 22 and hard-locked somewhere above 18.

Well. That's not fun. For all my droning on about "comfort gaming" and liking to do things the easy way, it's been my counter-intuitive practice of extremely long standing to push ahead of my level while leveling up.

Having developed most of my MMO habits in the five years before WoW appeared to reset the hobby I never acquired any innate feeling for "quest hubs" or "completing an area". To me, the only parameters to let me know if I should be where I am, doing what I'm doing, are whether anyone has anything they're willing to let me do and whether I can do it without dying. Much.

As a compulsive leveler, I am also always very aware of what constitutes good xp. That varies from game to game, be it questing, grinding, open world or dungeons, solo or group, PvE or PvP. It doesn't take me long to get a feel for it and in most cases you get better xp doing quests and killing mobs somewhat above your level.

I don't recall Innsmouth Academy even having a lacrosse court, let alone a quest for it. And my other Templar's an alumni!

On my run through The Secret World a few years ago the main limiting factor was gear. With no levels it was theoretically possible to push a long way ahead without scratching around for every last quest and as an explorer I am always eying the horizon.

I remember leaving Egypt, which had become a tad too tough to be fun, to go to Transylvania, which was harder still, because I found I could -just- kill the very first mobs (ghouls, I believe) inside the zone line. Those ghouls dropped gear that was a significant upgrade and with a few of those I was able to go back to Egypt and progress a little further.

That's how I have played MMOs since the end of the last century. That's my favorite gameplay - or my favorite solo gameplay, anyway.

Secret World Legends doesn't really let you do that. For one thing there aren't any gear drops to speak of but more significantly, not only is there now some very strict level locking on the content but the mobs seem to have been adjusted accordingly.

At this point in the questline every mob is level 22 while I'm 19.
At level 18, anything below me presents no challenge at all. I can just barrel into clusters of Level 16s and mow them down. At even con it's still straightforward but let the mobs go to 20 or 21 and everything changes fast.

It seems as though, in the quest to make the game more accessible and, particularly, comprehensible for an audience that didn't appreciate TSW, Funcom have decided to funnel players into a very specific channel. The quests may not be linear but the options for your character are considerably more constricted than they used to be.

One quest that didn't appear to be locked was the main storyline. In the New England section of the game that's Dawning of an Endless Night. I was on step 11 so I cracked on with that.

It seemed a lot harder than I remember. Not the celebrated/infamous puzzles, which I either remembered or looked up on the wiki, but the fights. Everything was three or four levels above me and mostly came in pairs or groups. Worst of all were the mages that summon minions, which sometimes found me fighting half a dozen mobs before I'd realized where they were coming from.

I died a lot, which didn't seem to matter in any way other than annoying me. It took me a lot longer than I expected. I had to stop to upgrade my gear, spend my SP and AP and fiddle around with my build, all just to try and get ahead. 

Eventually I brute-forced my way to the end of the Savage Coast sequence, dinging 20 at the same time. My quest indicator pointed me to the third New England zone, Blue Mountain, which is unnerving, considering the game otherwise doesn't yet consider me ready for the second half of Savage Coast.

Was it worth it?

The run took over two hours, so an hour a level, which is laughably, even unimaginably, short by Golden Age standards. I remember I used to allow ten to fifteen hours for a level in the twenties when I was playing EverQuest in the early 2000s.

Even so, it seemed slow, hard work and not a huge amount of fun. The cut scenes weren't as impressive as I remember them, either, the writing not as sharp. Even the voice-work, which I have praised many times, seemed to be considerably more stilted and awkward than I expected.

Maybe that's familiarity, maybe exaggerated expectations or the disappointing false glow of nostalgia. Whatever the reason, I'd had enough. I didn't even stop to experiment with the Anima Allocator. Instead I logged out and went to play EQ2, where my Bruiser is also fighting above his weight class.

The difference there is that he's winning, easily, which I find to be a lot more fun. The only downside is that questing above your level gets you drops you can't equip, a sure sign that whoever designed the quest didn't expect you to get there that soon.

That's a problem I'd always rather have, though. After all, if I managed to finish the quest or kill the mob, wearing what I'm wearing, well, I obviously don't really need those upgrades yet, do I?


  1. Nostalgia is a bit of a liar sometimes. I remembered this when I tried p1999. It was painful. The progression servers were amazing and joyous, though. Difference is same era but a few QoL changes were allowed to slip in that maintained the nostalgia but softened the pain points.

    (This is also why I rally against people complaining about Mass Effect Andromeda. I actually went back and played the first three and they were pretty bad, especially comparing to the new version. But we all remembered them as incredible because they were new and shiny back then)

    1. I think in TSW/SWL's case it's that the standards in almost all other MMOs are so astoundingly low that coming across anything that wasn't actively embarrassing to read and listen to had an exaggeratedly powerful impact. Now that I go in expecting it to be good I realize that some of it isn't up to much. I used to say the writing in TSW was equivalent to a generic indie movie but I would downgrade that now to the standard of a would-be quirky free-to-air tv series. Still a couple of orders of magnitude above most MMO writing/voice acting, though.

    2. See my comment below. It's not just nostalgia. The rework of the game broke animations and lipsyncing.

      It's hard to pin that down. Most people will just realize that "something is odd", without being fully aware of what it is. But it makes the difference between the feeling of listening to a human or to a puppet. As SWL now has talking puppets, the cutscenes don't work as well any more.

  2. For all the accessibility allegedly created by the levels, changed quest flow, and “action” combat, there’s no evidence that more people are playing SWL today than were playing TSW a year ago. The relaunch surely got them a temporary bump, but Steam/Google Trends/Reddit etc user data are way down and it seems the game is back to around a few thousand active players. Either those folks are being monitized harder than before or this isn’t going to last that long. :(

    1. That's really interesting. With the silo effect on the playfields it's impossible to tell in game. I did see other people while I was on yesterday but that doesn't mean much when you know the most people you can have in an instance is a dozen or so. Funcom have been talking a big game about the financial uplift, though, and I believe their publicly-quoted figures were up, so I guess we will have to wait to see if that sustains. I tend to agree with you that it doesn't seem likely.

    2. I can say as much:

      - I am still in contact with people of my old Cabal. All of us tried the new game, few made it over the first two weeks.

      - My wife still plays, she's a RFG DJ. (RFG= Radio Free Gaia, one of the games webradio stations. )

      - The old RP community migrated to the new game and is still strong there.

      - Many of the old RPers are there only for the RP, and don't really progress their characters much any more. My wife still is not past Savage Coast. In the old game she had all pre-Tokyo dungeons done in nightmare difficulty and regularily was participating in the NY raid and the Toyko dungeons on elite difficulty. (NM difficulty for those things were the only places in the game where you had to grind for high quality Aegis gear, which neither of us did. )

      - During our wedding this autumn, a number of people of the TSW Cabal were invited. Each and everybody had the same feeling: FunCom gave us the one-finger-salute. This is especially true for the big part of people, who were very active in raids and dungeons. The new game gives you very few keys per day, after that you have to pay real money to get the loot after each boss you take down. That's implemented frustration, which effectively disposed of many people in no time.

      - Those who were there for the social aspect and RP still hold out, although they also feel misstreated. After all, many character options were removed with the changes, which matters a lot for roleplayers. (I mean, even i felt it. My old character was bald with grey hair. The bald head had a plausible skin texture. In the new installation the bald head is just "remove hair", but the head looks like it's a skin colored bowling ball. And on beards, the new game allows you any color, as long as it's one of the three hardcoded colors: blonde, brown or black. )

      I can't tell how much new players there are, but i can tell that they did a good job in kicking out the old players. If that's lucrative for them in the long run, i don't know. The whole thing with keys for dungeon chest sure requires a certain kind of player, dedicated and good enough to do those dungeons, but rich and/or stupid enough to be ready to pay real money to open the loot chests after killing a dungeon boss. I believe or at least hope that the number of people of such stupidity is lower than FC thought there would be. If SWLs monetisation scheme proves to be successful, i forsee a grim future for our games. :(

  3. I've noticed the same feeling that, actually, TSW's story isn't quite so amazing as memory seems to dictate. It's messy, convoluted and poorly structured in places. I think I can view it this way because I played the original game despite the systems, I didn't ever gel that well with the gameplay, but took solace in the story and lore of the game. On repeat I find I'm remembering a lot of the details, which leaves me less excited now to see what's next.

    Playing some Neverwinter, I see some nicely written characters, with the added bonus that some are well-known characters from Forgotten Realms lore - so I have a personal stake here that I do not have in TSW/SWL. The game's presentation of conversations is much more basic due to the game engine, but still there are some great moments. It's striking how subjective this all is. Friends keep saying how wonderful the characters are in TSW, and I'm sure they'd not say the same about Neverwinter, but I'd argue that there's a difference between presentation and great characterisation. Yes TSW has videos with good to middling voice acting, whereas Neverwinter has pretty cheap voice acting but more involved story-telling with proper conversations (not just intro videos).

    1. I really noticed it while listening to Beaumont doing his supervillain speech. The writing was very comic-book, intentionally so I think, but the voice actor veered between convincing and pedestrian. There were lines that sounded exactly as though he was reading them off a card. It clearly wasn't a fault of the actor himself - it very much sounded like there were issues with the direction he was getting.

      The thing is, now I've noticed it I hear it in a lot of the voiceover - hesitancy, flatness, lack of flow... Also, the whole "click and get some random background monologuing", which was such fun the first time round, really doesn't have much replayability.

    2. Indeed conversations got worse in the new installation, it's just not easy for most people to find the reason for that. After all, the actual audio recordings are the very same as they were in the old game.

      What changed is a very different thing: animations. All the cutscenes in old TSW were handcrafted, the animation, gestures and mimics of the characters made a huge difference. But the rework of the game broke all of that. When SWL launched, most NPCs looked like talking nutcrackers.

      It's easy to see if you go ahead and watch some old TSW let's play videos, then watch some SWL let's play in parallel. The characters in TSW moved more fluent and had comparatively good lipsync.

      Mind you, that already wasn't fully true for the last chapters of TSW. Key personel was moved over to Conan, and that was not just player perception, it was also said by the developers at some time. They packed it as praise for the last chapter ever done, where they stated that the remaining people are catching up fast, and the last chapters quality was close to the earlier game again.

      The problem lies in the scope of it all. It might be that the people now are on par and can do quality as good as in the old game, but SWL was rushed out of the doorway. When it was smacked upon us this summer, talking nutcrackers were all over the world. That's a lot of cutscenes to rework and fix, even if they'd have no plans and intentions to deliver new content, the people on the job have a huge pile of work ahead of them to just get the old cutscenes back to the quality they formerly had.

      Mind you, i haven't logged in there since a few days after launch, so i can't tell if and by how much things have improved, but unless a lot of animators were brought back from Conan to help out there, i consider it absolutely impossible for the team to do significant fixes and at the same time work on new content.

    3. Taking all your comments above as one...

      I think there's no doubt whatever that most committed TSW players, those who were still playing and enjoying the game when SWL was announced, felt very badly served and let down by Funcom. Of the bloggers I know who wrote about it, some (Tyler of Superior Realities springs to mind) refused to move at all, some, like you, tried it and couldn't get into it and some (Syp for example) found it was better than they expected and are still playing. It's all anecdotal of course but my guess is that a significant majority of the active TSW playerbase won't now be playing SWL and of those that are I imagine many won't spend any more money there or progress any further even if new content is added.

      Whether there are enough new players and whether they'll spend freely enough to make the new game profitable anyway is impossible to tell. I don't get the impression that anyone is much interested in SWL any more - as Athie says, the numbers aren't showing in the places you'd expect and no-one seems to be talking about it. But Funcom are bullish, quoting big increases in profitability. They said that about Conan too, though, and that didn't last. At least, since they're a publicly quoted company, they do have to release figures so we will find out one way or another in the end.

      On the animations and voice thing, I'm going to have to log back into TSW and watch a scene, then watch the same scene in SWL I think. I still have TSW installed and anyway I notice Funcom has now restored the download link so anyone who owns TSW can re-install it if they need to. I don't think they've put it back on sale or free download for new players though so I'm sure they're hoping it will just fade away.

      I'm not sure the disconnect between voice and animation an account for what I'm hearing, though, because I have the subtitles up and i tend to read along with the voice rather than look at the characters a lot of the time. That wasn't out of sync. It was more that I was noticing the flatness of the line reading, the artificial pauses between sentences and the lack of commitment in the interpretation, all of which I would put down to uncertainty in the direction. Anyway, I'll have to go check out both versions as i said - that should tell me for sure if these are problems that were always there, which I just didn't notice before, or whether it's a result of the new systems.


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