24 Jan 2012

LFD: No Simple Answers

Looking around the blogsphere today reminds me of battle re-enactment. I can see the same people pulling on the same uniform and dusting off the same weapons to have the same good-natured scrap over something. The sheep-skin drums are beating, the blue and red overcoats are being pulled on. The beer tent is filling up as the two sides filter in and catch up on old times. The battleground? Looking for Dungeon.

The argument is that Star Wars: The Old Republic needs a Looking for Flashpoint tool in order to help groups form for both levelling instances and endgame content. There are currently a large number of players unable to experience this content, either because their guild doesn’t have enough players at the same level or because they’re too busy enjoying the stupidly good questing content.

The choice seems to be between a Warcraft-style Looking for Dungeon tool, or not having one at all and just making do with shouting in the chat channels like some market trader. Neither is a great solution – one end leaves you frustrated with anonymous people you’ll never encounter again, while the other leaves you frustrated at the lack of response from other players as you sit doing nothing for hours on end. Either way you’re left frustrated.

The exception is if you have a guild that’s both large enough to support flashpoints (and populated with people who want to do that content) and which has people in broadly the same level bracket. If either is not the case then even with the best of intentions the guild is less of a guild and more of a social chat channel. But I digress.

Looking back on the early days of Warcraft some six or so years ago, zone layout consisted of a collection of quests followed occasionally by an instance at the end. The quest chains were laid out to drive players to the instance, making sure that they were aware of them and that they should take part. As a result, zone channels were full of people putting groups together while they were questing – you didn’t have to pause the fun activity of completing quests in order to form an instance group.

By contrast, SWTOR positions flashpoints as seperate content. While you can pick up the flashpoint breadcrumb from a ‘Flashpoint Courier’ in most level-suitable zones, it’s made to feel like optional side-content instead of central to the levelling experience. The chatter in the zone General chat tends to ignore them as well, meaning groups simply aren’t being formed while people are out questing. In fact, players seem more interested in the 4-man Heroic Quest group content than they are in flashpoints.

It means that unlike Warcraft, most of the flashpoint recruitment is done at the Imperial or Republic Fleet hubs rather than the questing zones. This means you have a tiny window of opportunity to grab people as they cash in their commendations and catch up on crafting before they’re off to have more fun on the next planet.
See the problem?

This is why large guilds have so much more success forming groups. By having a persistent chat channel that spans all planets, they have a natural advantage to forming groups while players are out questing. If you don’t have those kinds things at your disposal, you’re out of luck. Which is why so many people are clamouring for an LFD-style tool. Given the choice between struggling for hours to assemble a group and going to do something more fun like questing, world PVP or space combat, most players would pick the option to do something else.

That said, the implementation of the tool in Warcraft is pretty dire. It takes no account of player preferences and serves to make them more anonymous instead of less. It’s designed to be incredibly efficient at putting groups together and by consequence tends not to be focused on helping players get to know others from the same server. Rather than doing a simple “lift and shift”, BioWare should be encouraged to create their own design with better goals in mind.

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