Examining SWTOR's endgame

When I first hit level 50 in SWTOR, I was in no hurry to try the "elder game".  My leveling path went solely through solo story content - I don't believe I joined a single group - and I was not in the mood to make the transition to grinding dungeons and farming daily quests.  Having returned, I have been pleasantly surprised to find the game well-designed and executed.  

However, given how much progress I made in a single month, I can see why Bioware is touchy about calling its max-level content the "endgame".  SWTOR's high production value story-driven content is especially vulnerable to growing stale with repetition, and its incentive curve is already buckling under the pressure of how to accomodate new players. 

Grouping for An Assassin
The HK-51 companion has some interesting design.  The droid is a specialized DPS beast designed to chew through the stronger mobs in daily quests - for each five mobs HK-51 damages, he can open the next fight by one-shotting a "strong" level mob, which can save a lot of time and danger. 
My immediate incentive to jump into SWTOR's group content was the addition of the HK-51 assassin droid in last month's patch 1.5.  Though NPC companions are only used while solo - they take up a slot that is almost certainly better filled with a human player in max level content - the quest to obtain this new companion has multiple steps that require group content.  Worse, two of the steps that basically require a second player occur in special instances that are specific to this questline.  With no incentive to ever repeat this content in the future, I rushed out to complete them ASAP for fear that it would no longer be possible to find players who still needed them. 

Setting aside the issue of whether players will ever be able to complete this quest chain in the future, Bioware got what they wanted.  I claimed the free level 50 starter gear from the mission terminal (at the time, there was only PVP gear, but now you can supplement this with some PVE stuff), respecced my character into the DPS tree that sounded easier to play, and jumped into the hard mode flashpoint queue. 

The first few groups got a lousy deal with such a green newbie.  When solo players complained that this arc required groups, many players responded by arguing that grouping should be required for something in a MMORPG.  I'd be curious how many of those players would have changed their minds and concluded that they would rather not have had me taking up a slot in their party.  The good news is that the learning curve settled down eventually, I enjoyed the flashpoint game enough to continue beyond the required two hard mode runs, and eventually I picked up enough gear - and perhaps experience - to vaguely carry my weight. 

Incentives ahead, but short-lived?
Triumph of the very blue speeder bike, obtained for running each hard mode flashpoint once
Your first few group zones at max level in an MMORPG are generally pretty rewarding, as everything is an upgrade.  After running around a dozen hard mode flashpoints - each of the eight options once, and a few repeats - my character has left behind almost all of the endgame starter gear.  Most of my Tionese gear (the PVE starter set - I actually bought this stuff with dungeon tokens, but players now receive it for free) has since been handed down to my companions, while I'm wearing mostly Columi stuff (originally found in the easy mode of the game's first raids), and a few pieces from the next tiers up. 

Unfortunately for the game's longevity, very few outright upgrades remain for me in flashpoint content.  A few pesky drops aside, most of the upgrades that I can still obtain come from the "black hole commendation" vendor.  Like WoW, SWTOR hands out raid quality gear as an incentive to keep players running the flashpoints (and also at least some daily quests).  I could see this getting old really quickly given how much non-skippable story dialog happens in the flashpoints. 

The other goal I've been pursuing are cold hard credits.  On a good day, I pull down several hundred thousand credits, which I've been able to use to purchase a variety of stuff - legacy perks, and F2P unlocks to use when my subscription expires.  This too has a limit, especially for the non-subscriber with the strict limits on currency. 

Overall, it was a fun month, and perhaps there's another month or so worth of stuff to do at some point, but this endgame does not feel sufficiently robust to continue for month after month.  Perhaps it should have been no surprise that the game's subscriber retention suffered as it did.