Sunday, April 29, 2012

Guild Wars 2: This is the MMO you're looking for


I must have started this post three different times, trying to decide exactly what I wanted to say about Guild Wars 2, based on my experiences from the beta weekend.  At first, I was going to do a very thorough sort of bug and playtest feedback kind of thing.  But I started going through the forums, and saw a huge amount of the same kind of feedback I had to give already stated there.  I think the developers are getting good and valuable feed from the beta test.


Then I thought about writing a more designery sort of post with reviews and criticisms of various design mechanics I'd encountered in the game.  And I may still write that post, because I think there's some great stuff there.  But that post would mostly just echo I think what everyone else that had played the game probably already felt.

So I got to thinking, well what would I say to those people that like MMO's, but haven't yet made the decision on this one or not.  If you're here, you probably lend at least some credence to what I think about games, so here's my assessment of this one, tied off in a nice neat sentence:

As it stands right now, Guild Wars 2 is a really good game.  If they fix the various the technical problems, and shore up just some of the designs, then this thing has the potential to be no less than great.  I mean.. seriously great.  

So what makes the game feel fresh and new? Why was I, as my son put it, positively gushing over ventrilo to the folks in my guild about how much I was enjoying the game?  Here are the highlights.

Events & Karma
So you should know, I am a huge fan of questing.  No seriously.  I know a number of people abhor it, and think it's what broke MMO's, but I like directed content.  I'm not the biggest fan of "go find your own fun".  I like having clear goals, and I like progressing through a story.  But a lot of people chafe at being led by their nose through a zone.  Even I do from time to time.  In recent years, the directed quest-hub to quest-hub mechanic of level progression has become staid and tired.  GW2's Event & Karma system provides the best of both worlds.  It gives you clear goals and things to work on, while still providing the absolute freedom to go where you want, and to not have to do things in any particular order.

It works essentially like this:  As you enter an area, a message pops up notifying you of someone that needs help, and how to help them.  A heart (hollowed out) is on your minimap, letting you know you're in an event area.  The heart is attached to an NPC, but it's not even necessary to talk to the NPC to begin working on the event.  As people in the area work on the various tasks in the event (often involving killing creatures in the area, but not always), a progress bar fills up that's displayed on the hud.  Once the progress bar is full, then you've completed the event, and the heart on your minimap fills in.  Upon the completion of the event, you are awarded an amount of karma, and some coin.  Karma is just another currency you can bank, like any faction.  But once you've completed the event, you talk to the NPC, and he becomes a vendor, and offers a variety of specific things for you to buy with your karma.

It's a simple system, built on mechanics that we're already familiar with (Public Quests, faction points, etc) but they're put together in a method that is both elegant and genius.  Because essentially, now you roam the countryside looking for people to help, helping them, and being rewarded for it by those people.  It's such a better system than the standard quest and quest reward.  If that person doesn't have something you want, that's cool because you still earn the karma, and can spend it at some other NPC that you help later on.  There are even general karma vendors in town that offer really expensive karma rewards at higher levels.

And that's just one kind of event - the static one, that you see on your map and go do.  There are additionally a ton of dynamic ones, like escorts, invasions, boss monsters, all sorts of things that just appear near you, and you go and participate in.  And when they do appear, the UI and the map give clear indications of where to go and what to do.

This system works so well I seriously believe it will become the standard for progression content after this game has released.  For a long time now various games have toyed with augmenting their quest content with dynamic, organic grouping content - Rift and Warhammer Online come to mind immediately - but I really think GW2 is the first one to truly get it right.

Breaking down Barriers to Grouping
But truly the main reason the Events & Karma mechanic work so well is that players are never penalized for working together - whether in a group or not.  In fact, every mechanic in GW2 seems designed to just be as player friendly as it can possibly be.  Buffs don't work on your party, they work on people in your area.  Banners placed down work on everyone close by.  Shouts, boons, pretty much every mechanic in the game that effects other players works on any other player nearby.  There is no mob tagging.  Everyone that hits on a mob can get experience from it.  There is a system for looting the mob, but honestly I'm not sure if that was based on most damage, or first tag.  I know I had plenty of mobs to loot in group content, so I didn't worry about it too much.  Additionally, the big thing is any time a player dies, a marker goes over their head and a marker appears on the minimap.  And any player at all can go over and revive that player.  And because you see them on the minimap, it makes them easy to find.  It's hard to describe just what a huge thing this is.  But more than any other MMO I've played in, you are encouraged to help each other out.  It doesn't matter what part of a quest you're on  or if your friends have done that quest - you just go over and do the event and you don't have all arrive at the same time.  Oh and to encourage it even further, you are auto-leveled based on what part of the zone you're in, so level 17's can play side by side with level 9's, and you both get experience.

Here's a great example of how some of the old mechanics translate in this system.  I played a tankish kind of warrior through the weekend.  It's a whole other post just describing how versatile their skills and weapons are in designing the kind of class you want to play, but I was building a tankish type.  Many times in wondering through zones I saw ranged player types running in circles, trying to kite one or two mobs that were on them.  In a typical MMO, random other player is just on his own.  He doesn't want me trying to steel his kills, and because I get nothing out of it, I'm not incented to help.  But here, I would go running over, hitting the mob with a crippling axe throw to immediately close, then shield bash the crap out of the mob as I closed.  That got his attention!  He would now be aggroing me, and I'd go to town, while the ranged player was free to unload their nukes.  And though often the player would just run off and do their own thing, I know so many of those players were happy to have a tank show up and draw aggro for them.  And many times, even though we didn't group, we'd continue following each other and help each other through the content.  We didn't have to group, but working together we both got experience and loot, and usually would end up joining up with other players and complete some event that awarded all of us.

I could go on and on about a whole host of lesser mechanics that I think are also just design genius - like an auction system that is not just functional but genuinely useful.  The incredibly mobile combat that allows you to truly use dodges, evades, and blocks to mitigate damage.. and many others.

Guild Wars 2 still has some serious technical issues to overcome in the months ahead.  There was some serious server and back end problems, story quests were scaled too difficult in many cases, and some things were just plain broken.  And some of the design issues - most notably the inability to keep actual formed groups together through instances and overflows - that will need some serious work as well.

But Guild Wars is genuinely different.  In a truly good way.  It's different in a variety of ways, but those two I describe above I think form the lynch pin of everything else.  The stuff you do feels different, and you are encouraged and rewarded for playing together, without having to group together.

I look forward to the next beta!