Friday, October 5, 2012

Guild Wars 2 - Pulse Check


So we're a little bit over a month since Guild Wars 2's launch, and though I myself am still absolutely loving the game, and playing at least a little bit just about every night, I thought it might be a good time to do bit of a pulse check on Guild Wars 2.  We've now had plenty of time to get through the honeymoon stage, and for many people the honeymoon was all there was.  And while there is still much to love about Guild Wars 2, as we'll see, it hasn't all necessarily been wine and roses.



The Hits
Let's start though, but taking a look at just a few of the many things I think we can safely say with surety that Guild Wars does right.

Cooperative Game Design
This is the big one.  The one that hast been mentioned in just about every review and write-up of Guild Wars 2 since its launch.  It's the one that I mentioned in my very first initial impressions of GW2 after my first beta weekend.  Simply put - every game design mechanic in Guild Wars 2 has been built from the ground up to foster cooperative play - without having to group.  From the way quests (karma hearts really are just an evolution on public quests) are designed, to the way combat mechanics work, to the way targeting works, to the way mob loot and experience are shared - it's not just any one thing, it's the fact that all the systems have been built with this goal in mind, make this nothing short of a revolution.

Some people claim they've gone too far.  That because you can accomplish so much working with other people without having to truly group, that no real ties are formed, that communities aren't grown, and this "fake grouping" actually hurts the game more than it helps.  Those people are, in a word, wrong.  I have spent more time playing with other people - helping them, and being helped by them - in Guild Wars 2 than I have in any other MMO I've ever played.  I may not talk to them, I may not form strong social ties to them, but the fact is, we do play together.  And GW2's ability to allow players to organically come together to accomplish goals and then to part their separate ways (or not - once teamed up, I've often worked together with people to uncover half a zone), will serve as a benchmark on how to do social gaming right in MMO's to come.

Level Agnostic Design
While GW2's auto-levelling feature doesn't truly make the game level-agnostic, it does go along ways towards diminishing the importance of what level you are.  Guild Wars does a remarkably good job of seamlessly transitioning your level down to match the content of what you're facing.  But for awhile I was on the fence on whether or not this was really a good thing.  For one, it meant I could never really out-level content, and thus allow me to come back and trivially finish difficult missions and tasks.  And there's sometimes you want to be able to come in and just wafflestomp creatures that you are vastly overpowered for.  But the more I play with this, the more I am convinced the pros outweigh the cons.  It's very powerful to be able to pick any of the zones I haven't visited yet, and to go there, and know I'll still have a meaningful play experience.  And the truth is, once you've acquired enough talents and utility skills, the presence of those really do make a difference.  Make no mistake - when you are level 80, down-leveled to level 17, you truly are much more powerful than you are at level 17 naturally.  So you still get that ability somewhat to crush the puny creatures below you.  But the fact that you can never be up-leveled, means that there is still a great notion of progression.  You are leveling up through the zones.  But once you have leveled up, the vast array of zones and content you haven't explored yet are still available to you in a meaningful way.

Shardless Architecture
This one as well has been harder to call because so many of the pieces of this system have actually been broken, and are only just now coming into play.  And some pieces of the system still aren't online.  But enough of them have started working that you can get a sense of how it's supposed to work, and once all the pieces are in place, I think there will be greatness.  Already, it's pretty cool.  So what I mean by shardless is that, even though you pick a home server, and play on that server, the boundaries between the servers are remarkably thin.  Already I can chat with, send messages to, and even send and receive e-mail to and from friends on other servers.  People on other servers can even join my guild!  And furthermore, we can run dungeons together  - or at least we will be able to - I haven't fully tested this one yet.  And once guesting is in place, I should be able to visit their server and they be able to visit mine to play together at any time.

Now, I haven't played The Secret World, but as I understand it TSW did an even better job, from what I hear, of building a shardless architecture.  But if you're coming from games that have held on to a traditional notion of servers and realms, Guild Wars 2 does (or at least, will do) a remarkable job of reducing those barriers.  Oh, and a component of this, that I absolutely have to mention, is the genius of allowing you to be a member of multiple guilds simultaneously.  It's hard to overstate just how cool this is.

There are a number of reasons why Guild Wars succeeds I think on so many fronts.  It's not unlike talking about why WoW was so good back in the day - you can't point to any one thing and say this is it.  It's a matter of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  But for me at least, those feel like some of the bigger pieces of the puzzle.

So.. we're done here?
The Misses
But as I mentioned at the top, it's not all roses in Tyria.  For many people, once the newness wore off, they found that the game didn't grab them, and didn't feel really compelled to come back day after day.  And the interesting thing is, honestly I think for a number of these, they aren't even things that ArenaNet would consider problems, per se, but are in fact intentional design choices made on their part.  Let's look at a few of them.

Where's the Fun?
Guild Wars 2 is an interesting beast, in that it carefully rides a line between directed and directionless content.  Though there are karma hearts and dynamic events that give the player a sense of direction, outside of the player's personal story, there is very little to direct a player on where to go or what to do.  So in that sense, it actually plays much more like a sandbox game than an amusement park game, wherein it relies on the player to go and find their own fun.  There are no quest hubs.  There are no breadcrumb quests that lead a player from one location to the next.  And not only does the absence of those reduce the direction a player has when they log on to play, but it also greatly reduces the context of a particular zone, leaving players feeling like not only do they not know what to do in a particular zone, but they don't even know what the hell is going on in the zone, or why they are there!  It's hard to find motivation to go kill a bunch of mobs when you have no idea who these polar bear people are or why they're there, or anything else going on around you.  This has resulted in people logging on, and having this sort of scenario:

So I logged on, and I thought, what do I do?  I could do a karma heart, but they're kind of boring, and the rewards are never anything I want.  I tried to do a few dynamic events but there wasn't anyone else about and I couldn't complete them.  I would do some WvW but the queues are too long.  And yeah I could craft, but I hate crafting.  So I killed a few monsters, and logged out. 

That player probably isn't logging back on.   Now for me personally, this hasn't happened yet.  Even though I typically don't enjoy games in which you find your own fun, for whatever reason, in Guild Wars 2 I'm totally able to do just exactly that.  In the above scenario, there are any number of things I would do.  I would indeed find some karma hearts to do, taking the time to read the conversation before and after the event, to give me a sense of context.  I'd head off in some direction of uncovered map yet, just to see what lies at the bottom of a cave.  I'd attempt to tackle some dynamic events, even alone, because in my own personal experience, I've found that many dynamic events scale better than people give them credit for, and are actually quite doable solo.  Not all of them, and I think ANet still has a lot of work to do here in making many of them scale better.  But I think they actually already scale better than they first appear.   I would check my daily progression achievement, and see if I'm close to getting that achievement, and set about doing the things I still needed to do.  And failing those things, I'd pop back to Lion's Arch and see what fine crafting components I needed to progress in my crafting, which might in turn lead me to spending some time on the internet to find where Vials of Thick Blood drop, and then going to that location and farming some thick blood.

I'm not sure what ANet can do, honestly, to correct this perception.  They definitely need to reduce the barrier to people getting into WvW, and you can rest assured they are working damn hard right now to try to fix that very problem.  And as I said before, there is still much work to do on scaling dynamic events to be more doable when zone populations are low.  But the truth is, none of those things are going to help, if you don't find the activity of doing those things actually fun.  And even if you do, ArenaNet's philosophy is that they pretty much leave it up to you to figure out which of those things you want to do, and to go find them, and to do them.  And I think, for many people, that's just going to miss.

No End Game Progression
Now here I have some bad news.  Or at least, bad news for the people that want this.  Because I'm here to tell you that ArenaNet doesn't consider this a miss at all.  This is pretty much a straight up design philosophy on their part.  Guild Wars (the franchise) has never been about building your character in power, primarily through acquisition of better gear, after you reach the game's max level.  When you reached level 20, in GW1, here were your choices:  (1) Continue to do the campaign, or campaigns, and explore content you hadn't seen.  (2) Learn the skill metagame, and participate in the PvP.  (3) Work to acquire hard-to-get rare skins for your armor and weapons by doing a combination of farming zones and running dungeons with your friends, to acquire the rare crafting materials you needed to create those armors and weapons.  None of those, it should be noted, resulted in significantly improving your character (in terms of power, at least), through gear.  Now if you step back and take a look at Guild Wars 2 - guess what.  This is pretty much exactly what you do when you reach level 80 in Guild Wars 2.  So.. from their standpoint I think, they're pretty happy.  This design philosophy kept people playing in Guild Wars 1 - at least enough of them to be profitable - and so they are going to go with that in Guild Wars 2.

The problem, of course, is that hundreds of thousands of people playing this game never played Guild Wars 1, and they are coming into this game with one primary expectation - and that is to continue to have some way to actively progress the power of their character - through some sort of endgame activity - whether that be pvp or raids, or what not.  Now it is a separate discussion altogether on the merits of one endgame philosophy over another.  But the point I'm making is that - if that's what you're looking for, you simply aren't going to find it here.  Only time will tell if they implement some sort of system that does fulfill that desire more so than they do now, but it certainly isn't here currently, as far as I can tell.  Whether or not this is a hit or a miss is entirely a matter of perspective.  For me personally, it's not a miss at all.  I came into this game from Guild Wars 1, and as such my expectations were set around that design philosophy.  But for many I think, farming dungeons for elite armor skins, and/or participating in the pvp simply isn't going to give them what they want.

The Personal Story - Spoiler Alert
Okay I saved this one for last, and I will caveat this with spoiler alerts.  I'm going to talk a bit about the story past level 20, so if you haven't played the game yet, or are still very early in your first character's personal story and don't want to have anything spoiled, feel free to bail now.   Please feel free to comment on any and all of what I've said above.  Here's a nice picture.



If you're still here though - let's say it together right?

Fucking Trahearne.  

This one, in my book, is truly a miss.  I get why they made you a bystander in the personal story, but I absolutely do not agree with it.  I'm at level 72 or so in my personal story, and am quite honestly completely uninterested in finishing it.  Because once you get to a certain point, you are are relegated to tagging along in Trahearne's story.  Really mostly observing it, witnessing it, and helping out with it.  But it long ago stopped being your story.  There are a number of reasons I can see why they took this approach.  Chief among them I think is that it provides a more centralized, canon story for the lore of the world as a whole.  They can write with authority of how Trahearne saved the world from Zhaitan, along with the assistance of the nameless hero.  But goodness it seems like they could have done a better job of making you a central figure.  I'll caveat this with the fact that I haven't completely finished the personal story myself yet, but I suspect the role I play won't change significantly over the next few missions.

I think the ship has already sailed on this one, at least for this story, but I can only hope that in future expansions and add-ons, they do a better job of making the personal story about my character.  And if the world needs saving again, As long as I'm entering personal private instances for every mission anyway, then in my personal private version of the world, I sure as hell hope I'm the one that gets to save it!

TLDR
After a month in, Guild Wars 2 is still my game.  I don't get enough time in my life to play it as much as I'd like, but it's still pretty much the only game I'm playing.  I've lived through the honeymoon stage.  I've seen the warts, and think I'm comfortable with the choices the game has made.  Many things I like about the game, and some things I think could be better.  Some of them _much_ better.  But for me personally, I can say with complete confidence Guild Wars 2 is a game I'll be playing for a long time to come.