Guild Wars 2 has been one of the biggest games of the last few years for my guild, rivaled perhaps only by Cataclysm and SWTOR. Considering we’re just about 15 years old — we reckon by the founding of our first incarnation at UO’s launch — I’d say that’s a point in GW2′s favor. Any title that can compete for attention in our messy adult lives without making us feel we’re playing just another casual clicker is a title that stands apart. And for all their merits, Cataclysm and SWTOR weren’t “sticky.” They just didn’t keep us for long.
Will Guild Wars 2? As to that, I have concerns.
Alone together and you can too
Though I have around 20 guild members to chat at and a husband with whom I can duo any time, Guild Wars 2 seems a strangely lonely game. Part of it, no doubt, is a result of the trading house and mail systems being down the majority of week one. There’s also no person-to-person trading, GW2 being one of the few AAA games to eschew such a system, and you can’t drop items in the world for your mates as in GW1, so when it comes to donating things to friends and buying things from strangers, there’s been no recourse while mail and auctions are kaput.
The orange events (I won’t call them dynamic events for reasons my colleagues and I have discussed already — namely, because the term has been co-opted and no longer means what it implies) were meant to eliminate the UI and social annoyances of grouping with other players for shared overland challenges, and the system works beautifully, but it also creates a sense that you’re soloing and stumbling into other players and then going back to soloing. People don’t talk. I will take this silent, “alone together” gameplay ANY DAY OF THE WEEK over forced grouping, but I hope studios won’t stop looking for a better way.
See, these events encourage and reward mass-zerging but not socializing, which creates a different kind of community. Thus far, few games have figured out how to encourage social stuff outside of combat. I almost can’t blame MMOs for it; after all, talking while killing monsters doesn’t work so well while we’re still shackled to keyboards, and we just don’t want to be plugged into a microphone while gaming for relaxation or immersion. Props to classic Star Wars Galaxies, which had this dilemma solved in 2003, expecting players to hunt on their own terms but then return to player-erected camps and cantinas afterward to socialize with player entertainers and doctors as literal battle wounds were cured.
I suspect that the small population relative to the large world contributes to this feeling of mild desolation. I never felt lonely in Guild Wars 1, by contrast, even though it was just 7 henchies/heroes and me out in the explorable areas and missions most of the time. That’s what I expected from the game, so I never felt unsatisfied when that’s all I got. And the towns and outposts, particularly the capital cities and other central hubs, were always commensurably jammed with players if I wanted to stand in the middle of the throng to feel human again. In Guild Wars 2, even the central cities seem too large for the number of people hanging out in them at any given time. Perhaps this will improve as people run out of things to do in the world…
Longevity, retention, stickiness: Just don’t be boring
… because players will run out of things to do, sooner than we might think. This is my next concern. Though I am having loads of fun and deeply appreciate the open-world illusion of the game, the current design seems opposed to replayability. I see this as two linked issues: that the game is so long that it peters out before it’s over and that there’s a shortage of variety along the way to get to the tangible “end.”
The game really has two curves: the leveling curve and the exploration curve. The leveling curve is designed flat such that 20-21 takes about as long as 79-80. The problem is that character development is mostly over long before even 80. My warrior was essentially locked into her playstyle by 20, and at 40, I’m a smidge tired of it. Although I still plan to explore every zone, character development is basically done.
Outside of sandboxes, this is revolutionary. Why make us wait until endgame to enjoy endgame? But how many times do you want to do that? How long can you sustain and consume the same gameplay (PvE combat supplemented by PvP and crafting) on a single, limited-playstyle character before you zone out mentally? Isn’t this the same complaint we lodge with WoW-clones, minus the raiding?
There are already people at 80, of course, and some of them are complaining that there’s “nothing to do.” Paul quipped that there is something they can do: They can go eff themselves. He thinks players have no business whining when they ruin the game for themselves — that when players turn a game into a race, they can’t gripe when they win. But I think that’s unfair. If level 80 doesn’t mean anything, and if our character development is over around level 20 and our exploration will continue long past 80, why slap numbers on levels at all? Levels are clearly just roadblocks to content and a false signal to achiever types.
Guild Wars 1 avoided this issue with a low level cap of 20; the rest of the game centered on exploring for hundreds of new skills and multiclass builds. Curiously, GW2 sometimes seems less about letting you play your way than GW1. Many gameplay elements that would have been wholly optional in GW1 and provided only cosmetic rewards are significantly less optional and cosmetic in GW2. Obsessive exploration is chief among these. GW2 has turned everyone into a completionist by encouraging and rewarding only broad, repetitive gameplay (most likely on a single character since level-upscaling was axed). The game expects you to do everything, and if you don’t do everything, you’ll take even longer to get to the next zone to explore it, so you’d better explore as hard as you can and like it, dammit! Niche gamers are going to have a rough time. Respected commenters on Massively have already vented at length on the necessity of completing jumping puzzles to fully unlock a zone.
Some players who are quite content to explore and hunt their way to 80 are nevertheless finding the content insufficient for doing so. Massively’s ruder commentariat would simply say you’re doing it wrong — that if you’re struggling, it’s because you’ve clearly broken the assumed rule that dynamic events are the core of GW2′s gameplay, not hearts or whatever else you might think it is for you. In fact, I’ve heard an ugly, elitist theory that renown hearts were added to the game because the “WoW babies” storming the alphas were too stupid to understand what to do if they didn’t have static quests shouting at them from the map. (I can play this game too: I say POIs were added to the game because the hipsters storming the alphas were too thick to understand how to explore a UO-style open world without hand-holding and instant feedback. Oooooh. Snap. Etc.)
So let’s skip past all the bluster. The real complaint here isn’t renown hearts vs. dynamic events but the amount and location of the available content, period. Your ability to level up by focusing on a single zone in each level bracket depends a little too much on your playstyle and luck with orange event spawns. There are content deficits within certain zones and level bands. Even if you drop everything at the first sign of an orange event while clearing hearts and other map hotspots in between, you still might have trouble making it to the next level tier before running out of content you can actually complete. Your choices at that point are to grind mobs, craft, WvW, run around looking for new orange events, or go to a different zone.
The cynic in me suspects this design is meant to prod us into buying experience boosters from the gem store.
If you give in to the presumptive “right way” and go to a different zone, it’s going to take you some time to run there, of course, and the zone might be laid out such that the areas aimed at your level are on the far side of wherever you’re coming from (hi, Kessex Hills), so you might need to run through angry, high-level mobs just to get to a spot where you can play again. Never mind that you were trying to rid the swamp of evil plants just a few minutes ago! Now the real threat is bandits! I mean, centaurs! No, Inquest! If you were playing through a zone to feel immersed in a certain storyline, forget it: Your immersions will be broken on this ride. If you were hoping to avoid powergaming, forget it: You’ll probably wind up planning your leveling and hopping between zones as if this were WoW. If you were hoping to save certain zones for your alts and not have to do all the same zones multiple times, forget it: There just aren’t enough zones in each level bracket to go around.
Crafting also gives experience, but if you hate crafting or are crafting on other toons or are out of mats, you’re at a disadvantage. If you picked tailor or leatherworker, you’re screwed anyway since jute and leather are disproportionately rare. Many players pick up crafting but fizzle out once they realize just how much harvesting they’ll have to grind in earlier zones (where they’ve been leveled back down). Crafting is also seemingly designed to encourage you to buy gems to spend on bank tabs; a wise crafter makes her intermediate items while doing so grants experience, and she’ll need a place to store them.
Is it unplayable? NOPE. Is it sticky? Maybe. The complicated gameplay design jumble just needs a few smart tweaks. As it stands, this might not be the game for altaholics or non-completionists. Burn-out and repetition-fatigue might kick in long before you “finish” one character, let alone five. Sustained gameplay of any type is very hard to pull off, and sustained sandpark PvE combat is particularly dicey. If you understand all of that going in and pace yourself accordingly and break things up with alts and crafting and a little bit of metaplay, you’re going to have a much better time.
Move over, Failwhale — the Failquaggan is here
My chief regret right now is that the launch has been fraught with severe tech and support issues, so no one can really hold the game up as the pinnacle of MMO achievement (although there do seem to be a lot more apologists for Anet than for BioWare; people will apparently put up with a many more issues if there’s no sub). I say whether your tech works is just as important as inspired game design. Maddeningly, ArenaNet started off dodgy about apprising players of the ongoing bugs and broken systems, choosing instead during the first week to hide out on Facebook and Reddit to post status updates rather than post updates on, you know, the actual website where the majority of the playerbase might think to look. (The forums are still down as part of yet another technical trainwreck or we’d be looking there.) Even once Anet started using its own wiki to post daily updates a few days ago, that information is incomplete, as I discovered when I myself got caught up in the email authentication outage this weekend and found support notices only on — *drumroll* — Twitter.
Perhaps Anet’s PR just doesn’t want to sully its website or launcher with scary bug updates. But expecting people to find their way to Reddit or random third-party social media for basic information about the game’s outstanding bugs is, as a guildie of mine put it, “inexcusable,” even for those of us who do use such tools regularly. Most people aren’t bloggers with five Twitter clients installed across their devices, although you wouldn’t know it; as I type this paragraph, complaints are rolling in to @GuildWars2 by the hundreds every few minutes. (You know what no one’s complaining about? The cash shop. That’s because the one thing that isn’t down is the ability to pay ArenaNet for gems.)
The fascinating thing is that I’ve never seen a launch tank exactly like this. I expected GW2 to implode the first weekend during the head start, but that went off relatively well aside from the trading post fiasco. But every day since then, there’s been a shiny new tech disaster for the game, and Anet hardly seems to fix the last one before royally botching the next and introducing brand-new problems. The studio’s idea of making accounts less-hackable involved an antique authentication system that prevented thousands of people from logging in at all. The team’s fix for a busted auction hall amounted to taking forums and mail offline and then bringing the trading post up randomly for some players as if this were some sort of paid beta test. As I’ve been writing this editorial here and there over the weekend, I’ve encountered personally or seen complaints that mail is down again, characters cannot be deleted or made, guildies can’t /represent, the trading post is eating money, the Order of Whispers storyline is thoroughly broken at level 30, and authentication is still blocking customers from playing. And the overflow bugs and issues — which I personally griped about during the first BWE in April — are all still there. They were simply never fixed.
Compound that with apparently insufficient support staff and the weird communication fumbles and well… let’s just say it’s a really, really good thing for ArenaNet that the game itself is so much fun.
This isn’t Anet’s first rodeo, but you could have fooled me.
Random thoughts and unique snowflakes
* I love the music. I’d never noticed how much Soule borrows from Holst. It’s especially evident in Divinity’s Reach when the music sounds like Song Without Words, and there are spots in Metrica that could easily be from The Planets.
* I’m loving the lore and loathing the storytelling. Once I realized the writing and voice-overs weren’t significantly improved over GW1, I began skipping many of the cutscenes. By contrast, I skipped them only rarely in SWTOR because the cutscenes were the point, but in GW2, the cutscenes just delay exploration. I will say that after going through the first four 1-15 storylines, I finally tried the Charr one, and behold! The best of the bunch and worth watching. The human one post-15 is also nice. I haven’t found a reason to like the Sylvari one yet.
* Most of the guild-related purchases are too expensive for consumables. There is nothing worth purchasing beyond guild vault space right now, at least for a smaller (20-person) guild; maybe large guilds will have no trouble dropping thousands of points per day on temporary banners and teleports, but did we really need another MMO that favors large guilds?
* Party combos are one of GW2′s cleverest tricks for adding depth to group encounters. My whirling axe plus Paul’s healing stream? Whirling heal beams for everyone! My rifle shots through Paul’s firewall? BLAZING BULLETS.
* Tuning for story quests has seemed a bit off so far. Around level 30, I trekked to the land of snow and ice to help Pauls’s level 15 Guardian alt with his level 11 story quest. The quest was spawning huge groups of level 12 ice imps that were decimating him and his NPC minions with AoEs, and only with my help did he barely squeak through it. We helped a complete stranger with her level 28 Sylvari quest a few nights ago as she’d also found it pitched too hard for solo play. Seems an odd choice in a game built around story. Likewise, underwater combat and mobs, especially in the lower levels, really need a tone-down; underwater movement and weapons and combat are unwieldly enough without three barracuda eating my face in five seconds.
* The cash shop is one of the best I’ve ever seen. We’re looking at $5 for bag slots, $7.50 for 30 bank slots, $10 for a new character slot. These are all luxuries you could easily live without, though I won’t; I’ll buy cosmetic gear when cosmetic gear that suits me is available. Be wary of free keys and lockboxes, though: They deliver so many additional items that it seems their real purpose isn’t to cause you to buy more keys but to buy more bank slots!
* The layout of certain zones and cities could be improved. My guildies almost universally agree that the human 1-15 zone is superior to the others. Metrica in particular seems to require too much backtracking to get to hearts and events aimed at my level. Divinity’s Reach is a crowning achievement of the MMO genre (I mean that), but vertical travel in the capitals is a nuisance. The Grove? Ug.
* Character customization still needs work; most of my beta complaints hold true. The human women look about 13, for example, and too much of the hair is just plain ugly or has texture-mapping and clipping issues. Asura need more options all around. And while I’m a big fan of the Sylvari, some of their armor and hair options verge on over-shiny and ick.
* Overflow is the messiest reinvention of the wheel I’ve seen in an MMO to date. The game is frequently less laggy in overflow than on the real server, but you can’t turn off the popups that encourage you to leave even if you want to stay. The overflow servers were meant to convince us of the game’s open worldiness, but instead, the popups just remind us that we’re not in an open world at all but in a fake offshoot. It kills the illusion. Anet may as well have stuck with the GW1/CoH/Champions system of layering world instances. At least it worked (and didn’t create the annoying multi-server issues to boot). This is a huge annoyance, and I’d sooner be dropped in Kama District 2 or Atlas 2 than have to keep clicking these damn popups every time I zone.
* Other quality-of-life annoyances I hope to see fixed: I can’t mail stuff to myself, I can’t change chat colors (poop brown for guild chat? really?), I can’t unlock dyes per account (only per character), and I can’t easily see when friends come online (or hide myself selectively).
* In spite of overflow bugs, Paul and I have had a wonderful time duoing, which is rare since most MMOs penalize us (usually with experience hits) for permanently partying up.
Guild Wars 2 is all about potential. I love what GW2 could do for the genre, that it’s found a lovely hybrid model between second-generation questing MMOs and first-generation sandboxes when it comes to where, why, and how you kill and travel and explore. I love that it’s a game that needn’t be a race. I love that it’s cooperative and not competitive and that I can help people I see along the road without fear of stealing their kills. I love the smile I get from watching a mob of players rush to revive each other. I love calling hunting “hunting” again rather than questing, something I haven’t really done since UO or SWG.
And when it’s actually online and functional, GW2 is more playable and fun than most games can boast after years. Certainly the Guild Wars 1 early experience was abysmal; GW1 didn’t join my top five MMOs until the launch of Nightfall. So I’m excited to see how much better Guild Wars 2 could be with a few more years of content and polish (and houses and guildhalls…). ArenaNet is a company willing to throw out genre rules and Do Things Differently. You can’t even call this a Guild Wars clone, let alone a WoW clone. With any luck, it will influence future themeparks more positively than EverQuest and WoW before it.