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Guild Wars 2: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

GW2 succeeds by "not doing the things that nobody ever thought of not doing"

Taekwan Kim, Blogger

September 21, 2012

11 Min Read

It’s hard to write an honest critique these days—hard in the sense that the fear of backlash makes honesty to oneself difficult. Players are so invested in (and vocal about) their games that hardly a triple A game comes out that isn’t surrounded by some sort of controversy or brouhaha. The obligatory thing to say here is that that’s probably a good thing: it means players care, and that which you care about can change and affect you at a fundamental level.

But Guild Wars 2 highlights a different source for this phenomenon that has nothing to do with passion and everything to do with aversion.

I’m just going to be rude, here, and state my mind. And the rather depressing thought that became increasingly unavoidable as my experience with GW2 lengthened was this: the game hailed as the next big step in MMO game design is actually just the same game minus all the player unfriendly unnecessities that tend to stuff these things. Which, I suppose to some, is exactly what is desired.

Let’s repeat that. The primary (though not only) advancement of Guild Wars 2 is simply an unconditional acknowledgement and thorough addressing of the fact that MMOs have always been supremely player unfriendly. But to be honest, any other stance simply would not fly in today’s market. All one has to do is look at SWTOR and Secret World. And there we have it.

Players have understandably become so hyper-sensitized to even the appearance of manipulative pay for content schemes by the aggressive pursuit of DLCs and add-on costs (which, indeed, itself was driven by the enormous successes of the MMO’s of the 2000’s) that it’s hard to imagine 2004’s WoW having a sustained launch were it released today. Just the 20-40 minute travel times alone would trigger that player distrust of publishers that has so poisoned our gaming experiences of late.

Back when, such paid-for time-sucking unfriendliness was all justified by the idea that these quantities of content and constant updates could not be expected without additional costs. We trusted that we weren’t being exploited—at least enough to drive WoW subscriptions to gargantuan heights. These expectations have now been utterly shattered, with developers like Valve and CD Projekt redefining what is “done” and when the developer’s obligation to the player ends, and Guild Wars 2 now perhaps being the final nail in the coffin of the justification for subscriptions.

The thing is, the demand for games with high time costs is as strong as ever, as evidenced by the ridiculous launch numbers for Diablo 3 and Guild Wars 2 itself. We want games that take time so that we can take time playing them. And it’s not like cynicism regarding publishers is anything new.

But the player response to D3 (accusation: the game’s difficulty ramp is designed to drive players towards the auction house) as well as to Mass Effect 3 (accusation: the inclusion of a money grabbing multiplayer mode distracted from the production of a “proper” ending) makes the conclusion that our distrust of publishers, and by insidious extension design philosophy/purity itself, has become thoroughly saturated and mainstream unavoidable. And it absolutely does not help when we hear (excuse the language) such utterly thoughtless bullshit as this (it’s almost incentive by itself to contribute funding to that project).

Much in the manner that we receive the same information differently depending on who’s giving it, how much we enjoy a game depends greatly on our perception of the developer/publisher and their intent with a game’s design. Since gameplay is fundamentally a contract that implies that the player will receive a worthwhile return for his time, if we can’t trust that contract, we can’t invest in a game—cognitive bias causes us to see all the flaws and dismiss all the successes. And, again, it’s clear we still want things in which we can significantly invest ourselves. But it’s become much harder now, and not by any accident, to convince us that a game isn’t just playing some kind of dirty trick to wring out more profit.

The pre-order numbers for GW2, then, should tell us that trust itself is a commodity for which players will flock to pay.

Ok, enough about that, let’s talk about the actual game.

The point of all this long-windedness was two-fold: an attempt to understand why Guild Wars 2 is successful, but also to point out that once you strip away the value added by being genuinely player friendly, GW2 is—especially when compared to the achievements in design GW1 realized—honestly an underwhelming game, though not an unenjoyable experience by any means. That is to say, perhaps our evaluation of the game is skewed because it treats us like real people, not cash cows.

In many ways, it actually feels like a step backwards compared to its predecessor. Gone are the sophistication of GW1’s 8 skill/dual class system (where one skill change could impact every other skill on your bar, and in fact make entirely novel builds possible), the level 20 cap, and the secondary relevance of items and loot.

(Remember builds like the touch ranger and signet assassin? It’s difficult to see anything nearly as creative coming out of GW2’s systems, though I’m probably speaking from ignorance and too soon. The locked weapon skills that monopolize the pace of combat seem to preclude utility skills and traits having the same kind of extraordinary, class-changing impact, however.)

Indeed, where GW1 solved the glut of farming and grinding by largely eliminating a need or reason for them, GW2 takes the diametrically opposite approach of centralizing gameplay around developer given tools (dynamic events and chains) that exist specifically to initiate/facilitate/expedite both (which is not to say they don’t do a good job of it). Just the level 80 cap alone suggests that GW2’s mechanical depth isn’t quite strong enough to hold player engagement without mechanical length and an accelerated reward cycle.

It is almost as if dynamic events were conceived first, separate and detached from anything having to do with Guild Wars, and felt like such a satisfactory retort to an old problem that it was allowed to dictate every other system to the point of reversing GW1’s course.

Of course, it’s possible that the design solution of dynamic events is so elegant that it seems obvious and mundane once you’ve seen it. But shaking a stick at one champion mob next to 30-50 other people without any sort of coordination or strategy just doesn’t seem all that great. It’s just that now you can do it at the same time on the same thing as everyone else instead of waiting your turn.

Oh god, those champions.

These things are monstrosities of game design—the hardest aspect about them is gathering enough people to kill them. The rest is mindlessly (and I mean that in the most brutally literal way) spamming your skill buttons for 20 minutes while you’re checking up on your auctions or messing around with your dyes. In fact, if you’re using range, you don’t even have to use your skills, just sit there, auto, and the mob will eventually die—there’s going to be enough people trying to care that you probably won’t draw aggro (and if there aren’t, it’s unlikely you have enough to kill it). The whole situation unintentionally comes off like an artificial attempt at manufacturing “epicness.”

The thing is, there’s a design specific reason why these champions have such disgusting amounts of hit points, and such detached/non-directed/mostly monotonous combat engagement: the nature of dynamic events requires their health pools to be large enough to give sizeable numbers of people time to travel and put a dent in the fight, and that their attacks be non-specific enough that it doesn’t feel like you’re just a bystander to someone else’s partnered dance (unfortunately, that’s often exactly what it feels like, because it’s so generic and undirected—when everyone’s the Slayer of Issormir, no one is).

A paradox, then: the activities that are the most fun in GW2, that advance the player fastest in terms of experience gain, loot, and currency, are also increasingly boring/disengaging precisely because they are designed to accommodate an incidental multitude of players at the same time. The fun is almost entirely in the results, and not in the process.

(I will say one thing for dynamic events though: they give narrative logic to ludic redundancy. Factions are constantly skirmishing, camps need continual defending, transports need perpetual protection, etc. And they certainly have a way of fleshing out anonymous NPCs more than would otherwise be possible. Expeditions retreating in the face of defeat, outposts that change from defensive to offensive objectives—in short, pre-determined goals adopting to both player successes and failures is no small feat in any genre.)

To be sure, GW2 is fun, particularly if you’re just looking for comfort food. It’s exactly the game that countless gamers want, which itself is a design achievement that can’t be dismissed. It seems that I’ve essentially written off the superb craftsmanship of GW2—that I’ve been guilty of cognitive bias myself—so again, let me be clear in saying that GW2 is quite well made, and something I’ll likely be playing for at least another hundred hours or two.

But Edge’s assessment that when the game disappoints, it’s oddly more disappointing strikes true. To those of us who were fans of GW1 because it was so emphatically not WoW, because it was so completely its own creature, this game feels more like WoW 2.0 than GW 2.0 (as unfair as that statement is).

Excuse me a minute while I put on my rose tinted glasses, but it’ll be an indulgence that tries to capture just how much has been lost. I’ve yet to encounter anything nearly as exhilarating as that afternoon-long experience of a party of newbs making difficult headway through the dark, landlocked swamps of The Black Curtain (strangely more convincing than the all too piratety Bloodtide Coast) and charging Minotaur patrols of Kessex Peak to overcome The Villainy of Galrath after an hour at 60% death penalty.

The final ascent to a breathtaking oceanside view of Wizard’s Tower, basking in the knowledge that 2 party members had quit ages ago, but we’d still made it short-handed—that’s a lifetime memory, as lifelike and real even now as anything I’ve seen. I could almost taste the fresh, briny air as we danced on top of that green, green hill overlooking that blue, blue sea.

And that mysteriously inaccessible castle floating in the air somehow seemed to validate with its esoteric presence the hidden significance of the moment. The fact that it wasn’t even a main quest, that it was entirely optional and exploratory—and it sure as heck wasn’t some soul fatiguing, enthusiasm draining-ly loot motivated dungeon—made it ours as much as it made it real. And well, I’m just not sure that kind of personal discovery feeling is even possible in GW2’s world of dynamic events and progress bars (we still have sequestered jumping puzzles, I suppose).

Heck, even the memories of doing solo destination runs from Beacon’s Perch through Snake Dance to Droknar’s Forge, or Lion’s Arch to Sanctum Cay, are something special, unique, and unforgettable. And it really said a lot about the explorability of the game, both in terms of mechanics as well as terrain, that these areas were connected—were allowed to be connected—at all, with nary a goading side quest in sight.

These were meaningful, intimately personal, player created goals that were all the more possible because of GW1’s instancing. It was a game that heavily favored experimentation, that somehow gave purpose to the pursuit of purposeless exploration, with remote, off the beaten path regions like Flame Temple Corridor and Talmark Wilderness abound (remember when Grendich Courthouse and Ice Tooth Cave used to have unique skills, and Judge’s Insight and Dolyak Signet made sense, felt exclusive?).

More often than not, you didn’t go there because the game mechanics pushed you so, you went there just to see what the heck was in it, to marvel at secret, virgin expanses of land that felt as if the majority of players would never see.

But then, the kind of wonder, joy, and achievement I felt playing the original Prophecies campaign was never again quite as fulfillingly repeated in any of the subsequent standalones and expansion.

A torturous and perhaps exaggerated analogy to close, then: GW2 is like fat-free ice cream to GW1’s frozen Greek yogurt. It goes down easy until you notice that all the fat has just been replaced with sugar—it’s still ice cream, and all the calories eaten out of the tub in a daze still add up, lost in spoonfuls of non-definition you can’t really seem to distinguish from one another, from that tub of ice cream you finished off last week. And it’s still no frozen Greek yogurt.

One final gripe: burning is ridiculously overpowered.

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