Saturday, September 1, 2012

Alone Together Or...? : GW2

There's been much post-launch discussion of the GW2 dynamic event system and how it might scale once the population bubble floats up out of the lower levels. SynCaine thinks it will fail; Zubon thinks the design is smarter than that.

I have two questions:
  • Is it true that the low-level zones will be mostly empty most of the time once the launch frenzy dies down?
  •  Are GW2 events fun to do alone?
The model that keeps getting quoted for comparison is Warhammer Online. Public Quests there worked well in beta and for a while after launch, when there were plenty of people around but soon there weren't enough players to keep the plates spinning and it all fell down.

How fair a comparison is this? Warhammer remains for many the very model of failed design. Mythic sold 1.2 million boxes and had 750,000 subscribers a month after launch. Two months on, more than half of those had left and the game has been in steady decline ever since. Four years after launch Warhammer is down to one U.S. and two Euopean servers.

Warhammer, like GW2, received glowing reviews at launch but a variety of poor design choices and  unfinished, rushed, content were soon exposed in actual play. Crucially, Warhammer Online required, as it still does, a subscription to play. An MMO that acquires a reputation as one that players are leaving in droves and which requires both an upfront purchase and a monthly fee to play will always struggle to attract new players.

An MMO that I know a lot more about than Warhammer is Everquest 2. EQ2 has done much better than Warhammer over the years but it too was struggling to attract new blood in the face of strong competition. The solution was first a walled-off Freemium offer and following the success of that experiment, the roll-out of the same model for all servers.

Low-level zones on Freeport, the original EQ2X "F2P" server, are never deserted. Not for the entire two years the server has been up have I ever seen fewer than two instances of the main starting zones and at peak times it runs to four or five even now. Moreover, the gameworld is well-populated at all levels, not just at the low and high ends. You can go into pretty much any zone on Freeport and expect to find it reasonably well-attended.

Taking away both the box and the subscription cost has resulted in a continual stream of new players to EQ2. Once through the doors, enough people seem to find enough to interest them to stay for a while. GW2 has one bump more than that - the box purchase from which ArenaNet presumably make most of their money - but they've proved adept at leveraging that model for eight years with Guild Wars. Pay Once - Play Forever seems to be a sufficiently attractive offer when you can put up something people might imagine they'd want to play forever.

So, I'm not convinced that the low and mid levels in GW2 will be deserted in a few months. The blogging focus on the scaling mechanic and what will motivate max level characters to return ignores the business model, which is to keep selling new boxes (or downloads) to new people. Having high-levels spend more time playing lower down, which the scaling world design will inarguably encourage to some degree, is icing on the cake.

Let's say the cake sinks and the icing slides off. Let's say there is no stream of new players keeping the low and mid levels hopping with events. Let's imagine you're there on your own as a newish player, wandering through Diessa Plateau or Snowden Drifts, seeing, if your lucky, the odd player run past in the other direction once every ten minutes or so. Will you still be able to have fun?

That's going to depend on what you call "fun", isn't it? Here we enter the perennial battleground, where your fun is my boredom is her "I hate this game!" I can only speak for my own fun, and for me GW2 is wonderful when no-one else is around.

On the comments thread over at Kill Ten Rats, Azuriel says "My experience has been Events suck by yourself, worse than leveling alone". That couldn't be farther from my own experience. I absolutely love the huge "all pile on" events, when dozens of players buzz around the map like wasps in a beer garden, but I equally love coming across an event that no-one's doing and trying it alone.

In beta I was often in sparsely populated areas on my own, particularly Diessa Plateau and Snowden Drifts, both designated 15 - 25 maps. I ran across many events where I was the only player there at first. Some, like the Champion giant attack on Nageling are utterly impossible for one player to affect in any way, but most that I came across, even the ones with multiple waves, can be chipped away at by a motivated player.

I made good progress alone dismantling the seige-weapons attacking Redreave, for example, and on the wave attack on Bloodsaw Mill. After a while other players did arrive, in small numbers and sometimes we won and sometimes we lost. Yesterday I had a marvelously entertaining twenty minutes trying to complete an event in the Drifts alone by pet-pulling, kiting, training to NPCs, reviving NPCs and generally rummaging through my old box of soloing tricks. I would have done it, too, if it hadn't have been for those pesky players who turned up right at the end and jumped in to help!

But of course it doesn't matter whether you win or lose an event in GW2 - it's the taking part that counts. You can get a Gold contribution award if you lose as well as if you win, and a "losing state" can result in a fork in the event chain that produces content that's new to you. It's only the NPCs who really "lose" - the player always wins.

I doubt many commentators feel that GW2 will fail hard, like Warhammer or, arguably, SW:ToR. Whether ArenaNet have baked their cake well enough to survive being left out in the rain we will only find out if the rain ever comes. It may just stay fine.

Of course, then the cake would go stale. A cake metaphor can take you only so far...


  1. Low level zones always have the largest populations. I could reinstall WoW now, go to the starting zone, and see plenty of players (unless things have drastically changed in the past few years.) People always start alts that they may or may not keep. The higher the level, the more players drop off.

    I'm more concerned about medium to high level zones because that's when populations start to thin, and the events tend to be bigger, and more involved and complex.

    I suspect the overflow system is part of what helps them to maintain higher populations on servers to begin with (you'll notice that even as they add new worlds, they are also increasing player caps on existing worlds) so that there's less of a chance of dead zones during those mid range levels. They seem to have a lot of fluidity in that department.

    They may not have been prepared for the popularity of the game, but I think they were very mindful of the alternate scenario - how to make sure the dynamic content doesn't fall apart with fewer players.

    Time will tell, but again, it's the mid to high zones I worry about, not the early zones.

  2. Yep I very much agree. Even without free 1 - 20 trials like Rift, WoW and Warhammer run, starter zones tend to have decent populations. Get into the mid-levels though and you often find your about the only one in the zone.

    I always thought this was a problem of the designers' own making. Before WoW MMOs tended to have a mixed zone ecology covering a much wider level range than we see now. That kept zones much more alive, I thought. GW2's scaling should address soem of that, but they still label all the zones by level range on the map and that will reinforce the idea that certain maps are "just" for level 15 - 25 when they really need not have pointed it out.

  3. Some people love the events, some don't - that's that and little use in discussion. I see the issue of missing context here and there, if you blunder into ongoing events that's the case, but nothing is keeping you from repeating the whole event later. there will always be that issue for public quests and there's no solving it - remove public quests or live with it.

    the main issue of population is one I ask myself. since events don't really seem to 'scale' so well (obviously the big bad boss can't be soloed or killed by 3 people only), it would be a sad thing if later into GW2, many events are unplayable. however, I don't think this is as big a dealbreaker as some players make it out to be - and there's still the option for ANet to adjust matters. for example they could create more incentives to repeat events as high levels or they could simply work on the scaling mechanics?

    either way, we'll see what happens. I think it's way too early to call judgement on these things and I dare say GW2 is already a lot more popular and 'out there' than Warhammer Online ever was. that one also frankly had bad timing where GW2 does not.


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