Saturday, 24 August 2013

Impossible Things : GW2

Several seemingly unrelated things cropped up this week:

Wilhelm wondering where all those dwarves came from.

Green Armadillo postulating a link between payment models and community value.

Jeromai speculating wildly.

 Massively reporting on ArenaNet's decision-making process.

The Big Villain behind the last six months' worth of Living Story showing her face at last.

Unrelated? Maybe, maybe not...

The current two-week slice of GW2's Living Story might be the most finely-tuned so far. ArenaNet's once-lauded iterative development process at work? Some of that, perhaps. Or is it this, from the very short Massively article linked above: "the game's current update plan came about as a result of looking at the game's metrics and determining what players were more likely to log in for".

All pile on! All pile on!
If that's so then I guess what players are most likely to log in for are rolling 24/7 zerg-based lootfests with Achievements attached. Nothing wrong with that. Indeed I'd like to see someone make an entire MMO based around the concept. I just wasn't expecting it to be this one.

The current hourly invasions are extremely reminiscent of Rift in beta, when towards the end of a couple of weekends the devs opened the planar faucets and let invasions stream out. In Rift-beta the big draw was the novelty and the sheer exuberant chaos of the thing as everyone struggled to push back the Planar hordes just because, while in GW2 the big draw is loot. Indeed, in no more than a couple of days and significantly after a substantial proportion of players have their achievement boxes neatly ticked, few seem to  care about winning at all.

Scarlet's invasions are on farm status already. Suggest working towards victory and expect to be roundly scorned. Keep the event going, call the Champions, link the Waypoints, farm farm farm. I'm not suggesting it's not fun; it is. It's a whole lot of fun. As Mrs Bhagpuss pointed out to me after a day of it, it's a gang of kids tearing around the woods in the summer holidays, hitting things with sticks. That was always fun and always will be.

It's nowhere near as much fun, however, as racing against the clock to beat the odds, sharing a hard-won victory with hundreds of like-minded souls. The first two evenings, when everyone was desperate to succeed, were viscerally thrilling. Now it's just a rewarding romp.

Die! Die! Die! Die! Die!

I did four invasion events last night, three on overflow servers, one at home. The first was an overflow whinefest, which we failed. The second, on Yak's Bend, was a cheerul, good-natured farmfest, which we failed. The third was a virtually silent Overflow, which we failed. In all three almost no-one seemed to care that we failed. Some even exulted.

The final one, the one I wasn't planning on doing because it was too late but got caught up in despite myself, was a focused, intense, exciting Overflow which we won. That one was ten times more thrilling, involving, immersive and, yes, fun than any of the others.

It took just two days to go from every invasion feeling like that to it being the exception. That's too soon. I don't expect the thrill to last forever but two days? Maybe that's what happens when you give the people what they want not what they need. You don't always need a cynical approach to payment models to degrade the community of an MMO. Sometimes just listening too hard to the people paying your bills will get it done.

Of course, that begs the question of why the same event on the same evening had a distinctly different "feel" on each of four servers and why that one Overflow gelled, focused, acted and conversed so differently from the others. No-one organized it that way. No charismatic Commander gave a rousing speech. It just happened, like most memorable experiences in MMOs. Maybe communities have moods just like the players who comprise them. Best just to savor the good ones when you get the chance, I guess, not expect kittens and rainbows every time.

Excuse me? Do I know you?

So much for the players and the play, what about the plot? Indeed, what about Scarlet herself?  She certainly makes for a passable arch-villain, but who the heck is she? As I understand it, our villain, our nemesis, is someone we've never heard of before. Maybe I've got that wrong and it's just me that's never heard of her. I really hope so, because as anyone who's ever read a mystery novel knows, a whodunnit has to play by certain rules, the key one of which is that you must be in with a chance of guessing who the murderer is.

Imagine Poirot gathering all the guests together in the country house, everyone casting surreptitious glances at the others, trying to figure out who looks guilty only for the little Belgian to turn back from the French windows and announce "I've brought you all together today to set your minds at rest. The killer is not one of you, not at all. No, it was someone else entirely, someone none of you has ever met, of whom you have never even so much as heard a whisper!"

That's not going to work, is it? It really doesn't help that she's also an obvious amalgam of several Batman villains but that's a lesser drawback than her previous complete lack of existence. I really do hope it's me that's not been paying attention because if not, that's one hell of a structural problem right there.

Not that structural problems with the narrative are unfamiliar ground either for MMOs in general or GW2 in particular. Jeromai's speculations are far, far more intriguing than anything the game and its increasingly arbitrary approach to both lore or narrative are likely to provide. I'd dearly love to invest in the backstory, to become immersed in the narrative, to take sides, argue long into the night over minutiae but for that to happen I'd have to believe that more lies at the back of all this than an oil-and-water mix of expediency and enthusiasm and that's a struggle right now.

Plenty more where they came from. Erm, where is that, exactly?

All of which brings us to those extraneous dwarves, or in our case, Aetherblades. And Steam Creatures. And Twisted Minions. I'm good at suspending disbelief; really I am. I can believe any number of impossible things before breakfast so long as it gets me a to story I want to hear. I'm reading a novel right now where the main character wakes up every day of his life in a new body with not the slightest hint of an explanation why or how and I'm fine with it. Yet when I'm fighting Scarlet's Invasions I find myself asking "Where the hell are all these pirates coming from? How many of these robots has she got? How is she doing this?"

The upshot is that I don't think this is a circle that can be squared. You can't always give people both what they want and what they need. You can't always make a compelling, addictive game and a convincing, immersive world at one and the same time. You can't expect the internal consistency of a novel from four separate teams knocking out a chunk of story each every couple of weeks against an implacable deadline.

We are where we are. This is what we have. We should enjoy it for what it is. It's good to point out where things aren't working but better to remember that they may only not be working for us. It's good to suggest how things could be done better, but remember that others may be perfectly content with the way those things are being done right now. Other MMOs will happen along in due time and do things differently. Some of us will prefer one, some another. Some will lose patience with them all. Nothing is ever going to be perfect. Take from it all what you find worth taking and let the rest slide.

And never, ever, expect an MMO to make sense.

12 comments:

  1. Actually ANET just posted a quite neat story that really explains who Scarlet is and gives her character depth, check it out:)

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    1. Isn't that the one I linked to above? That's post hoc, if so.

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  2. I think one of the things to bear in mind is that this appears to be a long-haul story, similar to the overarching story arcs of TV episodes.

    A story arc has to set in motion a whole bunch of threads, to be pulled together by the end. A lot of players seem to expect a neatly packaged story to be digested in a day.

    "We must know who Scarlet is and defeat her, all in this one Living Story episode!" Then are perplexed when stuff is left hanging and unresolved.

    I also think the clues are being drip fed on purpose, so that players can also indulge in out-of-game discussion, use a whole bunch of social media, visit fan sites and so on.

    I seem to remember a Colin Johanson interview where he says all this stuff will only have a resolution in December, so we still have some months to go.

    Personally, the only part that makes me cringe is Scarlet somehow being a genius who devours all races' technology in a short period of time. That's absolutely Villain-Sue-esque unbelievable.

    I'll take the Harlequin resemblance without a twitch because it's entertaining and produces some amusing dialogue lines.

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    1. They made quite a point of likening the Living Story to a tv show, that's true, and I think we're beginning to see both the strengths and weaknesses of that approach. For all that I point out the holes in the plot and the design choices I wouldn't have made, I do think the whole thing is getting slicker and more focused almost by episode. There's definitely a lot more in each installment that I enjoy than that I don't and I really don't think anyone can expect more than that.

      As for Scarlet, I think it would be fine for her to be a character we don't know well, for her to have been a walk-on a couple of months back, for example, but unless I've missed something she exists in continuity only as a shadowy, unseen figure and her current incarnation as pantomime villain. I really wanted it to be someone we'd got to know reasonably well - I had my money on Countess Anise, who I still think is up to something!

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  3. Did you crank up your graphics settings Bhagpuss? I notice your screenshots are much more detailed than your previous ones. Looks gorgeous!

    This episode of the LS is super, super fun. Some technical hiccups here and there (i.e. difficult time getting in same overflow as friend) but we've come a long way since the culling/lag filled Lost Shores.

    -Ursan

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    1. Hmm, no I haven't touched my graphic settings, which have always been near-max but you're right, those do look sharper than usual. I wonder if it's a by-product of the reduction in effects and the removal of PvE culling?

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  4. Hmmm, they do look better.

    -- 7rlsy

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    1. I just compared the properties of the set of screenshots above and the previous set and there's no difference. I did wonder if I'd accidentally started saving them in some different format but no. I haven't touched my in-game settings so it must be either something ANet have done or, I suppose, something Blogger is doing.

      Whatever it is, I like it!

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  5. "It's good to point out where things aren't working but better to remember that they may only not be working for us. It's good to suggest how things could be done better, but remember that others may be perfectly content with the way those things are being done right now. Other MMOs will happen along in due time and do things differently. "

    More QOTD material! :)
    I have to remember that at times.

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    1. Me too. Too easy to get tunnel vision, especially when you get heavily invested in a particular MMO or a particularly activity. It's a lot easier to sound the voice of sweet reason than to act on it though.

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  6. I always go for the win in scarlet invasions. This usually means NOT going to where the commander tag is (since he's already there with sheeple). Never heard of people complaining about WINNING the event though. That's a new one for me. :P

    Just need to be vocal on map chat and be positive without being condescending to motivate people. Usually when folks begin saying "we won't make it" it's a self fulfilling prophecy as other people go "welp, time to farm." It's these people I most enjoy proving wrong. ;)

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    1. Over the weekend I've seen fewer "stop trying, just farm" demands although there are still some going on. What I find most intriguing, having now done maybe 12-15 of these events, is how very different every one is. The atmosphere changes radically almost every time, much more so than in other large-scale global events I've done either in GW2 or other MMOs. Not sure why that is.

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