Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Cat In The Hat Strikes Back : GW2, Istaria

I had a few ideas of things I might write about this morning. There was the unexpected email from Istaria, the game that used to be called Horizons, David Allen's much-hyped MMO from 2003, which failed horribly at launch but refused to die. Not only is it still up and running but apparently it's thriving. "We've grown by leaps and bounds this year...Last year was the best ever for us here at Virtrium", they say, which is great news, not only for Virtrium's employees and Istaria's players but for all friends of the form.

We hear a lot of bad news about MMOs closing down, development studios downsizing and projects stalling. Massively dutifully reports each brief press release as one F2P bucket-shop MMO after another takes down the sign and closes the door. When a game who's name we might actually recognize,Vanguard, say, or City of Heroes, some MMO we might have a dim memory of once having played or having thought about playing, when such an MMO sets a sunset date, the blogosphere incandesces with outrage, schadenfreude and despair.

Such news strengthens the fears of those who feel the genre is in terminal decline, its best days long in the past, its present uncertain, its future bleak. The stream of closure stories encourages the narrative, growing in credence, that the whole industry took a bad wrong turn sometime back in the first decade of the 21st Century, when developers decided the best way to sell their games was to give them away.

I was going to say something about that, about how any narrative only tells the tale the teller wants to tell and that's half the story at best; about how the old school games we yearn for never really went away and whether we need Brad McQuaid's jam tomorrow when there's jam right here on the table today. And since Istaria is the only MMO that let's you play as a dragon I was going to work in a link to Syl. So that was one idea  might have gone with...

Then there was the comment thread that span up out of the day before yesterday's post. That raised some ideas worth pursuing and since my own replies were getting as long as blog posts anyway, why not give them room to stretch out even more? We seemed to be paring something down, examining the nuances of hardcore versus casual as something closer to a philosophy than a playstyle, considering elitism versus accessibility as a moral choice and there's much more to say in that discussion.

Then it occurred to me that here we all are, rehearsing the same arguments that must have been heard in salons and drawing rooms two centuries ago. The form changes, video games stand in for poems, but the substance remains the same. It's Romanticism versus Realism all over again, Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, the Sublime vs. the Rational.

I think my days of trying to change anyone's mind on any of this are behind me. There aren't enough oak-panelled pubs, worn leather benches and strong, continental lagers in the world to see this one through to a result that anyone's ever going to accept. As I said in the thread "If you don't intuitively feel the difference I don't think it can be explained" and as Jeromai replied "We can agree to disagree". Which, the older I get, seems less and less like the kind of compromise I once would have condemned and more and more like the right, respectful, human choice. 

Still, I could have whipped something up around that and I was thinking it over when I switched my computer, my randomized desktop background came up with this and all my plans went straight out the window:

That's an unedited screenshot from one of GW2's beta weekends, graphic glitches and all, and it says everything to me about what was lost. Forget all the stuff about horizontal or vertical progression, zerging, Living Story, one-time or repeatable events. None of that matters. 

I was a tiger in a trenchcoat and a trilby hat!

I'm sorry to have to shout but it needs to be said, loud and clear. I. Was. A. Tiger. In. A. Trenchcoat. And. A. Trilby. Hat! And yet, unbelievable though it is, it gets better than that! Wait, let me just turn around...

 I was a tiger, in a trenchcoat and a trilby hat, wearing a backpack!

A proper backpack. That you can see. That you can see and which looks like an actual backpack. I could go on (and on) about how betas are better because everything is fresh and new and everyone's excited and open-minded and optimistic and how there's something new to discover over every hill and all of that would be true but it wouldn't tell you the real secret of why betas are almost always better than the Live game when it arrives. 

It's because no-one's asked the art department to come up with yet another set of skins for some holiday or achievement or raid so no-one's wearing anything that looks like they called Liberace in to design it because Carmen Miranda was worried she'd look under-dressed playing Joan of Arc. That's why! No-one's wearing an entire, working dwarven forge for a shoulderpad. No-one has armor that's on fire or has their paws in gloves made of lava, dripping hot gobs of molten metal onto the floor. No-one has Dr. Octopus arms or metal-jointed spider legs sticking out of their back. And most especially not one single person anywhere in the entire game has a bow that fires unicorns!

During one GW2 beta weekend I spent a whole Sunday farming leather from skelks near the Irondock Shipyard in Plains of Ashford  to make my own leather armor and when I was done my charr ranger looked fantastic. I was so happy. What I didn't know then was that was the best he was ever going to look.

As if that wasn't enough, here's another Charr I made in beta. I can't remember the class but she's wearing Light armor and as far as I can remember she never even left Black Citadel so those are almost certainly the clothes she started in. 

 She doesn't just look great, although she does look great; she looks better than any Charr I've seen since launch. It's true that Charr probably have the worst clothes and armor in the game but in beta we were blissfully unaware of what lay in store for us. I only played Charr in beta so I can't say if all the other races also looked better back then. I bet they did, though.

Now it may well be that all of these clothes are still in the game (except for the Charr trilby hat - not that I'm bitter...) and what's more, if they are, then anyone can easily transmogrify a hideous high-level abomination back into something tasteful, but that's not the point. The point is that GW2 has a progression mechanic partly built on the acquisition of gear that varies primarily by appearance, not by power and, like almost all MMOs, that gear appears to have been put together by a motorcycle gang working from bad photocopies of designs sent to them by Kiss's stage costumier, a sensibility that doesn't sit at all comfortably, I might add, with an ever-growing mini-pet collection clearly under the direct control of a five year old girl in the grips of a fever dream.

Or, if you prefer, none of it's much to my taste. And if you don't want to see your character wearing any of the things to which you are intended to aspire, and if you can achieve the stats you need easily and early with easily attainable items, then there really isn't much of a progression mechanic at all. 

And yet, as I mentioned at the end of my previous rant, GW2 remains one of the MMOs I enjoy the most, coming in somewhere around fifth if I was to make a list of my all-time favorites. I play it all the time and plan on doing so for a long time to come. Which, I guess, proves that an MMO doesn't really need a progression mechanic at all. Or something.

Now excuse me. I'm off to transmogrify my exotics. And see if that backpack is still in game.


  1. That was the engineer mine kit, when the mine kit used to give 5 mines just like the bomb kit and the grenade kit.

    Not longer in game but it is very similar to the bomb kit, grenade kit and the engineer starting item "multi tool backpack".

    1. That's interesting because the Charr in the screenshot is a ranger as evidenced by the jungle cat standing next to him. Possibly it was a kit handed out for a Heart in the area or even a ground-spawn weapon kit? As far as I can tell there are no "normal" looking backpacks or backpack skins for non-engineers in the game any more other than the extremely bland Guild Backpack that looks like he sort of thing you'd wear to school and has to have your guild logo on (and all guild logos are horrible). Probably the nearest is the Zephyr Rucksack but it's so huge only a Norn can really get away with wearing it and even then it has a parrot cage at the top!

    2. Yeah, it is a renown heart item as well.
      It is the explosives kit in the Assist Bloodsaw Mill workers located in Diessa Plateau that you clear wasps and tree stumps with.

      Funny thing is that some engineers players want to be able to disable their kits to show other back pieces and that was talked about in the CDI.

  2. Progression is in my opinion is overrated and could be easily replaced by collecting.
    I feel pleasure understanding each profession - how to play it, which skill to use when, the little tricks.

    I remember that in GW1 the "Elemental Sword" became the sword skin to have and was selling for 1 million gold. Everyone and their mothers wanted one - I thought it was a crappy skin.

    Then came the raptor farm with EotN and they dropped the Elemental Sword quite often - for a while the sword kept selling for those prices but as the population caught that farm and the sword price plummeted from 1 million to 5K I guess everyone figured it was a crappy skin and stopped using it,

    I'm sure people will have similar stories with other games.

    And it is also annoying that in GW2 some of the rare crafting skins actually look better than the exotic ones, specially those crummy pearl weapons.

    1. Collecting would certainly work for me. On the evidence I've seen so far, nothing has changed between GW and GW2 - scarcity trumps actual appearance every time. People seem just to like you to notice how rare their gear is rather than how good it looks.

    2. That's something I don't quite understand either. Everyone and their mother seems to be running around with Eternity, Sunrise or Twilight, and dumping on T3 cultural armor - let's not forget abyss and celestial dye - apparently to show off how rich and prestigious they are, with the end result of looking like each other's clones.

      I end up admiring the mix-and-match armors instead.

      Well, maybe they like how their avatar looks...

      Ultimately, that's the only person looking at it most times, since many have their graphics settings cranked down defensively low in zerg situations.

  3. The problem with appearance is really just that different people have different taste. I am happy with my newbie gear looks yet my guildmates think the legendaries/high end gears look really cool. So for them, the cosmetic progression works.

  4. HORIZONS! I remember beta testing that. Had some lofty goals. Was fun as in "all betas are fun" for many the reasons you mentioned. New, exciting, going to be the best game ever to launch.......

    *cough cough*.

    GW2 looks so nice. I just couldn't get into it once I got to level 37.. solo grinding for that long on non-storied quests actually got boring fast. Plus the class I most aligned with *on paper* was tough to solo with (illusionist - loved the concept!)

    All games can't be all things to all people. Niche should be the new black.

    1. The main thing I remember about Horizons (other than the lag) was the bizarre decision to use grubs as the newbie-yard monster and then make a big deal of what a huge innovation that was. I spent most of my relatively short time in beta killing grubs.

  5. The latter half of your post struck a cord with me, and became inspiration for today's post on my own blog. http://thematicdissonance.blogspot.ca/
    Why can't armour just look like it belongs anymore?

    1. That Vanilla WoW promo shot makes you think "they look like a bunch of folks who know what they're doing". The later stuff is more "hey, I didn't know the circus was in town!".

      Also added you to the blog roll :)

  6. My Thief looked so ridiculously elegant from about lvl 10. The work they did on those leather armour skins was remarkably accomplished. Every 10ish levels a new beautiful set would become available and I'd spend all day checking dyes and getting really really excited about it all. No doubt about it, my GW thief is the best-dressed character I've ever had in any game (MMO or otherwise).

    Everything after level 79 looked ridiculous. Then everything in the cash shop and given out for farming achievements all looked absurd. I mean how do you mess Sky Pirate up? It takes more work to make Sky Pirate look stupid than it does to make it look cool but they went for it anyway and knocked 'person with miscellaneous bits stuck on' right out of the park. I stopped playing.

    I forgive them though, those original skins were so damn good I can forgive them anything. I expect even Leonardo da Vinci did a lot of crap nobody talks about anymore.

    In fact just talking about it is making me want to reinstall...

    1. My thief, female human, has also looked cool as ice forever. She looks like she walked straight in from The Secret World, in fact. My Mesmer, my other human female character, looks good too, although she could easily be mistaken for Undead, she's so pale. I tend to think whoever did the armor favors female humans for one reason or another...

    2. The animation on those leather coats is sublime too.

      Fine, I'm reinstalling this weekend. I have no idea what I'm going to do in there. After ditching it for 8 months the 'Keep Up With Achievements' game is already lost so I can probably have a good time in there again. Maybe I'll just shiv up some mobs and log out.

      But that's how it always starts...

  7. I got into CoF pug and they were asking for full exotic zeker gear. I actually have full CoF exotic zeker gear but I use the "Heritage" skins since I don't like CoF skin that much. However I got kicked for being a noob who didn't have zeker gear... lol

    Given that GW2 doesn't have inspect, how you look is serious business!

    1. That's a very good practical point that I have never considered. There is literally no way to tell what someone is wearing with no Inspect and the ability to transmog everything. Even if you linked someone your armor you could just as well be linking an item code. Like proper search functions on the TP, Inspect is yet another should-be-standard feature that GW2 lacks.

    2. Ah but inspect will never be a standard feature in GW2 for the same reason why you will never see other people's damage number etc. Anyway this is a whole different debate!

  8. Yup. Two elements that make playing back "at home" -- EQ2 -- a pleasure: Appearance slots and Inspect. (...much as I like GW2, too...)

    -- 7rlsy


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