Saturday, March 22, 2014

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others : GW2

ArenaNet don't have a new game to put up against the upcoming onslaught of ESO and WildStar. They don't even have an announced expansion to mollify the faithful but that doesn't mean they're going to sit back and watch the servers bleed. They're fighting back with a three-pronged defense strategy:

1. The Tourney

2. The Tournament of Legends

3. The Feature Pack

The Tourney is just the new World vs World "Season" that everyone's either been anticipating or dreading since the last one ended, way back before Christmas, given a new lick of paint. The Tournament of Legends is the latest step in the eternal plan to make GW2's PvP something that matters to someone other than the closed coterie it currently attracts, while keeping that coterie firmly onside. The only mildly surprising aspect is the prizes, which include Legendaries and Precursors.

The Feature Pack - now that's something else entirely. It's a bundle of game-changing revisions, heavily trailed and hyped in a way that's frequently been misinterpreted and misunderstood by a segment of the playerbase, who've decided it's an expansion in everything but name. It's not an expansion but it looks set to disturb the peaceful waters every bit as much as a real expansion would, only without the ameliorating benefit of any actual content.

It consists of ten Features, each of which gets its own separate news release/PR puff/blog post according to a schedule. So far we've had The Great Trait Revamp, Runes and Sigils and Crits. Dulfy, as always, has the clearest and most succinct overview. There's also apparently a Livestream, which I haven't watched because, frankly, life is just too short.

We have a few days to digest the first three before Tuesday brings what looks to be something about outfits and dyes. There's some speculation that it'll be a Wardrobe  and Account-Wide Dye System, a hint of which was apparently data-mined from the upcoming launch of GW2 in China. Further out floats a whole raft of mysteries culminating with an introduction to something enigmatically labelled "Friendly Play" that's apparently so momentous it not only comes as the climax of two weeks of PR blitz but requires three days to explain.

Reaction on the official Forums has been surprisingly muted. There are no threadnaughts building, no protests forming, no harassed Moderators slapping down bans. In fact, no one seems all that interested, possibly because the changes so far announced are largely pushing against an open door.

But..but..I liked being a Berserker!

Nerf Berserker builds? Everyone saw that one coming (apart from me, it seems. I finally succumbed to the zeitgeist and spent all last Sunday converting my Elementalist to full zerk mode. Been enjoying it, too).

Hunt your skills (okay, traits) in the wild, GW1 style? Should have been that way from the start is a popular view and for those that don't agree they'll all be vendor-purchasable anyway.

Rationalize runes and sigils so they actually a) work and b) make sense? Who's going to argue with that? Well, people who spent a fortune on expensive upgrades that are no longer fit for purpose but hey, there are winners, there are losers, right?

So far, so uncontroversial. Still, there's a lot of oddness in there when you dig down. For example, if the intention is to "foster a healthy balance environment that encourages players to experiment with their builds" how is that achieved by rationalizing Critical Damage and reducing it across the board by 10% ? As plenty of people are pointing out, in relative terms that that leaves a Berserker build exactly where it is now, at the front of the DPS parse, only in a new world where everyone's Time-To-Kill is reduced.

As if they weren't already hard enough to kill.

People are crunching the numbers but as yet we don't really have the numbers to crunch. We don't know the full detail of the changes to runes, sigils and traits for one thing. Maybe when we see all the changes in action ANet's Grand Plan will fall into place and the Day of the Berserker will be over after all. I'm not holding my breath on that one, though. If there's any build that kills faster than the rest, it'll be the new orthodoxy within days of being discovered.

More puzzling to me is this, from the Rune and Sigil announcement:

 "...we’re making it easier to understand the benefits of sticking with a single rune set....we simply want the PvE rune system to be as clear and approachable as possible for new players, so we’re making it easier to understand the benefits of sticking with a single rune set.".

What? Why!?
Why would ANet even care what runes a new player chooses to slot? I very much doubt the player does. Leveling up in GW2 is so straightforward, it really doesn't matter what gear you use, let alone what upgrades you put into it for the few hours you might keep any given piece of armor or weapon. When I was leveling up I just put in anything I found, if I bothered at all. Trying to convince new players it "matters" to have the "right" gear and the "right" upgrades is untrue and a terrible idea.

Don't say it out loud! Someone might hear you!

ANet seem to have some peculiar ideas about new players all round, though. The revamp of the Trait system includes this:

 "...we’ve pushed back the level at which the different trait tiers unlock for new characters in order to better pace the early game experience and to add more meaningful character progression from levels 30 to 80. Starting with this feature pack, new characters will unlock the adept tier at level 30, the master tier at level 60, and the grandmaster tier at level 80."

Because making new players wait longer until their character gets a fresh trick always makes things more fun, right? New players just love that! Nothing builds affection and loyalty to an MMO in a new player faster than making him use the exact same set of abilities for 20 or 30 levels at a stretch. Of course, as has been observed, not least by me, new players don't have the same points of comparison as veterans and so may not feel nerfs as strongly but even so, this logic does seem more than a tad unconvincing.

The counter-argument would be that leveling in GW2 is already very fast and somewhat trivial and that anything that makes it feel more solid and substantial is at least worth trying. I'm sympathetic to that. On the other hand, unless there are some radical changes in the works then I would guess plenty of new players and most experienced ones are going to be bypassing the whole "better pace" by using one of the many existing means of avoiding the entire open-world leveling process altogether.

Ah, but of course there are radical changes coming. There's that whole "Facilitating Friendly Play" thing. That's got to be radical if it's going to take three days to explain. There's been some wild speculation on what it could include; even some crazy talk about the implementation of player housing and Guild Halls. Good luck with that.

Friendly? Oh yes, we're "friendly" alright...

I have my own theory, which I'll outline now so that I can look smug if it turns out to be anywhere close to the mark or an idiot if it turns out to be completely barking. From the changes so far announced I discern a pattern. My feeling is that, after a year and a half of seeing their game spin away in directions they almost certainly never expected or intended, they are going to attempt to wrestle it back onto the track they were hoping to travel before launch.

GW2 was very heavily touted as a paradigm shift in MMOs, where players would seamlessly co-operate with each other in an ever-changing, dynamic world. There would be no need for formal groups or raids since wherever players happened to find themselves in proximity all their efforts and rewards would be shared equally by default. Outside of instanced content, which at that time was only going to be a handful of dungeons and the Personal Story, we'd all be in it together.

One Charr's View
Over the months that promise has eroded. Fractals added a significant amount of instanced content that required formal grouping while players increasingly decided that all instance groups should follow a rigid formula. The Holy Trinity may have been at least partially expunged but it wasn't replaced by  "pick five, any five". Meanwhile, open world content increasingly devolved to large gangs of roaming berserkers chasing Champions and meta-events in a never-ending lust for gold.

Increasing utilities directed at helping others around us while at the same time reducing our ability to kill so quickly alone suggests an attempt to make both supporting and being supported by others a more valued and valid playstyle. Sending us out to hunt for our traits in all kinds of content, much of which I am guessing will not be easy to solo, adds motivation to find people to help. And it all fits with the clear direction of most of the Living Story updates this year - encouraging players to operate as a team, not just as individuals, in or out of a zerg.

Anet have always been fond of social engineering. Most MMO developers are. It looks as though they've decided to come out into the open about it for once. That's my take, for what it's worth, and there's not long to wait to find out if I'm right.


  1. I think you're right in that they want to create a shift back towards their original design in creating a more cooperative open world system.

    To me, a lot of this "feature" pack just seem like things that should have been patched in over the year or, if it's something like the transmutation system and character bound dyes, should never have been implemented. But don't listen to the jaded ex player

    1. The transmutation and dye system were clearly intended to be a significant part of the monetization plan for GW2. I vaguely remember they actually said that openly about Dyes though I might be imagining that.

      I don't like the transmutation process they have now, at least not once it hits Level 80 - it's ok before that because you get more free transmutation stones than you are ever going to need while leveling up - but if people will keep insisting they want their F2P Cash Shops to be "cosmetics only" then this is what you are going to have to expect.

      Dyes I was always in two minds about. I have a very strong objection in principle to *anything* being Account Bound. In my ideal world Accounts would exist only to manage the financial end and have no connection whatsoever with gameplay. I am 100% in favor of character-based systems that treat each character as an individual. I don't even like shared banks and heirlooms.

      That's in principle. In practice I like Account-based systems as much as the next unprincipled lazy person. They are massively more convenient. What I would say is that MMOs need to be consistent. GW2's insistence on mixing and matching Character and Account based systems is plain silly. Given that their trend is to remove the character-based systems then yes, dyes should be Account Bound. Everything should.

  2. It still seems that Anet is listening a lot to players that have long left the game or just like to spew whatever against GW2.

    Hunting for Elite skills was not fun at all. That is why Elite skill tomes sold for so much money in GW1.
    Nothing worse than having to play dozens hours with uninteresting elite skills - that is why there was a thing called Droknars run where people would sell runs to allow skipping a great part of the original game so you could obtain max armor and capture a bunch of elite skills around that area.

    It is true that loads of players that dislike or hate GW2 complain have been saying "I unlocked all my skills by level 10" "or level 20" "or level 30".

    I much prefer having everything from level 1 (or 2).

    One thing I disagree is that choice of runes doesn't matter while leveling - add +10 power runes to all your armor pieces and eat some +power food you will be killing enemies 5 levels higher than you no problems.

    1. I've been reading the official forums a lot recently and they are laughable. We know that Anet had sold over 3 million copies of GW2 by January 2013. Heaven only knows how many they have sold by now. If they'd had an absolutely appalling retention rate (and I don't think they have) and only 5% of people were still playing, that would still be over 150,000 players. A really active forum thread gets, what, 300 posts from maybe 60-100 different players?

      And yet most of those posters claim that their opinion is representative of the mass of players and, yes, a lot of them are clearly jaded, unhappy, people who hark back to the good old days of pre-launch or even GW1. I find it quite bizarre to read whole threads in which most posters agree with each other that, for example, zerging is terrible, everyone is bored rigid by it and everyone wants better AI and much more challenging fights while at the same time complaining that the game is full of "the masses" who just love zerging in their berserker builds and that's all anyone wants to do. How they don't see the logical inconsistency of their position beats me.

      On runes, yes, you are right, of course. If you do decide to use good gear, change it every ten levels and rune it all then you can do all kinds of interesting and exciting content. I did that on a couple of characters. My point, though, was that to level up in GW2 you never actually need to fight anything difficult enough to require you to fit runes. You can if you want to and it's good fun if you do but you can just as easily level up in a PvE or WvW zerg or by crafting (or you could until Ascended priced that out of reach in the mid-tiers). I also have a couple of characters who did virtually all of their levels in WvW and half of that was fighting doors :P

    2. The old rule of thumb is that only 10% of your players ever visit the forums, and only 10% of those (or 1% of the total) will post at all. But, this is a rule of thumb not gospel truth.

      Forums also tend to be echo chambers. When they say "everyone" agrees with them they usually mean other active posters. People who disagree may remain silent as to not risk the anger of the masses. But, that doesn't stop people from believing they have the force of popularity supporting their pet argument!

  3. Thanks for the roundup. Hadn't been paying much attention to this, so it's good to read this in one place.

    To my mind, much of this should have went into the game earlier. I had my love affair with the game, but the fires of passion grew cold, I have to admit.

    1. For everything that's wrong with it, which is a lot, it remains one of the four or five best MMOs I've played. Ninety-five per cent of that rests on the work ANet did in the five years leading up to launch, though.

      Just this evening I went all round Brisban Wildlands, opening the map on a character that hadn't done it, in preparation for the anticipated move there for Season Two of the Living Story. The beauty of the art design and the depth and complexity of the lore and story there, as in just about every zone, are just head and shoulders above almost all other MMOs.

      They really need to get back to doing what they are good at.

    2. That is because you are a leveler and a quester (I am one too).

  4. I popped in to GW2 while waiting for EQ to install and stayed there in the end. I really like the Queensdale Train it turns out. I have no idea if it was planned but the 10 minutes of violence/5 minutes of calm rhythm makes it a perfectly pleasant grind. The rage (on both sides) over this train is absurd.

    GW2 Forum is 99% people telling people that they shouldn't play like that because people should be able to play however they want to, with no sense of irony. The particular subject is interchangeable and irrelevant, the argument always the same.

    All these changes are interesting and mean I have to play GW2 for a month. My sense is the nerf to zerker is merely to make space for the rune and trait power-creep. They must know there will always be an optimal dps set whatever they do and everyone will wear it, you can never win that battle.

    So fine. I'm back. Soloing CM1 on Sunday (badly, they've fixed everything) it felt like I'd never been away.

    1. I'm finding that EQ and GW2 are perfect complements. Even nowadays the pace in EQ is exceptionally languid by modern standards, yet at the same time every action come freighted with significance. Conversely, GW2 moves like the proverbial tiger on vaseline and nothing, but nothing, ever matters.

      I'm not much of a one for champ trains, although I will do Orr if happen upon it, but I do love the World Boss chain. I love the hopping from map to map and the huge firework displays. If it wasn't that it starts so late on my server I'd do it every day.


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