Monday, April 21, 2014

Picking Up The Pace : GW2

When GW2 arrived back in late summer of 2012 it sought to bring a number of new concepts to the MMO table. Two in particular attempted to address shortcomings perceived to have dogged the leveling process in earlier MMOs.

First there was the supposed problem of inverse progress. In most MMOs the early levels pass in a blur, things come into focus in the mid-levels and finally everything goes into slow-motion for the final grind to cap. Level five might take ten minutes, level thirty ten hours, level 80 a week. GW2 attempted to solve this inequality with something occasionally referred to, somewhat oxymoronically, as the "flat level curve".

According to Isaiah Cartwright on the ArenaNet Blog back in 2010 (long-vanished from the official website but handily preserved here) the idea was for every level to take roughly the same amount of time. Discounting the tutorial and possibly the very first few levels, the intended time-per-level all the way to 80 was planned to come in around a couple of hours or so, as evidenced, albeit with some interrogative fudging, in this Cartwright quote: " takes about the same time to go through each level. It’s pretty simple; if we expect you to level up every few hours, then why shouldn’t it be that way all through the game?"

Is ectoplasm flammable? I hope not...
The second dragon to be slain by the sword of the new paradigm was wasted sub-cap content. One reason for the years-long development cycle of triple-A MMOs is the immense amount of artist and designer hours it takes to create the topography and activity that makes up the virtual world. Games that attempt to control costs by launching with restricted leveling paths and minimal low and mid level zones risk taking a serious PR hit in terms of predicted re-playability. Rift would be an example.

The Catch-22 has long been this: you need to come out of the gate with a big, sprawling open world or MMO players won't take your game seriously. The established games that make up your competition have had years to build up portfolios of zones numbered in the dozens or even the hundreds. At the same time, you know that a few months after launch almost no-one will be using any of your expensive zones other those at the beginning and the end of the level curve.

MMO fashion has already moved on in just the couple of years since ANet thought they'd found a solution. If they were making GW2 now no doubt we'd be reading all about their marvelous procedural processes and emergent AI. Back then, though, the buzzword everyone was using was "Dynamic" and along with Dynamic Events in a Dynamic world they gave us Dynamic Level Adjustment.

I know Charr are big cats but this is ridiculous

What that meant in practice was that your character would never outgrow a map. A level 70 passing through a level 25 area would be seamlessly re-calibrated to match the level of his surroundings. If an event popped he could jump right in without either spoiling things for the natural lower-level players around or wasting his own time. He'd be challenged as though he was still 25th but he'd gain xp and karma appropriate to his actual level. All maps would therefore remain attractive to all levels forever.

That, at least, was the theory. Very quickly, however, it became apparent that most level 80s weren't interested in doing level 25 content for the fun and the challenge. They hadn't leveled all the way to the top just so they could drop back down to the bottom again and futz around there forever. They didn't need the xp, there were better ways to get the Karma and, with the possible exception of crafting mats, they had no use for the level 25 loot.

ANet attempted to make the idea more attractive by changing things so that loot dropped based on the character's actual rather than dynamic level, but even so it turned out that most players just weren't all that interested in revisiting maps they'd "done" (unless, of course, there was a hefty bribe, a nice, fat loot pinata like The Shatterer, say, or a no-effort, goof-off Champ Train).

Go fer yer guns, Black Jake!

This history was flitting through my mind on and off yesterday as I leveled my new Guardian from five to fifteen, a thoroughly absorbing, entertaining and satisfying experience but one that made me wonder, possibly for the first time, whether the Flat Leveling Curve and Dynamic Level Adjustment may not be such great ideas after all. It's a thought that surprised me because they were two of the pre-launch concepts that most attracted me to GW2 in the first place and which, I would have said until now, had served me well as a player.

In brief, what happened was this: my character developed. In the course of Easter Sunday, from early afternoon until around midnight, she acquired and learned how to use eleven types of weapon, trained in six of the eight tradeskills, made herself food, weapons and full sets of armor at level five and again at level ten, acquired and spent half a dozen skill points and gained, often at considerable risk and with considerable effort, Map Completion for Plains of Ashford.

Or you could go to WvW to bank, respond to a Map Call to Hills and end up level fifteen at 3 a.m.
That works too.
 That done, she stood back to take a look at herself. She saw a well-rounded, well-equipped adventurer; level twelve with plenty of room to improve. While I'd strongly prefer that all her weapon skills weren't finished just because opening them is a lot of fun and getting it done so fast feels a bit like eating all your Easter Egg in one go (something else I may or may not have done yesterday) but that's a minor regret. All the rest of the pleasurable process of developing and improving that character remains before me.

By implication, therefore, at 80 it will lie behind me. It will have been done. Being able to roam the world, a faux-ingenue, her orange exotics temporarily sprayed mastercraft green, her punches perforce pulled, simply cannot be as satisfying. It can be fun, yes, but fun only takes you so far.

The counter to this is to make a stream of characters, which is what I have done. But the trip to cap in GW2, even if you try to slow it down, takes no more than three or four weeks. Even leaving aside the cost of new slots, just how many characters can one person play?

Baby's First Maw

Perhaps after all it would have been preferable to have at least a modified version of the usual, unbalanced upward curve. Perhaps "completing" a map should take a few days, not a few hours, even for ANet's very specific value of "Complete". Perhaps it would be better to take a few months rather than a few weeks to climb the ladder to the roof. Perhaps by then all those maps might look fresher and more inviting to re-visit.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps I'd be complaining of the grind and the tedium and couldn't we just cut to the chase. Well, I probably wouldn't but very many would. Replayability is not an easily-solved problem for MMOs and it turns out that ANet didn't have the magic wand they thought they did, but still, GW2 makes a better go of it than many.

Whether the current fix will make the journey more compelling or more off-putting remains to be seen. At the moment I'm more open-minded about it than I expected. Fifteen levels have flown by even though I've been trying to take things slow and steady. So far I don't see any evidence of gameplay or design decisions likely to make a brand new player log off in frustration or boredom, never to return. The implementation may be iffy but it's possible the conception may yet be sound. And even if it's not I'm very happy I decided to go find out for myself.

Next up, Diessa Plateau and the Megaserver Experience:  Greatest Hits or that Difficult Second Album?


  1. "one that made me wonder, possibly for the first time, whether the Flat Leveling Curve and Dynamic Level Adjustment may not be such great ideas after all"

    I can say after resubbing to WoW for a bit that indeed they were great ideas and while they may not have worked out for the end game as they expected them to they are still fantastic for the leveling portion. In fact I think it may have ruined me to playing other MMOs.

    In GW2 I could explore any zone at my leisure, have something to do in any given direction that interested me and stick around until everything I wanted to see was done. In contrast playing WoW I am pushed from quest hub to quest hub in whatever zone is specific to my level, and they have tuned XP so much off questing that just running around killing monsters and seeing what's out there isn't a very good option. I suppose for some people it feels comforting because they know where to go but for me it feels like they've put a leash on my neck.

    In addition there are many zones in WoW that the XP curved has messed with so much that you stop gaining experience long before the quest-lines are completed. I think Anet's solution really solves that problem too with the only "drawback" being you can't 1 shot mobs 10 levels below you.

    1. I think these are slightly different issues. I abhor quest hubs and MMO design that expects you to level primarily or solely by quest completion. Can't stand it, don't do it - or at least not unless I find the quests themselves interesting and compelling enough to merit following them, as would be the case in The Secret World, for example. I much prefer system that lets you wander about, kill what you feel like and level up that way.

      The problem I'm thinking of for GW2 isn't that. It's that you level SO fast. Normally I never notice this because I wander about all over the place and leave everything half-finished but this time, because I'm specifically trying to gauge how things might feel for a brand-new player, I am trying to play "properly" and do one map at a time.

      Doing it that way I am finishing each map about a third to a half below that map's stated level range. It's ironic, because this is what I remember players complaining bitterly about right back at launch and was one of the people trying to explain that that's not how GW2 was meant to be played and they should roam around more and not try to finish each map in order.

      If you are semi-roleplaying a Charr, however, it makes no sense whatsoever to take off and go roaming all over the world. It barely makes any sense to go roaming the Charr lands. I found that my Guardian just doesn't want top leave Ascalon to "level up". She wants to explore her own heritage so as to become a better cog in the Iron Legion machine, not wander the world like a Gladium. For that reason I'd be happier if she was leveling about 30% slower than she is.

  2. I think the problem with Gw2 was that they really couldn't decide in which path they more wanted to go. They have all these great ideas for creating a more open experience yet, they held back and added many of the same similar failings

    You have the dynamic leveling but the never made it to scale up which leaves your initial experience completing each zone in turn. YOU still have defined levels and a structure of zones that pushes you on to the next, continuing on until it's the same usual linear questing. Even the way you move around zones in the beginning is more linear.

    The differences in levels and gear make a big difference in the experience too with regards to power. It's much harder to quest above your level and down levelling still leaves you far more powerful.

    The there is that with the design of the zones, they still have level specific gathering within, and with the importance of some of them it leaves the end zones still more desirable. Then there is that the high level zones were far more rewarding in the beginning with loot which created the habit.

    Looking at it now, when at cap the more important zones seem to be the ones that are just better designed, more rewarding and more enjoyable to be in that are the more popular. So i guess they half succeeded

    1. I'm going to try and address this in my Diessa post if I have time to get it done today. Short version: I had few problems completing content 5 levels above me, solo, and with others around it was verging on trivial. This was wearing and using level-appropriate crafted gear and stuff from the Karma vendors as I opened them.

      You could blame this on the re-tuning but if you look back at some of my posts from beta I was saying the same then. I have never found it very hard in GW2 to complete most above-level content, within the same kind of 5-level range that's the norm in most MMOs.

      It's probably a matter of taste, but I can't agree that the higher level zones are better designed. I feel it goes the opposite way, approximately, although some of my very favorite zones are in the 30-50 range. Around 60 the maps begin to become annoying (and often visually unpleasant) and I can't think of many, possibly any, 70+ zones that I actually like to spend time in and indeed I very rarely go to any of them other than to get a specific task done.

      In fact, when I come to think of it, other than for the Living Story and World Bosses, I've spent almost the entirety of the last year in about three or four 1-15 and 15-25 Maps plus WvW. I must have spent over 25% of my entire GW2 game-time in Wayfarer Foothills alone!

  3. The leveling experience and game world of GW2 was far superior to anything i'd done before and since, if i look at it as a solo leveling experience. What i missed the most and what i felt was missing from the game were those really dangerous areas on each map that required grouping up. Now this ties to the lack of trinity, which i also missed dearly and more than i expected.

    In theory, the auto leveling feature was a great idea. Players never out-level zones and can always go back and help their friends without steamrolling content. The problem of course is incentive to do so after 100% map completion. This could have been remedied by implementing some old school mechanics such as super rare spawns or more interesting and difficult achievements.

  4. My GW2 leveling experiences have been:

    1) Desperately trying to keep up with my ultra-impatient friend making icons light up as we blaze across terrain viewed mostly from the map. It's irritating when something gets in the way of your arrow and you have to switch back to third person view to get unstuck again.
    2) Queensdale Train.

    I know, I'm doing it wrong. I did have a few solo leveling evenings on my thief and thoroughly enjoyed myself. It is a really strong leveling experience for sure.

    They need to implement remorts. Is this going to be the theme of all the posts I missed over Easter.


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