Saturday, 10 January 2015

All The Burning Bridges: GW2

Jeromai has a deeply disturbing speculative post concerning the upcoming Big Announcement that ArenaNet have planned for Pax South at the end of the month. The gist is this: what if the whole of the first three years of GW2 were just the bait for the biggest bait&switch in the history of MMOs?

It all comes out of the recent video teaser entitled "Point of No Return", an apparently innocuous little squib that I watched when it came out and then immediately forgot. Others, however, saw more in it than I did. Some found their thoughts drifting back to Tyrias's past; to The Searing.

The Searing was - I guess is, since you can go and experience it right now by logging into the original Guild Wars and playing through the Origins campaign from the beginning - the previous holder of the oscar for "Biggest Bait&Switch In An MMORPG". I remember it vividly from my original playthrough back in 2005. It remains one of the most impressive and disturbing uses of the MMO form for what you could loosely call an artistic purpose.

Steering clear of the lore and avoiding detailed spoilers (although even knowing 'something happens' is itself a spoiler), Guild Wars begins by allowing you to make a character and letting you believe you're playing a particular kind of MMO in a particular kind of setting before smashing the whole thing up with a big hammer and making you start over again from scratch. This video catches the tone quite nicely although you can only get the emotional impact by playing through the game itself.

At the time it happened I hated it. I really hated it. I loved pre-Searing Ascalon from the moment I stepped out onto those golden, autumnal grasslands. I loved the petty problems and the little quests. I was ready for weeks, months of the same. Then I got to about level five and all of that was snatched away. I was hopping mad.

Still, I'd only been playing for a few hours and my character was only level five. I got over it pretty quickly, especially when what came next turned out to be quite compelling. By the time I'd reached the conclusion of the Origins storyline and was able to look back from the dizzy heights of level 20, over the month or so the journey had lasted, I was already taking a much more sanguine view of the whole approach. Yes, it was shocking but it was a real coup of storytelling and a highly impressive use of the limited narrative tools available to an MMO designer at the time. +1 ANet.

Now here we are all these years later. There's a dragon stirring and we know from the examples of Orr and The Far Shiverpeaks that, when dragons wake, everything changes. Orr is a wasteland, drowned and razed, filled with undead following Zhaitan's rise. The formidable, if inscrutable, Kodan, supposedly immortal, creators of city-sized ships hewn from ice, live as refugees, driven south by the awakening of Jormag. No-one knows what's happening down in The Crystal Desert, where Kralkatorrik fell after the abortive battle with Destiny's Edge because no-one has been able to go there or return ever since.

Mordremoth, the latest dragon to stir from its slumber, turns out to have been sleeping right below us. Given the examples of recent history how can we expect to carry on as normal now Scarlet has woken him up? Here we have motive, we have opportunity and we have form. Hence the speculation.

 ArenaNet have done this before, after all, and it worked. It's almost becoming their Modus Operandi: there's not only The Searing to consider but the long, slow death of Lion's Arch. A region; a city; why not the whole known world?

That's the in-game logic with a salting of house style. There's more to it though. ArenaNet have been adamant since launch that GW2 will not have boxed expansions. They leave the tiniest wriggle room but emotionally the tone has always been "Not on our watch". Instead we've been served the thrashings and churnings of The Living Story plus intermittent Feature Packs that purport to offer (yet evidently do not), the free equivalent of a standalone, purchased add-on.

NCSoft reports show earnings declining, while trade reports confidently outline the expected action to remedy that problem - the release of planned expansions. Meanwhile ANet was spared in NCSoft's latest round of cost-cutting and there's known to be a large development team working on...something.

For a while I've been wondering how ANet might find a way to square the circle of having to release an expansion for financial reasons while still being able to claim, for reasons of personal prestige, that no expansion was released. This could be the answer. Instead of adding a whole new region or continent replace an existing one. That way Tyria hasn't been "expanded"; it's been "changed".

Well, it would be a bold move, that's for sure. A hubristic, arrogant, "Look at me Mummy!" attention-seeking move, yes, but undeniably a bold one. What it wouldn't be, of course, is original. Wasn't there another MMO that tried something really quite similar not so long ago? Stap me if there wasn't a dragon behind that one, too.

Dominant though WoW has been in the genre, this particular piece of Blizzard wisdom would be an odd model to emulate. I don't think Cataclysm is generally reckoned to be WoW's finest hour. Wasn't that the period when the game really began to bleed subscriptions? Why, yes it was.

After nearly three years observing the outcomes of whatever passes for decision-making at ANet Towers, though, I really wouldn't put anything past the current regime. The tastes or interests of players seem to bear little or no relevance in the lurches in direction the game spasmodically suffers. Neither does anyone seem especially interested in maximizing revenue streams.


Rather, they seem to revel in making changes a lot of players don't like while attempting to sell them things they don't want. It's true that MMO players are a notoriously curmudgeonly audience, willing to ascribe the worst motives to everyone but themselves, but even in that light GW2's relationship with its audience has been...difficult. For me, most everything that happens seems to be best understood as a series of internal power-plays and positionings, which, to be fair, is probably how companies with hundreds of career-minded individuals all focused on a single product usually tend to operate.

Even so, even with the most self-obsessed, solipsistic of world-views, sealed in the hermetic bubble of management meetings and focus groups, surely tearing down the world and starting again from scratch couldn't seem like a good idea to anyone.

Could it?

4 comments:

  1. That would be a fantastically arrogant level of self-righteousness if they were to tear down the world for their own purposes, but I'm heartened by the commenter on Jeromai's blog who suggests that the post-Searing world could be the destination of a rite of passage for level 80 characters, something along the lines of becoming Ascended and then being eligible to participate in the huge Elder Dragon raids or whatever their AI consultant is going to be offering us.

    In less destructive news, the latest analysis from KDB Daewoo Securities shows projected revenues of 91B Won in 3Q15 for GW2 which is equal to the combined revenues of the previous four quarters. ArenaNet will almost certainly be compelled to release a big chunk of content in one form or another in the second half of 2015 despite their philosophical bluster.

    WildStar, on the other hand, is projected to take in 15B Won in all of 2015. I'm not a betting man, but if I had to put money or sink or swim, I'd probably go with the Tabula Rasa treatment.

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    1. The Ascended option had occurred to me too and I would be very happy with that. I find it a stretch too far to imagine they would completely obliterate the existing content although they have shown a disturbing degree of ruthlessness in the past. Once you go that far, though, you might surely just as well launch a new game entirely.

      Whatever they have planned it looks like being an interesting year!

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  2. IMHO, an expansion is coming and and dulfy have clues that the name will be "Heart of Thorns", that we can guess it is about Mordremoth and Maguma zones.

    For be sincere, I am paying no money for play GW2, I am using in game gold for buy gems, and I have spare money for buy an expansion.

    But I really want tengu as a new race...

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    1. You and about a million other people if map chat in LA is anything to go buy. And yep, looks as though we have our expansion title. I would still not be surprised to hear ANet come up with some way of spinning the news release to say it's not "an expansion" but who cares what they call it so long as we get it.

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