Monday, September 21, 2015

Warm Impermanence : GW2

In just over a month's time the Alpine Borderlands maps that have been the mainstay of GW2's World vs World gameplay for the entire three year life of the game to date will vanish. When Heart of Thorns arrives they'll be replaced wholesale by the Desert Borderlands.

Unlike the new sPvP map, Stronghold, which has been made available several times for open play-testing, or even the PvE map, Verdant Brink, which has been revealed in piece-meal fashion to anyone willing to pre-purchase, the Desert Borderlands have remained shuttered behind a strict, invitation-only closed beta.

The absence of an NDA means those of us (almost everyone playing) who didn't receive an invite have been able to read the feedback of those who did and thereby garner some kind of impression. Nevertheless, unless ArenaNet choose to throw open the gates for open testing before the October 23rd launch, come the day we'll all be stepping off a cliff into the unknown.

That's just the beginning of what should prove to be an enormous shake-up for the niche activity that was originally posited as GW2's endgame. In an announcement that seems to have passed largely unnoticed and uncommented on, at least outside of the official WvW forums, ANet certified that following the launch and stabilization of the Heart of Thorns expansion their focus would move to sorting out World vs World once and for all:

"As work on Heart of Thorns wraps up, we’ll be treating resolving the remaining core areas in WvW as our #1 live development feature priority for the game".

John Corpening, the "game director for WvW", who made the announcement, lists a number of the longstanding problems that have dogged WvW ever since it began, with population imbalances, night-capping and the scoring system chief among them. He states that he wants to improve matters by encouraging "...Strategy, Competition, Collaboration, and rewarding the contributions of both players and guilds who participate in the daring adventures and epic battles that make up a great match".

The spectre of PvE hangs above the battlefield.

Whether by "Collaboration" he means more of the kind of "double-teaming" alliances between two of the three servers in a match that most WvW regulars revile and consider tantamount to open cheating isn't clear, although I strongly suspect that in going with a tri-partite system in the first place such alliances were always intended to be part of the plan. More likely he means collaboration between factions on the same team.

Changes already announced to the rules and processes for "claiming" structures like Keeps and Towers suggest that a huge plank of the forthcoming plan to save WvW rests on Guilds. Indeed it seems that with the arrival of the first expansion the development team have at last noticed that the name of their game does suggest, at least to players, war between guilds is what the game's about.

Mention this in map chat and someone will immediately explain the lore behind the name of the "Guild Wars" franchise, which has nothing whatsoever to do with player-run organizations. Commercially, however, it has never made much sense to have a PvP oriented game that features player guilds, call it "Guild Wars" and then do nothing whatsoever that relates to guilds fighting one another.

HoT is set to go some way to correcting that misleading impression with Arenas in the new Guild Halls and a GvG Leaderboard for Stronghold in sPvP but the area where ANet are particularly promoting the clash of guild against guild is in WvW. How that is going to work out in practice is something we won't even begin to understand until it's already upon us.

This huge, looming cloud of uncertainty is one of the prime reasons I'm not very invested in WvW right now. It seems rather pointless to commit time and energy and emotion to something that may be swept away in just a few weeks. In feeling that way I appear to be very much in the minority. Most people are behaving as though nothing is going to change at all.

Group hug!

Of course, we on YB are close to the culmination of what has been a very long campaign. Tunnel vision may have set in. Almost exactly a year ago Yak's Bend began an adventure that saw the server move from plucky T3/T4 stalwart with a history of slacking during normal play and over-achieving in the formal competition of The Season to unlikely contender, first for T2 and then T1.

It was a messy, bloody affair. Never a very popular server, in the long, attritional grind to the top, YB managed to fall out badly with just about everyone we encountered. Our enmities with Stormbluff Isle and Fort Aspenwood remain particularly vicious but they're just the most festering of a number of running sores from our past.

Typically, being Yaks, we profess not to care what anyone thinks of us and claim to thrive on the pressure. And by and large that's how it is in our bubble. Many times we were told we would be broken and yet here we are, more than holding our own in T1, having crashed the tidy little private party that Blackgate, Jade Quarry and Tarnished Coast ran for themselves for so long that it seemed it would always be that way.

To get there we somehow acquired a massive influx of guilds, some of which dropped down from T1 in an attempt to break the hegemony. As far as I know that was their choice. I don't believe we sought them but we welcomed them when they arrived with their carpet-bags in hand. They gave us weight of numbers and coverage that we had never had before yet surprisingly they seem not to have changed our deeply-loathed affection for and reliance on siegecraft and defense. Maybe that's what drew them to us or maybe we just assimilated them as we've done to so many before.

It wasn't meant to be like that. T2 was touted as "the fights tier" until we broke it. I believe that plan has been re-routed to T3. What T2 is like right now I'm not sure but there seems to be some plan afoot to establish a rotation that includes at least some of the two upper echelons, which would make a nice change. We had that in T3/T4 once and it was fun.

How can this even happen?

T1, now we're here, seems oddly familiar. We were led to believe that World vs World in the heady heights of T1 would be very different from what we knew from the minors. It's not. It's just the same only with more people. What does differ the higher up the tiers we rise is the politicking.

Back in T3/T4 eighteen months ago things were far more rough and ready. I barely knew the names of the guilds on other servers we fought against let alone the names of their commanders. These days I know plenty. What used to be an amorphous blob of red ants swarming across our precious borderland now has to be called out by tag and driver as we discuss the different tactics and styles of one guild over another. Behind the scenes deals are made, guilds work together, responsibilities are allocated. There's a modicum of seriousness to it all that never was there before.

That speaks to Anet's purpose. My feeling is that many playing WvW would welcome a structure that encourages and rewards a more formal, militarized approach. Personally I prefer anarchy, chaos and imagination and luckily I have a way to recapture that flavor one in a while. Two of my accounts are on Yak's Bend and always will be but my third account is on Ehmry Bay, down in the bush leagues of T5, and there the old, haphazard ways persist. It's like going on holiday to the past.

When GW2 began there was great hope among many for its three realm large-scale PvP. Old DAOC and Warhammer lags hoped to recreate the good times. Within a few weeks the shine went off that penny. Most of those hopefuls left, often in bad humor. And yet every day when I enter The Mists I find myself fighting alongside names I've known for a year, two years, even three. Some of our commanders have been tagged up since 2012. For a lot of people WvW just works.

It does for me. There's still no player versus player I've done in any MMO to date that compares with a two-hour keep defense like that of our Garrison on Saturday afternoon, when we held off the full map blobs of both JQ and BG working together under, if rumor is true, the command of two real-life brothers. Epic is not the word. Ok, epic is the word!
It'll be nice to have desert sunlight if nothing else.

So, for my money that Anet don't require me to pay, WvW is still working pretty well. Still, as John Corpening says, "...despite being a leader in large team open world battle games ...there are some areas that we can improve." I can think of a few for sure but whether any changes Anet can bring will ever be able to address the fundamental problem John outlines I tend to doubt.

He calls it a "concentration of talent", where "hardcore players from most worlds have migrated upwards through the tiers looking for new experiences and greater challenge", something that has led to "the most dedicated teams locked in near perpetual stand off against the same opponents week after week". And that's the thing; the best will usually want to play with the best. They won't spread out altruistically for the good of the community across all twenty-four servers just so everyone gets a good game.

It took months, literally months, of concerted effort for one server, Yak's Bend, to bull its way to the top. How equality, fairness and excitement is to be promulgated throughout all eight tiers of the North American league without the most committed, involved players clustering together in just a handful of servers for exactly the reasons he gives I have no idea. It would be good if it could happen but so would World Peace and flying penguins.

Still, whatever our Dev Masters have in mind, at least they are finally turning their long, slow gaze in our direction. I guess that's a good thing. I'm not quite sure. I don't quite know whether to be excited or afraid. Probably both I expect.


  1. Your statement about the conflict between the game's name -- "Guild Wars 2" -- and the fact that Guilds don't actually war is one of the things I frequently ponder. In the original title, "Guild vs. Guild" was one of the main activities, was arguably the key point of the endgame. The tournament scene revolved around GvG, every player had an in-game viewer to watch GvG matches more-or-less real time around the clock, the Guild Hall was stacked with NPC mercenaries that could only be used for PvP (primarily GvG) matches.

    In many ways, I wonder if one of the key errors made by Arena Net was to make GW2, which is such a very, very different game, a sequel at all. It has left a number of unfulfilled expectations.

    1. It's so different from GW that you have to think they would have preferred a complete break but needed the name recognition commercially. My impression was that in beta and for the first 3-6 months of Live they would happily have lost all the old GW players if only they could have kept the rest. Unfortunately for them it was the GW vets, by and large, who stuck with the new game while most of the curious didn't last three months. The last two years have been a slow, reluctant trudge back towards what the loyal franchise fans want - kind of. They drag their feet every step of the way though.


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