Monday, October 26, 2015

A Gated Community : GW2

When I said yesterday that there'd been a bit of grumbling about the grind needed to open Elite Specializations I may have been guilty of understatement. Just a tad. The thread on the topic on the official forum is currently clocking in at fifty-seven pages with nearly three thousand comments and more than seventy thousand views.

It's not unusual for the GW2 forums to blow up over some perceived injustice, of course. More like business as usual. Even so, a rebellion of this magnitude is hard to ignore.

ArenaNet have made some effort of late to show willing when it comes to engaging with their public over contentious in-game issues. It's perhaps harder for them than for other game developers because of the strict policy of "we don't talk about what we're doing until we actually do it" that they've employed for as long as anyone can remember.

Still, even they appear to have realized that following that line with fanatical zeal causes more problems than it solves. Hence the following announcement from Colin Johanson:

"While we never like to rush and make snap decisions, in particular with a game that’s basically been out less than three days; I think there are some fair points in here for us to discuss. Much like other feedback about HoT, we’ll be discussing this as well!"

So, expect a row-back on difficulty or a reduction in requirements or possibly even the conversion of the entire system from Character to Account Based. Conceivably all three at once, I guess.

It's always a difficult balancing act. The expansion has, as Colin says, only been out for a weekend. New content in MMOs almost always seems a lot harder when it first drops than it will ever feel again in the lifetime of the game. Without making any changes at all, things that seemed impossible yesterday will most likely look manageable by next week and downright easy by Wintersday.

In some ways it might be more logical to open with a lower level of difficulty and tweak it upwards as players gain knowledge and their characters gain power but MMOs rarely take that risk. Few players respond well to having the edge taken off their swords.

It leaves developers trying to present content that isn't off-putting now yet will still have some appeal throughout the months and possibly years before it's replaced. Don't fancy that job much.

In this case, however, while the "difficulty" is part of the issue (Hero Challenges in Heart of Thorns are, by and large, not soloable) the real bone of contention is content gating. A lot of people - and judging by that thread it really is a lot of people - were under the impression they'd bought new Elite Specializations they could use right away.

They weren't planning on having to explore their way across several very confusing, and dangerous new maps to find twenty or thirty Hero Challenges before they could fire up their Scrapper or Chronomancer and take it for a run. It seems many of them were kind of planning on making that the first thing they did after HoT finished patching so having to wait hours, let alone days or even weeks has come as something of a surprise.

There are those who just power through, naturally. By Saturday word was that it took around nineteen straight hours to grind out the points for one full Elite Spec. Obsessive, yes, but at least once it's done it's done, right?

Well, not if you happen to have one of each class, which quite a few players do. Or more than one. GW2 has been famously friendly towards those who like to make lots of characters. With a level 80 of each of the nine classes just getting Elite Specs for all of them while playing a generous thirty hours a week would take something like a month and a half if that's all you did. And to add insult to injury you'd have to do the exact same content all nine times.

Clearly that's a worst-case scenario but it points up the core issue: the Elite Specs are gated behind repetitive content. That's not an image that fits GW2's supposedly open, jump in and play playstyle.

Heart of Thorns is big on gates. This is just the squeakiest. Raids, we hear, will be gear-gated, and the storyline is gated by Masteries. That's mildly annoying although it makes some kind of internal sense.

The idea is to introduce players to the various skills and concepts they'll need to explore the open maps, also gated by Masteries, by building them into the stages of the Personal Story as it crosses the landscape. That has the side-effect of predicating which Masteries a player chooses to open, which is unfortunate to put it politely.

For example, I would have preferred to train Glider to V before starting on either Nunoch or Exalted Lore but at the grindingly slow pace they unlock to do so would mean leaving the story for a week or two. Chances of avoiding spoilers by then? Slim. Not to mention that the story is actually rather interesting and I'd like to follow it to the end before I forget what happened at the beginning.

It would have been better in retrospect to have given the player character these abilities, temporarily, as they entered each instance that required them. That would have had the dual benefits of introducing the skills and creating a desire for them yet leaving it to the player to allocate his or her priorities and time outside the storyline.

I do believe these design decisions, which must be difficult to make at the best of times, have been taken with the best interests of the players in mind. Often players really don't have the clearest view of what's good for the long-term health of the game. Although it's true that there's a commercial requirement to keep people playing I don't really buy the argument that the motivation behind all this is based on stretching a small amount of content out for as long as possible.

Nevertheless, while the intention may have been to introduce people to the new movement and language skills gently and steadily and to make opening the Elite Specializations meaningful and satisfying, the effect has been almost the reverse. That's dangerous. Angry players who feel they've been short-changed or tricked don't make the best long-term customers and they certainly don't make good advocates for the game.

It may be true - I think it probably is - that there are far more players playing and enjoying HoT than posting angrily on the forums but those players aren't the ones making the news. Therefore it looks odds on that HoT will get easier sooner than the developers intended.

The Countryside Code says you should always "leave gates as you find them" but Tyria's another country altogether. Let's hope they do things differently there.


  1. I hate to sound like one of those embittered ex-fans you always find online, but the more I read about HoT, the clearer it's becoming to me that GW2 has become almost completely divorced from everything that once attracted me to it.

    I had assumed elite specializations would be analogous to new classes or talent choices as they appear in other games. That is, they would be available immediately upon logging into the expansion, or at most require a nominal amount of leveling or equivalent content to unlock. That such a core expansion feature is apparently locked behind a fairly major grind is baffling to me. It wouldn't make sense for any game, but it makes especially little sense for a game that once prided itself on a casual and laidback attitude like GW2.

    Well, I'm glad I didn't fall for the initial hype and buy the expansion. Thankfully, I've got plenty of other games to occupy myself.

    1. The weirdest thing about HoT is that it feels more like playing right after launch three years ago than almost any new content they have added between then and now. The new maps have that same feel of actual places where odd creatures live and go about their lives, something Southsun, Dry Top and Silverwastes never came close to replicating. Exploring them is enormously enjoyable.

      For all the fuss, getting the Elite Specs works very much the way getting all the original traits and skills worked. Those were all gated although the type of gate varied revamp by revamp. There were level and gold gates and Skill Point gates and the "go and do this thing in that map" gates but as far as I can recall you always had to do something.

      The problem here seems to be that the pre-release publicity failed to put that over to a lot of the people who bought HoT. That's a marketing error rather than a design one. It was clear to me but obviously not to everyone. I haven't even gotten around to starting on one Elite Spec yet and I've played almost non-stop since Friday evening. I'm happy to let the Hero points build up and get around to using them when the point bank is full.

  2. Sorry this is a long one. Judging from the little I have seen so far, HoT seems to be focused on giving players a sense of progression without an explicit character level involved as everyone stays at 80. In one of your previous articles, you mentioned that they were making a slow 180 towards a more traditional themepark game. It is already here. Instead of levelling your character, you are levelling masteries. That is Anet's version of the levelling grind and like every other themepark, it is gating content behind these masteries or compelling you to do specific content to obtain specific masteries. Instead of main story being level locked like FFXIV, it is content locked via masteries. That in my opinion is worse because in the latter I have to do specific content to advance versus having the freedom to decide how to level in the former.

    As I recall in old GW2, the grind was optional for legendaries and for achievements. Masteries is mandatory. So is getting specific gear for specific activities in GW2 such as raiding. The experience is much more guided and much more rigid in HoT vs GW2 vanilla. Players have a right to be upset as it is a significant change in the experience to my mind. As for the argument about slowly introducing people to skills and to make things more meaningful and satisfying, that is nonsense. There is nothing complex about the gameplay or concepts involved in GW2. It is most certainly filler to stretch the game's replayability. Gliding does not need a mastery. Get in the glider and use the controls to fly it. Done.

    As for the increased mob challenge, I actually welcome it. I thought PVE combat incredibly dull in GW2 despite the interesting skills. It was one of the big reasons I left two years ago. Another positve: the maps! A joy to explore spoiled only by some ridiculous immersion breaking gating.

    You mention that it may be true that far more people are enjoying HoT than complaining on the forums. Any marketing person worth his salt will tell you that for every customer that complains directly, there are far more that say not one word and simply shut their wallets to you in silence. I do not take the smooth launch as a good indicator of the expansion's interest. Time will tell.

    1. As I said when they were first announced, Masteries are what DBG would call AAs. AA stands for Alternate Advancement and they were invented to give players something semi-structured to chip away at as well as or instead of levels. It's a system I've always liked because it lets you do whatever you'd normally do and get interesting or useful abilities as a side-effect of doing it.

      To my mind the issue here is with players' expectations and preferences not game design. For me, Heart of Thorns works really well because I like to potter around doing whatever I feel like doing and yet I like to see substantive character progression while I'm doing it. From my perspective I have no need to "grind" anything - not Hero Points, Masteries or xp. I can just wander about exploring, do Hero Challenges, events, vistas and Mastery locations as and when I happen upon them and then spend the points on whatever looks interesting.

      I only looked at the Personal Story at all to see how enjoyable it might be and I've progressed a fair way through it because I found it both easy and entertaining. By contrast, after three years and seventeen Level 80 characters I have never finished the original Personal Story on anyone and many of them have never even started.

      As far as the Personal Story being locked behind a Mastery "grind", Mrs Bhagpuss didn't begin playing Heart of Thorns until late Saturday afternoon and as I write this she's on the final chapter (which is bugged apparently). It seems to me that a storyline that can be completed in one weekend's play can scarcely be said to be inaccessible. She soloed the whole thing too.

      That said, I wouldn't have made the Masteries a pre-requisite. As I said I'd have given the abilities temporarily in the instances that used them which would have solved the problem neatly I think. I'd also have difficulty options (Easy, Normal, Hard, Nightmare for example) on all instanced content and I'd have a "Skip Combat" option in addition to the existing "Skip Dialog" one. Give the customer the choice to tailor his or her own experience and get away from this "One size fits all" obsession, at least in non-competitive instanced content.

      As for the satisfied vs unsatisfied customers, who knows where the numbers fall on that? I'm enjoying it a lot, that's all I can say for sure.

  3. If Arenanet had increased the level cap to 160 and said "look to get everything for the elite spec you need to reach level 160" I wonder what the reaction would have been instead.

    Masteries are no different than a level cap increase with the exception that a level 20 mastery guy can fight alongside a level 1 mastery and there is no power difference.

    My experience has been that most of the champions in the hero challenges can be done by a duo and that simply advertising it in map chat and LFG will yield 2+ people.


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