Saturday, 14 November 2015

Too Much Of A Good Thing? : GW2

Ravious has an excellent two-part overview up at Kill Ten Rats covering, in detail, the meta-events on the four new Heart of Thorns maps. These form the spine of the kind of open-world content ANet seems to expect to provide for us over the coming months and years.

Next week sees the introduction of the first, instanced, raid "wing", Spirit Vale. Living Story 2 was heavily instanced and naturally the new Personal Story is too. Much of the game seems to be tending that way, taking it in a rather different direction from the one many of us probably imagined it would go, but still a huge amount of development time and effort is also going into large-scale, open world mega-events like the ones Ravious examines.

Unlike raids, which seem to have come out of nowhere, this was always the plan. Back in 2012, pre-launch publicity suggested two kinds of end-game equivalent for the famously end-gameless GW2: a PvE version where long, complex chains of Dynamic Events networked entire maps and open-world PvP in World vs World. It was a plan that quickly went awry.

Yada yada. Where's the loot?

The PvE end game, based entirely in the three southernmost maps covering the drowned lands of Orr, was not well-received. Since it was content that relied on large numbers of players it had to be heavily and repeatedly tweaked, mostly downwards in difficulty, to attract any kind of critical mass. WvW largely fell into a holding pattern as a niche activity, beloved and bemoaned in equal measure by a dedicated but not very substantial following, booming occasionally when "Seasons" attracted large swathes of PvE players looking for Achievements and material rewards.

There's much more to be said about that, and where WvW goes next, but it deserves a post of its own. Suffice it to say, with neither of the expected late-game, ongoing content models living up to expectation, ANet moved on to iterate (their favorite pastime) on a number of other means of holding onto their audience and bringing in the dollars.

There was a lot of talk about Cadences and Feature Packs and a Living World. We had overarching narratives that few had the patience or interest to sit through. The Scarlet storyline, which even makes some kind of sense now, was widely reviled and derided while it was with us although with hindsight and the rose-tinted spectacles of time it's beginning to look like some kind of Golden Age.

They also serve, who only stand and ping.

We had a stream of one and two time special events. The Karka Invasion, Super Adventure Box, Bazaar of the Four Winds, The Queen's Gauntlet and the rest came and went with a mystifying disregard for player interest or reaction.

Finally we came to Dry Top and a workable pattern emerged at last. The end game, at least as far as open world PvE was concerned, would, as always envisaged, come from map-wide event chains only, unlike Orr, there would be a clear, visible framework with prompts and a timer. No longer would it be left to players to initiate and organize the chains; the system would do it automatically at set, regular times.

The seeds of the concept had been planted long ago, in the scheduling of World Bosses, in the changes made to the Tequatl event and subsequently in the even more organization-dependent Triple Trouble. The move to Megaservers and the rapid development of the Taxi system on LFG largely undercut the need for the odious, elitist specialist cross-server Event guilds, allowing ad hoc PUG raids to form and organize with relative ease.

There's always one.

Dry Top and its neighbor, Silverwastes, the last two, new overland maps introduced before Heart of Thorns, moved the meta on from discrete events that took fifteen to thirty minutes every three or four hours to a never-ending sequence on a rolling 24 hour boil. It's a format that's proved both popular and manageable with a sizable proportion of the playerbase and in HoT it's been refined and codified for clarity and coherence.

In all four maps the meta rolls in and out like a tide. There are peaks and lulls but the waves never end. It's an ocean; you can dive deep or dip in as you will. You can surf events with the zerg or solo in the shallows but almost whatever you do you'll find yourself in the water somehow, making ripples that merge with the flow.

One of the problems of GW2's major event chains has always been players not knowing where to be or what to do. With the size, scale and ambition of the new sequences ANet have made it so that almost anything a player does contributes to the grand design. They also made a decision to take some of the responsibility for organization upon themselves.

Is this the fail state? It all blurs into one after a while. Oh well, chests either way.

There are frequent prompts and instructions, from NPCs in voiceover and in large bars of text across the center of the screen. The game itself gives direct instructions on what to do and when to do it. It's unsubtle but in the hurly burly it's surprisingly effective and welcome.

There are moves afoot to remove much of GW2's signature visual clutter - the blooming neon spell effects and explosions that often make it impossible even to see the larger boss mobs let alone the ground markers you're supposed to not be stepping in. The cross-screen text is visual clutter of its own but it seems like like a necessary evil right now.

Players are a lot better at spontaneous organization than some of the elitist hardcore elements like to give them credit for but nevertheless there are always plenty of people at every event who haven't been there often enough (or at all) to have a clear understanding of what's required of them. Surprisingly, not everyone reads Dulfy's superlative guides. A good Commander (or now a good Mentor) can do a lot with a map that's willing to listen but good Commanders are a finite resource. System messages are always there, they're indefatigable and they can't be trolled.

Aghhhh! He's looking at me!!

So, iteration seems to be doing its job for now. The framework, at least, is up and stable. Whether a larger edifice can be constructed around it seems less clear. That is, however and presumably, the plan. ANet have said they intend to develop GW2 indefinitely rather than work on a sequel. Presume they don't plan on going out of business so that means a lifetime for the game measured in many years, perhaps decades.

After three years and one expansion we have (looking just at open world end-game content) over a dozen 5-15 minute World Boss events, all on fixed timers of 2-3 hours, running 24/7. There are two longer World Boss events that take 15-30 minutes, Tequatl and Evolved Jungle Wurm. There are three open-ended full-map events, Dry Top, Silverwastes and Verdant Brink, which cycle endlessly through a sequence every couple of hours or so. Finally there are three maps that run a never-ending rotation of two hours duration, culminating in a major event or sequence of events.

That's a lot of action and most of it overlaps. Other than the original World Bosses little of it scales well; or at all. All of the newer, iterated, end-game, open world content requires fairly large numbers of players to succeed. Not always a full map but sixty or so at the low end.

Rangers! Go South!

Megaserver technology (when it works, which it still does not, reliably, in the new maps, despite supposedly having been fixed) and a substantial population due to the slowly fading shine of a new expansion, mean that things are bumping along not too awkwardly for the moment. Imagine the picture in a year, though, with that year's worth of new things to do added. Imagine it in five years with (let's hope) two more expansions in place.

There are only so many hours in the day and only so many players to play them. Funneling the available population into a series of five-person instanced dungeons and ten-person instanced raids is one thing: filling six, twelve or eighteen whole maps with sixty to a hundred players for an event that lasts two hours? We're going to run out of either players or hours or both and soon.

So, self-evidently, this is a model that will require further iteration. Ravious suggested some events could be moved to a longer frequency - once a day or even once a week. That would certainly work logistically but I doubt it would fly well with an audience trained to expect a much faster cadence, to revive an old buzzword. Better scaling would be another option but then, no doubt, the rewards would have to scale too and, frankly, many of them are not all that encouraging even as they stand.

I have no idea what's going on. As usual.

It's a problem, for sure, but in many ways it's a good problem to have. Bhelgast recently posted an excellent introduction to EQ2 in which he gives a very accurate impression of what an MMO with almost too much content looks like. I agree with everything he says except for one observation: he thinks they don't make them like that any more. I think they do and I think GW2 is one of the ones they've made.

Come back in eight years, when GW2 is the same age EQ2 is now, and take a look. If there isn't a "separated at birth" thing going on by then it will only be because of ANet's ruthless willingness to remove content that SOE/DBG would allow to accrete. Of the two approaches, ANet's is probably the wiser but I prefer the alternative. In the end I'd rather have the content there and not be able to use it effectively than have it removed altogether.

Then again, this is ANet we're talking about. Come back in three years, leave alone eight, and we might be looking at something different entirely. That's what happens when you can't stop iterating. Enjoy it while it lasts.

10 comments:

  1. I think we've certainly hit the 'too much content' threshold with Heart of Thorns.

    I found myself torn today on whether I should do more HoT map metas or sit in core Tyria catching up on masteries or catching up with fractals and related achievements. The latter won, I guess I over-focused attention on the new zones in the past few weeks and I'm now on the rebound.

    As you say though, it is a good problem to have, and we need to come to terms with lateral progression MMOs working in this fashion. For every one thing you choose to do, you're giving up doing X number of other things. Such is life.

    Anet knows how to channel activity though. They've done it before in GW1 with Zaishen dailies and special xp weekends and so on. If they ever feel something hasn't been touched for too long, enter some kind of seasonal tournament or event with special rewards or doubled xp/progress, and the players will flock in droves once more.

    Imo, it's okay for map metas to not succeed every hour on the hour. Dry Top doesn't hit Tier 6 every day now. It's up to the players to organize a special event, say, hosted by DTOP or similar guild, and push it there. The rarity of it doing so will help to drive attendance.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The huge advantage the HoT maps have over Dry Top and Silverwastes is there's actually plenty to do there without the meta. In many ways they operate like "ordinary" maps as far as events go and there are all the Mastery and Hero Points, the Adventures, the collects and so on. Plus, of course, the fantastic gliding and the visual spectacle. DT and SW on the other hand are mostly dull, empty and purposeless other than for the Metas. They would be as empty as Southsun without them. Actually, Southsun is more interesting.

      While I don't doubt ANet's ability to drive attendance to wherever they want it to go, it's still a zero-sum game as we have seen with previous special events. Anything that requires a large number of players draws disproportionately from the same pool at the expense of other options. That's inevitable, I think. The idea that any MMO can both grow and expand year on year and yet keep all its content popular and well-used and all its maps and zones busy and bustling is a pipe dream. I'm increasingly of the opinion that MMOs that plan on hanging around for many years need to use a modular plan, where the population is moved on to new content and the old content is shuttered behind them. The old one-way door principle is my favorite, where you can stay in older content for as long as you like but to access new content you have to pass through a portal that won't permit you to return. Rather like Ascalon before and after The Searing in fact.

      Delete
    2. I agree, and I am hoping that I can get some internal focus via HoT legendaries, two of which I want!

      Delete
  2. One thing that Arenanet has been concerned about for years and most adamant about it is the ghost town syndrome.
    That is one of the reasons, if not the main reason, we "only" got 4 new maps with the expansion.

    I doubt that Arenanet will suddenly change that (although there are always revenue considerations).
    They are giving every map something you can only get there.
    I'm sure eventually HoT will be added ot the F2P
    There is always AI, either by adding NPC allies to each map or by giving AI companions to players.

    I think there are ways.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Many MMOs eventually hit the point where they have to provide AI support in the form of Mercenaries. GW2 has the huge advantage there that the original game was built with AI companions as a huge part of the gameplay so the reaction to something similar being added to GW2 would probably be mass rejoicing and parties across Lion's Arch.

      Even if they only add four maps per expansion, though, and even if they only do an expansion every three years (which I very much doubt would be financially prudent, particularly with NCSoft still holding the purse strings) the current format would still outstrip the capacity of the population to support it sooner rather than later. And you can hardly go three years between releases with no new content and expect to have customers left so the frequency of significant new explorable territory will need to be better than that.

      Either that or the game becomes one of infinitely repeatable instances, which is a distinct possibility, looking at the plans for Fractals and even Raids. If so it won't be of much interest to me anyway.

      Delete
  3. You say that the content does not scale well. This is not really true. Silverwastes can be done by 20 people, perhaps less if they are good. You only need five at each fort and i think the bosses scale perfectly too. It's amazing how fast the Modrem go down when they are not scaled up. Vinewrath i'm not so sure, but i bet it will scale too.

    Dry Top is a little harder but i think with organisation it can be done with not so many people. And you only need to reach tier four to get everything from the vendors and tier four is really easy to get. It's not as cheap, but nothing will be locked away.

    HoT i'm not so sure, but i bet they will scale well too. At least Verdant Brink. For Instance i can rally and defend an outpost on my own at nighttime. The defend events are a bit harder but it is doable and if even one or two additional players chip in it's not a problem. I think most HoT maps can be done without a full map.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There was some discussion in Auric map chat the other day about how many people it needed to do the Octovine and the consensus was around 15 at each of the four vines, so 60. It was also pointed out that you could do it with a lot fewer if a zerg went round all four and prepped them to 5% then went round again and killed them all. I'd like to see that tried - it sounds good on paper.

      As I write this I've been in two Verdant Brink maps for around 90 minutes doing HPs . Both were low population (the first popped the Low Pop transfer window and I took it). Neither has made any noticeable progress towards any kind of completion and no-one seems remotely interested in changing that. It's possible the scaling might allow it but it seems unlikely that enough small groups or individuals are going to self-organize to test the hypothesis.

      The problem really isn't how well any event scales, it's how well people believe it scales. Jormag, for example, scales quite well but it's next to impossible to get anyone to stay and try it when there are only a dozen people there.

      Delete
  4. I'm already seeing some of the effects of what you are talking about. I started the precursor quest because it looked like a fun way to revisit old sites and take a break from the overstimulating new maps. It started out well with me doing an event to bring a giant to a grave and talk to a ghost.

    Then the school of Arena Net design reared its head. The next item in the collection told me to go to Orr with a hint to "Cleanse the Temple of Zephyrs". I show up there and it is uncontested with 8 people waiting around equipped with great swords. After sitting there for like 20 minutes an event to defend it pops up which everyone there starts doing because that seems like it might be a way to "Cleanse the Temple". Half way through the event other people on the map literally start FREAKING out about people defending as apparently that event needs to FAIL in order for some other chain to spawn to take people up there. Many of the people on the map had been waiting hours as these events start very infrequently. I had to lookup on a wiki what was needed and why people were mad which sucked the fun right out of working on the precursor.

    This is one precursor item and there are like 20 legendaries with 10 quests each. If there are more quests like these split between the various maps the good natured helpfulness GW2 is so good at is going to be sucked dry very quickly. Arena Net amazes me sometimes, they come up with some very good ideas but then make really rookie mistakes that somehow sour good intentions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When I was in Orr doing Hero Points a week or two back there was endless bickering in map chat over which events needed to fail to get another event started. That's been a feature of Orr as long as I can remember and it crops up in other areas too - long event chains that are consequent on various prerequisites or win/lose conditions.

      Obviously the idea was to create a degree of pseudo-realism - it was much ballyhooed before launch with the Centaur raid example - but as soon as rewards are pegged to various outcomes players will want to game the events. It is surprising that after three years they keep doing it.

      Delete
    2. It's not even a matter of the principle. The infamous "do tasks to unlock traits" system had this exact problem with this exact event (as well as the other Orrian temples). They fixed it there by letting the defense event count for credit, which I'm guessing they'll do here too.

      Delete

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide