excellent post up analyzing the attractions of GW2's new map, Bloodstone Fen and the way it plays to an entirely different demographic than the raid content ANet have been pumping out for the rest of this year. He neatly outlines the attitudes and expectations of two major playstyles - Low and High Energy - both which should be immediately recognizable to anyone who's played MMORPGs over the last fifteen or twenty years.
If you browse the official forums you can easily spot the two demographics as they give feedback on Bloodstone Fen. The high energy crowd are complaining the map is small, boring, has nothing worth getting and anyway they've already finished it in a just a session or two. The low energy folks are praising it to the skies, saying what a great time they're having, how they have their freedoms back and how this is what the game is meant to be.
It won't surprise anyone who reads this blog to know I'm in the latter camp. If I had a motto for gaming it would go something along the lines of "if it's not fun, don't do it". I have no issues about dropping things as soon as I notice I'm not enjoying them. Life is already filled with things we don't want to do but can't avoid. I see no rational reason for dragging that painful inevitability into any voluntary leisure activity as well.
Being able to sort all activities easily into "this is fun" or "this isn't fun" and keeping or discarding as appropriate was one of the key attractions of Guild Wars 2 in the first place. The original game didn't require you to do anything specific at all. The player was given absolute agency.
Take the Personal Story as an example. Most MMOs these days have a core storyline, a narrative that the designers expect players to follow. Star Wars: The Old Republic built the entire game on that "fourth pillar". Final Fantasy XIV gated almost all significant character progression behind steps in the story. World of Warcraft, in Cataclysm, constructed a leveling path that was predicated on completing each quest hub before any new ones would open up.
At launch GW2 had a detailed "Personal Story" with multiple, branching starting points for each race that eventually came together in a unified sequence for everyone that climaxed with the death of an Elder Dragon. After four years and with sixteen max-level characters I have never finished it on any of them. It blocks nothing and not doing it has absolutely no effect on any other aspect of the game.
In the original conception of GW2, everything was optional: dungeons, World vs World, PvP, PvE, storyline - they all existed in glorious isolation. There were some small anomalies, like having to open WvW maps for PvE map completion, but not only were such things the exception. Once pointed out, ANet's response was generally to remove them.
In the run-up to launch there was a lot of talk about flat leveling curves and horizontal progression. There was to be no gear grind. You would be able to level your character by doing literally anything - fighting monsters, following the narrative, exploring, crafting. Even picking up other players after they fell down would give experience.
There would be no quests because, as Mike O'Brien put it, "we’ve all clicked so many exclamation points and accepted so many quests in our lives that we’re pretty immune to quest text". Instead we would get a "Living World". It all sounded amazing. A lot of people bought into the concepts outlined in the now-notorious "Manifesto".
For a while what was promised was, broadly, what we got. I don't remember any occasions where "a centaur wheels a siege machine up to the outskirts of a village" nor has either of my elementalists ever picked up a boulder thrown by a "Stone Elemental" and used that boulder "to create a meteor storm" but hey, things can change in beta. In essence the game we got at launch was the game we were expecting.
The entire conception of GW2 as it was back then seems to have been designed with Jeromai's "Low Energy" gamer in mind. The kind of player who, in his words, wants "to relax, be comfortable and content, be relieved, feel peace". While committing mass murder, arson and wholesale devastation of communities and ecosystems, naturally...
It was too good to last and it didn't. Without rehashing the whole sorry timeline, ANet blinked at the first confrontation with the very audience they'd supposedly rejected - the players who craved a competitive, directed experience with vertical progression, power creep and formal grouping. "High Energy" players, whose primary motivation was achievement and overcoming obstacles, in other words.
From then on the story was one of increasingly desperate appeasement. Beginning with the addition of fractals, ascended gear and achievements, it was a path that led inevitably and, we can but hope, finally, to raids. Like many, most, MMOs before it, GW2 spiraled down the rabbit hole of trying to be all things to all players, with the inevitable result that it ended up being nothing special to most.
Heart of Thorns saw the apogee of that process. Even the raids that have churned out over the succeeding six months are a part of the HoT experiment not an extension from it. GW2's first expansion underperformed both critically and commercially and the narrative ever since has been one of damage limitation and brand reconstruction.
All of which brings us to Bloodstone Fen, a rather small map that, in Jeromai's words once more, "looks like it was cobbled together using a ton of re-used assets" as it "specifically addresses a number of reaction feedback from HoT" in "a mad iterative stopgap scramble to band-aid fix
And yet Bloodstone Fen is fantastic. It brings back the complete freedom of action, of player agency, that so many found missing in Heart of Thorns. There are no long "meta" event chains to complete, no map-wide timers, no overarching targets to hit.
Instead there are the small, medium and large Dynamic Events of the kind you'd expect in Core Tyria, the maps that came with launch. There's gathering and exploring and general pottering about to be had. You can set your own pace, come and go as you like. It's a Low Energy map with High Energy graphics.
Oh, it isn't perfect, not by any means. It's genuine "high level" content of a kind the original manifesto suggested GW2 would never have, for one thing. You can't even enter Bloodstone Fen without a level 80 character. Technically, there is still one loophole they haven't closed that would get you in but you won't be having much - or indeed any - fun without a full set of gliding masteries.
As several posters on the forums have complained, there's an absence of the kind of quotidian NPC activity that made the original maps feel so convincingly lived-in. Bloodstone Fen is not a place where you can imagine anyone choosing to settle down. I guess that's hardly surprising given it was Ground Zero for a continent-rocking explosion not a week ago but there's no sign that anyone ever lived there.
Following on from my recent post on the attractions of low-level gaming in MMOs and the appeal of adding new places to begin even as the games mature, it's sad to say I don't see any prospect of that happening in GW2. ANet have wedded themselves to the concept of horizontal progression at the existing cap of 80 and it looks certain that all future content will be constructed with that paradigm in mind.
If so, I hope Bloodstone Fen is a strong indicator of how they'll seek to achieve that goal from now on. It may be missing the depth of detail that make most of the sub-80 maps such a joy to explore but at least it has the Low Energy, endlessly repeatable gameplay I came to GW2 in search of four years ago, and that's something that has become increasingly hard to find in recent times.
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