Thursday, July 27, 2017

How We Live Now: GW2

Unlike most MMO developers, GW2 doesn't do Producer Letters. (Edit: Oh, wait, now they do!) Officially, that is. There is, nevertheless, someone in charge, an individual who sets the tone and announces the direction for the game.

For a long while that was Colin Johanson. He fell on his sword after Heart of Thorns failed to perform as well as expected. His replacement, who was supposed to be taking on the role only for as long as it took to find someone to do it permanently, was Colin's "boss" Mike O'Brien, one of the three people who created ArenaNet back in 2000 and the only co-founder still working there.

As each episode of The Living World arrives, ANet host an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit. Since Mike's been in charge he's tended to open the proceedings with a statement that can be read as his Producer's Letter.

They don't tend to be very revealing or even interesting, unlike some of Colin's more explosive statements. The current one from a day ago doesn't divulge a whole lot of facts or plans but tonally it says a lot about where the game is now and where it's likely to go in the next year or two.

I found it to be both a reassuring and a depressing read. Also annoying and frustrating. There's an unmistakable tone of satisfaction that borders on smugness. Here are some quotes that should give an idea of what I mean:

"I want to take a moment to celebrate the journey we’ve been on together this year.

I think with Season 3 we’ve hit a really good balance.

I think and hope that this year’s releases have been the best work we’ve ever done.

I think we’re finishing this year in a good position."

From that I take it that Mike has the business in the shape he wants it and we are likely to see things carry on much as they have been for the foreseeable future. That's good to hear, in terms of the health and longevity of the game, but somewhat unnerving if, like me, you feel GW2 has largely been spinning its wheels since Colin left.

Not that you'd know it from this AMA. For all Reddit's reputation as a bear pit, it's obvious why ANet prefer to host discussions there rather than on the forums. The AMA is stuffed with easy set-ups, soft questions and fawning. To read it you'd think the game had nothing but happy, docile fans.

The official forums tell a very different story. Comments on the feedback thread for the current LS episode are more nuanced. Many people are happy but by no means all of them. The praises and pans run about 50-50, with the negative comments mostly focusing on the gameplay and the narrative:

"Probably the weakest episode to date, in fact of all the Seasons.

I’m sorry, but if I had wanted to play a puzzle game, I would have bought a puzzle game instead of this game.

Surprisingly disappointing. I feel like the trailer tricked me.  

This episode left me saying why? why? why? Do you switch writers literally every episode? I felt like none of them made a coherent story and that reveal was not shocking but left a feeling of " this was dumb waste of time"

The real problem for me, though, comes not from Mike's - arguably complacent - satisfaction in a job well done or his understandable preference for chatting with a friendly audience rather than taking on a hostile one. No, it's some of the structural changes that have been made under his watch that concern me:

"We’ve always been good at shipping things, but with our renewed focus on quality above everything, we’ve had to get better at not shipping things. We now develop new content and features with a default assumption that they won’t ship, and then if they turn out great, we proactively decide to ship them".

Pre-launch, the mantra was Iteration. Everything had to be done and done again until it was done right. That ran completely counter to what has become the prevailing mode of the industry, the "bash it out now and tart it up later" ethos of Early Access and it inevitably slowed the whole process to a crawl.

If Iteration seemed to take forever, imagine how much more delay "not shipping" must add. GW2 already feels like one of the slowest-to-react MMOs I've played and it's infamously one of the most tight-lipped. Now we can just imagine them all, hunched over keyboards in their double-locked security cells, working on projects we'll never see, while problems in the game that have persisted for months and years go unaddressed.

Not an encouraging picture and one with which I have little affinity. I hugely prefer to get my hands on something rough but functional now, the chance to play around with it while it gets smoothed and polished, rather than wait months and months to get something that's supposedly "the best work we’ve ever done" and yet which turns out to be, as one comment in the official thread ironically puts it, "a solid 3/10".

When it comes to World vs World, considered by most aficionados to have been in free-fall for at least a couple of years, the following assertion raises a very hollow laugh:

"With PvP and WvW...the community owns the game modes and chooses what we work on...our goal this year was to develop more incrementally, test with the community on Live, and take feedback every step of the way". 
I can't speak for PvP players but WvW regulars, as they express their feelings on the forum and in the various chat channels in game, mostly feel ignored, not listened to and sometimes actively trolled by the developers. It would probably be not too far from the truth to say that WvW fans play the game mode despite the development attention it gets not because of it.

For all that, GW2 is clearly a stable, successful MMO. It's about to launch its second expansion and we'd better hope its a good one because the guy who's been in charge of development there, Mike Zadorojny, is about to take over the direction of the core game. If, reading between the lines, the new Xpack doesn't do a HoT:

"You’ll see a lot of him in the lead-up to the expansion, and then he’ll join the Live side too, and I expect he’ll eventually take these reins". 

At this stage I'm sanguine both about where things are and where they're headed. This is not the GW2 we were promised before launch, nothing like it. The Manifesto was torn up and burned long ago. This isn't even the GW2 of Living Story 1, an era when, as Mike O'Brien now claims to regret,

"Guild Wars 2’s content model [was] all about exciting events happening in the world" and "we went for the literal version, constantly shipping changes to the existing world".
Yes, we complained about it then but be careful what you wish for, as they say. Instead of something approximating a "Living World" we got a series of Unliving Tableaux, each "a slice in time" in which every map is zip-locked, a museum exhibit that never changes and never will change.

The original GW2 project was to create an ever-changing world, a dynamic environment in which no two players would have the same experience and no two sessions would play the same way. The current orthodoxy is

"It’s a game, after all...a game that doesn’t need reinvention but mostly needs a steady stream of great content, so we can focus on delivering great content."

I get it. It's just a game. I won't take it any more seriously than it deserves.

Now entertain me.


  1. -shrugs- yes there are people complaining, but many more that are sitting and playing the game. Anet monitor retention rates quite closely :P

    Shit there was one halfwit who complained about the jumping puzzle on the new map... And then there are all those who are still HATING that the game has raids, rather than accepting that it is better to have healthily supported diverse content in a game.

    Ultimately I thought that livingworld season 1 was pretty trash for the most part, the writing was even worse than it is now... the pacing was horrible, the gaps were bad, the bugs were shocking and ultimately 90% of it was achievement grind with no real substance behind it.

    Sure there were a few standouts that are dead never to return. But that is it, they are dead... gone... I mean sure we have those crappy fractal reworks of the old story dungeons, but they lost what made them great in the process.

    I agree that they need to get a better handle on the writing side of things, but it is so much better than any other point in GW2 history that I cannot disagree with Mike here.

    1. The game is finding an audience, that's for sure. It's just not the audience it set out to find back in 2012. But that's how these things go. If you want a game that never changes you have to play offline. Even single-player online games change constantly.

      I have over 10,000 hours in GW2 now, although that's inflated because I leave it on while I'm tabbed out. Still, I wouldn't have played it all this time if I didn't enjoy it.

      It's good enough. It has been better, or at least it's been better for me, and it's been worse. I was no fan of Colin Johanson's approach. I think Mike O'Brien has done a better job, overall. Soon we'll see how the next guy does. My guess would be not much will change - unless the sales of the expansion are once again underwhelming, in which case plenty will. I'd bet on the second Xpack doing better than the first, although I should probably wait until next week before saying that. We don't officially know what's in it yet...

  2. I'm actually interested in the announcement on Tuesday, despite not having played the game actively since Autumn 2015. It came up in a recent conversation with family as possibly the only game we all really enjoyed playing together for any length of time (WoW is a candidate but one can't afford to sub or buy the expansion due to new mortgage and baby on the way). So a good free/buy to play game is our best bet and we have history with GW2.

    It's been a wry running joke with my husband that I log in our two Azura every time there's a new LS chapter and do a /cry emote as they've been abandoned. We actually played them this week for one session of running around Silverwastes - a zone we didn't complete on these two. Not much else to do though without HoT. I guess when the new expansion launches we might get that for free though...?

    1. As far as I understand it, every Xpack will include every previous XPack, so if you buy the new one you will also get HoT. Whether they will add HoT to the base game as the post-expansion Free to Play option, though, we will have to wait to find out. They definitely haven't promised to do that.

  3. In my opinion, Papaya is the make or break expac for GW2, as it's ANet's final chance to prove that they have learnt from their mistakes in HoT. However, looking at their recent behavior, they have learnt the wrong lessons from it. Instead of trying to go for "good" instead of "supposedly perfect", they have doubled down on that behavior and now have added on the fact that they only reveal content at the last minute, making player feedback next to useless. I have no real hope for expac 2 and I believe that it might be the death kneel of GW2 IMO.

    1. I agree it will be a watershed. They burned a good deal of good will with HoT and they've won some of it back but another misreading of the audience could be, if not fatal, very challenging for them.

      The current playerbase, however, seems to be quite comfortable with an MMO that looks much more like the MMOs GW2 was supposed to replace so if they carry on in that mode it will probably serve them quite well. They won't get back many of the players who left because of the way things were going but at least they shouldn't alienate too many of the ones they still have.

    2. I've also noticed that GW2 is currently the anti-ESO, starting out great before falling apart rapidly instead of following it's initial success. ESO started out badly, but it actually recovered and is actually at a good place right now with a sense of genuine direction instead of GW2 "let's throw stuff at the wall and hope it sticks".

  4. While updating the patcher for the first time in months, I was idly musing on whether the Living Story writers drop acid before coming up with each episode. After reading Mr. O'Brien's comment on "not shipping things", it's clear to me that this is a company-wide practice.

    ArenaNet seems to be obsessed with laying foundations and creating templates. They're master architects and artists as attested by their audio-visual assets - the smart move would be to utilize their core strengths and outsource the areas in which they have a less than stellar track record, most notably weaving a narrative web that doesn't require a doctorate in etiological philosophy and an altered consciousness to unravel.

    Just thought I'd dip my toes into this conversation in 2017. I'll be completing the last two episodes of the current season some time before autumn. Maybe winter. The wheels on the bus go round and round...


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