Saturday, March 8, 2014

Expect Better : GW2

MMOland, the one place where you always get a second chance to make a first impression. And a third. As many as you want, really...  

GW2's "Battle For Lion's Arch" update dropped four days ago and it's been bouncing ever since. Every day is Patch Day as ArenaNet scramble to get the wheels back on Scarlet's tumbril for the Living Story Season One Grand Finale. Jeromai has a very detailed guide to the core events and Ravious takes a considered look at what works and what doesn't.

If there's a single take-away it has to be that these events simply need better testing. Or maybe just testing... A rolling bi-weekly schedule is clearly and evidently incompatible with current resources. There may be multiple teams working separate development cycles for individual content drops but however many teams there are and however long each is being given to prepare it's plainly not enough.

The patience, the stoicism even, of GW2 players is striking. The reaction to game-breaking bugs and show-stopping design failures tends to be a verbal shrug and a flip comment: "What did you expect? This is GW2". There's a devastating gulf between what players now expect from ANet, based on what they've been given this first year-and-a-half, and what they thought they'd be getting down those five long years of rhetoric, "Iteration, Iteration, Iteration" and "It'll be done when it's done".

Anyone fancy a game of 5-a-side?

It says a huge amount for how invested players are in the game that they not only put up with these repeated and predictable failures to provide content that works first time round but come back, over and over again, for more. It also says plenty about how strong the foundation that underpins these rickety, makeshift sideshows must be that it keeps everyone from open revolt.

The opening three days of the current update risked pushing the patience of every player close to the edge and some duly slipped over. While tempers can sometimes, understandably, get a little frayed when a large-scale event isn't going well, this is perhaps the first time I've had to wait through twenty or thirty minutes of increasingly vicious and intolerant argument before an event has even started. For a whole evening, starting every hour, on the hour, that gets wearing.

It isn't that the mechanics of the events, as first received, were too challenging. They were neither difficult to understand, nor to learn, nor to execute. It's not even that the events that appeared on Tuesday were particularly poorly-designed. It's that they just didn't work.

Scarlet's Knights either dropped barrow-loads of loot, which ANet didn't like, or none at all, which players liked even less. Moreover, some players got the barrow-loads for the same event where other players got the none at all and no-one could really figure out why. Even when the Knights were downed, which wasn't as often as it should have been in the opinion of many, and people managed to get in to the airship to fight Scarlet, the signature battle could also stall, bugging into an unwinnable state. And then there was Six Minutes To Knightfall.

Six Minutes To Knightfall is an achievement that requires you to "Defeat all three assault knights within six minutes after the event starts". The semantic inexactitude of that description itself led to some argument as players debated whether it meant "down all three knights in the first six minutes of the event" or "down all three knights in the same six-minute window at any point during the event". Then there was the question of whether an individual player had to down all three knights in the same event or whether downing a different knight inside six minutes in three separate events would count.

The debate raged in map chat, on the forums and especially on Reddit. It seemed every player looking to get the achievement had a theory and map chat rang with the competing demands, pleas and threats of Commanders, would-be community leaders and flat-out crazed conspiracy theorists, all wanting to try out their own particular arcane plan of action. Meanwhile, players who had already done the Three Knights event several times and seen it fail just wanted to get in the damn airship and forget about the blasted achievement...

It all got very fraught indeed and wasn't a lot of fun for anyone and to add meta-insult to injured feelings, many claimed it made no difference what anyone did because the Knightfall achievement was bugged anyway. Some people supposedly got it when they killed their very first Knight while others didn't get it when they had followed the exact same sequence that had worked for someone else. Or so they claimed. Who could possibly know the truth of it?

Bit late to be recruiting now, don't you think?

With all this rumbling away in the background, the bulk of the playerbase took comfort in the familiar and found that during trying times the old ways often work best. Successful Knight runs eschewed fancy tactics in favor of The Zerg, focusing the force of the entire map population on each knight in turn, a tactic that seemed as good as any and better than most. Even if it didn't give any loot at least it opened the doors to somewhere that did.

So, once all the theories had been tested and proved worthless, that's how things might have settled, had ANet not had other ideas. Friday brought a patch that dictated terms. You will not mount a map-wide mega-zerg. You will split into three acceptable zergs of fifty players or fewer. You will co-operate and address this event appropriately. Then, if you're good and do it the way you're supposed to, we will give you loot. At the end. When you've demonstrated you can behave yourselves. And not before.

It felt a little like teacher coming back into the classroom and restoring order on finding the senior pupils he'd left in charge for five minutes weren't up to the task. Not angry. Just disappointed. It felt a lot more like a fuming DM waving the rulebook at a bunch of D&D players who'd just found a way to brute-force a clever encounter he'd spent hours designing. Either way, it didn't feel much like the way an MMO with a metacritic score of 90 ought to feel.

Green on Red.

That aside, the event is now more fun, and more reliable. Well, it was yesterday. Haven't done it yet this morning and there was another patch overnight. Anything could have happened. If it had been like this from the beginning how happy we'd all have been. Instead we feel like we've been schooled for making the best of a bad situation that was none of our doing in the first place. That sentiment was very evident in map chat last night and a sour taste will linger.

It's not really an issue of content or design. Those are factors you either like or you don't. It's a matter of competency and of respect. On balance I like The Living Story. While it has huge problems, particularly in pacing, as a means of imparting plot and narrative to an MMO it does have merit. Unfortunately the two-week roll-out is too ambitious to support it, particularly whenever an update includes a large-scale Event and it's the playerbase that cops the fallout from ANet's over-reaching ambition every time.

There's a thread on the forum in which two players succinctly sum up the extreme positions existing within the current playerbase:

Full Thread Here

I wholeheartedly agree with Darkobra. This isn't a beta. Nor is it a public Test server. This is the live game. We all understand there will be some bugs. We all know there will be unexpected outcomes. We all expect some post-update tweaking. This is none of that. This is riveters still working on the hull when the ship's already far out to sea.

Moreover, it was never the players who demanded, or even requested, this accelerated pace. If there's ever been a consensus it's that we want more solid additions to the game, added at a rate we can manage. Over the year players have adjusted to the breakneck schedule and developers have found ways to make temporary content hang around a while longer but what's been achieved is more of a grudging acceptance than a gleeful assimilation.

Fortunately there's something of a lull on the way. The next update, in ten days' time, is a coda, trailed as modest, where we all get to take a deep breath and reflect. Almost immediately after that WvW Season 2 (now renamed The Tourney and running under what looks to be an improved ruleset) begins. That should keep everyone busy for a while until Living Story Season Two arrives at some yet-unspecified later date.

Curiosity counts for much and GW2's aggressive update schedule, combined with zero-limit barriers to re-entry, has worked well enough in keeping players on-board until now, but player patience won't carry buggy content indefinitely. Soon ESO will be upon us with WildStar not far behind. Supposedly competition sharpens. Let's hope so. Some sharpening is sorely needed. 


  1. "Soon ESO will be upon us with WildStar not far behind. Supposedly competition sharpens."

    It is a supposition. ESO is a traditional themepark with traditional quests and pvp is zerg versus zerg. It is not competition to GW2 and I fear it will have the same doom that War had.

    Wildstar, I don't tested it. But I have no hopes about it.

    Maybe we have EQN next year. But take note they are trying to make a better GW2, including living events.

    1. I think you're placing far too much importance on the actual nature of the MMO in question. Whether it's sandbox, themepark or hybrid has a lot less impact than the simple fact that its new because currently GW2 is the go-to MMO for bored casuals, the natural launch-day target market for every new MMO of the last five years or more.

      If ESO was launching as a F2P of some kind you'd see a large short-term impact in most current MMOs but it is possible that the box-price-plus-sub model will put some dampeners on that. Added to that, GW2's ace-in-the-hole is that you can't ever actually quit, you can only not be playing right now. There's a very interesting forum thread where a player wants ANet to delete his account (for very good reasons, in my opinion) and an ANet rep explains that it's something they are very reluctant to do and which requires an internal investigation of the particular circumstances of each case. It's an obviously advantageous commercial position but morally very dubious, I would say, and possibly not even legal in certain jurisdictions. I might do a bit of research on that, if I can be bothered.

      Anyway, because of that GW2 is more heavily protected from any long-term impact from new MMOs than most established games but if you think there won't be some short-term impact you must not have noticed the visible drop in population, especially in WvW, each time ESO does a big weekend beta event.

      Anyway, we'll see soon enough. Some time in April, isn't it?

    2. The implied opinion that GW2 PvP isn't zerg vs zerg is absolutely hilarious.

  2. ESO looks like a pretty coordinated attack on GW2s WvW. The combat looks hilarious though, I'll pass. I don't think they actually took a step back and just looked at people fighting in that game.

    The living story is too fast and too terribad for me to do anything with but ignore. I tried to buy into it but clicking on bonfires was a step too far towards perfect retardination and caused me to walk away, still struggling to return.

    Who in ANet thought that what I may want to do after I come home from work is just click on a bonfire? Those things you make, you do realise we are supposed to actually do them right? I mean in real life. Actually do them. On purpose and everything, they don't do themselves. Hmm now there's an idea. GW2 Achievements should be like EVEs skill system. You just select the ones you want to 'do' while you log off and do Anything Else In The Entire World.

    1. Yes, it looks very much like WvW, doesn't it? I wish we had ESO's moveable siege engines!

      You put your finger right on the problem for MMO devs, I think. When I come home from work I'm quite often in the mood to do something fairly mindless and relaxing like wandering around clicking on bonfires. Content that one player finds relaxing, though, another will find insulting to their intelligence, just like one player's stimulating challenge is another's frustrating road-block.

      I'm glad I only have to play these things and write about them for my own amusement. I'd hate to have my mortgage payments depending on trying to keep enough players happy to stay in business.

    2. This is true. I think it's a problem beyond dev control when somebody clicks on bonfires but resents every minute of it and ragequits when not doing that was an easily available alternative.

      It's not like it was the first time I'd been presented with a laundry list of mindless tat to do. It was ,however, the first time I had to absolutely do it tonight which I feel was the subtle difference that caused an out-of-proportion emotional response to an Internet Goblins vs Wizards Game.

      I honestly don't know what force it is that suppresses my natural bloody-minded disobedience when I am logged in, where is it when I need it :)


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