Tuesday, April 22, 2014

This Is No Time To Stop And Smell The Flowers : GW2

Ascalon is my favorite region of Tyria. Plains of Ashford and Diessa Plateau were the maps where I began my long love-affair with GW2 all the way back in beta and their power to charm hasn't faded though the crowds that used to fill them have. Over the long drift down from launch I've become used to roaming the burnished fields, brittle and golden in the eternal Ascalonian summer's end, alone.

Well, those days are over. The Megaserver's here and with it the crowds are back. Diessa even has some kind of Champ Train running - Nageling Giant, Spider, Seperatist Agitator, Wurm. I'm learning the names if not the rotation. The reports of the Death of the Champ Train turned out to be greatly exaggerated, by the way. Rumor has it most zones have one now.

There was a line for the Breached Wall vista, one of the hardest vistas in the game. I had to stop twice and wait for some Norns to play through because there wasn't room to make a couple of the more difficult jumps. The hard skill point at the end of the underwater tunnel at the West of Blackblade Lake wasn't very hard at all with a constant flow of people making sure the Veteran mage who guards it rarely got to cast his devastating AEs.

Vet's dead, baby. Vet's dead.

It's not quite like it was at launch. MMOs only ever have that extreme, hysterical pitch when everyone levels together in the first few frenzied weeks or in the bubble that forms after the release of specific level-based content like a new race or an expansion with a raised level cap. Instead it's more the steady hum of like-minded players all choosing to be in a particular place for specific reasons of their own.

A lot of people are clearly bent on map completion. Map chat rings with questions about specific PoIs and vistas and how to get to them. There are also a heartening number of genuine new players, asking typical new-player questions like "does anyone need a 5-slot bag?" (answer: no, no-one in the entire world, not even if it is purple") and "what's Meatoberfest"? (answer: it's a Charr thing. You wouldn't understand. Maybe if you're a Norn...)

Warm beer, burnt meat, explosives - I think I was at that party in 1982

Against my normal run of play I, too, was Doing Map Completion. Partly because I want to try and gauge how the new changes play with what I take to be the normative new-player playstyle, which would be to finish a map before moving to the next, and partly because I might as well get in practice because Map Completion is one of the prime requirements for obtaining Traits through gameplay.

I have two things to say about Map Completion:
  • The level ranges given on the maps in no way reflect the level required to complete them
  •  Not only is Map Completion not exploring, it is the very antithesis of exploring
GW2 was never designed to allow a player to level steadily and sequentially through adjacent, level-appropriate maps. This was a major issue for many players at launch but players have learned or the culture has changed and you rarely hear complaints about it any more. Far from it. People seem much happier to level at the fastest conceivable pace by any means that comes to hand (crafting, Champ trains, Living Story, WvW) then come back and finish off the bits they missed (aka nearly everything) at a comfortable Level 80 with all the mis-scaled downlevel advantage that brings.

Who are you calling chicken?

At launch I was the one in map chat patiently (or not) explaining to some guy that GW2 wasn't "that sort of MMO", that you didn't have to finish a map before moving on, that it didn't matter that you had finished your racial starter map at level 10 but the map said it was supposed to go 15, that it was fine to go to another racial starting city and do their starter map too, that you could get xp doing almost anything - crafting, gathering, helping Blood Legion NPCs in full plate armor to stand up after a dandelion seed floating by on the breeze had knocked them unconscious. ..  That was then. Now I am that guy.

Truth be told, as a Charr I always had a problem with the whole set-up. It's bad enough that your Personal Story takes a dozen episodes teaching you the supreme importance of loyalty to your Warband and the Charr military-industrial complex, then cuts you loose from both as some kind of half-assed secret agent. The Personal Story is utter twaddle but at least it has some kind of narrative to cling on to, to explain why you're doing everything but what you imagine your character might actually want to do.

Yes, that's bad, but It's worse still if you decide to ignore it all and just run around doing whatever you like. So what am I now? A Gladium? A renegade? How come they don't arrest me for desertion the moment I set foot in Black Citadel? It's not like they don't know who I am - everyone I speak to calls me by my name and recaps my back-story.

You just ate meat from a guy who lives in a cave full of giant spiders. What did you think would happen?

So its hard enough staying in character just exploring Ascalon. I can just about rationalize it as some kind of rite of passage to discover my Charr heritage and I guess, at a push, I could stretch it to cover Getting To Know The Enemy in Kryta or Cultural Exchange in the Shiverpeaks but the further you stretch it the thinner it gets.

Which makes it a problem that so far I'm completing each map in about half to two-thirds of the supposed intended level range. And come to think of it, why does that happen, exactly? Because leveling in GW2 is about as difficult as eating a jam donut, that's why! And always has been.

I "finished" the level 15-25 Map Diessa Plateau last night by dinging 20 on Map Completion.
Well that's an hour of my life I'll never get back
I'd started it several hours earlier at exactly Level 15, wearing a complete set of Fine quality crafted armor that I'd made for myself at the forge in Black Citadel. I had 11 Fine quality crafted Weapons I'd made, one of every type a Guardian can use. Every piece had appropriate Runes and Sigils that I'd bought from Our Benevolent Benefactor Evon Gnashblade (if only they'd listened to him...) through the Black Lion Trading Post. I'd made food and sharpening stones. I'd spent well over an hour prepping.

First Heart out the gate took me about 2-3 minutes and the grateful vendor  offered me a major upgrade for my entire armor set. It went on like that from there. I literally didn't get more than two or three minutes' wear out of some items before the upgrade arrived. Moreover, within half an hour I was turning down the upgrades on offer for the content I was completing because I couldn't equip it for three or even five levels.

Clearly whoever designed the Heart flagged "Level 23" expected that the players completing it would be...level 23 or higher. That's why you need to be that level to wear the armor it rewards. I was soloing those at level 17 at a pleasantly satisfying challenge level. If other people happened by and joined in, as they often did, the challenge level dropped to somewhere between trivial and gimme now!

It would be tempting to blame this on the difficulty pass ANet gave the whole sub-80 world to compensate for the later arrival of Traits. That may have something to do with it but I wrote this after Beta Weekend Two, in which I observed "I moved to the level 15 - 25 areas when I dinged 13 and roamed around leveling up on mobs between 2 and four levels higher than me for most of Sunday." It might have gotten even easier but it was always easy.

Gotta get all that human blood off this armor somehow

Okay, some of it does come down to elder characters. A first character would be able to open all the Karma vendors, who in Diessa are stuffed to bursting with really good stuff - armor, weapons, jewellery, kits, many, many recipes - but wouldn't necessary have enough Karma to buy everything the way I did with 4.5m karma in the bank. It hardly matters, though, because having all that kit only makes things go extremely fast instead of just very fast.

Is this a bad thing? No, not as such. If this was my first character I very definitely would not have been pushing ahead at such a pace because I'd have been exploring. Yesterday I was doing Map Completion so I didn't explore at all. It sounds contradictory but it's really not.

Exploring is looking around you, paying attention to your surroundings, seeing something interesting or puzzling and going to investigate. It's spotting somewhere you think you just might be able to get to and taking a hour finding out you can't, but not minding because of the half a dozen fascinating things you found, trying.

Map Completion, conversely, is opening your map, checking where the next PoI or vista or waypoint is, running there using speed buffs, dodge rolls, stability or whatever you have that means you don't have to stop or engage with anything along the way, getting the UI flash that tells you you've ticked the box then barreling on to the next. All the time I was doing mine, other people were doing theirs, zipping past me, looping round and running back. No-one stopped for anything. I was about the only one who even bothered to watch the Camera Obscura at the vistas.

Vet's dead, baby...oh, you already heard that one?

Cut to the chase: did I have fun? Hell, yes. Thinking it through I come to the only conclusion I seem able to reach when GW2 comes under analysis: it is what it is. I loved Diessa Plateau in beta, when I was almost literally the only one there and I played it as though I was soloing in early Everquest. I loved it just after launch when there seemed to be hundreds on the map and nearly all of them Charr or Norn. I've loved it ever since, soloing it, duoing it, farming, exploring or just visiting favorite spots (the Cowtapult, the Sniper Rifles, the Meatoberfest fireworks, so many to choose from).

The Megaserver gives yet another face to Diessa, as does racing through it to complete the map. GW2 was built with an infrastructure where fun, and even the more elusive satisfaction, seem riveted on as firmly as the panels on the walkways of Black Citadel itself. It's gameplay that's very hard to break (although God knows sometimes it seems like ANet are doing their best to try) and I'm still not seeing anything in the recent revamp that looks like it could come close to breaking it for a new player. 

So, what comes next? At 25 there's an odd hiatus in the Charr leveling path. There is no Ascalonian map that covers 25-30 and the 30-40 map, Fields of Ruin has no safe entry point from lower levels, as I found out the hard way so I'd have to go via Divinity's Reach, which my Guardian doesn't want to do. I might do Map Completion in Wayfarers, something I'm not sure I've ever done despite having spent an inordinate amount of time there, or I might go to Lornar's Pass to evaluate the megaserver impact some more.

Whatever I choose fun is guaranteed.


  1. I can't stand Lornar's Pass. I was racing through it though, YMMV. If I have a complaint about GW2 leveling it's that it teases you to blaze through it. I'm pretty sure that If I know it's going to take nine months I won't make any sacrifices to save five minutes in the way I do with GW2. I know, own worst enemy.

    After Age of Wonders 3 burn out kicks in I'm hitting EQ alone and in secret. No forums, no guides no rush and no cares; and I'm ridiculously excited about the prospect.

    Caught you up now, Happy Easter.

    1. I like Lornar's. Just never done it when there were people there in numbers.

      I'm still playing EQ as well. Now that is some slow leveling, or it solo at 86. Half way to 87 but last time I played I had a bit of a setback with some very unpleasant mushrooms so little progress was made. Good thing my merc can rez.

      And Happy Easter to you too!

  2. You are exactly right. Map completions aren't exploring, they're achievement-flavored exploration tasks. Achievers like to have a check list of things they need to do, they want a guide to help them achieve what they want. Explorers want to go off the beaten path, to figure out what nobody else has figured out.

    The problem is that achievement-focused content kinda sucks you into a groove. There are actual areas that are off the beaten path in GW2, but if you just open your map and scoot around, you miss them. There's a whole class of areas called "mini-dungeons" that are hidden out of the way and intended for people to find. There's rarely achievements for them, so if you're just doing map completions you're like to miss them.

    I'm a pretty serious Explorer, but I got sucked into the map completion achievements. I found a few things out of the way, but for the most part I rarely went off the beaten path. And, I won't say I didn't have fun, but I definitely noticed a lack of spark when I started going through maps with the second, third, or fourth character. My heart wasn't into it, even if I decided I really wanted to hunt down the stuff off the beaten path.

    1. I sometimes get the feeling they intentionally put the really interesting stuff well away from any PoIs or events just to show some independence or artistic integrity or something. Every tme I go off piste, which is often, I find amazing sights and scenes that seem to have no "game" function but remind you that you are in a virtual world (or possibly a virtual art gallery) after all.

    2. Some of those places with no seeming use show up in Personal Story missions, and were probably designed for them. During the Lion's Arch, that house surrounded by a force field was pretty conspicuous, and it's apparently a Priory mission.

      Maybe it's just because I started with GW2 and moved out to other games, but I found that in more quest-driven games (Secret World, primarily) it discouraged me from just poking around. I'd find something cool, start looking around, then ask myself, "Wait, is this place for a quest? If it is, I'm just going to have to come back here when I have the quest and kill all this trash again." The worst offender was this one cave in City of the Sun God that I wound up visiting four times: once when I stumbled across it, twice when it came up in different quests, and one more time when I had an investigation mission that I thought pointed to that spot and actually didn't.

    3. Oh yeah, I wonder what has happened the Lion's Arch episodes in the Personal Story now it's a smoking ruin?!?

      I found it quite exciting when I occasionally stumbled across some really interesting place in GW2. Then I realised it was a Jumping Puzzle and exploring the place was going to be a nightmare so it went straight on the 'Things To Do List' (where they all remain). I suppose it's 'A Good Thing' but not in the same way that randomly poking around demonic caves in Felwood was back in my innocent WoW days.

  3. I seriously have no idea what the new players who are having -such- difficulty leveling are doing. There's practically a daily post on Reddit about how leveling is so terribly slow and they've finished an entire map's completion and they aren't at the level to do their personal story or what-have-you.

    I can't even get to five hearts without leveling once. I presume this is because I am very easily distractable, harvest all the things, cut my way forcibly through -every- mob between me and my intended destination, promptly sidetrek before reaching said destination because that event over there popped up, chased another row of harvesting nodes, struggled my way to some vista, tried to solo my way through some out of the way corner to the veteran/champion at the end, and only after that, stop and think, "wait, which heart was I going towards again?"

    (Of course, by then, I'm way over here and the heart is over there, and cue a similar attempt to reach it. I have major trouble doing achievement-flavored map completion efficiently, skipping past mobs is NOT something I willingly do without an impatient group waiting for me. I love GW2 combat, why would I pass up any chance to engage in it?)

    "helping Blood Legion NPCs in full plate armor to stand up after a dandelion seed floating by on the breeze had knocked them unconscious"

    Hey, hey, hay fever is no laughing matter, y'know!

    Not to mention, how much heat is trapped between fur and full plate in the Ascalonian sun!

    1. I just read your post on leveling, which is very similar to my normal approach, both in GW2 and every other MMO I've ever played. I think if you don't have the "completionist" gene it's very easy to enjoy most MMOs on your own terms and at your own pace. It's the people who can't settle until they've ticked all the boxes who end up getting frustrated and burnt-out.

      I'm quite enjoying doing map completion as a novelty and an experiment and it certainly slows things down, which is what I wanted. It's already starting to feel a bit like wearing diving boots when what I need I dance shoes, though. I might not be able to keep it up much longer.

    2. Strangely enough, it's some kind of completionist gene in me that seems to cry, "How can you ignore that gathering node or that mob just sitting there looking at you? Harvest it! Kill it! F all the things!"

      GW2's map design is such that if you insist on touching all the things you see in front of you, you never run out of things that grab your attention. There's lines of mobs, lines of gathering nodes, all leading straight to events and hidden corners, etc.

      I think what we're missing the "hurry" and "efficiency" genes. I can hit level 80 with less than half of the world completed, but I've probably criss-crossed what I have gone over multiple times. There's all the time in the world to get to the uncompleted percentages later if and when I want to.

      Other people seem to be focused on the end result. Need to get to 80 fast. Need to get mah legendary fast. Need world completion done fast. Need gear fast. Need all things completed fast. Rush rush power level rush. Then bam, at the end and bored. No more things to do because it all went by too fast. Whose bloody fault was that? :)


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