Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Always On : GW2, WoW

Later on today the fourth episode of GW2's current Living Story will arrive. Sometimes it comes as early as three in the afternoon, sometimes as late as eight in the evening.

By fortunate happenstance ArenaNet's current update schedule is synched with my working pattern. I get alternate Tuesdays off and, unlike last season, they're the right Tuesdays. By the time the patch is ready I'm usually logged in and playing.

The first and only warning is a yellow text message in the chat line announcing a New Build. Sometimes it's due in ten minutes; sometimes it's an hour. If you choose to carry on playing beyond the time-frame given that's fine. The game won't kick you, unless you're in WvW, which can't accommodate multiple instances.

If you change maps you'll find yourself at the patcher, getting the new files, but if you stay put nothing seems to happen. You'll just, eventually, find yourself alone as everyone else moves to a different build and your map empties out. Maybe if you hang around too long the game will give you a nudge. I can't be certain. I've never waited long enough to find out. I'm always too eager to see what's new.

Moderate Fantasy Violence

The way that GW2 handles patching, updating and maintenance like this is unusual. It might be unique. I certainly can't think of another MMO I've played that handles it in quite the same way.  For one thing, the servers never go down. Never. Apart from a few DDOS attacks and other crises and crashes, the servers have been up and running continually for almost two years.

Combined with the "Buy Once, Play Forever" sales pitch, the automatic up and downlevleling of characters and the mostly-horizontal gameplay, ArenaNet have managed to create what must be the most permanently accessible MMO of all time. If you ever bought the game all you need is a PC and an internet connection and in seconds you can be right back where you were, at the heart of the game, no matter how long it's been since you last logged in.

Other MMOs don't have this advantage. All the recent attention given to WoW's upcoming tenth anniversary has made me mildly nostalgic for my old characters. After a helpful pointer from Gripper in the comments thread at TAGN last night I managed to sort out both my Free Trial account and the long-lost details of the account where my original WoW characters reside.

Contains Mild Peril

If I want to log them in, though, I have to set up new payment details. I did get that far. I was at the payment screen and willing to pay the money. What stopped me wasn't the cost or even the inconvenience - it was the interruption.

I was all ready to hit the button but I got de-railed by the payment process itself, which re-routed my thoughts from nostalgic whimsy to real-life practicalities. It made me think about the value I would be getting for my money and about whether I'd have time to play at all, which made think I'd probably better put it off for now. Thus are opportunities lost both for the company and the player.

I've had similar experiences with SOE's games. Not over payment, because I have All Access or whatever they're calling it now, but because when I went to log in to EQ2 or Everquest on a whim the servers were down. When SOE patch the servers come down and stay down for a few hours. They've been known to be out of action for the whole day.

Even if they don't have anything to patch they bring the servers down weekly for maintenance. It's amazing how often that turns out to be the very time I get the itch to play. If left unscratched that itch tends to fade and it might be weeks before it flares up again.

If I was a resting GW2 player looking to return there would be no such break in continuity, no barrier to entry. I'd have the whim, I'd indulge the whim, thought would become deed and I'd be playing again. ANet would have another chance to hook me in.

Translation: "ANet Unfair To Level 20s"
 It happens every day. I see names I haven't seen for a while, weeks, months, nowadays even a year or more. They roll up and jump in and there they are, absent for months and now giving it some on the borderlands. Doesn't matter that their gear is what they were wearing a year ago - if they could do something then they can still do it now.

That, too, makes a huge difference. WoW, EQ2, Everquest, LotRO, all of them have Expansions or expansion-like updates. The level cap rises, whole tiers of gear become obsolete.

That's why Blizzard have chosen to give away a free level 90 with each pre-order of the forthcoming WoD expansion and why it took EQ's recent introduction of a free leg-up to level 85, complete with all the right gear, to get me going again in Everquest even though I already had a level 84. That character couldn't compete or progress easily because her gear was several expansions adrift whereas the 85 is now 88 and getting run-outs every few days. Even she will stall soon, though, when the new expansion arrives, unless I knuckle down and take her into the 90s.

If GW2 continues to be successful, as it seems that it will, it will be largely because of the skill with which both designers and marketers have removed almost every reason not to log in whenever the mood takes you. That, presumably, is why they have been so keen to develop the Living Story process for content updates rather than come up with the boxed expansion that would so patently make them a lot of money all in one hit.

An auction house will only take you so far.

It's also what makes the decision to require players to have a Level 80 character to participate in LS2 so peculiar. It's a decision that, in a way, is as out of kilter with the whole design ethos of the game as was the introduction of Ascended gear but, whereas adding a whole new tier of vertical progression caused howling and wailing on the forums and much drama in and out of game, the "must be this tall to ride" gate on the current wave of fresh content seems to have passed almost without comment.

That may be because everyone already has a level 80. Or maybe it's because new players know how quick and easy it is to get to the cap. Or it could be that, because the content is permanent, no-one feels locked out. They'll get to it when they're ready.

Still, it's odd. It doesn't fit. It seems exclusionary. The first season was scrupulously level-blind. Scarlet was an equal-opportunity megalomaniac, always careful to dispatch her alliances to maps suitable for all level ranges. If characters needed to be temporarily uplevelled that was done too.

Between last season and this something changed. I can't help but wonder if we aren't being prepared, gently, for bigger things to come.


  1. "The way that GW2 handles patching, updating and maintenance like this is unusual. It might be unique. I certainly can't think of another MMO I've played that handles it in quite the same way."

    I can -- GW1! Yeah, they've been doing this since a few months after WoW launched. Here's some other praise for them -- how often do you notice huge lag spikes? When's the last time you had a queue to log in? Were in guild chat and noticed half your guild get disconnected, more or less all at once? Zoned in to a map naked?

    I'm not saying that GW / GW2 are bug free games, they aren't -- just go look at the mesmer list. But they have a back-end and communications framework that might be as close to bulletproof as we have in this industry. It's really very impressive.

    1. So long ago that I played GW1 regularly I'd forgotten that. Now you remind me I remember how surprising it was back then, too.

      As for bugs, though, GW2 is among the buggiest major MMOs I have ever played. It took months before a significant number of the dynamic events worked and even now some of them bug out regularly. Various guild bugs, including the one where you were no longer able to access any guild functions even if you were the founder and leader of the guild. were around for well over a year.

      In fact, I am so used to bugs in GW2 that I still don't know if the "stuck on the waypoint" thing that the current Living Story introduced is a bug or part of the plot! I know it's cost me a fortune in WP fees though.

  2. It has been said long ago that level cap increases are quite likely.
    How that will interact with crazy grind stuff like ascended/legendary items I don't know - although in GW1 they had hero armor that increased in stats as the heroes gained levels, so it might be that they keep the gear current.

    While in GW1 they kept the cap level the same, eventually they added other "levels" in disguise of title ranks like Lightbringer (would add +x% damage to and reduce x% damage from Abbadon minions) or the eotn race tracks that would add an effect like +energy or +health if you were in that race territory and increase the effectiveness of the same race skills everywhere.

    With the constant talk of how GW2 has "no progression" and "no endgame" I would be surprised if Anet had, imho, the good sense of not increasing the level cap.

    1. Short of a real, boxed expansion I find it hard to imagine any level cap increase. I suspect we might see a creep towards most new content being pitched squarely at Level 80 though. With the auto-scaling of maps, there's no reason Dry Top couldn't have been, well, any level. The fact that they chose to make it a solid 80 with events trending towards 84 is significant imho.

      Be interesting to see where the September feature pack goes.


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