Sunday, February 8, 2015

Another Green World: GW2

Information continues to trickle in about the upcoming GW2 expansion, Heart of Thorns. Little of it sounds encouraging at least to my ears. After more than a year of hoping for something new to buy in a box it's quite a surprise to find myself considering whether I'd be better advised to keep my credit card firmly in my wallet.

The broad-brush strokes of the original reveal at PAX South left a lot of unanswered questions and the answers, as they begin to fill in, are creating just as many doubts. The prospect of a jungle setting didn't set my pulse racing to begin with but the idea of a jungle filled with the unrelenting , largely uninteresting, uncommunicative, cognitively inert Mordrem is stimulating a desire to be somewhere, anywhere else.

Caledon Forest is already more jungle than I care to deal with.

If only there was somewhere else... As far as the expansion is concerned the options of where to go would seem to be limited. It's now confirmed there will be few maps and they will all relentlessly follow the War With The Plants theme. Those few maps we do get threaten to be exaggeratedly three-dimensional, requiring a new device, the Hang Glider, designed to be difficult to manage, in order to navigate. These maps will be densely packed with nested events and feature timed, map-wide objectives along the lines of the never-ending cycles of Dry Top and Silverwastes. All of this will be cranked up to "challenging". It begins to sound like a fair version of a jungle hell.

A few voices have already piped up on the forums to protest that it was the variety and heterogeneity of content in popular maps like Queensdale and Wayfarer Foothills that made them popular in the first place. Those voices will certainly be lost in the general approbation and approval of what is set fair to be the consolidation of a change in ethos and gameplay both long in the making and much desired, if not by me. It's clear that GW2's design team sees a through-line, from the stumbling start of the Lost Shores event, via the equally stumbling but ultimately successful iterative development of the Living World, to some kind of design epiphany in Dry Top and Silverwastes, finally arriving at last at what they confidently claim to be a high point in GW2 design - Heart of Thorns.

In fact - swamp, forest, jungle - I'm not entirely sure I can tell the difference...

While there are dissenting voices still to be found among the playerbase it's probably likely that, on this long journey of learning by trial and error, ANet have tacked more towards giving their core audience what it wants than they have kept to their original course. So, what is it that the audience does want?

Permanence or the illusion thereof has been a clear and present demand from the start. The concept of huge, one-off, world-changing events died in the karka-infested water around Lion's Arch over one chaotic weekend back in 2012. Clear character progression that doesn't rely on a gear ladder is another. The Ascended tier that was introduced shockingly soon after launch to howls of anguish remains sufficiently controversial, even now, that pledges never to step that way again need to be repeated periodically and unequivocally by senior management.

You've got karka on your face - rock dog edition.

Then there's the perceived lack of both "difficulty" and "challenge" that has formed a recurring theme in endless forum discussions over the life of the game. Gameplay that could readily be celebrated as the defining trope of GW2 - content designed to allow players of all skill and interest levels not only to co-exist but to co-operate and enjoy synergy - has consistently been denigrated as EZMode or zergfest. The developers response, rather than to stick to their original, inclusive, open-hearted ethos, has, equally consistently, been to increase complexity and require higher levels of skill, commitment and dedication from anyone wishing to participate. Latterly they've simply fallen back on the traditional and unequivocal flat level-based barrier, locking out any player currently unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to complete the journey to 80.

Unsurprisingly I find little of this is to my taste but then it's becoming very apparent that GW2 is no longer an MMO made with players like me in me mind. Players who like to potter around performing small services for imaginary powerless individuals for which we receive minimal recognition or recompense. The kind of players who enjoy helping a young child to impress his father with the severed head of a moderately oversized domestic animal. Players who don't mind spending ten minutes keeping harpies away from the cattle while a crazed charr calculates the correct trajectory for flinging cows with his self-built siege
If they'd announced a tundra-themed expansion this post would have gone in entirely another direction

Ironically, given that, unusually among major MMOs, it has no formal raiding structure, not even a UI panel, Guild Wars 2 is gearing up to become a fully raid-focused game. I have never raided with anything like serious intent and I don't have any desire to start. I was not one who welcomed either the changes to the Tequatl event that required a raid-like level of organization or the player-created solution of huge cross-server guilds to meet that challenge.

I do find the refinement of that process, the near-self-generating, rolling critical mass of players acquired in Dry Top and Silverwastes through the addition of numerous incentives and goads, to be preferable but I still don't like it. It's artificial to an obvious and uncomfortable degree, one of those buildings with the pipework on the outside, only without the aesthetic justification. I might feel differently if any of the incentives actually incentivized me or if any of the goads did in fact sting. They don't.

Dredge. They're so much more interesting than dragons.

What all this has done, however, as may or possibly may not be apparent from the above, is make me think. Think about why I play these games; pursue this hobby. Think about what I do, what I enjoy doing and what I do without really considering whether I enjoy doing it or  not. About what I want and how likely I am to get it. About how I could be spending my time in future.

Even if I don't get much value from playing HoT, and I suspect that I won't, I'm already getting plenty of value from thinking about it. For that I thank the developers. I'll tell you if you also get my money when I've seen the beta.


  1. I'm too clueless on gaming developing timescales to do more than guess. But I wonder if the build up to games like Wildstar has influenced this move towards "raiding all the time" in the game? The supposed popularity of the hardcore niche? It certainly feels to me like the game expects raiding-levels of concentration and performance to do even the story-arc missions in the most recent releases. A difficulty level that feels, to me, way above the norm for standard update content. Sure I know the dungeons that always form part of these updates will be like this, but the actual main storyline quests?

    The game really has gone a long way away from what my friends and I were loving back in 2012. As for the announced content that you discuss, the mere idea that exploration = crazy jumpy puzzles long since convinced me that I'm not the target audience for this game, sadly. When my partner and I recently delved into some older zones doing dailies I was blown away by the layers of little details in the old zones.

    1. That's the thing I was trying to get to! The level of detail. You can spend, literally, hours in Metrica doing nothing but wandering around watching and listening to NPCs intereact. There are hundreds of lines of dialog and lots of small stories that require no player interaction at all. Add to that the seemingly dozens of localized events that don't feed into any kind of narrative chain and watch it all fit together like tiles in a mosaic to create a picture of everyday life in Metrica Province. And that happens in most of the low and mid level maps.

      As you get to the conflict maps, though, particularly Dry Top, Silverwastes and Orr but even Fireheart Rise and Frostgorge, that level of detail declines markedly. Those maps are more focused and lass varied and it makes them feel a lot more functional and tonally flat. I'm sure there will be many smaller events and sidebars in the jungle but it IS a jungle and there IS a war on so, really, how much room can there be for lightheartedness and whimsy?

      As for the raid thing, if anywhere I'd lay it at WoW's door as usual. After introducing the automated group matching system for group content, which was swiftly copied across almost all the genre, Blizzard moved on to do the same for raiding. I don't play WoW but by most accounts that has successfully moved the core of the playerbase to "Raid" as the default playstyle. When it comes down to it, everyone in the field is competing with WoW and what works there tends to roll out across the hobby.

  2. finally, someone else feeling there's something off with the expansion... i was beginning to feel like i was the only one ...

    1. There are a few heads being scratched over HoT in this part of the blogosphere but I am getting the feeling that ANet have finally identified their core and target audiences (cerrtainly took them long enough) and this expansion is pitched squarely at those demographics. The rest of us will just have to hope for enough scrapings from their table to make up some kind of a meal.

  3. If you look at the forum posts that you linked, both forum posts have a dev quote explicitly stating that events like you mentioned you want (not associated with a big story and telling small stories) will absolutely be part of new zones. here is the quote:

    "As a big fan of Nochtli myself I’m here to tell you that there’s still going to be plenty of unique and unexpected things happening in the jungle. I think Steve’s point was simply to illuminate the premise that we’d like to build on our epic map stories with events wherever possible. That doesn’t mean crazy hylek won’t play a role in say, surviving in the jungle."

    1. Yes, I read that quote and thought of referring to it as a reinforcement of my misgivings but I didn't want to bloat the post. The Nochtli event is a very good example of the kind of thing I don't mean when I refer to the kind of events found widely across the original maps.

      Nochtli is basically a skill point fight with no skill point attached. It's identical to all those NPCs you run across who want to spar with you, duel you, have you help test their golems or whatever flavor text they get given to start a fight. Those are great but they are entirely different from the examples I gave above, which play out like one-act plays with a cast of characters and a story.

      When Dry Top first appeared there seemed to be a lot of promise for interesting background and sidebar storytelling with all the nefarious goings on in the mine, the outcasts holed up in the little frontier post, the intriguing cast of characters around the bar.... As far as I recall none of that came to anything because next episode they had all either been killed or driven away by the vines and the mordrem.

      That's what happens when the overarching story takes hold and drives everything else off the map. I don't question that it's a more authentic narrative stance but I do wonder if it's a more enjoyable one for the player. We'll find out when we get there I guess!

  4. Hi! I wonder if your blog also accepts advertising? If yes, what are the rates and ad options? Thanks!

    1. Well it's nice to think you might consider it worth advertising here but no, it's a personal blog. I don't take advertising and have no plans to do so in the future.

  5. Quick note to say I really appreciate your perspectives, Bhagpuss. Enjoying the blog.

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  7. Soooo...any chance you'll jump on Cactuar again sometime? ;)

    1. HI Syl! I meant to answer last time you asked but somehow it got overrun by events!

      Not much chance of us ever playing FFXIV again I fear. I don't even bother logging in when they do the free weekends any more. Mrs Bhagpuss really dislikes the way they have structured the game - she has a very low tolerance of anything she feels smacks of elitism and she thinks (rightly in my opinion) that Yoshi P is a real elitist at heart.

      I'm not quite as opposed to his "vision" as she is but I certainly don't like it. What he did with housing pretty much put the last nail in the coffin of any hopes I had of returning. FFXIV is firmly on my list of MMOs that could be good but...aren't.

    2. Oh interesting. I haven't hit endgame yet and really just enjoying the main story and zones, and beautiful scenery & music. They've made some real improvements since last I played and the combat has become more bearable. Everything seems more relaxed and doable so far.

      But I heard about the insanely expensive housing although apparently that's still being looked into? For now the blogger guild I've joined offers to have your personal room or something. I haven't found so much on Yoshi-P's stances but I'd be very interested - is there a specific post or interview with him you could refer me to?

    3. Not really, since I'm not following his pronouncements any more. Pretty much any of his Producer's Letters or whatever they call them at SE give the flavor. He self-identifies as a "hardcore" gamer and he seems to me to have very much that old-school "it's not worth it unless you work for it" approach, which I respect but increasingly don't personally want to be dealing with.

      When FFXIV was in its second beta he engaged in a lot of discussions on the forums about what you might call "ease of access" issues - soloing being a prime example. He seemed to take the view, which I'm sure makes sense commercially, that a time might come when such things would be appropriate but it wouldn't be soon. That's basically how they played FFXI, which as far as I can gather is now quite solo-friendly but which only became so as the playerbase declined.

      I'm quite strongly opposed to forced grouping and FFXIV gates a lot of content that way. I also dislike guilds in general and don't approve of MMOs that try to force social structures onto players by gating content behind them. There's a good deal of that in FFXIV I think, particularly in housing but not only there.

      Those are the kinds of behaviors and design ethics that Mrs Bhagpuss would likely label "elitist". I'd just tend to call them really irritating but it comes to the same thing in the end. Neither of us find those kinds of mechanics fun any more, if we ever did.

  8. I quite believe that you are Arenanet core audience.
    I bet all this talk of challenge will be less than those craving for raids and big guild progression expect.
    Have you noticed any talk about dungeons or raids?

    And Tequatl requiring organization is so 2013.

    1. I have to admit I have my own suspicions along those lines. I did say that my big hope was that this is mostly the PR machine running all out and that what we get won't quite match up to what we were promised.

      I like Teq now everyone has him on farm. If the level of "challenge" turns out to be around and about Teq or Marionette then yep, I probably am in the core for that. If it's 3-Headed Wurm on Steroids then not so much. Roll on beta!

  9. Somehow I got to think what would happen if you could build player structures without limit. Collect ores/wood/building materials and build a house/castle/whatever. Build a hundred or more houses in a row creating your own slum. Have buldings decay if not maintained.
    Soon you'll have a barren dystopian wasteland filled with ruins where the easiest way to obtain resources is to salvage ruins left by previous players. How's that for an expansion?
    I think it's the screenshot of the swamp estate that triggered this. All that empty fertile ground going to waste. We must push and bring civilization to the uneducated frogs and insect hive minds.


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