Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Best Apples : GW2

This week's update to GW2 has made me think more about what I want from that game in particular and MMORPGs in general than almost anything in a long while. Which is a surprise, because, in all honesty, I wasn't expecting very much.

The whole thing was flagged up as a Big Deal of course, what with the pages and pages of patch notes and the press releases and so on, and we've been so starved of anything you might reasonably call new content for so long that you couldn't help but feel a frisson of anticipation. Even so, my personal hype meter wasn't registering off the scale anything like the way you'd think it might.

Perhaps that's why I'm so impressed. And make no bones about it, that's what I am. Impressed. And pleased. Impressed and pleased. A happy customer. After all the foot-shooting over the pre-purchase announcement ANet needed a win and they got one. With me, anyway.

Feeling blue?

The two big pillars of the patch were the root and branch revamp to traits, skills and the way the entire combat system works and the reveal of the rebuilt Lion's Arch. Either of those would be difficult enough to pull off separately. Plenty of MMOs have run off the road trying to negotiate tricky corners like changing the way people can play their characters or the look and feel of social hubs. Bundling them in together risked chaos and concern but I think they got away with it.

I have a strong antipathy to visual overhauls of familiar places but I especially dread class balancing, combat rewrites and major overhauls of opt-in points systems like traits and skills. Theorycrafting "builds" is not a part of the hobby that particularly interests me. I'm fine with doing it once, the first time, as I level my characters up, but once I have a build that works I'm more than happy to use it, unchanged, for the next decade or so. I am very firmly in the "good enough is good enough" camp when it comes to that kind of busywork.

Consequently I approach all of these Year Zero moments with a mixture of trepidation and annoyance. I would dearly love just to be able to log in and play and pretend these things weren't happening. And, miracle of miracles, this time that's exactly what I was able to do.

Thank you, Jeeves.

Oh, there was one of those warning pop-ups telling me everything had changed but instead of leaving me with the usual bucket-full of returned points and slew of empty slots it directed me to a new build with everything all filled in and ready to go.  All I had to do was give it the once-over to see if I approved my personal dresser's choices, which, for the most part, I did. I didn't even need to do that much, truth be told. I could have just closed the window and left it at that but curiosity got the better of me and I did mouseover a few things. It all looked fine so that was that.

It helps that the new trait and skill windows are a massive visual improvement on the originals. There wasn't anything particularly wrong with the last version and if you'd asked me I'd have said it was fine. It was fine. This is better, though. It's sleeker, simpler, clearer and more intuitive. The flow is much easier to follow and changing from one build to another is simple and elegant.

Apart from the slick new interface there's one great and as far as I can see entirely unheralded improvement; we now get a completely separate WvW build in the way we always had a discrete build for PvP. Unless I've misunderstood something, the traits and skills that you set when you're in any Mists map will lock and persist in all WvW maps until you change them again but when you drop back into a PvE map you'll autoswap to your pre-existing PvE build and vice versa.

Hardly shouting the news from the rooftops, are they?

I couldn't quite believe it when I noticed it, which I only did when I spotted the small text gloss as I looked at my build when I was standing around in Citadel. Surely this is the kind of major innovation everyone would be talking about? Apparently not. There it is, though, and it works. I tested it to be sure.

The thing is, had I not spotted it, it wouldn't have mattered much. ArenaNet managed to transition my old builds into the new system with sufficient accuracy that I was able to play several characters without changing anything. That's a real achievement - 10AP to whoever came up with the idea and 50AP to whoever made it work.

What's more, the new system is so user-friendly I feel confident and even inspired to play around with it to see if I can come up with something that suits me even better. My necromancer is going to need some re-writes, for sure - someone seems to have mistaken her for a Minion Master. That cannot stand.

Did they have to import all this sand?

So, that was the Great Trait Revamp out of the way, for now, at least. The aftershocks rumble on and things will take a while to settle but all's good for the time being. ANet's official position on a number of widely reported unexpected outcomes is that :

1) Conditions seem a bit strong
2) World bosses are currently too easy
3) There are some bugged skills and traits
4) There are some overpowered builds

We won’t fix it all at once but these are four large topics we are talking about.

They seem to be "talking" surprisingly fast because fixes are already coming in flurries but my main attention has been elsewhere.

I was planning to write this morning about the changes to Lion's Arch and the way they have caused me to revise and revisit my whole outlook on MMO gaming but it's too big a topic to rush and I'm still mulling it over so this is the short version, which I can sum up like this: background is more important than foreground. 

There's an argument to be had over whether MMORPGs need a "story" at all. Plenty of people feel they do. There are companies, BioWare being only the most obvious example, that have predicated their entire business model on that belief. On the other side are the people who believe just the opposite; that the only stories that matter in MMORPGs are those told by the players themselves. Again there are businesses set up to cater first and foremost to that audience .

Who Is Data Dog? You may well ask.

I'm not happy with either extreme. I feel story both has its place and should know its place. It's not the be-all and end-all but neither is it entirely dispensable. What I consider to be more important than either is milieu. 

My deep and abiding affection for Norrath, Telon and now Tyria doesn't derive from the great adventures I've had there or the friends I've made, immensely important though those are. It derives from the sense that I've lived there. For a place to feel that real other people have to live there too. Players provide a lot of that life but the bedrock of belief comes from the real residents, the NPCs.

There would be, wouldn't there? How did we ever manage before reddit?

Right from when I first began playing Everquest I noticed that the world I'd stepped into was alive. Yes, some shopkeepers and guards might be at their posts twenty-four hours a day but a myriad of other characters were out and about, getting on with what appeared to be lives of their own. 

I spent hours in Freeport and Qeynos following NPCs about, trying to work out what they were up to and usually coming away little the wiser. There seemed to be half a dozen or more NPCs who had business between Qeynos Hills and West Karana. I'd see them jog to the zone line and disappear. They're still at it now, most of them. I saw it on Ragefire only the other day and it still puzzles me. What are they up to and how can I find out?

So am I! I was worried about you guys!

When GW2 began one of the most striking and laudable elements of its rich mix was the wealth and depth of quotidian narrative. For a while it was one of the big talking points: not how we could beat the Elder Dragons but how much fun we were having throwing snowballs and picking apples. 

It wasn't so much the vaunted Dynamic Events, whose promised gleam so quickly tarnished, although they certainly added some new texture we hadn't seen before. It was much more the sheer detail of the everyday lives that carried on around them that drew us in and made us feel part of the world. You could have spent many hours in Metrica Province just trying to unravel the Asuran intrigues going on there, without ever lifting a sword or completing an event. I did. I do. You still can. You should.


After a while, and really quite a short while at that, the perspective shifted to Orr and What Was Wrong With It and Was Zhaitan Really Dead and all that big picture stuff. All the little things faded into the background. When the first iteration of the Living Story arrived and we were asked to find lost toys in the snow and light fires to keep refugees from freezing there was something of a backlash

From then on Story had to come capitalized, in cut scenes and instances and Mysterious Letters, in sweeping sagas of adventure or family strife or social commentary, with Achievements and Rewards and Titles attached. And yet somehow a space was always found around the edge, out of the spotlight, for a score of smaller stories told in lower case. Every episode of the Living Story scattered a few seeds and there were some who cared more about what might spring up where they landed than they did about the latest installment of the Dragon of the Month club.

They better not have brought their bad luck with them.

It's been a long dry spell. I'd forgotten just how much those small stories meant. Since the patch landed I've spent almost all my gaming hours in the magnificent new Lion's Arch, exploring, watching and listening. From the Consortium's new HQ (just who is their mysterious, never-seen leader?) to the Dodgy House (as it's known Chez Bhagpuss) that only opens its doors at night to the spitting gourds that remind us all of lions lost there's a wonder around every corner.

Snikk and Scratch captured my attention first. I tried to follow them but they use the waypoints. And why not? Who's to stop them? With so many adults killed in the battles with Scarlet and her armies Lion's Arch is awash with unruly children. They go where they please. The lucky ones, like Jordyn and Leyah, have found a measure of safety and security but the rest, who can say? I fear some Fagin is already at work and, Lyssa knows, the Lionguard aren't going to do anything to stop him.

Trust me, Edward's slacking is the least of our worries.

As I said, I'm still pondering all this. It's complex and fascinating and it will take a while to process but the return of Lion's Arch has reminded me of what was missing in my gaming world. It had slipped away almost unnoticed under a mass of dailies and achievements and loot runs. It's the wonder or being somewhere rich and strange, surrounded by mysteries you may never unravel; not the epic legends of dragons and gods but the small mysteries of everyday.

I'd like a whole expansion's worth of this stuff please.


  1. I can't speak for Bioware and other big proponents of capital-S Story, but when I talk about story as being incredibly important in my MMOs it does very much include what you talk about here. As I see it, Story can only ever happen in the context of the background world. Too many MMOs, like Aion, Rift, SWTOR, and ArcheAge, rely far too heavily on All Story All the Time. Everything has to be relevant to helping you move up the Escalator To Heroship, even if it is disguised to a greater or lesser degree. Even WoW has gone down that path, it's all about the Big Picture now.

    Story without background is hollow and bland. We need those small vignettes to give us context, to put us in our place and to provide us with a world to save. Whatever problems I had with GW2's story and lore, I always appreciated those small narratives, that background, that sense of there actually being an everyday life to have in this world.

    1. There's a master's thesis waiting to be written about the way the GW2 team have handled storytelling these last three years. At times it's felt like they were literally making it up as they went along and they've used just about every device in the genre-fiction writer's tool-bag along the way, some to great effect, others not so much.

      In the end I think the least interesting part has been the Elder Dragon stuff but that's what a lot of the audience seems to want. I'd be very happy never to see or hear of a dragon again in any game, ever, though,so I may be biased on that aspect of the process.


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