Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Long Distance Runaround : Guild Wars

As far as I know, "Maintenance Mode" for MMORPGs is a relatively recent innovation. While any number of MMOs may have slipped into de facto maintenance-through-neglect over the years, the first time I heard of one being officially mothballed was when ANet decided to "automate" the original Guild Wars in 2013, following the successful launch of the sequel, GW2.

Square Enix followed suit, pulling the plug on further development for FFXI a couple of years later. It was a decision driven primarily by the increasing difficulty of keeping the game running on ancient consoles, although, like ANet, Square no doubt also hoped to avoid splitting the audience after the eventual, successful resurrection of FFXIV.

Not a huge difference between this...
That turned out to be a famously ironic decision.  There was no maintenance mode for the PS2 or  XBox 360 players. Their versions simply stopped. For the PC players, however, things carried on almost as normal. Three years after development supposedly ceased, FFXI still receives more updates in "Maintenance" than many MMOs get in their prime.

It's a telling example of how "maintenance" can mean very different things to different developers. SmokyMonkeyS began by abandoning their intent to create a fully-blown MMORPG with Ninelives before going on to give up on the single-player version too. The game went into what they called "temporary suspension" but it remains up and running and it's even received a couple of significant updates since development came to a halt. Funcom's The Secret World, on the other hand, seems to have dropped off the radar entirely since it was replaced by Secret World Legends.

...and this.
ANet have left Guild Wars assiduously alone since they announced the end of active development. Their version of maintenance included the full automation of repeatable events like holidays, aniversaries and special bonus weekends. The idea was that the game would remain up indefinitely for those who still wanted to play but it wouldn't require - or receive - any input or resources to keep it running.

It was something of a surprise, then, to read last week that the game was getting a graphics overhaul. It's certainly true that many MMOs start to show their age in the visuals long before the gameplay dates. As the genre ages some developers have been puzzled, even dismayed, to find a significant number of their customers sticking with old favorites for far longer than expected, which has led a number of of them to attempt to give their fading stars a facelift  - with varying degrees of success.

More noticeable here.
That makes sense if the old game is still the one bringing in most of the revenue. Moreover, if a developer is entertaining even the smallest hope, however misguided, of attracting new players, it's true that 2005 graphics don't make for much of a shop window.

Guild Wars doesn't seem to be actively promoted any more, although you can still buy it from the website, so why bother tuning the graphics? Turns out it was one of those "passion projects" we often hear about, most of which turn out to be something else entirely.

Not this time. This one was genuine.  According to Eurogamer, a power surge at ANet's European data center led indirectly to a couple of developers using their off-hours to tweak the old Guild Wars engine to add a whole slew of new options inluding "windowed fullscreen support, a new 8X MSAA anti-aliasing option, 16x Anisotropic filtering support for the existing "use best texture filtering" option".

The new version looks sharper, something that was even more apparent in-game.

They also fiddled with the draw distance and the LODs and added a toggle to maximize both. In my experience, changes to draw distance can be one of the most revelatory changes a developer can make to a game. When SOE pushed EverQuest's draw distance out to the horizon it changed the game overnight. Huge areas that had been shorouded in thick fog for the years I'd been playing suddenly came into view. It was awesome.

The changes to Guild Wars aren't on that scale of magnitude for the simple reason that Guild Wars zones tend to be designed rather cleverly to give an illusion of space while actually being quite constricted. Unlike EQ, where the plains of West Karana stretch into the middle distance, regions like Deldrimor Font or Borlis Pass are full of twists and turns that restrict the line of sight. Even the mountains that form the backdrop are scarcely a jog-trot away.

If the differences between the first two pairs were subtle, here they are unmistakeable.
 Or perhaps I just went to the wrong zones to test the changes. Maybe I should have tried the snowfields of  the Far Shiverpeaks or the savannah of Elona. Instead I went to revisit Yaks Bend, one of my favorite spots in Tyria and also somewhere I can remember very clearly. I figured it might give me a better chance of appreciating the changes.

The difference is quite subtle but noticeable and certainly worthwhile. I think it's fairly easy to spot the Before and After in the screenshots. The new version removes a deal of the "fog" from the zone walls, bringing the mountains into sharper relief. It also reveals details like smoke from the fires and the occasional previously unseen peak. In one shot there's even a mysterious light in the sky that might be either a graphical glitch or an astronomical object.

Not only do the hills and far trees come into focus but smoke can be seen where there was none before.

There's nothing here that's going to pull in new customers but for anyone still playing or returning for a nostalgic visit it should come as a very welcome sign that someone's still paying attention. Stephen Clarke-Willson, one of the developers who did the voluntary work to make these changes happen, along with less-visible but equally welcome fixes for the tools used to report bots and RMT trades, is quoted as saying he'd "like this game to run for many years".

Let's hope he gets his wish.


  1. It’s really tempting to hop back into GW1 again, but my hard disk(s) are clogged full with installed games that I really ought to get around to playing at some point. So off it goes, stacked up on the pile of “gotta do some spring cleaning, before I can get this into a ready-to-play state.”

    Then instead of getting around to it, I procrastinate by playing another more primary or main game instead... both of which, ironically, are jammed full of “gotta spring clean these inventories, before they’re ready to be played” characters/banks.

    Maybe someday.

    1. I only popped back in to get the screenshots for the post but I found myself looking at Eye of The North and wondering if I should finish it and at Nightfall and wondering if I should finish that...

      I'm kind of getting a reverse-nostalgia from GW2, where instead of going all gooey-eyed over seeing names form the old game in the new one I'm seeing names I only know from the new one when I check into the old one and feeling like I ought to touch base with a past I never really knew.

  2. Couple of little fixes: GW1 is still being sold (I know that because I bought it couple of months ago) and the developer of this patch was Bill Freist, Stephen mostly works on server and net code.

    1. I *knew* I should have checked whether you could still buy GW. I hate getting checkable facts wrong so apologies for that. I'll fix it in the post too. That said, it's quite surprising. Obviously, there will still be plenty of unused copies floating around on Amazon and the like but it's good to know ANet are also still willing to sell new ones.

      The quote I used is from Stephen Clarke-Willson but the actual Eurogamer article I linked does give full credit to Bill Freist as well. The only thing they quote him as saying, though, is that he did most of the work in his own time.

    2. Well, now I feel guilty for not clarifying I bought it on Steam, so I don't know whether A.net produces more retail copies or not (I'm inclined to think it's the latter). There was pretty big AMA with Dr Stephen on Reddit recently and there were many questions about current pricing and the state of microtransactions, so maybe they'll at least streamline buying (like making Complete Edition with Trilogy + EotN + book missions available), it'd help with probable surge of new players.

      You are right that the quote belongs to Stephen (it's from AMA he did couple months ago), but 100% of this exact update was done by Bill and was inspired by Stephen's small update that added command line for disabling LOD.

    3. Anet doesn't just sell the main game and the expansions, the website has a full store of GW stuff. I was amazed how much there was. Even though I've played the game a fair bit I had no idea most of this stuff even existed. You can buy pets, skills, heros and similar gameplay-affecting stuff, which I think would be considered Pay to Win in many MMOs, as well as a wide range of cosmetic items and the usual range of services.

      In fact, I don't think it's even accurate to say, as I did, that ANet aren't promoting the older game any more. To an extent they still are. About all they have really done is stop making new content - otherwise it's business as usual. If I'd done this research before writing the piece (as I should have) I'd have written it slightly differently. It makes an even better case for the wide differences between what passes for "maintenance mode" than I thought.


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