Monday, July 16, 2018

Rolling Along : GW2

In a little less than six weeks GW2 will be six years old. It's very difficult to say what that means. I have a memory of an interview John Smedley gave to an industry website back around the turn of the century where he said that the expected life of EverQuest was around three years but with luck they might stretch that to five.

Sadly that interview is lost to time or at least my google-fu isn't strong enough to conjure it. It's not true that everything posted on the Internet lives forever. I'm reasonably sure I'm not misremembering, however, if only because that estimate does tie in precisely with the development and release of EQ2 and also explains both why SOE would have believed they'd need a new EQ product around five years in and why they'd have been confident that EQ players would migrate to it.

Smed, as he has been on so many things, was wrong. MMORPGs have turned out to be much more long-lived than he or probably anyone at that time imagined. Ultima Online will be twenty-one years old this September. Come next spring, EverQuest will have been running for two full decades. They are far from alone in achieving scales of longevity their creators surely never envisaged.

Come on, you can tell me. Your four-year old came up with this one, right?
For a mainstream, moderately successful MMORPG, six years isn't much. It's not nothing - some have faded a lot faster than that - but a six-year stretch isn't remotely unusual. Even so, and even though the genre has yet to set anything like a benchmark for how long an MMO should expect to last, six years in an MMO does start to feel a little middle-aged.

Going into the second half of the first decade, things have begun to settle. Most people who are going to play have most likely already played. There will always be a trickle of fresh blood but it's going to get harder and harder to present the game as "new". Most potential customers will direct their gaze elsewhere.

It's why we see MMO houses devote so much attention and PR spend towards bringing lapsed customers back to the fold. Here, GW2 is in both a very a good and a very bad place. Clever game design from the outset means barriers to re-entry are almost non-existent. Conversely, reasons to stick around long-term can be hard to find.

Are you here for the beetle drop? Me too!

Perhaps the hardest part is getting anyone to notice your aging game at all. As the recent furore around the Twitter/reddit storms that led to the sacking of two writers might suggest, not all publicity is good publicity. Or maybe it is. Only ANet's sales department can say for certain. Watch for a dip or a spike in NCSoft's future quarterlies.

What I do think has been highlighted by the whole sorry affair is the unwieldy and disproportionate emphasis placed on narrative and story, specifically in GW2. Had the participants in the initial exchanges not been so invested in the import of what they were discussing, maybe tempers would have been cooler but when it comes to stories some people do get excited.

That seems to have been the thinking back in 2012, or even more so in the years before that, when GW2 was in development. Story was a Big Thing in MMOs then. We'd had BioWare making sweeping statements about the "fourth pillar" for years and even if SW:tOR had launched to a less than stellar reception a year earlier, the orthodoxy that narrative was paramount still held sway.

And the prize for Most Ridiculous Ride goes to...
GW2 pegged much of its structure and a good deal of its PR push on the Personal Story. With no formal questing, no long-term vertical progression and a slew of unfamiliar mechanics centered around hot-join social activities, the directed, linear experience provided by the Personal Story threw out a lifeline to many players, who felt they were drowning in an ocean of choices.

Six years, three and a half "Living Stories" and two expansions later, who still cares about the plot? As evidenced in last week's exchanges, the writing team retains a sense of importance that I fear may not be shared by their audience.

A few years back map and guild chat would frequently, even routinely, buzz with speculation about the twists and turns of the storyline. Many players loathed Scarlet Briar and ridiculed the way the plot around her played out but they never stopped talking - and caring - about it.

These days it's relatively rare to hear anyone even mention the story. There's a brief flurry on the day a new LS chapter arrives but even then most of the chatter revolves around whether the new meta is any good and where to get whatever new shiny came with the update.

A recent post by Jeromai compares the central story line in Warframe to GW2's ongoing narrative. I'm nowhere near far enough along in Warframe to make a judgment on its story but I do know that GW2 makes little sense in narrative terms and hasn't for a very long while. I don't know whether the recent events at ANet will impact that favorably or otherwise but my feeling is that the shake-up can't really make things any worse. We'll see in three months, I guess.

No spitting in the trench, please!

If story can't carry the weight of expectation and interest in an aging MMORPG, what might? Usually it would be some form of vertical or linear progression - new levels, more powerful gear - but GW2 has opted out of those old standbys.

What's left is a series of fortunate events. Discrete, attractive, lapidary attractions, strewn like so many sparkling gems across a sweeping backcloth. ANet's designers and developers have learned to specialize in crafting Collections and Achievements that take a while to do and send players off on journeys across maps that might otherwise be forgotten, the way old zones in MMOs tend to be.

The recent update added a sprawling Achievement - The Tyrian Service Medal - that sends players to kill more than half a dozen of the game's original World Bosses. If that wasn't enough, the achievement also asks you to complete all five of the Orr Temple events. That's a grand tour of Old Tyria if ever there was one. I will be working on that, on and off, for quite a while.

Soon have these weeds whacked.

And then there's the linked series of collections for the Roller Beetle mount. I completed the third and final step yesterday. I didn't particularly want the ridiculous-looking beetle, although it turned out to be more amusing to ride than I expected. It's a motorcycle, basically. Or possibly a souped-up, ride-on mower.

No, I did the collection because it was enjoyable, well-paced and satisfying. The Griffin achievement/collection/quest was the highlight of the last expansion for me. Cadalbolg was the best thing in LS3 - even if technically it wasn't even in LS3. Scavenger hunts aren't anything original in MMOs but they're something ANet does very well indeed, better than most.

Whether it's sustainable, long term, to scaffold player retention on a mosaic of discrete, short-term platforms like this, combined with a supporting framework of very lengthy, repetitive grinds such as those required to obtain Legendary weapons and armor remains to be seen. Probably, it is.

As a business model and a creative plan for an enjoyable and long-lasting MMORPG, I think it has a lot more going for it than an inconsistent and barely coherent narrative, dished out in two or three hour helpings every third month. If I was a lapsed player I imagine I'd be alot more likely to log back in to get a Roller Beetle than I would be to find out which god was pretending to be which villain this time around.

Of course, you do have to do at least some of the story just to get the starter for the beetle so bets are being hedged. Or maybe those are synergies. Either way, the collection was more fun than the story behind it. And I might even ride the thing once in a while. It does go fast.


  1. I specialize in smashing the beetle into walls, so mine goes at a stately trundle 90% of the time.

    I think you’ve nailed the memorable stuff spot on. Players care about what happens to them and what they get out of it. Griffon, beetle, Caladbolg sword - the reforging of it was nice, even if only told through pop up dialogue. Imagine if we needed it to take down Balthazar, and/or had some cinematics around it.

    Kill rampaging villain #3101? As generic Pact Commander #4713? Righto, done, next? Who were they again? The story NPCs seem to be having more fun than we are.

    Granted, the PoF scene where a bit of deus ex machina for Balthazar clobbered the Commander into a place where they could nostalgically rehash what had gone before was pretty good, for a GW2 plot milestone. At least I still remember it happening, as opposed to all the story NPCs telling me gobbledgook about some Elder Dragon or God or other.

    Not to mention, at nearly every story step, this underlying exasperated tone of the writers trying to close open and dangling story loops while leaving nothing else to speculate about. Scarlet? She’s dead. The White Mantle? They’re gone. Lazarus? Here, go kill him, happy? Primordius and Jormag? Mutually nullified with a machina, no problemo. The gods? The’re GONE gone. Kormir told you herself. Bye. Here, smack Dhuum around for kicks too. Joko? He’s finished too. In three chapters. *flexes writing muscles* Done. Stop the crazy speculation, or we’ll take out E next, in an offscreen note. kthxbai.

    Little wonder why the players don’t care anymore.

    1. There are individual elements of the story that I enjoy - some of the dialog of some of the characters, some of the set-pieces - but the narrative arc is muddled and vague at best. Often it seems as though huge story elements are simply missing. I get the strong feeling the writers know what the plot is but they are unable to find any workable way to put it in front of the audience.

      That's a function of the extremely poor set of tools they have to work with (video games, MMOs, completely uninterested player-actors) as much as it is any defect of the writers' abilities. Ironically, I think that was kind of what Jessica price was trying to get out of her system in her explanation of how writing for The Commander works - or rather doesn't work.

    2. I have to disagree somewhat there. Players remember Tybalt (and Sieran/Forgal to a lesser extent) and Claw Island. It hits you; it’s personal, it’s your mentor and your Lion’s Arch.

      The re-taking of Orr was mostly criticized for poor mechanics tying in with the story - players expected a more dramatic fight as befits Zhaitan, and to a lesser extent, unfamilarity with some of the NPCs that were treated in a more familiar light (Trahearne was fine if you were previously introduced to him as sylvari, and “Trahearne who?” to the other races).

      But I don’t know if I’d call it unmemorable as a story arc. It was relatively focused, the player character participated in key moments like the purification of the Artesian Waters and so on.

      The Scarlet parts of the Living Story were memorable in the sense that the player participated in events that very much impacted their lives, but unfortunately the arc started meandering at a snail’s pace at the same time as Scarlet plunged into pure Harlequin cheesiness (apparently due to multiple writers and a top-down directive to make her more villainous.)

      By the time we get to HoT, the plot ended up in a full fledged delaying action re: defeating Mordremoth, sidetrekking to as yet unadressed Forgotten paths to get Glint hatched, embroiled in Destiny’s Edge 2.0’s teenage angst with some kind of Nightmare Court angle chopped for time (leaving Caithe’s weird outbursts in the lurch) and oh yeah, you do particpate fully in killing Mordremoth (within and without.)

      Story arc score: near zero. Player participation marks: Would have been a passing grade, but pulled down by bugs that plagued the final fight for more than two years and killing Eir in a cutscene just because.

      The darnest thing is that they’ve managed different aspects of the storytelling well in GW2 at different times, but then the other aspects aren’t, leaving that to stay in the mind more than anything else. It’s yet to fully come together - focused story arc, player as central participant, mechanics that help to tell the story (rather than break the immersion from bugs or difficulty), choices/consequence, cinematics and music, etc.

      Parts of Path of Fire weren’t too bad, the arc was fairly strong in a workman sort of way, plenty of (possibly excessive) mechanics, a great deal of lavish GW1 lore spread all around. Except the Commander was basically faceless Tyrian tourist to Elona, while dragging a bunch of baggage from old storylines behind them. And I’m still trying to figure out why Balthazar as villain exactly.

    3. That's going back a lot further than I was talking about. The original Personal Story benefitted immeasurably from being written as one, complete unit (including all the branching variants). It's not a great story in my opinion, what I've seen of it (bear in mind that even with 17 Level 80s, six years and many of thousands of hours played I have still never completed the Personal Story even once, which should tell you all you need to know about how invested I ever became in it) but it does have a start, a middle and an end.

      I much preferred Scarlet's era of Living Story, partly because of the mechanics but also because I just really, really like Scarlet. I would very happily play a game centered around her. I found her fascinating.

      Post-Scarlet I liked all the Destiny's Edge 2 John Hughes High School Movie stuff a lot. I'd go for more of that and less gods, dragons and end-of-the-world stuff any time. The problems seem to me to come not from those soap opera elements but from the increasingly bizarre and ludicrous operatic (or should that be Saturday Morning Cartoon) main plotlines. I lost interest somewhere not long after the introduction of Mordremoth as a villain (if he has any characterization at all I must have missed it - it's like having a hurricane or an earthquake as your bad guy ) and nothing that's happened since HoT has changed that.

      PoF was at least linear. It was also terrible. LS3 was so unmemorable I'd have to go look it up to see what happened. Was that the one with Caudecus and Balthazar in drag? LS4 I can sort of remember but only because it's more recent. It's the worst so far and that's saying something.

      I just don't think video games are a good narrative medium. They do work but I can't see any sign that they work as well as either novels or movies. If a video game story is ever effective and involving the first thing I think is how much better it would be in another format. Even now, the two Guild Wars novels I read, which are - and this is being generous - mediocre genre potboilers, stand head and shoulders above any other content I have seen in GW1 or 2 in terms of emotional impact. Almost all my investment in the GW2 storyline - particularly my affection for Zojja and Rytlock and my contempt for Logan and Jenna - derive from those books rather than anything in the game itself.


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