Sunday, March 28, 2021

Center Of The Social Scene

There was a post at Massively:OP last week that I confess I didn't read in full. It was something about whether it would be a good idea to replace mmorpg social hubs with a menu system. It was so obviously clickbait I didn't read any more than the couple of sentences that showed up in Feedly but oddly enough I'd been thinking for a while about a post of my own on social hubs.

This is that post, such as it is. It's going to be short, for once.

What started me thinking was the visit I made a week or two back to the Eye of the North in Guild Wars 2. I was there for one reason only: it's where the latest chapter of the Icebrood Saga begins. I think I'm right in saying it's where every chapter of the Icebrood Saga begins. 

Ostensibly that's for lore reasons. Jormag's stronghold is in the far north. The various Charr factions were contending for control of regions to the North of the Eye. Most importantly of all, Aurene has chosen to make it her home.

All of that make sense from a narrative perspective, although I can no longer remember why Aurene picked a frozen cavern to live in. She's a dragon. She can fly. She could live anywhere. Why there? She's not even an ice dragon. I'm sure there was a reason. I've just forgotten what it was.

The real reason we're all stuck with the Eye, however, seems to have a lot more to do with giving people something to do. Anet has form on this sort of thing.

Over the lifetime of the game there has always been a dominant social hub. A place where players gather in numbers to get their chores done and shoot the breeze while they're doing them. It's where the bank and the trading post, the crafting stations and all the important vendors can be found, all within a convenient distance of each other.

Even though GW2 began with five very impressive, fully-functional starting cities, all of which had every facility, from early days players chose the one major non-racial metropolis, Lion's Arch, as their hub of choice. Dedicated WvW players tended to use their own team's citadel and sPvP players had a cramped little mini-hub of their own but L.A. was the undisputed gathering place for just about everyone else.

I honestly have no idea if this is a real thing or just fan service.

Whether by co-incidence or design (it was obviously by design) Lion's Arch was famously disaster-prone. It had already been destroyed and rebuilt between the original game and the sequel and within weeks of launch it was overrun by giant crabs, the karka, who knocked down the lighthouse

After the Karka came Scarlet and her armies. They knocked down the replacement lighthouse and went on to do a much more thorough job of destruction, leaving more than half the city a smouldering ruin.

While repairs went on, which took a couple of years as I recall, the social center of the game moved to the human starting city, Divinity's Reach. Again from memory I seem to remember this beganas a player choice that was swiftly taken up by the developers.

Even though Lion's Arch was eventually rebuilt in a glossy new version that ressembles nothing so much as an out-of-town business park, it never really regained its pre-eminence as a social hub. Partly it was that people didn't really like it as much as the funky pirate port it replaced. Partly it was the way ANet insisted on making Divinity's Reach the fun capital of Tyria.

If you choose to host nearly all your major holiday events in a single city it's going to tip the scales. In lore terms, Queen Jennah has run a gloriously successful hearts and minds campaign to raise her city-state's profile above all her regional competitors. Where the money comes from it's probably better not to ask.

It did seem we were set to keep Divinity's Reach as the game's de facto grand plaza. And then something shifted. Most of the holidays still happen there and every time the calendar rolls around to a new one the place fills up to bursting. When there are no festivities scheduled, though, it's a very different story.

I have to pay to use the gates and now you want me to pay to build them?

All of the racial cities except D.R. are close to dead most of the year round. Rata Sum fills up for Super Adventure Box and there's one festival that happens in Hoelbrak (I forget which one) but other than that you can pretty much count on having the streets to yourself.

And it's much the same in Divinity's Reach now, too. There are more people around the bank and the mystic forge in Lion's Arch again than you'll see in Queen Jennah's city. But you'll probably see even more in the Eye of the North. 

It's a weird place. There's nothing there apart from a plethora of vendors. It's a hole in the ice. What's more, if you want to use anything more than the basic facilities you'll have to pay.

Not in the way you've always had to pay for the elite clubs of Tyria, the luxury lounges that hide behind armed guards and literal velvet ropes or in luxuriant airships that hover high overhead. You can buy tickets for those in the gem shop and sometimes you get them as rewards for anniversaries and events. I tried one once, on a freebie, but it was so cramped and claustrophobic I never went back.

No, the Eye of the North employs a peculiar new form of "content", where the player has to earn credit and spend various currencies to install facilities like banking or crafting for their personal use. It's not a unique idea - I had to run a couple of quests in EverQuest II before I could use the bank in the Bazaar, for example - but I can't recall seeing it implemented as ferociously as this before.

I don't object to it in principle. It's just another of the myriad time-fillers mmorpgs like to throw into the mix to keep people busy. It does make me wonder just what ANet think they're up to, though.

Developers often seem nervous of players gathering in large groups. Over the years I've seen such gatherings moved on many times.

Yak's Bend Citadel - supplying all my banking needs since 2012.

In EverQuest the social hubs used to be North Freeport, Greater Feydark and the East Commons Tunnel, all chosen by players. Then SOE added the Nexus, Shadowhaven and the Bazaar with the Shadows of Luclin expansion and after that Plane of Knowledge in Planes of Power and all activity moved to each of those in turn.

Why devs always seem to feel the need to centralize services in a place of their choice rather than let players find their own gathering spaces I'm not sure but they certainly do. It might have some technical benefit of which we're not aware, I suppose. It might be genuinely intended to improve the overall experience for customers. Or, as I suspect, as with most things, someone just can't leave well enough alone.

Whatever the reason, you can pretty much guarantee that when Guild Wars 2's third expansion, End of Dragons, finally appears the Eye of the North will become a ghost town. Oh, sorry, ghost cave. Because if there's one thing it's not it's a town.

I suppose there's an outside chance the expansion could use EoN as a hub but it's looking very much as though we'll be done with Jormag before then. The caravan will move on, I'd bet on it.

So I don't think I'm going to bother filling out all those gaps on my service card. I bought the basics - the vendor, the bank, the things I could pay for out of pocket without making a dent in my savings. The rest I can do without.

I'll keep doing my banking in World vs World and my crafting in the Black Citadel. In a game with instant travel it seems pointless to worry about a couple of extra clicks.

I do miss the chatter in the background but it hasn't really been the same since Scarlet came. Lion's Arch chat really was a social scene. Nothing since has come close.

1 comment:

  1. Eye of the North was intended as the strike missions hub, if I’m not mistaken.

    Granted, given Anet’s propensity to dump ideas and move on to something else with a new esoteric label, I have no idea if people are still doing strikes these days. I hear the new thing is something called Dragon Response Missions, but that’s where I’ve drawn the line in trying to understand what is going on. No idea what it is, if that hub is still considered Eye of the North, or if it even needs a hub.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide