An unusul topic for this blog, but after the second beta weekend, it deserves some thoughts written out. Guild Wars 2 being one of the most anticipated games of the year, it will be reviewed and picked apart by thousands of blogs and hundreds of magazines. So this is not a review, but some specific in-depth game design thoughts on but a fraction of the content. It helps if you know Guild Wars 2 (GW2) and maybe Guild Wars (GW, the first game), as I won’t go into too much detail.
Probably one of the most discussed elements of the game, this is a mixed bag. It does deliver on everything explicitly promised – if the quest says “save us from the centaurs attacking the outpost”, then centaurs really are attacking, and if the players fail (or ignore) the event, then the outpost will be taken and from then on controlled by the centaurs. This can lead to waypoints, merchants, etc. being inaccessible until the outpost is retaken.
The downside is that the interest of a stable environment for all players won out against stronger implementations. When you enter an area you know well, then some outpost may be in the hands of one side or the other, but in sum total very little really changes in the world. Events also reset very, very quickly. When the bandits manage to destroy the water pipes, come back at most half an hour later and they will be whole again. When you have finally taken and blown up the bridge after a pitched battle, it is frustrating to come back shortly after and see it both repaired and fought over again. In one place, an outpost I had taken from the centaurs was literally re-taken by them before I had moved out of view.
So while events actually happen instead of just being mentioned in quest texts, the impact on the world feels rather limited and very short-term. It appears to me that someone got frightened upon thinking the idea through to its logical conclusion. Sure, some new players might be frustrated finding that the area they just entered is conquered by the enemy and they have to fight a few battles before being able to get at the skill point quests, merchants, waypoints, points of interest, etc. etc. – but isn’t that what it’s all about? More and longer-lived consequences of these events would have been really great.
Classes and Skills
There is a considerable difference between how classes and skills work both between GW2 and GW as well as other MMOs. Instead of having a fixed selection of skills based on your class (like most MMOs) or being able to select a number of skills out of the total (like GW), GW2 bases skills on your weapon. Which allows in-game (and for some classes even in-combat) switching as well as a skill progression per weapon set. In theory, this rewards you if you pick a weapon and train it instead of constantly switching around. In reality, it is a bit of grind and by the time you reach level 20 (of 80) you will almost certainly have all weapons trained fully except maybe the underwater ones. In fact, for many classes you’ll have most or all weapons trained fully at level 10-15. Which kind of leaves the question what the whole thing is for.
Contrary to GW, this also prevents individualized and unique builds, making GW2 more similar to other MMOs. In GW, characters of the same class could have fairly different builds. In GW2, they will be much closer to each other. This also removes the potential for creative builds like the close-combat-AoE elementalist – pretty much the opposite of what the class is usually used for.
The removal of a dedicated healing class has its pros and cons. It is good that the mandatory requirement of having a healer in the party is gone. Many parties in MMOs spend a considerable amount of time finding a healer. But an optional dedicated healing class would not have hurt and can be lots of fun to play. While all the classes in GW2 are self-dependent this way, and it does break up the traditional roles of classes a lot, it also leads to uninteresting styles of play. I have not played too much PvP and WvWvW, but it does not appear to matter much what the other party consists of, you just pump out damage until they die. The traditional roles did offer some strategic guidance (go for the monk first). In GW2 I can’t shake the feeling that damage is all-important and buffs and debuffs matter little. They are usually short-lived anyways. For example, the elementalist has some water-healing spells, but if you run the numbers, you quickly realize that they don’t matter. None of them come even close to countering the damage that fire-based spells do, so a battle of healing capability vs. damage capability will always go to those concentrating on dealing damage.
My main issue with the classes and skills is that all the classes I have tested so far (elementalist, ranger, necromancer and a bit of fighter and guardian) feel pretty much the same. While they have a focus, they do not differentiate clearly. Both the ranger and the elementalist are largely built for ranged attacks, and the elementalist has more AoE options, but the ranger has a few of those as well, and both can go close-combat with the right weapons. Just like the fighter can pick up a bow and do ranged attacks. The only non-negotiable difference between classes is the choice of armour (light, medium, heavy). For me, that just isn’t enough to justify the whole class system. Breaking out of the class system with a small selection of primary choices would have been an interesting experiment. Allow players to choose three settings for their characters: What armours to use, which of a selection of weapon sets to use, and which “special skill” to have (e.g. pets for rangers, elemental magic for elementalists, etc.) – this is pretty much what the class system breaks down to, but leaving the choice to the players would have allowed for a much greater variety of combinations (3 armour types, lets say 5 weapon sets and 8 special skills would give you 120 different “classes”).
Ironically, the dual-class system in GW was a step in this direction, as most secondary classes were picked for one or two choice skills.
The concept of discoveries makes crafting interesting and fun, but the execution varies in quality. It is great whenever there are many non-obvious combinations and playing around is rewarded. It is a dumb grind when you know that any combination of, say, staff head + staff shaft + inscription will yield some kind of magic staff. This could have been improved by making the other obvious variations become discovered when you discover the first. For a game that wants to do away with grinding, there’s still way too much grinding involved in most crafting disciplines due to the obviousness of the “inventions”. Some potential was thrown away here by making gamey requirements instead of thoughtful ones. This makes it too easy to know working combinations without having tried them.
At the times it works as it should, the crafting system is great fun and tremendously rewarding. That is because discovering something new feels a lot more like success than building 100 chain mails (or whatever) for the XP.
Getting the raw materials for crafting also still has too much of the grinding aspect in it. Like in LOTRO, resource nodes are scattered around the map seemingly at random (not quite, but hear me out). So you find a tree to chop down here and there, instead of being able to go into the forest and cut down as many as you need. The only place I’ve found where the placement really makes sense is a few of the fields, where you find food like you would expect – quite a bit of it, but all of the same type. I’d wish the same for ore and wood – more clustering. It has changed quite a bit compared to the first beta weekend, so it might still move into the right direction.
Constantly running between crafting station and bank is a real downer. I don’t get why it works that way. Let me craft with things in my bank storage. Heck, you’ve implemented a collectables bank and the ability to put stuff into it from anywhere in the world (a bit hidden in a right-click menu). So why not allow the crafting stations to access that store?
Dynamic groups instead of fixed parties are an interesting concept and they work well during events – for the duration of the event. But there is a social component lacking and people wander in and out as they want. I can not recall a single character name of anyone I played with, and that’s a shame. In GW and other MMOs some of the best fun was when by chance a party with great chemistry formed and you spent a couple hours playing with the same people. I don’t see much of that happening in GW2, but time will tell. The design issue is that social dynamics do not encode well into game mechanics. You need something that gets out of the way, gives some basic concepts and then leaves the room for the humans. The traditional party system does that – it shows your party on the map, gives you a communications channel and that’s it. The dynamic system where people come in and go away as they like lacks the glue or bonding elements of a party system. And since most of the game is so dynamic, you don’t care all that much when a party is formed.
Maybe this is most noticeable because GW had a very strong party system due to the instancing mechanic. You formed parties at the (shared) towns and cities and then went with them into the (instanced) world. This way, when you set out together you would play together. It was quite close to the way pen & paper RPGs are played. You know, your characters meet at the local tavern and go on an adventure.
World vs. World vs. World – if you don’t play GW2. This is the other PvP system in GW2, with the first one being a traditional two-teams PvP. Basically, WvWvW is GW2’s implementation of Realm vs. Realm gameplay, or LOTROs Monster Play / Ettenmoors. I have played but a little, and what I have seen seems well done. Other than most PvP, there are a multitude of objectives, and battles often go back and forth for a while. And, of course, the view of an entire raid of 30 or so people being wiped is something to behold. Though the ability to enter a fortress through the very gate that is currently under siege just feels very wrong, and makes true sieges impossible. It breaks immersion and gives you the same “gamey” feeling that Freeps jumping out the windows of the tower being stormed does in LOTRO.
From a design perspective, the choice to boost everyone to the max level is obvious, but nevertheless impacts character development. It allows you to “preview” skills that your character is still far away from ever gaining, allowing you a glimpse into the high-level game long before you get even close. LOTRO, which allows player characters to enter the Ettenmoors at levels below the max, showed that it is pretty much a requirements to boost. At least as monsters we always laughed about “low”-level Freeps.
However, it does take away from the atmosphere. The tiered system of Warhammer Online certainly has its advantages in this regard. The main conceptual issue being that the character boost breaks immersion and weakens the bond between you and your character and his/hers character development. It does have obvious gameplay advantages, so once again as with crafting, the design decision appears to have been made in favour of clean game mechanics.
Finally, a word about the combat system. Yes, it does break from most MMOs in that position and movement are important. You don’t just stand there and smash the same 1-2-3-4-5 combo all the time. Unfortunately, for many classes the new standard is that you move around constantly, smashing the same 1-2-3-4-5 combo all the time, interrupted by some targetting and self-healing (and, of course, the actual combo could be 1-2-7-8-3-5-4 or whatever). Nevertheless, it is a lot more dynamic and both more interesting and more challenging.
The auto-repeat of the first attack is a real boon, reducing the amount of pointless keypresses considerably. Evading/dodging is also very nice and limited enough that your enemy doesn’t constantly dodge all your attacks.
What does not work nearly as advertised is the combo system. In the early trailers and announcement, we read things like an archer shooting through a wall of fire having his arrows turned into flaming arrows. Like the crafting invention system, this promised an area of experimentation and possibilities. Unfortunately, the reality is a lot simpler: There are types of fields and types of attacks and a matrix telling you which attack through which field will result in what effect. So any projectile fired into any field of fire will result in burning. It’s a nice little gimmick, and once more the design decision was clearly towards a transparent game mechanic instead of a more interesting but also more complex system. Magicka shows just what you can do with combinations, so maybe I was expecting too much – but fields/elements combining would have been really cool – cast a firestorm into that rain your enemy cast to turn both into a mist field? Now wouldn’t that have been cool and added so much more strategy?
This is not an evaluation or review of Guild Wars 2. While most of my points sound critical, the game as a whole is very enjoyable and well-made. It does deliver on what I consider the main selling point differentiating it from other MMOs and that is a dramatic reduction in the grind. While a few events have the “collect all the crates” mechanic, they all offer alternative ways of completing the progress bar and never feel quite as pointless and grindy as the “kill 100 rabbits” so-called quests of other MMOs. The dynamic events are a great concept, and while there is room for improvement, it does give the world a much stronger feeling of realism.