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The problem of (no) progression

I think GW2 has a serious flaw, and it’s one that I haven’t actually seen commentators discuss much. To wit: there’s not enough progression to keep one feeling satisfied during the levelling process.

The Swamp

It’s pretty well accepted that a feeling of progression is one of the strongest motivators for an MMO player; that satisfying “ding!” as you level up, gain a new ability point, or otherwise improve yourself. Many, many MMO players focus on the levelling experience and lose interest when they hit the level cap – or they roll another alt to do it all again.

When you start playing GW2 those dings come thick and fast. Every half-dozen kills you’re unlocking a new weapon ability, and there are plenty to unlock, from 28 unlockable weapon skills for the mesmer or thief right up to 64 for the elementalist. 1

Of course, that feeling of progression starts to slow down when you’ve unlocked all your weapon skills — but by then you’re well into unlocking slot skills, which open up at levels 5, 10 and 20 for your regular slot skills and level 30 for your elite skill.

By level 30, though, the future’s looking a bit less exciting. You’ve doubtless unlocked all your weapons by now. All your slot skills hotkeys are unlocked, and you’ve probably maxed out two of your five trait areas by now. And now there’s no more progression. No more cool abilities to come. Nothing new about your class – er, sorry, profession. You’ve seen it all; the gameplay you’re experiencing now is going to be the same for the next fifty levels. Call me hard to please, but level 30 seems a bit early to cap out on class mechanics.

Of course, there are still things left to do. There are more trait trees to spend points in. There are more skill points to earn, which you can spend on buying new slot skills. However, it’s my argument that these are fundamentally not very satisfying.

  • Traits are entirely passive modifications to existing abilities, so they do make you more powerful, but they don’t really affect how you play your character.
  • Buying new slot skills is diversification — horizontal progression. Any new slot skill you buy won’t be more powerful than what you already have, and it won’t be an addition to what you can do — it will, at best, be a replacement for one of your existing slot skills, which you might care to use in a different situation. (Provided you have the foresight to swap it in before you get into a fight, of course, otherwise it does you no good at all.)

To be fair, again, that last point isn’t strictly true; each class gets a Tier 2 elite skill which is probably more awesome than the Tier 1 elite skills. It’d want to be, as it costs 30 skill points and requires unlocking two Tier 1 elite skills at 10 points each. Either way, though, it’s just one last ding somewhere in between level 30 and level 80 (depending on how long it takes you to accrue the necessary skill points), and it’s still just a replacement for one of your Tier 1 elite skills — an alternative, not an addition.

The Swamp

And this lack of progression is compounded by the GW2 downlevelling mechanic, where one is always scaled downwards to meet the intended level of an area. Given the importance of dynamic events in GW2’s PvE world design, it’s certainly essential to stop high level players steamrolling lowbie events and making them meaningless for every other participant — however, there are other ways to do that 2 without making the player feel their progression is pointless. As Ashen said in the comments of a recent post at Blessing of Kings, “What’s the point of leveling up and me getting stronger if the game arbitrarily decides to throw that out of the window all the time?” 3

Levelling up still makes you objectively more powerful — new trait points give you passive boosts, and your attributes increase with every level. But subjectively, I don’t feel any more awesome now than I did five levels ago — I still have exactly the same experience fighting a level 25 mob at 30 as I did at 25. That, in my opinion, is a broken system.

Perhaps I’m missing something. Perhaps there’s progression lurking around the corner and it’s just in one of the game systems I haven’t encountered yet. I certainly hope so, because otherwise it’s pretty disappointing to think that, at level 30, I’ve already experienced everything my class has to offer.

  1. 30 for necromancers, 32 for rangers and guardians, and 40 for warriors, if you’re curious. The engineer is an anomaly at a mere 14, so let’s not talk about them because they spoil my argument.
  2. Such as giving higher level players the option to downlevel in lower level zones; if they choose not to downlevel, all mobs are green, they can’t do events, they can’t interact with resource nodes, et cetera. Kris came up with this one over dinner while we were discussing this issue, and it’s just one possible answer to the problem.
  3. This is, for instance, the same reason Blizzard had to make vehicles scale with player gear in raid encounters like Flame Leviathan – otherwise there’s no sensation of progression because the content never gets any easier.

Recommended: Good With Beer, the GW2 Chef Helper

In haste — I have a longer post brewing, with some thinky thoughts — I wanted to recommend a very handy tool:

Good With Beer is a GW2 Chef Helper tool provided by the lovely Arolaide of Dragonsworn, and it’s worth its weight in gold. Do webpages weigh anything? Never mind, it’s still awesome. Fast and easy checking of ingredients and recipes, and very useful for us completionists.

Tips for the GW2 player

First of all, if you haven’t read Pewter’s excellently handy post full of GW2 tips and tricks, go!

Second, I thought I’d share a few tips of my own.

  • Alt-left click splits a stack of items.
  • Ctrl-left click pastes a link in chat.
  • Doubleclicking an item is usually a shortcut for the default action with that item.
  • If you want to take screenshots without them featuring the back of your head, /sleep first. Your character lies down but the camera doesn’t follow, so if you get the positioning right you can capture lovely views without your character in the way.
  • Every racial capital has an Asura portal which will take you to Lion’s Arch, the hub city for the game. Lion’s Arch has portals back out to every other city. So if you’re playing a different race from your friends, after you do the initial tutorial instance you can run into your local capital and pop out in theirs, to team up with them.
  • From level 11, you get access to Traits. Unlike the previous Weapon Skills and Slot Skills, you can’t just dump points in your traits straight away. You’ll need to find your class trainer (look for a book icon on the map; if all else fails, there’s one in your racial capital city) and buy a book from them to unlock the Adept level of traits. This costs 10 silver.
  • Class trainers can also respec your traits, for a fee. This scales based on your level.
  • Attacks don’t require a target, so if you have an attack that involves a charge/dash/blink to an enemy, you can also use it in cities for getting around faster.
  • If you’re taking cooking as one of your crafting skills, try applying real world logic to the recipe discovery process. Meat plus seasoning equals steak. Meat plus bread equals hamburger. Meat plus bread plus cheese equals cheeseburger. And so on. :)
  • Unlike other games there’s no drowning mechanic. You can stay underwater as long as you like.
  • Levelling underwater weapons can be a pain; Grawlenfjord in the Norn starting area (Wayfarer Foothills) is a really good place to do it. There are lots of underwater monsters, and they’re mostly non-aggro so you can take them at your own pace.

Grawlenfjord

That’s it for starters; I’ll share other tips if I come across any. (I’ll probably add them in the comments as well as editing the post, to make it easy to follow updates.) Feel free to share your own in the comments! GW2 is a very fun game, but because it doesn’t follow a lot of the MMO conventions, there are mechanics one doesn’t always think to try…

GW2: first thoughts from the blogosphere

Needless to say, the blogosphere has been lively with reaction posts musing on the first day (and a half, now) of Guild Wars 2. My own post was fairly critical, mostly because I find it hard to find good things to say — not that I’m not enjoying it, I just can’t articulate exactly what it is about the game that appeals to me, whereas I can articulate what niggles. I think it’s that it’s pushing my ‘explorer’ and ‘completionist’ buttons in a big way; it’s the most rewarding game to just run around and see stuff in since… I can’t remember what.

Lion's Arch

Other people have had interesting things to say about GW2, too, so I thought I’d link to some of the posts I found most interesting:

And now I’m off to bed. It’s so tempting to do “just one more POI”, but that way lies madness. Or, at least, sleep deprivation come tomorrow.

GW2: the real deal

Well, GW2 is live, finally — at least, for everybody who’s prepurchased, which I assume is everybody who cared about the game by now. And now that the beta’s over and we know that things are (generally) working the way they’re supposed to, obviously the way we assess the game is different — no more cutting the game a break because it’s still in beta, or waiting to see if things change before release.

A cave in the Norn lands.

Although I’ve definitely been having fun, and largely in the manner I expected, I have three major points of dissatisfaction today.

Number one: the money.

The “Digital Deluxe” edition of the game feels like a complete ripoff. For an extra twenty bucks over the standard edition, you get:

  • one elite skill that you can’t unlock until level 30 (I’m not sure yet whether it will prove to be actually worth using or not)
  • a non-combat banker NPC, as is common with collectors editions of other games, except the one in GW2 permanently expires after five days
  • one rare piece of gear
  • two one-off consumables, a Tome that boosts your guild influence, and a Chalice that boosts your PvP Glory (which is basically currency points a la WoW’s Honor Points)
  • a non-combat pet

In addition, the two consumables and the non-combat pet are only available to the first character that claims them; alts only get the elite skill and the temporary banker NPC.

Now, I realise that some of this was disclosed on the purchase page (the one-shot nature of the consumables, and the temporary nature of the banker pet), so there’s no sense complaining that one was cheated (although it was hidden in mouseovers). But it definitely feels pretty thin compared with the rewards one gets for other games’ special editions. (By comparison, buying RIFT’s deluxe edition scored you a non-combat pet, a giant backpack and a mount from level 1, for a very small extra cost.)

Number two: the interface.

The UI is frustratingly uncustomisable. Let me move my target frame somewhere useful, please? Let me up the opacity of the chat frame so I can actually read it? That’d be nice. And hey, while you’re at it, how about letting me change chat channel colours? That’d be lovely. And so on; you know the deal. This is the least customisable MMO UI I’ve ever played with, and one of the least pleasant in its vanilla state. That’s not a good combination.

(And hey, while we’re at it: why is there no first-person camera zoom level? I do not WANT the back of my head in all these screenshots, please.)

Number three: together alone.

This is the big one for me; the game is really not conducive to playing with friends.

When your server is crowded (and right now they’re all crowded), more often than not when you enter a new area you get shunted to an overflow zone. If you’re already in a party, you have a better chance (but no guarantee) to be put in the same overflow area — but if not, or if your partymates are in a non-overflow area, you just can’t join them and you’re stuck playing by yourself. That’s frustrating and unfun.

And even when you’re in the same phase, you simply can’t help your friends with the vast majority of what you’re all doing. There are no collaborative abilities (edit: more correctly, I should say that there are limited collaborative abilities, and most ally-helping effects are general rather than directed) — in ANet’s attempts to break the restrictions of the holy trinity, there are no tanks (no way to protect your squishy friends) and no healers (no way to help someone who’s fighting for you). You can’t help your friends’ progress towards finishing a renown heart the way you can help your friends get credit on a more traditional quest. You can’t help your friends get credit towards an event. You can’t put a friend on follow when you need to run for a bio or to answer the door. There isn’t even a /thank emote.

That said, I’ll give them kudos for one thing — on your “personal story” quest chain, other people can join your instance and they can get credit for their own quests, although they don’t get to do the story portion personally. Given how frustrated I’ve been with TSW’s excessive Solo Instance quests lately, at least ANet got that one right.

This is a particularly timely issue given that the blogosphere is currently talking about individualist vs collectivist games, thanks to Stubborn over at Sheep the Diamond. Speaking as somebody who prefers collaborative gameplay – I’m a collectivist at heart, and fortunate enough to have a good group of MMO buddies to play most games with – GW2’s incredibly individualist approach is frustrating and a lot less fun than more ‘traditional’ MMOs.

I’m hoping this changes at higher levels, but at this point in gameplay, it definitely feels like a watered down MMO experience. For a while now commentators have complained about MMOs losing the “massively” aspect to which they lay claim — it kind of feels like GW2’s trying to do away with the “multiplayer” part too.

The GW2 final countdown

For once, being at the ass-end of the world (I’m Australian) pays off — while Americans are staying up til midnight or later for Guild Wars 2’s early access headstart, here it opens at a very civilised 5pm on Saturday.

Lion's Arch concept art

I’m not actually sure why I’m looking forward to GW2 so much. For starters, I don’t have enough time for the games I want to play already. And then there’s the fact that, Dynamic Events aside, GW2 feels kind of … shallow. I like immersive games, and GW2 is the opposite of immersive.

And yet it’s shiny, and I like the exploration and discovery aspects, and I thoroughly enjoyed all the beta weekends I played. So I’ll be queuing up with everyone else in an attempt to claim my small portion of Tyria (and, hopefully, my preferred character names), although I’m not sure how long it will hold my interest, or how successfully it will compete with other games I already know I enjoy.

I’m also trying to work out what to roll, character-wise, especially when it comes to playing with my friends. Most of them seem to be going for humans first, but the human females creep me out — the combination of “doll-like childish looks” and “exploitative armor” (especially for casters) is not a good one.

So, I think my first three characters are going to be:

  1. Norn elementalist — the Norns are attractive without the ick factor of the human girls, their starting area’s fun and beautiful, and elementalist is probably my favourite of the classes I tried. (Especially the lightning aspect. ZZZZZZAP!)
  2. Asura mesmer — I’m not usually a fan of the small races, but I loved the style and aesthetics of the Asura starting area.
  3. Sylvari guardian — I’m not set on the race for a guardian, but I enjoyed what little I played of one in the beta, certainly more so than the other melee classes professions.

I barely tried ranger, I didn’t enjoy thief, and necromancer was okay-but-uninspiring. I haven’t tried warrior or engineer, though I watched Kris play both of them.

I do have some qualms about GW2 (although admitting them is tantamount to inviting a dogpile from the GW2-can-do-no-wrong zealots):

  • Like Azuriel, I think Dynamic Events will lose a lot of their lustre after the first few weeks’ worth of levelling hordes have passed through the zones. Those that rely on larger player numbers will never happen, and for those of us who are completionists it’ll be frustrating to know there’s content we’ve never seen because there’s no way of going back to find something; it’s all random chance, or triggers we don’t know.
  • Although I like the fact that GW2’s system means everyone gets to share mobs and resources equally, I lament the loss of incentives to socialise. Commentators regularly criticise modern MMOs for promoting “together alone” solo gameplay, and I think GW2 takes it a step further than I’m happy with. It’s nice that people can’t grief you, of course (especially given the apparent toxicity of the GW2 community, based on their pre-launch behaviour), but it’s less nice that there’s no incentive to interact with anybody ever. No need for healing, no need to party up for a tough quest or challenging mob, just blast away next to a row of nameless compatriots without ever saying hello.

So, we shall see. I’m still looking forward to the game’s launch, and I’m interested to see how their innovations will play out, but I have to say — if this is what the new generation of MMOs will all look like, I think I prefer the previous generation.

Why the fanboys, GW2?

Yet again – this time thanks to a discussion in the comments over at Spinksville – I’m struck by how zealous Guild Wars 2 fans seem to be. This particular post actually was a discussion about Guild Wars 2, but I’ve seen them popping up in virtually every discussion of upcoming MMOs to derail the conversation and start talking about how Guild Wars 2 is The Best Thing Ever and every other MMO is destined to fail (or is intrinsically terrible) for the terrible crime of not being GW2. I saw it happen a lot in pre-launch discussion of SWTOR, I saw it again in pre-launch discussion of TSW, and now of course with GW2 mere weeks away the fans are at fever pitch.

Look, I get it. Guild Wars 2 does look like it’s going to be a fun game. (I’ve pre-purchased.) But you’re not doing yourself – or the game you’re trying so desperately to promote – any favours by butting into every other conversation about MMOs. That sort of behaviour is usually the territory of door-to-door religion salespeople, and you know how popular they are.

I just don’t understand why GW2 has triggered such rabid, mindless zeal in its fans. Everyone gets invested in upcoming games that look nifty, but only the GW2 fans seem unwilling to let everyone else have their fun too. That’s particularly ironic given that GW2 itself isn’t trying to be all things to all people, and there are segments of the MMO audience – longterm hardcore raiders, for instance, or fans of open-world PvP – that it’s not even trying to appeal to. If ArenaNet are happy to focus on a particular niche, why must their fans insist that GW2 is the answer to every question?

(If you are a GW2 fan who is not acting like a rabid evangelist online, this was not aimed at you. I’m sure there are a lot of you about — it’s just the vocal minority who are making you look bad. Sorry.)

How TSW and GW2 break the mold

or, “Where Were You in 2010 When I Needed You, TSW and GW2?”

I think it’s fair to say that most of the major MMOs released since 2004 have a lot more in common than not. These days, they’re popularly called WoW Clones 1 but whether or not you appreciate the name, it’s hard to argue with the opinion that most of the last eight years’ worth of western big-budget MMOs have been more similar than different. WoW (and Everquest II); LotRO; Age of Conan; Warhammer Online; RIFT; Star Wars: the Old Republic — all of them feature similar world and quest design, character progression principles, and fundamental gameplay concepts. They all have unique features, of course — Warhammer’s PVP, RIFT’s soul system and world events; SWTOR’s companions and fully animated quest dialogue — but ultimately, if you’re familiar with one, you can pick another up and feel right at home very very quickly.

Obviously, this poses a problem for people who are looking for something different, and most of the MMOs above have been strongly criticised for not venturing far outside WoW’s well-worn territory. A few games have diverged from this path, but until now they’ve struggled to compete. SOE’s DC Universe Online was plagued with problems (and severely hampered by its nature as a console port) before the PSN hack took all SOE MMOs down for a month; Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons was widely criticised for the gameplay style that resulted from staying true to the pen & paper Dungeons & Dragons ruleset.

And now, after years of all-but-identical choices in different wrappers, 2012 is bringing us not one but two very different high-profile MMORPGs — The Secret World is out now, and Guild Wars 2 is due in August. I’ve played in the beta weekends for both games, and am actively playing The Secret World at the moment, and I’ve been really struck by how they’re both substantially more different from the Generic WoW-Clone game than most previous big-budget MMOs, and how they’ve gone in completely different directions to achieve this.

Both are themepark, rather than sandbox, MMOs – in the sense that the gameplay is primarily objective-based rather than open-ended, the worlds are fixed and players can’t add their own buildings or alter their territory, and there’s no player-generated content. Both embrace the new model of limited character toolbars – instead of the 30-50 button toolbars common to WoW-esque MMORPGs, TSW limits you to seven choices, and GW2 to ten. But that’s where the similarities end.

TSW is a gritty, “realistic” urban fantasy/horror game. GW2 is a hyper-stylised, medievalish high-fantasy game.

A typical vista in TSW

A typical vista in GW2

TSW’s characters look approximately like real-world people. GW2’s characters … don’t. (If one wants to be charitable, one could describe them as “hyper-stylised” or “artificially beautiful”.)

A typical character in TSW

A typical character in GW2

(For that matter, TSW limits you to playing humans, which makes sense given the setting; GW2 offers you the choice of five races – humans, big humans, nature-oriented non-humans, science-and-technology small non-humans, and animalistic non-humans.)

TSW follows the “kill ten rats” model of questing fairly closely, but structures the quests to flow like a story instead of giving you a quest hub to steamroll at a time (and adds very nifty investigation missions, but more on those another time). GW2 has little overt “kill ten rats” style questing, instead placing their objectives within a framework of dynamic events and “hearts” (that is, a model where local questgivers just want you to help with any combination of tasks, although the tasks themselves are fairly typical MMO fare).

TSW uses a classless, skill-based character progression system, where GW2 sticks to eight fairly typical classes that define what your character can do.

TSW sticks to the tank/healer/DPS “holy trinity” of role balance, although its skill-based system allows a lot of flexibility; GW2 has done away with the classic trinity and differentiates character roles as DPS, support or control.

TSW gives you information immersively – one quest clue might look like scribbles on a napkin, where another will be a page from a phonebook.

A quest clue in TSW

By comparison, GW2’s interface is very homogenous. TSW tries to be transparent and immersive — it gives you all the information you need in an in-game context, and you even report quest success (and receive new missions) via your character’s mobile phone. GW2, on the other hand, shows you its mechanics up-front; the interface is themed appropriately for the setting, but it’s much more intrusive and chromey, and ultimately GW2 never lets you forget that you’re playing a game.

The character sheet overlay in TSW

The Hero screen in GW2

Even in-game action in GW2 breaks the fourth wall, with crackles of ice or splashes of water on the ‘camera’ – reminding you that there’s a barrier between you and the action.

Ice on the 'camera' in a GW2 fight.

Whether you prefer one or the other is, ultimately, a matter of taste. 2 I can point to a lot of things I love about TSW to explain why I’m having so much fun in it. I’m a little less certain about what it is about GW2 that appeals to me so much, but I know I’m definitely looking forward to August. I’m just constantly surprised at how they’ve both – successfully – solved the problem of differentiating themselves from WoW in such different ways.

  1. Which downplays the fact that WoW itself had a lot in common with the previous genre juggernaut, Everquest; the MMO genre is very much iterative.
  2. Regardless of the behaviour of the GW2 fanboys who have been, for over a year now, derailing pretty much every discussion of other MMOs to tell you why GW2 will be the Best Video Game Ever. The GW2 fans made me extremely hostile to GW2 many months ago simply through their behaviour, and it was only the fun I had in an early beta weekend (with thanks to Dee of 6D for the beta key) that convinced me to order it.)