Guild Wars 2 Beta: a look at the design manifesto

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This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series GW2 Beta Weekend

When did the hype cycle begin? I remember there was a time when people waited eagerly for a new release of a game, without heralding it as the second coming. But that was then, and this is now. Since the days of Warhammer Online, I have watched from the sidelines how games were heralded as the WoW-killer, the revolutionary MMO. The game changer. People go into those releases with a heightened sense of expectation, and not once have those expectations been met. This then creates jaded bitterness, until the next game is announced, and the hype machine begins anew. Keen once called it ‘The Vicious Pattern of MMO Rise and Fall‘, a practice he heavily participates in. No game seems to embody the hype cycle so much for me as Guild Wars 2 does.

Before I start looking at specifics of the game’s hype, let me make one thing very clear: I had great fun playing the GW2 beta. It’s a fun game. It’s definitely worth the box price once they have polished the game some more, and with no subscription fees at all, it’s a fantastic deal. It has challenging gameplay, tons of exploration, and that’s enough for me to find this more exciting than the upcoming MoP expansion. And yet I can’t keep quiet about feeling it’s hyped ridiculously, and people should be aware of that.

The hype cycle comes both from ArenaNet themselves and from their fans. Longtime Guild Wars players and hardened MMO veterans alike. Some call the people zealots because they have the tendency to swarm blogs that criticize GW2 and fling poo at them. That’s alright if this happens here today, just like Harry Dresden I can deal with flaming poo. I had the opportunity to check this game out before, and came back for this beta event, to have another look. So let’s look at ArenaNet’s GW2 design manifesto, and how I felt the aspects of it in the actual game. It sounds fantastic on paper! One thing you can say for sure, they’re definitely not having low expectations of themselves. Can they meet them, though?

…if you hate traditional MMORPGs, then you should really check out Guild Wars 2

What a curious statement to make. I actually don’t know how I feel about this statement. To me, Guild Wars 2 feels like an MMO that brings some innovations to gameplay, but it’s not revolutionary. You still kill mobs, collect loot, pick herbs, mine ore, complete quests. Sure, the way you receive the quests and experience might be different from the static quest givers we are so accustomed to from WoW and co., but the core gameplay is that of a traditional MMO.

Shouldn’t great MMORPGs be great RPGs too?

I really feel that people who enjoy RP in MMOs and who want to look into the lore of Tyria will have a winner here. The capital cities of Guild Wars 2 ooze personality, are enormous and even I, who never RP in MMOs felt that it could be so much fun to actually indulge in it here. Sunday afternoon, I spent a pleasant two hours or so exploring every nook and cranny of Divinity’s Reach, the capital city of the humans. It’s enormous, has several distinctly different city quarters, including fairgrounds, and is basically Stormwind-like, but on a grander scale. If you prefer the cold reaches, the Norn capital of Hoelbrak is equally grand, and feels very Norse alright. I also did some exploring around the Black Citadel, the fantasy-steampunk fortress of the Charr, which I found very fitting for the race, but extremely confusing. It’s a giant maze of metal ramps and machines, and was my least favorite capital. Nevertheless, in that respect, I feel RPers should be able to thrive. It’s a rich world, with enormous zones.

Sample character storyThis section of the manifesto goes on to state ‘Each time you play through the game, you can experience a different storyline‘. Yes and no. The personal story in Guild Wars 2 is determined when you generate your character. You are asked to pick one of three origins. For humans, you have to pick if you are a street rat, a commoner or a noble. As charr, you have to decide if you are the militaristic Blood Legion, the cunning Ash Legion or the gadgety Iron Legion. The level 1-10 storyline is based on the origin. If you only enjoy human characters, you sure won’t have a different storyline every single time. Once you hit level 10, the storyline branches out again. Again, for humans, you have to make a decision of your biggest regret: never finding your lost sister, not joining the circus, or…some other option I just forgot. Then at 20-30 you have to run errands for three different organisations. The design manifesto states that you have to make decisions, and this is correct. There will be parts in the storyline where you have to make an executive decision. But if you compare it to the personal story in SWTOR, it falls incredibly flat. They’re not the same kind of storytellers that Bioware are. It’s not exactly helped by the voice acting being very inferior compared to SWTOR. I know that ArenaNet is probably still working on that, because I saw an announcement that Felicia Day is recording for Guild Wars 2. They better be replacing that female norn voice soon, it haunts my nightmares. You do have options with the story, but they’re not as diverse as they’re made out to be.

In this section of the design manifesto, my biggest beef is that they proudly announce their dynamic world, and how you can directly make an impact on it, citing the defense of a village as example. Unfortunately, it’s not anymore dynamic and world-changing as rifts are in Rift. Let’s take the Wayfarer Foothills, the norn starting zone. Around level 10 you reach a small town that is frequently attacked by Sons of Svanir, the crazy cultist type in GW2. You can stick around and defend the town as dynamic event. Should this defense fail, you can also participate in a follow-up event and defeat the invaders, retaking the town and the waypoint for quick travel. So yes, this type of defense is available in all zones. It ultimately feels pointless, because when you leave, and come back 30 minutes later, the dynamic event might have fired again, and the Sons of Svanir might own the town again. Nothing lasts forever, events are on timers, the only impact for me was that you can never really win. It gets as old as rift invasions got, regardless of how fun it is initially. And if you are actually on your own and just want to talk to a vendor, it’s a pain, because you get overrun in no time.

It’s time to make MMORPGs more social

Word, bro. With the advent of LFD, MMO players weened on WoW seem to have lost the ability to be social without the aid of a crutch like the LFD tool. I can only commend a game that is trying to bring back a social element. Questing is very public in Guild Wars 2. See what I did there? Welcome back to Warhammer’s innovation, public quests. Not that that saved the game. You do not tag mobs, so if you see someone out there killing the bandits you need to kill as well, you can go right along and help. You are a passionate crafter and see some ore? Hooray, because that dude over there rushing to get to it as well can’t steal it from you. Resources are shared, you both get the ore. You start a dynamic event, killing a huge spider, and then others come to join you? The spider scales accordingly, so the more people, the merrier. Those are all good things I approve of.

Do they really make the game more social though? I don’t think so. I have only been invited to a party once, when a guy and I tried to tackle a fairly difficult skill challenge boss in Queensdale in the bandit caves. There is no zone-wide chat at all, so if you are a solo player, you will not hear anyone talk whatsoever. You can only talk locally, with people in your immediate vicinity. The only time I have seen people talk in local was if you happen to resurrect them. If you run into a social person, they might thank you for the rez! Amazeballs. That’s about all the interaction I have had. Mind you, I am strictly speaking PvE. I have never been a PvPer in any form, so the experience there might differ hugely. I have also not been a member of a guild in the beta event. As you simply do not need to group to play with other people, you also do not develop any form of connection to other people. There is no need to have a friends list because you’ll simply join others, no word spoken. That’s my personal experience, and from reading beta forums, I know I wasn’t the only one with that impression.

The sidekicking system is a great social tool. You will automatically be kicked down to an appropriate level for segments in a zone. What will likely be wonderful for joining friends who join the game, is a giant PITA for solo play though. It’s a beta, so they might figure out how to solve this better. Currently, there are areas where you get knocked down to underneath the mobs’ level so you never really get the feeling that you are powerful. A group of level 8 mobs will be able to tear you apart if you are level 16 and sidekicked down to 6 because you wanted to go back to mine some copper. Been there, done that. Still, I won’t complain too loudly about this feature, because it offers amazing play value if you are a completionist. You can explore any zone below you in level without ever facerolling your way through it. Challenge in games is good! It’s actually one of the most innovative features for me.

Rethinking combat

Guild Wars 2′s combat system has been heralded as innovative, action-packed, ‘immediate, active and visceral’. It’s not in any form like combat in say, WoW or SWTOR, because constant movement is a requirement. This took me forever to get my head around. I kept dying and dying, until I got it into my head that I needed to move, constantly. I think in other games you can call it kiting or strafing. You have a dodge key for fast movement, but you also have a stamina bar which limits how many times you can dodge. In other words, be ready to get your circle strafe on. Is this highly innovative and awesome? Not exactly. It’s different. It’s also a giant PITA if your preference is to play melee characters because it’s inevitably much harder to circle-strafe and still stay in range for melee attacks. I’ll give Guild Wars 2 one thing. Weapon-swapping in combat is fantastic. GW2 has a very unique weapon system. Once you swap a weapon, you get specific abilities for that weapon. Your main hand weapon is abilities 1-3, your offhand weapon is 4-5 and 2H weapon is 1-5. As a warrior, you have a huge amount of possible weapon combos, and you need to learn all those abilities. To actually learn an ability you don’t go and see a trainer, you active use any previous abilities you have and learn the next ability after a certain number of kills. I have spent some time playing a guardian, and I can effortlessly swap from my ranged weapon set with scepter and focus to my melee set with sword and board and close in. The whole skillbar based on what weapon you are wielding can make a really boring profession become a fun profession to play. It can also be a pain because I feel that in a set of 5 skills per weapon-combo, if only one is really weak it might already make that combo obsolete because I am looking for five fun skills, not just four. It suddenly feels very limited if you are used to games that offer you tons of different skills. Compared to a WoW warrior, you don’t have a lot of buttons to push unless you’re not swapping weapons constantly, and playing that for 80 levels might turn into drudgery.

The design manifesto speaks about combos, and I have to admit, I don’t understand those at all. I have not once seen them in action. This might require a better tutorial. Combos, chains, finishers, they’re all a complete mystery to me after significant hours of gameplay. ‘Then we add environmental weapons to mix up combat even more.’ They are so-called bundles. They’re everywhere. Planks, boulders, metal bars, sticks, etc. If you pick them up, your skill bar changes. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Only they do significantly less damage than your normal weapons, and feel non-intuitive to use. When an elemental flings a boulder at you, you don’t really have the time to pick up the boulder, read what the abilities of the boulder are and then use them. Mobs are no joke, by the time you’re done reading, you have been downed. Instead, you simply don’t pick up the boulder. I have the same issue with the downed system. In Guild Wars 2, you do not die immediately, you are in a so-called downed state. You get a second health bar, four abilities and you have until the healthbar is at 0 to actually kill any mob. When you first get downed, prepare for some confusion, because it’s absolutely not clear what those abilities do. You are about to die! If you read the tooltips, you will be dead. Button-mashing, woo-hoo! Also, it’s not clear that you might want to tab target to find a mob at really low health so you have a chance to get back up. Once you understand the downed system, it’s fine, and it’s super-cool to actually get up again, quickly get off your self-heal and save the day. It’s also extremely frustrating if the mobs wipe the floor with you twice. Chain-downed state, I had it.

I know this all sounds incredibly negative, but it’s all an example how ArenaNet has turned on the hype machine from the get-go, and that might mean they shot themselves in the foot. Overhyped games that don’t fully deliver will pay the price, as Warhammer Online and SWTOR had to learn. I am always finding that if I keep my expectations low, the reward is much greater. Enjoy a game for the game’s sake, don’t go in expecting always expecting more. I am convinced that if WoW was released today, it would bomb. That’s the power of the hype cycle. I wish it was a cycle we would break.

I will go into Guild Wars 2 with realistic expectations: to have as much fun as it can offer me. Nothing more, nothing less. It does not need to change my world.

Tomorrow, I will post part 3 of my initial GW2 impressions that I had to get into written form, and ultimately, my biggest disappointment with the game: the presentation and over-sexualization of female characters.

Series Navigation<< Guild Wars 2 beta: Quest mechanicsGuild Wars 2 Beta: Barely covered >>

5 Comments

  1. Pingback: Finding Peace With Massively Single Player Games

  2. Interesting writeup; thanks for sharing. I haven’t had time to dig into GW2, so I appreciate the posts about it from others.

    One comment, you wrote: “To me, Guild Wars 2 feels like an MMO that brings some innovations to gameplay, but it’s not revolutionary.”

    The problem is that the audience has a hard time accepting revolutionary. There have been a lot of games that have tried to break the mold, but they just haven’t gotten the attention the more “mainstream” games have. Puzzle Pirates and A Tale in the Desert both offered gameplay that was very much not in the idiom of “kill mobs, collect loot, pick herbs, mine ore, complete quests.” But, these games languish in relative obscurity. If you want a more modern example, consider my current project Storybricks (http://www.storybricks.com/). Our Kickstarter campaign hasn’t exactly been breaking any records (http://kck.st/K0iOqP). To be fair, part of this is our failure to communicate why Storybricks is the vital next step for MMOs (a bit of myopia since we’ve been neck-deep in it for several months) and one we are working to fix, but I think it amply demonstrates that people aren’t going out of their way to find things that break the typical MMO mold.

    That means that GW2 really has no option but to have a pretty typical MMO game with a thin layer of innovation on top if they want to success. Deviating too far from the norm would likely alienate the people they need to see financial success. Unfortunate for those of us who want to see MMOs realize the potential we say a decade or more ago, but that’s current business reality.

    • I agree with you. MMO players seem to be set in a certain mold when it comes to the gameplay they’re looking for. WoW has set the bar, based on EQ, and now it seems nearly impossible to break the mold. I myself am very much a themepark fan, as long as it’s a themepark with freedom, and Guild Wars 2′s concept of a playground as middleground between sandbox and themepark has its lure.

      But those who write about MMOs and are the most vocal claim that they want revolution and modern design, a departure from the stale themepark model. No one’s backing it though. All the hype and the expectation, followed by a fast condemnation.

      I wish you guys all the best for Storybricks, and hope you can get more funds going .

  3. “There is no zone-wide chat at all, so if you are a solo player, you will not hear anyone talk whatsoever. You can only talk locally, with people in your immediate vicinity.”
    When I played, the “local” chat was full of people asking questions and talking, basically like General Chat in WoW. As far as I know, the local chat was actually zone wide, but you couldn’t /say anything, which meant that there were a lot of people saying “thanks” to the whole zone – something I found a little unnerving.
    “As you simply do not need to group to play with other people, you also do not develop any form of connection to other people. There is no need to have a friends list because you’ll simply join others, no word spoken.”
    Well, the beta weekend was short and most people didn’t even leave the starting area – I think it is likely that this is going to change when dungeons become avialable, because afaik you still need groups for them, and good ones at that. Of course it would be kind of weird if the whole game consisted of people helping each other “by force”, but for a starting area it’s pretty refreshing and nice, especially compared to the rage the mere sight of another player, hostile or friendly, induces in me in WoW when I am trying to do quests.
    I agree about the difference between melee and ranged combat dodging… I could often see an arrow or a thrown weapon and dodge it, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to dodge melee attacks, and that as a ranged fighter.
    I also think they could improve the downed state and explain it a bit more… at level 10 I finally knew what I was doing, but that was for one class, and they are different…

    • I am really quite sure that there is no zone chat. There have been discussions about it on the beta forums because people asked for it as default. I can only speak of my own experience, and I did just not experience this really active local chat.

      As far as dungeons go, we’ll have to wait and see. The first dungeon is the Ascalonian Catacombs, afaik, and is around level 30-35. That’s a long time to wait for your first dungeon. I like the dynamic events and public questing, I am merely pointing out it’s not the social revolution. People who don’t want to form social bonds still won’t. Talkative, chatty, social folks will probably find the like. Guilds will be important for a well-rounded experience. Despite the statement in the design manifesto, the questing won’t be inherently more social. It will be easy and smooth. Crowded zones especially at launch won’t be an obstacle, unlike expansion releases in WoW where people tag and steal mobs.

      I agree with you that the downed state needs a better explanation, at least the first time round. Bigger tooltips, etc. Curious to see how they sort that out.

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