on Aug 29, 2012
I’m a few days into Guild Wars 2 at this point. I’ve tried about half the classes and all but one of the races. I’ve played enough that I’m ready to start making bold proclamations with regards to gameplay. Specifically, this game is my new gold standard for how an online game should play.
Maybe it’s too early and the game is too young to go around making blanket statements like that. If it all turns to frustration and tears later I suppose I’ll regret being so nice. I’m willing to risk that eventuality.
Some people are accusing this game of still being grind-y. Let’s get our definitions straight. Or at least, my definition, since I’m the one writing this thing. I consider grinding to be doing something inherently boring in order to make progress. This intersects a bit with what Chris has said in the past about motivation in his video on gamification. If you set your rewards improperly, then the gameplay becomes a means to an end instead of a source of entertainment. Grind is an even more severe case of the problem, where the gameplay is fundamentally un-engaging no matter how you structure the rewards, and the game has to resort to Skinner Box systems to motivate you to proceed.
But here’s the thing…
Nobody* complains that Team Fortress 2 has too much grind, even though people have been playing the same few gameplay modes on a small pool of maps since launch. Repetition itself is not always bad. Or rather, it’s okay to repeat something that’s varied and interesting. I’m not going to claim that Guild Wars 2 mob-killing is as unpredictable as fighting human players in TF2, but it’s closer to that than it is to killing any of the 33 flavors of wild boar in World of Warcraft.
* Almost. Virtually. Practically. Very likely only the deranged.
If you’re on board with my particular definition of grind, then Guild Wars 2 is basically grind-free. Yes, you’ll be sitting in the same area and killing the same mobs for a while, but instead of aimless slaughter you’ll be playing group-based battles with goals and time limits. There are waves of foes and the battle tends to be mobile and dynamic. You can jump in and join the battle at any point, and you can wander off whenever you like. You’ll have to do several of these matches to get to the next level, but you can choose which matches you want to take part in.
When the match is over you get a reward based on your participation. It doesn’t matter how you participate. You might fight. You might grab important quest objects. You might run around reviving downed players. (There are no fixed healer classes. Anyone can revive anyone else.) It’s all good and the game rewards all approaches. It doesn’t grade on a curve, so you don’t have the Warhammer problem of few players getting good rewards and everyone else getting trash.
I have no idea how the game grades your participation, but it seems to be very smart and fair about it. I was AFK for a whole match and got nothing. I participated the whole time and got the gold reward. I half-assed through a match while under-leveled and got silver. I entered the match in the last few seconds and got bronze. Rewards are a bundle of XP, money, and whatever they’re calling the “renown” currency in this game. All of them are respectable and I haven’t ever felt cheated by what I was given.
You don’t get items as a direct reward for participating in the event. Loot comes from killing foes. I suppose if you stick to non-combat activities you might get a little shafted with regards to gear. Then again, if you’re not fighting directly then gear is probably less of an issue for you.
I am on record as saying that level-scaling is stupid, pointless, self-defeating, and basically misses the point of having a leveling system in the first place. I’m going to attempt something very difficult here. I’m going to try to make an exception that doesn’t end in charges of hypocrisy.
If you return to previous areas, you are level-scaled down to the given area. You’ll still be a little overpowered because you keep the powers and gear you’ve unlocked, but you’re never going to be so overpowering that you can stomp on all the foes and ruin everyone else’s fun. The important thing here is that you get XP appropriate to your actual level. This means I can take my level 15 character into the newbie zone and do the level 5 matches, and I’ll level just as quickly as playing in the level 15 zone.
It’s worth noting here that the leveling curve doesn’t do much in the way of actually curving. Levels seem to take somewhere between a half hour and an hour, and so far level 15 doesn’t seem much slower than level 3.
The upshot here is that gaining levels increases your choices. When you gain a new level, you get access to the next tier of events. Maybe right now you’re chasing bandits off a farm. Then you get a couple of levels and you try fighting centaurs in the next town over. Centaurs are fun, but the bandits are better, so you go back to the bandits. Oops. You just gained another level, and now you have access to an event where everyone gangs up on a single gargantuan troll.
The rhythm of the game goes like this: You do an event. Then there’s a couple of minutes of downtime. The group scatters and everyone does leveling up stuff, visits the vendor, fills in the local map waypoints, does some open-world questing, or gathers raw materials. Then another event begins. Maybe it’s the same event again. (The troll attacks again.) Maybe it’s a new event based on the outcome of the previous one. (If you repelled the bandit attack, maybe this is a counter-attack on their base.)
When the new event is announced (there’s a little ding! message to everyone in the zone) the players all gravitate towards the action. Since some are closer than others and the game supplies foes based on number of participants, this naturally creates a system of rising action. The first round of the match will be just one or two nearby players versus a couple of mooks, and by the end everyone will have arrived and it will be a massive battle.
Online games have this obnoxious dissonance in their mechanics. If I’m in World of Warcraft on the Alliance side, then other Alliance players should be my allies. But in reality they’re my rivals. I have to compete with them for harvesting resources, for mobs to kill, and for treasure chests to find. Having “allies” around is a frustrating liability, and the only way to mitigate it is to formally get married to these strangers by forming a group. Even then, the game penalizes you by giving less XP. This is true even if your group-mates are AFK and not making the battle “easier”, which is what the XP penalty is supposed to address. This sort of PUG is almost universally recognized as a bad thing. Other players are strangers, they don’t care about you, your goals don’t always line up, and arguments over loot are a frustrating time-sink that often leads to injustice.
This is not what cooperative play should look like.
Guild Wars 2 basically fixes this by turning allies into a net positive force. Everyone who helps kill a mob gets credit, and everyone gets their own loot roll that is unaffected by what the other players did. If I harvest a resource node, it’s gone for me, but still present for other people. With world quests we can combine efforts even more.
Here is how an open world quest works: (I made this one up.)
I walk into the graveyard. Without needing to talk to the quest-giver, I get a notification in the upper right telling me what needs to be done in this area. I’m supposed to run around, find the freshly-dig graves, and put flowers on them. Sometimes this results in a zombie crawling out of the grave. I get credit for placing the flowers. I also get credit for killing the zombie. There are generally a nice mixture of combat and non-combat tasks, so you can actually play as a pacifist if you like.
Now, if another player comes along, I also get credit for helping to kill the zombies they uncover, and they get credit if they help me with mine. So we can both put flowers on the same grave and both kill the zombies that appear. In a really crowded area I might not even have to place flowers. I can just run around killing the zombies everyone is digging up. Compare this to the shameful mess that was the Mr. Zombie summoning circle.
Having more people around makes the game more fun. Why did it take game designers so long to figure this out?
Also, I don’t know if you people are aware of this, but the game is really pretty. Seriously. You should find some screenshots or something.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.