GW2: Wintersday 2012

Days like this, you remember just how GOOD GW2 looks...

I’m pretty much thoroughly enjoying this Wintersday event. It’s a massive improvement over Lost Shores. (With just one teeny tiny niggling exception, but we’ll get to that later.)

Shall I count the ways?

Aesthetics

I logged in from my extended break in the Heart of the Mists and was immediately taken with the festive snowy decorations of the PvP lobby.

Zoning into Lion’s Arch from there led to paroxysms of delight and immediate /sleeping fits of impulsive screenshot-taking. Anet completely nailed that wintry wonderland atmosphere.

Winter Wonderland Jumping Puzzle

Speaking of which, the difficulty level of the jumping puzzle was dialed back a notch. For which I am extremely grateful.

Awesomely amazing look too

Awesomely amazing Wintery look

The wider platform and three different random starting points did help to reduce some of the initial crowd chaos. I also liked the possibility of different paths to get to the same place, just in case a particular jump is just defeating you. (I was developing superstitious dread of the snowman path’s candy canes for a while there.)

The overall time limit was also less soulcrushingly pressurizing than the Mad King’s Clock Tower. There was enough time for a half-second breathing room between jumps, or a second or two of recovery should one almost screw up a jump.

The drawback of extending the time limit, of course, is the additional wait time should one flub a jump near the very beginning. But I personally think the two design decisions made there quite helped to ease the pain of the wait.

The snowballs give the easily bored and frustrated something to remain active doing. Even if it’s just flinging ineffective snow at large Charr wearing spiky armor. I attracted a few of those at the start. Much preferable and more in-game immersive somehow than a player spewing vitriol over chat at you. I also like that it’s opt-in. I rarely do. So very quickly their attention is distracted by other people who have chosen to pick up the snowballs and thus enter into the game. And they are thus promptly diverted into a mini snowball knockdown duel of effectively consenting parties.

As for those who don’t choose the aggressively competitive route? Well, you can watch other people’s progress on the jump puzzle. It can be a good learning opportunity as you watch how other people handle jumps, and help you plan your next attempt. It gives you a sense of what to expect next from a more big picture view than clinging with your claws to the next platform. And depending on your personality, you can either feel cooperative success at people making their jumps, or cackle with schadenfreude delight when they miss one, fall and end up appearing next to you.

Somewhere between 5-10 tries at the puzzle, I made it to the end. Which seems more reasonable a difficulty setting than the previous one which took 3 solid hours of plugging away at it.

Returning later to repeat it led to finding a lot more ways to fall than before, but I was also able to get there in the end for the reset daily. I’m probably never going to be good enough to nail it on repeat runs, but I don’t at all begrudge those who can and find it a profitable way to farm up giant wintersday gifts. I like the idea of skill-based rewards, as long as the lower rungs still remain accessible to most/all.

Gingerbread celebrations are more sinister amidst a roasting Charr in a firepit (or a Khornate demon summoning)

Gingerbread celebrations are more sinister amidst a roasting Charr in a firepit (or a Khornate demon summoning)

Bell Choir

Instead, I’ve been spending a heck of a lot of time in this activity. And I foresee a good many more profitable hours of 4 personalized gifts per 8-10 minutes in here.

Love does not begin to describe how much I enjoy this. It’s fun. It’s low-stress and not pressurizingly important, per se. It allows individual players to jump in and out at leisure and work on improving themselves. And it addresses an often ignored part of MMOs – music systems. (I’ve written about that before.)

I see the choir bells and the ability to play notes and I keep flashing back to LOTRO, their musical instruments and glory of glories, Weatherstock.

It would be mind blowingly fantastic if Guild Wars 2 manages to smooth out the kinks and introduce more portable musical instruments throughout next year, because it’s tools and toys like this that lead to some amazing player-created content and events.

Of course the first attempts at Guitar Hero Guild Wars 2 style led to some personal hilarity. One cannot coordinate at all when your 6-9 keys are bound to Z, X, C, V and attempting to play all 8 notes with one hand. :) Several flailing attempts later, with mistimed mouse-controlled hail marys of frenzied clicking at the 6-9 buttons, I retreated out of the ring to rebind and put back 6-9 as secondary alternate keys.

From there, it was just a matter of some patience, some experimentation and rereading of instructions to determine the appropriate timing to press keys (when the notes hit the blue circle, ie. about to cross the white line), and muscle memory learning.

I found the melody (middle part) was my favorite part to play. I just do a little better when I’m controlling how the main tune of the song is supposed to go, rather than risk listening to someone else possibly do it badly and unrhythmically, while attempting to ‘harmonize’ with what the game expects the music to be. To me, it’s just slightly more tricky than the lower part / lower harmony, which I find is possibly the easiest of the three to play and score well. I screw up the most notes with the upper harmony, though it’s a good change when one is bored but still wants to repeat the activity.

Nitpicks are that the game does arbitrarily lag in spurts sometimes, and the notes seem to disappear off the board and you have to give it your best estimate of when they’ll hit the blue circle. Those tend to lead to missed notes and shattered scores across all the players. But on the whole, the game generally behaves.

I also appreciate that the maximum reward of 4 personalized gifts is not that impossibly hard to reach. I think by the time I crossed the 400s mark or thereabouts, I was getting those, and the festival achievements were also attained quite easily. By now, I tend to play at the 550+ range, and my highest score so far was 592. But I think it would go against the fun spirit of the event to put something insanely desirable as the top prize and ‘force’ people to go through an activity they don’t like. Pressuring people to play music seems…wrong, somehow.

Still, it’s not easy getting 600, and I probably will still try for the intrinsic sake of it. Nor would I mind the unbreakable bell as a perfect score 600 prize. :P It seems fitting. The only people who’d care for the toy are those who consider themselves musically-inclined in the first place. (As contrasted with say, a piece of exotic gear or a desirable mini as a top prize.)

Snowball Mayhem

Interesting minigame. I mainly joined it to get the achievements done. I like the idea of being able to select unique classes that are just relevant to that game. The lack of mobility of the heavy class seems to make that particular choice a little weaker, though I’ll grant that I have seen occasional effective play by heavies who help with middle position control by tying up the opposing team at the foot of their base or shielding a flag runner from frenzied opposition with their big bubble. The control options for support are quite hilarious, and effective.

But ultimately, I ended up going as scout to work on the achievements. Which can sometimes lead to play that’s counter to what would be sensible if one was playing capture the flag with the primary objective of team score.  Still, if you consider that in most team-based objective games, there’s a hefty part of players who are busy playing team deathmatch instead, one more bit of erratic achievement-seeking behavior doesn’t really matter.

The standard Reddit suggestion for running the flag is to go scout, use 5 for swiftness, grab swiftness boosts and try to be the first one at the flag to run it back. Or run with the flag bearer and hope he dies so you can pick up the flag and continue on.

I also found flag trading as an acceptable secondary option. *ahem* Basically, when the opposing team gets the flag, they run off to protect it on its way back, and your own team’s frenzied marauding hordes are also rushing headlong into snowball carnage. Which may or may not succeed in making them drop the flag. Instead, hover around the middle point for the next flag spawn. Either they score, in which case the flag returns. Or they drop the flag and the flag also resets in the middle. If you’re already there and grab the flag, you can be halfway to your spawn before the zerg at the other base can get to you.

Flag stopping was slightly more tricky, but after realizing the close-range shotgun effect of the scout skill 3 (great for finishing downed players too) and that scouts get bonus damage hitting people from behind, it was mostly a lot of 1 spamming, opportunistic sniping with 4, going invisible with 5 and speeding right up to a wounded flag carrier to shotgun him down with 3. And praying he doesn’t drop the flag before you down him. (While jumping back with number 2 is not exceedingly productive for catching up with a flag carrier, it does add a brief cripple, which isn’t stated in the tooltip help. That can be situationally useful.)

The downed skills are quite enjoyable. Between the ice that slips up anyone trying to get near you to finish you off, and the number 3 skill that freezes someone in place if you’re close enough (great for disrupting flag carriers for your teammates), one still feels effective from a control (as opposed to damage or support) standpoint.

Tixx’s Infiniarium

I like.

So far, I’ve managed to verify that it’s possible to solo both the Sylvari and Divinity’s Reach dungeons as a level 80. Just like the Mad King’s dungeon, it’s possible, but it will take you longer than going as a group of 5, which I think is a GREAT balance point between those who would prefer to do these things alone or in a small duo or trio, so as to go at their own pace and admire the scenery and talk to the NPCs and even smite every last tree in a diorama without making others impatient or having mobs trained onto you, and those who prefer the madcap speedrun chaos of a 5-man PUG who can also buffer some upleveled lowbies to successfully complete the event.

Aiieee, it's the Stay Puff Marshmallow Golem!

Aiieee, it’s the Stay Puff Marshmallow Golem!

For a moment in the Sylvari dungeon, I was worried that filling the tanks with balls of ooze from tar elementals had to be done simultaneously, as the ooze seemed to keep leaking out over time. (Or a skritt was stealing it, I dunno.) Fortunately, a bit of lateral thinking solved that problem, as I realized what a solo’er actually had to do was to pull and kill enough elementals in AoE fashion to load up the machines before giving it time to leak out.

I also had a heart-stopping moment in the Divinity’s Reach one as the golem Toxx kept healing to full as I tried to use my prior successful strategy (keep at range and plink away and wall of reflect.) Eventually, through a bit of guesswork and trial and error, I hypothesized that maybe someone had to be inside the reflect bubble rather than stay beyond range of getting hit. That meant me, since I was alone. Rolling into the bubble when it was put up worked fine and stopped it from healing.

That’s not to say there weren’t a few deaths from angry Ventari toys or damnable confuses from the Princess toys. But I’m okay with solo difficulty being higher, involving more skill and being more time-consuming. As long as it’s POSSIBLE.

I admit to a certain sense of dread that the impending Toy Apocalypse will probably not be soloable. Or how achievable surviving 50 waves of toys in a group is going to be. Possibly, that 50 wave one may not be too easy. The overall Wintersday achievement after all just needs 12 of 14 total, which suggests that there may have been some built in leeway for difficult achievements they don’t expect everyone to get. Guess we’ll see.

There’s been some unhappiness that we will only be able to make 2 of 5 miniatures from attending all the activities in-game and the rest will have to be supplemented with gems if one is a completionist.

I dunno. Honestly of all the monetization strategies, I think this is one of the least harmful while still being fairly effective at milking people of money. It’s a miniature. It’s a PRETTY miniature, yes. But it doesn’t have any in-game effect or unlevel the playing field between the haves and the have-nots. You will not be shoved out of parties or play more poorly if you don’t have all five miniatures.

All it does is leverage on the “gotta have it now, gotta complete my collection, or gotta show off” urge. If one cannot resist that temptation or cannot stand holes in a collection, they will pull out their wallets and be parted with their cash. Or their in-game gold buying gems. The most dedicated fanatics end up spending the most money to support the company. If you can resist the urge, or tell yourself that you can wait another year (assuming the event repeats, which we won’t know for sure) and generally deal with uncertainty and the prospect of not-having-everything in a game, then you don’t have to spend that money.

Collectors Screwed This Wintersday

Yeah. This was the niggling thing I said I’d mention earlier.

Crushed hopes and a stuffed quaggan plushie

Crushed hopes and a stuffed quaggan plushie

This month’s monetization experiment seems to be testing how many ways they can get rich collectors to spend untold amounts of money.

Gambling, lockboxes and lotteries for a small chance at winning something good is something Guild Wars designers have known how to do since their first game, if you really think about it. All their events have dropped bags which roll on random reward tables to give you stuff.

I still remember the year I decided I wanted a gold miniature for my Hall of Monuments points and decided to grind out as many Lunar Fortune bags as possible for a low chance at a celestial rabbit. I did eventually get one, but I played a heck of a lot more than I usually would have.

This Wintersday in GW2, the in-game grind looks to be for a chance at an Endless Tonic or the Unbreakable Bell or the Festivoo mini, with some decent toy skins and rare/exotic insignia recipes popping out as a consolation prize.

The gem store isn’t immune to this either, with the Wintersday chests providing a -chance- at other miniatures, which in turn, will let you forge Festivoo if you get three of the right kind.

This is a different approach from Halloween, which allowed one to buy a three pack of spooky miniatures straight off, and then another three pack if you wanted to forge the special mini.

Yes, the quaggan mini is the cutest thing yet. Yes, even I look at it and -want- it and feel an urge to possess it and have it running around next to me. But it’s just a mini and I find I resisted the urge for the spooky minis and I won’t be spending real money on these either. (I will, however, be playing the game quite intently to open as many Wintersday gifts as possible in the hope I get lucky.)

What would be interesting to compare, though the public will probably never get that data, would be how much money the truly dedicated crazies spend on their quest for Festivoo, as opposed to the number of people who just bought the pack and forged the Halloween ghost. It may be that there’s more money to be made milking the whales than expecting the bulk of the population to care.

(Then again, Steam and things like the Humble Bundle make a lot of money milking the long tail by letting a lot of people spend a small amount to get a good bargain. Perhaps Guild Wars 2 might do this later, years or months later, after the must-have-it-now-and-will-pay-a-premium craze has run its course?)

Mysterious Presents

I wonder how many people realize this part of Wintersday exists?

This seems to be an interesting way to get level 80s out roaming that part of the countryside that ISN’T Orr again.

I haven’t checked every zone, but it seems from Mount Maelstrom and lower, there are Mysterious Presents dotted around the landscape and respawning at a good clip. Opening these as a level 80 gives a decent chance at a Giant Wintersday gift, and maybe one or two other varying level-appropriate sizes from extra presents or dropped by the mobs that spawn.

While I haven’t accumulated 250 Giant gifts, I’ve opened enough to get the monthly done, and score the two exotic Giver’s recipes, which saves me from needing to buy those off the vendor. (Good that there’s an alternate option for those chronically unlucky though.)

I’ll probably keep at it in the hope of getting lucky with the odds and having something truly rare pop out of the bags. Along the way, there’s stuff to harvest and mobs to kill and pop stuff too.

GW2: Fixing the Fractures

At the moment, it's ugly as sin, but there's always hope for tomorrow...

I still can’t stop thinking about fractals.

But rather, it’s nagging me at a deeper theoretical level.

Design is so important to a game. It’s so easy to nudge players into behaving one way or another, and inadvertently, I fear Guild Wars 2 has let players slip back into some of their older, negative gaming habits with how effectively current day fractals are -fracturing- the community.

Everyone knows the gathering node example by now. If two players are set up in competition for that one resource, very quickly, people start cursing that other bastard for ‘stealing’ ‘their’ node.

If it’s a shared node, then there’s less of a rush and time pressure, and opens out the option for the two players to cooperate on their way to the node, and harvest it together, both benefitting.

Of course, in practice even in Guild Wars 2, we see a certain subset of players having created their own personal version of rush and time pressure (get as many nodes as possible in a short period of time) and acting selfishly as a result. These would be the ones that ignore the mobs on the way, either using you to fight for them or assuming everyone is equally in a hurry and will run past, grab their nodes and go.

Depending on your expectations of their behavior, you might either get upset by their actions, or just aim a muttered curse in your thoughts in their direction, or shrug and ignore them because you like killing the mobs anyway. Or you may quickly change and adapt and follow their example, snatch the node and head off yourself. Or maybe you and they were on the same page from the beginning and both snatched and went without a moment’s thought that other players might play differently.

Complete unity is impossible. A well-populated MMO naturally contains different groupings of players with differing priorities. It’s quite natural that they will gravitate to those that share their own interests. What is important in the game’s design though is to try not to shove them at each other and force them to accept one group or the other’s playstyle because that’s just asking for a headlong confrontation complete with screaming, yelling and kicking in-game and across all manner of internet channels and bad blood across both divides. (Unless that result is what is desirable for the game for whatever reason.)

Ideally, you might want the different players to still come in contact with each other from time to time and find reason to work together or tolerate each other if the sum contribution is still valuable. GW2 was striving towards this in its world events, where pretty much any body is welcome, an extra hand, to do damage or rez or support, even if some levels are better than others, some builds are better than others and so on.

WvW also still relies on a sizeable militia body as well as organised groups, (if only because no one server can field sufficient organized group numbers 24/7 and maintain that for long),  even if differing values and strategies and opinions and the flood of adrenaline and competition can occasionally lead to some dramatic implosions or fractures in a community.  This generally results in fairly controlled, mostly mature behavior even through numerous disagreements from a majority of players, if only because overall unity is still the only way to get somewhere. But you can see some of the hidden, negative behaviors shine through when the situation breaks down – griefers, forum trolling, exploiters, back seat commanders, commanders turning on each other, individuals fleeing to save themselves, the works.

Failing which, another alternative is to separate out and leave the different players with differing priorities hobnobbing in their separate circles, achieving success in their own way and having little reason to quarrel with each other.

In retrospect, it seems Guild Wars 1 used this route quite considerably. PvPers did their own thing – make a PvP character, get all the skills already unlocked for your meta building contentment and eventually the devs did separate out PvE and PvP skills from affecting each other (there may have been some screaming in the meantime, I’m not sure, I wasn’t paying attention back then.)

For PvE, they included heroes and henchmen, and a very shallow level and stat cap. You know what this did? It immediately allowed all the soloists to segregate themselves and -still- feel like they were making successful progress in their own staggered time. You might race through all the missions in a week or two, I might take a month or more to get there. Doesn’t matter, we all got there in the end, and me being slower does not have to affect you because I would never join your group, my heroes would do just fine.

Of course, the drawback was that this left out the sociable groupers to quite an extent, who complained that it felt too lonely, the lobby instancing made it less ‘world-like’ and couldn’t find groups easily. However, the partial solution for them matched their nature – they could find a good guild, whom they might socialize with, group and play with and progress that way with others. No one’s solved the guild matching problem just yet, though.

World of Warcraft is perhaps another interesting study. There’s the obvious achievement focused hardcore raiders, whom are all found at the max level plateau, happily chugging through their vertical progression ladder of tiered raids and item levels. And, though I’m lumping them very generally here, there are more casual-oriented players who spend most of their time in the leveling game, socializing and what not. What is their unique focus? Chris Whiteside mentioned it in the GW2 AMA and I thought it very intriguing. Collection. They collect stables of alts of various races and classes, god-knows-how many cute pets, mounts, achievements, costumes, etc.

The real fanatics, of course, do both.

All kidding aside, to me, it seems they generally do operate in their own little spheres, content to ignore each others’ playstyles. However, it is contingent on the WoW casuals having cheerfully accepted that they will never ever reach the level of perceived ‘progress’ as the raiders. Any discontentment along that front and you can get quite the war.

And it does seem these days that Blizzard has had to stagger things out along a casual to hardcore spectrum or continuum in order to try and make everyone happy, rather than carry on with the bait and switch leveling/raid divide. The drawback in their system? People getting tired or jaded and burning out from running an endless treadmill of vertical progression.

Guild Wars 2 has an exceptionally tricky puzzle in their hands now. Both the Clock Tower and the fractals have demonstrated just how violent the uproar can become when one inadvertently forms and highlights divides in the playerbase (even along arbitrary lines, hello, character SIZE as a discriminating factor? Wow), and how reflexively negative behavior aimed at others can result.

Which is completely counter to the overall goal of having players cooperating and working with each other in relative unity, even if they do have to segregate out now and then into their little ghettos to hang with others of their kind.

We’ll have to leave it in the devs’ hands to see what they will do next.

If it were up to me though?

The first thing that comes to mind is to try and diminish the immediate divides. Fractal levels are way too fractured, and players are only receiving progression benefit from players of their specific level tier (or higher, if they would deign to come down to join the hoi polloi, which rarely occurs.)

The pool of players that can offer each other benefits has to expand a lot more rapidly, including making it easier for cross-server groups or guildmates of currently different fractal levels to play with each other, and indeed, for players to find and draw from the totality of the pool (aka LFG spam is not the most ideal of group finding methods.)

They’ve already said they will be including opportunities to obtain Ascended gear through other activities. Which should help to keep the separate groups happy doing their own thing.

What now concerns me is that the divides have already happened. This will leave scars in the psyche of the playerbase. We might already have gotten meaner, more elitist, less trusting, more selfish.

We’ve already seen most of the world abandoned, except for Cursed Shore and Frostgorge Sound, little comfort zone areas of the farmers – despite tweaks that have made other zones decently viable to run level 80s about in. The profusion of things to do at any one time also separates people – harvest nodes, chase world completion, WvW, PvP, jumping puzzle, umpteen dungeons including an infinite one now, farm DEs for loot, farm DEs for karma, farm mobs for crafting items, I’m sure there’s more I’ve missed in my casual run-on sentence list.

What I’d really like to see ArenaNet focus on in the next few months, or even in the long-term (because realistically, companies can’t react that fast) is to try and reiterate a sense of unity in the playerbase. Make us value cooperation and coming together again, if only for a little while.

I know it sounds very cheesy-Treahearne heal-the-scars-of-the-land at the moment. And lord knows I don’t want another one-off lagfest of epic proportions.

But I’d like to be able to run with a group of 10-20 out in the world again, taking down world bosses, running through mini-dungeons, falling and being helped through jumping puzzles, loling and laughing in a friendly manner with each other, cracking jokes and bonding with each other.

Hell, even a costume brawl. Or revive an interest in Keg Brawl. New mini-game activities of a nonserious non-end-of-the-world omg-the-dragons-are-here nature.

Get a guild, you say? I got one, thanks. And we -do- do this sort of thing in WvW, which has helped quite a bit with my recent morale problems.

But why dump the sole load and responsibility on individual guild leaders and officers and players? Design for the feature and give us players a hand here. Throw us already premade into random groups of 10 or 20 into not-too-difficult fun instances. Help us laugh and have fun with each other, not resort to blamethrowing and shit slinging for whatever twisted behaviorial reason. The dragons are always fun to take down together, but it’s notable that players have had to resort to an out-of-game dragon timer in order to congregate en masse. Guilds might benefit from more tools and features to get their members working together and hanging out together in one place. Hell, if you can solve the age-old problem of player matching with suitable guilds, that would be a design miracle and be ripped off by all future MMOs just like the uber-customizable character creator.

Here’s hoping to good things coming for Wintersday. Toys. Toys equate to casual fun, right? How could they possibly screw this one up?