GW2: Some Love For the Open World

We interrupt this irregularly scheduled focus on the Queen’s Jubilee to bring your attention to a very important discussion thread now taking place on the Guild Wars 2 forums.

Has Guild Wars 2 deviated from its originally stated Manifesto and stress on a Living, evolving world to bring us instead neatly packaged, themepark seasonal content in episodes?

We may disagree on some of the specifics, and the initial frustrated tone of his first few posts, but the original poster Fiontar makes a lot of important points throughout the thread that are well-worth reading through. A few choice quotes:

What should you have done? Well, you should have stuck to the original plan you talked about last fall and created boatloads of new Dynamic Event content. Content that would have advanced the story with in each game zone told by the Dynamic Events that were there at launch. Adapting some, replacing some, rotating some in and out of circulation. That would have created a Living World. that would have preserved the sense of a dynamic game environment. That would have shed the negative stereotypes about Theme Park MMOs.

If people appreciate the ways the game is departing from the Manifesto and prefer adventure by checklist over the great potential the game and the manifesto offered us, I’d be happy to hear about it. Maybe Anet just has a better finger on the pulse of the players and has decided that the Manifesto and the core game design were a mistake to be rectified.

It’s even produced a developer response and spawned a Reddit thread with some hyperbole in the title – “Dev says there is little player interest in adding more events, JPs, and mini-dungeons across the world.” Among other things, Anthony Ordon welcomed the continued feedback but pointed out the following:

The very first living world team actually did the thing some of you have called for. Some 40 or so permanent events were added around the game in our very first content update. They were met with little interest or fanfare. Granted, Halloween may have stolen the show. But those events are still in the game today. I’ve seen very little reaction to them, however, positive or negative.

Fiontar’s response to Anthony is Quote Post of the Day-worthy – if there is one link you click, this is the one. I cannot quote parts of it. It is too beautiful not to be read in its entirety.

Readers who follow my posts regularly will know that I have just finished leveling a necromancer to 80 during the tail end of the Cutthroat Politics update. I went back to basics with this one, systematically map exploring zone by zone, as well as genociding mobs in my way and even revisiting parts of the Personal Story (up to the Straits of Devastation where I hit 80, anyhow.)

In Fireheart Rise, I was just meandering along mining all the things when I suddenly got jumped by a Charr engineer with turrets on steroids. It was a crazy fight, involving lots of stray mobs and hiding behind boulders to avoid splash damage and desperately cursing a necromancer’s lack of dodges while trying to prolong one’s life with death shroud, downed, life drain something back to the world of the living, rinse and repeat. (My leveling gear was all power/precision for swift killing, y’know.)

In another corner of the map, some crazy Norn who seemed like a wererat and was like a mini version of Yanonka the Rat Wrangler with all the summoned rats ambushed me too.

I did notice that both of their Dynamic Events were labeled with Modus Sceleris and vaguely recalled a prior instance of encountering a guild group with this title and an elaborate three event chain fight while leveling the warrior alt. (Well, he had no problems with them and had a great time parading proudly in front of their guild as a prime specimen of Charr ferocity.)

It was the first time I actually encountered these two specific events though.

Did I enjoy them?

Yes.

Was it cool to have a novel experience while leveling that I’d never seen before?

Of course.

Did I specifically know whether they were new or old DEs and exactly -when- they were added?

Hell, no.

I’ve also told you all about the first time I encountered the Skritt thief in a chest.

It took Bhagpuss telling me in the comments that it was added in the Halloween update. I found it in February.

Since then, I’ve run into it a few times more, twice with a guild doing guild missions, which was great fun chasing it down together.

40 permanent events were added, you say? Great! But many players are simply going to run right past them without noticing them, and still less would be able to tell you if they were new.

If your metric of success is the number of players playing a particular aspect of the game, taking notice and commenting and providing feedback about it, then I suddenly understand why all the last updates have been full of festival fanfare and literally signposted and checklist content.

It’s problematic, yes. If a lot of developer effort goes into barely noticed dynamic event content, players may complain that there’s nothing happening, even when it’s going on right under their noses and things are changing around them.

But players notice when stuff is static too, and promptly abandon zones that are not rewarding and boring in the limited number of repeat DEs they’ve seen ad nauseam.

It’s hard to say who’s right. I love the idea of new stuff taking place, and things being different on a subsequent playthrough. Just the same, I hate the idea that we might lose some of the old stuff to make room for the new stuff.

You know me, I want my cake and to eat it too. I’d love for more possibilities to be layered on top of each other – grawl chain here, stampeding herd there, merchants having trouble with an avalanche squishing their dolyak and just generally the chance for more DEs to take place utilizing the same area.

A quick nod back to the Queen’s Jubilee. Having met my initial goal of defeating basic Liadri, I finally got the chance to venture out to the open world to work on the hot air balloon achievement.

At least, that’s what I originally thought I was going to do. Hit every map, run to balloon icon, click chest, collect loot, increment by 1 until done. Easy, methodical, that’s why I left it as one of the last things on my list.

To my immense surprise, amazement and delight (and okay, a little frustration from being roadblocked, by escort quests especially, yeeugh,) it wasn’t as simple as that.

Those balloon pilots sure are picky. The gates stubbornly remained closed as they pointed out they were under fire from that sinister airship over yonder, couldn’t leave until a way overdue emissary arrived, or invited all to test their mettle against a Queen’s Champion.

I’d like to echo what Ravious said about the balloon towers: They make sense. Their stories are intertwined with the ongoing event. And as a result, they’re pretty immersive.

(Yes, even the Overdue Emissary event which causes a metagame groan from me when I see how far that marker is from the balloon tower and how much longer it’s going to take to increment the number by 1 as a result.)

Without words, the story is told. "So -that's- why they're late," you think, as you come across the scene.
Without words, the story is told. “So -that’s- why they’re late,” you think, as you come across the scene.

One especially nice touch is how the event NPCs interact with the other NPCs in the vicinity. They fight each other. Yes, you are not the center of their world. Imagine that.

An Aetherblade Norn goes ice wurm hunting after a hard day's work beating up an emissary.
An Aetherblade Norn goes ice wurm hunting after a hard day’s work beating up an emissary.
Vicious rams join in the action. The same group was beating off some arctoduses when I arrived.
Vicious rams join in the action. The same group was beating off some wild arctoduses (arctodi? what is the plural of arctodus anyway?) when I arrived.

Even the emissaries are fairly rabid, and while it again produces a fourth wall-breaking sigh from one part of me that wishes they would just get with the program already, I’ve also exclaimed in-character at mangy Ash Legion charr representatives not to be distracted and to double time it, quick march to the balloon, stat.

Because when the event feels like a part of the world, you want to be a part of the world too.

I’ll leave you with one final thought, another quote from the thread which saves you from wading past naysayer eyesores who produce pithy Twitter pronouncements of “you suck” “learn to play” “you must have failed at something” “I liked it, can’t imagine why you couldn’t” without actually specifying any reasons for their different opinion:

From minbariguy:

I honesty feel that you guys need to focus more on putting the choice of when to play content back into the players’ hands.

Food for thought, indeed.

Making People Group – GW2 vs The Old Way

I’m a month late to reading this post on Guild Wars 2, where Milady expresses an argument that defends “forced grouping” as having significant benefits for players to make social connections with each other, and suggests that GW2’s new system of incentivizing sociable activities makes the actions players take comparatively more meaningless than in the traditional forced group MMO setting.

I beg to differ.

You can motivate people by forcing them somewhere with a stick, or encouraging them to approach with a carrot. Personally, I know which one I’d prefer.

One liners aside, I’d agree that “forced grouping” does provide a compulsion to interact with others, and an opportunity (in that there is a captive audience) for those who would like to exercise the free choice to socialize with people.

However, there is another not-inconsiderable-in-number subset of players who do take issue with the compulsion and the “force” because it reduces their freedom of choice – to make game progress with whomever they want, alone or with others. By feeling like they have no choice in the matter, there’s even less incentive and desire to connect with others, beyond making use of them to get to wherever they want.

In a scenario like this, it becomes important to be able to tell these players apart and not befriend them overly, because you run the risk of getting stabbed in the back and having trust betrayed when they ditch you for greener pastures, possibly making off with all your items or what-not.

I’d argue that in Guild Wars 2, far from making social interaction an automatic meaningless reaction to get rewards – the aim of all the incentives, all the systems working in tandem, is to move past all that in-group out-group nonsense by making everyone on your server in-group.

Everyone is a potential person that you could make the free choice to open up to, chat with, and befriend. There is no lack of free choice with GW2’s system either.

I believe the degree of incentivization may be crucial as well in helping GW2’s system function appropriately.

The default option of many MMO players (especially if they’re trained by WoW) is to go their own way and solo. (Among just some of the in-built incentives to this option: not needing to wait for someone else, can pause or sidetrek at any time, no exposure of vulnerability to other players required.)

If you over-incentivize with a carrot, say if you gain a lot more xp in a group than you would solo, then yeah, you’d see lots of people clamoring to get into groups and travel together. But no deep social interaction occurs – people group, farm xp, leave when their objective is achieved with nary a word.

Some people may take advantage of this enforced audience to build social connections, through chatting, through personal exposure, through performing a group combat role well, through good leadership, etc. but there is free choice at work here. Others may very well not bother to connect.

Very soon, the over-incentive to group is perceived as “forced” grouping. I may want to solo, but I cannot progress my character at a good clip without “having” to group up. Free choice is lost. And then people complain.

There’s also the real force with a stick option. That’s the typical raid mechanic. If you don’t participate in this group activity that -requires- such and such amount of people, no progression for you. Or to take xp as an example: no xp when alone, you only get xp with others. Do you have any choice in the matter? Only a very binary one, play it and get the reward or not play and forgo the reward.

But what if you defuse some of the built-in incentives to soloing by providing (approximately) -equivalent- alternative options  to gain rewards with other players?

At any time, I can choose to walk away from other players and solo and gain a set rate of xp and rewards. In most typical MMOs, if I choose to walk towards other players to group, my set rate of xp doesn’t change much, or it may even go down – “omg, u’re killstealing frm me.” To maintain or slightly improve my xp, I’d have to pause, invite everyone to the same group, lead, converse, organize and keep talking – that’s an increased amount of effort for not very much reward.

Milady argues that putting up with this mild disincentive proves how worthy a “friend” another player is, because they’ve made the choice to value a social connection over self-progression. Fair enough, if your criteria for friendship is only with people who don’t mind un-optimizing themselves temporarily in order to connect with others. That’s one way of forming an in-group, only connecting with those who think more of the good of the group than personal gain.

But why would we want to lose out on the opportunity to build connections with the rest? Plenty of people balance both community good and personal gain.

In Guild Wars 2, the aim is to remove the disincentivizing barriers to grouping with others. If I walk toward other players, and help out on their mobs, I’m not taking away any xp from them, and I’m helping them kill faster, benefiting all. Social interaction doesn’t have to be a zero sum game – I put up with irritation in order to help you more? Both of us can benefit from the interaction in GW2.

Rezzing people is not the only way to gain xp in GW2. If it was, then yeah, I’d say that would promote meaningless exchanges because everyone would be racing to rez people for progress. Rezzing people is an option, and by performing it, you gain a reward. You could also happily ignore the dead person, and continue to swing away at the dynamic event boss, because when he dies, you get a big reward. That small reward for rezzing people just provides positive reinforcement, a ‘good job!’ signal for people who make the free choice to reach out and help someone – often facing the risk of coming under fire in combat to do so.

I actually think there are a couple more critical factors in this rezzing mechanic than just reward optimization encouraging automatic behavior. As Chris Bell proposes at GDC, social interaction requires vulnerability in order for people to become open to trusting another. Being defeated and about to die is about as vulnerable as it gets without harsher mechanics like the risk of item loss or permadeath. Naturally, you take note of those who come to your aid, rather than the rest of the masses who are still unthinkingly automatic firing at the boss. A little bit of trust and respect is built, paving the way for more chances at future social interactions.

I’d argue that by encouraging these sorts of iterative and positive small gestures in a game, it has a subtle effect on the entire community of the game. It becomes more welcoming, more willing to respond to someone in need and help, rather than taking the default option of treating others like a stranger who will bring more trouble than he’s worth. City of Heroes was a much nicer place when people ran around giving out free money to lowbies because they had no other use for it, instead of now being incentivized to hoard the cash to buy better loot for their characters.

As for the not-so-good apples, or those who put personal gain over anything or anyone else, Guild Wars 2 actively strives to ensure that they can never perform actions that harm others while doing so. Whatever they do, will still indirectly help others on their server.  That’s a far better design goal than tacitly permitting them to do harm.

Is it crucial to be able to tell them apart in order to judge who is worth being “friends” with? I don’t believe so, they likely have very little interest in getting to know you anyway, so they won’t make the free choice to open their mouths and interact, or even bother to travel together with you.

Guild Wars 2 is the next stage, the next experiment, in players socially interacting with one another. To move from a system that has less “I win, you lose” interactions, and more “I win, you win” ones. It’ll be interesting to see where it takes us.