Neverwinter: First Impressions

First Impressions

If Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online had a baby, that baby would be Neverwinter…

And when I say “baby,” I mean exactly that.

As in, it seems to be the much more simplistic version of either game named above.

The default UI is remarkably reminiscent of LOTRO with its text font and tiny size with elaborate button graphics on the skills you can barely make out at the default size.

nw_miniui

I mean… really? Can’t see nuthing.

It joins LOTRO as being the second game where I felt the need to bring up the UI beyond 100% and magnify it to like 1.3x.

nw_largerui

I may have overcompensated a little, but at least I can see some of the icons now.

(Somewhere out there, the dev that spent their time coloring in the icon graphics and backgrounds is celebrating.)

Quest gameplay-wise, it feels like a version of DDO where you talk to NPCs, get quests, then run to ye olde dungeon or adventure instance where you then get your own personal dungeon crawl.

nw_sewercrawl

Or sewer crawl.

The good news is that these personal instances are great on FPS.

Even on my ailing computer, I can hit 40-60FPS in these places.

The bad news is that I managed to pick the day some new update dropped to try the game, so the central city of Protector’s Enclave – where the game first drops you right after completing the tutorial (kinda neat in that you don’t have to go through numerous starter zones to get there) – was an utter rubberbanding lagfest of epic proportions.

I'm sure it's a nice city... if the textures loaded in, and if I could actually move...
I’m sure it’s a nice city… if the textures loaded in, and if I could actually move…

Framerates alternated between 9-1o FPS if I was lucky, and this is probably the first MMO I’ve encountered whose FPS indicator bothered to show FPS below 1 in decimal points. (Yeah, 0.3FPS, such awesome!)

One pretty neat thing that Neverwinter has is the ability to adjust graphics card-dependent and CPU-dependent graphics separately.

Landmark’s FPS indicator taught me that my CPU tended to be the weaker of my pair, so I cranked it down to near minimal, giving up view and draw distance, and was able to get my GPU settings  up to a nice looking medium. This at least gives broader options for people to adjust what they can or can’t give up for smoother gameplay. (I generally don’t need shadows or a gazillion physics particles flying around just to make things look ‘better’ and more busy, for example.)

Tradespam was running rampant in the big city, being spammed faster than I could move, along with cryptic LFGs of strange abbreviations for content I assume was for super max leveled elder game players.

Welcome to gibberish edition.
Welcome to gibberish edition. Let’s see: goldseller spam, high-end microtransaction trades and holy trinity/need correct class and gear for group problems of some sort or other…

One generally ignores those and lets them scroll by as stuff I won’t understand as a newbie vacationer anyway, but everyone’s personal mileage for tolerating those is different.

Along with the ubiquitous lockboxes, whose drop rate is fairly insane.

It's all rainbow colors, it must be neat stuff, I guess!
It’s all rainbow colors and much blue and purple, it must be neat stuff, I guess!

Fortunately, I have no idea what any of those words mean, so it’s eminently ignorable for my vacationing purposes.

(I did manage to sell off 8 of them on the auction house, so -someone- out there is buying them…)

Others may find it more difficult to ignore, similar to how I personally have trouble ignoring the existence of raids in traditional MMOs being heralded as the pinnacle of existence and all the good gear being available only there.

The difference to me is that I’m paying $15 a month in those games, same as everyone, and would rather not have my preferred playstyles treated like second class citizens.

Here, I’m paying a big fat $0, so little inconveniences are to be expected. (The trick is to have the inconveniences not be game-breaking and encouraging quitting out of frustration over maybe sometime converting into a paying customer.)

I guess it may boil down to essentially a difference of philosophy. Traditional sub-based raid games say, “We start at an egalitarian playing field of $15/month, and it’s what you choose to do with your time that determines how far up you go. Take the game rules for what they are and put up with any inconveniences and annoyances to get there, no two ways around this.”

Free to play games say, “You can come try out our game with no obligations whatsoever, though you may have to put up with some inconveniences and annoyances along the way.”

Bad ones continue, “If you want to get rid of all the nuisances and get far up in the elder game, you’re going to have to spend X sum of money, no two ways around this.” Where X is a substantially larger sum than $15/month.

Good ones say, “You can do it with money, or you can do it with time, up to you, the choice is yours.” And usually the average X is ballparked around $15/month.

(I’d talk about buy to play too, but that usually just means “Kindly pay us the sum of a normal single-player game up front for the work we’ve already put in, and you can enjoy the basic game more or less feature complete.”)

I tend to prefer “the choice is yours” games over the “no two ways around this” games.

Back to Neverwinter and the baby analogy.

Said baby appeared to have been stolen from its crib by Cryptic Studios, who really wanted a kid of their own and tried to do nice things for it, but seemed generally confused about bringing up a child, and who eventually threw up their hands and gave it to foster parents Perfect World International, who are at least giving food to the kid and keeping it alive, but only insofar as it can work for them in their sweatshop.

The hand of Cryptic Studios can be seen in three things: the character creator, the combat system and the foundry system.

Character Creation

nw_charactercreator

While not as expansive as City of Heroes, the character creator affords a very decent range of options while still keeping to an immersive thematic feeling that keeps half-orcs looking different in skin tone and bulk from elves, and so on.

Hair, faces, eyes, scarring and tattoos, numerous sliders for tweaking face and body shapes, Neverwinter’s got it.

There’s even a flavor option to choose your place of origin, a la LOTRO’s characters hailing from various regions, and to take your pick from a number of Forgotten Realms deities to follow. Plus an optional biography space to add your character’s bio that will be visible to other players, similar to City of Heroes.

It did really help to bring out the lore aspect, aided by my personal familiarity and love for the Forgotten Realms setting (if a generation or two before the stupid Spellplague – repeated apocalypses conveniently timed to coincide with new editions get old fast) and utilized that prior IP knowledge to garner a bit of quick buy-in with the game.

Quest writing-wise, it also reminds me of City of Heroes. Decent enough, very wordy, recreating some of that tabletop or singleplayer RPG feeling in talking to NPCs and getting a long story about why you need to go here and there, kill ten kobolds, pick up ten crates or play through one instance or another.

A considerable amount of the text appears to be voiced, for the main storyline anyway, which adds an interesting touch – though I must admit to rather rapidly running out of patience hearing a voice read the text to me and quickly clicking through to continue.

Combat

The combat system feels very simplistic.

Even more basic than City of Heroes started with, if that can be believed, as if they ran out of game designers that could manage spreadsheets… or were maybe setting themselves up for a console MMO.

Left click for basic quick attack, right click for harder hitting drawn out attack, maybe a handful of extra skills more to be earned slowly as you go up in levels. Six classes or so. with some of the most awkward sounding names I’ve ever heard – Control Wizard, Great Weapon Fighter, Hunter Ranger and three others I barely recall, a rogue, a tank and a cleric type, I think.

It’s like they had to specify, oh no no, you can’t actually play a full out wizard… you only get a wizard stuck in the role of cc.

Or guess what, not only can you pay an extortionate amount to become Drizzt Do’Urden, ride a giant spider and have a cool panther, you get to be a ranger and a hunter all rolled into one! Because WoW hunter is cool. LOTRO and Forgotten Realms Ranger is cooler. And naturally Neverwinter HUNTER RANGER must be the coolest!

(Struggling not to die from laughing here…)

Having just come from games like Guild Wars 2 and Wildstar, the active dodging they tried to implement in Neverwinter feels decidedly sluggish in comparison.

It’s not as responsive as either game, for one. You have to hold down shift+direction a lot longer to maybe dash somewhere, if your keypress registered at all.

There didn’t seem to be any way to quickly move out of range of regular melee attacks, nor was circle strafing a very good strategy to avoid getting it, because your attack animations rooted you in place for a couple seconds (an old City of Heroes thing that seemed to be have been carried over in the engine.)

Dashing or dodging out of the way seemed to be only mostly useful for the super slow and very obviously telegraphed attacks – either big red AoE circles or large bulky giant types moving a big club in freeze frame slow motion in an attempt to hit you.

While this seemed rather retardedly obvious to avoid, I learned why they couldn’t make the animations any faster… because the dashing doesn’t respond any quicker than that.

It might be latency at work again, but I had a 5o-75% chance of getting out of the way in time of any of these very blatantly obvious telegraphs – either because the dash key wasn’t responding the instant I pressed it, or because I was locked in a basic attack animation (well, I have to try and do -some- damage to it, right?)

Neverwinter uses an always on mouselook style, which I suppose is a change from having to hold down the right mouse button all the time, and targeting consists of moving your reticle over the mob you want to hit.

The process of doing damage mostly felt like one button click spam, with some extra odd attacks on cooldown later as you gain levels and skills.

Damage mitigation as a Great Weapon Fighter mostly appeared to consist of kill things fast, try not to soak too much damage and quaff healing potions when necessary. There are presumably some gear stats to help and a blocking mechanism for the tankier Guardian Fighter (was that the name?) and Cleric people probably can stand in as mobile free healing potions for your health bar (hey, some weirdoes like that kind of ‘support’ role.)

It did raise some questions in my mind of how necessary or costly it would be to buy healing potions later on in levels if I didn’t own a cleric in my back pocket, but for now, difficult fights do seem to drop them, so it ended up more or less evening out. Use one, kill things, get another.

The overall feel is still very slow, and rather turn-based, in comparison to GW2 or Wildstar. If either of those MMOs feel too fast, confusing and chaotic, Neverwinter may be the more sedately paced combat you’re looking for.

May. Because it’s still really awfully simplistic.

And seemingly based a lot on vertically progressing gear stats. My basic broadsword damage jumped from 32 to 86, for example, moving from one piece of quest reward to another.

Which personally, doesn’t bode very well for its PvP being on any semblance of an even playing field.

I’ve heard rumors that Neverwinter’s PvP is pretty pay-to-win, so I’ve not even bothered trying that part of the game yet. That might be a breaking point for anyone who enjoys PvP and is thinking about the long term prospects of Neverwinter, but I’ve never been that kind of competitive sort and it doesn’t bother me from enjoying the rest of the game if it’s segregated off in some private arenas.

Questing – Dev and Player Created

The foundry system looks promising, and seems to be Neverwinter’s saving grace.

For a free game, the design respects immersion a lot, even if overall player behavior doesn’t.

Starting players are led in an extended tutorial via a whole sequence of quests given story flavoring. Here, after a sequence of your main story quests chasing some miscreants, you’ve found some intriguing treasure with writing on it that looks culturally interesting to a kobold. Go talk to the kobold in the main city who also happens to be an auctioneer and see if he’ll take it off your hands. (Voila, we find the Auction House – even if we haven’t already figured it out via the UI buttons on top.)

The auctioneer doesn’t want it, but recommends you take the curio to a lady who deals in wondrous goods and you’re shown yet another Bazaar / shop / trading thing. Maybe it was the gem store. I sorta blanked it out because trying to survive in the main city at 3 FPS and lower means you’re sitting in the graphics options menu tweaking that far more than paying attention to any other bit of UI popping up and you just press whatever keys necessary to get the quest done, your reward collected and your next quest picked up that preferably ain’t in that lag ridden city.

I haven’t tried a Foundry quest yet, but they introduce it in a very similar fashion. Some NPCs that are part of the world will actually point out Foundry quests that occur near the area you are in. Talking to them brings up that portion of the UI, so you get just that subset of foundry quests to choose from.

Innovations

Quest-wise, I’m also rather impressed by how smartly and smoothly the quest tracker shifts quests up and down based on the NPCs and regions you’re closest to, with optional glowy sparks that lead you directly to where you’re supposed to go. This is something that I’ve seen from a WoW add-on, but never by default in any MMO before Neverwinter.

I do like the whole guided beginner experience they’ve set up for Neverwinter.

Similar to Runes of Magic, you get a gift box that you open at certain levels for free stuff.

With every level, your UI will tell you just what else is new and has changed, so that you can go and upgrade the thing or check out this new feature.

Even the auction house NPC will recommend some gear for you (though I’m sure veterans will laugh at it for being inaccurate or whatever, but newbies are content with basic handholding, thanks) and this is pretty much the first time I’ve seen an auction house actually tell you that you can get the gear via doing a quest instead.

Nope, I didn't know!
Nope, I didn’t know! I’ll get around to it after this sequence of quests, I guess!

Everything that threatens to be overwhelming when you take it all in at once, is staggered and parceled out slowly so that you can take in each feature on its own. The quests introduced me to Skirmishes – some kind of quick cooperative group experience fighting off waves of enemies, PvP – which I chickened out of trying, and presumably will get around to Dungeons at some point.

Crafting, or Neverwinter Professions, amuse me to no end.

They’re different from most bog-standard MMOs, for one, and a bit more like SWTOR in style, if I’m not mistaken. Instead of gathering all the materials, clicking a button and  stand around waiting for a progress bar, they take a page from the mobile or facebook game genre in terms of more long-term time management.

You set up some task in queue, walk away while the timer ticks down, and come back after 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 2 hours, 4 hours, a day, or whatever, to collect your goodies and start the next task. At least you can be playing the game or offline while it does its thing.

Playerbase

Well, the good news is that the game looks exceedingly busy. And lively.

That’s the beauty of a free to play game. The barrier for entry is notoriously low, so folks jump in and begin any time, and there’s that constant influx milling around with the veterans.

However, the barrier for entry IS notoriously low, so you have bots, AFK accounts of various sorts taking up room in queues, players who may as well be bots for all the interaction they do, people speaking assorted languages in a Tower of Babel style chat that gives me new sympathy for what the GW2 EU servers had to deal with under megaserver rule, tradespam worthy of GW1 Spamadan and so on, mixing in with people looking for others who might actually chat intelligibly in English and join groups, amidst the rampant stubborn soloist types (guiilty!)

If you’re looking to play Neverwinter as an MMO in a social setting, you’re in for sifting through a bit of crud to find some treasure. Though the treasure does seem to be out there – there were some comprehensible guild messages, and a few veterans answering newbie questions and seemingly willing to help out – probably because it’s so rare to find like-minded similar-playstyle players.

Conclusions

Will I keep playing it?

Well, I might.

For the moment, it’s free. There’s a lot of new systems I’m curious about, which always draws me like a magnet, and I really like the newbie guidance system so far.

The big minus to Neverwinter is its ridiculously boring combat. Click click click swing sword click swing again, oh the big attack reservoir has filled up, hit big attack button to do lots of damage, click click keep swinging.

Alternate with dodging forward and backward through mobs as needed for telegraphs, and seeing how many swings you can get in before the AI figures out it needs to turn around.

The story wrapper is a decent plus.

If you’re just looking for an hour or two to wind down after work, with no necessity to turn brain on too much, getting a few quests done in Neverwinter ain’t bad in terms of mild entertainment experience.

Long term-wise, I dunno. It looks like it’s setting itself up to be a vertically progressing, massively grindy token buy game for good gear, with the option of spending real money to speed one’s way through the grind. I might be wrong, but that’s my lowbie perspective looking upwards at the moment.

Worth playing up until the point it gets tedious or demands cash, I suppose, which is a far sight more than you can say for other games that demand regular payments of money up front for you to eventually learn the same way down the road that the long term elder game isn’t for you.

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TSW: Quests That Make You Think

Having a good time in The Secret World with the plethora of innovative quests that don’t mind leaving the player stumped or running around in circles perfectly poised on the knife edge between frustration and conviction that the answer is here, somewhere, if only I could figure it out…

So what are these innovations that move TSW’s quests beyond the simple kill-X-whatevers, defeat-alls, click glowie objects, Fed-ex parcels back and forth and escort quests we see in every MMO out there?

All the above still exist in TSW, by the way. It’s just mixed with a good helping of the stuff below, which makes the story and quest path more interesting. So far, I’ve encountered:

(Minor spoilers follow. That is, you may find out that such-and-such type of quest exists, and I may allude to some methods of solution, but no direct answers or walkthroughs. If you want to be completely in the dark before playing the game yourself, then stop reading now.)

1) Pay attention to the scenery (I mean, the world)

It’s such a small thing, but what a world of difference it makes. Quests casually refer to places or things that are near another place and leave you to figure out where to go and where it is.

If you recognize the address of where some shop is, or some other notable landmark in town, you can head directly there feeling good that you know where things are in this world, rather than spend all your time following arrows and waypoints from the minimap radar.

TSW generally follows the LOTRO style of waypointing, where the waypoint chucks you at the ballpark area so that you’re not completely hung out to dry, and then leaves you to go and search the area however you like. More than once, I’ve had to do the casual version of a grid search across the entire highlighted area because the item I’m looking for is not terribly obvious.

Fortunately, they are kind enough to highlight important items in yellow if you get close to it, so that it does not devolve into a frustrating pixel hunt. (If you were masochistic enough, you have the option of turning it off. I wouldn’t dream of it.)

This style of quest encourages you to observe your surroundings more closely and generally pay attention to the world as a world, rather than pretty but unimportant scenic props.

In investigation quests, TSW doesn’t hold your hand at all. The easy-mode waypoints go dark. Hopefully you were paying attention on the earlier kinds of quests.

One memorable quest had me running in and out and around the Kingsmouth Church for a good half hour or so, ready to tear my hair out and taking it out on any nearby zombies that got in my way. I was supposed to find out what song was going to be sung on a particular Sunday, and it was baffling me good and proper. I kept talking to the pastor there, wondering if he had any clues in his dialogue. I kept looking for hymn books lying around on some convenient table. Nothing, nada, zilch.

This view does not contain what I was trying to find.

I was just about ready to start Googling for hints, when by chance, my camera angle shifted and I really -looked- at what was on my screen.

What I exclaimed was not fit to be said in that church.

In retrospect, it was obvious, and it fit. Which is the best kind of adventure game puzzle solution.

2) Follow the Trail of…

Blood (a perennial favorite,) dirt, even metal traps.

Or Illuminati signs. This shows up in the intro tutorial, so you immediately get a sense of the kinda place this is going to be.

Again, it’s a simple thing, but it feels good. It’s like you get to play really simple CSI and follow the red blood splatters until you get somewhere.

For some quests, the trail in question is phased in. For other quests, the trail has always been there, embedded into the scenery you keep running past without a second glance.

(This ain’t completely new. I’ve seen Runescape do it specifically for certain quests/skills that require tracking animal tracks. For all I know, there are other MMOs who do stuff like this for footprints or whatever. But we need to see more of it, because it’s something else to do besides just follow the waypoint dotted track that has no real existence in the world. )

A very neat touch and more advanced spin on this type of quest is the Siren’s Song in the main story quest. Trigger an item, and your view changes, including a waypoint path that you have to follow. Except this waypoint path represents the song you are hearing being sung. The audio also sends atmospheric chills up your spine, in a good way.

Dooo doooo…. La lala la lalala…

3) Find the Safe Path (or ANY path at all)

Sort of a variant on the jumping puzzle, just less vertical and with a touch more lateral thinking. Bunch of scary red lasers, or piles of green radioactive goo or electrocuted water in your way. How are you going to get from here to there?

The same question and challenge also applies to awfully high items that you can’t reach, or things that sit around taunting you with a fence/barrier blocking your way

How the heck do I get in there?

Kind of a more sophisticated version of the thing you do in City of Heroes when you get to the waypoint and can’t find the mission door because it’s either above or under you.

4) Riddles

Obscure wordplay. ‘Nuff said. Pretty fun, but I am a wordy kind of person.

LOTRO also dabbles with these.

5) Triangulate to a Location

Seriously, wow. I was NOT expecting any other MMO than A Tale in the Desert to make me even attempt triangulation (lemme tell you about frog catching in ATITD some other time.)

You get a radar thingummy. It pings more frequently and beeps louder as you get warmer and closer to the desired location. Figure it out.

Ping! Ping ping! Ping…

Fortunately, the location was nearby and I didn’t have to do any coordinate calculations unlike *ahem* a certain other sandy MMO, which was good, cos I hate math.

6) Solve Morse Code

*@#@)!*

I confess, this one defeated me. I am naturally as far from an auditory learner as you can get. Anything that requires me to pay attention to sounds, memorize them and their rhythms, and replicate them is going to kick my ass.

I gamely tried to pause the visualization and go frame by frame to decode it, but the poor UI controls in the game frustrated me to no end. Nor did looking up a Youtube recording of it help, even though I could rewind and fast forward. I got as far as three letters, garbled up by an extra imaginary dot where there should be nothing, threw up my hands and started Googling for help.

I even tried downloading an automatic Morse Code decoder as suggested by a forums-goer, but was stumped by all the technical audio references and terms in the program, and also discovered my seldom-used mic was definitely not working.

(I was, however, quite impressed as to the ingenuity of the other puzzle solvers. This sort of program use harkens back to my MUD days, where some of us would indulge in ‘cyborging’ – my term for the use of such programs to help a human solve these kinds of quests at a much faster rate than manually puzzling it out. I still know where to go for anagram and cryptogram solvers, fer instance.)

So I eventually cheated via Google-fu and found some kind person who had spilled the answer to this puzzle online.

I don’t feel a speck of guilt for doing this though. It’s up to each player to choose the difficulty level they desire. This is still an MMO, and the ‘multiplayer’ component has to play a part somewhere.

Sure, maybe we’ll get to a point where an expansion is released and no one knows the answer to some new mysterious investigation quest or ARG that just launched. Then I’ll be glad to pool my mental power with that of everyone’s in trying to puzzle it out together.

Ultimately, we are living in the age of an interconnected global mind by courtesy of the internet. It would be foolish not to harness its power.

P.S. For anyone who still has not encountered this amusing Zahada riddle website yet, feel free to enjoy doing stuff similar to (or slightly harder than) what The Secret World is asking of its players right now. You may thank me for wasting a week of your time later.

(Our workplace lost about that much productivity time when we found it and attempted solving it together.)

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.