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Welcome! I am teaching law at St. Petersburg State University and engaged in legal practice with the international law firm Dentons. Major part of my research is connected to virtual worlds and massive multiplayer online games (a broad field which includes Internet law, video game law, virtual law and game studies). My legal practice is focused on providing support to computer game companies. This interest derives from my passion for computer games which I consider as one of the most important cultural artifacts ever created. Please note that this blog conveys my private opinion which is not necessarily shared by any organisations I am associated with. For more formal and detailed introduction please visit my website arkhipov.info which serves more as a 'business card'.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Guild Wars 2: First Impressions

Back in 2005 the first Guild Wars appeared as an interesting alternative to World of Warcraft and Everquest 2. Since then the general market has not changed much, except for the fact that the latter two may be now included into one general category, along with other notable games with similar core mechanics (Lord of the Rings Online, RIFT etc.). This is the reason why each new MMORPG with a gameplay different to certain extent, such as, for instance, recent The Secret World, is subject to high expectations which are sometimes hard to meet. How responsible is Guild Wars 2 in this aspect?    

An official Guild Wars 2 wallpaper, the link is here. 

Whatever the final verdict is, Guild Wars 2 is definitely a noteworthy happening in game industry. Due to this fact it invoked some side thoughts associated with its publishing which I would like to share.

If you are here just to check what differs Guild Wars 2 from other market offers, please skip to the last section, 'Guild Wars 2 In The Context'.

Positive Expectations

The first part of the Guild Wars franchise clearly was a positive source of expectations for Guild Wars 2. 'Positive' here means 'we would like to see the aspects already accepted to be developed'. I would call at least three aspects:

'Local' innovative features. While the game mechanics contained much similar in a very core way (e.g. character levels gained through questing and reducing mob population), there were some sweet aspects such as low level cap (20!) and hiring of NPC henchmen or heroes if you did not want to look for a party. These innovations were comparative, rather than objective, they were present in some other less popular games, but nevertheless they looked fresh and appealing.

Alternative concept of end-game. Traditional end-game as we know it by now involves a lot of commitment to reach it as a prerequisite and afterwards a lot of commitment to continue. It was not clear for me until I started a period of regular raiding in World of Warcraft, but shortly afterwards my own opinion was that raiding is boring and time-consuming. Quick PvP matches of Guild Wars was the main 'end-game' of this MMORPG. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Extreme degree of quality. I would argue that Guild Wars content was much less than the content of its assumed competitors in terms of quantity, but in many aspects much better in terms of quality. In addition to polished content details, the interface of this MMORPG along with other 'soft aspects' if not bested World of Warcraft, but for sure were much better than of other games. This comparison is highly subjective, but I think that many share the notion that quality was extremely high. 

Businesswise, there was no subscription, the only costs were associated with initial purchase and expansion packs. In April 2009 NCsoft stated that the total of 6 million copies were sold which should probably be viewed as more than a good result. This may give grounds to business model expectations. No worries, such expectations were met.

Negative Expectations

Further development of MMORPG market led to the situation where some core basics of game mechanics became a commonplace for online games.

The situation in general reminds me of word notorious for many mudders, 'DIKU'. Initially a breakthorugh, the MUD open-source system developed by Danish University enthusiasts quickly became a framework for literally thousands of text-based online games. This resulted in a new MUD database search criterion: 'No stock areas'.      

Nowadays, many modern graphical MMORPGs have more or less consistent set of features which did not necessarily appear in World of Warcraft for a first time, but were actualized in this game due to its popularity, accessibility and unprecedent commercial success. Here is one of the possible lists:

Class and level based character development. Skills are either static, or their increases with practice do not play significant part (like weapon skills in early World of Warcraft, or broader range of skills in current Everquest 2). Levels are separated by a pool of experience points.

Targeting combat system. Interface works like a HUD of a combat aircraft. You lock target and launch rockets, i.e. strike hotbars with skills attached. The only positional effect may proceed from range of attack which implies a kind of yes/no test: either you are in range to use skills or not.

Linear quests to progress. The only or the main means of gaining reasonable amounts of experience is to do linear quests. 'Linear' means that you follow some story and do not perform day-to-day tasks of players' or at least NPC's virtual community. The main problem is that million players do the same things, but such things are usually described as 'unique' or 'exceptional'. 

The content is divided by level. This feature logically proceeds from the features 1 and 3, and has significant outcome: the content becomes obsolete and meaningless quite soon. The obvious countermeasure is to allow players to change levels, which was implemented before Guild Wars 2 in Everquest 2 and, for instance, RIFT.

The game consumes real-life time without reward. I am a player and researcher, not a developer or their unconditional supporter, so I have put it simple. Those who played World of Warcraft might recall long travels to Scarlet Monastery (a mid-level 5-man instance), which could took about 30 real minutes, then you had to wait for other members of the group if the group is formed. Then healer or tank disconnects, and voila - you have spent about 1 hour without any game results.

Players do not participate in world's infrastructure. It is understandable measure for a commercial games. If you allow a mass player to create content or determine virtual policy, this may result in uncontrolled player dynamics. Thus, the other extreme became commonplace. However, I do not know why a balanced approach has not been generally implemented yet in large-scale MMORPGs.

Basically, each new game currently has to address these issues and make serious design decisions. Guild Wars 2 is not an exclusion. Major part of expectations should have been based on these stock features.

Guild Wars 2 In The Context

The success clearly requires some focus, so Guild Wars 2 was not expected to answer the total of the issues outlined above with equal degree, and in this post I will concentrate on some but not all expectations.

'Local' Innovative Features

Some of such features seem more important, some - just cosmetic, however only at a first glance. For instance, buil-in inventory sorting not only makes sorting easier, but saves your real-life time.




Quick travel. You may teleport to each of the previously discovered waypoints for a symbolic fee from anywhere, just by opening a map and clicking on a waypoint.

 'Downed' mechanics. When you should die due to lack of hitpoints, a kind of minigame pops up. You have 4 'downed' skills to use. If you manage to kill the opponent with these profession-determined skills, you come back to life in its fullest sense.

 
 

Auction from everywhere. Just another detail to reduce meaningless teleports back and forth. You may put items on sale wherever you are, however you need to gather proceeds at trading post.




Built-in inventory sorting. Clicking a 'compact' button at inventory utility menu will save your time sorting your bags. You can also deposit all collectibles with one button.





Specific underwater gear. Finally, you will not be in position to resolve a dilemma how fireballs or firearms work underwater. Nor you need to think about breathing. You are equipped with a harpoon and a breathing mask!



Exhaustive and rewarding achievement system. Many aspects of the game are tracked and recorded. You get functional rewards e.g. for complete discovery of a zone. Furthermore, you have daily and monthly achievements which reward you with nice functional items.


               
Answers To 'Stock Features'

Weapon skills to unlock. Guild Wars 2 follows the classic professions (classes), levels and skills scheme, except for one point: weapon skills are tied to kinds of weapons. I.e. there is a set of skills for main hand dagger and the set of skills for off-hand dagger. Scepters, in their turn, have other, different skills. The skills are unlocked with practice. You need to kill certain number of enemies with a specific weapon to unlock this weapon's skills. Looks like an experiment of balance between level and skill based character advancement models.


Combat maneuvers. Here Guild Wars 2 follow the general trend - to keep targeting system, but to supplement it with such elements as combat maneuvers (somersaults etc.). This we have seen in The Secret World. Personally, one day I would like to see development of Age of Conan's combat system where you can, for one thing, determine angle of sword's swipe.




Personal story and dynamic events. This is the strongest answer Guild Wars 2 gives to 'stock features'. There is a personal story which is customized by players' decisions before and in course of gameplay. Stories of two players may coincide, but in any case personalized story is a great step forward.





The other counterpart of the 'answer' is dynamic events which are effectively the same thing as great Warhammer Online public quests. The difference is in details though. Some dynamic events 'move' throughout the map. Dynamic events do not offer raid-like distribution of loot, rather experience and currency rewards. Nevertheless, the world of Guild Wars 2 looks like a world which actually lives.   




Dynamic level adjustment. Yes, the content is still divided by levels, but a level adjustment system is implemented, and it is dynamic, i.e. automatic. When you arrive to low-level zone, your level is automatically adjusted, although you keep your inventory and skills. You continue to get experience being adjusted to low-level zones.



Travelling is fast. As long as you unlock a waypoint. In fact, travelling has hardly ever been as fast as in Guild Wars 2. Doing dynamic events also does not take much time. However, I cannot yet comment on group instances and organized PvP. Probably, I will change or make corrections to my opinion.




Guild Wars 2 Is Epic. Win Or Fail?

This probably is the hottest question of the season. As regards expectations, my general answer is that Guild Wars 2 answered the expectations the best it could. Furthermore, Guild Wars 2 is 100% by 'soft aspects', including visual design and interface. Other things may be easily patched.

But.

While this game offers a lot of great features which are still fresh even if they are not completely innovative (e.g. dynamic events), a MMORPG depends not only on the game mechanics as it is, but on continued player interaction, and this factor may be decisive. 

I do not doubt that Guild Wars 2 will survive for long as a PvP game.

Whether innovative PvE mechanics will share this fate, is not clear. Warhammer Online has specifically shown that if there is too much different public quests scattered across a territory much bigger than needed to host current amount of players, at least this aspect of the game will eventually die. 

What shall we expect is actually determined by two factors: aggregate player reaction after initial month, and effort of developers to make proper updates.

However.

Today the verdict is: 'Win'.