Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Gamasutra - Features - "Social Game, not Social Life? ArenaNet on Guild Wars and the "Casual" MMORPG"

I've said (and read) many times that the problem with the MMORPG is the MMO part. I may be an antisocial ass at my core, but I enjoy soloing in World of Warcraft and teaming up when I have to. I like slaughtering my way through an area and, when I get to the boss, forming a partnership with the other folks there to fight that same boss so we all share the experience and the quest items that drop. I do not like being forced to group in these games, nor do I like the fact that many of these games, at high levels, almost force players to become the paragon of their classes: Warriors tank, priests heal, rogues "DPS," and mages "nuke." Jack-of-all-trades classes, like druids (my main class), get slotted into one of their ability groups; in the case of druids, they seem to be expected to heal and only to heal, despite that they can act usefully as a light warrior or a pseudo-rogue, as well. If you aren't specialized one way, then you're useless. High-end raid groups, which seem to either be the only way to have fun or the only way to really gain experience and items at high levels, are generally run by lifers who don't care who you are, as long as you're a Protection-specced warrior with his pants.

Personally, I'm not interested in playing someone else's game. I don't want to get to level 60 just to be a face in some dood's raid crowd. Some people really enjoy it. Me, I prefer slaughtering troggs by the hundreds at lower levels, by myself or teamed with my fiance' or a friend. But the game, for better or for worse, has aged to the point where level 60s run everything: If you're not level 60, you don't "know" your class, according to the forums. The new content coming from developers is generally new dungeons for lvl. 55-60 characters. Soon, here comes Battlegrounds and probably a level-cap increase. Which is all fine, because the lower level stuff is already well done. It's just that I'm not likely to ever see the higher-level stuff, and if my cat-form-specced druid will be forced to heal to play the high level content, most parts of me don't really care.

I linked to the Guild Wars article above because I have always found that game intriguing. NC Soft was one of my contacts back in the day, and I was lucky enough to get extensive previews of City of Heroes and Guild Wars early in the cycle (thanks, David). The central premise behind Guild Wars is, as you'd kow if you'd bothered to read the article, that the game will require no subscription fees. What they don't get into in the article is the somewhat innovative character development structure in the game. That's both its highest selling point to me, and the reason why more people probably won't leave WoW for Guild Wars.

Basically, you start at level 1 (as you might imagine) and play through level 10 or so (might be 20; I don't remember). At that point you have your character as he will be, pretty much for eternity. From then on your development isn't so much in how strong you are, but rather what equipment and skills you have. Each character has a "skillbook" that contains his skills, and he can have maybe 8 skills equipped for a given mission. The trick isn't just in grinding mobs until you're so strong that you can roll over an obstacle, it's in obtaining more skills so that you have more to choose from when you go into the next mission. A level 20 guy and a level 50 guy are, in theory, different only in the number of skills they have to choose from. Granted, the level 50 guy has played more, and so he has better equipment by process of elimination, but there you go. The best comparison is between a Magic: The Gathering player with a starter deck and two boosters and one with a starter deck and a hundred boosters. They can both only bring 60 cards to the table, but one guy will likely have a better deck by default. It's also extremely possible for the younger player to defeat the older one, too, if they have good cards and decent skills.

Since ArenaNet and NC Soft aren't getting paid to keep you logged on month after month, then the "grind" doesn't pay off for them. They want to make a compelling game that will A) be fun enough that you'll recommend it to your friends and B) act as a compelling preview for future expansions, which will have a real price on them rather than being free quarterly updates. Also, since a level 50 character isn't exponentially more powerful than a lower level one, there's no sense in making players grind to reach come godly maximum level. In some ways, the game becomes more about the missions and obtaining new skills and trying out the ones you have than about watching an XP bar slowly slip from left to right.

Now, they are doing some things that could hurt immersion in the game world, like give main hubs with instantaeous transportation anywhere in the world, but that's nothing worse than what Sony Online did to EverQuest with the Plane of Knowledge. As time goes on, it seems more and more obvious that players don't care as much about game world cohesiveness as they do about making macros to eke 0.5% more effectiveness out of their characters. If they cared about cohesiveness, then they wouldn't be farming major story dungeons like the Deadmines or "saving" Gnomeregan for the tenth time. World of Warcraft succeeds in its immersiveness, but that's a cherry on top, not the bottom line. For Guild Wars, the cohesiveness is based on your character, not so much the world. In some ways it's refreshing to anticipate playing a game that is unabashedly a game.

Now, this is all supposition. Guild Wars could suck when it comes out, or the strength of my fiance' continuing with WoW could keep me from buying Guild Wars when it comes out, but on paper it sounds like a good idea. Why shouldn't casual gamers be able to play with the lifers? Why shouldn't lifers be rewarded with more choices of skills? Why should lifers be gods compared to folks who only play 2 hours a day or so? Why not even things out, let everyone conceivably compete with everyone else, and hrmm... NOT CHARGE A MONTHLY FEE?

Hey. They're doing something different, which makes my toes curl. We'll see how it turns out in a few weeks.