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Legends have to learn to make choices like this.

May 2, 2012 3 comments

Despite a few not entirely unexpected hiccups related to the sheer volume of players, Guild Wars 2 turned out to be surprisingly “finished” for a beta, especially since only three of the five player races were available for play testing.  Trying to play the beta ended up being a lot like trying to eat responsibly at a buffet restaurant; I tried to stick to a few things I knew I’d want to play, but ended up trying almost everything once I saw how good it all looked.  I had such a blast giving this game a test-drive that I actually forgot to take screen shots of many areas I’d intended to document.  This lack of some of the best eye candy will truly be to your disadvantage because the game’s graphics and cut scenes are both high-quality and have a very unique style.

I could probably go on for pages giving play by plays of the major game features, but I think other gaming news sites have already covered that pretty well.  Instead I’d like to share my overall impression of the game’s design and what made it stand out for me when compared against games I’ve played at this stage in development.  For those who like lists:

Guild Wars 2…

  • … is heavy on interesting choices.
  • … offers an incredibly fluid gaming experience.
  • … has dynamic content that had me participating instead of grinding.

And now on with the show.

Guild Wars 2 is heavy on interesting choices.

Virtually every aspect of Guild Wars 2 is filled with choices.  These choices aren’t the run-of-the-mill decisions like “would you like +1 damage or +1 health” or “would you like fries with that?”, but rather fairly compelling and interesting choices like this one:

Legen… wait for it… dary.

Some of the first interesting choices I was hit with came right at the beginning with character creation.   In addition to the usual choice of race, class, and physical appearance, I was able to customize the look and feel of my armor right out the gate.  More importantly, I was presented with a number of short anecdotes about  my background to choose from, like what I did at a recent party, which god / nature spirit blessed me  as a child, or if I  grew up on the streets or in a noble family.  Upon finishing the character, I was launched into a short video detailing my character’s past and current situation, influenced by the story choices I made during creation.  This was a nice touch that signaled immediately that the decisions made at the character screen weren’t just cosmetic and would color the game play experience.

Choices don’t just have to do with story, however.  All characters’ main combat abilities are governed by a combination of their equipped weapons and their profession, or class as other games usually call them.   Equipping different weapons gave me five completely different primary attacks and each profession also has a secondary mechanic which changed up the skill dynamic to offer flexibility.  For instance, an Elementalist can’t change weapons while fighting, but can swap between the four elements (fire, water, earth, or air) mid-battle to radically change the style of combat currently being used despite what weapon you have equipped.   An Elementalist using a staff will have five different fire skills than one wielding a sword, and two Elementalists wielding staves may have different abilities at any given time depending on if they are using the same element or not.   This flexibility was what lead me to try out the Elementalist profession first, but it wasn’t long until I saw other characters using awesome ability combinations and I felt compelled to try a few more professions.  I ended up trying the Necromancer and Thief as well, but spent the lion’s share of my time as the Engineer, a gun-totting adventurer with a steampunk inspired arsenal literally on his back.

Medieval flamethrower sold separately.

The complexity that weapon and profession skills brought to the combat system let me make non-binding game-play choices early on that really impacted my personal combat style.  Combine that with the fact that each profession has a few dozen utility abilities, but can only use four at a time, and I ended up really thinking hard about what weapon and utility abilities I equipped to tackle different situations.   To be fair, this much flexibility does include some risk that you can temporarily invest in the “wrong” skills, but it’s a fairly marginal risk in that a mistake doesn’t last long.  For instance, I added skill points to some grenades on my engineer that I thought might be interesting, only to find they didn’t support my current play style.   I wasn’t able to find a way to respend those points, but it wasn’t too long before I had enough points to get a new skill to replace it.  Further, it looks like at max level you’ll have all the utility abilities anyway.   It probably wouldn’t hurt if they added a mechanic to let players redo those points, however, especially since there are already books that let you reset your talents (mostly passive boosts to one facet of your character).

Guild Wars 2 offers an incredibly fluid gaming experience.

The ArenaNet team has not only accomplished building a game that offers interesting choices at its core and periphery, but also managed to keep a lot of subtler features that tend to fall by the wayside in other games.   These immersive features let me flow between aspects of the game both from a story perspective and also in terms of teaching me to handle the necessary evils of learning to perform my role via the game’s interface.  They mitigated what could have been a paralyzing game experience in such a big world into something much more enjoyable.   Nothing is more frustrating than not really knowing what to do next and retreading ground as you end up trying to figure out where to go.

One of the features that I hadn’t really seen discussed anywhere else, but which I found very ingenious, were the in-game scouts.  Friendly NPCs marked on the minimap with a spyglass were usually hanging around natural junctions between areas in the game.  These scouts would pull up my world map and give me a little briefing on the local area, highlighting with a “pen” where I could find things to do in the area.  It’s a relatively minor feature for players who are familiar with a region already, but it’s very thoughtful toward new players by giving them a little help getting around without outright handing a complete map of the game to everyone, ruining it for those who like to explore (like me).

Google traffic to be included in a later patch.

Actual underwater combat is another arguably unnecessary, but completely awesome and fluid (pun intended), feature in Guild Wars 2.   Fighting underwater is usually a niche experience in many games, to the point that some don’t even allow you to swim and those that do usually restrict it to fairly marginal areas.  When supported, underwater combat is usually identical to land based combat, but you move a lot slower, in three dimensions, and may or may not have to pay attention to a “breath” meter.    In comparison, the Guild Wars aquatic experiences are seamlessly integrated throughout the story experience.   There are hidden objectives under lakes in new player areas and about one quest in ten quest areas involves some kind of water component.   Immediately going underwater shifts you to your aquatic weapon, which as noted in the section about choices, switches you directly to a new set of five abilities.  Other above-ground utility abilities have new and improved functions when underwater.  On my engineer, I had an ability to shoot an oil slick out behind me on dry land to slow people chasing me… that oil slick became cloud of oil that blinded opponents underwater.

So that’s why they had the no swimming sign…

Really everything just moved in the game.  It just felt natural to move from area to area, from quest to quest, from event to event, from story to story, and from every facet of the game to every other facet of the game.  Lately it seems like many MMO developers forgot to take notes about what people hate about the genre, but that was clearly not the case with the ArenaNet development team.

Guild Wars 2 has dynamic content that had me participating instead of grinding.

As I went on in great length in my previous post, the Guild Wars 2 dynamic event system was the number one feature I wanted to test out this weekend.   Luckily, the ArenaNet team did not let me down on this one.  I can honestly say that the most fun I had during the weekend was when a random event would occur near where I was doing other things and then an hour later I’d realize that the events had literally pulled me along for the ride.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit worried at first.   The first dynamic events you experience at low levels are directly scripted into the encounters or seem to occur on a periodic loop where a single event affects a particular area at somewhat predictable intervals.  These events, while epic and unexpected the first time around, are by their very nature not dynamic.  Truthfully, I was worried that this would carry over as I progressed, but I think this is more of the ArenaNet team’s way of easing players into what can be a somewhat unpredictable experience later on.

I’m the dude in the corner.  Level 1.

It didn’t take long, though, to find the dynamic experience what I was waiting for.  Around level 10 or so on my Engineer, I was making my way to a town when all of a sudden a fort nearby came under attack by a band of centaurs.   The game let me know immediately I was in range to assist and as I did not see many others around, I went to assist.  One other brave defender and I failed to fight the horde of centaurs off and they took over the fort.  It was the first event I’d seen fail, and I couldn’t have been happier.  A few minutes later, a new event appeared to retake the fort.  More people gathered;  we retook the fort and were ushered out to several new objectives.  Nearby farms needed repairs from the raid and we had to retrieve citizens taken captive during the centaur attack.  Liberating those citizens turned into a counter attack at the centaur forward garrison.   I literally spent two hours just following the flow of events as the story unfolded.

While it does seem like this event will probably repeat itself eventually if the centaurs are not contained, the overall chain was both well thought out and, most importantly, fun to experience so early in a game.  As I played through the world with other characters, I found that being the same areas at different times can often result in an entirely different chain and that ignoring events for too long does have an impact on the game world.  On my Skarr Thief, I came across a few way points (quick travel and resurrection areas) that were contested as a result of events.  Players had to work to take those areas back, but the minor inconvenience of getting it back was completely worth the fun of actually doing it.    To add icing to the already awesome cake, just playing the centaur events I described above gave my Engineer a full level of experience both from the event itself and because events usually tie in directly with activities you’re doing while you’re in an area.   I don’t know exactly what metric is uses to grade your performance, but at the end of each I got a bronze, silver, or gold medal with appropriately scaled experience rewards and other rewards.   The grading metric seems smart enough to not just look at how much damage you do, as sometimes I’d get a gold medal just for helping a few downed players.

The Beetletun farmers had better be paying me extra for this…

Keeping in mind that I only saw 2 days worth of low level content, the one criticism I have of dynamic events so far is that while events do impact the world, they almost impact the world too quickly.  Failing or succeeding an event could occur in about 10 minutes, resulting in quick changes to a local area.  For instance, the campaign against the centaur horde progressed from just outside the gate to its complete suppression in only about 30 minutes.  This may be a byproduct of the massive number of low level players around, so it may not matter much as the game gets more mature, but I figure it’s worth mentioning.

One small side-note on dynamic events:  PvP is dynamic by its very nature, but the ArenaNet team has also worked in some extra dynamism into their world versus world combat.  I ended up only doing about two hours of PvP combat, but the short bit I did play was in the world versus world area.  Each server battled for control of a fairly expansive region… but these weren’t just static keeps to trade hands.  Keeping a fortress ended up requiring supplies and those supplies were sent via dynamic caravans that would move between forts and keeps a particular side would control.  A friend of mine and I had a blast hunting those caravans down and taking them out.

Other caravans in game clearly needed to be protected… at all costs.

Overall…

I’m incredibly pleased with the experience I had during the Open Beta Weekend.  Like a good movie trailer, I felt like I saw enough to get excited without worrying that I had seen too much too ruin the whole thing.  The thoughtful designs put into this game are sure to make it a hit among the MMO community and I wouldn’t be surprised if other developers start emulating some of the great mechanics woven into Guild Wars 2.  This was a pretty long post as is, but if anyone has additional questions about specific parts of the game, I would be more than happy to share what I can on those topics in the comments.

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Guild Wars Episode 2: A Gamer’s Hope

April 25, 2012 4 comments

On Friday, ArenaNet will be hosting an open beta weekend for Guild Wars 2.  As someone who has already prepurchased the game, I’ve prepped to participate by downloading the client prior to the event starting.  I got my first taste of Guild Wars 2 at ComicCon 2011, though it was honestly a bit tough to appreciate the game playing the first few levels while in the din of hundreds of other people clamoring to get their turn.  While I try to keep abreast of most major games coming down the pipe, Guild Wars 2 had largely slipped under my radar until that point. I regretted this immediately once until I saw how the fine people over at ArenaNet were throwing down the gauntlet.   They were taking their already successful game and converting it into a truly persistent world – the hallmark of a true MMO – while not compromising on all the things that made the original Guild Wars entertaining and fun.

Pictured: Fun.

ArenaNet’s design philosophy emphasizes a dynamic player experience and crusades against any aspect of grinding in their game, but the ArenaNet team can describe that far better than I can.  Their manifesto (if you only ever decide to follow one of my helpful little links… follow this one) outlines what can only be fairly described as one of the most ambitious attempts to redefine the MMO genre that has come about in some time by a major publisher. While I’ve enjoyed a few of the other newcomers to hit the market lately, the small innovations these titles brought to the genre have not really changed the player experience in appreciable ways that make me want to jump ship on my current titles and invest countless hours of my play time.  Suffice it to say, ArenaNet’s goals are lofty for a genre defined by building content treadmills to keep players engaged over the long haul and also lately defined by copying content treadmills that work in other games.

The cynic in me can’t help but be skeptical that a company will truly take a gamble by breaking the established money-making formula, but that doesn’t stop me from secretly rooting for them.   One such game I used to root for was with the ultimately unsuccessful Shadowbane.   I’d become so active in the pre-release community that the community management team selected me as one of three fans to be volunteer moderators for their official forums when the game was released.  Despite being riddled with technical problems from release until the game shut down, what drew me to the game was the fundamental design principle that dynamic content was the key ingredient in a meaningful player experience.  Sound familiar?

If not, you probably didn’t watch the manifesto.
(hint: it’s topical)

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Guild Wars 2 is all that similar to Shadowbane.   First,  the two games are probably night and day if for no other reason than that ArenaNet has experience producing quality titles.   Second, Shadowbane’s dynamic content was created through a system that encouraged conflict and competition between players, an inherently dangerous prospect for a genre where friendly competition can quickly degenerate into vitriol that can tear apart virtual communities.  In contrast, the Guild Wars 2 dynamic content seems to be built around the idea of players banding together to deal with what are essentially environmental problems.  Different approaches to dealing with those issues may encourage some indirect competition between groups, but the ArenaNet team appears to have anticipated some of the potential traps by implementing design features discourage griefing and event manipulation.

Despite these differences in design and implementation, the two games both embody a rebellious spirit challenging the MMO zeitgeist by trying to deliver dynamic content to players.  This potential in Guild Wars 2 has me chomping at the bit to log in for the beta event.  I don’t expect to see the full extent of ArenaNet’s tricks in a single weekend, but what I do hope to see is some evidence that the dynamic events promised in the manifesto promote a rich and organic game play experience.   The last thing I want is another game  that tries to pass off randomly occurring static events as dynamic content.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I find myself again balancing the need work on other projects with rising hope quotients for a game that already exceed doctor recommended levels.  Since I already know which one of these competing impulses is going to win out, I ask that you prepare yourselves for feedback next week when I finally process what should be an exciting weekend of thousands of people all trying to get the same quests done at the same time!

Quest Creep

April 22, 2012 2 comments

I’ve been trying to do more running lately. While it’s not directly related the Quest, it ends up being important because my mind decides to go into rapid fire idea generation mode while out on these runs. The skeleton game ideas I’ve been tossing around for awhile really need fleshing out and these runs end up kick-starting that process. I get back to the house physically exhausted and mentally charged, sit down in front of the keyboard while I try to cool off, and start digging for ways to bring my ideas to life. These deep dives into the independent gaming communities of the web end up being as frustrating and humbling as they are enlightening, mostly because they reveal how much I still have to learn and how far away I am from reaching the goal of a playable demo for these ideas.

I never expected game design and development to be easy; on the contrary, I knew it was going to be demanding. Where I seem to have miscalculated was where I though I might be able to cut corners. In many ways, I’ve often found myself searching for a few hours for a faster / easier / simpler way to do something only to realize that I would have probably gotten more done by devoting those few hours to just learning something more elementary. For instance, I spent the better part of today searching for open source gaming engines, trying to find one that would let me jump right in. Naively, I thought that someone would have spent the time building such a tool, but in a lot of ways, that’s like expecting someone to build a program to automatically make money and then give it away for free.  Still, I found several tools that attempted to give me what I wanted, but the tools I found were either incomplete or too inflexible to do what I wanted them to do. That’s not meant as a point of criticism of independent developers, but rather a realization that I was going to have to learn to make more of those tools and adjustments myself.

At the end of the day, I think it’s important for me to keep in mind that I’m just one person. Anything worth designing and developing is either going to take a long time if I insist on doing it myself or I’m going to need a team at some point. More importantly, until I do get a team, I need to have a more rational expectation of what I can accomplish in a given week and stop chasing ideas that are outside of that scope. It’s humbling to admit that, but short of cutting out the other things in my life I enjoy (like actually playing games) I just don’t see how I’ll get anything done otherwise.

World of myCraft

March 25, 2012 4 comments

Last week, Blizzard issued a massive release of new information about Mists of Pandaria, the next expansion pack for World of Warcraft.  The information confirmed that the expansion will include a Pokemon-style mini-pet battle system announced at last year’s Blizzcon.  It also announced a new in-game faction that will allow players to take care of their own farm, reminiscent of the hit Facebook game Farmville.  While these additions are only a fragment of the new content being offered, the two games within the larger game seem to signal that Blizzard may be setting World of Warcraft up to evolve to a more immersive content delivery platform where players can tailor the kind of game experience they want while still experiencing the Warcraft universe.

Pet Battle System
source: mmo-champion.com

Massively-multiplayer persistent worlds inherently appeal to many gamers for their ability to preserve a player’s time invested playing a game.  Playing WoW’s in-game version of Pokemon or Farmville will offer players experiencing burnout entirely different game experiences within the persistent world without having to switch to a new game or platform.  Perhaps more importantly, players who never were into crawling dungeons or fighting other players in arenas now have a reason to try and perhaps stick with the franchise.   Blizzard has always had a strong track record of taking established game paradigms and expanding them in new ways, so their incorporation of highly successful game that appeal to a variety of audiences only makes sense as they attempt to make World of Warcraft more applicable to an increasingly diverse gaming audience.

Tiller’s Farm
source: mmo-champion.com

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the fact that these alternative games within the larger game seem ripe for adaptation into mobile platforms.  Blizzard recently expressed interest in eventually offering a way to experience the game via the iPhone and other mobile platforms.   It will probably be some time before players can experience the entire game on a mobile platform, but Blizzard already offers ways to access parts of the game experience via mobile apps to chat with players in game and conduct business on the in-game auction house.  It would not surprise me if we saw mobile apps fairly soon after the expansion allowing players to engage in the pet battle system or managing their farm while on the go as well.   These new alternate games not only diversify what World of Warcraft players experience, but also potentially how they experience it, likely setting the setting the bar for future MMOs.

World of Warcraft may be getting up there in age, but these developments make me confident that Blizzard has a few more tricks to show us and that gets me even more excited to learn what the company has in store for Titan.  In the meantime, I’ll just have to wait like the rest of the annual pass holders out their for their turn at the Mists of Pandaria beta.

Finding the Edge of Skyrim’s Open World

March 4, 2012 1 comment

As I reread this for the typos I’m prone to make, I feel the need to start off with a disclaimer about the tone of this post.   I may  come off as be fairly critical of Skyrim, but only because it was worth playing.  As my girlfriend put it, I had a month-long affair with the game.   Don’t worry though; we’re still together – the girlfriend and I that is.   Using the metrics of playtime and fun factor, Skyrim is definitely amazing and worth purchase if you haven’t played it; I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the game’s design across multiple characters.   The main issue issue I ran into, though, was that I couldn’t help but wish that the game’s open world was capable of more intelligence response to my decisions in game.

The Elder Scrolls series, of which Skyrim was the most recent installment, is one of the best examples of an open-world role playing game concept.   While many other games emphasize a main story line, sometimes ushering a player through critical decision points in order to maintain story integrity, Bethesda Games places minimum constraints on players’ actions while they experience the game.   You can, for instance, spend hours chasing optional objectives and side quests and hardly ever advance the main storyline.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, think Grand Theft Auto with swords and Vikings instead of guns and criminals.  On second thought, those two things aren’t all that different, but that might make the comparison even more apt, because some people experience Skyrim by running around and killing and stealing everything they possibly can.  To each his own.

Open worlds are compelling because they offer, in theory, a richer gaming experience than completely scripted games.  Rather than just experiencing an interactive movie, you’re literally shaping the events around you, as you see fit, and when you see fit.   In practice, open worlds often don’t live up to expectations due to the complexity that actually coding cascading decisions can have on a game world.  The result is that players can make hundreds of decisions, but these decisions usually have only first order shallow consequences at best.  The freedom to do anything ends up coming with the price over being able to do everything.   And if you can do everything, what exactly becomes the point of doing anything?  This was my experience with the previous Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion.  I got so caught up in the side quests that I forgot about the main storyline.   While I became the leader of some of the game world’s most powerful factions, the power I’d acquired in the process trivialized the main storyline’s difficulty and sense of importance by the time I got around to it.   Adding insult to injury, despite making dozens of decisions that resulted in my being what can only be described as the most important person in the game, none of it mattered.   Dialogue options were the same as if I’d been a vagabond in rags.  In short, the totality of my decisions still resulted in very little real change to an open, but mostly static, world.

A friend of mine from college recently posted a comment on this same topic, stating “I’ve been playing Skyrim lately, and while it’s a great game, I’m starting to pick up on how shallow it is, despite an initial impression of enormous complexity.”  I tried lots of ways to say this in my own words, but that’s basically my experience.  Skyrim was a leap forward from Oblivion in that it took me much longer to find that edge where my decisions no longer seemed to matter, but I still managed to find it even when I specifically tried to avoid it by pursuing a strategy of limiting myself to one major side-quest arc per character I made.   While it extended the life of the game for me by giving each play-through a slightly different focus, it also still exposed a lot of missed opportunities to add even more depth to the open world.

One of most obvious missed opportunities was the civil war storyline in which the game world’s eight cities, or holds, have to side with either the Imperials or the Stormcloaks.  Your choice to side with one or the other or neither has little to not impact on your ability to complete the main storyline.  As one of the few mutually exclusive side-quest choices the game offers, this was the perfect place to make some gameplay changes with no risk of altering a player’s ability to “finish” the game.   That’s actually how I expected it to play out, but after completing the story arc for both sides (which turned out to require nearly identical missions), I discovered my decisions and actions offered only a simple cosmetic swap of leadership in the conquered holds.  I didn’t get any new content to explore and none of the game’s characters really seemed to notice that the war even happened (except perhaps the dead ones).  By that point, this lack of impact shouldn’t have surprised me, because even during the war your allegiance had no impact on many people in the game.  As a Stormcloak, running across Imperial patrols was not a threat unless I inadvertantly shot an arrow at one.  I believe making those enemy patrols attack you or assist you based on your allegiance, varying the actual campaign quests for each side, and adding some bonus content only available to the side you won with would have been relatively simple additions to the game which would have vastly improved its replayability.   As it was, I’d found the edge and didn’t have much left to play.

If Bethesda adds more major decision points that offer a changing game world, I’ll definitely be excited for the next Elder Scrolls game.   Either way,  Skyrim was a quantum leap forward over previous Elder Scrolls games and I definitely look forward to the next one if for no other reason than to see the world they create (which for those who have not played a Bethesda game, includes among other things, dozens of little mini-books that you can read in game which have nothing to do with the game’s objectives and only serve to add depth to the setting).  I’ve got more to say about this game, but I’m going to save that for a later installment since it addresses very different gameplay issues and this has already gotten long-winded.  As always, I welcome your thoughts.