Better Together? Guild Wars 2 Updates the MMORPG Genre

Why the MMORPG? A genre as confused as its dreadful contraction—it’s really just a hack-and-slash with a million other people—developers seem intent on churning them out, with a distant hope that they might share in the (supposed) revenue avalanche enjoyed by World of Warcraft.

The standard design of this genre is such: a vast expanse of game space, layered over with an incredible amount of content, sometimes intriguing but mostly boring, populated by cardboard NPCs and thousands of other running, jumping, spell-slinging avatars eager to crush the endless monsters roaming the lands. So many rats and scorpions, one would think these games are about pest-control.

This is, of course, a negative view of the genre, so maybe it’s useful to understand the design intent first.

What is the point of playing with others? Involving others in a role-playing experience makes sense at face value: they should add to the richness of the world, increase interaction, and dispel the common Elder Scrolls / Truman Show feeling of playing in a world designed only to react.

It turns out most of that doesn’t happen with MMORPGs: while they are often expansive and lush, they’re populated by avatars who don’t add value but instead have incongruous names, shout across game miles using trading acronyms, and simply don’t care about creating a sense of immersion. And if anything, MMORPGs tend to be more reactive because so many players create endless complications for world-altering events, so game quests tend to be simple and exhausting. At their worst, MMORPGs feel not like a rich world but a punching bag, letting everyone line up and take a turn.

The first problem you experience in an MMORPG is when you meet another player with a name that begets a level of seriousness different than your own. In order to feel like a role-playing experience, one must turn aside their head from the endless jumping avatars named ‘HippoHitler’; this isn’t necessarily bad—everyone is entitled to their own method of approaching a game—but it does create design tension because an MMORPG is inherently about sharing a game space with others. What happens when people have different views on how a game should be played?

The up side to all this, sometimes, is a sense of community, competitive spirit, and seamless friend interaction. That said, MMORPGs have long suffered from painful game elements (rare item drops, ridiculous crafting trees, spawn camping) in order to balance the sheer multitude of people playing together. The flip side would be something similar to Diablo 3, in which the game is built for single or group play, but introduces community elements through its endless looping (allowing for endless play), item drops, and trading posts.

The first Guild Wars game skirted some of these issues by implementing instanced zones. While cities or other specific locations allowed interaction with all online players, once you journey outside the game created a single-player zone, allowing you to solo (or with a pre-determined party) and not worry about running into others. This design element delivered an interesting single-player experience while also feeling bound to a larger world community.

The second Guild Wars (GW2) game, which I’ve been playing for a few weeks now, mostly discards instanced zones in an attempt to bring players closer together. My immediate reaction to this change was dislike: MMORPGs tend to create a strange environment of irritating /all chat, hundreds of jumping avatars, grinding, and bland encounters to encourage lengthy play. These are all byproducts of bad design but seemingly necessary if a game wants to bring people together.

GW2 veers much further into the MMORPG realm than its predecessor, but its approach to all of this is appreciably nuanced. The game attempts to tackle some of these core design issues, highlighting the best of community play while mitigating some of its most maddening elements.

The best elements of public play are a grander sense of scale, spontaneity, and a sense of community. While the leveling path in GW2 is the same as in every roleplaying game, the quests and experience feel unrestricted, forgiving and unstructured. There are quests identifiable on the map, often involving tedious chores, but they’re designed like pipes which eventually fill and complete once you’ve done enough.

Fortunately, you tend to do these things simply because you’re in the area, which makes the quests feel a bit less dreary. Each zone has randomly triggered world events that add a spontaneous flavor to the game; usually designed for multiple players, they tend to attract whoever is in the area and involve a group beat down on a difficult boss. Yes, their HP is stuffed to comical levels just so everyone can contribute (yet another MMORPG oddity), but they’re simple and allow for seamless community play.

Instanced zones weren’t completely shut out of GW2. A main quest always lingers in the background. I assumed it was simply for low level starting, but as of level 30 it’s still going for me. This main quest creates instanced areas throughout the map with a storyline drawn from character creation. The main quest also does a nice job of integrating choice, allowing players to pledge to different groups which leads to a new branch of missions.

The game is well designed to break the grinding tedium and make community play feel a bit more natural while down-playing some of the negative aspects. That said, it doesn’t throw out some basic MMORPG elements which would be laughably terrible in a single-player RPG.  GW2 still features endless tasks filled with basic fetch requests, kill X mob Y times, and pressing ‘F’ on glowing objects strewn about an area. There multiple variations of the same mob—surprise! It’s like the bat you killed five levels ago, but bigger! The core reasoning for all this is the need to fill MMORPGs with a huge amount of content, allow a steady progression to keep the game alive more than a month, and set it all across huge world spaces so players aren’t standing on top of one another.

I’ve never figured out why MMORPGs can get away with some of these things when we’d flatly reject this type of tedium when our single-player games are at their best. But then again an MMORPG is intended to highlight particular elements of gaming which aren’t possible or present in a typical single-player game. Much more concerned with community and the spontaneous fun that can occur when people get together to accomplish a task, GW2 takes a nuanced approach in an attempt to present those MMORPG elements in the best light while minimizing some of the downfalls of the genre. There’s a lot more of the game to explore, so expect a continuing series of posts about the game in the coming weeks.

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