A Mid-life Crisis? Playing Through Guild Wars 2

How does a game with finite development and design time extend play-ability as long as possible? It’s the essential question for an online game. Occasional content patches excluded, once a game is released the major elements are locked in place.

There seem to be two design choices to extend play-ability  one, design the core mechanisms to scale with time; imagine the basic leveling system and you have an idea of a game mechanism that’s designed to encourage continued play with measurable and constant incentive increments. And two, slow down player progression by tweaking the pacing between incentives and increasing the time commitment required to reach the next goal.

For anyone that’s played an MMORPG it should be noticeable that the genre relies heavily on the second choice: everything in an MMORPG takes much longer, from leveling to world movement to crafting and acquiring new items. It’s not surprise that an MMORPG has a big stake in having a player base that is played on a consistent basis over months or even years.

Does Guild Wars 2 also ascribe to this generic MMORPG design model? After playing for some time, I’ve concluded that Guild Wars 2 does quite a bit to mitigate some of the standard MMORPG issues related to pacing . Guild Wars 2 has a better leveling curve than most, and I feel like I’m constantly being rewarded. It offers several different kinds of play, from a sprawling PvE to multiple PvE iterations. It also lacks a subscription model, which encourages players to play only if they feel like it, and not because they’re paying $15.

All that said, Guild Wars 2 is still designed as an MMORPG from the ground up. Because of this, there are elements of play that still feel like a slog with slow pacing and unnecessarily convoluted and repetitive tasks. I want to talk about my experience with the PvE aspect of the game and how I feel about it as I round the halfway point in levels.

As I reach level 45 in the PvE portion of Guild Wars 2, I haven’t experienced much of a challenge. There are a few elements of difficulty, particularly some of the personal quests, but the community zones and their related quests are rarely daunting. Puzzles aren’t particularly demanding if you don’t mind repetition and some bad camera work, the game doesn’t require aiming, and most of quests involve fetching or killing something easy over and over.

So the game, in general, isn’t challenging vis a vis skill. When I say skill, I mean a deep strategic understanding of the game that allows you to succeed over others. I will say that the game is challenging in some aspects because it requires a high investment of time. But it doesn’t require skill to raise your crafting level;it requires a lot of repetition and time, a hallmark of MMORPGs. Is this a rewarding exercise that we should be content with in our MMORPGs?

Pressing a button to make a wand doesn’t require skill–but gathering the materials over the game world is time consuming and difficult. MMORPG often redefine difficulty by requiring a significant time investment as the primary challenge. It’s a design choice that worries me: aren’t we then rewarding people who endure long repetitive tasks rather than those who excel at the game?

The design reasoning is clear: the players who spend the most time playing the game receive the greatest satisfaction. Everyone has to invest the same amount of time to reap the rewards. Perhaps it’s because an MMORPG is a community-based game where players are more concerned about playing with others rather than working toward a specific end-game goal.

In many cases Guild Wars 2 mitigates some problems of repetition. For example, characters scale their level down to fit the zone they’re in, so every zone is still relevant and ‘dangerous’ to even the most powerful character. Ideally this would make every zone still playable by a character at any level, but in reality it simply makes zone travel taxing because your powerful character is forced to fight off monsters with inferior loot. The quests—both static and event-based—also try to lend a sense of dynamism to the game state.

As I reach the mid-forties in my first character, I must say that the slog is becoming repetitive, and my initial incentives for playing are dwindling as I realize that the overall gameplay stays much the same. An initial skill costs one point, and now they cost…30? Weapons and treasure still flows freely, but I don’t feel particularly excited over the loot and the weapon abilities are more or less the same as they were at level 10, but with bigger numbers.

I’m still feeding chickens and reviving dead NPC guards as quests, which is the same thing I was doing 30 levels ago.  Something tells me the experience will be the same for the next 40 levels—is that the experience I’m looking for?

One of my biggest gripes with MMORPGs—including the Guild Wars 2 PvE experience—is that the game fundamentally stays the same from level 0 to level 80. I suspect this is a big design difficulty when building a game for thousands of people to play simultaneously, but the issue remains. In my MMORPG experience, the basic aspects of the game remain mostly the same: you wander around, kill monsters, get loot, kill bigger monsters, get bigger loot, etc. The environments and graphics change, but the game is the same.

An exception to that is when you attain max levels in games like Everquest or WoW and the game becomes about raiding, which is a totally different game state than anything before. I haven’t gotten to that level in Guild Wars 2, but even then I’ve been playing the game for quite a while and it’s been the same since I started. There’s a personal quest to carry a story-line  but at this point the mechanics are stagnating and the occasionally skill unlock or weapon upgrade is so incrementally small that it does nothing to alter the overall game state. And I find that disappointing.

There are entire game elements that I have yet to try, which is why I’ve tried to write this article specifically about the PvE experience. Even then, I haven’t tried the dungeon crawls. Obviously, the biggest part of the game I’m missing is PvP, which I think will fill in a lot of my desire for a strong skill-based element to the game. The original Guild Wars separated out the design in much the same way, and allowed players to immediately jump into PvP on a level playing field and reward those with the most skill rather than those who slog it out the longest.