Posted on Tuesday, January 15th, 2013 at 6:00 PM by Chris Smith
In my article last week, I spoke about My MMO Life over the last 7 years. How I began with World of Warcraft and stuck with it all this time, trying nearly everything else along the way. It took me a while to work out that I hadn’t been having fun with WoW for some time, but the reasons why were frustratingly intangible. There was no one aspect that I could identify and say “There, that’s why WoW isn’t fun any more”. Shortly after cancelling my subscription, I made the decision to buy one of the few MMOs I hadn’t tried: Guild Wars 2. This week, I’ll be speaking in detail about how this game is shaping My MMO Future.
First of all, the basics. Guild Wars 2 (GW2) is a “buy-to-play”, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. This means that you make a one-off purchase and can then play the game online with thousands of others, but without the subscription fee traditionally associated with the genre. At the other end of the MMO spectrum are the truly “free-to-play” (F2P) titles, which is the fate of many a high profile MMO that fails to attract the required subscriber base to justify its continued existence. Ironically, F2P titles often make much more money than subscription-based (or pay-to-play, “P2P”) MMOs, since they are supported with micro-transactions.
An example of this would be Star Wars: The Old Republic, which started off as subscription-based, but recently made the move to F2P. Whereas you can download and play the vast bulk of the game for free, there now exists an in-game “Cartel Market”, where you can buy optional extras that would previously have been included as part of a subscription, using “Cartel Coins” (which can be purchased for real money). These include cosmetic items, for the most part, but also include “boosters” that increase the rate of XP gain or suchlike. Importantly, there is nothing that can be bought that would give paying players an unfair advantage over their non-paying brethren. But as the name suggests, the cost of such perks are minuscule – often only equating to a couple of pounds or dollars – making their purchase very tempting; this is how the companies running the game rake in the cash.
GW2 rests somewhere in the middle. You have to pay a respectable upfront amount for the game itself; retail copies are anywhere between £30 and £40, while digital copies are £50 (but come with a host of extras). In-game, there is a second currency market (“Gems”), but you have the option of buying them using real money or normal in-game currency (in this case, “Gold”). What this means is that aside from the initial purchase, you really can get everything that GW2 has to offer without paying a penny. I find this method infinitely more evolved than either P2P or F2P models: it’s like buying a new console game and then discovering that you can get the DLC for free if you got all the achievements / trophies, but if you didn’t have time, you can just pay a few quid and get them anyway. Rewarding dedication without punishing those who don’t have the time to dedicate.
Now, on to the details. GW2 is different from just about every mainstream MMO on the market. Whereas the majority of MMOs – or at least those with any sense – try to copy WoW in some way or another (like SW:TOR) or differentiate themselves completely (like The Secret World), GW2 takes a different route. From its interface to its combat system, its character creation to its movement and exploration, a lot of GW2 is unique… but within each element, you can see that they’ve learned from the mistakes of others.
Starting with character creation, there is an immediate connection made with your new “toon”. Aside from having a plethora of options available to create a visually distinct individual, you are tasked with filling in some of the backstory of your new creation. Were they a noble or a commoner? Are they charismatic, aggressive or dignified? What is their greatest regret? Without having even taken your first step, you’re already thinking about who your character is; beginning their story. When you do enter the game proper, you’re introduced to a different type of combat system. Where most MMOs are focused on individual targets – both friends and foes – GW2 takes a much more relaxed and realistic approach. That massive hammer you’re swinging might only be directed at one enemy, but if a couple of other bad guys are in the way, they’re going to get hit as well. Same with healing spells; for the most part, it’s just a case of getting close enough to your intended target and hitting cast.
More poignant perhaps is that, while you certainly have classes in GW2, you don’t have distinct roles. Want to make a healer? A tank? Every class is both and none. Gone is the classic “Holy Trinity” of damage taker, damage dealer and damage remover (or Tank, DPS, Heal). Every class can heal, take a pounding and fight back… just in differing ways. Most weapons can be used by most classes, too, and you can switch between two sets mid-fight; I could be swinging a two-handed sword at a group of enemies on the ground, then switch to a scepter and shield if I wanted a bit more defense. So whether you’re a buff-focused Guardian, with a myriad of stat-boosting abilities, or an illusion-based Mesmer who can conjure an army of clones to confuse and misdirect, there’s something for everyone. You no longer have to focus on what role you want to play, which makes class choice more aesthetic and based on what you think would be fun.
This style of freedom – which I touched on previously – is what separates GW2 from the pack. Where WoW would lead you by the hand and pigeon-hole you, GW2 takes a starkly different approach. Take for example their differing approaches to grouping. In WoW, you are either soloing, grouping or raiding; in all three states, you are isolating yourself from others to a varying degree. While soloing, if you engage a hostile creature, that creature is “tagged” as yours and no-one else gains any benefit from killing it, whether it be XP or loot. If you want co-operation in WoW, groups are generally the way to go, but even then you are limited to five people, with the loot and experience being split or shared round-robin style.
GW2, in contrast, isn’t all that fussed about groups for the most part. Instead of closed-off “quests” that you have to be on, there are just areas of the map in which things are happening. You go to that area and participate, with everyone getting loot and XP. Maybe there’s a horde of centaur invading a camp nearby; you’ll be alerted to it if you’re close enough, like hearing the sounds of battle in the distance. Rushing there, you might see ten or fifteen other people engaged in combat with a veteran champion of the centaur tribe; you don’t need to waste time asking for a group invite, you just jump in there and help. Someone to your right doesn’t dodge the centaur’s ability in time and gets knocked into a “fallen” state, where they can fight for their life using a special set of abilities; kill an enemy or bandage yourself up in time and you will rally. But there’s no chance of them healing themselves in time, so you and three others rush to his aid, helping him to his feet. Before long, the centaur is vanquished.
During all of the above, not a word has been spoken. Like a true melee, there’s no time for talking. Those people that rushed to engage the enemy were incentivised to do so because there’s XP and loot for doing so. Those people that helped the downed player get back to their feet? Yes, there’s XP in doing that as well, even if they’re just NPCs. Even when soloing, GW2 creates social interaction in a way that WoW never could, simply because it’s not designed around it. Co-operation and helping others is rewarded through positive reinforcement; helping them helps you. Such a system seems like a no-brainer, but GW2 really hits the nail on the head. You get XP for doing just about everything in this game, whether it be gathering, crafting, fighting, or exploring.
Coupled with this level of freedom is a reduced sense of urgency; there’s no need to rush things. A lot of people who play WoW feel the need to race to the maximum level, with quests and XP being the means to an end. In GW2, the end-game is nothing special – the true enjoyment comes in the journey itself. There’s a whole world out there to explore and you’re rewarded for doing so. If you enter a zone that’s below your level, you’ll automatically be “scaled down” so that you still get a challenge out of the content and XP for doing it. Special events dotted around each area will net you more skill points to develop your character – sometimes these will be feats of strength, but may just be places of power that your character can commune with. From jumping puzzles to the location of vistas – special, hard-to-reach places with marvellous views – there’s so much to do in GW2 that you’re always getting XP and you’re never bored.
So for the future of My MMO Life, GW2 will be featuring prominently. It’s as if the developers got someone who was bored to death of WoW, then forced him to keep playing, all the while noting down what his biggest complaints were. They’ve made a game that puts the fun back into MMOs for me; I didn’t know what I was missing until something better came along. Ironically, the game’s pricing method may be the biggest barrier to its success – in a world where most MMOs have free trials, or don’t cost anything at all, the steep cost of the one-off purchase is something that most will balk at. It wasn’t until a friend recommended the game to me that I finally took the plunge and risked disappointment, but for most people, £30 to £50 is a lot of money to risk on the chance of this one MMO being the diamond in the rough.
People speak of the “next great MMO”, or “the WoW-killer” when the newest MMO comes along. Out of all the big budget, big name MMOs that have been released in the past few years – titles like Lord of the Rings Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Star Trek: Online – Guild Wars 2 may have seemed the least likely to live up to that name. Indeed, it’s far fetched to think that ArenaNet will enjoy even a fraction of the success that Blizzard have with their millions-strong subscriber base. The difference is that, without much fanfare, GW2 has quietly set the bar much higher; it has set a new standard of excellence that future MMOs will be judged against. While it may remain the underdog for its entire lifespan, there’s no finer MMO on the market today – and believe me, I’ve tried them all.