Tuesday, January 16, 2007

How Guild Wars is Missing an Opportunity

So, Burning Crusade came out today. What was Guild Wars doing to pre-empt losing a flood of players to that juggernaut of a game? You know they're going to have small team PvP available, right? And ladders and rankings and rewards to drive competition. What's that? Making capturing elites a 3 for 2 deal instead of the normal 3 for 1 over the weekend? Excuse me while I go and get my sparklers.

Look, I know I've said that complaining about the game is something of a sport amongst hardcore Guild Wars players (To which I say, good for them. Why settle? Complain all you want if you're not getting the service you want.). But, really, this is a problem.

I've been speaking with some of my dedicated PvP friends and they all agree, it's frustrating to watch as the game loses more and more players to WoW and, seemingly, does nothing. Like right now with the ladder's k value nerfed into the stone age and the looming tournament system still on the future's horizon there's little incentive to PvP. Sure, people are still doing it but where are the big guilds? The ones that have competed for and won championships? Some of them are gone from the last time I checked, yeah, but a lot of them are still around and not bothering to play at the moment. And, let me tell you, not bothering to play is the first step in not being around any longer.

Not now but last week would have been the point to trumpet the plans for the new tournament, talk about the details of what's going to happen when it's put in place. The vague details from last month are fast becoming too cold to be palatable. Where's the buzz? Where's the excitement about the new features? I've looked and I can't find it, myself. It wouldn't take much. An article here. A comment on a forum there. Make an announcement. Throw the PvPers a bone. Heck, announce that the Snowball Fights or Dragon Arena's going to be a year round thing. Doesn't matter what but I can understand the urge to grab the devs by the shoulders and scream at them to DO SOMETHING!

The golden opportunity to establish Guild Wars as the anti-WoW is rapidly vanishing. Now is the point to lure the weary and frustrated away. Their servers are clogged, their queue's overflowing, and while there are a lot of people re-enegized by the prospect of another climb to the barren lands of WoW's endgame content how many more are disheartened at the prospect of one more whirl on the treadmill? How many are starting to understand that there's going to be plenty more questing and striving to get back to that point where they sit around waiting for a raid to start or polish their epic armor or sit in a queue and wait to get into the battlegrounds or whatever else? How many of them would like a game they can pick up and just get playing? One where you don't level but you sure as hell have things to achieve? A game that's not going to charge them again and again for what they've already paid for? How many of them might like Guild Wars if they gave it a try? Or another try?

And how many Guild Wars players are going to enjoy WoW when they give it a try and decide that, all things being equal, they'd rather be playing in Molten Core with their friends?

Now. Right now. Is the time to do something about that. This is the week the game should be throwing yet another special event – just like Wintersday. A surprise one that no one knew about. Not until they wake up and log in or find it blasting from the forums they're surfing during lunch. Something on the scale of Wintersday, maybe. Open up a new dungeon like Sorrow's Furnace, add a new Hero to unlock, reveal a new format for PvP – provide content for free. Because, you know, Guild Wars does that. And they stream it to you so you don't have to wait in line at the store or when you log in. The game should be strutting its stuff. Showing off just how wonderful and amazing it is. Remind people why they play the game in the first place.

But, no, the game isn't strutting. It's biding its time. Waiting. And while the ANet offices and the test might be abuzz with the upcoming changes, from the outside it looks like they're doing a whole lot of nothing.

Perhaps the ANet team is taking the right approach here and I should give them the benefit of the doubt. Personally, I rather doubt it. There's a very good rule of thumb when dealing with ANet and that's this: they're great at development, mediocre at design, and absolutely terrible at support.

For instance, when I was getting back into the game I had trouble logging in. Contacted technical support, sent off e-mails, tried to look through the guides they had online – still haven't heard back from them. (The client would hang on the “connecting to ANet” message – could have been any number of things. In the end I had to delete my old .dat file because, for some reason, with it I wasn't able to get a connection to the servers. Simple and talking to someone from customer services for about five minutes (Or, you know, maybe three e-mails in total) would probably led to my doing that. But, no, I spent several frustrating hours trying to figure out why my game wasn't working. And very, very nearly gave up and found something else to do. Not everyone's as stubborn as I am, though.) That's, in my experience, a pretty common experience with the game's support staff.

I'm not trying to suggest they're incompetent or anything of the sort. On the contrary, as a tester I had an opportunity to talk or at least watch some of them and I think they're a talented bunch – just like most of the staff at ANet (even though given how these things go a lot of them have probably moved on to other things) – I even know a few people who went on to join them. I just think they're overmatched and underfunded. Kind of like inner city school teachers. And there's just no way they can do what they need to do for the good of the game.

Now, as for development, I'm talking about things like the concepts behind the game. Collectible skills that people can “level” with and mix and match like Magic cards? Brilliant. Streaming content so the game updates in the background? Amazing. A completely instanced game so there's no problems with kill stealing and ninja looting that, oh by the way, is going to drastically lower the costs on bandwidth and servers and whatever else? Wonderful.

It's a house of ideas, in other words, but it's when those ideas are implemented that we're talking about design. Take instancing, for example, which is an extremely powerful tool. It could be used to create separate zones and playstates and branching pathways and any number of things that would enrich and fulfill the experience of playing the game. Instead, we get things like Post/Pre-Searing. Just a great idea ruined by how ineptly it was done. The broad strokes are right but the fine details are lacking, generally speaking. Oh they have some hits and they have some misses but, I mean, look at how the number of skill types has grown over the years. Used to be skills, spells, and attacks. Then it grew to encompass hexes, stances, and enchantments. Now there's forms and echoes and wards and wells and any number of mechanics each with their own little ruleset. And while they add some value, they also pile up over time, making the game increasingly more complex and difficult to learn. Simple, effective design is often harder to come up with but, in the long run, it pays off better. And, to my mind, the designers take the easy route far too often. Without, of course, considering the ramifications.

That the game's survived long enough for some of their mistakes to come back and bite them is a testament to how they get things right just as often. And I don't mean to suggest they're not working as hard as they can to make the best game they can. Because they are and, sometimes, they even make good choices. But they're way too secretive about it even when they do.

I mean, I've been playing the game for a long, long time and I've got a pretty decent memory but even I couldn't tell you exactly how the damage cap on a Guild Lord works. Not without pointing you to some dodgy research or an article buried on the official site. This, to my mind, would be a critical piece of information to anyone planning a GvG battle because it is, after all, one of the rules of the game that everyone's playing under. Imagine if, say, only one team in a basketball game knew that you could ask the ref for a time out. But beyond that I couldn't tell you why the Guild Lord can only take a slight amount of damage which increases as the game goes on. Oh, I could speculate – it's to prevent easy ganks. Which, of course, became very popular thanks to skills like Grenth's Balance which could cost the Guild Lord upwards of 1000 hit points in a single blow. So they put in the “Natural Resistance” amulet to prevent that and other tricks that would end the battle quickly. But they didn't tell anyone about it. Not publicly, anyway. And they sure didn't explain the reasoning behind it.

Which, of course, is a problem because it leads people to believe there is no reason behind their decisions. No rhyme, no rhythm. Just no sense of feedback. So when I hear things like the upcoming weekend's going to be a test of the new way of doing Tombs, I'm glad that there's going to be something soon to potentially interest the playerbase. And when I hear that they're hoping for feedback I'm encouraged. But then I read things like this line in the latest Scribe: “While obviously not all ideas and suggestions can be implemented, the Priests of Balthazar have vowed to consider all opinions when making their ultimate decisions.” I'm not exactly thrilled. I'm sure they're going to consider the opinions – this isn't the first time they've solicited them, of course (And that they need to make a special point of asking people for directions is troubling in and of itself.) in one way or another - but I'm not at all sure that we're going to hear about what they think of them. There's just no transparency there. And if you want people to talk to you the first step is making sure you're willing to talk to them, too.

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