How Guild Wars 2 Lost Me, Perhaps Forever

I don’t like doing purely negative posts, as a rule. I tend to be a believer in the principle that if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. Even my endless rants about World of Warcraft are born from a deep love for the game and the desire to not see it squander its potential.

The revamped Lion's Arch by night in Guild Wars 2Yet I think the topic of why I am not currently playing Guild Wars 2’s first expansion, Heart of Thorns, and why I may never play it is an interesting story to tell. It is a tale of how a studio can burn through its entire supply of good will and turn away a former fan.

I want to be clear that I’m not seeking to bash GW2, and I still think it’s a solid game in a lot of ways. I merely wish to chart the course that took me from enthusiastic fanboy to indifferent ex-player. There is no venom behind this post; only morbid interest.

The backstory:

I want to start by detailing my history with GW2. Longtime readers of this blog will already know all of this and can safely skip to the next section of the post, but for anyone just joining us, I’d like to lay out the context.

GW2 was a rare case of my being swept up in pre-launch hype. The latest in a long line of supposedly messianic saviours of the MMORPG genre, I actually believed that GW2 could be the revolution it hoped to be.

I got into a late beta weekend, and was blown away. I bought the game shortly after launch, and I played it heavily for several weeks, reaching max level on my Norn thief main. I had many good things to say about the game on this blog, and I had some really good times.

My Charr engineer in Guild Wars 2What I most appreciated about GW2 was how laid back and casual (for lack of a better term) it felt. Log in, go wherever you want, and find tons of cool stuff to do. It was a beautiful world full of endless exploration, and I never felt pressured into any particular style of play as I so often do in WoW.

However, by the time the Karka invasion rolled around, the luster had started to fade fast. Several irritants had begun to get under my skin, such as an excess of crowd control in high level zones and the extremely punishing mechanic of contested waypoints. Around this time, I also became heavily distracted by other games, such as The Secret World (which, as we all know, has stolen my heart now and forever).

However, the biggest factor that made me drift away from GW2 was its story. To be invested in a game long term, I need to care about its plot and setting, and to be blunt, the story in Guild Wars 2 is every kind of suck imaginable. I give them points for a diverse cast with some LGBT characters, but that’s only kind thing I can say about the story and lore of GW2.

Thus, I drifted away, but with plans to return. Let us now chronicle how that return never came to pass.

The Living Story:

The Living Story seemed like a cool idea at first, and I can’t entirely fault ArenaNet for embarking on this noble yet flawed experiment. I do respect their willingness to try new things.

Battling Scarlet's forces in Lion's Arch in Guild Wars 2The idea of a living, evolving world is, at a visceral level, very appealing. The idea that content comes and goes over the weeks, reflecting an evolving virtual reality, feels like a very welcome concession to verisimilitude. It offers an alternative to the stale and static design of most themepark MMOs.

However, it quickly became clear that the Living Story concept did not fit at all in a game like GW2.

Guild Wars 2 was designed to the casual player’s dream. You didn’t need to pay a subscription, and it didn’t have the traditional gear treadmill, so you could come and go as you please without worrying about falling behind.

The Living Story ran exactly counter to that. With nearly all new content being time-limited, anyone who wanted to keep up with the story faced arguably an even greater pressure to log in regularly than provided by subscription games.

It also put the focus squarely on the one thing ArenaNet can’t do well: story.

I tried returning to the game once or twice during the Living Story, but I felt utterly lost as to what was going on, furthering heightening my disconnect from the game’s story and sending my motivation to keep playing even lower.

The revamped Lion's Arch in Guild Wars 2These visits to Tyria also showed me that GW2 was drifting away from its original design vision in terms of gameplay. Ascended gear provided a disturbingly swift reversal of the promise of “no gear grind,” and the public events were becoming increasingly long, difficult, and mechanically complex. This seemed an attempt to silence all those critics who (not entirely without reason) called the gameplay of GW2 mindless, but neither the critics nor the developers seem to understand that such simplicity was a core part of the game’s appeal.

I came away declaring that GW2 was “a great game that is totally ignorant of its own strengths,” and that seems increasingly true all the time.

Heart of Thorns:

When Guild Wars 2 announced it was finally getting an expansion, I thought the time for my long-awaited return to Tyria had at last come. An expansion offered an opportunity to change direction for the better, and at the least, I figured having a lot of new land to explore would keep me interested for a few weeks, even if I ultimately wandered off again.

As the weeks went by, my hype level slowly rose, and I gave serious thought to pre-ordering. The concept of elite specializations interested me greatly — more playstyle options within a class is always good — and the new revenant class sounded (still sounds) very cool. I also quite liked the idea of masteries — horizontal progression is always good.

I even logged in for the first time in months and played for a couple hours. I initially wanted to check out the new (new) Lion’s Arch, but that somehow turned into doing an event chain in the Shiverpeaks, and on the whole I had a pretty good time.

My thief battling the Sons of Svanir in Guild Wars 2Then they dropped the R word.

I might as well be a cartoon insect for how well I react to the word “raid,” especially where Guild Wars 2 is concerned.

Did anyone — anywhere, ever — want raids in Guild Wars 2? I never heard anyone express a desire for such. Everyone seems to agree that GW2’s organized group content is a trainwreck, and I really don’t understand why ArenaNet thinks adding more players to the formula will fix that.

Still, I could have lived it if raids were an optional side feature you could ignore, but they revealed raids would be a crucial part of the story going forward. This has always been what I resent most about the traditional raiding model — locking crucial story behind the MMO genre’s most exclusive content — and it pretty much kills the last hope of my ever becoming invested in GW2’s story.

Perhaps more importantly, it signals a further shift away from the “do what you feel like” philosophy that was once the core selling feature of GW2. Suddenly it’s just another themepark forcing everyone down a single, narrow path.

It doesn’t end with raids. I had been under the impression that elite specializations would be akin to new talent choices or classes as implemented in other MMO expansions. That is, they’re available immediately after logging or at most after a minimal amount of leveling-like content.

A screenshot from Guild Wars 2: Heart of ThornsBut reading various comments and blog posts on the expansion, I learned that elite specializations actually require a fairly lengthy and not at all solo-friendly grind. This would be a baffling decision in any game, but it seems especially out of place in GW2. Though to be fair ArenaNet is already planning changes on this front.

Masteries, also, are being reported to be less a new form of horizontal progression and more a way of gating content beyond a series of lengthy grinds.

Stepping back, Guild Wars 2 now seems almost unrecognizable as the game that once captured my attention. The poster child for casual MMO gaming has done a near total 180 and now seems to be just another rigid, grind-focused themepark.

And that’s how they lost me.

* * *

Now, I can’t guarantee I’ll never come back to Guild Wars 2. We live in a world where I’m seriously considering getting into Star Wars: The Old Republic once I have a bit less on my gaming plate, so clearly miracles do happen.

My thief taking a rest in the tropics in Guild Wars 2But right now my motivation around GW2 is at an all-time low, and I see almost nothing left of the open-ended philosophy I once loved in the current incarnation of the game.

The game has had an amazing journey. Unfortunately, for me, it’s been a journey in entirely the wrong direction.


Worst of the MMO Industry

Recently, I did a post running down my opinions on the very best examples of major MMO features from across the industry. But I am not all smiles and sunshine. I’ve also encountered plenty of bad design, obvious mistakes, mediocrity, and bitter disappointment.

My rogue taking on an early dungeon in RiftToday, I’ll be looking at the worst failures of the MMO industry.

As before, this is a subjective list and should not be viewed as totally definitive. I know some of these choices are bound to be controversial.

Questing: It’s a tie!

I don’t think traditional MMO questing is as tedious or unpleasant as some do, but certainly there’s a lot of mediocrity out there. However, there are two games I’ve played where questing is even more dull than the rest.

The first is Dragon’s Prophet. Its questing isn’t really all that much worse than the average, but it is overly repetitive — often sending you to the same place to kill the same enemies multiple times — and the poorly translated quest text makes it impossible to become invested in the story.

The other is WildStar. WildStar’s questing suffers from all the sins of traditional MMO questing — repetitive tasks, long travel times, and so forth — and couples them with a shortage of mobs and items, long respawn times, and an insipid commitment to make all quest text Twitter-length, which destroys any chance for interesting story or immersion and generally makes me weep for the future of humanity.

A screenshot of a Mechari form WildStarA special mention also needs to be given to the game’s challenges, which pop up in the middle of quests without warning and require you to complete a task under a time limit. With how much wandering and searching WildStar’s questing takes in the first place, it’s very hard to beat the time limit, and even if you do, the rewards are purely random and may not be at all useful. They’re an exercise in frustration and nothing more.

Group PvE: The Secret World

It pains me to say anything negative about TSW, because it is a truly brilliant game that deserves far more recognition than it’s gotten. However, it’s not perfect, and when it comes to traditional group content, it is a failure.

It’s not even that the content itself is bad. The dungeons are excellent: light on trash with stunning visuals, good stories, and interesting mechanics. I can only assume the raids are of a similar quality, though I’ve never done them and likely never will.

But the systems around the group content are terrible. Firstly, there’s no group finder worthy of the name, so the only way to find a group is to sit in Agartha — the game’s most boring and lifeless area — and spam general chat, potentially for hours on end.

Secondly, while the dungeons technically have three difficulties, really there’s only one: nightmare. Elite mode has no real incentive for repetition, so it’s just something to run once to unlock nightmares, and normal mode is largely useless and tends to be ignored by the players. This means that if you want to run dungeons in TSW but don’t want to sweat blood in the brutally unforgiving nightmare dungeons, you pretty much can’t, unless you don’t mind getting absolutely nothing useful for your character out of it.

My Templar tanking the Varangian in the Polaris dungeon in The Secret WorldAnd of course because elites are so useless, that makes it even harder to find groups for them.

Scenarios are a bit better, not requiring the trinity and having a wide range of difficulty settings that are all at least somewhat rewarding, but their rewards are fairly specialized, and not everyone likes scenarios. They have no story, which is the main strength of TSW normally.

PvP: The Secret World

If you ask me, nearly all MMOs have very bad PvP. But TSW’s is just a little more awful than the rest, so it gets the crown.

I’ve only briefly experimented with PvP in TSW, but it was a miserable experience. Queue times are long, the population is small, and my lifespan tended to be numbered in single digits’ worth of seconds, during which I was usually stun-locked.

Now, no doubt my build and gear were not optimal for PvP. But there’s nothing in the game to give you any idea what does work for PvP, and while not being optimized for PvP is a bad idea in any game, it’s far more crippling in TSW. A PvE player shouldn’t be completely useless in PvP.

My Templar battling in El Dorado in The Secret WorldThe one good thing I can say is that the community is actually halfway decent, which is very rare in online gaming and doubly rare in a PvP environment. But I would still advise you to stay far, far away from TSW’s PvP.

Story: Guild Wars 2

I don’t think the MMO genre is a wasteland of good story as some do, but I will acknowledge there are plenty of candidates for worst story. WildStar has very interesting backstory, but it ruins all that by constantly ramming its forced and immature humour down your throat. Rift is the very definition of bland and derivative. WoW has had some major story blunders. I don’t think Neverwinter is even trying.

But Guild Wars 2 is as bad as it gets. It’s like they tried for a sort of goofy comic book feel like WoW, but fell way short. Instead of delightfully cheesy, it’s just cheesy.

And the voice acting is atrocious, and the dialogue is cringe-worthy, and the plot is rambling and incoherent, and there’s no real continuity… I could just go on and on. GW2’s storytelling is abysmal. You can find better on any random fan fiction forum.

Exploration: Star Wars: The Old Republic

Offering interesting potential for exploration is something a lot of MMOs struggle with, but SW:TOR is just a little worse than most. The maps are narrow, linear, and sterile, and there’s little or no reason to go off the beaten path, even on the rare occasions you can.

My Imperial agent in Star Wars: The Old RepublicI’m told there’s some sort of jumping puzzle stuff surrounding datacrons, and I think there’s a collection system of some sort that rewards exploration, but I never encountered any of this when I played, so either these things are only for high levels or they’re very poorly advertised. Either way, exploration isn’t a significant part of SW:TOR.

Crafting: Aion

As I stated in the “best of” post, I’m not fond of MMO crafting as a rule. Aion edges out the competition for the worst title by having all the problems of standard MMO crafting plus a huge reliance on RNG, with everything having a chance to fail. Even picking a flower can fail, forcing you to start over. And man, does it take a long time for a Daeva to pick a flower, for some reason.

Player housing: Rift

This is bound to be a controversial choice. A lot of people love Rift’s housing for its insane customization potential, and that is cool.

But once you’ve made your virtual dream home, then what? There didn’t seem to be any practical use for housing in Rift, no reason to take time out of questing to visit your home. Maybe one appears later, but the game failed to sell me on why I should care about its housing.

My rogue on a gulanite hellbug mount in RiftAt least in Aion I had a garden where I could grow reagents.

Business model: Star Wars: The Old Republic

Much has already been written by myself and others on the topic of SW:TOR’s “free to play” model, and I don’t want to repeat it too much. It’s just awful. In every way. It’s the hard sell of all hard sells.

The truth is the free mode is only intended as a trial, and you’re supposed to subscribe, but it doesn’t even work as a trial because the gameplay is so miserable you can’t get a good feel for the game. And even if you do subscribe, you’ll still be constantly nickel and dimed by the cash shop.

SW:TOR is actually a decent game, but so long as its business model remains as is, I can’t recommend it to anyone.

Character customization: WildStar

I very nearly gave this to World of Warcarft due to its extremely limited options to customize individual avatars. However, WoW’s plethora of different races does give one a lot of potential looks to choose from, and it is a very old game, so it doesn’t seem entirely fair to judge it based on the limitations of its era.

MY spellslinger in WildStarSo WildStar gets the nod here. It’s very much like WoW in that your only real choices are race and gender, and there’s no significant customization beyond that. Oh, sure, there are a lot of options for different faces and body types, but in the end, they all look pretty much the same. If you want to play a human female who isn’t a googly-eyed Barbie doll, you’re out of luck.

There’s no excuse for that in this day and age.

Combat: World of Warcraft (but really it’s a tie)

Combat is another area where there’s not a lot of games that are actually bad, but plenty that are mediocre. I don’t think I’ve ever played an MMO where the combat was actively hurting my enjoyment — except maybe Star Trek Online, but it’s been so long since I tried it that my memory is hazy.

I’m gonna give this to WoW because it set the standard, though I could just as easily have picked Rift, SW:TOR, LotRO, or any number of other mainstream MMOs.

It’s not that the WoW system of combat is bad — it’s functional and has some occasional thrills — but it’s incredibly thin and often dull. It’s usually very immobile, it’s visually bland, it requires no real thought, every fight plays out more or less the same, and there’s no challenge at all. Enemies fall dead after just one or two hits. Even on the rare occasions an enemy does present a challenge, it’s more a matter of numerical supremacy than true challenge, and you can faceroll them once you get more levels or better gear.

My hunter in the Arathi HighlandsIn my more cynical moments, I think people only criticize TSW’s combat because they’re not used to a game where enemies don’t evaporate from a dirty look.

Events: World of Warcraft

WoW epitomizes all that’s wrong with holiday events in MMOs. They’re carbon copies of real world holidays, which feel horribly out of place in a fantasy world. They never change from year to year. They require excessive grinding for incredibly mediocre rewards. What few rewards are worthwhile are usually locked behind exceedingly low drop rates and mountains of RNG.

No real effort is put into WoW’s events, so they don’t feel like events at all.