By – Mike Bezek
Ah, Tyria, how long has it been? Seems like just yesterday I was jaunting through the majesty of Kessex Hills, lush fields of green painting across my screen in a jamboree of springtime pastels. Those were the halcyon days. Most people could not complete the jumping puzzle in the Sylvari starting area, and the Mystic Forge was still quite fantastical. I was forced to leave your world to attend to other worldly duties, but what has changed, and what has stayed the same? While I understood that you had a few blemishes and shortcomings, I still considered you to be the bright future of MMOs. Today, I am going to jump back into my old Engineer’s boots and once again explore your wonderful land to see if I can rediscover what captivated me so many months ago.
Playing an MMO in 2013 is not nearly as revolutionary as when WoW dropped Azeroth on us which demolished preconceptions of how big a fluid world could be. Frequently cited as a game players wish they could experience all over again, WoW gave millions the chance to explore the world and lore Blizzard crafted for over a decade. Now that the MMO new car smell has worn off, developers needed a new avenue to recapture the magic of tackling the great unknown while keeping things fresh and simple. There could be a boatload of new anthropomorphic races with heartbreaking back stories to fill an entire Redwall book series, but keeping the player involved past the dreaded one month do-or-die period is the key to success.
The main draw of Guild Wars 2 was that it addressed a creative shortage that many MMO veterans craved: Exploration. While new, massive worlds were available to adventurers in games like FFXIV, Aion, Rift, and so on, there was no innovative incentive to broaden your figurative horizons. ArenaNet provided a solution that not only brought exploration to the forefront, but incentivised the entire experience by encouraging players to attain map completion. They had created one of the the most beautiful MMOs on the market, which through the use of Vista Points, was not only interesting and challenging to discover, but showed off the beauty of Tyria in one shot. In conjunction with these Vista Points, the explorative aspect of Guild Wars 2 is a testament to how much quality and polish went into making it.
The first activity I found myself tackling was this aforementioned exploration. While choosing my Engineer, I saw that I only had a paltry 8% of the world map completed. It served as a reminder that this world was as massive as it was captivating; an entrenching experience that beckoned the player to find the hidden nooks and crannies which would be simply overlooked in other titles. The simple task of exploration was further enriched by collecting resources, fighting random mobs, protecting said resources, and admiring the locales of Points Of Interest and Vista Points. It was nice to take a non combative role in a genre that inundates most players with the doom and gloom of the battlefield from start to finish. Instead of just admiring the gorgeous rolling fields of grass and dandelions before me, there was a reason to trek to the far corners of Kessex.
Cohesion is a very important aspect in creating a believable world, one which breaks from other stereotypical worlds with one-liner, lifeless NPCs. Traditionally, these human husks serve nonessential purposes such as walking around town, 24 hours a day. Roaming bodies wandering aimlessly only serves as a reminder that you are in a game. These entities are supposed to be simulating the hustle and bustle of a real city, but infinitely trekking on a predetermined, cyclical path only emphasizes the emptiness. ArenaNet has done away with these lifeless puppets of habit and imbues almost every interactive character with a task, or something interesting to say to help the player better understand their surroundings. Talking to an NPC can sometimes lead to very long conversations, with multiple pathways, which imparts a story to drive the need for a “hero”.
An example of this character cohesion lies near the Norn starting area where a small cabin town nestled in snowy hills can be found. When you first arrive in this sleepy area, children are romping around, pelting each other with snowballs. Your first task is to engage with these rowdy adolescents, taking part of their snowball fight in order to assist parents in keeping their ilk occupied. After satisfying the required amount of pelting children in the face with snow, you can continue along the path towards your primary objective without looking back. But should you choose to loiter a bit and engage the townsfolk, the children will suddenly shout and scamper inside a large cabin, locking themselves inside. It’s a rather unsettling scene, where confusion and tension set the tone quickly for the player. Wild bears are setting upon the town, and it is now up to you, and the parents you just assisted, to protect their children. The previous quest invested you in the childrens lives by charging you with a mundane babysitting task, and then created a situation where you want to protect them immediately after. That, my friends, is how you take an area from, “I think I did a quest there”, to, “I remember protecting the children here”. It’s brilliant, it’s engaging, it brings player investment back to MMOs in a sublime way.
In order to reinforce the journey over the grind, Guild Wars 2 focuses on introducing key characters that supply the player with a familiarity. MMO’s lack the intimate support that traditional RPGs provide – a cast of diverse characters that provide camaraderie and story progression. In the expansive world laid out before the player, interactions are more of a responsibility than a gameplay element that is presented as an integral part to moving forward. If you tend to avoid social interaction with other real players, your quest will be largely unfulfilling. But in Tyria, important characters like Caithe and Thackeray involve themselves with the players journey for extended periods of time. This allows them to become a tangential party member over time, filling that gap left by playing a typical solitary play experience. It makes for a much more fulfilling experience to watch believable characters grow and change over time due to your direct involvement, which allows the usually stale MMO story to evolve. MMO’s lack the intimate support that traditional RPGs provide – a cast of diverse characters that provide camaraderie and story progression.
Interaction is incredibly important in building a close bond with not only your characters, but the people he or she assists during their journey. Questing around a new area feels very clinical when everyone has a canned voice line accompanied with, “Go kill 5 overweight beavers worshiping the Woodgod Of Gluttony”. Developers sometimes forget that some players are not paying their subscription dues for the grind, or the gear, but to invest themselves in a world that is seemingly endless. One of the worst offenders of creating this deadening theme park element is the inclusion of a “Hearthstone”. The constant need to pop to and from major cities just to enlist basic crafting services, or trading posts leads to a disconnect between the player and their environment. One of the beautiful things about Tyria is that while the hearthstone element still exists in the form of waypoints, the aforementioned services dot the map in different locales that you will visit at some point in time. I was pleasantly surprised to find crafting stations in various towns, allowing me to work on my skills while never forcing me to leave my adventure.
To better facilitate player interactions, the elimination of now archaic grouping methods did away with making less popular players not feel like a part of the club. Instead of forcing a few players to group together complete a task with each other, anyone interested in taking part of the upcoming battle or quest can tag along and reap an equal amount of experience and loot. The system of racing to resources or landing the first hit on a mob led to some very contentious environments that ultimately ruined the experience for some players in other games. It bred an unhealthy competition between players that brought stress to the table, rather than a fun experience where we all help each other achieve a common goal. Players that cannot mutually benefit from helping one another due to prerequisites creates a divide among people, leading a quite the dissociation of the inherent “social” experience of MMO’s.
With this method, I was able to hop into many situations that would have kept me at bay in other games within genre. While on my cathartic plant collecting journey, a small convoy was passing by on a nearby road that needed protection. A lone player attempting to brave the onslaught of centaurs was getting mowed down by the hooved opposition, so I hopped in and lent a hand. Although the quest was at its final leg of the journey, I was not only able to assist the NPC, but the brave, solitary soul who fought his way as a protectorate to this travelling merchant. Everyone received experience, currency and points towards Daily Completion goals; everyone wins in the end, driving us to assist one another in the future. The state of modern technology means that we should be driving believable interaction to the forefront, the ideas of older generations only serve to stagnate the ever-evolving state of cooperation.
I typically play MMO’s because I have a slight addiction to grinding for superior items. The “work” that you put into accomplishing this personal goal delivers a greater sense of gratification. Petty small talk with other players was not the reason I joined in these massive worlds, as the personal lives of other players never mattered to me. I had friends and family that engaged those intimate social needs, I only wanted to work together with people to achieve things within the game, and nothing more. Guild Wars has made it so that people like myself are able to engage with others while not necessarily forcing the two to directly interact. While that may sound antisocial, I prefer to keep the two separate.
It’s important to remember that fostering even the smallest of interactions is incredibly important in games that revolve around people engaging in both competition and cooperation. The birth of the MMORPG was a bold, new direction that ripped the solitude from RPG’s and thrust the player into a world where their interpersonal mettle was put to the test. The genre has existed for nearly 20 years, and as technology advances, the bonds between players should grow stronger as the mechanics eliminate boundaries. Guild Wars 2 has provided millions of players with the ability to contribute, no matter how small it may be, to their world. Participating in World Vs. World Events, protecting waypoints, assisting others in Skill Challenges; all of these seemingly insignificant events intertwine to make individual efforts swell into a larger wave of change. Even the most introverted of player can make a difference, which in the end, brings everyone that much closer together.