As I mentioned in the comments to a previous post, Guild Wars 2 seems to be a hybrid of questing and exploration, and as m’colleague so splendidly analogised yesterday, Guild Wars 2 seems to fit the bill of being a playground MMO, and this has me rather enthused. The theme park MMOs provide entertainment in a very regimented fashion, with players following the park’s set paths in order to join the queues for rides, where they receive a short infusion of thrill and verve. The sandbox MMO sits at the other end of the scale, providing no direction at all; much like the artist presented with a block of marble, the player in a sandbox MMO generally has to be able to visualise form within the blankness of the medium, and then act upon the medium to realise that form. As it is that many people are not artists, so it is that many players are not amenable to sandbox MMOs, often feeling lost, overwhelmed and daunted.
The playground MMO strives to strike a balance between the two extremes, and this was clearly what the public quests of Warhammer Online and the rifts of Rift were aiming to provide. Guild Wars 2 takes the idea a step further, however, in that each area of the playground has multiple ways in which you can play the game, as Hunter highlighted in a recent post. So, to take the analogy and stretch it somewhat into the realms of sexist stereotypes – the boys run around the climbing frame ‘fort’ shooting each other with pretend guns, while the girls can play field nurses to that same game. Or in MMO terms, the Killers and the Socialisers can inhabit the same area and not necessarily get in each other’s way. Meanwhile, the Explorers can wander around discovering all the various parts of the playground (including that hole in the fence behind the bike sheds), and the Achievers can try to involve themselves in as many games as possible, flitting from one to the other without interfering with the game that is being played at the time.
For the player who wants directed questing, there is the main player story and the scouts who will highlight the Events and Hearts in the area. For the player who just wants to do their own thing, it is quite possible to simply wander around the land and see what one stumbles upon. Guild Wars 2 provides a nice balance between sandbox and theme park. Is it the pinnacle of the playground design? I haven’t played enough of the game to be able to tell. It’s possible that this could be the World of Warcraft of playground MMOs; where WoW took the slightly rough and ready theme park crystal, expertly cut and polished it, until the thing shined and sparkled with multifaceted diamond elegance; time will tell if Guild Wars 2 has managed this with the playground model.
What gives me pause for thought is the apparent lack of support for the fundamental MMO social unit – the adventuring party. Most stark was the difficulty of grouping when the overflow servers were in operation, as though no real thought had been given to the traditional MMO social group. More though, there seemed little incentive to group when undertaking an Event or Heart in Guild Wars 2: players simply went about the objective individually, as a group. Perhaps this is by design, where the open world PvE of the game has taken Rift’s ingenious dynamic grouping mechanic to its ultimate conclusion, such that the people in the playground no longer have to restrict themselves to small select groups of friends, and can instead play together freely with as many or as few people as desired. PvP and dungeon instances are where strict groups will form, but in the open world, new players are simply able to join any game in progress without upsetting the balance of play, and are rewarded according to their contribution to the game. It’s not a new idea, we know of MMOs which have already tried to achieve this with varying levels of success, but ArenaNet seem to have designed their open world PvE game entirely around this concept, rather than trying to crowbar it into the gaps between the more inflexible traditions of the theme park.
So this is what interests me most about Guild Wars 2 at the moment: whether ArenaNet have managed to take the concept of the playground MMO –the attractive hybrid of theme park and sandbox– and made it a reality. If so, it may be the case, looking back some time from now, that we find they indeed didn’t provide the huge step change in game mechanics that some players were expecting, but instead made a huge step change in the entire philosophy of design for this style of MMO. Their manifesto claimed as much, and although I’ve yet to see the conclusive evidence which makes me believe, certainly there are hints that this could be the case. And I do want to believe.
There’s definitely some polishing to be done, but it’s possible that a diamond is hidden here, as yet obscured from view by the raw remnants of the crafter’s careful cuts.