Category Archives: guild wars

Passion is a positive obsession.

It was while casting about for an MMO to play that a friend suggested I could perhaps look again at Guild Wars, seeing as I intended playing the game’s successor upon its arrival later this year. I’ve tried to get my hook into Guild Wars several times before – the original Prophecies campaign, then Factions, before trying once again with Nightfall sometime after its release, several years ago.

I launched Guild Wars late on Friday evening last week, perched my virtual self on the bank of the computer’s memory, then cast my line lightly and without conviction into the digital depths of the game’s design. What leviathan of immersion rose from the deep I cannot tell, but with gaping maw it took both hook and line and pulled me down, and for the greatest time there was nothing but the beat and surge of it – the primal urgency of that rhythmic stroke sending the creature into the impossible darkness of the infinite. Trapped in the tow, I tumbled along in its wake.

On Monday I managed somehow to disentangle myself from the line, and with desperate resolve kicked myself upwards. I broke the surface of that digital dream, my mind gasping at the marvel of it. My character was at the level cap, and as I pulled myself to the virtual shore I considered my adventure close to complete. I looked back on the distance I had come –the opposite shore of the lake into which that beast of obsession had dragged me was visible on the horizon– and couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that the journey was almost at an end.

It was then that the aforementioned friend arrived in the guise of a guide. With the kindly chuckle of a parent bemused at the innocent naivety of a child, the guide parted a section of thick vegetation surrounding the lake and bid me look beyond. It revealed to me the extent of my journey thus far, and it was clear: I had but stepped upon the path, and no further. The expansive river of progression stretched out before me, its distributaries of activity branching off in many directions; the sea of possibility followed, wide open and dynamic, stretching all the way to the horizon.

I swept my arm out at the expanse of content in front of us. “I had no idea the game was so huge. I mean, good people have tried to explain… but this… this is unfathomable.”

The guide smiled again, “No, this is just Nightfall. There are two other campaigns to explore after this.”

And so tonight I cast my line once more, and hope that the monstrous exigency of play will rise once again, take hook, and pull me onwards and downwards into the fantastical fathoms of Tyria.

Chaotic action is preferable to orderly inaction.

Floating foetus-like as I am in my current MMO limbo, I decided to revisit an old game that I have never managed to get on with, an MMO that broke many of the tropes of the genre at a time when World of Warcraft was still defining them, and can probably be considered one of the grey-bearded forefathers of the free-to-play model that is becoming popular today.

I was going to start by saying that I don’t know why I never got on with Guild Wars, but that isn’t true, I do know as to why, it would probably be fairer to say that I just don’t like the reason why. The failing is actually with me, and even though the game has its foibles I’m long past caring about such inconveniences as not being able to jump; I’ve come to terms with the fact that my character, hero of the ages, slayer of dragons and gods, cannot hop over the edge of a small hillock and must instead walk all the way down and around. Very fragile knees these heroes of the ages, clearly they have weak bone structure brought on by a lack of calcium in their diet. I mean, were my hero to jump even a few inches off the ground they would probably drive their shins up through the rest of their legs and then, as they toppled over and hit the ground, they would explode like a bone fragmentation grenade, killing the rest of their party, who couldn’t dive out of the way for fear of hitting the ground too hard and detonating themselves. True story.

How many Guild Wars characters does it take to change a light bulb? No idea, none of them are brave enough to climb up onto a chair because they wouldn’t be able to jump back down again.

It’s easy to pick fault with some of the more quirky decisions that have been made in the game, Guild Wars is quirky in so many respects. I use the term ‘quirky’ not with pejorative connotations in mind, however, but more in terms of innate individualistic idiosyncrasy; it’s clear that the creators set out to be different from the other offerings on the market at the time, and they achieved their goals so wholly that even today the game stands out distinctively among its peers. Let’s not forget that for a five year old game it features stunning graphical vistas and a slick responsive UI that you wouldn’t be ashamed to release in a current generation MMO.

So why do I struggle so much with Guild Wars? Simply put: pace. I would say that the combat in Guild Wars errs on the fast side, and as such it probably gives a closer approximation of the chaotic feeling of battle than most MMOs. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that Guild Wars was designed to be a PvP game, the clue possibly being in the title

“Well, we’ve formed a guild, now what?”

“I dunno. Invite the neighbours over, offer them a nice cup of tea?”

“Splendid idea! Ah look, here comes the Facestabbing Murderswine guild from number 42. Morning! We’ve just moved in, thought we might offer you a nihaaaarrgrgggggggghhhhuuurrrrrrrghhhhhh urk.”

“You killed Kenneth! Why? Why?! What? Guild Wars? Oh! Silly us, we thought it was Guild Make a Nice Home Settle Down Maybe Invite the Neighbours Over for a Cup of Tea. Tsk! Well, seeing as you’re here, can I offer you a nice cup ohhrrrrraaaaaaagrrrrrrrrrrhhhhhhhhh gak.”

The traditional MMO form of standing around a loot piñata and whacking on it with sticks until it bursts, like a troupe of vigilante Morris dancers, except with even sillier outfits, was not going to work in a game that had a strong PvP element. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but, in the general case, people are quite reluctant to stand around and let you smack them about the head with a large stick: they tend to run around screaming at the very least, but just as often they’ll pull out a very big stick of their own, and then try to get behind you so that they can smack you around the back of the head in return. What’s required, then, is acute situational awareness matched with instantaneous decision making in reaction to the field of play. Situational awareness, as we all know, is that quality that prevents players from ‘standing in the fire’, and transforms an adequate tank just about able to hold aggro into a tiny tanking god. In many MMOs situational awareness for most players boils down to a game of musical chairs, while the music is playing you spam your damage rotation or throw out your heals, and when the music stops you run around and find a safe spot to stop in, then the music starts once more and you’re standing still and executing the rotation again. In Guild Wars, situational awareness is musical chairs where the music never stops, and at some random interval they release a hungry tiger into the room.

Essentially I don’t get on with Guild Wars because every time I come to play it it teaches me just how bad I am outside of the basic piñata model of play. Every combat is so fast-paced and frantic that I finish it exhausted while not entirely sure what actually happened, other than I seem to somehow still be alive, which is the joy of having a healer henchman I suppose. In fact I picture the AI henchmen in my party silently mocking me for being an utter noob, and secretly all trying to vote-kick me out of the group so that they can continue on in peace without having to carry me.

It gets worse, however. I’ve often bemoaned the fact that you only have eight skill slots, one of which is usually taken up with some form of resurrection spell (greatly needed in any group that I am part of) and therefore you only get to take seven skills into a mission with you. Seven. You have two classes, a primary and a secondary, each of which has approximately seventy kajillion skills that you can learn and then pick from. Many of those skills will have effects that form a nice synergy with other skills, and indeed the system seems to me like a slightly cut down version of Magic: The Gathering, where you build your ‘deck’ of skills in such a way as to get a greater whole from the sum of the constituent parts. Seven skills, though. You can’t pick skills in the usual candy store way, grabbing everything off the shelf that you like the look of, because before you know it you’ve got ten skills vying for each available slot. What you need to do is pick one skill or theme, and then build a layer of supporting skills around it. Even this is difficult, however, and I find myself sullenly trooping off into a mission mumbling under my breath that I can handle more then seven skills, that it’s ridiculous that I can’t be entrusted with more skills at once, and pointing out that I have forty skill bar slots packed to the brim in World of Warcraft. And then I enter into combat.

Seven skills. Not a lot really. Combat should be child’s play.

Have you ever seen a kitten play with a piece of string being dangled in the air in front of it? It starts slowly, bats away nonchalantly with one paw, feigning only mild interest because this is clearly a fight that is beneath it. Then, as the encounter progresses, it switches to the other paw on occasion, slowly picking up the pace, its eyes growing wide, paws alternating strikes more rapidly. Then all of a sudden the kitten realises that the string is actually quite a persistent foe and that they might be outmatched, and it goes mental. Both paws start flailing in all directions, not just at the piece of string but at anything that remotely comes near it, the sofa, your legs – the carpet usually takes a sound thrashing. The paws are moving so quickly now that they’re both in use at the same time, the kitten stands up on its haunches, its face a mask of half-terror half-frenzy. Slowly the kitten’s neck begins to disappear as it pulls its wild-eyed face back and down and away from the relentless string, until finally its face can retreat no further and it falls over backwards and claws itself half to death in the confusion, before claw-crawling its way along the base of the sofa, flipping upright and dashing behind the cover of a chair in order to collect itself and catch a breath, tail swishing in irritation all the while.

Do you know how frustrating it is to finish every fight in Guild Wars hiding behind my chair? Not to mention the looks I get from Mrs Melmoth.

Honestly, it’s a mere seven skills, but every time I run into combat it’s the same: I finish the fight as a sweaty frantic wreck, having spent the entire time running around screaming and mashing keys with both hands at random, to the constant tune of the ‘Not Enough Energy for this Skill’ alert. I’m getting better with practise, of course, and I’m learning to accept death as part of the experience, which again is something which shouldn’t surprise me in a PvP-centric game. However, it all makes me realise just how few of the skills I actually use on those four packed hot bars in WoW, with many of them being highly situational abilities that barely ever get used, and others being buffs that are cast once every thirty minutes; when you read the rotations or priority systems outlined on sites such as Elitist Jerks, they often only really include four or five abilities, with perhaps four or so ‘boost’ abilities that are to be used every time they come off of their several minute long cool-downs.

I think this is something in which World of Warcraft succeeded, but where it isn’t necessarily a Good Thing: it created the illusion of complexity. A game such as Guild Wars, however, will happily point out that seven or eight abilities are all you can really manage in a truly dynamic combat. To compensate for this, though, it allows you to switch these abilities around as much as you like between missions, and provides a huge pool of complex and interesting abilities to choose from, as well as a compelling miniature deck-building sub game based on the interactions of those abilities. The problem a game such as Guild Wars has is in overcoming the illusion of choice to which players have become accustomed. Guild Wars 2 continues with a minimalist hot bar setup and evolves it, the small set of skill buttons now morph from one ability to another as the player activates a skill chain, and I believe one bar is dedicated to class defining abilities where the other concentrates more on flavour abilities determined by the customisation path the player has taken for their character. As such the UI is kept simple, which I believe to be a Good Thing, but I do feel it means that ArenaNet needs to find another way to present the illusion of choice, especially if they wish to convince players of the current generation of MMOs that there is depth to their game. I think it’s fair to say that Guild Wars has far deeper game-play than World of Warcraft with respect to skills and their mechanics, but because it restricts the player to a (sensible) number of skills at any one time, new players may well come away with the impression that the game lacks depth instead.

I think an important lessons for developers today is that it’s probably impossible to live up to all the expectations of players, and as such, developers need to find creative new ways to convince players that they’re getting the unrealistic expectations they demand, while actually delivering something that exists within the realms of technical and fiscal reality.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to explain these claw marks in the bottom of the sofa to Mrs Melmoth, especially difficult since we don’t have a kitten on whom I can place the blame.

Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses

After pontificating on guilds last week, and the difficulty of grouping up in some games, this week managed to present itself as a case study.

I’d been trying to go cold turkey from MMOs for a bit, after a minor breakdown when I stopped seeing blonde, brunette, redhead, bandit leader, and just saw the ones and zeroes. It was generally going fairly well, occasional WAR-lapse aside, but after a while, with my immune system at its weakest, a virulent bout of City of Heroes resubscription swept through Twitter, against which I was helpless (scientists found traces of yellow spandex at the site of the outbreak). My main account is on the US servers, and the League of Evil are on the EU servers, so, reluctant to shell out on another parallel subscription, a bit of digging around turned up some trial codes which looked ideal. Ten days would nearly last until the Warhammer open beta, after all, so I now have four City of Heroes accounts: my original US account (still running), an EU trial account (expired, from Van Hemlock’s Operation Cheapseats last year), a second US account (trial only, created using a code I thought might be for an EU trial, but it wasn’t) and a second EU account (finally, success with an EU trial code!)

I’d seen a bit of a chat on the official forums about trial account restrictions that had been put in place since the last Cheapseats freebie, but hadn’t paid an awful lot of attention. Actually getting into the game, though, crikey; you can only talk in Local, Help and Team. It’s like going from mobile phones to cocoa tins connected with bits of string. Only somebody cut the string. About the only way of getting in touch with somebody was to add them as a Global Friend (as they get a confirmation option for that), then hope they figure out your silence indicates you’re on a trial account (no whispers or tells allowed, even as replies) and they invite you to a team. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with existing global friends, remove and add them again maybe… I believe the restrictions were put in place to stop players being bombarded with spam, but they seem a touch harsh; if trial accounts could at least reply to whispers it would be something, but I guess the chat system doesn’t work like that. Another possible explanation is that creating alts is so much fun in CoH that, without those restrictions, some players could quite happily bounce from trial to trial to trial, creating a new alt every ten days. Anyway, it took all of two minutes to decide that really wouldn’t work for socialising with people (plus I’d created an Assault Rifle Corruptor, but forgot to pick a different gun instead of the stupid default super-soaker, so had to re-roll in any case), so after all that I went back and upgraded the original EU trail account to the full game. What the hell, it’s only money… Just to really drive home the problems with separation in MMOs, the existing character from that account was useless as it was a hero, and everyone else was playing villains, *and* it was on the other UK server. It’s a good job creating characters and running the low level content is fun, and thank heavens for the sidekick system, if not for those the whole exercise would’ve been entirely futile, but once non-trial-account-ed and supergrouped up it’s been great to run around the Rogue Islands with new people, and smash up bus stops and parking meters.

As if that wasn’t quite enough of a case study of The Annoying Thing About Continental And Server Splits In Games, the CoH resubscription virus was followed through Twitter by a dose of WAR-fever, only this time I’ve got the EU Collector’s Edition pre-ordered (and am somewhat reticent about playing on US servers again, for the very reason demonstrated with the CoH business), and others are buying the US version of the game to hook up with GAX peoples. You have to laugh, really; the only thing needed to complete the “Whoops, vicar, there go my trousers!”-like farce would be for one of us to be a vicar. And for somebody’s trousers to go missing. Still, every cloud has a silver lining and all that, and some poking around the Warhammer Alliance forums and other blogs turned up Insult to Injury, a casual, older, Order guild for WAR who seem like a really fantastic bunch, so I think I’m all set for launch now. Just need to try a couple of classes during the open beta to finalise that decision.

As a counterexample to the difficulties of getting together theme, I finally had a free Tuesday evening yesterday (there’d been much vital real-life stuff happening on Tuesdays previously, like Bonekickers) so I hopped on to Guild Wars so say “hi” to the Tuesday N00b Club. I’d just planned to say hello, perhaps get an invite to hang around the guild chat, then wander off and set fire to some monsters in a continuing bid to (a) get to level 20, and (a) figure out what I’m doing in the game. No resubscription, no finding out what continent’s servers I need to be on, pow! In a couple of clicks, I was wandering around the rather plush guild hall. It turned out to be PvP night:
“Have you done much PvP?”
“Have you got a free slot for a PvP character?”
“No (the sum total of my PvP experience up to that point being a couple of years back in the tutorial mission from the original campaign, where you get dumped into a 2v2 encounter whether you like it or not), and maybe” said I. In for a penny, in for a pound, and all that; when I posted last week that levels aren’t vitally important in Guild Wars, I’d entirely forgotten that when you create a character it’s either at level 1 (a “Roleplaying” character, for running around PvE content) or level 20 (a PvP character). Off I toddled, and was soon back with a level 20 Elementalist, ready to do battle. Well, not quite ready to do battle, someone had to explain about creating PvP items, and I hadn’t even looked at the skill bar, so while the rest of the N00bs headed off for a skirmish I got myself set. My usual Elementalist tactics (up to the mighty level 7 I’d achieved as such) were to set fire to stuff, then set fire to stuff some more until it stopped moving, but the default PvP build had most of the stat points put into Air Magic and a few lightning-based skills on the bar as a starter, so I figured I’d stick with that. Looking for something to pad out the rest of the bar, I noticed a few skills mentioned “knock down”, so hoping that was as annoying in GW as in every other game, I stuck ’em in. The actual skirmishes after that are a bit of a blur, I genuinely had no idea what was going on (something to do with flags and towers, it seemed) but following the basic tenets of (i) follow somebody (anybody) on my team, and (ii) USE ABILITIES TO DO DAMAGE, I think I managed to get a few shots in. It was rather fun, and certainly piqued my interest for RvR in WAR, and future Guild War-ing, though I’ll really need to do a bit more reading for the latter so that the titular N00bishness of the Club is slightly more ironic than literally true in my case.

Comparison is a death knell to sibling harmony.

I’ve recently been trying to work out why I just can’t seem to get along nicely with Guild Wars; it’s like some sort of truculent sibling, where we both pretend to get on amiably when there are adults around who might clout us around the head as a reprimand for our rambunctious wrangling, but as soon as we’re out of sight, we set-to like a wild west bar brawl: all swagger and posture followed by a short frantic battle of head grabbing, arm flapping and tumbling off of elevated platforms into piles of cardboard boxes, or in my case when I was younger, onto piles of Lego bricks, whence I’d spend the rest of the afternoon explaining to adults that my face wasn’t presenting a strange new version of the pox that consisted of uniform rows of dots in 6×1, 4×2, 2×1 and 4×4 formations.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Guild Wars is a good game, but this only makes it all the more frustrating to me as to why I can’t play it for any length of time before abandoning it. The graphics are not the problem that’s for sure, the environments are beautiful and detailed, and the characters are not the most unattractive I’ve ever seen. Admittedly they do all have this weird hunched shoulder thing going on, as if they’re all trying to make themselves more intimidating in PvP by drawing themselves up higher, like a cat arches its back, only they’ve done it one too many times, the wind changed direction, and now they’re stuck with their shoulders up around their ears. Also, in profile many of the faces look as though they have been worked over with a rolling pin until flat enough to make pasta. Regardless, I’ve never stumbled at the character customisation options, and have always managed to create a character pulchritudinous enough to satisfy my sad desire for an abstractly attractive avatar.

Character creation is fine as well, there are plenty of interesting classes to choose from and the fact that you get another of these classes as a secondary, and can vary it at will (after reaching a certain level), means that there’s plenty of variety to be had with a character’s fundamental abilities. Abilities though, I think this is where things start to unravel for me. The abilities themselves are fine, excellent in fact, so many interesting skills that often can be combined with other skills to create a combination that is more powerful than the individual skills taken on their own. No, it’s the lack of ability to employ many of those skills in a given mission that begins to give me that itch just behind my eyes that tells me all is not well in the mind of Melmoth. The short of it, for me at least, is that eight skills in Guild Wars just isn’t enough when you have so many excellent abilities that you’d like to have to hand. To quote Lazarus Long:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

For each mission you are forced to specialise from a vast range of varying and potentially useful skills into a very limited set, and once you take into account that to be effective you’re usually looking for several of these skills to combine into a manoeuvre that is more powerful than the individual skills themselves, you seemingly end up being able to do only a couple of things each mission. Press 1, 2, 3 and that gives you effect X, press 4, 5, 6 and you get effect Y, and then abilities 7 and 8 are often reserved for emergency use: resurrection abilities and such. At least this is the way things have played-out for me in the limited time I’ve managed to stick with the game, and if it gets better later on I’m in a catch-22 situation, where I’ve got to continue with the thing that puts me off playing in order to get to a stage where I’ll continue playing.

To be honest, I’m disappointed with myself, because if there’s any one thing that I want to see in future MMOs its a deck building sub-game involving a character’s abilities, such that you learn skills and then find interesting ways to combine them in order to create a ‘deck’ of skills as per many collectible card games, and thus have the ability to surprise opponents with unexpected and unusual combinations. And this is what Guild Wars does (I hear the proponents of the game screaming at me, but only in eight different ways), and I recognise this, but it just doesn’t work as well as the CCG mechanic and I’ll tell you why I think this is: chance and variety. In CCGs you build a deck of, say, forty cards and within those forty cards you select a raft of cards that combine with one another in ways that make them more powerful when combined (it’s the Captain Planet way), but because of the number of cards available, you can often include many combinations that work with several of the same cards while keeping within the general theme or purpose of the deck. The joy and excitement, and sometimes frustration, comes from the fact that you don’t know which combinations might come to the fore due to the random drawing of the cards, and the fact that there is a variety of things that you might be able to do, but there is also an equal variety of things your opponent might be able to do to counter you or to make you have to change your strategy. I think this is where I end-up frustrated with Guild Wars, it comes so close to my ideal of a slightly random, wildly varied skill combining combat system, and yet falls far enough away from the mark as to make the contrast between my ideal and the reality of the situation that much more jarring.

The other thing that often drives me from the game is the frenetic pace of the combat. Perhaps I’m just a bit slow, or L2P U GIANT N00B as they say on the streets of downtown Ascalon, but combat for me goes a little something like this:

Ok Melmoth, this is it, come on now, there’s the enemy and there’s only five of them, you’ve got four henchmen backing you up, you can do this!

Right, here we go, move forward a little bit to try to get into range so that I can select them, then I can call a targ… oh lord they’ve spotted us already! Where’s all my health gone?! I, uh, what skills did I pick to heal with?! Too late, I’m dead for sure… oh wait, the healer henchmen has me back to full health! Huzzah for you Mr Healer, you’re a credit to your professi… hey where has everyone gone? Oh crikey they’re all over there attacking the enemy.

Ok, in combat range now, I’ll start my first combo, 1. Pow! 2. Clang! 3. 3. 3? What do you mean I don’t have enough energy?! Oh gods my health is almost zero again, how did that happen?! Mash the heal button. Still not enough energy? Damnit I’m dying here! Ok, enough energy now, Melmoth heal thyself! Damnit the healer henchman got a heal on me first, so that was a total waste of a heal. Never mind Melmoth, never mind, there’re still a few enemies to mop up. Let’s start our combo. again. 1. 1? 1?! Not enough energy? What?! Oh right, my heal used it all. Tum te tum, just wait for a bit of energy. Ok there we go, right, time to attack! 1! Yes! 2. 2? 2?! My target is dead? Oh for fu… ok, never mind I’ll just run over to the last mob and have a go at him, right, almost there. Hello my henchmen! Your beloved leader is here to help! Stand back and watch the master at work, aaaannnnd 1! Oh, you’ve killed the mob.

I seem to spend every combat either trying to get to a new target because my current one has died before I have managed to reach all the way from the ‘w’ key to press the ‘1’ key to start an attack, or I spend time waiting for my energy to regenerate because I’ve already used TWO WHOLE skills, by which time the mob is dead and I have to find a new target. If it’s not enough that I’m limited in a mission to just eight skills from the vast array of excellent skills that my character has learnt, half the time I can’t use many of those skills because my energy supply is so short. I’m basically reduced to being an auto-attack automaton, or so it seems, and I find this very frustrating.

The curious thing is that although I enjoy combat in WoW, when I’ve come to analyse what I actually do during each fight it basically amounts to using probably no more than three or four skills over and over, whilst sometimes throwing in the odd extra ability from the five thousand little used powers that I have spread across half my screen on twenty different action bars. City of Heroes likewise, where you probably have ten abilities that you use over and over, and you don’t get to swap them between missions for other cool and exciting abilities like you do in Guild Wars! Yet combat in City of Heroes is more enjoyable to me, it’s still fairly frantic and it can be quite scary when you’re facing a group of mobs large enough that they can quantify their gross domestic product, but it doesn’t leave me with this feeling of frustration and inadequacy at the end of each fight, more one of elation and power.

For me Guild Wars is one of those curious anomalies in a gamer’s experience, a game that on paper has everything that I could want in a massively multiplayer game, and yet for some reason fails to capture the imagination or present a hook large enough to reel me in. For now I’ll just have to sit quietly next to Guild Wars in the back seat of the car and sneak in gut punches to it when the adults aren’t looking in the rear view mirror.