Monday 25 October 2010

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.

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