At The Level Gates of Hell

gw002

This Tuesday, Sept 9th 2014, Guild Wars 2 launched “Feature Pack 2”, a bigger non-content patch in similar vain to April’s feature pack, intended to improve the player experience. In other words, to make GW2 as-is more fun.

And boy has it been controversial. There are some nice things in the patch, for example the level-up notifications giving additional rewards and telling the player about features of the game, the collectibles, the craftable backpacks and the pvp finisher preview. But the main focus of the community’s ire has been the “new player experience”.

In short, ArenaNet attempted to alleviate the perceived insignificance of level-ups by spreading existing features along the 80 levels of a character’s life. At first glance, this might not sound too bad – until you actually play it:

  • Downed state unlocks at level 5. Characters just die before then – and are actually immortal in the “intro chapter”.
  • Weapon skills unlock by level.  Previously you had to kill some monsters with each weapon to unlock the skills, a system that I quite liked. Now the skills unlock at various levels.  And yes this includes underwater weapons and even downed state skills!
  • Off-hand weapons. That’s right, these unlock at level 7. Can only use one weapon before. Weapon-swapping is still level-locked, at level 15.
  • Profession skills: Such as ranger pets, steal for thieves, or the attunements of elementalists unlock over several levels now. The last one unlocks at level 24!
  • Skill challenges: Not sure when they unlock, but you can’t do them “at level” in starter zones.
  • Vistas: Don’t show up on your map – that has to be unlocked – but you can still use them if you come across them.
  • Diving Goggles: This one might be a bug, but you can’t use them at low level.
  • Gathering: All gathering nodes have been removed from starter areas, it seems. You’re not supposed to be gathering before level 6, but I don’t think it’s hard-level gated.
  • Enemy abilities: They have removed conditions and other special abilities from monsters in starter zones. Not really a level gate either… but kinda, sorta, fits on the list.

There are probably other things like this, but they already add up to turning a fairly fluid, nice, and open gaming experience into a chore. Want to go off and explore on your new toon? Better stay out of water and don’t get into too many fights, because most of your stuff is simply not available!

The changes to mobs (see above) and some events (I’ve heard that the first renown heart most players will see, the farm in Queensdale, was simplified to a preschool level. What was so hard about watering plants before?) just add injury to insult.

I started a Guardian on Monday. I had fun playing him. I thought, “Hey, I could do this over the next few weeks.”

On Tuesday evening, that enthusiasm was gone. Combat felt limited and boring. I actually reported two skill challenges and one event as bugged before I caught on that this might be by design. Playing Guild Wars at low levels had finally become a chore.

Above: MagicalMike takes a sarcastic look at this week’s changes.

Why, by the six human gods, Why?

The intention of these changes was, quite obviously, to make leveling up more significant and to introduce game features to new players at a more manageable rate. In principle, these are good things. An MMORPG needs the best “new player experience” it can manage, because if you can’t draw those new guys in within a few minutes you will lose them for good.

The question is, of course, whether the changes achieve this, and I think that the popups and the info displayed, plus the rewards do, but the level gating of stuff doesn’t. You really do need your underwater skills earlier than level 8 (before then you have no underwater combat abilities) and it’s ridiculous to wait until level 7 for off-hand equipment and level 10 for your last weapon skill.

It seems almost all of these changes result from merging the Chinese branch of GW2 back into main. Someone in the ArenaNet management must have decided to just feed westerners the grindy and limited Chinese version because it’s not a big deal.

But it actually is, because it does turn leveling from a fun experience into a chore. Besides, players do not like it when someone takes their toys away. This is actually a pretty fundamental issue and should be well understood by ArenaNet’s designers.

Richard Bartle illustrates it with food buffs: It seems that in early MMORPGs (EverQuest?) players would get a debuff if they did not eat food regularly, and people hated it. World of Warcraft gives you a buff for eating food instead. Same principle, and while food in WoW is hardly an exciting feature and a bit of a chore, people do not actively hate it because they can just ignore it without penalty if they so wish.

My personal theory

I think Guild Wars 2 is now basically in “milk & maintain” mode: ArenaNet has realized that they can earn a lot of money by just selling “microtransaction” cosmetics instead of actual content. What we’re seeing is the logical continuation, the optimization of that: Merging code branches makes the game easier to maintain, and even Living Story is falling well short of what was promised (bi-weekly content updates).

With no actual new content to show, they feel they need to “entice” new players as best they can, and so they try better bait them along the leveling chain. Improve their retention. Perhaps what they have works well in China, and they want to bring that improved retention to NA/EU. New players means new people to buy gem store stuff, after all. And if the leveling is grindy, well, there’s a remedy for that in the form of XP boosters that you can buy, right?

F2P and Me

I used to be opposed to F2P games because I didn’t like the way it tries to trick people into spending money (there are reasons why you spend “Gems” and not dollars in the shop). GW2 is the first game where I fell for that myself – I have realized I actually spent more on GW2 than I would have on WoW in the same time. I don’t really regret money spent on the game, but it has got me thinking that Free to Play is actually BAD for the consumer in another way.

F2P means less content.

GW1 had expansions and loads of new content. Why? Because they sold the boxes, and nothing else. (Their microtransactions were added later, presumably as a test case for GW2.)

WoW has expansions and loads of new content. Why? Because with a subscription game, you need to give people things to do or they will not play – and unsubscribe.

So what next?

I don’t know how big the outcry really is – if it’s big enough, ArenaNet might repent and fix the situation. I don’t know. But in my case they have achieved one thing. On Tuesday evening, trying to level my new alt, I looked at the gem shop. Therere were a few items there that I usually would have bought. I had 850 gems left, not quite enough for the two things I was looking at.

“Do you really want to invest more money in playing a broken game?” I asked myself. “No,” I thought. “Not now.”

I slept over it, but I uninstalled Guild Wars on Wednesday. I might be back if things improve. But I am not holding my breath and until then I have – as they say – voted with my wallet.

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