MMOs face a unique challenge: one of their biggest selling points is a world filled with other players, which means they need a lot of players. Since players are a finite resource (believe it or not), this means MMOs need to keep players playing as long as possible. Given how long it takes to make unique content, this means getting as much out of every asset as possible. This could mean setting several quests in the same area, using random drops as a motivation for players to replay content, or even using template quest design like “kill x creatures” or “collect y items.” This also typically means carefully drip-feeding players new content, levels, and skills to ensure that content isn’t enjoyed too fast.
For these reasons, I rarely find myself sticking around MMOs for very long, despite the fact that they are among the biggest games out there. I tend to get bored early and quit shortly thereafter. It’s a personal preference, and I don’t bemoan anyone who has more patience for MMOs than I, but that’s the way I am. Ultimately, this is why I’ve found Guild Wars 2 remarkable: I’ve finally found myself enjoying an MMO and wanting to go back.
Here’s the thing, though: Guild Wars 2 doesn’t really fix most of the issues that kept me away from MMOs in the first place. Quests fit simple templates, skills are still given out relatively slow at the start of the game, and by and large content fits a series of checklists copy-pasted from one area to the next.
But Guild Wars 2 makes an excellent case study for how creating a good flow and frame for your content can completely change the feeling of the experience.
In most MMOs, there is a flow that goes something like this:
— get to a new area
— collect several quests
— complete those quests
— bring those quests back to their owners
— maybe level up a bit if you’re below level for the next area.
— Rinse and repeat until you hit the end game and can tackle things like dungeons and raids.
On paper, this doesn’t necessarily sound awful, but when repeated ad nauseum in a game, for some players, it becomes a little too routine. A player quickly learns to ignore everything in an area until they find the exclamation points marking quest-givers. And once they get a quest, the player focuses on simply getting from point A to point B, killing/collecting whatever the quest tells them to, before returning back to point A.
This strict ordering breaks the illusion of the open game world for the player. The player quickly learns what is relevant and what is not, focusing entirely on the tasks that reward experience and items, since most of the quests and locations aren’t inherently rewarding in themselves. Additionally, areas must be explored in a relatively consistent order due to leveling constraints. If the player is too low of a level, then they don’t stand a chance, and if the player is too high of a level, an area instantly loses its value. Soon the player stops seeing areas as worlds and as mere containers for content to be completed in a very specific fashion. This can be problematic for a genre that thrives on the illusion of a living, open world.
A Different Experience
As I said before, the content of Guild Wars 2 is not radically different–quests and combat fit most of the same templates as your usual MMO, give or take a few minor tweaks. However, Guild Wars 2 makes a couple of significant changes that completely change the feel of the experience.
First, the game remove quest hub areas and integrates the majority of quests into the environment directly. Instead of having quest-givers to whom you must report, quests are automatically taken up when you get within a certain region, and are completed as you perform your tasks in that same region. Since the quest giver is never far from the quest, you don’t have to backtrack to return the quest and can keep moving forward. Some quests don’t even require that you turn them into anybody at all! Additionally, since everyone is automatically assigned the local quest, the game also removes the challenge and time of getting a group of people together for a quest– everyone can contribute to the same quest as they please.
Meanwhile the game tackles the over and under-leveling problem through heavy use of level scaling. The developers tries to keep the speed of leveling high (within 90 minutes they’ve said), so that you can move on to the next area fairly quickly. However, to avoid making content become too easy, if you are overleveled for an area, your level is scaled down to match the level of things in the area, while experience is scaled up to continue a smooth leveling progression.
This system is pretty smart: unlike static leveling, you are never going to be overleveled for an area and the developers can give you enough experience so you are unlikely to need to grind. And unlike dynamic leveling, you still get to make progress against higher level enemies, and you still get meaningful skills and equipment even when your level is scaled down.
These two changes have massive repercussions on the way Guild Wars 2 feels. Instead of immediately forcing the player into a quest hub of a specific area, Guild Wars 2 welcomes the player to wander throughout an area and do things as they please. Instead of getting pulled back and forth by each quest, it’s much easier to get lost impulsively wandering to the nearest quest, event, or point of interest. This, in turn, helps immerse the player in the world more easily (at least as easily as one can be immersed doing back-to-back kill/collect quests).
I don’t want to claim that Guild Wars 2 is a massive revolution of some kind; it still has some issues (such as the same repetitive quests), and while I may like the changes for my style of play, some players may like them better. However, it warrants a look if just to see how some smart streamlining can completely change the feel of otherwise unchanged core content. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel to make something new. Sometimes you just need to replace a few broken parts.