Waiting for Pandaria, WoW-Killers and Other Stuff

So I am sitting here waiting for Mists of Pandaria to drop. I am not wildly excited by the thought of Kung Fu pandas but I expect Blizzard to do a decent job and I am curious. I strongly suspect I will end up playing more Guild Wars 2 than WoW in the near future. A lot of people are saying the same. That got me thinking about how many games have been called a WoW killer and how silly this tendency is in our media and not just in how it applies to games.

Way back when I worked in the pen and paper RPG and tabletop miniatures game business, there was always someone explaining how their game, or their favourite game, was going to be bigger than D&D/Warhammer/Magic:the Gathering, or at least it should be because it was better designed or more fun or whatever. This is one of those things, like calling a game a WoW-killer, that ignores the reality of how these things actually work in the market.

In hobby games it is very, very rare for a major game that occupies a certain niche in the market to be overtaken by another one. There are a few simple reasons for this. Usually the biggest games become synonymous with their fields. When the average non-gamer thinks of roleplaying games, if they think about them at all, they probably think about Dungeons and Dragons. Ask the average non-tabletop miniatures gamer to name a minis game and they most likely will name Warhammer, if they can name any. These are the brand names that people recognise. If your dear old granny who knows nothing about gaming thinks about giving you an RPG for Xmas, she will probably get you D&D.

There is usually a reason why the big dogs are the big dogs. If they are not the first in their field, they are usually the ones that broke out first and biggest. They took the top slot before it was occupied. It becomes infinitely harder to become the new D&D after D&D exists. The same applies to Warhammer. These games became so big in the first place because they did not have to compete with anyone. They found an unsatisfied desire among their customers and they met it. And once they were in the market, they had a huge headstart not just in brand recognition but in execution. They are already in the distribution chains. They are a safe bet for retailers to sell.

The next reason is what is known as network effect, basically the more people who use a product, the more valuable and/or useful it becomes. Think of Facebook—it’s not very useful if only a few people are on it, but once everyone you know is, it becomes invaluable. If you are a Warhammer gamer or a D&D player, the chances are you can go anywhere in the world and find a gaming group for your game. You’ll always be able to find other players and for social games that is very important.

The third effect is vendor lock-in. If you’ve spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on rulebooks and minis, you usually want to get some use out of them, and most people on a limited budget are not foaming at the mouth to spend the same amount of money again just to play another game.

All of these are things that work in Blizzard’s favour and make it unlikely that there will ever be a WoW-killer. They basically own the subscription-based MMO slot. The network effect is very strong because these are social games. I have friends, family and Guild in WoW. One of the reasons I play is simply to hang out. Unless all my friends move at once to another game, things are likely to stay that way.

In terms of vendor lock-in, it’s not a question of money. It’s a question of time. I shudder to think of how many hours I have put in levelling and grinding gear. This is a huge investment in time. I am not mad keen to replicate it in another game. 

In the foreseeable future I can picture a long, slow decline for WoW but it’s hard to imagine it being toppled. I can picture it eventually becoming technologically outdated but not destroyed by a competitor operating on the same basis, not unless someone at Blizzard royally screws up anyway.

So where does this put my new favourite Guild Wars 2? It has its own slot—it’s buy once, play forever, no subscription, no need to buy anything for the full game experience. It is offering something different from WoW. It has already hit two million sales. Can I imagine it hitting 12 million plus sales — the number of subscribers WoW had at its peak? Yes, but these need not be active players—people can buy the game and stop playing still count as a sales. Presumably ArenaNet has factored all this into its revenue model. Making twelve million sales is still not the same in terms of revenue as having twelve million subscribers—that is 12 million sales plus a monthly income stream.

One last point I would like to make is that some of the same factors work in publishing, which is why it is a bit silly to imagine that you can become as big as J K Rowling by writing young adult stories about boy wizards at glorified public schools for magic. That’s already been done and J K Rowling owns the spot.

Obviously this has not stopped people trying and it has not stopped publishers publishing such things, but I suspect that is more because the success of Harry Potter has proven that there is a market for such books than because they will equal Harry Potter’s sales. It’s one reason I don’t shrink from trying something new like the cyberpunk reboot of Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian books in Sky Pirates or the weird gunpowder military fantasy of the Terrarch novels. They are not only the books my personal demons drove me to write, they are something different. There may be no breakout market for them, but if I am ever to find one, I won’t do so by copying what’s popular right now.

Anyway, Pandaria is now go and I am off to take a look at it.

Postscript— yes, I wrote the above while waiting for Mists of Pandaria to go live last night. As fate would have it, Blizzard activated the expansion five minutes earlier than they said they would on my server at least and I was there.

What did I think?

Well…I got exactly what I expected; a lot of lag, crowds so great I could not see the quest givers and the realisation that WoW certainly does not look dead to me. It reminded me of the Wrath of the Liche King launch in most every way. It wasn’t a lot of fun though so I decided to wait until things calm down a bit and went to bed. I’ll give you my thoughts on the land of kick-boxing Pandas once I’ve had a chance to explore.

Guild Wars Third Impressions

I am a couple of weeks into Guild Wars 2 and have had time to poke around a bit, get over the initial glitz of the launch and see a bit more of the world. What do I think now?gw003

I am still impressed. If anything I am more impressed now than when I started. An incredible amount of work has gone into this game, giving it a level of polish in the world-building that I don’t think I have seen in an MMO before. It’s not just that the game is beautiful; it is clearly a labour of love. Look at the way your characters head turns to follow your target in combat. Listen to the children chatter away in the background in the city. It’s also that the game is very much itself– the lore is its own, the world is its own, it does not remind me very much of anything.

GW2 is very clearly the work of people who have given a lot of thought to what works in MMOs and what does not. A simple example of this is tagging of nodes and monsters. In most games, if someone hits a monster, it is theirs for the xp and the loot. No one else gets either. In GW2 anybody who takes part in a fight gets the xp and loot if there is any.

In Guild Wars 2 anybody can collect resources from any node. One of my least favourite things in World of Warcraft is clearing the area around a mining point only to have some scumbag drop from the sky and ninja the ore while I am fighting the monsters who were defending it. The people at ArenaNet have chosen not to allow this to happen.

Indeed one of the nicest things about GW2 is that you are not locked in some sort of furious Darwinian competition for every kill and find. It actually encourages you to stop and help. It encourages cooperation.

The dynamic questing system is a refinement of many of the trends of the past few years in MMOs. Believe it or not, back in the day, in Burning Crusade, when I first got into WoW, I used to read every bit of quest text. I did this not only because I was interested but because it was usually the only way of working out where to go and what to do. This was before I had ever heard of Quest Helper or the successor system that Blizzard built right into WoW. Back in those days your targets did not simply appear on your map with bosses helpfully mapped. You actually had to figure out where they were from what the quest giver told you.

In some ways I kind of miss those days, at least until I imagine wading through pages and pages of quest text, but the truth is that not many people do read the text these days. They show up at the NPC with the exclamation mark over their head, collect the quest, do what’s needed and return. If you’re going to have a system like this, better it is done the way GW2 does it. When you are in an area where a quest is active, it shows up on screen automatically and a progress bar fills as you achieve objectives. When you’re done, a message shows up and the rewards are given. You don’t need to run back across half a zone just to turn in the quest and get what is coming to you.

A lot of this is simply a result of GW2’s financial model. You buy the game and then you get to play it for as long as the servers are online. You don’t need to pay a subscription. This means the people at ArenaNet don’t need to find make-work work for you, just to keep you grinding away. (My least favourite example of this ever was the way WoW used to make you walk across huge zones just to deliver quests and pick up new ones. Yes, I’m looking at you, long trudge between Ironforge and Menethil harbour.) They don’t need to delay the epic stuff till end game either, a carrot dangled in front of you to keep you motivated. There’s plenty of epic stuff in the early stages of GW2, monsters like end game raid bosses show up and ravage towns just for the hell of it. Small armies of PCs gather to take them down.

Map travel is a blessing that comes from the lack of grind. You want to go somewhere? Call up the map (push M on your keyboard) and click on the waypoint and you are there. You don’t need to spend ten minutes flying across continent. (To be fair, when I first played WoW I loved this. I loved the sweeping views of Azeroth as I skimmed over its war-torn lands. It got old the hundredth time I had to do it though.)

I like also the fact that in GW2 you get experience for pretty much everything. Crafting, healing other players, exploring. It all feels pretty dynamic and keeps you progressing. It’s a big world too with lots of interesting systems that I feel I have barely scratched the surface of.

gw002

This is a game that makes it easy to be a casual player. You can just drop in and drop out. I can already hear a few diehard grinders shouting, this is a symptom of the dumbing down of MMOs. I prefer to think of it as taking the boring bits out. So far I have been playing GW2 in relatively short bursts, a half hour or an hour at a time, rising to a couple of hours on the weekends. I log out where I am standing usually and re-enter the world where I need to pick things up.

As you can probably gather I would still recommend Guild Wars 2 on the third impression.

Guild Wars 2: Second Impressions

On Friday, I upgraded my computer just so I could play Guild Wars 2 and I am glad I did. As the owner of one of Asus’s Republic of Gamers laptops I am now in a position to really appreciate all the work that has gone into this game. The world now looks like all the screenshots on blog posts and magazines. It’s jaw-dropping. The special effects when you use a spell or skill are lavish. When you get a group of people fighting together it’s like an explosion in a fireworks factory, and I mean that in a good way.

Graphically GW2 is stunning but that’s not what excites me. It’s that the world is so damnably well done. This is the first game in a very long time where I have sunk serious amounts of time into simply exploring, walking around, climbing on things, looking at views. I am excited by this in a way I haven’t been since I first got into Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy back in the 90s. There is a real sense of visiting a place that is strange and different. For the first time in a very, very long time the Sense of Wonder glands in my gamer’s brain are being tickled.

The Black Citadel, the Char capital, is simply boggling to wander around, a vast half-finished Steampunk metropolis built on the ruins of what looks to be the former human capital of Ascalon in Guild Wars 1. Remnants of the older human structures, litter the place, like bomb-blasted remnants of an earlier war, while gigantic steel and brass structures loom over them. There are vehicle parks full of monstrous tanks, huge balconies that give you sweeping views over the city and the surrounding lands, giant statues of heroes that speak of the history of the place. People wander everywhere, players and non-players alike.

The other night I found the Asura Gates that lead to the other main cities and took a brief jaunt to the capitals of the different races and to the Free City of Lion’s Arch. I saw them only briefly but they all appear to be just as detailed and just as striking as Black Citadel. In particular I was struck by the Sylvari capital where what looked like helicopters of swirling leaf carried heavy loads overhead. For the first time in a long time I have been boggled by something I have seen in a game.

In terms of gameplay I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is that I find so appealing about this game, and I haven’t quite got there yet. I have seen elements that I have liked in other games. Dynamic questing most notably in Rifts and in Warhammer Online. I think that in part its because the game system is different. Both of those other games had interfaces and game mechanics very much like World of Warcraft. In the end, I felt that if I was going to play a WoW clone, I might as well play WoW where I have guild, friends and family, and a huge investment of time.

GW2 is different enough a game so that it does not feel at all like WoW. The combat is more dynamic and the way things work is different enough so that I have a sense of novelty. One example of this is the way weapons work. As I’ve said before you get different skills on your hotbar depending on what weapon is equipped. One nice touch is that if you equip different combinations of dual wield weapons you get different combinations of skills on the hotbar. These even vary depending on which hand you have the weapons equipped in so, for example main hand sword, off-hand axe gives you different skills from main-hand axe, off-hand sword. My Char warrior has settled down to using a rifle for his ranged weapon and a main-hand sword, off-hand axe combo. This gives me the speed and mobility of the sword, and allows some excellent area effect attacks when needed, at the cost of some protection.

Some of the appeal is simple novelty. There is a lot to be said for not knowing exactly how everything works and not being forced to shoehorn yourself into a certain build to achieve optimum DPS efficiency. Right now no one has any real idea what optimum is, and so there is a sense of discovery about the whole thing. I don’t know how long this honeymoon period will last but its enjoyable right now.

One thing I find interesting is that I am enjoying the process of levelling, a thing I long ago got bored with in WoW. I am not simply grinding through things. I am having fun exploring the world, teaming up with other people and going through my personal story. I have not even dipped into PvP yet which was my main reason for being interested in the game. GW1 had the best and most balanced PvP of any MMO I had experienced. There was no need to grind gear. GW2 duplicated this. I’ll doubtless write more about this in the future.

Guild Wars 2: First Impressions

I’ve been looking forward to Guild Wars 2 for a couple of years now, ever since I read the earliest press releases from the developers. I was a big fan of the original game and the folks at ArenaNet were talking about a lot of exciting new stuff for the next iteration. As you can see here, I was so psyched by the release of the latest version I did something I have never done before, I bought the Collector’s Edition (pictures courtesy of my lovely wife, Radka).

GW2 Box

Rytlock

The Collectors edition comes with a very fine statuette of the Char hero Rytlock, a collection of prints of some of the concept art and a frame for one of them, a CD of the games music, a book about the making of the game, the disks for the game, and the activation code needed to create your account.

Contents 2

All of this is contained in a very nice tin with a map of Tyria embossed on the lid.

Tin

You also get some exclusive in-game items such as a golem banker and some tomes. I don’t know what some of these do because I have not tried them yet. All of the physical stuff is of very high quality indeed.

I got the package on the 28th and when I finished work, I began the long process of installing the game. In this case, it consisted of sticking the game disks in the drive and waiting for it to install. Once that was done, some time around 8 pm, it began to download updates and content. This took something like 3 hours. I spent the time watching the Wire and flicking through the Making of Guild Wars 2 book, which contains some truly stunning concept art. There was one nasty surprise. I tried the email activation and was told the link was out of date and the game could not be activated. Checking on-line I discovered this was a known issue and all you needed to do was hit Play once the game was fully installed. It would run just fine. Phew!

Around 11 pm-ish, the game was finally read to roll and filled with excitement I began the character creation process. I had already decided I was going to play a Char warrior. I like the Char. They have that whole steampunk thing going for them. For the Warhammer fans among you not familiar with Guild Wars lore, think of a cross between a beastman and a Skaven. They are predatory cat-folk with lots of alpha male/female conflict going on, a military society organised into legions. They were the villains of the original Guild Wars game but now they are a PC race.

I chose to play warrior because it was supposedly the simplest of the classes to master and because I have never really played one all that much in other RPGs. They are the only class I have not levelled to at least 80 in World of Warcraft for instance.

The character creation process was streamlined and interesting and only took a few minutes including such things as customising the size and type of my characters horns. (Hey such things are important!) Character creation complete, I was ready to dive into the game.

Imagine my horror then when I get an error message telling me there was a problem connecting with the log-in server most likely caused by security software or firewall conflicts. Multiple attempts later and all my security and firewall setting checked, I still can’t get in. I do a quick internet search and discover I am not the only one having this problem. Around midnight, I call it a day, still not having played the game. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. Still such things are to be expected at launch.

Wednesday evening, I have no problem at all getting into the game but find I have another problem, although this one not of ArenaNet’s making. Frame rates are about 19 or less per second which gives everything a very jerky, unsettling appearance. My three year old Asus PC runs World of Warcraft just fine, never drops below 30 frames per second even in crowded capital cities like Stormwind. It appears that GW2 is not quite as well optimised for older machines as WoW.

I fight my way through the opening missions in a peculiar strobing jerky sort of way. The missions themselves are just great. I am on a war-front being yelled at by senior officers, thrown into a battle with angry human ghosts, and eventually facing a boss battle with an undead king and a sort of animated statue.

Here I first encounter what is one of the great differences between GW2 and most other MMOs I have played. I am surrounded by other players and we are all sort of fighting together, not exactly cooperating but its pretty clear we are all on the same side and in this together. There’s no kill or loot stealing because all the rewards are individually assigned. And there are a lot of other people around. It is kind of crazy and kind of cool, and all too quickly I am out the other side and into the Plains of Ashford.

At this point it finally occurs to me that I can resolve the frame rate issue by dropping my screen resolution way down so I do. Things speed up to a respectable 30 FPS at the cost of the graphics becoming coarse and slightly distorted. You know all those beautiful screenshots you see of Tyria? Well, that’s not how they look on my machine. For me, the graphics are not even as good as the original Guild Wars but, to tell the truth, that does matter because the gameplay is so good.

Why is this? Damned if I can put my finger on any one thing. Its a combination of factors. The first is ease of play. I never read the manual. I just wandered into the game with no real idea of what was going on just vague memories of the original Guild Wars, and it was a blast from the get-go. I started, as everyone does with only one weapon skill on my hotbar but these swiftly filled up as I progressed, adding new forms of attack with my trust sword. When I equipped my mighty hammer, looted from a downed foe, I got a whole new set of skills to develop.

Right there was one thing I liked. Different weapons give you different abilities and they feel different. The sword was one handed and fast. The hammer was two handed but slow. It took some time to swing and was thus easier to interupt but when it did the results were powerful and devastating. I was knocking folk over, throwing mobs back, inflicting heavy debuffs. When I finally got a shield equipped with my sword, I could block with it and interupt with it. Weapons feel different and they feel right, at least in the context of a high energy fantasy world. There is attention to detail here.

There is attention to detail in the world too. The Char opening missions convey beautifully the sense of their highly militarised and somewhat internally divided society. Char steamtech litters the landscape of Ashford and the Black Citadel, the capital city of the Char, does indeed resemble a steampunk version of the Death Star as more than one reviewer has pointed out.

Then there are the crowds. In a game like WoW, you don’t in general want to see crowds. It means competition for mobs and resources and the drawing out to great length of all those kill ten rats missions. In GW2 there are constant ongoing group missions, for you to take part in. They scale according to the number of people in the area and they are frantic, chaotic and fun. I’ve seen this before, most notably in Rifts, but it marks a major change in the way the GW series works.

The original GW was heavily instanced, meaning that when you and your party left the social areas for the adventure zones you went into your own individual version of the adventure. There was no one else around to help or hinder you, the world was empty of players and heavy with NPCs. It made for a realistic solo narrative but was pretty lonely once you were out adventuring. GW2 is the opposite. Most of the time, the world positively teems with other people, going about their business.

Instancing is not entirely gone, nor are the teams of helpful NPCs you could recruit in the original game. They make a return in story mode, which is, as the name suggests the personal narrative of your character. I am guessing story mode is somewhat influenced by those initial decisions you made in character creation. Certainly the person I mentioned as my best buddy during character creation showed up as the only surviving member of my wiped out unit once the storyline got under way. The story itself soon found me in conflict with my bullying but cowardly superior officer as he attempted to shift the blame for his own incompetence onto my guiltless shoulders. The voice acting was good and the story itself engrossing as it intermingled with my own adventures in greater Tyria. I don’t want to say more for fear of giving away spoilers. Sufficeth to say that I am recruiting my own warband in classic Dirty Dozen style.

Anyway, my first nine levels in Tyria have so far consisted of a lot of frantic group quests, high octane battles and a crash course in Char warrior culture. The world is beautifully detailed and has a real sense of place.

Don’t believe the hype about GW2 being the end of collect ten rats style questing. It has some nice new wrinkles and not so many NPC standing around with big icons over their heads but you still find yourself sent out to kill things or to fetch and carry for NPCs who seem incapable of walking the length of a city street for themselves. Supposedly one of the big differences is that actions have consequences. If you allow quest givers to be killed in a certain area or quests hubs to be over-run, the quests cease to be available until the interlopers are driven off. So far I have seen no evidence of this, possibly because any invading force foolish enough to try and eliminate the local quest givers is met with lethal force by a small army of player characters. Presumably, as the legion of newly arrived PCs spreads out throughout the world and the PC per square foot density thins out, this will change.

One thing I really like is that the world goes on around you. When you complete a group quest that forces a large enemy force to retreat, you don’t just fight on until the enemy are dead. They don’t simply disappear either. They run away! You can chase them. It’s a nice touch and the game is full of them.

There’s a lot more I could go on about, and I probably will, but right now I am approaching 2000 words on this post and I need to stop somewhere.

Conclusions? I am excited by GW2 in a way that I have not been by an MMO in a long time. I like the world and I like the game system a lot. There is no sense of having to grind through things. From the get go its been interesting and a ton of fun. There’s no monthly subscription either. You just buy the game and your good to go.

Would I recommend GW2? Hell, yeah.