Guild Wars 2 and ass-backwards game design: why we have lived and fought in vain

This is a leftover. I already ranted well before Guild Wars 2’s release anticipating the problems about overflow servers, long queues in PvP and difficulty for social play in general. My point: this was not only obvious to see ahead (which mmorpg doesn’t have launch issues?), but also avoidable for the most part, if they rearranged the game spaces.

The post where I wrote about this at that time is here.

What drew my attention is this:

During this initial surge of high concurrency, and especially while most characters are low-level and thus playing in the same starting areas, it’s common for players to be directed to overflow servers. To play with a friend on a different overflow server, form a party together, then right-click on the friend’s portrait in the party list and click “join”. We expect the use of overflow servers to naturally subside as players spread out more through the world.

The interesting part to me is how bad game design has a naturally tendency to surface on its own. Guild Wars 2 was designed (deliberately AS OPPOSED to Guild Wars 1) as non-instanced PvE.

The game launches and the norm is: instanced PvE. Because overflow servers are the norm, and overflow servers are an instancing mechanic.

When in practice you get (instanced PvE) the opposite of your ideal (non-instanced PvE), then it means your design is quite broken. I say it surfaces on its own because it just won’t take the form you wanted. It misbehaves. Why? Because the patterns you designed are wrong.

Now the line I underlined is also a wrong assumption. Players’ activity will never balance on its own. It doesn’t happen with linear progression games. At the game’s start all players swarm the starting zones and the rest’s empty. Six months down the line there’s no better balance: the end zones are crowded and the rest of the game’s empty. It’s the exact same situation but upside down.

So their assumption (that the use of overflow servers subsides BECAUSE players spread out) is WRONG. What actually happens is that the use of overflow servers subsides, but simply because it’s the high concurrency that also subsides.

This is not nitpicking, because the problem is that you’re designing a PvE that relies on large public events, that will be essentially broken when six months down the line those zones will be almost completely empty (the right answer here is “who cares” since these days mmorpgs are designed to make money fast and become irrelevant in less than a year, as disposable as single-player games. And in GW2’s case players’ retention is actually a THREAT since they don’t have a monthly fee).

The analysis and consequence about GW2 PvE is this:

– RIGHT NOW: lots of problems for people trying to play together. Public events are popular but PvE is instanced.

– SIX MONTHS LATER: PvE is finally non-instanced but there are not enough players to enjoy the public events.

This is what I call “ass-backwards design”. It’s when PvE is finally non-instanced that you want it instanced. Why? Because instancing can be used so that if there are a few players they are put together. And when there are too many, they are split so that gameplay is always optimal.

Guild Wars 2 realized only the first part: that instancing is essential to avoid overcrowding (overflow servers), but they haven’t realized that instancing is also essential later on, to avoid the depopulation of players outside the endgame.

When you realize also that point, you arrive to a simple conclusion: if instanced PvE is a good thing both early (to avoid overcrowding) AND later (to avoid depopulation), then instanced PvE = good.

It’s that simple.

But Guild Wars 2 designers think game design ass-backwards. They try to design PvE non-instanced. And they try to design PvP instanced. Result: queues EVEN on PvP because their PvE server structure doesn’t actually allow to load-balance PvP. They have the WORST in both worlds.

See the post I linked above for a scheme that solves both problems (by putting players into non-instanced PvP server first, and load-balance PvE through instances).

This is the stuff that was being discussed in 2005 and before, try to search the blog for “mudflation” if you want more. Or see Raph Koster, Brad McQuaid and Scott Jennings go at it. Not to say that things at that time were gloriously good, but the fact is that these problems were being at least discussed and today mmorpg game design has seen an enormous decline that is only offset by the technological progress.

Hence, we have lived and fought in vain.

I wanted to add some of the reasons why I won’t buy/play Guild Wars 2. Beside all the above:

– I prefer a consistent personal style (like Dark Souls) to the rainbow colored and theme park oddball settings of GW2 or WoW.
– Zone design looks once again as elaborate cardboard cutout scenery instead of focusing on content that you use and usability in general.
– The combat I’ve seen in videos is overblown with effects of all kinds, from particle effects that obscure your screen to heavy highlights. Whereas I prefer a combat system with tactical transparency (where you can see what happens and can strategize appropriately, even when it gets crowded) and UIs designed to be subtle and unobtrusive.
– PvP in Guild Wars 2 sounds more like enhanced Alterac Valley than enhanced DAoC. No thanks. Too late, not enough.

Mentioning Dark Souls, that’s a game with almost perfect game design on shameless display. Western game design has gone the way of ding, bling, DLCs and trivialities, and looks, honestly, pathetic and unrecoverable.

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