|State of the Game PvE #47: The Counter-Revolutionary Gaming Republic
Autor: 4thVariety, letztes Update: 28.10.2012
It happened a long time ago in a far away enchanted forest. In fact, so long ago that people had not even started to refer to every game by three letter abbreviations. Facing each other, there were a plethora of bedazzled heroes standing in this forest. Amazed, because each other hero they saw was a real human being, behind a real computer and suddenly everybody had the epiphany that there was more to the Internet than Flame, Warez and Boobs. Strictly speaking, the game they played was not a teamgame, but rather a “next-to-each-other” game. You just selected a bite sized enemy based on his level and never ran in any danger of dying. Any hero could easily withstand what was tossed at him and soon became rather relaxed while ridding the world of all colors of slime there were. The balance was such that one player can kill at least one monster with ease. There were different classes, but only for show. Anybody could defeat anything while taking on the role of mighty magician, bodacious barbarian, or transfluxuating greenbold. It made no difference, because there was no difference, each player had the same role of being a mighty hero defeating the forces of red dot. The role of other players was only to be there and provide a soothing shower of psychological calming, that It was ok to play such a strange game, since, you see.. they are all doing it as well. This social dimension was the defining novelty which pulled players into the game. As soon as you were just looking at it from a purely mechanical perspective the enchanted forest was not looking that exciting. Which was no problem, because if you can sell a dumb game based on excellent graphics, you sure as hell can sell a dumb game with an online gimmick. Even at a time when Internet access was paid by the minute. Some day, though, this enchanted forest became the breeding ground of...
State of the Game PvE #47: The Counter-Revolutionary Gaming Republic
At some point, all was not well in fantasy land. Because after a while, players had seen every number, had clicked every button and had argued every inflammatory topic in /allchat. Beyond this point, the game started to look a bit rubbish, so it was high time somebody was calling for a revolution: team play. Since all these players happened to be in the same area anyway, why not play as a team? Offline games had long since pulled off the trick of one player controlling an entire group, so why not distribute the individual parts of one such group on multiple players? There weren't really a great many real-time games to draw from and certainly even less online games, but the customer was right, it really was time for a revolution. But not at the expense of destroying the rest of the content over it. Hence the “endgame” was conceived, by adding something on top of the existing game. In short, the part of the game you play, when the novelty of just killing monsters next to each other has worn off. Provided, the combat simulation portion of the game can manage to pull such a feat.
Very soon it was clear that in a team, not everybody can be the quarterback. Distinctive roles had to be found for different team members. Those roles were derived from the combat simulation part of the game. At the very least, any game which aspires to simulate combat has to deal with the aspects of incoming damage, outgoing damage and the processing of received damage. The innovation was simply that no single player could do all of that at the same time the way he was forced to do when slaying slime on his own in the woods. The balance of the monsters was quickly adjusted to new levels. They now dealt too much damage and had way too many hitpoints. At the same time, the generalists classes were turned into specialists. Only this class could take a punch to the face from such a new type of monster. Only another class was able to heal away the resulting damage and only a third class was able to deal enough damage. Each ability came at the expense of the other two, trinity was born. Not everybody who was into clobbering monsters in the woods liked it, but the revolution could not be stopped.
It was the latest novelty to keep customers busy. A player's avatar gained more character, because there was something to differentiate the classes from each other. A sword and a lightning bolt were no longer different textures on the same underlying idea of dealing over 9000dps, they were a piece of a role you had to play. This separation into two parts became expected in the same way a two part separation into PvE and PvP was expected. There was fighting enemies you could take on your own and there were group events with distinctive roles, a.k.a endgame. This was the law, the customer's expectation and the way the press was pitched games in private rooms showing off vertical slices of MMOs. Two ways of playing one game. Sometimes the “endgame” crept into the open world at early levels, sometimes instances were made for low levels long before the end of the game. Trinity was one player expertly pushing buttons to survive, one player supporting him in this endeavor and one player throwing around damage. Combined with a bit of casual slaughter in the woods, it was a surefire way to recoup your costs of development without having to bend over to the “10.000 rules of certification” a console manufacturer would toss at a studio.
One fateful day Guild Wars 1 came along. It had two major selling points for the PvE crowd. One was an excessively sized skill collection component, similar to Pokemon or a trading card game. The other was the unconditional enforcing of having to play as a group. “No group – you die” are the first three rules of GW1. Either you get your guildmates, some pugs, or computer-controlled team members. Save only for some degenerate farm builds, no player ever feels as if he was the hero saving the world on his own. There is no such thing as the lone hero and certainly there is no killing monsters next to each other in the woods. You are a team, you shall fight an entire instance. Guild Wars 1 went all out for a state most other games would have described as their end game: coordinated PvE. A total embrace of a new idea which had already proven itself at that time and at the utter expense of everything which came before; a substitution instead of a complement. There was certainly no shortage of players who considered this to be awesome, but there were still plenty of folks who would rather have casually clicked on things next to each other in the woods; even just a little. What is there to say other than that the psychological primers of previous games do not go away as easy. Maybe tastes being different and markets being large, if you want to delve into cliches.
Yet, sooner or later every game has run its course and stops being entertaining. Butchering monsters next to each other in the woods became tiresome, as did trinity eventually. High time for another revolution. At this point, one usually expects an escalation of gameplay mechanics, an iteration if you will. Compare it to a jump & run game, which progresses from jumps into double-jumps, then wall jumps, then running jumps, then triple crested flying double wall jumps and so on and so forth. In the same way, you could imagine Trinity growing onto a “Pentinity”, or Spetinity, while still serving the same three underlying combat problems of having to deal with incoming damage, heal away the residual damage and deal damage at the same time. Not so ArenaNet, who divined that things had grown too complicated. Which is why they proclaimed a conter-revolution: Trinity must die! Never mind the fact of trinity being the direct response to criticism which originated in the very absence of trinity. With Zen-like patience, ArenaNet repeated the mantra of nobody wanting to wait on a healer ad infinitum. Never mind also that ArenaNet's existing skill system already was the perfect basis to uncouple the role a player has on a team from the class he is playing. The game even went so far as doing this already, be it Ele-Healers and Monk-Nukers. Minion Masters and Paragons were also blurring the lines of the old tank-heal-dps divide.
But there was no stopping the counter-revolution now and after PR carpet bombed everybody with a few interviews, they were excited for the upcoming death of trinity on a level usually reserved for drunken fans in front of a football stadium the night before kick-off. Because if anything defines the last decade, it is a blind unquestioned belief in anything you read in an advertisement. A readiness to fall into a deep religious fervor of fandom, fueled by canned cheers at conventions, if need be. No longer do you need a demo to make a sale, you need advertisement and then sell the demo! Nobody imagined the fallout of trinity being gone, they just lifted the scenario from ads designed to calm down and turn a blind eye. What the death of trinity really meant only slowly became clear, after people had killed mobs long enough next to each other and were now idly sitting around in Orr, the certified residency of superior evil. There players waited for events to respwan and the farming to resume. A state which players reach faster these days, because the basics of the game were mastered years before its release and multiplayer on its own is a far cry from being novel enough to retain anybody. The fact of the players farming undead farmers and their chicken is like a sad passive-aggressive meta comment on the state of the game, made by the people deciding on what monsters populate the most dangerous areas. It strengthens my belief that Jormag himself will be surrounded by ice cream parlors where disturbingly dressed Kodan furries wait the tables.
As far as the open world is concerned, ArenaNet stuck to the old paradigm of every class basically being able to deal with everything tossed at it. Sprinkled with a few group events featuring no distinctive roles and a never-ending leniency towards using rubbish gear. Why buy a green staff level 74 for one silver, when you can just use your blue level 50 staff and run with the zerg, right? With such equipment behaviors in mind, it hardly comes as a surprise, you can level faster by reviving players who were downed by the Claw of Jormag, than actually playing the event. No surprise also, when players are moaning about alleged dungeon difficulty. Sure, the death of trinity eliminated a lot of waiting times on specific roles, but it also sacrificed any specialized roles along with it. When trinity was along, super-strong monsters served a purpose. They helped players perceive their specialist role. They were a catalyst to realize the fact that you are not an invincible hero, but part of a group, whose strength derives from unity and everybody doing that unique thing they can do best. Super-strong monsters in GW2, however, are just that, annoyingly strong monsters. To make matters worse, they are served to players whom the rest of the game cultivated in such a way that they think of themselves as unstoppable killing machines. No longer is there a harmony of players who are very aware of their weaknesses. Instead team players are reduced to being synchronized swimmers, each doing the exact same thing without distinction. On the outside, metal, leather and cloth armor may be reminders of times one by, but in reality, the defensive value is not defined by your type of armor, but rather than the amount of +thoughness you were willing to equip. Which results in no shortage of Elementalists who outperform an endless supply of Warriors and Guardians in Berserker gear. Being the weak clothy is not limited to certain classes, it extends to ignorant players of all professions.
The irony of trinity's death is the spike in difficulty as soon as anything but pushover monsters appear on screen. As it turns out, Tank, DPS and Heal players were suspended in blissful unawareness when it came to the details of each other's role. Since everybody is a hybrid now, the game has gained complexity where players least expected it. Basically, a player has to run in three modes at once now, ever contemplating three questions. Do I have to dodge or pull another defensive option? Do I have time to heal? Is there an opening for attack? Only once an aspriring dungeon player starts to know the right answer to these questions at all times, do we see a shift from the dreaded “Death-Zerg” to a fullrun without dying. The rest of the community struggles to run fast enough from respawn to boss, in an effort to prevent him from going out of battle, thus regaining all his health. The term “repair cost farmer” has established itself to aptly describe this type of player.
But is this really group play, which is happening in the dungeons? Players hardly complement each other. The combo-system is nice, but not a prerequisite for success to defeat a boss. Players are better off, playing their preferred damage moves, using combos as a welcome bonus, instead of a tradeoff. The monsters can be compared in strength to those of trinity times, however, they do not enforce group play. If one divided their health bars and armor values by five, every dungeon would end up being indistinguishable from a personal story mission; albeit a cooler, longer version of it. Instances, the bastions of group mentality are now reduced to the “next-to-each-other” gameplay you know from every other corner of the game, only complemented by a mortal dependency for having to rely on the presence of those other players next to you.
Can you blame a dungeon designer, such as Robert Hrouda, for this? Without any roles to fall back on, it is rather hard for him to enforce teamplay by just adding strong monsters. It is hard to create moments where players work together instead of executing carbon copies of each other's behavior. In a certain way, he must be the saddest schmuck you can think of. Confronted with the expectations of the players and marooned with a class system which sacrificed any chance for old fashioned coordinated PvE on the altar of trinity's death. From time to time, something shines through, though. Dungeons such as the Crucible of Eternity can have their moments of team play, during which different players have different roles. Not in the classic trinity sense of dealing with three aspects of incoming and outgoing damage of course. I am referring to the “Husk” boss encounter, where one part of the team has to weed out barriers and the other part is commandeering exploding robots towards the boss. A good example for exactly the type of itch trinity used to scratch. Sadly enough, events such as this one are a tiny minority, most likely due to the strain they put on precious programming resources. Each such boss encounter is a mini game in itself and has to be coded separately. Even then, events can be hit and miss. I assume anybody who fired lasers at an enhanced destroyer will agree. The difficulty gap from “push button” to “jump in, attack, jump out” is probably the widest in the entire game and happens inside one room.
By comparison, trinity is a one size fits all solution that can easily be mass applied to every encounter. Of course it is possible to create a team game outside that particular tank-heal-dps trinity, if you are willing to envision multiple roles for every encounter and give players the tools to execute these roles. If you want to overcome the uniformity of farming next to each other, you need some division of labor, some roles which are inherently different from each other. Guild Wars 2 is already equipped to introduce these roles, by having a weapon system in which even a pick up weapon can replace skills 1-5 and everybody can gain a temporary specialist role. Sadly, most of the specialist roles and the occasional pick-up weapon never really went anywhere, which is why all dungeon players are mostly restricted to one role. The player who does everything for himself, with four other dudes around doing the same. “Lfm explo only 80 exotic” is the sullen answer of players, creating a new type of gear based build realism and reason to wait forever on team member number five. Never mind one last time how little of an effect that has on characters who are scaled down 30 levels and more. ArenaNet not having publicly documented how downscaling affects different levels of gear is not helping the situation. Why would they? According to their gospel, every class is everything at any time and does not need to rely on anybody. Why would you personally ever want more than that? ArenaNet did not create this fabulous game in a team effort, so it could be ruined by teams.
Such has always been the irony of a counter-revolution. It mindlessly tries to undo the progress achieved by that which came before it. This is how a franchise focused on unconditional group play, a franchise which utterly rejected standing next to each other in an open world clobbering monsters, turned into a franchise which is all about standing next to each other in enchanted forests clobbering monsters. One design extreme was transitioned directly into the opposite design extreme, without any middle ground. However, there is nothing wrong with having both. The players articulate this by clamoring for endgame. Wanting to play this type of content which has this feeling of team play attached to it. This feeling you get when you play Left4Dead instead of Half-Life 2, despite both being the same shooter at their core. ArenaNet tries to wipe these arguments away by declaring the entire game to be “endgame”, which is totally missing the point. It never was about doing something different at the end of the game. It has always been about transporting different types of feelings at different stages in the game. The death of trinity created a giant hole for ArenaNet do dig themselves out of when it comes to creating those feelings of group play. But amazingly the tools to do so are all in place, it is just a long way to dig up and it will take far more programming resources than a Tank-Heal-DPS system slapped on every encounter. In some ways that is great, because it promises fun. But also it can be quite scary, because it might never happen due to being too time consuming. Therefore, until the day that division of labor returns to group play in some form, I declare Tyria to be the first counter-revolutionary gaming republic.