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The Gathering Storm

Jason Winter Posted:
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Quiet week, huh?

So, yeah, there was a tiny bit of shouting this week after an interview with some members of the Guild Wars 2 team from Gamescom went up on teh Intrawebz. Before I get into analyzing what was discussed, let's talk a little bit about the interview itself.

It says that the interviewers “asked the Guild Wars 2 community for questions they’d like to put to ArenaNet developers.” Not surprisingly, they got all the hot-button issues that have been asked about for months and years, the sort of things that, if ArenaNet had something to say on them, they'd probably say it. There was really no way that any answer short of “Yes, we're going to do everything you want and do it now” would have been acceptable.

I get that the interviewers were probably eager to get face time with the devs and ask them those hard-hitting, top-of-the-list community-driven questions, but there was never going to be a satisfactory result. The interviewees either had to lie or, as they did, beat around the bush for a hundred or so words while saying effectively “no” or “not now.” It was a lose-lose situation.

Box of Matches

If we move on to the somewhat heated response the interview received, there's a natural tendency to say, “Well, that's just the Internet being the Internet.” Forums blow up, Reddit lights itself on fire, and people stage protests around the Super Adventure Box.

While you could argue that a few folks overreacted, this isn't just a fringe group of players, like the “10% of players who raid/visit forums/roleplay,” etc. Sure, the vast majority of GW2 players probably don't participate in the online community, but the response was so overwhelmingly negative, even from folks who I know to be big fans of the game and totally rational “I love ANet”-type thinkers, that it's hard to think all the flames were fanned by a few isolated malcontents.

And also, if you would dismiss the brouhaha as the “forum-dwelling 10-percenters,” then why would ArenaNet have an entire branch of their company devoted to monitoring and interacting with those people? These are the exact people the community team is supposed to be dealing with – and I certainly don't envy them their jobs this past week.

So why did this interview, these topics, create the firestorm of controversy we're dealing with today? Are Super Adventure Box or first-person view really that important? In the grand scheme of things, not really. Instead, I think the issue is that players are expecting one kind of thing and the devs are planning to deliver another. It just so happened that the interview hit upon several of those points all at once and melded them all together into some kind of hodgepodge of fractured hopes and seemingly broken promises.

A group effort

Here's how I think of it: When an MMO is in development, players might have vague ideas of what they want, but the developers are in charge. They know the game better than anyone else, and it's their job to pull it all together and create a large, coherent, exciting world. Developers may solicit some opinions, but it's up to them to conceive and create virtually everything in the game.

As a game matures, however, that “knowledge base” shifts. The players gain immense knowledge of the game through playing it, and while it may not technically be “more” than the people making it, the gap can be pretty small, and it's likely that some players have indeed spent more time in the game than, say, the lead designer.

And a million-plus players combined have certainly spent more time and have more overall experience in the game than the entire ArenaNet staff combined. That makes them experts, not only in their own mind, but also reality, and it gives them the right to express valid opinions on what the game should do to continue to be entertaining.

For better or worse, ArenaNet has doubled and tripled down on Living Story as the main vehicle for delivering new content. For the most part, I like the Living Story. I like that we get regular hits of gameplay and story every two weeks. It's not perfect, but if the alternative is waiting half a year for new content updates, I'll generally take this.

It's clear, too, that where we are right now in the Living Story has been planned for years. We're just now seeing the fruits of secret labors wrought by writers and lore-keepers for probably around half a decade. The true nature of the sylvari and their connection to Mordremoth was certainly planned from day one, and the writers are gleefully ecstatic that they're finally getting to show everyone what they've been working at for so long. I, for one, want to see how it all turns out.

That said, if you told me “no Living Story for the next six months, but you get to craft precursors”... well, I'd have to give that some serious consideration. It's not that I don't like the Living Story, but the perception is there, right or wrong, that it's replacing all the other stuff we really want to see.

Feature bleep

As I was writing this, Mike O'Brien posted on the official forums, so ArenaNet has clearly taken notice of the week's events. Two things in his message stick out: One, should the approach still be to announce something “when it's ready”? With the new wave of open development sweeping through the games industry, developers are showing off their creations earlier and earlier and asking the community to help them shape it. Bad ideas get tossed out, not by a handful of developers in a closed room or a small, isolated focus group, but by the people who they were supposedly designed for. Of course, when you're telling a story, you don't want it to be spoiled early, but non-story-related game mechanics would seem to be perfectly suited for this community-driven approach. Not wanting to announce something until it's “ready” is a fine way to prevent unrealistic expectations from players and to make a big splash when it's finally announced, but it might not be the best way to actually implement features. Game development is changing, and a forward-thinking company like ArenaNet should be on that cutting edge.

Then there's this: “In general the simple truth is this: when we’re not currently working on something, it’s because we’re working on something else instead that we think is more important for the game and community.”

I don't sit in on development meetings and know what's easy to implement, what's hard, what ArenaNet has the resources/personnel to produce, and so on. To be fair, ArenaNet has addressed concerns and adjusted their methods before, whether it be the implementation of permanent content, the wardrobe system, or even upcoming changes to the commander tag. And you can't please everyone, no matter how hard you try.

But I think we've reached the point where what ArenaNet thinks is important isn't necessarily what the players think is important. (“You wouldn't like first-person view because it would be confusing in combat.”) That vital bit of trust, the notion that ArenaNet knows what's better for us, an idea that was so prevalent in the months and years leading up to launch, when we salivated over every little “we're making a different kind of MMO and you're going to love it” morsel of information, has been badly eroded over the past couple years and it's going to be very difficult to reverse that trend.

Shaping a new world together

To put it another way, it's not just ArenaNet's game any more. OK, legally and technically it is, but you know what I mean. The game doesn't exist without the community. We players aren't “entitled” to receive anything from ArenaNet. Similarly, ArenaNet isn't “entitled” to any more of our time and money if we don't receive what we want. It's a two-way street, a little like the First Amendment argument – you have the right to create whatever you want, and we have the right to pay as much or as little attention to it as we please.

To put it yet another way: ArenaNet is no longer the sole creator of Guild Wars 2. ArenaNet and the fans now create Guild Wars 2. That's what nearly every MMO strives for: a rich and vibrant community that helps shape the game for years. And right now, some of those creators are very, very upset with the direction “their” creation is taking.

A lot of people want to see a lot of things, things they've waited for patiently for a very long time: precursor crafting, Cantha, Elona, first-person view, guild vs. guild, guild halls, cross-server guild functionality, guild just-about-anything, and yes, the return of Super Adventure Box, to name a few. For the most part, no express promises have been made and broken, so I wouldn't say, “They promised we'd go to Cantha! PROMISED! /cry”

Still, that stuff is quietly assumed, and talked about enough and requested enough that they'd be fools not to listen. And when we see tons of work and effort going into other things, we assume that those have the priority and the things we really want, that we've been requesting for for years, are so far down the priority list, that they may never come at all. As some people think, gameplay is being sacrificed so that story may be delivered. That's what's at the heart of the current maelstrom.

The Living Story will continue, as it should. Right now, we're in the midst of a mid-season break, and the only immediate thing we have to look forward to is the September Feature Pack. I think it's highly unlikely that it'll address any of these recent issues.

But I think it would do ArenaNet well to be cognizant of this growing discontent and take steps to address many of the fans' long-standing concerns – even if it means deviating from their well-thought-out, years-long plans.


Jason Winter