For more than a year, free-to-play MMO Guild Wars 2 has been giving other games in the online arena a run for their money, and one of the main reasons for this is its aggressive update schedule. After seeing the inevitable post-launch player base drop, developer ArenaNet set itself the task of adding new content every two weeks, in hopes of drumming up new interest in the game. On paper, such an objective sounds great. Who wouldn't enjoy a near-constant infusion of fresh material? Of course like so many other things in life, such an objective is easier to proclaim than to achieve, as ArenaNet has no doubt discovered.
After its auspicious launch, Guild Wars 2 has seen countless updates, all of which have altered the game in one way or another. Some have been of the housekeeping sort (such as the one designed to foil rampant account hacking) and others, like Living Story, have been added just for fun. Over the last fifteen months, the already large world of Tyria has been augmented with things like mini-dungeons, guild missions, guesting, jumping puzzles (urgh), weapons and enemies. ArenaNet development Chief Mike O'Brien bragged in August of this year that Guild Wars 2 was the most frequently updated MMO in existence. His statement takes for granted that this is a boon, but the quality of the game's updates and the players' collective response to them seems to indicate otherwise.
Anyone who plays Guild Wars 2 knows what I'm talking about. If not, you need only read the Guild Wars 2 forums, official and otherwise. While it's true that people are more likely to post when they're bugged than when they're satisfied, it's hard to ignore the many negative discussions regarding updates. A good portion of these relate to the game's temporary content. It's a funny thing, but we MMO players often think we want our actions to have a permanent effect on the game world. We should as they say, be careful what we wish for...
At the heart of Guild Wars 2's twice-monthly updates is something called Living Story. This concept has the dev team inserting temporary narrative events that have lasting effects on the game world. Individual stories go on for a few days to several weeks, and players who participate in them are given special Achievements, titles and rewards. Important aspects of the game world are altered forever once the event is over, and the community's reaction to this has been illustrative of the MMO-maker's perpetual quandary. We MMO fans have this paradoxical desire to have our Chocolate Omnomberry Cake and eat it too. We criticize games that make things too easily available, then gripe when someone else gets something we don't. The truth of it is, most of us like the idea of our actions altering the world—it's other people altering things we're not so crazy about.
In various ways, ArenaNet has given us what we say we want, and still we're not happy. We wanted to feel we matter more; it gave us personal stories and we complained that Guild Wars 2 feels like a single, rather than multiplayer game. We said that we'd burned through the content already and were bored so ArenaNet came up with a bi-monthly update schedule to enhance the game's attractions; we groused about bugs and narrative banality. We claimed we wanted our actions to have a meaningful effect on the game world; ArenaNet created events wherein our actions changed everything and we complained when things didn't go our way. It seems that despite having created updates that range from the silly (Super Adventure Box) to the serious (Cutthroat Politics) ArenaNet's narrative experiment is consistently met with disappointment. Why? Well, aside from our tendency to be hypercritical, there are a couple of good reasons.
When you first start playing Guild Wars 2, you're amazed by its beauty and by the sheer amount of incidental activity. The latter not only makes the game world feel alive, it gives you ample reason to veer off the main quest chain. For players who like to look at everything and talk to everyone, the best things about Guild Wars 2 are its optional side quests and events. Explorers and completionists like doing things in their own time, and nothing undermines that like a ticking clock.
Taking part in Guild Wars 2's Living Story is like being on a tour bus that tries to squeeze in the Roman Colosseum, Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower in less than three days; you're so busy jumping on and off the bus, you never really get to enjoy anything. The stories set you on a series of hamster wheels that force you to run, run, run in order to avoid missing things, and where's the fun in that? Moreover, once you've fallen behind on this temporary content, (not to mention daily/monthly content) your achievement perfection goal is permanently shot.
Aside from time constraints, another issue with the temporary content is its close ties to the game's gem store. Many players see this relationship as a ploy on ArenaNet's part to get them to spend money and considering ArenaNet's not a charity, those players are probably not wrong. This wouldn't be a problem for most of us though, if we felt we were getting quality content for the money; at the moment however, that's not really the case. Thus far, ArenaNet's ambitious update schedule has accomplished two things: it's set player expectation high and dashed that expectation to bits. Updates have not only been underwhelming, they've been rife with fun-killing bugs. Regardless of its staggered development schedule and multiple dev teams, ArenaNet is clearly struggling to maintain standards.
Despite Mike O'Brien's optimism, becoming the most-updated MMO in existence hasn't been good for Guild Wars 2. While no one debates the usefulness of bug fixes and balancing, the influx of inadequate, slip-shod, temporary content has not only put undue pressure on the development team, it's inadvertently applied the thumb screws to players as well.
At this point, many of us have become disenchanted to one degree or another with Guild Wars 2 and would prefer that ArenaNet admit the errors inherent in its update program. We'd also applaud the developer for returning to a more reasonable update schedule so long as new content is worthwhile and stable. However it chooses to proceed in the future, ArenaNet's dealing with a demanding, highly specialized audience and as such, would do well to remember one thing—no matter how resolute its development approach, its world will never be as persistent as its players.