Searching for Skills

 Posted by on December 9, 2011  Guild Wars 2, MMO Gaming
Dec 092011

I wrote this post a couple of weeks back and was really not sure if it was worth posting or not. There’s a lot of negativity bouncing around the Guild Wars 2 universe right now, some deserved, most not, and I didn’t think adding to it was the right thing to do. Re-reading it now, it seems less of a flamefest and more of a constructive criticism so it’s getting a posting. I suggest taking a read of the last section of the G-Star post on the ArenaNet blog dealing with how skill points will be learnt.

Weirdly, its not the notion of repeatedly swinging swords that’s got me a bit worried. Having seen that in action at Gamescom I can attest that the entire process is quite painless. It’s a necessary learning curve for those new to the genre, and a handy “here’s how to use your skills” period for veterans who may otherwise end up going off in the wrong direction. It will take around 20 minutes to fully unlock a weapon type. Hardly painful and in my opinion, an elegant middle ground between two groups of players with different skill levels.

There’s a curious balance to be struck between innovation and the familiar in all games. Players crave something different, but make it too different and they will reject it. Guild Wars 2 is already tearing up a lot of these sacred cows associated with gaming. Will another one, and one that isn’t broken, be too much for traditional gamers to accept? Personally I am not against innovation for it’s own sake. Heck I wouldn’t write about or care about Guild Wars 2 if I didn’t think the outcome of ArenaNet’s labours weren’t a positive change for all gamers. My experiences at Gamescom in the company of a non-MMO gamer proved that they really are going in the right direction – we both came away from the demo happy.

If that weren’t a hard enough equilibrium to get, designers also have to cater to the various gamer personality types. The approach presented to gaining utility skills caters to one particular type of gamer over others – the explorer. You can argue that achievers and socialisers are somewhat catered for, but frankly a core mechanic that forces all types of players to complete a number of skill challenges scattered throughout the world just to make a character viable is asking for it to be a source of complaint. Even as someone who enjoys exploration (hai Rift artifacts, I luvs yoo) I’m getting that chore like feeling just thinking about this system.

Going back to basics as Guild Wars 2 has so much, there’s an expectation that your character’s level, their output and range of abilities are positively related. In other words, if you practice, you get better and the more things you can do. The approach to getting your weapon skills is in line with this but utility half is not and in fact is totally decoupled. It’s probably been done because levelling is not the aim in Guild Wars 2, it’s just something that happens as you do the content you want to do. But this is exactly what the skill challenge system isn’t encouraging you to do. Characters need skills to be flexible and they must do specific content to get skills.

If nothing else, there’s no alternate acquisition route defined. Throughout the years I’ve been involved in MMOs, one of the most common alterations developers of various titles have made post release is to put a plaster on areas of grind by providing shortcuts. Usually it takes the form of items or mechanics that provide XP bonuses, but in Tyria skill tomes come to mind. It’s not because there’s much wrong with the method of obtaining skills in Guild Wars, but rather that it’s long-winded for multiple characters. By making players traipse their way through the same series of challenges every character in Guild Wars 2, grind (by my definition of being a forced activity that isn’t necessarily fun) is being created and will at a later date have a plaster slapped on it.

On a positive note, I do like the idea that players can explore for their skills, especially in the manner ArenaNet have indicated. Skill challenges also encourage players to collaborate. In order to stop skill gathering being a chore to other player types, the system could be changed to award players skill points for doing everything with their characters, from killing an enemy in WvW to crafting, finishing a round of bar brawling to a step of the personal story. Explorers will still complete challenges as described to get their points, while others will play as they wish and still get their skills. Having too many skill points isn’t a problem, because there are only a finite number of skills to buy anyway. Balancing skill point acquisition to make sure no activity provides more skill points than another would be the main challenge for developers.

Positive innovation in this department is warranted. Skill acquisition in MMOs has followed a predictable path for for ages mostly because this is one area of the genre that isn’t broken. There’s a valid argument for allowing players to discover and earn their skills, but there’s also an argument that all types of gamers should be catered for in core mechanics and in a game where re-playability is encouraged, core mechanics shouldn’t feel like a chore on the fourth take.

PS: Ravious at Kill Ten Rats wrote about flags in Assassin’s Creed. I suggest taking a look and thinking how similar  it is to the skill system in Guild Wars 2 as currently described.


  4 Responses to “Searching for Skills”

  1. Whether the Guild Wars 2 skill system will cater most to explorers or even be grindy is yet to be discovered. ArenaNet has stated (as far as I remember) that they want to improve the way challenge locations are communicated to players compared to GW1 elite skills, therefore I expect some pretty obvious system of ‘hints’ that you’d have to actively ignore in order not to get skill points.

    As to the supposed grindiness, this is undeniably threatening, but again it is a matter of implementation first and foremost. Make challenges long, boring, few and hard to find: here comes the grind! Make them the opposite and they will become something you just do while leveling as usual. Make a whole lot of them — much more than the maximum number of utility skills — and they might even be interesting for twinks.

    To be clear, I see a lot of threats waiting in the shadows of the way Guild Wars 2 handles skill acquisition, and I am not completely happy with it either. But if implemented extremely well, the system might actually be fun.

  2. I agree, there’s a lot of potential for fun in the system and as you say, implementation will play a huge role in that. Here’s hoping!

  3. There is so much about GW2 that I absolutely love – most of the game is a breath of fresh air for the MMO genre. However, the skill acquisition systems, as they have been described thus far, are the one area of design that simply rubs me the wrong way.

    Distilled down to it’s core essence my objection to them takes the following form; GW2 is “suppose” to be more about Player skill, and less about gear grind, or level grind, or (in this case) skill grind.

    The concept of an MMO game finally presenting an “even playing field” to players, where the primary determinant for success is the Player’s understanding of the game, and the Player’s skill, rather than the Character’s equipment, or the Character’s time spent in grind of various types, was such an appealing idea that it transcends normal segregation of player types.
    I’ve had players that have never touched an MMO express interest in this one based on this one concept alone.

    I simply feel like the skill acquisition systems are a backward step away from this.

    Oh, and speaking as a confirmed “explorer type” (according to the Bartle test) let me just say that “forced” or “grindy” so-called exploration is just as unappealing to explorers as it is to everyone else. The developer telling me to go to a specific area and search for 1 part out of 100 and then saying, “got that one? good… here’s the next area you need to search…” totally crushes the feeling that TRUE exploration gives me in these games. It utterly fails to comprehend what “explorers” are looking for in the first place. That isn’t exploration… that’s a list of chores… the two are completely antithetical to one another.

    I feel like the design decision ANet is making with their skill acquisition systems is a concession towards the “achiever” types who need that “my shoulder pads are bigger than yours” thing to feel like they are “accomplishing” something in the game. So much of the general player base of MMOs has been conditioned so heavily by the current games on the market that they actually think of “grind” as “accomplishment” which is perhaps the greatest Jedi Mind Trick to be pulled off by the games industry. If you try to remove their mythical “end game” grind they actually complain about it. Mind = Boggled.

    (I understand your concern about simply feeding “negativity.” However, I personally thought your post was not excessive at all, and to me at least, those concerns are completely reasonable. It was a well written “editorial” post inviting discussion on a topic that is worth talking over.)

  4. I always thought that GW1 had the best skill acquisition system that I’ve seen in an mmo, and was a little unhappy that they are changing it for 2. Having said that I can see the benefit for people that are new to the genre. I personally like the method you get utility skills, as it seems like how you got your elite skills in 1, i.e. go out and earn it. But I guess I’m the explorer type, so it would appeal to me :)

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