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.