[GW2] Paws-on at Comic Con

Starting with some admissions:

1. I very very very very rarely actually watch any pre-release videos or trailers these days, am a bit strung out on hype for MMOs

2. I’m in a massive MMO rut at the moment due to extended periods of back pain and 8 weeks of physio when I was told not to sit upright for more than 30m, this has made me as disinterested in games as I’ve ever been (thus the lack of blogging)

3. Have never played or seen Guild Wars, know very little about it. Knew GW2 was upcoming and lots of my friends were starting to get excited about it, but have been far too lazy to read ANYTHING about it.

4. Of course, I still told people I’d go to the Comic Con Guild Wars 2 panel, but it clashed with a TV show one I /really/ wanted to see, so I bailed on that promise, and just read Spinks’ live-tweets of the panel. Sounded pretty good.

When Spinks joined me, after whatever I’d been doing and told me about her Guild Wars 2 hands-on, I was intrigued. I still didn’t know much about the graphics or background to the game, but it was enough to colour me intrigued. And though I was fairly sure I wouldn’t get a chance to spend 40m playing the game, I kind of wanted to for the first time. I think the fact they gave you 40m to play, and I’d had a 5m look over people’s shoulders the first day was what really caught my attention.

Bex Sat 061

And on the final day of Comic Con, when the queues for the panels we wanted to see were heinously long, we decided to revisit the Exhibit Hall. First to see how crazy the SWTOR lines were first thing, and secondly to see if I could play some Guild Wars 2. SWTOR had a 2h wait, so we dashed over to Guild Wars 2 – which was actually a LONG WAY away. While Spinks was looking over some shoulders, I, with ninja-reflexes honed on the London Underground, spotted a free demo computer and scuttled in – then yelled at Spinks to come join me (after I’d created my char, ofc).

So I made a female norn, for mostly the same reasons as she did. The humans and charr all started at higher levels and I wanted to see if the new player experience was as cool as she’d said. Yeah, sisters – we’re suspicious of one another until proven otherwise. I can’t remember all the bits I picked for my character, except it involved being drunk, losing things and then.. I made her a ranger. No idea why, I’m totally not a ranged dps kind of gal, but of the options available I figured it’d be easy to get to grips with. I didn’t fancy a warrior and I don’t generally like casters much, and as I knew Spinks had tried the engineer. And so Nim the Norn was born. Best initial bit, they asked what animal companion I wanted between bear, wolf, and snow leopard. As anyone who knows me will attest, this was NO-CHOICE. There was a large cat, and it got picked. This pleased me right away (though honestly, I like wolves and bears too!).

I think honestly, that Spinks probably has more of a sense of what I did than I did. Which actually bodes really well for the game for me, and also backs up some of her comments. I know I intended to pick up a bunch of quests at the first hub and go do them. This got immediately derailed when I was handing in my first quest and one of the next questgivers asked me to help him guard some booze which he was transporting on massive cow-like-thing to a nearby town. Guarding booze? Right up my alley, and one of the options was ‘I’m ready to leave now’.. so without thinking about my original plans, I just set off. We killed stuff, I marvelled at the giant cow-like-thing, and as I killed stuff some ‘events’ got updated (to kill x number of bad faction people – yes, deal with it, I remembered NO names), but I didn’t even feel like I needed to stay and do the event – I was far too focussed on delivering booze safely. Which we did. Heroism = booze delivery!


Then, I explored a little randomly as I got a bit turned around and lost trying to find something on my map. I left the demo zone a couple of times and got warned to turn back, so once I got the hang of directions, I headed firmly back into the zone. And that’s when things got super cute. I found a hill with a Shaman of Snow Leopard on it, asking me to honour Snow Leopard.. I was very much in the ‘blah blah, skim read, do stuff as quickly as possible’ mode when I realised one of the text options was ‘transform me into a snow leopard’. And there were snow leopard cubs around me. Oh yes, I found a quest to be turned into a snow leopard and perform tasks which would honour my totem; by cuddling cubs, killing wildlife, or reviving injured snow leopards. This wasn’t a ranger quest, but available to all. It gave a kind of faction bar, which I could increase by doing any of the tasks mentioned. I, of course, cuddled LOTS of cubs. Spinks said at this point I actually just grinned at the screen. But more sensibly, I was really impressed I could mix and match the tasks to fill the bar, and it didn’t take very long at all either.

After this excitement, I only had around 10m left and decided more random quests were in order, though I started off doing the next one I was given by the Shaman.. which triggered more events, and which I was idly doing just to test out my skills. My pet died a few times, but I blame it much more on my actual skills and not paying attention than anything else, since I actually had a self+pet heal ability! While exploring some caves for this event (another kill x thingies quest), I saw I was down to 5m and also found some water. Knowing only that underwater was a whole ‘cool’ thing about GW2, I readily dove in. Yes, I got a face mask immediately, which let me breath underwater. Loved it. Got new skills too, relevant to underwater, and a quest to pick some underwater flowers. Now, I’ve played a fair few MMOs, and I found the swimming very easy to get a hang of. I didn’t have anything to fight, so unfortunately didn’t get to test out any skills, but we did get to see some swimming at least, so I was quite proud of myself for that.

Overall, I came away with a kind of glowing feeling. The 40m sped by, and I’m excited that in a live game I’d have time to really build my character and learn a lot more about it and its skills. It’s a very pretty game and plays nicely, it felt extremely intuitive – which is what I need while in gaming doldrums. From being remotely interested in the game, it’s become a must-buy for me. Of course, there’s no guarantees I’ll love more than the low level game, but what the hell, I’ll take that right now. I know Spinks commented that for her it was like the WoW beta, for me I felt a twinge of Dark Age of Camelot. No idea why, but I guess that was the fierce loyalty I felt almost immediately and for no tangible reason.

The specs we played on, for reference:

Bex Sat 059

Redefining MMOs: Flexible Character Classes and the End of Niche Protection

Massively has laid down the gauntlet to bloggers to write about aspects of MMOs that are being redefined. And much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, character classes ain’t what they used to be.

Let’s go back to the pen and paper era. Dungeons and Dragons originally introduced character classes: some would be instantly recognisable to MMO players today and others wouldn’t quite fit. The D&D cleric was a healer but had a huge amount of utility spells too. The D&D warrior was a heavily armoured fighter but not really a tank as we’d understand it today. The D&D thief wasn’t really a dps class (although they could get in the odd lucky backstab) so much as a utility build.  Fans quickly developed rules for all sorts of weird and wonderful new character races, classes and subclasses. TSR themselves hefted in with druids and bards and assassins until there really was something for everyone. A lot of those classes had very specialised abilities, but it didn’t matter because a human GM was running the game and could balance encounters to make sure everyone felt useful. If the player party was lacking some vital role (ie. healer) then the GM could allow an NPC healer to go with them to help out.

Coding up the Classes

MUDs took some of the D&D classes and worked the mechanics around to get a playable game. Many utility spells were removed from casters because they needed a human GM to resolve their use (e.g. mind control or telepathy). The ones that stayed in were the ones that were easiest to code. MUD wizards often took a ‘more is better’ approach to classes and included more and more strange and wacky classes or races to attract new players to the game. Balance became an issue. MUD wizards wanted all of their classes to be popular and to be played so experimented with niche protection – some classes were given useful buffs, others had spells that were needed on different encounters.

And that’s where we move into MMOs. Earlier games like EQ and DaoC had a lot of classes, they were wildly fanciful, not well balanced, and there was really something for everyone. Many classes were given niche protection by being given essential raid or group buffs. Others were given the niche of off-healer or off-tank – these would later be considered as hybrids, their healing/ tanking wasn’t as strong as the main healer/ tank but in return they had better damage or buffs. Others were considered utility classes, with crowd control or several essential raid buffs. Putting a good PvP or raid group together was tricky, and a class could go from desired to undesired in the space of a single patch.

It was considered to be OK for a group friendly class (such as a main healer) to have pitiful soloing ability. It was a payoff for having such strong niche protection in groups. It was also considered fair by the player base for a PvP friendly class (such as a stealther) not to be in demand for PvE content.

Because there weren’t many MMO choices, and the levelling curve was so slow, people tended to stick with their main characters. Even with all the checks, balances, and niche protection, it would take a lot of time and effort to switch classes. It was considered quite radical when games actually allowed players to even respec, and it certainly wasn’t encouraged. (In DaoC, you had to go raid a dragon to be able to do this when it was first introduced.)

The era of ‘what if I want to actually play the whole game?’

More recent games set about reducing the number of niches to be protected, and addressing the (obvious) fact that people might want to both solo AND group, and they might want to play PvE AND PvP, and they might not want to go level up a new alt just to do it. In fact, with the amount of competition in the market right now, if a player picked a main class that didn’t work out, they might just leave the game and not come back.

WoW raised eyebrows by allowing unlimited respecs (at a cost), right off the bat. Guild Wars took this a step further by not only allowing but encouraging free and unlimited respecs between adventures; rejigging your character to face the challenge at hand became an important part of the game.

Later on, LOTRO would give their main tank and healer a solo friendly stance, boosting their soloing ability, but which they could turn off in groups for better tanking or healing. WAR let players configure their characters for different facets of the game without requiring them to change all their talents and skills. WoW’s dual specs take a sledgehammer approach and lets you save two very different specs and switch between them easily.

In any case, the trend is very clear. Players are being given options to respec or tailor their characters flexibly within game. Decisions made at the start are not set in stone. Champions Online doesn’t really have fixed classes, instead allowing players to build their own skillset. Free Realms lets them train up many different careers and switch as often as they like, Final Fantasy 14 is going to use a similar mechanic.

Whatever the game has in store, we expect our characters to be able to adjust and deal with it. And if we plan to play for several months or even years, our interests in game may change and we expect our characters to be able to adjust to that also. This gives designers more freedom in encounter planning also, you don’t have to require that every group has 17 different buffs and that each class has a specific role to play in every encounter.

But what will the fallout be of throwing away the niche protection? It served a useful role in making sure that people mixed with strangers and kept the game sociable. If you needed a minstrel for your DaoC group and none of your friends played that class, you’d be motivated to go play with new people. If one of your mates could just switch class to fill that role then yes, it’s easier to get the groups together, but what happens to the community?

We’ll find out in the next few years. Step lightly for here be dragons.

Are talent trees a failed design?

Blizzard’s plans to implement dual specs (ie. the ability to switch quickly from one talent spec to a  different one, complete with a change of gear and glyphs) is an admission that talent trees have failed them as a design.

It’s a band aid for a broken system that makes MMOs less friendly, more frustrating, and more inaccessible to casual players than they really should be.

Where did talent trees come from?

Talent trees on paper should never have grown into this strange monstrosity that they have become. They were intended to let players customise their characters and their abilities, to tailor the character to their play preferences. So as you went up levels, you had more points to spend on growing your character the way you wanted it to be. It was intended to mirror the way xp get spent in pen and paper games. When a character levels up in a tabletop game, they usually get some points to spend on stats, some to spend on abilites, and they may be able to buy new abilities also. In a tabletop game (D&D for example) you can easily build a cleric which focusses on buffs and damage. You can build a caster who chooses to specialise in support rather than damage.

Implementation of talent trees in games is associated with Diablo, so it isn’t surprising that Blizzard decided to go with the same successful model.

I hated talent trees in Diablo. You had to make some fairly fundamental choices about how your character played with no option for respeccing apart from starting again. You had almost no information to go on about how the different specs might play or what you might find more fun other than trying it (and starting again if you didn’t like it). The talent trees on offer gave you access to such different playing styles that each class was really a bundle of 3 (or more) completely different classes.

So on the one hand, there were lots of different things to try out, and lots of different aspects to each class. On the other, the only way to really try things out was to reroll a lot. It was also very easy to come up with a build that would be fine at the start but very weak later on in the game, and never realise until you had many hours of play under your belt.

Being able to tweak talents and try out different builds did give the game a lot of replayability. But ultimately people gravitated towards cookie cutter specs because sometimes you just want to beat the game, y’know? Without having to spend a lot of time starting again from the beginning.

The more hardcore players worked out the more effective talent specs. After all, they had the most time to spend on experimenting and starting again. They posted about them on forums. Less hardcore players read the forum posts and followed their advice.

Sound familiar?

Things I dislike about Diablo talent trees:

  • Being forced to make game changing choices without enough information to know how that choice will affect your game.
  • Being unable to change your mind easily when you find out that you wanted to try something different or have made a mistake.
  • Having the experimentation phase tuned such that only hardcore players really have access to it.

Note that these factors are frustrating for players like me, but may be good for replayability and building up a hardcore fanbase.

Three Characters in One, Bargain?

The peculiar thing about talent trees in WoW is that you sometimes feel that it’s like playing totally different character classes. The hybrids in particular suffer from using completely unrelated mechanics and gear from one spec to the next.

Paladins may be the worst example of class design ever seen in an MMO. They have three unrelated talent trees, each of which requires a totally different gear set, and playing style. There is no overlap at all. Balancing them in a sensible way has been a struggle for Blizzard right off the bat. It isn’t just the difference between switching from healing to dps to tanking, although that is also quite a fundamental change just from respeccing. It’s the fact that when prot/ret are balanced for mana regeneration, holy becomes way overpowered. It’s the fact that when prot/holy are balanced for survivability, ret becomes a nightmare.

Three classes in one sounds fine as a design goal, it gives players lots of options and lots of customisability. But in practice it’s proved almost impossible to balance. I think Blizzard generally does a good job these days, but they’re fighting against a talent tree system that is fundamentally broken.

Choose your talents to fit your playing style

If it was just a case of picking talents to fit your style, that would be fine. But it isn’t. The different talent trees support different areas of the game. There are PvP specs, group friendly specs, solo friendly specs.

This is glaringly stupid. People may prefer one or other part of the game but why on earth would you want to put barriers in the way of having players participate in all of it.

Why force healers to have to spec differently if they value soloing? Why force anyone to spec differently for PvP? Don’t they want people to have fun and be able to take part in every aspect of the game?

The cost of having talent trees that are specialised for different aspects of the game is that it directly flies in the face of one of the major strengths of an MMO. The fact that there are lots and lots of different things to do.

So it’s really not surprising that lots of people in WoW respec a lot. I used to respec my warrior about twice a week, and that was even without PvP. I welcome dual speccing with open arms as a band aid for a broken system.

Developments in Talent Trees

Other games have improved on the talent tree implementation. LOTROs traits, legendary weapons, and stances (I think most classes now have the ability to switch focus between group and solo style play) may not offer the wide range of customisation but let players tweak their characters but still recognisably remain the same core classes. WAR’s tactics let you easily switch from PvE to PvP focus and back again.

Guild Wars (which is on free trial at the moment by the way) has probably the best system ever devised for handling talent trees. You can respec for free any time you are in a town, and you can only pick 8 abilities to slot in your quickbars for any mission. A big part of the game is figuring out how to tailor your character for whatever it is that you wanted to do.

But what about actually just building and identifying with your character?

This is the flaw of easy respecs. Another aspect of pen and paper games is that you build up your character over time, and you can identify with it. Reworking all of its abilities every week would make it more difficult to do this.

This is one of the reasons I never really glommed onto Guild Wars, although I do think it’s a cool game. Sometimes you just want to grow into your character, not just switch it around every time you are in town.

It’s the reason that respeccing a lot on my warrior sometimes does my head in. I wrote before about identifying with a talent tree, but I know I’m not alone in this. People in WoW often do describe themselves by their talents, eg. I’m a moonkin, I’m an affliction ‘lock, etc. Easy respecs confuses that.

So from a gameplay point of view, I think that talent trees have failed. I think dual specs (and presumably triple specs sometime later) are a band aid for that, for making it easier for players to take part in all aspects of the game. I do wonder how future attempts at balancing talent trees will change to take this into account (eg. who cares how much damage holy paladins do, when they all have the option of just respeccing to ret?).

I think in future, talent trees will be tweaked more with PvP in mind than PvE, for this reason.