A brief recap
So let's talk about what all of those entailed, just so anyone who's tuning in for the first time will have a pretty decent idea of what's afoot. The Shadow of the Mad King update in October brought Halloween to Tyria. We spent a week or so haring across Tyria in search of answers to the mystery of the Mad King, then got to enjoy the comfort of his realm in an exceptionally delightful and brief dungeon. In November, the Consortium came across a new island full of Karka, an unpleasant species of leggy crab-things. Wintersday brought with it festival-type games, an evolving dungeon, and holiday cheer. The last four months have been dedicated to the four parts of the Flame and Frost story arc, which revolved around the new and deadly alliance between the Flame Legion and the Dredge.
I think that one of the greatest strengths of the living story is its shared content. This is true both for large-scale stuff like the Mad King's Labyrinth and for typical group content like Toymaker Tixx's wondrous workshop and the recent (and presently on-going) Molten Facilities dungeon. I'm pretty sure that these have gotten fairly consistently high praise across the board. The Mad King's dungeon stands out to me in particular because of its low barrier to entry (it was built, essentially, for pugging) and its design. It was a straightforward fight that had entertaining dialogue to get you through the trash-heavy introduction and fun mechanics to see you through the boss fight. The Molten Facilities dungeon is a little longer and more demanding but has one of the better boss fights in the game. Along with Tixx's workshop, these are some of the more beloved instances available.
The trade-off for having one's best content be the shared stuff is that most of that is instanced. That's a significant factor for two reason: It means that your best content typically has to be experienced with a group (that one's kind of obvious, I guess), and it means that your best content isn't in the open world. That first thing isn't necessarily a problem for most people. A lot of folks come into an MMO expecting to, well, play with other people. Stuff like the Mad King's Labyrinth gets around the need for grouping by funneling players together so that formal groups aren't necessary but the content is still shared. There isn't much getting around grouping for things like the dungeons, though, and some folks feel that that's not really for them. This would be less a problem if more of the excellent content were out in the open world. Most of the things we've seen so far in the open world have been signs in need of fixing, refugees in need of escorting, trash-type Dredge and Flame Legion in need of killing, and things like that. Those are all great in terms of flavor, but they are not the shining beacons of gameplay that the Molten Facilities boss fight is.
Of course, the last time that most of the really excellent living story content was in the open world, things got a little hairy. The Lost Shores was not instanced. It had a boss fight (which I personally thought was really great in terms of mechanics and design) that took place out in the open, where grouping and instancing wasn't necessary. Because of the one-time nature of that, however, the experience was fraught (for many people) with technical issues. That's all well and good if it can be worked out for the future, but the fact remains that there's a delicate line to be toed. If you shove stuff away in instances, you're kind of taking things out of the living world. If you leave it out in the open, you just can't test for all the hosts of things that come up when hundreds and thousands of players are converging on content.
The argument could be made that, had the Karka finale event been spread out over a weekend or even a full week, there wouldn't have been the same crush of players. I'd contend that it still would have been swamped with players and that once an event starts repeating, players start complaining that it doesn't actually feel alive because what's the point in taking down the big bad Karka if he's just going to respawn and need to be taken down again in three hours. And so we go back to instances so that players have direct control over how often they do or do not experience special content and devs can test with reasonable certainty that they understand what the conditions of play are going to be like.
For my two cents, I'd like to see ArenaNet continue experiencing with both open-world and instanced content for their big content. Both approaches have their appeal; it'd be a nice way to keep from falling into a too-familiar routine.
Something I enjoyed, more in Flame and Frost than in previous installments, was the introduction of new important NPCs. I've spoken previously
about how I dislike being reminded that the game world is tiny. It's therefore refreshing to me to have new folks brought in as our main contacts. This is subverted a teensy bit by the new NPCs' ties to the iconics (Braham is Eir's son and Rox is trying to get into Rytlock's
warband), but it's a refreshing attempt.
Some folks have talked about the pacing of the living story as a weakness. In fairness to those people, the first two months of Flame and Frost were pretty laid-back. From Halloween through the Lost Shores and into Wintersday, however, I never found myself feeling that the content was coming out too slowly. Those were larger and more content-heavy patches than what we saw in January and February (whereas January and February brought in a lot of features), though, so it makes sense. As we move forward, I expect that we'll find ourselves approaching a balance.
Elisabeth Cardy is a longtime
Guild Wars player, a personal friend of Rytlock Brimstone, and the writer of Flameseeker Chronicles here at Massively. The column updates on Tuesdays and keeps a close eye on Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2, and anything bridging the two. Email Elisabeth at firstname.lastname@example.org.