Flameseeker Chronicles: Meeting fun halfway in Guild Wars 2

Mourning LA
Lion's Arch is gone. What's left of our city is rubble and fire and the echoing screams of terrified survivors. The day Scarlet Briar's army attacked dawned clear and mild; by the end the sky was choked with smoke, poison, and the silhouette of Scarlet's massive drill ship. Thousands of people died, are dying, and will continue to die -- all we can do for now is to try to save as many as we can.

Escape From Lion's Arch is a truly impressive piece of storytelling and atmospheric set design, and I found it immediately comparable to similar missions in games like BioWare's Mass Effect series. I've never really played anything like it in an MMO, and I think ArenaNet has done a wonderful job of capturing the feeling of a city under attack. It's been a bittersweet time for fans of Guild Wars 2; as I discussed last week, roleplayers have responded to the release with a flurry of creative activity, and the general consensus seems to be that the story, dialogue, atmosphere and artwork are all excellent -- if only we weren't forced to mindlessly farm for loot! Wait, we're what?

Fiddling while L.A. burns

Of course, you can completely ignore all of the atmosphere and story and dawdle near the Trader's Plaza waiting for a few repeatable events to pop up and tagging everything that spawns over and over. I don't take issue with player loot farmers; as I've mentioned before, I enjoy having the ability to farm for items, and this particular event has done wonders for my materials collection. What I do find objectionable is the lingering insistence that ArenaNet creating the ability to farm ruins the content for anyone who wants to do anything else.

I say "lingering" because this perception used to be far more widespread -- and far more accurate -- earlier in GW2's life. It can be argued that design decisions at the launch of the game have trained us to value efficiency over anything else, and I do think that has some merit: For the most part people weren't spam-running events in Cursed Shore immediately after launch because they liked it but because it was one of the few quick methods of gaining karma and tier six materials for Legendary weapons at the time. ANet has learned a lot since then about how far we'll go to shorten lengthy grinds, and I believe the developers initially overestimated how willing power players would be to leisurely accumulate components for GW2's ultimate shiny objects during normal play, as well as how engaging they would find that normal play in the long run. I'll give Ascended gear credit for helping tame the beast, but more important are the massive changes we've seen to both gameplay structure and how open-handed ArenaNet is with loot.

Some readers might challenge me on that, but I remember when comments about "two blues and maybe a green" reflected the best reward we could count on receiving for nearly any open world content -- regardless of difficulty -- and not just a sarcastic in-joke about bad luck with drops. Karma gain didn't really pick up speed until we started getting it from dailies and monthlies, Rare quality items used to be extremely rare, Fine and Masterwork items were usually good only for vendor trash at level 80, and Champion enemies were something you fought if you wanted to spend five minutes getting vendor trash instead of 30 seconds. As the living world has progressed, gameplay has become vastly more intricate as well: Contrast releases even as recent as Queen's Jubilee and Clockwork Chaos to Tower of Nightmares, Origin of Madness, and the current Escape From Lion's Arch.

In Escape From Lion's Arch we can zerg for loot, but it's not the only option for group play (as it arguably was in Queen's Jubilee) or an absolute requirement for getting any volume of decent rewards (which was pretty much the case with Scarlet's invasions in Clockwork Chaos). Most events can be handled by small groups of players, and even a single player rescuing citizens and escorting them can add a significant number to the total count. That increases exponentially as more people are willing to break away and help. Unless you're dead set on getting 250+ bags per run, you won't have a significantly lower chance to fight enemies and steal their stuff, either, and events that aren't scaled up to East Balthazar by having 50 or more players crowded around them are less likely to spawn dozens of annoying Elites.

Lion's Arch is burning down, burning down, burning down
If you close your eyes, does it almost feel as if nothing's changed at all?

The common argument seems to be that if ArenaNet gives us the opportunity to zerg farm, we will inevitably feel compelled to do it to the exclusion of everything else. The problem with that mindset is that we now have events that are entertaining for reasons beyond gathering armfuls of loot, and good rewards are no longer so rare and precious that you'd be shooting yourself in the foot by getting fewer bags for the sake of having a good time -- unless, of course, you're of the opinion that fun is defined by efficiency and that gameplay is always secondary to how much you're able to gain in terms of material wealth. Some players do think that way, and I've been guilty of it myself; doing something for pure entertainment and feeling guilty for not amassing sklorbniks at the same time is a gamers' affliction, and it's particularly rampant in MMOs. GW2 is, however, moving toward a more balanced point at which we don't have to fear falling behind if we lose ourselves in story and atmosphere for a while. Playing the L.A. siege as intended will still net you tons of Alliance supply bags and move your whole instance closer to better end rewards.

At some point in GW2's lifetime it was probably more worthwhile to go for guaranteed quantity over potential quality, but I think it's harder to make that argument when the Alliance bags simply aren't the source of amazing wealth that Champion bags were during Queen's Jubilee and the early Scarlet invasions. You can get a good spread of stuff from them, which is very helpful since lower-level materials like cotton and iron ore are now almost as valuable as orichalcum ore and ancient wood, but if you really want those materials, you're more likely to get them in large volume by farming the enemies and nodes that specifically provide them. Chances at the really good rewards -- cosmetic items that are no longer available and go for hundreds of gold on the trading post or Exotic recipes that sell for around 20g each -- drop from the final tier of participation rewards for citizen rescues. The end goal is more reasonable post nerf, and with the L.A. event happening so frequently, we have the opportunity to go for both quantity and quality by organizing and playing well.

I don't believe that it's ANet's responsibility to psychologically manipulate us into having fun, which is what at least some people seem to be asking for. The fact that we're deeply aware as a playerbase of how game design affects us is both a blessing and a curse; we're savvy enough that there's a lot of intelligent commentary and feedback on any given design decision, but I think we often forget that we're not actually obligated to activate and fling ourselves head-first into potential pitfalls just because we've identified them. If ArenaNet has to basically bribe players to not avoid having fun at all costs, I don't think that's necessarily a problem with GW2's mechanics. At some point we bear a certain amount of responsibility to recognize when we're responding solely to the two extremes of electric shocks or treats and try to modify that behavior if we don't find it acceptable.

ArenaNet could certainly have done more to reward people individually for citizen rescues -- perhaps a bag for every citizen successfully escorted to a Whispers agent, or a handful of karma. The developers also could have removed the option to zerg farm for loot by drastically decreasing the rewards for enemy kills, as some people have suggested, but keeping the chance for bags and loot from Scarlet's army high ArenaNet also ensured that players killing them in the course of completing events normally would be amply rewarded for their time and effort. Standing motionless in one spot waiting for events to spawn -- as I saw one commander direct people to do -- is not only boring but strikes me as taking the idea that conservation of effort must always be the best way to play to slightly goofy lengths. If you legitimately find zerg farming and AFKing more fun than straight-up playing the content, that's one thing; it's the people who admit that they find the content itself fun but feel compelled to grind instead that I don't quite grok.

Now listen up, here's a story/About a little guy who lives in a blue world
Doctor Manhattan, I presume

Where ArenaNet does probably need to step up is in the types of rewards being offered. There are only so many backpacks we can collect before we run out of characters to put them on and space to store them in our banks; other armor pieces overwhelmingly end up in the gem store. In the past few months, we've had gem store armor sets that swing wildly in quality from reskins that are identical to existing armor aside from some flaming particle effects to completely new, flashy sets that replace your character model with a heavenly avatar made of stars and light. I'm having trouble imagining how the eventual implementation of Legendary armor is going to match up to or surpass the current trend of posthumanism for the low, low price of $10, but we've already reached a point at which becoming an X-Man with pure cosmos trailing in your wake is common depending on how much real money you're willing to spend.

Some people resent the masks, which are on offer at 500 gems for a single-slot piece, but from the perspective of someone who has spent, conservatively speaking, a skritt's load of money in the gem store, I view it as an important experiment. I feel a lot better about being able to pay to add distinct, characterizing touches at smaller price points than I do about having to shell out out 800 gems for full sets even if I want only one or two pieces. While I don't expect or really want full armor skin sets to disappear from the gem store, selling odds and ends at lower prices might hopefully prompt ANet to be more generous with what we can play for rather than pay for. New armor and weapons are a big part of what players expect to be rewarded with in MMOs, and I hope that in the future ArenaNet branches out its gem store offerings more into hairstyles, color choices, faces, and even currently unavailable things such as alternate animations, body types, tattoos, and jewelry. Because nothing that can be earned directly through gameplay recently comes passing close to what can be bought from the gem store, the devs risk diluting both the value of in-game rewards and the perception of GW2's quality.

My wife mentioned to me recently that she feels spoiled by Final Fantasy XIV, one of the only remaining pure subscription games. For less money per month, she says that she can usually obtain more interesting and varied new items for her characters than in GW2. Despite my love for GW2, I can't exactly disagree with that.

I'm not crying. There's just smoke in my eyes.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends

Next week the heroes of Tyria (that's us) are heading back into Lion's Arch to try reclaiming it. Even if we succeed, I strongly doubt that we'll see the end of L.A.'s troubles. Kessex Hills hasn't exactly recovered from the fall of the Nightmare Tower, so I can't imagine L.A.'s near-total destruction will have it any easier.

As for me, I'm off to save more citizens and maybe have a good cry. Are you impressed with this update? Unmoved? Too busy farming to notice? Has anyone got a tissue handy? Let us know in the comments, and I'll see you in Lion's Arch!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's weekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at anatoli@massively.com. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.

This article was originally published on Massively.