Flameseeker Chronicles: The strange case of Guild Wars 2's reward system

Is it cold out there in space, Bowie?
Every now and then I'll hear someone say that Guild Wars 2 has no rewards. They'll say it's extraordinarily grindy, that there's nothing to work toward, and that ArenaNet is intentionally making things harder than they should be so that we'll all give up and buy gems. This is confusing and frustrating to me for two reasons: The first is that all of those things are demonstrably untrue. The second is that I can nevertheless see where those people are coming from to some extent, and it's been difficult to put my finger on why.

GW2 showers players with loot and rewards. In an hour's normal play, I can fill my bags with items and come out of it with a tidy sum of cash; nearly everything in the game is designed to reward players for doing stuff, no matter what that stuff is. Some of it, like Edge of the Mists, is almost ludicrously generous. Even with the changes to the way Queen's Pavilion fights work this time around, it's possible to grab huge numbers of Champion loot bags if you land on an organized megaserver. So why does GW2 feel so stingy?

The gold standard

It would be unfair -- and incorrect -- not to acknowledge the work ArenaNet has put into fixing drops and making content more rewarding. Champions have been given some unique drops. Structured PvP got reward tracks. Living world releases and holiday events usually come with at least one or two new skins, many of which are currently available through the Festival of the Four Winds content. The rewards for this year's World vs. World Spring Tournament are a vast improvement over WvW Season One.

We've come a long way since launch, when high-end items like Legendary weapons and unique Exotic skins seemed out of reach not only because of the odds of getting a precursor, but also due to the scarcity of component materials. The supply of those materials has increased naturally with time, but ArenaNet deserves credit for increasing opportunities to get them. Obsidian shards can now be obtained in several different ways, and are occasionally available for event-specific currency. Tier 6 materials are available through laurels and events as well as from farming, and their drop rate has gone up with the addition of Champion loot bags. Charged lodestones and silver doubloons are still kind of ridiculous, but lodestones at least have a chance to drop from dungeons and karma boxes. And hey, if all else fails, gold has gotten much easier to come by. You can't go wrong farming gold, right?

If you've ever been to a carnival midway or an arcade, you may be familiar with this method of prize distribution: At the lowest reward level, winning games might pay out tickets or minor prizes, which you can then trade up for bigger and more valuable items. When a game advertises a big prize as a direct reward for winning, the game is more likely to depend on chance, require a bigger investment up front, and be difficult to win. Lower reward levels aren't satisfying in and of themselves so much as they provide incentive to keep playing for a bigger prize instead of cheap trinkets. If GW2's reward system feels "gamey" and grasping, rather than immersive and...well, rewarding, I think it's because it contains a little too much midway.

There's something to be said for items which can simply be bought with whatever the coin of the land happens to be. The only prestige those items carry is the ability to spend a lot of pixel money, but that's not inherently bad. Giving currency value is important, or else getting more of it isn't satisfying. Most of us know about gold sinks and why they're important for a healthy game economy, but it's arguably important that some of those sinks make it fun to spend currency.

Spending gold in GW2 is not particularly fun. There are a few gold-based prestige items, like cultural armor, but for the most part gold is what you farm for because alternative methods for getting stuff are either tedious or nonexistent. Where's the best place to farm lodestones? Run dungeons for gold and buy them off the trading post. What's the best way to farm tier 6 materials? Run dungeons for gold and buy them off the trading post. Is it worth farming or buying Black Lion keys to get the new weapon skins? Run dungeons for gold and buy them off the trading post. How do I get a precursor to finally finish my Legendary weapon? Guess. Gold is like air: You need it, it's everywhere, and it only calls attention to itself when you're not getting enough of it.

What this means is that gameplay itself is often only tangibly rewarding insofar as it yields gold, and if you want a direct drop you're almost always going to find it less frustrating and time-consuming to farm for it indirectly, if at all possible. We should do fun things for the experience, sure, but rewards help keep an experience fun through repeat plays. I'd go so far as to say that this is one of the cornerstones of an RPG.

On paper a reliance on universal currency for nearly everything sounds kind of cool. It seems as though it should mean being able to pick what sort of gameplay you'd like to do, rather than being required to pursue a specific activity for the sklorbniks you want. Instead, it ends up placing the highest play value on pure efficiency, and paradoxically GW2's most efficient farming methods tend to be the most boring. Activities which are fun, challenging, and endlessly repeatable for the skilled -- such as holiday jumping puzzles, Fractals, and Queen's Gauntlet fights -- often end up with low monetary rewards, either through design or eventual nerfs. Low drop rates for unique rewards tend to make these activities feel less rewarding than grindy content, in which you're at least guaranteed some progress for your time. Offering special rewards like the Liadri mini, meta achievement chests, or this year's tokens is a step in the right direction, but it only solves part of the problem. It's treating a symptom, when one of the causes is the gem store.

I like my keyfarming alt so much that I just keep remaking her.
Gems are truly outrageous

Yes, we can exchange gold for gems, and it's entirely possible to get whatever you'd like from the store without spending a single blue sparkly. Whether or not it's worth it depends on how much you value the item in gold. If we consider the gem store as its own entity, this is fair. Since the gem store is inextricably tied to the rest of the game, what goes into it has an unavoidable effect on the rest of GW2.

While we have a handful of minis and a good chunk of armor and weapon skins to obtain through gameplay, way too much of the stuff we might otherwise be earning through playing the game ends up in the cash shop without an equivalent number of additions that don't require some form of gem purchase. With few exceptions, gameplay-exclusive rewards are handed out piecemeal: A helmet skin here, a miniature there, and all the backpacks you can eat (although I don't recommend it). In the final chapters of the first living world season we were even rewarded with a helmet skin for completing the meta achievement...and then offered the matching gauntlet and pauldron skins through the gem store for 400 gems each. I remember being so flabbergasted by this that I refused to buy them with gold or gems, despite thinking they were really cool.

When I mentioned a while back that I kind of liked the concept of offering single armor skin pieces in the gem store, I was referring to things like the scar mask, which is fairly unique and offers a new way to add personality to a character's look. That's the sort of thing I'd rather see offered as a one-off item rather than as part of a full set. Breaking up an armor set into chunks and charging more for each piece isn't nearly the same thing, and gameplay rewards should not come off like advertisements for the cash shop unless you're okay with the shade that paints your game in. I don't think ArenaNet is, or it wouldn't have made attempts to fix things.

There's nothing wrong, at a basic level, with offering armor and weapon skins through the gem store -- the issue is the lengths to which it's been taken in GW2 at the cost of making the game itself less directly rewarding. I don't believe that any true fix to GW2's reward system can be made without addressing this and changing it. The majority of our new armor and weapon skins are being put in the gem store rather than the game, and as a result many rewards for normal gameplay are distributed as blandly universal currency rather than as items with their own inherent value. All of the little things players are used to seeking out in MMOs -- quests with unique rewards and pets, reputation vendors with unusual permanent souvenirs -- are pretty thin in GW2, and it's a shame that this wasn't expanded on, especially since it's left the karma, heart and event systems underutilized. Those interesting odds and ends tend to go to the gem store, and in the game itself we get global drops to convert to income. There's no magic in that. Jokes about difficult content yielding "two blues and a green" may not accurately reflect the quality of rewards anymore, but even with a Rare or two thrown in it's still just another glob of ectoplasm or handful of silver from the trading post.

GW2 is marketed on having a cosmetic endgame, where stats only matter to a certain point and one of the ultimate goals is making your character look cool. If ArenaNet is putting over half of those cosmetic goals into the gem store, then the store is effectively working against the game.

Look at my Charr, my Charr is amazing.
Oh no! What do?

Simply taking things out of the gem store and putting them into the game seems like an obvious solution, but it's also unrealistic given that the store supports the game and new skins are expensive to produce. To further complicate things, it isn't as though we don't ever get unique rewards through gameplay -- it's just that most of them are time-limited or cyclical, and those that aren't (such as Fractal and Aetherpath weapons) are some of the rarest items in GW2. One of the things that makes this issue so hard to pin down is that hyperbole can completely obscure the problem: Even a handful of new armor items and minis added to regional karma merchants, Champion bags, chests, or specific enemies over time would probably make a massive difference in how rewarding open world content is perceived to be. Weapon skins are in the best position right now in terms of selection and reward volume because ArenaNet has been far more generous in adding them directly to the game.

My greatest wish for GW2's gem store is that ArenaNet might branch out and offer some really special things, the sort of options players can rarely earn through gameplay even in most subscription-based games: more emotes, a greater range of combat voices, wildly different character customization details, and unique animations. ANet has dipped a toe into those sorts of offerings, but not at a rate comparable to the addition of armor and weapon skins. Outfits in their current form are a good addition, since they're nearly equivalent to costumes in the original Guild Wars and offer the same ability to wear a universal look regardless of armor weight. They break a cosmetic limitation in a reasonable way. Similarly, new hairstyles and faces could be added every week and I don't think the playerbase would tire of them, provided there was sufficient variety. It still surprises me that we've only seen new eye and hair colors added once, and that exclusive makeover kit options have never extended into body types, height range, or even accessory dyes outside of the extremely limited starter set.

Whether ArenaNet chooses to add those things or not, right now the gem store doesn't occupy enough of its own space, and that reflects badly on both gameplay rewards and the store itself. For armor skins especially it acts as a boring middleman where players can either convert their gold to gems, or pay real money to skip the process. Like the Mystic Forge, it's simply too much of a catchall; a lot of our epic, magical, high-value items end up being the result of either bribing a cranky Djinn tourist or buying stuff from a Charr who is only slightly less of a jerk than Mad King Thorn. The Black Lion Trading Company needs a makeover of its own, and gameplay rewards need to create richer and more exciting narratives to give them weight beyond "Yay, stuff!"

I think GW2's reward system will only continue to improve in the future. But as much as I love the living world, I can see why some of its critics view it as nothing but a vehicle for new gem store additions. If the upcoming second season is going to be a rousing success, it'll likely need to deliver on permanent rewards just as much as permanent content -- and if we step through that cool portal we've been teased with just to watch our bags fill with the same vendor trash and salvage fodder that already drops from one end of Tyria to the other, I'll be disappointed.

What do you think of GW2's rewards? Where do you think that thorny portal might lead? Did you ever play that carnival game where you throw a ball into a cup to win a fish? In retrospect, that one was kind of messed up. Tell us about it in the comments, and I'll see you in the Mists!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's biweekly 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.