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Time, space and Guild Wars 2


This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

I suppose that people wouldn't complain about massively multiplayer RPGs all seeming the same if they didn't all have the same perspective, interface, combat system, and progression models, to name just a few things (there are many, many more). Yet I think the most important similarity is in how MMRPGs all use time and space – what you spend your time doing and where it happens. It seems that no matter the game in the genre, you spend roughly the same amount of time questing, walking, fighting, or crafting in similar places – this is part of why The Secret World's investigation quests felt so fresh.

Compare the lack of variety on these terms with first-person shooters, and it's easy to see that MMRPGs (with the exception of EVE Online) lack variety in their rhythm. It doesn't have to be this way. There's no conceptual reason why many persistent worlds have to be notable only for how much it deviates from models set by game such as EverQuest and World Of Warcraft.

Guild Wars 2 doesn't change the common perspective, interface, etc., making it look and play much like just about everything else in the genre. However, in terms of time and space, and how accessible (both in the literal and metaphorical sense of the word) it is. It's a dramatic shift for the genre. Guild Wars 2 makes traveling easy.

Gallery: Guild Wars 2 (2/20/12) | 16 Photos

Traveling is something that you spend a great deal of time on in a massively multiplayer game. In most, you start by running from place to place, setting up a hearthstone (or whatever it's called in the game) to return to the most important town. You set up travel paths to fly or taxi to, a process which can take 5-10 minutes of nothing, followed by several more minutes of traveling where you want to go, if it's far away from the travel hub.

The defining events of a leveling World Of Warcraft character come when they can afford their mount, their epic mount, their flying mount, and their epic flying mount. It's not battles or stories; it's potential ease of travel.

Time, space and Guild Wars 2
Guild Wars 2 has no mounts. It has some buffs which let your character run a tiny bit faster, but that's it. But what it does have are a series of waypoints which can be traveled to instantly at any point once you've run to them, for a few copper or silver pieces. You can also immediately travel to the Player versus Player hub from your character menu, and from there to the central city of Lion's Gate, which offers free teleportation to all other cities. It's a system that encourages to take your time and see the world when you go somewhere new, but makes accessing older areas easy once you've found them.

This is the most obvious example of Guild Wars 2's accessibility, but there are many other examples of it. Indeed, if GW2 is judged, as I described earlier, by its deviations from the WoW model, those deviations are entirely about accessibility. Do you need to kill an enemy or mine some ore at the same time as another player? In WoW, only one player gets the kill or the resource node. In Guild Wars 2, both of you can. Get players in the same place, and they're automatically treated as a group. In Guild Wars 2, the rigid tank/healer/damage/support divide doesn't exist-most classes can be built to fill most roles, and you don't need a dedicated tank and healer like in most MMRPGs. In short, where there used to be walls, GW2 builds bridges.

Time, space and Guild Wars 2
The core assumption of building those bridges seems to me to be this: massively multiplayer RPGs are potentially great games, held back by forcing the player to spend their time on repetitive tasks or boring traveling. Removing those obstacles therefore automatically improves the game.

The problem: I'm just not sure that that's true. In the past year we've seen two games – The Old Republic and The Secret World – which attempted to add deeper story, moral choice, and different settings. They were interesting, but still held back by the fact that they're still WoW-style in gameplay and pacing, which doesn't work well with in-depth storytelling.

Likewise, I'm not sure that accessibility is likely to improve the MMRPG genre significantly without rethinking what that style of game is good for. That is, in my opinion, the strength of the genre are its boundaries, it is the amount of time and effort it takes to accomplish even relatively mundane goals. That time acts as an investment in the game. When things are easy, there's less investment. In World Of Warcraft, I only got into the game when I, a protection warrior, found a healer friend to group with regularly, but that turned into six months of it being the main game I cared about. The entire game was built around those rigid boundaries of travel, of grinding, of strict class roles.

Time, space and Guild Wars 2
Guild Wars 2 doesn't require grouping with other characters, except for the occasional optional dungeon. You'll have a few people automatically group with you, or a few dozen. This means no sitting around, begging for people to join your party in chat or in guild. It means shiny, epic battles without much work. It also means you're less likely to make new friends or to have to work to get invested in the game. It's easier to pick up, yes, but also easier to put down.

To their credit, I think developer ArenaNet implictly acknowledges this, with a smoother progression curve that makes getting to the maximum level easier, and a lack of a subscription fee makes dropping in and out a simple decision. But their game is still built around the idea that by lessening the amount of time, space, and energy players exert getting to core mechanics like crafting and fighting, the better. But what if the general MMRPG mechanics are more problem than solution? Maybe it's the time and energy that makes them memorable, not the games themselves.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

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