Guild Wars 2's second feature pack dropped last week, bringing balance changes, new collection achievements, a rework of the trading post, and upgrades to the new player experience. Reactions to the last have been mixed, to say the least: Some of us like them, some of us are neutral on the subject, and some of us think ArenaNet made a terrible mistake.
For my own part, I'm really enjoying the changes. If you happen to be in the "terrible mistake" camp, hold on to your assorted fruit-based projectiles until the end of the article and I'll explain why.
If it's not broken, don't fix it. If it is broken... you know the drill
I can back up ArenaNet's statements on player retention with anecdotes, which everyone knows are the most accurate metric ever. I've discussed the early game with people who found the experience clunky and claimed to be constantly underleveled despite exploring, gathering, and doing every event they stumbled across. Even I had an experience similar to this in the early beta weekends; I was struggling to get to level 7 while my wife breezed around at level 21. In later beta events I no longer had any trouble, but by then I was familiar enough with Queensdale that I knew how to take a more efficient path.
Prior to the feature pack changes, players either "got" GW2 leveling or they didn't. If you didn't, there was no way for the game to let you know what you might do differently to improve the experience. GW2's "just explore wherever you want and the EXP will come rolling in" design works wonderfully if you happen to have picked the right direction to explore in and if you run across a ton of events along the way.
There is a "right" direction to go in most zones, even though it spreads out quite a bit in the higher levels. Depending on which end of a zone you enter from, you might end up with enemies at your level or below, or you might run into enemies which will eat your face and leave you to contemplate where your life went wrong. Hearts usually have a level suggestion on them, but as this video ironically points out, there are plenty of places in the early game experience where taking the wrong portal will lead to instant newbie death. Without traditional quests, there aren't many breadcrumbs to lead to the next level-appropriate area or to tell you how to get there if you've identified it from the level ranges on the world map.
Even assuming the player figures it out, the early game still had something of a "sink or swim" vibe to it. Those of us playing the game now are the ones who not only swam but weren't turned off by GW2's not exactly rolling out the ol' welcome mat to new players. That's a source of pride for some gamers, as an MMO that expects new players to prove themselves worthy of taking a place in it is seen as more hardcore than one which courts new players and clearly wants them to stay. One of those approaches works better for bringing in and keeping players; even the notoriously punishing EVE Online eventually polished up its newbie experience with tutorials and acknowledgements that new players are... well, new. Now there are discussions of removing those tutorials in order to better highlight the PvP-based point of the game, but regardless of whether that's a good idea or not, GW2 is not the sort of game that has ever supported a hardcore, do-or-die style of gameplay.
As Game Director Colin Johanson clarified in a post on the official forums, not every change was made to gently ease players into the leveling process so as not to cause a fatal error by overloading our circuits with potentially contradictory information. Another common criticism of GW2's leveling process -- and one that I've often seen here in Massively's comment section -- is that leveling up felt pointless. Prior to the trait changes in the first feature pack it was possible to have nearly your entire build set up before level 80, which was convenient but anticlimactic. Adding more unique rewards, treating leveling up as an event, and even gating things to make unlocking them feel special inject a little more RPG into GW2's design.
You can make the argument that GW2 is a different kind of MMO, one where levels are meaningless except as an indication of stat progression and content accessibility; I think that might have been ArenaNet's intention at the beginning. If the game had 20 levels like its predecessor, that might be easier to justify, but with 80 levels it's really very nice to have some weight behind the process. This is one of the reasons I hope ArenaNet has reconsidered increasing the level cap eventually, as changes like these are only now starting to make level 80 feel truly significant and different from levels 40 to 70.
Although I prefer the new system overall, I think some of the specifics could use another pass. ArenaNet is looking into many of the most glaring complaints: Level-gated unlocks are reportedly supposed to be more forgiving for veteran players, and a few unspecified things were flagged improperly for our versions of the game.
Most of my "meh" moments when playing through the new experience had to do with map completion elements. Giving players a tool which provides optional direction is a great thing, but the system could -- and probably should -- do more to foster and reward exploration and curiosity early on. Those are impulses which will help carry players through the upper levels and into level 80ish open world content like Orr and Dry Top, where most of the gameplay is non-linear and undirected. Rewarding the natural tendency to look for cool things could be as simple as unlocking things early if a player discovers them on her own, in the same way that World vs. World and structured PvP are hidden until a certain level unless players make a beeline for them. Vistas and points of interest might not appear on the zone map until they're unlocked, but they're still accessible and players will run into them almost immediately in most starting zones. I'd like to suggest that if a player makes the effort to discover anything she should get the tutorial tip and be able to see it on the map right away.
Skill points are also handled awkwardly: If you access them before level 13, they'll do nothing except instruct you to come back later. There's at least one skill point in most starting zones that's difficult to avoid before then, so letting players pick them up on the way for later use would probably be far more pleasant than shooing them off because they touched the wrong interesting doodad too early.
The new system did away with bundle items in the very earliest hearts as well, which I think was a negative change. It's understandable that ArenaNet might want new players to focus on the skills they currently have access to, but the use of bundles is never exactly taught further along. I can't think of a better time to showcase them than right at the outset, when players are learning what to expect from a heart and don't yet have enough weapon skills unlocked to make combat especially enthralling.
Admittedly, I do feel like something special was lost in one of those hearts. No, I'm not upset over having to dance for cows instead of feeding them, but the RC golem boards in Metrica Province were a cool, fun touch and I think GW2 is poorer for lacking things like that in the early experience. When the game was in development, I remember hearing about all of the neat things that could potentially be done with environmental items, but hearts that really take advantage of that in fun ways are fewer than I expected. Some of those early hearts were polished and varied in ways that later ones aren't, but they left such a strong positive impression that they set the tone for my experience with the rest of the game.
When I realized I'd be writing an article about how much I like the leveling changes, I wondered if I might as well not dip myself in honey and go rolling on the nearest fire ant hill. The reaction in the first few days was so extreme that I didn't expect it would have calmed down by now, but thank goodness it has.
Initially, I saw people throwing around words like "hellish" and "unmitigated disaster" and otherwise describing cow entertainment and unusable diving goggles in terms more appropriate for the horrors of war. Others said that ArenaNet had ruined everything they liked about GW2, or that they didn't think the new experience would be any good for player retention so they would be telling everyone they know not to play the game. This is about as reasonable as deliberately setting your house on fire because you're afraid it's not up to code.
It's not as though the new player experience is above criticism or that it can't be vastly improved. There are players who have played through it and prefer the old system or strongly dislike the new one, and of course that's perfectly fine. But much of the outrage in the first day or so was coming from people who by their own admittance hadn't played the content, and they were relying on other players for an impression of what it was like.
I understand this impulse because I almost gave into it myself. I saw that everyone was upset, I thought, "This is a disaster," and I refreshed a few sites for a while looking for new information because I had lost the desire to log in. Everything I saw reinforced the idea that the sky was falling and ArenaNet had implemented something horrible that nobody would ever be happy with. Because it's my job to play and write about GW2, I logged in on a new character anyway to test it out.
What I found didn't bear out the reaction I'd seen at all. Leveling to 15 is much faster now, and so is unlocking weapon skills. Most of the level gating is unlocked at a quick enough rate that it doesn't feel very restrictive. I was surprised to see gathering nodes appear after a few steps and bundles showing up in hearts again not long afterward.
Soon more players began to describe their experiences with the system in positive or balanced terms, and the furor abated. I wasn't the only one surprised to find that it wasn't as terrible as I'd heard. I don't say this in defense of ArenaNet or of the leveling system but as general advice: Don't do this to yourself. The backlash was entirely disproportionate to the changes -- which for the most part amount to around an hour's worth of content -- and was perpetuated in a weird sort of misery cycle where misinformation was indistinguishable from sarcastic parody. It doesn't feel good for players, it's a terrible way to get feedback to the devs, and it can actually spoil the game for you if you let it.
There are valid things to worry about in this feature pack. Players have reported that some of the final personal story chapters have been shuffled around or cut to accommodate the new chapter grouping, and as a result, the story no longer makes any sense in context; it's still unclear whether this was intentional or some kind of bug. The way stats are distributed now is bugged in such a way that downleveled characters are underpowered for what was previously manageable content. Worst of all, miniatures still lag a good distance behind a running character despite the other cool updates, and my vampire bat mini remains some kind of winged lizard doodlehopper instead of a proper bat. This is an outrage. But there are appropriate ways to discuss those issues with each other and with ArenaNet that don't involve convincing ourselves that the game is dying.
Speaking of death, it's almost Halloween! Yes, I know it's still September. The living world story will also be returning in November, but that's after Halloween, and so the fate of Tyria is going to be low on my priority list for a month or so. Sorry, Tyria.
What do you think of the feature pack changes? Are you participating in the fall WvW tournament season? Let us know in the comments, and don't forget to check out the collaborative development initiative threads on guild content! 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 other Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at firstname.lastname@example.org. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.