Guild Wars 2: High Risk, High Reward

by Tyler Edwards, March 26, 2012

Guild Wars 2 is one of the most hotly anticipated MMOs in history. In an industry where new titles are routinely given messianic levels of hype and lauded as "game-changers" and "Warcraft-killers," GW2 seems to have achieved an even greater level of hype. Why?

Because it's different.

MMOs are a genre with remarkably little variation. Most new titles, even ones hailed as revolutionary, boil down to the same old grind we remember from World of Warcraft which was, itself, little more than a refinement of EverQuest's formula. You quest to level, you grind for gear, and you raid (though some replace raiding with PvP).

But GW2 promises to shatter this mold completely. No quests, no raiding, no gear grind. It's an exciting promise, but it comes with a great deal of risk. The traditional MMO formula, for all its staleness and predictability, is still used because it works. People know what to expect when they play a game like Rift or Star Wars: The Old Republic. By changing the fundamental mechanics of the genre, Guild Wars 2 threatens to alienate the very customers it hopes to attract.

guild wars 2

Take, for example, the endgame. For most MMOs, it's the main focus of both the developers and the players. Everything else is just a speed bump on the way to getting geared so that you can raid or PvP with your friends.

But GW2's endgame is different - it doesn't have one. ArenaNet - the developer of GW2 - operates on the philosophy that there shouldn't be a harsh divide between what you do when leveling and what you do at max level. Thus, level capped characters will theoretically do much the same things that leveling characters do - participate in the dynamic world events the game has in place of quests, run the occasional dungeon, advance their personal story, or PvP.

GW2 has no "raiding" or large scale instanced PvE content of any kind. For many, this will be a very jarring change to get used to. Most other MMOs view raiding as the central goal of the game, and many players play with only raiding in mind.

Will GW2's sandbox gameplay appeal to the hardcore raider? Probably not, and certainly not in the same way that a game with raiding would. These players will probably find themselves getting bored before long, if they even buy the game to begin with. ArenaNet risks a lot by abandoning this part of the MMO formula.

guild wars 2 gear

Closely tied to the lack of endgame is ArenaNet's perspective on gear. Gear in GW2 is normalized for each level range, and a decent set of gear for each level is reasonably easy to obtain. Thus, the only reason to acquire new gear - beyond the occasional upgrade as you level - is for looks.

As much as people like to complain about the tedium of the gear grind, it's a major part of the addictive formula of MMOs. For some people, it's their chief reason to play. Everyone likes the thrill of acquiring the [Epic Breastplate of Total Awesomeness]. I'm not sure if either ArenaNet or the fans of GW2 really appreciate what a fundamental shift in MMO design this is, or how hard it might be for some people to adjust.

Ultimately, whether the lack of a gear grind is a good or bad thing is all down to personal taste. For some people, it could be a deal breaker, but for others it may be a dream come true. Regardless, though, this is another huge gamble made by ArenaNet.

guild wars 2 character

Another way ArenaNet has departed from the norm is their intention to do away with the "holy trinity" of class roles: tank, healer, and damage dealer. Every class is intended to be self reliant.

If there's one thing that is hard-wired into the design of most MMOs, it's the trinity. It's a crucial part of the balance and design of every part of an MMO, and it's almost impossible to imagine a game without it.

GW2 does have a trinity of its own: damage, control, and support. These bear some vague similarities to the traditional trinity, but there are also crucial differences. For example, traditional healers tend to be reactive, responding to damage as it comes in. A support character in Guild Wars 2 is intended to be much more proactive, using buffs, shields, and defensive abilities to prevent their allies from being wounded in the first place.

ArenaNet thus has to walk a difficult tightrope. If they make their trinity too similar to the traditional trinity, they will have failed in their goal and those yearning for a new experience will be disappointed. But if they make their trinity too different, it becomes increasingly difficult to create a game that is balanced, fun, and not so new as to completely baffle even the most experienced gamer.

guild wars 2 guardian

One final way in which GW2 is attempting to set itself away from the pack is its story. Traditionally, MMOs like WoW and Rift have focused on telling a big, epic story at the expense of a personal tale. The player is treated to an awe-inspiring tale, but they themselves play the role of a nameless and often insignificant "adventurer."

Guild Wars 2 seems to be taking the opposite approach. It has a much greater focus on the personal story of the player, allowing them to develop a back-story as part of character creation and then develop their character's story throughout the game. This is similar to what Bioware attempted with Star Wars: The Old Republic, but with even more effort towards developing the player as a character.

Unfortunately, this seems to come at the cost of the larger story. By all reports, the worldwide plot of GW2 lacks the unified storytelling we usually see in MMOs. In addition, the basis of the plot - dragons hell-bent on destruction - seems as cliche as they come. Some may not appreciate this tradeoff.

guild wars 2 monster

ArenaNet's desire to break old conventions isn't limited to gameplay, though. The game's business model is also a departure from what we're used to - and for some, it's one of the greatest causes of concern.

Despite the fact that you still need to buy the game to play, GW2 is generally referred to as a free-to-play game because of its lack of a monthly subscription. Theoretically, you don't need to pay another dime once you've bought the game.

But ArenaNet has to make money somehow, and their plan for this is to include the option of micro-transactions. Real world money can be used to buy in game items and currency, which can then theoretically be traded with other players for most anything.

This is a great cause of concern for many people because micro-transactions all too often end up meaning "pay to win." Supposedly free-to-play MMOs end up costing as much or more money than subscription based games for anyone who wants to progress.

ArenaNet promises that anything that could be bought with real world money could also be acquired for in game currency by someone with more time to grind, and that the lack of emphasis on gear for progression should hopefully mean that no one will be uncompetitive if they can't shell out real world cash. But we won't know for sure until the game launches, and there are some people who will probably never be reassured.

The purpose of this article isn't to state that Guild Wars 2 is doomed for failure or that ArenaNet is making a big mistake. But it's important to understand just how much they are trying to change, and what a big risk they're taking. GW2 is very different from the traditional MMO, and there will no doubt be many who won't be able to accept its changes. ArenaNet is gambling that there are more people who want something new than those who will find its new ideas too much to handle, but no one will know for sure until the game launches.

But maybe that's what makes Guild Wars 2 so exciting: that its developers have the courage to roll the dice and see what happens. It's a high risk, but if they pull it off, it could prove to be not just a massive hit with fans, but a turning point for the entire genre. If GW2 succeeds, it could usher in a whole new age of fresh thinking for the MMO industry.