Why I Like Guild Wars (So Far)

Updates:

  • 2007-01-10: Added another difference that I thought of — the game’s lack of different shards.
  • 2007-01-02: Corrected information about changing your secondary profession thanks to a comment from The Extremist.

Amanda bought me Guild Wars for Christmas, and it’s proving to be exceptionally fun. Some of my friends probably know that I’m an on-again-off-again EVE Online player and follow the evolution of virtual worlds with a keen interest. While I appreciate the number of things EVE is doing to advance the state of the art in online environments — large-scale, player-run corporations; freedom to follow your own course of action; minimization of restrictions on player activities — it’s a very hard game to get into. It’s alienating and distant, and that makes it hard to bring new players in. I pick it back up every so often, usually after major updates to see what’s new, but I have a hard time sticking with it despite how much I admire what they’re doing. Guild Wars, on the other hand, is much more approachable. It’s a fantasy-themed online role-playing game, and it takes a very different approach to the genre than anything else I’ve played.

What Guild Wars does differently:

No monthly fee
You buy the campaign(s) you want to play for roughly $50 each, and that’s that.
Very little character lock-in
In most games, when you make a choice like how to spend some attribute points after gaining a level, you’re stuck with that decision. There’s a great deal of planning and forethought that has to go into your character’s progression before you even realize what it is you want to or can do. This is daunting to new players and can make you regret choices you made back before you had any idea of how best to utilize your character. It also results in “sub-optimal” characters, a concept that I hate — why should I keep playing a game if what I want to do isn’t effective? With Guild Wars, you can freely rearrange your attribute points as you see fit whenever you’re in a town or outpost, and you can also rearrange your skills (more on skills below). If my Monk character is set up as a healer, and we need someone who can do some smiting damage, I just need to pop back to a town and set myself up that way and I’m good to go. The only thing you can never change is your primary profession; even your secondary profession, which gives additional attributes and skills for your character to use, can be changed multiple times after you do the quest to unlock the profession changer NPC.
Instanced areas and minimal grinding
In other games, when you’re running about a field trying to kill some stuff, you’ve got several hundred other people running around that same area trying to kill the same things. It’s been a problem since the first entries into MMORPGs and it results in such things as camping a particular spot with your group waiting for a boss to respawn so you can kill it and take its loot, assuming someone else doesn’t snag the kill before you do. Guild Wars gets around the problem in a way a few other games have by offering each group their own private instance of the area to play in. There are also some other subtle differences, such as the fact that what you kill stays dead until you exit and re-enter the area — no more worrying about whether or not you’re standing in the middle of a spawn zone. You also don’t gain as much experience points for killing beasties as you do in other games, where laying waste to monsters in the field is one of the primary methods of gaining levels. Instead, the bulk of your experience gains come from doing quests (more on these below, too) and while you do gain some experience from killing stuff, that’s not necessarily the fastest way to advance. As a result, you spend less time running around decimating the wildlife — so-called “grinding” — and more time feeling like you’re accomplishing concrete goals.
Skills
Everything in Guild Wars is accomplished via skills. You’ll gain some of these as quest rewards, some automatically as you advance, and the majority of them you purchase for in-game gold from skill vendors. They have a wide range of effects and types, and interact with one another in some very complex ways, and you can only ever have eight of them equipped at any time. This means for any given character build, you need to determine the optimal way to accomplish what you’re after, but there’s usually more than one way to do it. The skill balance and interplay is, as I understand it, largely developed by the guys who did Diablo, Diablo II, and Starcraft — all three games which are rightfully heralded for their balance and subtlety. I find I’m feeling less like there’s only one way to be an effective type of any given character in this game, which was a big problem in EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, Asheron’s Call 2, Anarchy Online, and pretty much every other MMORPG I played for any length of time. And, even if you do end up with a sub-optimal build, so what? Just go back to town and tweak your attributes or skills to see if you can do better. It reminds me a great deal of Magic: The Gathering. In Magic, a large part of the strategy comes before you even start shuffling your cards — deck design, deciding on the cards you want and how they’re going to interact, benefit you, and harm your opponent is a major part of the game, and solid designs will consistently and reliably win over weaker ones. So you start with a concept, you find a good base to begin working with, and you tweak and adjust as you see how it performs in play. Over time, as you face different challenges you’ll learn not only what changes need to be made, but how to more effectively use what you’ve got. It’s a subtle contest of wits between you, your friends, and the rest of the world.
Heroes and henchmen
In other online games I’ve played, you’re either a character capable of operating solo, a pet class who controls some other critter for doing the dirty work, or you’re part of a group. It can make it difficult for people who tend to prefer to operate alone or with one or two other people but want to do quests that require a full group. Guild Wars Factions (the second campaign) added henchmen to the mix. Henchmen are additional party members whose equipment, skills, and level are all fixed based on what town or outpost you were in when you added them. Guild Wars Nightfall (the third and most recent campaign, and the one I ended up starting with) added heroes. Like henchmen, heroes are additional party members to join your group and help you win battles. Unlike henchmen, you have additional control over what they do and don’t do, their equipment, and additional skills. Using both heroes and henchmen allows you to fill out a group a lot more easily, without having to bring on the double-edged sword of other people. For instance, Amanda and I have been running around — me with my Paragon and her with her Necromancer — and to our band of two we’ve been adding one of our warrior heroes and a healer henchman. It’s been quite fun and makes for a pretty solid group.
Quest variety
EverQuest was just about the worst in this regard, but the others had nothing much to write about. Take this here, run and see that guy over there, go kill ten of these stupid things. It was pretty droll and repetitive. I’ve found there are a lot of the same sorts of quests in Guild Wars, but there’s much more. Dungeons with puzzles and traps, missions where all you can do is give orders to your heroes and henchmen telling them what to do and where to go, quests to gain rank in various factions, and more. It’s a far cry from the FedEx and murder missions that most other games give you.
Casual approachability
Other games I’ve played tended to require a more solid devotion of time, and gave better rewards to more hardcore players who were able to spend more time playing the game. The WoW battlegrounds, as I understand, are very guilty of this and you can’t expect to compete without dedicating some serious time to it. Earlier tonight, I hopped into Guild Wars for about 15 minutes, ran around and killed some stuff in an instanced explorable area, and it was a productive run. Almost died a couple of times, but I pulled in some good experience with my warrior hero and my healer henchman. Then I jumped back to town and logged out when it was time to go. I like the fact that I can do this more easily than I’ve been able to in some other MMORPGs. Guild Wars also seems to reward player skill over time spent, with having a good knowledge of your skills and how to use them winning out over having dedicated serious time playing. Of course a player who’s higher level — which does take time to attain — is going to have better skills and equipment, but you can be a competitive player at your own level without having to pour loads of time into it.
No shards
Like EVE, there’s only one “server” (or “realm” or “shard” or whatever they’re called), so when you tell someone your character name you don’t also need to tell them what shard you’re on. This is mostly a convenience thing, but I think it’s the way all games should be designed in the future. It promotes a better sense of cohesiveness and prevents the community from being too thinly spread; this happened with Dark Age of Camelot as their subscriber base shrank, and required them to condense the server list in a somewhat awkward way.

With these pluses in mind, it’s not without its own share of issues:

Community
The community does have a greater number of obnoxious kids in it than others I’ve seen, though certainly not more than WoW which is a freakin’ cesspool of Middle Schoolers. I’ve seen ads shouted for guilds with minimum age requirements — 18+ in one case — and maybe that’ll help for long-term play, but there were a lot of immature fools running around in the public areas. That may be more a side effect of online populations than anything else, though.
Endgame
It does appear that the “point” of the game is to do player-versus-player (PvP) or guild-versus-guild (GvG) combat in the various and sundry arenas. This isn’t for everyone, and I think there is some high-level non-PvP content for people who don’t want to participate in the more aggressively competitive parts of the game, but I think PvP is the primary endgame. It reminds me a great deal of Dark Age of Camelot — a great game I’ve dedicated no small amount of time to over the years — in the frontier realm-versus-realm combat. Personally, I like this sort of endgame as I’m a competitive player by nature, but I list this under flaws as it’s not for everyone.
Instanced areas
I know this was under the list of strong points above, but I also put it here because it does tend to detract from the “shared world” feel that I enjoy about MMORPGs, where we’re all part of this fantasy world killing fantasy creatures. Of course, it doesn’t help when “Darkkillerdeathlol” runs by with no clothes on, but it is something I think I’ll miss about role-playing servers in games like Dark Age of Camelot.

That’s pretty much what I’ve got right now. I think I’ll enjoy Guild Wars for a time — quite possibly a long one. I’ll keep you posted.

  1. I would like to take the time to respond to your whole blog post where I wholeheartedly agree with you as well as disagree.

    For now I’d just like to make a correction, if I may.

    You’re not limited to changing your secondary profession only once. You do have to quest until you ‘unlock’ the Profession Changer. Once s/he’s unlocked you can change your profession as many times as you desire for as long as your gold holds up.

  2. Thank you very much for your comment and for your correction — I’ve updated the post to reflect facts of which I was unaware.

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