As I obsessively count down the days until the August 28 release of Guild Wars 2, I do wonder, how will gamers coming from other MMOs perceive it? The innovations that ArenaNet have poured into their highly anticipated sequel are legion. While many aspects of the game will be familiar to MMO fans, there are quite a few departures as well. One of the biggest alterations is that Guild Wars 2 is a skill-based game, while most other MMORPGs offer a gear-based progression system. The question is: Will this design choice be a breath of fresh air or a source of confusion and frustration?
Defining Gear and Skill
In a gear-based MMO, such as World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic, achieving the maximum level is the beginning of your journey. At that point, it’s time to jump on that gear treadmill and claw your way to a decent power level. Players are led down a progression path which includes repeating dungeons and raids of varying party sizes and difficulty levels, which grants you statistically better gear for completing them. It works the same on the PvP side, with players competing in matches to earn various currencies to purchase yet more powerful gear. Not to mislead you—skill still plays a major factor in these games. In fact, being extremely skillful can compensate for lower gear levels, but it’s usually unwise to ignore your character’s gear progression if you want to experience the most challenging content. MMO gamers are used to this system. It’s expected and comfortable. So what will happen as the masses discover that Guild Wars 2 doesn’t work like this?
Outside of MMOs, gamers are very familiar with skill-based games. Shooters, for example, frequently offer gamers a level playing field to test their expertise. Fighting games, like Mortal Kombat, don’t require you to spend dozens of hours working to unlock a more powerful set of moves. Imagine having to play twenty matches as Ryu in Street Fighter before being able to sling a single hadouken! In these titles, your skill is the primary determinant of your success. It will work the same in Guild Wars 2.
ArenaNet’s Skillful Approach to Guild Wars 2
It’s easy to see the skill-based framework when you look at how the structured PvP is designed in Guild Wars 2. After a new character completes the instanced introductory area, they have the option to teleport to the Mists. The Mists is a PvP staging area, which is the perfect place to experiment with different builds and equipment configurations before stepping into world vs. world or a structured PvP match. Here characters are bumped up to level 80 with all trait points and skills unlocked. They are also given a set of max-level PvP gear and access to vendors with free weapons, runes and sigils. As you can see, players will be on an even playing field (in regards to gear power) from their very first PvP match.
Obviously, players that choose horrible skills or are clueless about how to set up their traits and equipment will be at a severe disadvantage. Skill is comprised of more than just manual dexterity. Knowledge of your profession and build, your strategy for the various maps, and coordination with your teammates are all facets of being skillful. But the power of your gear will not hold you back. Your progression is dictated by your personal improvement, not by obtaining a new helmet that grants you +30 to Pwnage.
The PVE progression will work similarly. As you level up, you’ll find increasingly powerful gear, but once you hit the maximum level of 80, your statistics will hit a plateau. While we haven’t been able to test any level 80 PVE content ourselves, Lead Content Designer Colin Johanson, has stated: “Everyone, including casual gamers, by level 80 should have the best statistical loot in the game. We want everyone on an equal power base.” The rewards you receive for tackling dungeons, dynamic events, and crafting will be unique skins for your weapons and armor. So you can work towards looking more bad-ass than everyone else, but your actual prowess in battle is largely dependent on you.
No Gear? Why Play?
Players of the original Guild Wars will be familiar with this set up, as achieving the max level of 20 and obtaining the best armor can be accomplished by the savvy in a matter of hours. MMO veterans, who are used to games like Rift and WoW, might be asking themselves, “What’s the point in continuing to play once I hit max level, if it’s easy to get the best gear?” The topic of incentive is large enough for its own article, but the short answer is: Instead of needing to farm gear in order to the play the game, Guild Wars 2 allows you to simply play the game. Completing the dungeons, working on crafting, experiencing the story, engaging in World vs. World, competing in PvP tournaments and many other activities will all provide players incentive without requiring your gear to be measure against a “you must be this tall to ride” sign. I’ll admit that I had a hard time wrapping my brain around this concept when I first started reading about it. Many MMO gamers will also need to adjust their mindset to understand this paradigm shift.
Gear vs. Skill: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
PvP in gear-based games usually have a tough barrier of entry for new players. A fresh level 50 character in Star Wars: The Old Republic has very limited access to expertise, which is a critical statistic for PvP. This creates a situation where newbies have to endure a period of getting slaughtered as they work on improving their gear. The most skilled and dedicated players will have the most powerful statistics and the performance gap between these players and a neophyte is colossal. Game developers can counter this with several strategies, but it’s a challenge to figure out how to entice new players to join PvP and have a rewarding experience from the start.
Gear-based PvE has similar issues requiring fresh-to-max-level players to gear up before tackling the highest difficulty content the game has to offer. One does not simply walk into the heroic Madness of Deathwing encounter minutes after hitting level 85 in World of Warcraft. Consequently, hardcore guilds often struggle to find new raid members who have the appropriate gear level for the content they are trying to defeat. Once again, there are strategies the developers can use to lessen the impact of a gear-based system, but they need to be constantly aware of these undesirable byproducts.
As most people know, Guild Wars 2 will not have a subscription fee. ArenaNet will, instead, support the game through microtransactions. The skill-based nature of the game allows them more freedom in the items they can sell in the in-game store without upsetting balance. Karma boosts, for example, aren’t game-breaking in Guild Wars 2, because the progression is based on player skill. However, selling currency boosters in a gear-based game would create a situation where players would feel compelled to buy those boosters if they wanted to remain competitive.
It may sound as if skill-based MMOs are all puppies and flowers with no drawbacks at all, but this is far from the truth. In fact, I’m concerned that some of my friends and family may struggle in Guild Wars 2. Level 80 players exploring Tyria can’t compensate for a lack of skill by obtaining more powerful gear. Before you say, “Well, duh. Learn to play, noob!”, realize there are many players out there that have a skill ceiling that is lower than your average gamer. It may be easy on a forum or in an internet space to discount those players, but it’s a different story when you’re talking about real people you want to play with. One of my close friends gets extreme motion sickness when he plays certain games. In MMOs, using the mouse to pan the camera triggers his condition, so he uses his keyboard for both movement and activating skills. He’s defter at playing like this than most people I’ve seen, but his performance might suffer with the action-oriented combat of Guild Wars 2. My dad loves MMOs. He was a dedicated raider and one of our main tanks for 6 years in World of Warcraft. The fact is, however, that he’s 65 years old and his reflexes aren’t as fast as they used to be. I created a video that discussed the same topic as this article (check it out below) and I received many messages in reaction to it from gamers who had all sorts of physical limitations that impacted their skill ceilings. So this concern is more widespread than we may realize. Gear-based MMOs are very friendly to these players because they allow them to surpass their own personal power limit with the acquisition of shiny loot. If they can’t defeat a challenging boss now, they can continue practicing knowing that eventually their gear may give them the boost they need to defeat it. In a skill-based system all you can do is keep trying until you overcome the obstacle or give up.
The good news is Guild Wars 2 is not designed with a structured raiding environment where gamers converge for countless hours spanning several weeks in an attempt at defeating a single boss encounter. Players with lower skill levels aren’t going to be holding back an entire raiding team’s progression. Large-scale dynamic events, world vs. world, crafting and personal story can be enjoyed by everyone equally. Structured PvP and the explorable mode dungeons may prove to be more prohibitive, but since they don’t yield more powerful loot for completing them, gamers won’t be hindered from accessing other areas of the game if they aren’t successful.
Some gamers simply won’t like the skill-based approach to Guild Wars 2. To some, the allure of seeking new items is not strong enough if they don’t include a power increase with them. Others may be frustrated by the difficulty rather than inspired to rise to the challenge. For me, personally, after playing gear-based MMOs for over a decade now, I’m ready for something different. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my time in those worlds; in fact, they are some of my best gaming moments. But I feel that I’ve seen what that approach has to offer and I’m curious as to where my adventures in Tyria will lead me.
This article was inspired by a video I made on the same topic. It’s embedded below if you want to hear more of my thoughts on this topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNMbeLMdEgc