Thursday, July 12, 2012

On Guild Wars, The Secret World, and the Metagame

Whew!  What a busy weekend!  I had really hoped to be done with the War in Kryta by this weekend, but once again the Guild Wars designers have thrown adversity before me, and once again I find myself challenged to figure out the right set of changes and modifications to make to my build, my armor, and my heroes, to overcome this latest challenge.  And the challenge in figuring out exactly how to overcome this latest set of obstacles got me to thinking about metagames again.

You'll remember a few weeks ago, I talked briefly about Guild Wars' metagame.  About how much I'd come to play it -- almost unwillfully -- in order to progress in the game.  I am embracing the "tweak your build and customize your heroes" game pretty wholeheartedly right now, which is interesting, because I usually would rather not have to spend tons of time outside the game learning to play the game, but having come so far and invested so much in Guild Wars, I feel sort of obligated to finish it out.  It's also interesting, because it's exactly the same reason that I'm holding off jumping into The Secret World right now.

I know, you're all.. what?  Let me back up a bit.  Remember when they first announced The Secret World?  They released that awesome CGI (non gameplay) video with the young woman walking into her apartment, dropping her backpack, and being confronted by some ghastly netherworld demon, and blasting it to smithereens with her magic.  It was amazing, and I was hugely excited.  But as time went by, more and more details about the game came to light, and eventually details about their progression mechanic were released.   And what was revealed was that they were building an entirely classless, skill based system, built around weapon skills.  And when that information was revealed, well let's just say I became distinctly less interested.  I have a history of many relationships with classless skill-based MMO's, and pretty much all of those relationships eventually ended in tears, so quite frankly I was not in a huge hurry to renew that.

More time went by, and the betas came and went, the reaction from most of my fellow bloggers was, for the most part, decidedly mediocre.  It felt like I was making the right decision.  Then the game launched - okay at least I think the game is launched now - these days it can be hard to tell - but at least as far as I know if you've bought the game you can play it, and among my circles, there was an increasing wave of people whom seemed to be really turning the corner on the game, and enjoying it resoundingly.  Good friends and acquaintances alike were beginning to sing the praises of its immersion, its storytelling, the ambiance, and even the combat.  Now I got to thinking - well maybe they've managed to avoid the typical pitfalls of a skillbased system - maybe this game isn't like the others.  And I'd been thinking about Guild Wars' metagame, and about the challenge it presents, once you get past the casual portion of the game, and I wondered if The Secret World would become the same way.

Well I don't like to really make uninformed decisions, so short of paying for the game and playing it, I did the next best thing, and really dug into the game over the weekend.  I learned how the skill wheel works, I learned about the templates - the prebuilt decks, if you will, how skills are acquired, and how they're used.  I learned about resource building skills and consumption skills, and about synergies.  And I found what I would consider to be an excellent resource for putting together a solid build right from the get-go.  Here's the link - if you're playing the game, I think it would be a great source of information.  Did you read it?  Take a look - I'll wait.

It's also the kind of information I'd want to know right from the beginning.  Because there are gems in there.  Things like:

"Focus first on creating a single deck that has: one single target builder that builds resources for BOTH weapons, one AOE or cone builder that builds for BOTH weapons, and one hard-hitting single-target consumer from EACH weapon that you can use back-to-back." 

See I would have never thought of that right off, and of course it's sheer genius - it absolutely makes sense. Use builders that build resources for both weapons at the same time, and then a finisher for each weapon.  There are a ton of others in the post, as well as some extraordinarily useful information about the number of abilities - both active and passive, for each weapon type, and the states they inflict and the states they react to.  Don't let those giant matrices intimidate you!  That's good stuff there!   

Anyway, the point is posts like this one, and a few others I found, are the things that lead me to believe this skill system is not something you can take lightly. It's a deep, complex system with a staggering array of possibilities. My problem with systems like that is that I feel like you have to know the system - to know the metagame - before you ever even begin. Because if you don't - if you just end up getting screwed by it in the end.  

Now there is a certain mindset that says "Screw the experts!  Build what you want!  Play your own game, have fun, do what you like, and just enjoy the game!"  I'm exceedingly familiar with that mindset, because it's exactly the mindset I have taken into just about every one of these kinds of MMO before.   But in every case, here's what happens with the average player.  They start off, casually playing, and by far and large enjoying the game.  And this keeps them playing - for awhile.  And then, at some point, one or two things happen:  one, they encounter in PvP some other player or players whom have put together some game-breaking combination of abilities the designers never conceived of, and are ravaged by them repeatedly, or two, in PvE, they reach content that requires some combination of abilities the designers intend for you to either know about or have tried, and they don't, and so they are effectively just stymied from progressing.  

This was certainly my own personal experience in Champions Online ( originally, almost entirely skillbased), Star Wars Galaxies, and Guild Wars.  Wait - did he just say Guild Wars - the game he's been doing nothing but gushing about for the last three weeks?  I did, and it's true.  If you have played Guild Wars before, see if this sounds like your experience:  You start off playing the game, and enjoying it!  You wonder why you stopped playing!  Then you reach a point where suddenly the game gets hard.  I don't mean a little hard either - I mean, die 15 times in a row in a single mission kind of hard.  Over a period of days you find yourself unwilling to come back to that mission, cause you really don't want to tackle that hurdle, and before you know it, you're playing something else, that's fun, and Guild Wars is forgotten for another six months.  That point - that point where you got to that mission that you couldn't complete, was you reaching the point where the designers effectively said: Okay, you know the basics.  Now you have a choice.  You can either learn to play the metagame - the game outside the game - or you can play something else. 

Let's face it, before Guild Wars 2 became wildly hyped and people suddenly wanted HoM points, the only people that were still playing Guild Wars were the hardcore that were either addicted to the PvP, or racking up Xenlai chestfuls of ectoplasms running Fissure of Woe speed runs. 

I don't think it's a bad thing for an MMO to have a complex metagame.  In fact, just the opposite.  Every MMO of any complexity has a rich metagame to learn and enjoy beyond the up front "jam on your ability keys until mob is dead" mechanic.  What I think distinguishes a good game design from a poor one is to what extent the game forces you to have to play the metagame, and how soon it forces you to learn it - if at all.  In Champions Online (in its original incarnation), if you built a hero without slotting a really solid defensive passive, you were just well and properly fucked.  No ifs, ands, or buts about it.  I learned that the hard way, and came to realize I needed to learn how to make a build before I created a character.  I think that was a bad design, and I think they eventually fixed that with their archetypes. 

In WoW, the metagame really only exists in two areas of the game - PvP, and Instances.  And you can pretty much level up through the entire game, level 1 to 85, and never participate in either of those parts of the game, and never be forced to learn their metagames.  Now mind you, when you do choose to play those parts of the game, you will be YELLED at by those that are already playing it, and have learned the metagame already.  You will need to learn to not stand in the fire, or for the love of gawd, if you're a rogue, don't try to carry the flag.  But it's a choice you make.  You choose to either play that game or not, and in doing so, you are saying "I'm okay with learning more than the basics of this game".   

The good games allow you to either choose the circumstances under which you tackle the metagame, or at the least, when the metagame is forced upon you, you are given the tools to shape your character in whatever way is necessary to adjust to continue playing.  I can't say into which category The Secret World ultimately falls into.  What I do feel pretty confident in are two things.  One, very soon, I suspect a significant number of the people currently playing and enjoying TSW are going to hit a wall of difficulty.  And either one or two things will happen.  They will either have fallen in love with the world and the lore enough that they will take the effort to learn the metagame, make the necessary adjustments, and continue - or they will simply move on to another game.  And for many of those even, that will be enough.  They paid their $60.00, they got their month of enjoyment, it's all good.  

The other thing I feel pretty confident about is I do not have the time to learn The Secret World's metagame right now.  Because if I do decide to go play The Secret World, I'm taking that post I linked above with me.  I'm reading everything I can, and I'm tackling it with as much knowledge as I possibly can find.  Because I've been down that casual road before - I know exactly where it leads.  So if I go in this time - you can bet I'll be going in with both guns blazing.  Or in this case - maybe a gun and a sword. 


  1. hmm. I think you're overstating the initial complexity. You can do pretty well by just picking (any) two weapons and filling in their base skills.

    By the time you hit the 'wall' with the naïve approach, you should have plenty of AP's to spend on more carefully selected skills. You can (and probably will) eventually buy every skill in the list.

    The combat system BECOMES deep... but the focus is on exploration, story, and missions. And there's no real way to gimp yourself beyond repair. ;)

  2. So, I've played a month now, mostly duoing with Mr. Anderson. The game started good...and slowly grew on me! So far, that's a very different experience than I had with SW:TOR, where I was initially overwhelmed and then hit a wall after 2 months.

    Secret World is interesting because there are inherently TWO layers of appeal.

    FIRST LAYER: The Character Builder
    You've covered some of the highlights above quite well! One thing that Funcom did well was provide you a think called "Decks". A "deck" is a pre-built set of skills that work together pretty well. There are better combos you can put together on your own, but this is a great noobie starting place.

    Decks also have two great sub-features. First, when you select a deck to work towards, the skills you need are highlighted on that big skill wheel you picture earlier. It makes it extremely easy to apply a template, and then work towards that. Secondly, when you complete all the required skills for the deck, you get a custom multi-slot outfit for that deck. The outfits look awesome. Every faction has it's own set of outfits, and each gender has some appearance differences. Combine this with the fact that you get some single appearance pieces for completing weapon-oriented groups of inner ring skills (pretty easy to accomplish) and there's a powerful motivator for moving forward here.

    SECOND LAYER: Story and Missions. It really is good.
    Secret World did what SW:TOR tried - sorta. Almost every meaty mission you get has a opening cinematic, with VO, animation and the whole bit. Well-written and nicely set-up in the world. On top of that, the designers have done an excellent job (with only one or two hiccups) of matching what you're doing in the mission with the story set up, giving you LOTS of context.

    They also throw in a fair bit of puzzle, which is unique for the MMO genre. I'm talking hard-core, pull out Google and break-a-sweat puzzle solving for some of the missions. Sure - most of them are well-spoiled by now if you want it, but I've found working on puzzles with a friend to be highly rewarding, even when we're having to Google heiroglyphic symbols to determine in which order to activate the statues. Cool stuff.

    I wish Secret World had launched in a different year from GW2. It's the lesser of the two games, especially considering it has a monthly fee AND a cash shop. It is, however, an excellent MMO and worth playing through once for the story. It has the deck-building / collection aspects of GW1, a find-quest-through-exploration dynamic not dissimilar from GW2, character-integrated cutscenes like SW:TOR, and a nice tactical action feel. It's full of bugs, and feels like it's being crafted by a rather small team, but I'm certainly glad I've played. When I hit that first hump in GW2, I'm certain I'll be back.