It Just Keeps Getting Better! No, Really

I always seem to be behind the trends — first with the Queensdale champion train, then with key farming. About a week before the September patch, I purchased another character slot and made a key farmer. Then the patch came along and things became difficult. I am hopeful that ArenaNet will continue fixing issues. In the meantime, I have become fixated on why these changes were made and what ArenaNet hoped to accomplish. My journey through the new game mechanics began with derision and irritation, but has turned to grudging understanding.

When the patch went live, I looked at my key farmer as the perfect opportunity to experience the changes first-hand. Upon logging in the first day, I noted that although I had left my character outside her first story step with four skills unlocked on the great sword, she now had only two. I was mildly irritated at having lost the functionality I had already earned. I also noted the new blue arrow informing me that fun and adventure awaited me in the Fields of Ruin. Being a veteran player of the game, I knew this was leading me astray so I turned it off. Yet, I could see how the concept behind the content guide might be good for a brand new player, whether they’re new to MMOs or new to Guild Wars 2, even if it was a bit buggy. Once I was over these initial shocks, I ran to Queensdale to explore, still excited about the possibilities. Then friends reported through in-game chat that they were unable to harm enemies in higher level maps and that their F1 skills were missing. Disappointment and sarcasm ran rampant through our conversation. Buoyed by stubbornness and determined to reach level 10, I did hearts and events, and ran in circles killing enemies; each new level “rewarding” me with functionality I already knew existed and the slow progression of a character that was doomed to be deleted.

Disappointment turned to concern as I restarted my key farmer again the next day. ArenaNet had changed the heal skill available to me and the signet now constantly regenerated my health, making death nearly impossible. Yet, if I left my designated starting zone, I would be slaughtered. On this second play through, I noted that the “rewards” had become little more than pop up ads I no longer read and the tutorials could best be described as tedious. In addition to concern, I was bewildered. I remembered being overwhelmed on the first beta weekend. But I excitedly pushed every button available and started learning how to play. I feared that for level after level, a new player would have no hint as to their full potential. How would limiting their options help them? Depending on how often the character was played, it could take months before a person learned that they could do something as basic as switch weapons in combat. I fought to see this game through the eyes of a newbie, forcing myself to think back to the first beta weekend and my own early experiences. I remembered being overwhelmed by the game, but not by the mechanics of the game. Fighting was frenetic but I always understood the concept of “Push this button to do this attack.” I remained puzzled by ArenaNet’s decision to simplify things by limiting the amount of buttons available to a new character. It felt like the game was being “dumbed down,” striving to reach the lowest common denominator – the surest way to mediocrity.

Yet, by a strange coincidence, I happened to know a person who had never played Guild Wars 2, although she had wanted to for some time. Eager to test if there was any method behind the madness, I convinced her to come over and play for a couple hours, resetting my key farmer once again. As this was an experiment, I made no mention of the controversial changes and told her only that I was interested in her experiences as a brand new player to the game. By way of introduction, my willing volunteer is a casual console gamer but has been playing all her life, spending most of her game time with a variety of single-player RPGs. She can hold her own with any D-pad but has never made the leap to the world of computer gaming and keyboard-mouse control.

Her Guild Wars 2 experience began with character creation and she spent an amazing amount of time reading through the descriptions and making choices. Finally, with her Sylvari engineer complete, she started to play… well sort of. First she needed to learn to walk. As an observer, I simply sat and watched her learn the controls. WASD may be second nature to a number of gamers but watching her, I realized that even if it’s just button presses, learning something new can be taxing. I started to wonder if my volunteer was representative of the players ArenaNet is trying to retain: people who have never played an MMO or people who have never played a computer game. Obviously, my experiment is just one observation and shouldn’t be extrapolated. However, I was bemused by my volunteer’s singular focus on moving in a straight line, everything else around her an afterthought. Once she was moving, and had discovered the “green shiny thing” on the map, the story began. My volunteer was quite taken aback the first time she was instructed to kill enemies because she hadn’t realized she had a weapon and didn’t know how to use it. Gamely, she made it through the opening sequence, mashing the one button, and even healed herself a couple times, finding the bouncing arrow that so annoys us veterans to be a useful onscreen guide to the second available skill. Beyond the opening sequence, my volunteer was slow to open the karma hearts and level rewards, despite their insistent wiggling at the side of the screen. Again, she appeared focused on observing her surroundings and moving the character in the desired direction. In her brief travels, she learned to speak with NPCs, loot, and follow characters. She even /wave’d. As more weapon skills became available, she continued to only use the first attack and occasional heal. Afterward, when I asked her about it, she explained that she was concentrating on moving instead.

Her answer sheds some light on what ArenaNet was attempting to do. My volunteer relied heavily on the content guide (which I re-enabled for her after I realized she was terribly lost about what to do next). She only used the first weapon skill as she fought undead and completed hearts. Actions, such as pulling, kicking, and looting were easy enough but any more than that, such as the extra weapon skills, and even rewards, were ignored. Obviously, the locked skills didn’t bother my volunteer, as she had no experience with them being unlocked. Their locked state is such an irritant to us veterans because we know they exist and how to use them. Finally, she was helped instead of annoyed by the content guide and bouncing arrow for the same reason, she needed their aid while us veterans do not.

The insight of watching her play has helped me understand what was bewildering and irritating before. My volunteer enjoyed the new player experience and I am even hopeful she will return to Tyria one day. Despite the understanding she helped me gain, the new player experience still feels like good intentions suffering from short-sightedness. In my opinion, it dictates a person’s ability to learn and stifles early experimentation, trial and error, and creativity – replacing it with arbitrary limitations. It didn’t frustrate my volunteer to have extra weapon skills, for example, she simply didn’t use them. The recent patch suggests that ArenaNet may continue hiding functionality from new players, but it also shows that they are interested in veteran player feedback.  For us veterans, it’s important to retain perspective. Although the locked skills have affected an important part of the game, it is only one aspect of the game we love.  Even if my next alt isn’t fully functional for dozens of levels, once everything’s unlocked, play will resume as normal.

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