The first true generation of massively multiplayer online role playing games came with Everquest. In the second generation of MMORPGs, before the complete ascendency of World of Warcraft, there was a the cult classic Guild Wars. I call it a cult classic because its moderately-sized popularity was fairly enduring for an MMO, lasting several years into the Warcraft era, but ultimately it was overshadowed by Blizzard’s juggernaut.
While World of Warcraft refined the elements it inherited from Everquest, Guild Wars diverged from its predecessor. The level cap was reachable very early and without any grinding. The selection of skills available during dungeons was limited. The end-game content was meant for smaller groups who could finish any given encounter in one sitting; no raid schedules, no long-term raid lockouts, no DKP. In a certain sense the game ceased to be an RPG at the end, and started to become something else; that “something” never fully matured and the game died off. Guild Wars 2, scheduled for a 2011 release, will prove or disprove the viability of an MMORPG that differs from World of Warcraft, but which targets a very similar audience.
You will never have to grind out experience in Guild Wars; the developers take pride in that. The maximum level is twenty, and the best gear is available quickly--relative to how long it takes to get it in most MMORPGS. The Guild Wars expansions are particularly noteworthy in that the player characters will hit the maximum level with more than half the game to go. One expansion takes place entirely at the maximum level. The principal power-up available is new skills, which can sometimes be hard to find. But in the sense that no one skill is significantly better than any others (see EGC #3) you will stop getting stronger very quickly. The challenge will continue to rise, however, so you had better become more skilled--or that is what seems to make the most sense.
In that regard, at the maximum level Guild Wars ceases to be an RPG and becomes a strategy / action game. As far as strategy and ability-based action games go, it’s a fantastic game, but a lot of players who love the RPG progression (see EGC #2) will find the endgame to be a bit of a bait-and-switch. As such, if you’re going to try Guild Wars out, find a way to play at the maximum level, whether it is on a friend’s computer, etc. Your first ten hours of play are not a good predictor of your subsequent fifty hours of value.
The double edged sword in the design of Guild Wars is its rather small endgame content. Most MMOs feature endgame content meant for 10-40 people; this content usually cannot be completed in one sitting. The closest thing to a traditional “raid” dungeon in Guild Wars is a handful of twelve-person encounters each of which must be completed in one attempt.
In one respect; this is a great idea: how many people have twenty reliable, friendly, cooperative, patient people to raid with? Nobody has the perfect raiding guild, but take away a few of these qualities and raids will sometimes get very un-fun. Guild Wars avoids that problem entirely. Most content at the end of the game is for eight players and takes less than three hours. While progress in these dungeons cannot usually be saved, the other side of that is you don’t have to come back for “progression” either; succeed or fail, in one run.
The downfall of having no progression (closely tied to EGC #3) is that Guild Wars misses out on one of the most essential aspects of an RPG: acceleration flow. In order to complete the end-game dungeons, you generally (some exceptions) have to have the best gear in the game already. Beating the hardest bosses does not confer any statistical benefits, any extra abilities, or any powered-up armor. Most of the rewards from endgame dungeons are purely cosmetic items, equal to or weaker than what items you already have. Considering how incredibly addicted many players are to games where end-game content is an endless upward climb toward greater power and ease, this is a curious decision. It will be interesting to see in the future how Guild Wars 2 addresses the issue of progression. It would seem wise for the developers to include some kind of officially regulated guild or player progression with harder challenges; time will tell.
The best thing about the end-game of Guild Wars is that there is an enormous amount of variety in the challenges available. Not every end-game challenge is an extensive dungeon network. Many of the hardest challenges are in eight-man contests against enhanced versions of the dungeons that have even more challenging mission objectives. Many of the challenges involve simply clearing sections of the map of enhanced enemies; this is more challenging and more fun than it sounds. While most of this is for eight players, it can often be done with three or four human players, and an equal number of computer-controlled NPCs. Seeing as how most people have, at best, a handful of friends who play the game, this makes a nicely realistic addition to endgame content. Organizing four people is a heck of a lot easier than organizing forty.
Every player character is composed of two classes, and as such every class is able to use every ability in the game, with very few exceptions. Consequently there is effectively only one way to balance the Guild Wars classes, and that is through the balancing of individual combat abilities. A monk can just as easily use necromancer skills as mesmer skills; even warriors can use elementalist spells. The only class-based limit would be how much baseline energy (the mana/MP resource pool) a class has. With the right distribution of talent points and correct runes, normally meat-headed warriors can use caster abilities at full strength! Accordingly, the in-game balance is based mostly on the strengths of the combat abilities. There is a meta-balance in place with “elite” ablities: elite abilities are usually the most useful/powerful, but you can only have one of them equipped to your skill bar at a time. Still, that meta-balance is about individual skills.
The ability balance is a brilliant idea with a tragic history. Ask anyone who played Guild Wars to name three things that they hated about the game, and one of them will invariably be “They nerfed every single good skill in the game, constantly.” For those not familiar, “to nerf” is a verb phrase meaning to weaken a popular ability, item, or character class. The Guild Wars developers did go a bit crazy in this regard. Players routinely came up with ingenious ways to use abilities; naturally they shared this information. The inevitable end of this was that the developers issued a patch in which the clever “build” was rendered ineffective.
The one bright spot in “Nerf Wars” was that eventually the developers realized that they ought not nerf player vs. environment (PvE) abilities based on the results of player vs. player (PvP) contests. And so many abilities had two discrete functions for PvE and PvP respectively. This is brilliant and should be done in every MMO that has both kinds of combat. (World of Warcraft, this means you.) It only makes sense that abilities should not work the same way against finely-tuned players as they do against droves of disposable enemies.
What Guild Wars missed out on here, however, is the notion that there are other ways to achieve a balance than the nerf. Make other abilities stronger; make the game harder; invent creative penalties for skill overuse. Let this be a test of your creativity. But just say no to nerfs.
The money-making aspects of MMORPGs will attract a very large number of developers; most of those developers would do well to study what Guild Wars has done uniquely. No one is going to unseat World of Warcraft as the dominant MMO of the “huge endgame progression” variety. So do something else; create a way for smaller teams to enjoy difficult but rewarding end game content. Remember the essential mistakes of Guild Wars too: don’t make all the endgame rewards purely cosmetic or you’ll lose the bulk of the RPG’s appeal. And don’t nerf every player strategy that works; some of those strategies need weakening but to only use nerfing is to thwart your own creativity. Find ways to make the game more challenging, or challenging in a different way. This will keep your game alive longer, anyway.