Guild Wars is a unique online computer role-playing game. Some consider it an MMO along the lines of World of Warcraft, but while it has many qualities in common with an MMORPG, it remains very different in a lot of aspects. It’s hard to encapsulate my play experience with Guild Wars in a single notebook entry, since I’ve been playing it on and off since its release in 2005. Still, as it is a unique departure from the established MMO “genre” in both mechanics and business model, I consider it worthy of analysis.
From a business model point of view, it’s worth noting that Guild Wars was the first major “MMO” to offer subscription-free play in North America. Players needed only to buy the boxed version of the game, and they could play for an unlimited amount of time on ArenaNet’s servers. ArenaNet planned to keep a steady revenue stream by offering paid expansions over the next few years that would present new chapters in the game narrative, along with new items and new missions. Indeed, two standalone expansions were introduced in the next couple of years, along with a final expansion, Eye of the North, which required any of the three standalone boxes. This unique business made Guild Wars an attractive alternative to the standard, subscription-based MMOs. I myself have found it to be a perfect “WoW antidote”; without the subscription, GW requires far less commitment than other MMOs; I have found myself giving up GW for months at a time, only to pick it back up after a while and explore whatever new content has been introduced while I was away. In this way, over the years I have purchased every expansion to the game as well as some minor items from the in-game store (a now ubiquitous feature of MMOs) but only when I have the money and time to invest in the game. Overall, I feel there is a more relaxed relationship between game and player using this business model.
Besides its odd business model, the mechanics of Guild Wars are different in many ways from the standard MMO. I wouldn’t necessarily say its systems are more successful than the leading MMOs, but I do believe it deserves credit for attempting some new things. The first thing one learns about Guild Wars is that it’s not really an MMO after all. While the cities, towns, outposts and other “safe” areas of the game are indeed large spaces shared with dozens or hundreds of players, all of the mission and explorable content of the game exists in instanced spaces, seldom allowing more than eight players to be in the area at once. Guild Wars is then mostly a cooperative multiplayer online game with elaborate shared “safe zones” for players to meet, socialize, buy and sell items, and group for missions. Another interesting feature of Guild Wars is that it permits the game to be played “solo” by allowing the player to “hire” AI-controlled characters to create a larger group. While the character does have some very indirect control over these characters, for the most part they act independently, which in my opinion has mixed results. On the one hand, it allows the player to experience much of the game without the need to always be in a group; on the other hand, sometimes I get the distinct feeling the game is “playing itself”. This has been mitigated somewhat of late by allowing the player greater control of the skills and items the AI characters carry into battle, which at least brings tactical considerations about group synergy and playstyle back into the game.
Another unique thing about Guild Wars is that the game has a level cap on characters at level 20. Unlike most modern MMOs, the expansions have never altered this level cap in the least. Level 20 is achieved early on in the player’s career, and essentially all inherent stat-based advancement stops at this point. The reason for this can be found in the game’s skill (discussed below) and PvP systems. Guild Wars has a separate, entirely consensual PvP system and the vast majority of PvP combat occurs between level 20 characters. In fact, players are allowed to create PvP-only characters, separate from their “open world” characters. The reasoning behind this is that the developers believed strongly that player skill, not character stats, should determine who wins in a PvP match. The same reasoning is applied to weapons and equipment; after reaching a certain power level, most weapons found in the game are different only in appearance and special abilities, which are for the most part all balanced against each other. This ties into the game’s skill system; there are literally hundreds of different skills to be found in the game; these are special maneuvers, spells, and attacks. However, no player may have more than 8 such skills equipped at once. This mechanic was inspired by “Magic: The Gathering” and similar card games; instead of one level 20 character being inherently more powerful than another, it is the synergy between the character’s various skills and equipment that make him or her more effective. This is similar to how a well-built Magic deck where the cards play off of each other more powerful than a lesser deck; one is trying to build a character that is greater than the sum of its parts.
This is an ingenious system, but it does have its flaws. One of the great hooks of MMOs has always been making your character more powerful by leveling up and acquiring better equipment. While there is indeed the desire to gain more skills and periodically try to create a superior “build”, it can sometimes feel like my character has not truly grown much over the last three or four years. It also means that there are some well-known builds out there that have been found to work very well and have therefore become common; while it can be fun to experiment, it is often simpler to create one of the established builds and play that way. Since much of the game’s challenge (by design) comes from creating these “builds”, I often feel that playing it has become a matter of choosing a build, getting the skills for it, then simply pressing buttons in order to reveal new parts of the narrative. ArenaNet has tried to remedy this by increasing the difficulty of new missions, almost assuming that the player will have one of these effective established builds. This means that they are either too hard for players attempting their own builds (unless they have come up with something on par with the established builds) or they rely on other game aspects such as positioning, attacking in a certain order, splitting up the enemy, and other such tactics. While this has been somewhat successful, it too often means relying on game mechanics that were never meant to do the “heavy lifting” and can therefore feel clumsy. Positioning, for example, can feel awkward since the game was never meant to feature very precise character movement.
Still, I find GW to be a remarkable achievement. From an artistic standpoint, GW is bright and beautiful, often resembling a fantasy painting come to life. Even more impressive is the tech that powers it; it is a six year old engine that runs just fine on six year old hardware (and was never very demanding, even upon its release) yet it doesn’t look anywhere near as dated as by all rights it should. Furthermore, it is consistently updated and upgraded, and has found a great deal of success, selling millions of copies in a market dominated by World of Warcraft. While its gameplay mechanics entail certain trade-offs as opposed to other MMOs, this uniqueness, for all its faults, means that it has remained in my play rotation even as I have mostly given up on other games in the fantasy MMORPG genre.