It’s been about a week or so since we did our Overthinking on the best MMO of the decade, and I ultimately rattled off five titles for that one. As for our meant-for-fun reader poll at the end, well, I don’t know who’s going to win in the end because the poll doesn’t close for a good while yet. As I type this, however, Final Fantasy XIV is in the lead – by a one-vote margin. Pretty much everyone who knows me would assume (rightly) that I’m pleased with that outcome, just barely edging out Guild Wars 2 in that particular poll.
Which is why it might be pretty surprising that I’d happily put forth the statement that Guild Wars 2 is really the MMORPG that defined the past decade.Destiny and Conan Exiles. Really.
Let’s start by taking a step back to the original Guild Wars. Actually, you could arguably go even further back to the founding of ArenaNet, but what I think is much more important here is the way that the original Guild Wars was very much a contemporary with World of Warcraft, despite the fact that the two games launched close enough in time that there wasn’t much cross-pollination of design ideas until much later in both titles’ lives.
That seems instructive to me because – at least eventually – ArenaNet seemed to mostly throw away those design elements deemed too similar to WoW. It was a gutsy move, but it was also indicative of a core philosophy of focusing on getting to the “good parts” of a game that led to decisions in the first title.
Please note that this I am glossing over some of the details for the sake of the overarching point; there were no doubt debates and changes behind the scenes that I do not know about or just don’t recall, and the design was not made by Steven Guildwarstoo walking into the ArenaNet offices and laying down the exact design document that would be followed forever. There probably weren’t even entertaining rap battles involved in hashing out design choices.
But what I’m getting at here is that GW2 had an overriding ethos from seemingly well before launch. We kept hearing about its design manifestos, its design philosophies, its goals, and how it was going to play like no games before it. Indeed, its whole set of goals seemed to be to take the lessons learned in the prior decade and bring them back around to the next level… subtly nudged by the way that it seemed to be bound and determined to undermine WoW and its dominance.
But the details about how are less important to me than the core principle behind everything that seemed to be animating the whole activity. Guild Wars 2, from launch, was a game that began as it meant to go on with explicit cues to such. Rather than the sudden experiential shift that WoW had normalized, GW2 was about pulling you in and getting you to the fun parts right away, and then encouraging you to keep doing the fun parts basically forever.
This was not, even at the time, a new idea. But it combined things well enough and smoothly enough that it was easy for its particular alchemy to be the first time you saw all these things working together, especially in a modern game.
Dynamic public events, for example? This was not a new idea, and Warhammer Online’s public quests were a high-profile exploration of the same notion. But GW2 pushed these events into center stage because it didn’t have normal quests for you to fall back upon. By excising a fallback, you were more encouraged to seek things out instead. No trinity? Easily a call back to the earliest days of MMOs, but also presented here as a more dynamic and open system intending to create interaction between classes and builds without dependency.
When GW2 launched, it didn’t play like most “modern” MMOs at the time. And yet it was also thoroughly easy to pick up and play. More to the point, if you liked what you were doing in the first few minutes of the game, you were going to like the game period; it would expand and widen and gain complexity, but there wasn’t a point when you were going to be thrown up against a meat-grinder of raiding content.
That’s not to say it didn’t have problems; rather, it’s to say that its problems didn’t change that it set up a different paradigm for MMOs. Where other games (like WoW itself, arguably) jostled uncomfortably against what it meant to have this shared but separate virtual playground, GW2 never made you feel bad about having more people around. Other people might not help you, but they basically never hindered you, and you could have what amounted to an entire conversation just through shared actions fighting a dynamic enemy threat.
A whole lot of the game is shaped that way. There is a bit of a story running through, obviously, a thread of events pulling you from place to place… but for the most part, you’re not following that. You’re being herded, not directed, nudged rather than pushed, guided instead of forced.
You can see the game’s influences shot through the vast majority of other big games released in the decade. FFXIV no doubt owes the game quite a debt with its FATEs and chains of same; The Elder Scrolls Online was clearly influenced by its combat design and limited ability rollout; Black Desert Online is not without its debts to the active gameplay and flexible progression path. Even older games had to reckon with it. The idea of level-scaling the world got passed around a lot, but that existed in GW2 from launch. It was a necessity in a game where your activities at level 10 weren’t notably different from what you did at level 80, after all.
For that matter, yes, I consider games like The Division to be a further distillation of those same ideals wherein you don’t need to mash the concepts of your game into a narrow setup. You can have a game work as a shared online space even when only a small portion of it is continually shared; the important thing is making other players feel like a net asset, not a drain or an impediment. You want players to be happy to see others, or at least broadly neutral.
Survival sandbox games like Conan Exiles occupy a similar space. The game is a shared experience, but it need not be a continually shared experience. It doesn’t need to be a continual anything. If you don’t have discrete quests and lines of content to move through, you can get the same effect out of crafting an organic set of forces to nudge players, even if there’s only the vaguest of metaphorical arrows pointing in a direction.
It’s not a secret that I haven’t been happy with how GW2 has been handled over the last couple of years, but a lot of that comes down to how the game itself has removed some of the stuff that made it so compelling with its initial launch. As it has gotten more directed, it’s gotten less interesting. Adding raids into the game meant adding things like healers and tanks and all of that nonsense, intentional or no. Upscaled rewards give more incentive for newer content over old.
The list goes on, and in some ways it’s depressing to look back at the game’s old design manifestos and realize the ways in which the title itself has fallen short of those ideals. Then again, maybe that’s a sign of how high the game was aiming that it couldn’t hit all of its goals or couldn’t sustain them past a certain point, and mismanagement doesn’t change the history of the genre.
Guild Wars 2 launched in 2012, and it feels like in one way or another, basically every game has had to change to account for what it showed you could do with a game and how flexible an experience could be… but not in a copycat sense. If WoW offered a template, GW2 offered a filter to ask why a game had to limit your options at any given moment.
And even if GW2 might not be my main game, every time I’m in an FFXIV dungeon in which the boss requires me to grab a new item and interact with the environment in a new way, I know GW2 made an impact.