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NPE & ArenaNet’s Communication

I still remember very vividly how chaotic and urgent the sense of battle was on brand new characters during the Guid Wars 2 beta weekends (and I played in all of them). While many players had other MMO experiences to draw on, I didn’t. I came directly from GW1 and its campaigns of instanced combat. Learning the new mechanics (especially when I didn’t have red enemy dots on my mini-map!) meant the game taught me situational awareness immediately. Gone was the safety of logging out in the Guild Hall. Dynamic event spawning meant I now had to find those outposts, villages, trees, rocks, or bushes that were more likely to guarantee I wouldn’t log in to a character with low health who’d been attacked while I was still on a load screen!

While my guildies would run off and start mining or harvesting all those crafting materials out there, I watched them bemused. Crafting? What’s that? The gear I’m getting from drops suits me fine so why bother? I was more interested in figuring out the new weapons and skills that kept unlocking as I killed monsters. Utility skill slots enticed me to keep leveling up so I could unlock them and use these skills that seemed so interesting. Level 5, new slot unlocked. Level 7, weapon swapping unlocked! The possibilities seemed endless and exciting! Level 11 unlocked traits and figuring out how to best use these to complement my skill and weapons choices was thrilling! Finding untapped skill points out in the world, saving up for those interesting and sometimes odd sounding elites was so alluring. Needless to say, I was hooked.

I tried all of the professions, sometimes making total messes of my characters, sometimes hitting on interesting, fun, and lethal builds. There was something magical about figuring things out in this future iteration of Tyria on my own. Even still, I knew that the community and my guild was there to help out should I need it. When I found myself failing at kiting and dodging, I watched other players out in the world and tried to mimic what I’d seen until I finally figured it out and realized what fun it was to see “Evade” pop up on the screen. If a build seemed broken, I could learn from theory crafters and build sharers. Discovery, trial and error, learning through conversations and observation. This is how GW2 made me into an alt-holic (well, more than I already was).

I have doubles (sometimes more) of every profession and the only professions I haven’t maxed yet are warrior and thief (I know, how the heck did that happen?). Having lower leveled versions of the same profession lets me experiment more with some of the traits and skills I ignored the first time around without feeling guilty because sometimes an 80 is built just right so why mess with it? Going through the different story step options and choices is fun since I get to meet all the different quirky, spunky, and sometimes downright annoying characters ArenaNet’s team have created.

Leveling is a joy to me … or at least it was until the September Feature Pack hit and I found that many characters were now locked out of skills as well as traits, had to wait longer to do their next dialogue driven/no combat story steps, and were suddenly feeling underpowered or weirdly didn’t get hurt at all. On patch day, I took a level 2 thief out to Queensdale who’d only saved Shaemoor. She had an offhand weapon she couldn’t use let alone use skill 3 which was unlocked, animated like it was working, and would then “Miss” when used. I /cry’d in chat. Another player Player Name: Player Name pat’d me. Wait, they broke emote chat too?? What had happened to my game?

Because that’s how we all feel I think. Those of us who enjoy Guild Wars 2 feel that this is “our” game. Like many other players in the community, I researched with my guildies to figure out if we could break this new player experience. Could we still throw a level 6 at a level 9 or 10 enemy? What would happen if we wandered into Kessex and attacked a level 21 boar? Rallying did what now? These skills won’t unlock until when now?! What about that new white drop-down arrow persistently telling us to heal (even if it was on cool down); would it ever go away? How were mid-level characters affected? And why is the in-game GPS system telling my level 2 to go into Fields of Ruin and then Blazeridge Steppes?!

Over the course of the past few days, I’ve continued to log in and listen in or add my thoughts to the conversations in map chat. I’ve watched the maelstrom of irate, bewildered, and thoughtful reactions on the community outlets unfold as we’ve waited for Anet to respond to the furor these changes unleashed. And while many people, including myself, see how the new leveling system might help real newbies get oriented to the game, level gating skills and combat mechanics that are so integral to later gameplay seems like five steps backwards in terms of game design. Tyria and combat in Guild Wars 2 can be intense and complex, and the freedom to “play the way you want” allowed players to choose their own pace and find their own way to explore the game world and the different play modes offered. It saddens me that the thrill of learning things on your own or discovering how to fix your character’s survivability seems to have been stripped away from the early to mid-leveling experience. The handholding feels excessive and I wonder how new players will truly benefit from being forced to use only one or a literal handful of skills at a time for 15 levels.

The crux of the backlash, though, seems to center once again on communication. I know the dev team have posted to say there are things that are bugged in the NPE system that hint that accounts with multiple characters should have many things working/unlocked that are not right now. But it’s the seeming lack of transparency that keeps whipping the community up. In the hype leading up to the September Feature Pack, Game Director Colin Johanson’s blog post, “A Fresh Start,” previewed that

we’ve simplified the number of systems visible to players early on and layered them into the level-up guide.

“Systems,” in this case, is a jargon term that obscured the true depth and breadth of the level experience changes included in the feature pack. As a person for whom clear communication and extracting nuance from language are crucial parts of my day job, I was shocked that “systems” meant essentially “everything” in the game. We’re told that the metrics regarding player attrition concerned ArenaNet enough to test this new system for a year, fine-tuning it until they felt it was ready for implementation. Yet, a recurring theme in much of the feedback players continue to give is that they’re feeling a disconnect from how the devs are communicating with the players and what actually appears in-game. This has led to the erosion of trust with a sector of the player/customer base that appears to be growing. By focusing on retention without communicating effectively (or appearing to be unprepared in order to communicate effectively) with the existing players about the reasons behind these changes, ANet is, lamentably, sliding into a dangerous trap.

Putting my communicator/teacher hat on for a moment, I’ll underscore that word choice and a clear communications strategy can go a long way to helping veteran players/existing customers feel like they’re being heard AND to help them understand changes before they go live. A great example of this was the Trading Post UI changes which the dev team previewed on last week’s Points of Interest stream. A similar preview of the new leveling experience may have helped prepare players as well. What can Anet do, then, to improve their communication? Chris Whiteside’s comments that personnel logistics are being addressed is a good start since it feels like their communications team needs to reassess their strategies and/or regain their sense of message. This is especially important when many of the company’s plans and projects can only be discussed “when it’s ready™” leaving us with vague replies and statements that the team would like to have clearer conversations with the community about design intentions.  I hope Gaile Gray’s presence will help this and future exchanges.

Throughout the brouhahas that have happened, I’ve always championed calm and reason, often defending Anet for their decisions. Without the full picture of their metrics, I have to trust that they’re interpreting their data correctly and making changes for the good of the game. In this case, however, I don’t understand their decision-making for the extent of the leveling changes. At the end of the day, though, I’m not a new player anymore and I’m hopeful that the fixes introduced today will begin to solve the issues veteran players like me have with the leveling system. I would like to think that my non-80 alts will be viable for my game time whenever I choose to play.

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